Tales of Long Ago

The first edition of Tales of Long Ago (published in English under the title Croatian Tales of Long Ago) was published in 1916 by Matica Hrvatska. It included six fairy tales – How Quest Sought the Truth, Fisherman Plunk and His Wife, Reygoch, Stribor's Forest, Little Brother Primrose and Sister Lavender, and Bridesman Sun and Bride Bridekins – and illustrations by Petar Orlić which, unlike the tales themselves, received unfavourable criticism. The author herself was not happy with Orlić's work, so another artist – Vladimir Kirin – was entrusted with illustrating the third edition of the Tales (1926). Kirin's illustrations are generally considered more successful than Orlić's. The said third edition of the Tales contains two additional tales: Toporko the Wanderer and the Nine Princes and Yagor.

Both individual tales and the collection as a whole have been translated into numerous languages, starting with the English translation (Croatian Tales of Long Ago) published in 1924.

The collection draws on several sources, the first being Ivana's interest in Slavic folklore and mythology. When she wrote the first tale that would later be included in the collection, Stribor's Forest, she was reading, among other things, The Poetic Views of Slavs on Nature by the Russian scholar Aleksandr Afanas'ev. In a letter to her son Ivan she explains how, under the influence of the study by Afanas'ev (and other writings, such as Anton Tkány's lexicon of mythology of the ancient Germans and Slavs), an unusual scene of a sparkling fireplace in her living room in the house of the Brlić family in Brod, inspired her to create the character of domaći (the Brownies), tiny spirits who try to help the unfortunate old woman in the fairy tale Stribor's Forest. In addition to the Brownies and Wee Tintilinkie (one of the Brownies), Ivana's fairy tales include many other characters which are (at least to some extent) based on figures from Russian, Serbian and Croatian mythology or oral tradition. Another important source of inspiration for the collection is Christian philosophy, especially prominent in the fairy tales How Quest Sought the Truth, Stribor's Forest and Little Brother Primrose and Sister Lavender. In these tales, Christianity presents a source of protection (Little Brother Primrose and Sister Lavender), constitutes a world view (Stribor's Forest introduces the motif of the crucifix at the moment when the son throws his own mother out of the house) and a specific fairy-tale narrative structure which opens up the space for a happy ending (How Quest Sought the Truth ends with Quest arriving at the golden palace of All-Rosy, which is an allegory of Christian Heaven). Ivana's own fondness for stories and storytelling provide another important stimulus for the Tales.

The fairy tales included in the collection Tales of Long Ago deal with several topics, among them motherhood (featured in six tales). Interestingly enough, there is no one single perception of motherhood: on the one hand, it is described as something holy and sublime, with the mother portrayed as being selfless and willing to sacrifice everything for the happiness of her child (in Stribor's Forest, the mother does not turn to God to ask for help when her evil daughter-in-law sends her off on life-threatening tasks, so as to hide her son's sins from Him; however, the moment her daughter-in-law forbids her to mend her son's shirt – in other words, prevents her from performing her duties as a mother – she cries to God for help. Moreover, she refuses to return to her youth for that would mean losing her son). This ideal of saintly and self-sacrificing motherhood is closely linked to the ideal of motherhood as a safeguard, the protective powers of which are felt even after the mother dies; this motif is found in Little Brother Primrose and Sister Lavender (Primrose is able to survive while climbing the dangerous and terrifying Mount Kitesh by heeding his mother's advice) and Fisherman Plunk and His Wife (the deceased mother appears on her own grave in the form of a hind, advising her daughter how to overcome the difficulties that have befallen her). However, motherhood can sometimes be overprotective or harmful, as is seen in the tale Toporko the Wanderer and the Nine Princes: the noble lady Jelena refuses to let her sons – born from maple trees – sleep on the meadow and orders that tents be put up for their protection; however, this causes them to become bald (they were not washed by the night-time dew). On the opposite side of the motherhood spectrum are the characters of the evil stepmother (who, in the tale Yagor, wants to harm her stepson) and the evil mother (in the fairy tale Bridesman Sun and Bride Bridekins, both the miller and his wife hate their daughter Bride Bridekins).

Another important topic is Ivana's view of children as the symbol of life – manifested in the longing of parents for offspring (Toporko the Wanderer and the Nine Princes), the link between children, ancestors and tradition (Yagor, Little Brother Primrose and Sister Lavender), innocence overcoming all evil (Little Brother Primrose and Sister Lavender) or children as a means of “improving” the community at large (in Reygoch, for instance, the children who survive the flood correct past mistakes by building only one village and one church, thus avoiding hostility. The children are, therefore, a means of “fixing” society).

Nature is an important topic in the Tales and plays a key role in shaping marvellous characters which entered the fairy tales from folklore and mythology. Characters responsible for changes in nature are especially relevant here: All-Rosy, the golden youth who brings out the Sun, the Noon Crone who causes people to faint during the midday heat, Mother Muggish who nurses the feeble old Sun till its grows young again at Yuletide, Old Man Weather who cares for the forests and mountains, the Votaress Fairies who roll up the dark clouds and raise storms (as do the Monstrous Bird, the Monstrous Snake and the Golden Bee in Fisherman Plunk and His Wife), etc.

Narrative space in all the fairy tales is quite interesting. The visuality of the Secession (with gold, silver and blue as the dominant colours, and stylized shapes imitating Secessionist ornamentality) and neo-romantic perceptions of nature as wild and untamed (the mighty River Banewater in Reygoch; the wild forests in Toporko the Wanderer and the Nine Princes; the harsh and barren seaside in Fisherman Plunk and His Wife; the almost romantic landscape of the forest and mountain in How Quest Sought the Truth) both play an important role in shaping the narrative space of the Tales. In some cases, existing sites have been stylized (for instance, Mount Kitesh, where much of Little Brother Primrose and Sister Lavender takes place, is probably based on Mount Klek). In all of the tales, space plays an important role in the plot.

A repetitive pattern in the fairy tales included in the Tales of Long Ago is the encounter or conflict between the small and the big, with the small always coming out on top. In the literary world of Ivana Brlić-Mažuranić, the small always overpowers the big: the tiny Yagor defeats the great evil embodied in his own stepmother and the Noon Crone, the small army led by Oleg the Warden will (with the help of the Sun) conquer the large army led by the proud princess, the tiny Primrose will not succumb to the evil which the Votaress Fairies have in store for him, the little fairy Curlylocks is smarter than the giant Reygoch, while the children (also in Reygoch) will survive and mend the erroneous ways of grown-ups.

Tales of Long Ago are considered to be the best collection of fairy tales in Croatian literature.

Dubravka Zima, 2013