Fairy Tales from Estonia

When I was growing up, there was no Estonia, except in historical reference. The map at that time showed the gigantic USSR, stretching from East Germany through twelve time zones, so far to the east it bumped into the boundary of the west, across the Aleutians from Alaska. Gradually over the years intriguing bit emerged: pieces of music. Poetry. Then Estonia joined many nations in that part of the world in achieving sovereignty, too often after painful struggle.

By the time I was given this gift of South-Estonian Fairy Tales, by Kristiina Ehin, I was very intrigued indeed.

The book was published by a two-person small press called Huma–take a look at the publishers’ page, and the amazing photo of their home base. This publisher has been in existence for twenty years, in spite of political and economic tectonics.

The book’s title in Estonian is Lõuna-Eesti muinasjutud. The writer is a much-lauded poet. Each tale is written in Estonian, and then translated by Ilmar Lehtpere.

In the very first tale, there’s already a major difference from western fairy tale tropes: In olden times there lived a father with his three daughters. Times were in turmoil and one day war broke out. All hale and hearty men had to go to war. And so also that father, who had until then lived peacefully with his wife and three daughters, had to go.

“How are we to let our own flesh-and-blood father go to war?” Let’s go in his place,” his daughters said.

And they do.

Devils, snake-husbands, curiously compelling little snatches of poem like bits of song, each with power, dance through these tales, along with beleaguered fathers, mothers, sons, and daughters. Families are as important as survival; a sense of wonder is as important as bravery and wit. A sense of humor counterbalances a sense of honor.

I hope it will come under fair use, this rather long quote from the afterword by the author. I think her own words about her book, and her culture, and the importance of fairy tales, speaks better than I could:

I started writing this book four years ago in the same month of August. I had only just defended my M.A. thesis in Folklore at Tartu University and had got some idea of our folklore archives’ vast treasury . . . we are dealing after all with one of the world’s richest collections of folklore. Its birth and existence is like a fairy tale in itself.

She chose among the 5,700 fairy tales, and combined versions of some tales to make one, then retold it in her own way.  Then:

Even in my lifetime fairy-tale things have happened. I have seen with my own eyes and heard with my own ears how our regilaul–our folk song tradition thousands of years old–has risen up from the archives and anthologies and started to live again among our own people. Farm ruins are being built up. . . . In some places animals are being brought into the byres, in others the byres have become guesthouses and the stables have become banqueting halls and educational centers. In old kiln rooms for drying grain computer lights flicker and even in the yard under oak trees it’s possible via wireless internet to deal with matters of the world and yet remain country folk.

Yet fairy tales are still forgotten, or have they rather forgotten us for a time? They deal with matters of the world as well–fairy tales are really cosmopolitan wanderers who once sought adventure here under the stars of the universe–from here to there and from there to beyond.

In an effort to understand some of the strange layers to these tales, I did some digging about Estonian literature, and discovered this gold mine,  The Estonian Literary Magazine. It’s free, and every single article is fascinating–even when you haven’t read the work discussed.

For example, in this article, “Estonian Landscapes and Mindscapes,” Tiina Kirss says:

That literature, midwifed by translation, opens windows into a foreign culture is a commonplace, with the caveat that the translation has to be a good one. For a ‘good’ translation to communicate, surely it must not excel on a linguistic level alone.   Sly complexities make  ‘cultural translation’ of literature a daunting endeavour: the silences between and around the words may mean as much, or more than the words explicitly written. And then there are those blank, unreadable spaces on the mental map, which are visible to the ‘native’ reader, but baffling for the outsider: places, events, people, objects.

Those who have read a translated work and found puzzling passages might find resonance in these words. Or who has watched a foreign film. Even when the film has subtitles, one is left seeking meaning in the interstices between those brief words, and the many words spoken but not understood. Or one studies body language that sometimes seems familiar, but the reactions are askew. Or the gestures are puzzling, but cause familiar responses.

So why do we read translated works, or watch foreign films?

Kirss goes on to say,  . . .a novel may do the same kind of cultural work as an ethnography.  Perhaps this is most keenly so for the outsider looking in through the literary window.

The rest of this article is rich with discussion of Estonian works. For anyone who has questioned the value of fantasy elements in literature, take a look at this quote from Jan Kaus’s article on “The Dedalus Book of Estonian Literature” concerning writers during the repressive Soviet era:

Any national feeling was considered to be dangerous nationalism, an expression of anti popular tension. Maybe this is the main reason, why Estonian literature created the ability to talk ‘between the lines’, as the readers of the same nationality acquired the skill to read between the same lines. This all served the purpose to maintain the consciousness of the Estonian identity inside the everyday of the Soviet reality. The writers from my generation often have great difficulties in imagining the significance of the Soviet Estonian Writers` Union, the role of publishers, editors and, of course, the all-powerful, but mostly narrow minded, censors during that period. This was a totally different reality, which required a totally different language – or system of languages. As only one Estonian language existed, it had to have different meanings for the censor and for the common Estonian reader. The literature from that epoch was full of hidden meanings. This practice made it possible to achieve beautiful and poetic results and should be remembered, when reading, for example, the short story of Arvo Valton, where the ugliness of the machinery, which in every day life was accompanied by the rhetoric of the industrial heaven on earth, is in deep contrast with the pure clothing of the fairy like creatures from the ‘outside’ world.

In closing, let me encourage you to treat yourself: type regilaul into YouTube, and take in some nifty music.

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Comments

Fairy Tales from Estonia — 14 Comments

  1. a novel may do the same kind of cultural work as an ethnography.

    One of my classes in anthropology grad school was “Ethnography Through Fiction.”

  2. So much in this post, Sherwood! This for instance, that you quote:

    [Fairy tales] deal with matters of the world as well–-fairy tales are really cosmopolitan wanderers who once sought adventure here under the stars of the universe-–from here to there and from there to beyond.

    –really especially that first phrase: fairy tales deal with matters of the world. They really do. I have found a lot of guidance on how to live life from fairy tales.

    But then you move on to talk about the issues of translation, and wow, yes. This quote:

    The silences between and around the words may mean as much, or more than the words explicitly written. And then there are those blank, unreadable spaces on the mental map, which are visible to the ‘native’ reader, but baffling for the outsider: places, events, people, objects.

    That is just so true. I’m fascinated by the notion of communicating through not-saying. Through the negative space. I can’t do this yet, at all, but I think it’s something I really want to do.

  3. Asakiyume: I ended up with a permanent bookmark at the Estonian Literary Magazine. Every single article has these flavor bursts packed into it that explode behind my eyeballs.

  4. The Estonians are not Indo Europeans but belong to the same linguistic/cultural group as the Finns. I am far from being an expert on folk lore, but there is a identity of tales and themes among the Indo Europeans stretching from Ireland to Northern India. In what ways, I wonder, do the traditional stories of the Estonians differ from their neighbors? What would we Indo Europeans (I speak merely of Sartorias and myself because the rest of you I don’t know) recognize and which find rich and strange?

  5. “In the very first tale, there’s already a major difference from western fairy tale tropes:”

    Err –actually, there are western fairy tales built on that trope. Madame d’Aulnoy wrote one, for instance.

  6. If I am recalling correctly, in ancient times what we know as Estonia was the final destination of the Amber Road. If I’m recalling correctly that region was known by Rome as Cimmeria. But as my knowledge of the history of the whole area is still so hazy I may well be wrong about both, and have confused three different places.

    Love, C.

  7. @ al_zorra

    The Baltic was and is the main source for amber. I don’t know about Cimmeria though. Maybe someone else does.

  8. Thank you for bringing that book to a wider audience. I live on the island of Saremaa of the north west coast of Estonia. For the last 3 years I have been re-working quasi-historical incidents into fantasy fiction. The North Baltic as a region has a rich a varied group of literary traditions that deserves to be explored.