Literature Review: Latvian Fairy Tales

Līga Horgana is back with a literature review of Latvian Fairy Tales, a collection of folklore compiled by Inga Kalsberga, illustrated by Gita Treice, and translated by Kaija Marisandra Strautmanis.

This work will lead the reader into a part of Latvian traditional folklore: the world of Latvian fairy tales, full of miracles and mystery. Latvian Fairy Tales was compiled by Inga Kalsberga, translated by  Kaija Marisandra Straumanis, and published in 2017 by “Jāņa Rozes apgāds”.

The illustrations by award-winning artist Gita Treice are amazing. The gray and golden tones and haze the characters come out of creates a world of fantasy – both extremely beautiful and tempting to look closer at, yet frightening and full of the unknown as well.  The illustrations work well with the texts of the fairy tales that depict a lot of miracles as well as a lot of horror and death typical of the fairy tale genre. It is possible to see Treice’s portfolio of work on her web page  

The book contains 12 tales that the modern casual reader would probably not call very exciting, extremely entertaining, or emotionally moving. Similar characters and situations appear from one tale to another one, revealing the typical patterns of this genre. They are also not really stories to read to kids before bed, because with so much brutality and so little reflection on moral issues, they don’t really apply to what we expect from children’s literature nowadays.

The fairy tales in this book are quite well known in either the given or slightly different variants in Latvian culture; however, since most of these tales had been heard from other cultures, translated, retold, and written down mostly in the 19th century, the English reader might find some motifs, elements, and even story lines familiar to them. Guntis Pakalns, PhD of philology and researcher of the University of Latvia Institute of Literature, Folklore and Art notes in the introduction of this book: “…the underworlds and scenes of hell are not unique to Latvian mythology, nor is the heroic dragon-slayer a forefather and model for ancient Latvian warriors. And the castles and places are not the wooden palaces of ancient Latvians. Rather, what these stories reveal is what kind of exotic elements nineteenth-century Latvians were fond of…” (page 7)

Indeed, one great thing about this work is that it provides not only the text of the tales, but also an interesting general introduction to the folk tale genre in Europe. It ends with an informative and interesting commentary at the end of the book about each tale, giving information about where it was first recorded, what other typical elements appear in other variants of the tale, and how it appears in other cultures — sometimes even as far away as Indian or Chinese folklore.

A nice example could be The Princess on the Glass Mountain, a so called “national Latvian folk tale” (page 91) that was used for Rainis’ well-known play for youth The Golden Horse in 1909 (although other sources claim that a similar Estonian story was the true inspiration). The Glass Mountain is also the alternate name of the new Latvian National Library building designed by the Latvian American architect Gunārs Birkets. Climbing this symbolic glass mountain in Latvian culture metaphorically means personal growth and transformation.

This fairy tale tells the typical story of three brothers. The two oldest are were clever, while the youngest one is a "fool." However, after only the so-called fool shows true love and respect to his dying father, he gets magical silver, golden and diamond tools that in a situation of need would give him beautiful horse and clothes. Later, the king announces that the man who rides up the glass mountain and rescues his daughter from the top of it would get her hand in marriage. Using his magical gifts, over the course of three days the "fool" turns into a beautiful silver, gold and diamond rider, and is the only one out of many princes and lords able to reach the princess. Guntis Pakalns has commented, “found on the regional borders of many cultures, the Baltic States is a natural melting pot of Western- and Eastern-European traditions. For example, the beginning of the story where the sons are to watch over their father’s grave is more typical of Eastern-Slavic fairy tales, whereas the hero’s ride up the glass mountain is one usually found in Western Europe…” (page 92)

In general, I liked this book a lot both because of its wonderful illustrations and the content that not only offers the folklore text to read but also a wider understanding of European fairy tale culture in general. This might not be the best gift for little kids; however, this is a really nice work for everyone else who has interest in Latvian traditional culture and literature.

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