Writer and youth movement activist Jaroslav Foglar left a deep trace in Czech popular culture. Besides more than 25 novels for children, Jaroslav Foglar is also the father of Rychlé šípy, or “Rapid Arrows”, a legendary comics that has earned a following with generations of Czech readers. Persecuted by the Nazis and the communists, the writer also single-handedly founded his own youth organization which, in its heyday, had tens of thousands of members across the country.
The heroes of the legendary comics Rychlé šípy, or The Rapid Arrows, first ventured outside the realm of paper in 1941, quite soon after the comics appeared in a Czech youth magazine. The gramophone recordings of some of their adventures were the first in several renderings of the Rapid Arrows that included novels, a TV series and even a theatre play.
The Rapid Arrows were a group of five boys from the city – Mirek Dušín, Jindra Hojer, Jarka Metelka, Červenáček, or “Red Cap”, and Rychlonožka, or “Speedy”. Their adventures include anything from camping trips to helping the elderly. In the 1941 recording, they assemble – and later crash – a šlapohyb, a five-seat quadracycle; in another, they hunt for “beavers” which in their world was an analogy to Boy Scouts’ merit badges.
The Rapid Arrows’ very first adventure first came out in 1938 in a magazine which itself was an invention of Jaroslav Foglar. By that time, a well-known Prague publishing house, Melantrich, had already put out two of his boys’ novels. Jaroslav Foglar came up with an idea for a magazine that would not only provide entertainment for children but also educate them. Václav Nosek is the author of Goshawk’s Wings, a book about Jaroslav Foglar and his novels. He explains the idea behind the Rapid Arrows was to inspire the magazine’s readers to form their own clubs.
“In September, 1935, the Melantrich publishers started to publish this magazine called “Little Herald”. Foglar wrote articles for the publications and stories from the life of Boy Scouts. In its second year, the magazine changed its name to “Young Herald”, and that’s where the idea to form readers’ clubs first appeared.”
At first, the idea did not catch on. But in a very short time, the idea of clubs formed by readers of the Young Herald magazine became phenomenally successful.
“The editors were very sceptical at the beginning but in a matter of several issues, hundreds of such clubs were established, and soon there were 25,000 of them. It’s true that many of them only existed briefly because they were just children’s groups without any interference from adults. But some of them even survived the Nazi ban of the magazine which came in 1941.”
Practically singlehandedly, Jaroslav Foglar created a massive – if loose – youth organization that was parallel to existing groups, primarily the Boy Scouts which in the Czech environment existed since the early 20th century, and Foglar himself was a Boy Scout leader. Václav says many of The Rapid Arrows’ adventures were inspired by what happened in Jaroslav Foglar’s real-life Boy Scout group. But Foglar’s ambition was bigger than that.
“He never made The Rapid Arrows part of the Scouting movement. He wanted to offer all the good things he learned in Boy Scout to all children. He was well aware that by the late 1930s, there were some 60,000 Boy and Girl Scouts but he wanted to address all children. So he created his own system which he offered to everybody.”
The world of The Rapid Arrows is full of mysteries, adventures, and opportunities to do good. The boys live in a town or a city – presumably Prague where the author spent his entire life. They also go on trips to the country where they never miss an opportunity to help others. The Rapid Arrows’ nemesis is the Brotherhood of the Cat’s Paw – an informal association of three wilful, witless and sloppy boys known as Long Pole, Bristler and Bohouš. They always seek to outsmart and defeat the Rapid Arrows but, needless to say, always fail.
Jaroslav Foglar’s world where it’s fun to be good and where villains are ridiculous might be too simple and naïve for today’s children. The Rapid Arrows’ undisputed leader was Mirek Dušín, a boy who never lied or swore and was always a good friend. Václav Nosek says the author wanted a role model for his readers, someone they could imitate to improve themselves.
“Many stories from the time were completely unrealistic, for instance a 13-year-old boy flying a plane, or stories about boys in the Wild West. That was pure fantasy. But Mirek Dušín was different; he was almost too perfect but children could learn from him, they could imitate his behaviour.”
Some of the characters were in fact named after real-life members of Jaroslav Foglar’s Boy Scout group. The most famous case is Jindra Hojer whom Foglar asked if he could use his name in the story.
“And he said, ‘I have to ask my parents’. His mother said there was no problem as long as the character is a positive one. So he came back to Foglar who told him, ‘don’t worry, he will certainly not embarrass you’. So the character was based on a real person but that naturally does not mean they were identical.”
Jaroslav Foglar’s Boy Scout group as well as the whole movement was banned in the 1940s by the Nazis and again in the 1950s by the communists. But under various names, the movement survived – just like Jaroslav Foglar’s Rapid Arrows. During the Prague Spring of 1968 and few following years, new episodes of the comics appeared for the first time in 20 years.
An audition was held to replace the comics’ first illustrator, Jan Fischer. On the phone from his north-Bohemian mountain refuge, Marko Čermák describes how he became the Rapid Arrows’ new illustrator.
“As a boy, I copied some of the Rapid Arrows drawings, and Jaroslav Foglar insisted that it must be as close as possible to the original. My first attempt was not very successful but the editors told me to try again, and I did and Mr Foglar liked it. But when I look back, it was not a great victory because imitating someone else’s style is not the sort of thing any artist would be proud of.”
Marko Čermák illustrated some 40 episodes of The Rapid Arrows before they were once again banned in 1972. The comics came out in a magazine in Ostrava whose editors probably knew that a ban might come at any time so they wanted to make the most of it.
“The editors wanted us to put in 20 episodes a month which was terrible. I wasn’t used to this kind of hectic work, and I could not adapt the comics to my own style. It was very stressful but that was the deal. I think that if I had more time I would have done a better job. So that was the most difficult part for me.”
The liberalization of the late 1960s brought a renewed interest in Jaroslav Foglar and his work. He had by that time authored some 15 novels, including three featuring The Rapid Arrows. One of them was made into a TV series called The Mystery of the Conundrum. There, the five boys search for a long-lost mechanical puzzle, called Hedgehog in the Cage, which contained plans for an invention of far-reaching consequences – the flying bicycle.
In this and other novels featuring the Rapid Arrows, as opposed to the comics, the boys set out on exciting trips to a dark, mysterious and inherently dangerous part of town. Jaroslav Foglar called this irresistible place Stínadla which has a special ring to it in Czech. It’s close to the word stín, shadow, as well as to stínat, decapitate. Readers often wonder where the actual place was, and most believe the author was inspired by the unique atmosphere of Prague’s Old Town. Václav Nosek again,
“Foglar’s scout group met in Holešovice, and he would walk home across the Old Town so he knew all those little streets and alleys. So I think that’s where he placed Stínadla, the area around Haštalské náměstí, the Municipal Courtyard. Some time ago, they even named a little street in the area ‘Na Stínadlech’. I think that must have been the area that inspired him.”
Over the years, Jaroslav Foglar’s comics and books have developed a cult following. The Rapid Arrows and other characters are sometimes mocked but they retain an air of a world that’s long gone. A complete edition of the comics, has been published seven times since 1998 and is all sold out which proves how appealing the stories of the righteous Rapid Arrows are to this day.