Ever since Czech fairy tales were first adapted into feature films more than 60 years ago, watching them on TV has become an essential part of Czech Christmas. Some experts even believe the medium in fact saved the genre as we know it. So what are the main ingredients of Czech fairy tales? Did communism affect them at all? And is there such a thing as a typical Czech fairy tale? Find out more our special Christmas Eve programme.
In the Czech Republic, Christmas Eve is called Štědrý den, or Generous Day. This is the highlight of the holiday when the family Christmas tree is first lit, Baby Jesus brings everyone presents, and people sit down to the traditional fare of fish soup, carp with potato salad and cookies. Ever since television became commonplace in Czech households some 60 years ago, a new Christmas tradition developed – watching fairy tales throughout the entire holidays.
The Three Gifts for Cinderella from 1973 is perhaps the most popular Czech fairy tale of all time. Set in winter, the well-known story adds to the Christmas atmosphere, making people flock to their TV screens year after year.
But there are many others: the Czech fairy-tale landscape is inhabited by scores of princesses and princes, Dull Johns who save the day, vodníks, or water goblins, silly old devils, dragons, and – in one case at least, a princess who liberates her future husband from the snares of hell. I sat down with leading Czech expert on fairy tales, folklorist Petr Janáček of Prague’s Charles University, who told me that television in fact saved the fairy tale as we know it.
“I think that modern entertainment saved fairy tales from extinction. Myths and legends are extinct now but fairy tales are blossoming. When you look at traditional Indo-European fairy tales, there were not many of them, about 2,500. But if you look at literary and film fairy tales, there are many more than that, tens of thousands or even more. So now, they are much more popular and I think also much more important than in the past.”
Indeed, the public broadcaster Czech TV alone is screening nine feature fairy-tale films just on December 24, including a premiere of The Salt Ghost, a TV production based on Hans Christian Andersen’s famous fairytale The Tinderbox.
In Czech folklore, the best known fairy-tale collections come from the 19th century writers Božena Němcová and Karel Jaromír Erben. Božena Němcová, the author of the seminal novel The Grandmother, collected seven volumes of folk tales while she was living in southern Bohemia in the 1840s. One of the most popular to this day is The Devil and Kate, as translated and retold by Parker Fillmore nearly a hundred years ago.
There was once a woman named Kate who lived in a village where she owned her own cottage and garden. She had money besides but little good it did her because she was such an ill-tempered vixen that nobody, not even the poorest laborer, would marry her. Nobody would even work for her, no matter what she paid, for she couldn’t open her mouth without scolding, and whenever she scolded she raised her shrill voice until you could hear it a mile away. The older she grew the worse she became until by the time she was forty she was as sour as vinegar.
After the unflattering beginning comes a dramatic passage when Kate meets the devil for no one else would dance with her.
Suddenly a stranger in hunter’s green came in. He sat down at a table near Kate and ordered drink. When the serving maid brought the beer, he reached over to Kate and asked her to drink with him. At first she was much taken back at this attention, then she pursed her lips coyly and pretended to refuse, but finally she accepted.
When they had finished drinking, he pulled a ducat from his pocket, tossed it to the piper, and called out:
“Clear the floor, boys! This is for Kate and me alone!”
The Devil takes Kate to hell with him but she clings onto him so hard that he just can’t get rid of her. The Prince of Hell punishes him by sending him back to earth to find a way of getting her off him. Fortunately, he meets a wise shepherd.
The shepherd, who was a good-natured chap, said: “I tell you what: I’ll help you. I can’t leave my sheep long, but I’ll carry her halfway.”
“Oh,” said the devil, “I’d be very grateful if you did!”
So the shepherd yelled at Kate: “Hi, there, you! Catch hold of me!”
When Kate saw that the shepherd was a handsome youth, she let go of the devil and leapt upon the shepherd’s back, catching hold of the collar of his sheepskin coat.
Now the young shepherd soon found that the long shaggy coat and Kate made a pretty heavy load for walking. In a few moments he was sick of his bargain and began casting about for some way of getting rid of Kate.
Presently he came to a pond and he thought to himself that he’d like to throw her in. He wondered how he could do it. Perhaps he could manage it by throwing in his greatcoat with her. The coat was so loose that he thought he could slip out of it without Kate’s discovering what he was doing. Very cautiously he slipped out one arm. Kate didn’t move. He slipped out the other arm. Still Kate didn’t move. He unlooped the first button. Kate noticed nothing. He unlooped the second button. Still Kate noticed nothing. He unlooped the third button and kerplunk! he had pitched coat and Kate and all into the middle of the pond!
The shepherd goes on to use the Devil’s debt to him to threaten the evil lord of the land and to reform him; he then successfully uses the threat of Kate to drive away the Devil who comes to take the lord to hell.
The Devil and Kate is a classic among Czech fairytales – but folklorist Petr Janeček says there is in fact no such thing as a Czech fairy tale.
“From the point of view of folklore studies, all European fairy tales are the same. There are 2,500 tales that can be found in every Indo-European country, from Ireland to India and the Urals. So it’s difficult to say whether there are any Czech fairy tales because most of the so-called Czech tales can be found in Poland, in Germany, and so on.
“It would be more precise to speak of Western Slavic or Central European fairy tales. But it would be difficult to find a typical Czech fairy tale. We can find the most popular tale now but a hundred years ago, it would probably have been a different one.”
“The differences between, say, national repertoires, do not exist because of the nationality or ethnicity but because of the civilization process. If we go further to the east, even Slovakia, they have more archaic fairy tales, many more magical beings and features like dragon and witches, and that goes all the more for Russia.
“When we look at the West, we see that German fairy tales are slightly more realistic, and in France, they are even more so and have a twist of humour and irony. In the UK, they have almost no fairy tales because of the early start of the industrial revolution. So it’s all affected by civilization, industry and urbanisation. But originally, all fairy tales in Europe were basically the same.”
You were talking however about one specific Czech feature, and that is humour. Do Czech fairy tales stand out for being funny and humorous?
“Well, Czech literary fairy tales which were recorded by writers in the 19th century do have a funny side. That is typical; when we compare these with the Brothers Grimm, their tales appear to be much grimmer and darker. But the plots are the same. Maybe the supernatural beings are not that scary but the same is true in Germany and Austria.”
“When we talk about European folk tales, the first written sources, called exempla, appeared in the 14th and 15th centuries. They served as moral tales to illustrate Christian teachings so they served a different purpose than fairy tales do today. But we have collections of fairy tales from other cultures, and we can distinguish one common and most important function which is entertainment. Fairy tales were like today’s TV shows, computer games, and trivia literature.”
How did Christian teachings exemplified in an entertaining form develop into the fairy tales as we know them today?
“The Christian form of exempla was neither first nor original. It’s just the first written source but these folk tales are historically much older. We don’t know when exactly fairy tales first appeared in human culture; we do know that most European folk tales stem from ancient India. There is a book called Panchatantra which contains some pedagogical Buddhist teachings for young princes, and most of the best-known European fairy tales are already there.
“We have many theories about the origin of fairy tales; some scholars say they originated in the Neolithic age because they are really closely connected with the rites of harvest and weddings.
“Some scholars, for instance the famous Dutch folklorist Jan de Vries, say that fairy tales served as texts connected with wedding rituals. When a man wanted to marry a farmer’s daughter, he had to prove his worth. Because of that, fairy tales are full of tests, contests and fights with monsters. He has to prove his worth to get the girl, the fields, and the land.”
In one such story, also made into a popular movie, a cunning cook called Jiřík outsmarts a self-conceited and treacherous king to marry Princess Zlatovláska the Golden Haired. Jiřík disobeys the king’s orders and tastes a magic fish which makes him able to understand the speech of all animals. But the king finds out, and sends Jiřík on a dangerous quest: he must bring Zlatovláska for the king to marry.
His road led him through a forest. Here he came upon a bush under which some shepherds had kindled a fire. Sparks were falling on an anthill nearby and the ants in great excitement were running hither and thither with their eggs.
"Jiřík!" they cried. "Help! Help, or we shall all be burned to death, we and our young ones in the eggs!"
Jiřík instantly dismounted, cut down the burning bush, and put out the fire.
"Thank you, Jiřík, thank you!" the ants said. "Your kindness to us this day will not go unrewarded. If ever you are in trouble, think of us and we will help you."
Jiřík also saves some starving birds and fish, and eventually arrives at the Crystal Palace where Zlatovláska lives with her royal father. But he must prove himself worthy before the king allows his daughter to go away with him.
"My daughter, Zlatovláska, had a precious necklace of pearls. She was walking in the meadow over yonder when the string broke and the pearls rolled away in the tall grasses. Now your first task is to gather up every last one of those pearls and hand them to me before sundown."
Jiřík went to the meadow and when he saw how broad it was and how thickly covered with tall grasses his heart sank for he realized that he could never search over the whole of it in one day. However, he got down on his hands and knees and began to hunt.
Midday came and he had not yet found a single pearl. "Oh dear," he thought to himself in despair, "if only my ants were here, they could help me!"
He had no sooner spoken than a million little voices answered:
"We are here and we're here to help you!"
And sure enough there they were, the very ants that he supposed were far away!
"What do you want us to do?" they asked.
"Find me all the pearls that are scattered in this meadow. I can't find one of them."
Instantly the ants scurried hither and thither and soon they began bringing him the pearls one by one. Jiřík strung them together until the necklace seemed complete.
"Are there any more?" he asked.
He was about to tie the string together when a lame ant, whose foot had been burned in the fire, hobbled up, crying:
"Wait, Jiřík, don't tie the string yet! Here's the last pearl!"
The brave youth, as it were, fulfills all the king’s tasks with the help of the animals he saved, and eventually brings Zlatovláska to his master with two precious gifts – the Water of Death and the Water of Life. But the revengeful king has Jiřík killed, not knowing what turn events will take.
Zlatovlaska took Jiřík’s body and the head and put them together. Then she sprinkled them with the Water of Death. Instantly the wound closed and soon it healed so completely that there wasn't even a scar left.
Jiřík lay there lifeless but looking merely as if he were asleep. Zlatovláska sprinkled him with the Water of Life and immediately his dead limbs stirred. Then he opened his eyes and sat up. Life poured through his veins and he sprang to his feet younger, fresher, handsomer than before.
The old king was filled with envy.
"I, too," he cried, "wish to be made young and handsome!"
He commanded the executioner to cut off his head and he told Zlatovláska to sprinkle him afterwards with the Water of Life.
The executioner did as he was told. Then Zlatovláska sprinkled the old king's head and body with the Water of Life. Nothing happened. Zlatovláska kept on sprinkling the Water of Life until there was no more left.
"Do you know," the princess said to Jiřík, "I believe I should have used the Water of Death first."
So now she sprinkled the body and head with the Water of Death and, sure enough, they grew together at once. But of course there was no life in them. And of course there was no possible way of putting life into them because the Water of Life was all gone. So the old king remained dead.
In the end, Jiřík becomes the king, marries Zlatovláska the Golden Haired, and they live happily ever after.
Zlatovláska the Golden Haired has all the elements that make a good fairy tale. Folklorist Petr Janeček says it’s an example of the most common type of tale.
“There are several genres of fairy tales. The most important, and most popular, are magic tales – epic, long stories with happy endings. Then there are animal tales such as The Little Three Pigs. That’s quite a distinct genre whose origins are unclear; maybe they are somehow related to myths about totemic animals which are found in Africa and other parts of the world, or perhaps to fables like those of Ezop or La Fountaine.
“There are also the so-called realistic tales – interestingly, most folk tales do not have any magic elements. Most of them are realistic like those about Dull John, Hansel and Gretel. Ok, there is a witch there but most folk tales appear to be realistic.
“And then we have some lesser genres such as formula tales, catch tales; these are bases on language play and are intended for young children. One big genre is jokes and anecdotes. Folklorists in fact consider the jokes people tell today to be just another type of fairy tale.”
Even those people tell in the pub?
“Yes. Today’s jokes have the same features as folk tales – they are very short compared to folk tales but they are fictitious and they use elements of reality. There are jokes about Barack Obama meeting Vladimir Putin; they are real people but the situation is abstract. Nobody believes that this joke really happened. Most contemporary jokes are just shorter versions of old fairy tales.”
That’s interesting. Do fairy tales contain any lessons for the audience?
“Originally, they did not as fairy tales were purely for entertainment. You can of course look for messages in them, Jungian, Freudian interpretations. But we know that even today, fairy tales all over the world are used as pure entertainment. They can serve other functions; they might have some moral messages. But it seems that the only culture fascinated by fairy tales’ moral messages and deeper meanings is our own.”
But still – let’s take the fairy tale the film rendering of which has been many times voted the most popular by Czechs, Cinderella. It does have a message or a lesson which highlights modesty in the pursuit of success. Has this message been the same since the tale first appeared? Has it survived all those centuries?
“Cinderella is difficult. What we know as Cinderella today first appeared in ancient China and we can still find remnants of it because of the importance of the shoe. You might know that in China, the prettiest girl has the smallest feet. They even had some rather cruel devices to make girls’ feet smaller. This fairy tale has taken a long journey throughout history but originally, it did not highlight modesty.
“The oldest European version of Cinderella, recorded in the 17th century in Italy, in Naples, is quite different from what we know today. For instance, in the beginning Cinderella kills her stepmother cutting her head off. So that does not suggest much modesty. The tale was polished in the 18th and 19th centuries and now appears as it does. There is a moral in fairy tales – the main hero or heroine always wins no matter the cost, no matter the lives of others.”
Czech fairy tales were first made into film in the 1950s. The very first of them, Pyšná princezna, or Proud Princess, premiered in September 1952. At that time, however, film as well as all other official art, was under the heavy influence of the communist ideology. In the Proud Princess, for example, the heroine undergoes a transformation from a selfish aristocrat into a true woman of the people.
Another fairy-tale movie from that time, The Princess with the Golden Star from 1959, strikes the nationalist chord. It features an evil king of a neighbouring empire who threatens to invade the country if his will is not fulfilled. The very arrival of the king is reminiscent of the Nazi occupation. Czechoslovak communists, however, were not the only ones using fairy tales for propaganda purposes, says Petr Janeček.
“Every regime which wanted to influence the minds of the people used fairy tales, it was not happening just in communist Czechoslovakia. You can see many regimes which use fairy tales for political purposes even now. It’s handy because they are popular stories that everybody knows, and they are also effective with children whom you can influence ideologically.
“The Nazis used fairy tales a lot as well to promote National Socialism. As we said earlier – fairy tales are what we make of them. The plots have been there for centuries, many thousands of years, and every culture and every historical period changes the function of these stories.
“The communist-era fairy tales have some anti-Germans elements, some socialist ideas, and so on. You can find everything you want in them. You want socialism? It’s there – it’s about poor people winning over the rich. You want nationalism? It’s there too – we are good Czechs and the evil ones are Germans. You can change it as you wish.”
Despite the marked communist undertones, both the Proud Princess and the Princess with the Golden Star remain among the most popular fairy tales with Czech viewers. Both films are traditionally shown on Christmas Eve.
The Czech TV fairy-tale galore begins on December 24, and goes on for days until New Year’s Eve. Folklorist Petr Janeček says winter time has traditionally been devoted to story telling – but the Czechs do seem to have a passion for watching fairy tales on TV at this time.
“Fairy tales were usually told after work, and winter, the Advent, and Christmas was a time when people worked less; they would usually do something at home, and would entertain themselves with fairy tales. So the connection between fairy tales and Christmas is not really anything new or artificial.
“What might be unique is the Czech tradition of watching fairy tales on TV. People in other countries also watch a lot of TV at that time but we watch films that are based on the original folk tales. That’s quite distinct, and it is only in Scandinavia that they have a similar tradition of watching fairy tales on TV during Christmas.”