Friday, December 15, 2023

Warm-hearted heroes and elaborate cursing (Hungarian Roma folktales 1. - Ferenc Jóni)

This is a spinoff to Following folktales around the world. I have been collecting books of Hungarian Roma folktales, and it is time to start reading them. Hence, this new blog series. The only change is that there will be no Connections section (since most tale types are familiar).

I encountered the tales of Jóni Ferenc in the archives of the Museum of Ethnography, when I was doing research for my "feminist folktales" collection. I selected three of his stories to be included in that book, because I liked his flair for unusual twists and humorous language (e.g. he has a wonderful variant of Love like Salt, where the exiled princess is saved by a wise old witch). I recently discovered that his tales were published in one volume, and I obviously had to read it.

Jóni Ferenc (1899-1972) was a romungro (Hungarian Roma) storyteller from Ramocsaháza (Szabolcs-Szatmár-Bereg county). His folktales were collected by Erdész Sándor in 1960. His repertoire numbered an impressive 163 stories, and his brother and sister (Mihály and Anna) were also accomplished storytellers. This book contains 97 of his tales; the editors only selected one of several variants of each tale type. Not always the ones I liked best, but it was still a fascinating read. Since Jóni Ferenc told to adults (as the majority of traditional tellers did), and Erdész Sándor transcribed his stories literally (luckily), the texts contain a whole lot of adult language and elaborate cursing.


One of my favorite tales in the collection was The three golden apples. The hero born from an apple rescued two cursed princesses with the help of a third, and then saved his own brothers as well. I especially liked that he had to fight the princesses, carefully cutting off layers of their frog skin / armor. I also enjoyed the story of The king who did not suffer snakes in his house. It was about a clever servant, best friend of the king's son, who rescued a small snake and kept it (it turned out to be an enchanted princess, obviously). It was a classic "master maid" story, but I loved the clever, studious, kind protagonist. I was also delighted to find a version of my favorite "man hibernates with dragons over winter" folktale type in the book. Here, the dragons were runaways from a garabonciás wizard's service.

A fun twist on the "seeking immortality" tale type was The king who lived for nine hundred years and only then did he set out to seek immortality (and the storyteller still referred to him as "a handsome kid"). In the end, Death and his wife decided to split him in half, and then the queen regrew him from her half, like a starfish. Another creative take was the tale of The little swineherd, who climbed a sky-high tree and ended up in Fairyland. Fairies there spoke their own language (except for one who'd visited Hungary and knew Hungarian). The wings of the Fairy Queen were stolen not by the hero, but by her maids, who honestly were very much fed up with their mistress. By the end of the tale the queen ended up in jail for having a child out of wedlock - but once she was freed, she managed to get her lover back (despite the swineherd having married a mortal princess in the meantime). Another swineherd ended up working as a gardener in a princess' palace, and since he did not only know magic, but also had great pickup lines, he won the princess as a wife. The flirting scenes were very elaborate, and quite smooth, which is unusual for a folktale.

I was amused by the story of the cemetery guard who trapped his own haunting Misfortune inside a bone during lunch. Even though Misfortune fulfilled all his wishes, in the end he refused to let it go, and burned it to ashes instead. The classic "blacksmith and the devil" tale type ended on a twist as well: it turned out that the protagonist, while a hardened gambler, secretly used all the money he won to help widows and children, and therefore gained entry into Heaven. The most head-spinning twist, however, came in the tale of Twenty-four hairy men. In this tale, 24 brothers encountered an enchanted palace with 24 princesses, but they failed to break the enchantment. The youngest brother then got married, had 24 sons, and when his sons grew up, they managed to rescue the princesses.

I was reminded of the Thousand and One Nights by the tale of Kovács János, which was a "story within a story". The protagonist was transformed into a dog, then a bird, by his promiscuous wife. He went through many adventures (fighting wolves and witches), until a kind maidservant rescued him and helped him take revenge.

There were also several darker tales in the collection. One of my favorite tale types, "the princess in the shroud" was represented by The soldier who wanted his pay. Here, the cursed princess crawled out of her coffin every night and scorched whatever he touched. Lame and One-hand was a tale from a type I never liked much, but this version was memorable: two princes were crippled by a witch, and a kind princess decided to take care of them. When in turn a witch abused her in secret, the princes came to her rescue. In the end, they even got their limbs back. In the story of Bogdán the fisherman, the hero was ordered by a king to go visit God and invite him to dinner. His magical wife killed Bogdán, and once he was done with the otherwordly visit, she revived him. A dark realistic tale told about a woman beaten to death by her jealous abusive husband, but a series of heavenly miracles, and the scent of incense, proved that she had always been innocent. He ended up in hell.

There was a fascinating, unusual tale about a princess turned into a wolf. She tried to trap and eat a prince, but he decided to try and save her anyway (along with her people, who were all turned into wolves). He had to fight her first husband, a fearsome wolf, and defeat him to break the curse. The curse, by the way, had been placed on them by the princess' "treacherous, vile father", because she chose to marry without permission. At the end of the tale, since the king showed no remorse, the young couple told him off and cut ties with the royal family. Interestingly, this tale appeared in two different versions in the book, once as a fairy tale and once as a legend. It was also not the only fascinating animal story. In another one, a hunter found a boy raised by bears. When he grew up, the boy won a princess through several tasks set for him by her twelve giant brothers. She tied strands of her hair around his body to make him stronger. There was a lovely moment where the boy encountered a bear again, and cried, reminded of his foster-mother.

Among the more "adult" themed stories, the ones I enjoyed the most featured soldiers. In one of them, a poor man's son wandered into the lair of robbers at night, and encountered another traveler (the king in disguise). They managed to overcome the robbers, with a lot of heavy cursing as encouregement on the poor boy's part; later on, he found out in an unexpected twist who the other traveler really was. Another amusing and uncensored tale was that of King Matthias and the soldier - the king in disguise encountered a veteran, who spoke in a very rough way, but had a kind heart, and ended up saving the king's life.

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