Czech Fairy Tales

In his best-selling book The Power of Myth, pre-eminent scholar, writer and teacher Joseph Campbell explained that, myths “come from realisations of some kind that have then to find expression in symbolic form.” The realisations he’s referring to regard the trials, tribulations and potentialities (spiritual or otherwise) of human life. The main motifs of these stories are the same around the world. If one wants to find their own place in this sea of images, symbols and lessons learned, one needs, Campbell argues, to determine with which society they identify.

Czech society runs a little thin in the myth department but more than makes up for it when it comes to fairy tales. Fairy tales are the child’s myth. While most myths have to do with the serious side of living life in terms of the order of society and of nature, fairy tales, albeit incorporating most of the same motifs, are told for entertainment. The two fairy tales discussed here exemplify the spirit of Czech culture by combining both morality and a sense of humour. I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether you identify with either of them.

Sleepy John

The first story comes to us from B.M. Kulda who wrote Sleepy John, a Moravian classic. Sleepy John was prone to, well, sleeping and one day he passed out in the back of a farmer’s cart. Upon discovering him, the owner, along with his friends, decided to stuff him in an empty beer keg and leave him in the forest. Funny, but this reminds me of a couple of parties I’ve been to. Anyways, Sleepy John finally woke up, only to find himself trapped in a beer keg. What’s worse, wolves, having picked up on the human scent, were now circling around him. John grabbed the tail of a wolf that was standing too close. Startled, the wolf began to run and the keg hurtled down a hill and smashed open upon a rock. John was free! Continuing on through the mountains, Sleepy John came across a hermit who said, “I shall die in three days. Bury me then, and I will pay you well for it.” John agreed and three days later, the dying hermit gave him a stick, saying: "In whatever direction you point this stick, you will find yourself there." Then he gave him a knapsack, saying: "Anything you want you will find in this knapsack." Finally, he gave him a cap, saying: "As soon as you put this cap on, nobody will be able to see you.” Then the hermit died and John buried him as promised.

Sleepy John packed his things, pointed his stick and said, “Let me be in the town where the King lives.” Abracadabra and lo and behold, John found himself in the midst of a throng of lords who were on their way to see the King. “The Queen wears out a dozen pairs of shoes nightly,” they explained, “yet no one has ever been able to follow her.” John decided to accompany them. Once announced in the palace, John approached the King and explained that he wanted to help. “What is your name,” the King asked. “Sleepy John,” our hero replied. “And how do you plan on following the Queen, my boy, when all you do is sleep? Find her and I´ll give you half my kingdom, otherwise it’s off with your head.”

Night came and the Queen, after assuring herself that all were asleep, grabbed twelve new pairs of shoes and hotfooted it out of the palace. Sleepy John had remained awake however and, donning his cap, which rendered him invisible, pointed his stick and said, “Let me be where the Queen is.” Now, when the Queen came to a certain rock, the Earth opened up before her and out popped two dragons. They took her on their backs and carried her as far as the lead forest. John said: "Let me be where the Queen is," and he instantly found himself in the lead forest. He broke off a twig and put it in his knapsack. The Queen rode on. John pointed his stick and said: "Let me be where the Queen is," and instantly found himself in a tin forest. He broke off another twig and put it in his knapsack. The Queen continued on and once again, John pointed his stick and said: "Let me be where the Queen is." Instantly, he appeared in a silver forest. He broke off a twig again and put it into his knapsack. The dragons continued on till they came to a green meadow. A crowd of devils came to meet them there and then they had a feast.

After the banquet had ended the devils began to dance with the Queen, and they kept on dancing until the Queen had worn out all her shoes. When her shoes were worn out, two dragons returned her to the place where the earth had opened before her. John said: "Let me be where the Queen is," and both of them made it back to the palace unseen.

Next morning, the lords gathered together and admitted that nobody had been able to track the Queen. The King summoned Sleepy John before him who said: "Gracious King, I did track her, and I know that she used up those twelve pairs of shoes upon the green meadows in Hell." “That’s an outrage,” screamed the Queen but John produced the leaden twig and said: "The Queen was carried by two dragons towards Hell, and she came to the leaden forest; that’s where I got this twig.” “So what,” replied the King, “You might have made the twig yourself." “OK", said John, “well, then, what about this?” and he produced the tin twig from his knapsack. “Big deal,” said the King. "You might have made this twig too." “Tough crowd,” thought John, then produced the silver twig. The queen, who knew she was finally busted, cried out: "Let the earth swallow me!" and, sure enough, she was swallowed by the earth.

Sleepy John ended up with half the kingdom for his troubles, and, when the king died, he got the other half too.

POSSIBLE MORAL: Women always have (and always will) love shoes.
: If you’re going to dance with the devil in the pale moonlight, watch your back.

Karel Jaromír Erben is responsible for our second story, Vodník, which involves a water sprite known well in Prague by children of all ages.

It begins with Vodník sitting on a tree and asking the moon in a singsong voice to shine her bright light on him for tomorrow’s going to be a big day. He’s getting married.

Morning comes and a young woman gets up and gathers the clothes for the day’s wash. She’s about to set off for the lake when her mom stops her. She dreamt she was preparing a white wedding gown for her daughter. White wedding dresses symbolize sadness she tells her daughter. Wedding pearls = tears and it’s Friday, a day of bad luck. Three strikes and you’re staying home. I don’t want you anywhere near that lake today. Surprise, surprise, the girl defies her mom’s wishes and goes anyway, admitting, however, that she is unable to shake the feeling that something is “forcing” her to go down there. 

While she’s doing the wash the footbridge that was supporting her collapses, sending her into the water. Vodník takes over from there and makes her his wife. They go on to have a baby but our young lady is miserable. She misses her mom terribly and is torn between her yearning to go back home and staying underwater with her beloved fish child. After plenty of pestering, Vodník finally releases his iron grip on her and allows the young woman a day’s pass to go see her mother. “But don’t hug her,” he warns. “Then you’ll be infected with human love and it will overpower our fish love.” He keeps the kid as ransom. He trusts her about as far as he can throw her. Some things between men and women never change.

Our heroine goes back up to Earth and reflexively hugs her mom. Who could blame her? Back home, they spend the entire time talking and crying, the young gal bemoaning her fate. The mother, not about to give up, assures her tear-streaked child that there’s nothing to fear because she is on land and Vodník is only powerful down in the water.

The time comes for the lass to go back. Mom locks the door. Vodník comes a-knockin’ and he ain’t too happy. He demands his wife come back home with him and fix him some supper. “Take off,” says the feisty mother-in-law. He leaves, then, comes back. “Come home and make the bed,” he says. “Get away from here,” screams mom. Third time comes around and Vodník returns saying the baby’s crying. He needs his mother. This plays on the heartstrings of our little girl. “Don’t listen to him, it’s a trap,” warns mom. “If the baby’s crying, Vodník, it means it’s hungry. Bring the baby back here. We’ll take care of it.” The desperate wails of the child can be heard plainly and then suddenly, the cries stop. A loud thump is heard outside the front door and then blood begins to seep under it, into the house. Mom opens the door. The head of the baby is outside covered in blood, severed from its equally bloody body.

POSSIBLE MORAL: It’s probably a good idea to marry someone who belongs to the same species as you.
: If you go too close to the water you never know what the consequences will be.

As you can see, these fairy tales, although quite original in their telling, deal with the same themes as others we have come across in the past. These old stories dealing with deception, family, love and the underworld all still possess qualities we still identify with today. Whether you’re a Queen dancing with inappropriate company during the witching hour or involved in a relationship that leaves you unfulfilled, fairy tales can not only still entertain, but enlighten us as well. Who knows? You may even end up living happily ever after.