THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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18 posts categorized "Animal Tales"

29 January 2019

Kater Murr at 200: ‘the cleverest, best and wittiest creature of his kind ever beheld’

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Visitors to the British Library’s current exhibition Cats on the Page may have caught sight of a curious creature who first saw the light in Prussia 200 years ago – Kater Murr, the famous tomcat created by E. T. A. Hoffmann and based on his own much-loved pet, a handsome striped tabby. While British audiences may be more familiar with works by Hoffmann which provided the inspiration for the ballets The Nutcracker and Coppélia and for Offenbach’s opera Les Contes d’Hoffmann, Murr himself is no mean performer – a worthy companion for his master, the gifted but reclusive musician Johannes Kreisler, who inspired Robert Schumann’s Kreisleriana.

Kater Murr 1820 12548.bbb.17

 An early edition of Lebens-Ansichten des Katers Murr  (Berlin, 1820) 12548.bbb.17

Lebens-Ansichten des Katers Murr nebst fragmentarischer Biographie des Kapellmeisters Johannes Kreisler in zufälligen Makulaturblättern was first published in two volumes in 1819-21 (a third volume was promised but never completed). The author claims that Murr taught himself to read by perusing books and papers in the study of his original owner, Master Abraham, and went on to learn calligraphy from the manual compiled by Hilmar Curas. This enabled him to compose such masterpieces as a political treatise entitled Mousetraps and their Influence on the Character and Achievement of the Feline Race, the tragedy Cawdallor, King of Rats, and the ‘philosophical and didactic novel of sentiment’ Thought and Intuition, or, Cat and Dog. By a publisher’s error Murr’s ‘life and opinions’ (not for nothing was Hoffmann influenced by Laurence Sterne) were interleaved with a biography of Kreisler himself and bound into a single volume.

The resulting narrative is an inspired parody of the Bildungsroman, charting Murr’s development from a kitten rescued from drowning by the kind-hearted Master Abraham to a cat of letters and high culture – at least in his own eyes. In the tradition of Wilhelm Meister and his like, Murr encounters a wide variety of characters and falls into some highly dubious company. He joins a cats’ Burschenschaft, a fraternity of the kind so popular among German students in the era of ‘Turnvater’ Jahn (whom Hoffmann defended in court), engaging not only in gymnastics but in rowdier pursuits such as drinking, duelling and caterwauling songs.

Kater Murr Cover
Cover of Lebens-Ansichten des Katers Murr in an edition with illustrations by Maximilian Liebenwein (Zurich, 1923) X.958/995. Currently on display in the Cats on the Page exhibition

Naturally, his sentimental education is also chronicled; he has an emotional encounter with his long-lost mother, (though he absent-mindedly devours the fish-head which he had intended to offer her), and enjoys an ‘instructive’ friendship with Ponto, a poodle (irresistibly evoking thoughts of Mephistopheles’s disguise as a black poodle in Goethe’s Faust). He then embarks on a ‘personality-forming’ love affair with the charming Miesmies which comes to an abrupt end when she falls for the blandishments of a war veteran, a swaggering striped tabby cat sporting the Order of the Burnt Bacon for valour in ridding a larder of mice. Murr’s friend, the black cat Muzius, opens his eyes to the betrayal, but Murr comes off worst in the duel which ensues, and escapes with bleeding ears and minus a considerable quantity of fur.

Kater Murr endpapers
Endpapers by Maximilian Liebenwein for the 1923 edition of the novel pictured above

In a lively and graceful fashion Hoffmann makes fun of the conventions of polite society and its members’ cultural pretensions; Murr scans the pages of Ovid’s Ars Amatoria for ploys to capture the heart of Miesmies or free himself from his obsession, and invites her to sing. This succeeds: ‘Ah! Am I still upon this earth?’ he cried ‘Am I still sitting on the roof? […] Am I still Murr the cat, and not the man in the moon?’ To his request for a song, Miesmies responds with the aria ‘Di tanti palpiti’ from Rossini’s Tancredi. Murr, a veritable homme des lettres très renommé (as he terms himself), is conversant with all the notable authors of the day, quoting freely from Schiller’s Don Carlos and Die Jungfrau von Orleans, Adalbert von Chamisso’s Peter Schlemihl, and, of course, Ludwig Tieck – not only his translations of Shakespeare but also his play Der gestiefelte Kater (Puss in Boots). This story runs parallel to the unhappy tale of Kreisler’s failure to achieve social success and romantic happiness in a petty principality, recounted on pages torn from the printed biography which Murr uses as blotting-paper and which are inadvertently included in the book.

Not only social but also literary conventions fall victim to Hoffmann’s pen; Murr’s directions about ‘how to become a great cat’ satirize the contemporary trivialization of the ideals of the Bildungsroman, and his Biedermeier-like complacency and liking for comfort contrast sharply with the uncompromising attitude of the tormented genius Kreisler. In a postscript, the ‘editor’ notes that ‘that clever, well-educated, philosophical, poetical tomcat Murr was snatched away by bitter Death […] after a short but severe illness’ without completing his memoirs: ‘A genius maturing early can never prosper long: either he declines, in anticlimax, to become a mediocrity without character or intellect […] or he does not live to a great age’.

Kater Murr CF Thiele H.2001-426Picture of Kater Murr by Christian Friedrich Schiele from the first edition of the  novel, reproduced on the cover of Anthea Bell’s translation, The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr (London. 1999) H.2001/426.

Whatever the reader may feel about the self-congratulatory comments of the egregious Murr, he can hardly be accused of mediocrity. A near kinsman of Tybalt, the cat of mediaeval beast fables, and Perrault’s White Cat and Puss in Boots, he would become the ancestor of a whole line of talking cats, many of whom feature in the exhibition – Gottfried Keller’s Spiegel das Kätzchen, Christa Wolf’s Max in Neue Lebensansichten eines Katers, and perhaps even Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire Cat. Hoffmann, the ‘editor’, assures the reader that he has met Murr personally and found him ‘a man of mild and amiable manners’, and by her accomplished translation Anthea Bell has enabled English-speaking readers to make the acquaintance of ‘the drollest creature in the world, a true Pulcinella’.

Susan Halstead, Subject Librarian (Social Sciences), Research Services.

The British Library’s free exhibition Cats on the Page continues until 17 March 2019, with a series of accompanying events for all ages and interests.

25 January 2019

‘Tom Puss, conjure up a trick!’

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Our ‘Cats on the Page’ exhibition features several items on clever and cunning cats. It is probably fair to say that the most famous amongst them is Puss in Boots. He is represented in a charming pop-up book by Vojtěch Kubašta,  published in London in 1958 (W.E.d.692)

But did you know that the Dutch cherish an equally clever, cunning and cool cat? His name is Tom Poes, created by Marten Toonder (1912-2005)

TomPoes2MToonder Portrait of Marten Toonder by Kippa, from Was Tom Poes maar hier (Amsterdam, 2006) YF.2008.a.18079.

Toonder may never have guessed that the doodles of various animal figures he made one day out of sheer boredom would lead to 45 years of newspaper cartoons, cartoon strips, books, films, merchandise, illegal copies of his works, as well as to a statue of his little cat hero in the Rotterdam street where he was born.

TomPoes3shapes The first incarnation of Tom Poes, reproduced in Marten Toonder Heer Bommel en ik (Amstelveen, 2017) YF.2018.a.15780.

The doodles were filed away in a drawer where they lay forgotten, until a Dutch national newspaper, De Telegraaf, asked Toonder to write and illustrate a daily cartoon. Looking for inspiration he found the drawings and decided to give the little cat a try. His wife Phiny Dick, pen name of Afine Kornélie Dik, suggested the name ‘Tom Poes’ and it was she who wrote the first Tom Poes story, Het Geheim der Blauwe Aarde (‘The Secret of the Blue Earth’), which was published on 16 March 1941. However, she soon handed the whole enterprise over to Marten.

Very soon, during his third adventure (‘In the Magic Garden’, 1941) Tom Poes met the brown bear Olie B. Bommel, a ‘gentleman of standing’, for whom ‘money is of no importance’. Tom Poes and he become inseparable and Bommel became more popular than Tom Poes during their many adventures.

TomPoes4OBBommel Olie B. Bommel, detail from the cover of a publisher’s flyer for Marten Toonder: Alle verhalen van Olivier B. Bommel and Tom Poes

Bas van der Schot compared the couple to Don Quixote and Sancho Panza in Was Tom Poes maar hier (‘If Only Tom Poes Were Here’), a homage to Marten Toonder, published in 2006, a year after his death.

TomPoes5YinYangTom Poes and Olie B Bommel as Yin and Yang, by Bas van der Schot, from Was Tom Poes maar hier (Amsterdam, 2006) YF.2008.a.18079.

Olie B. Bommel may be fantastically wealthy, but he is not very clever, nor is he in touch with the ‘real world’. It is Tom Poes who has the brains, always keeps his cool, and gets them out of many a pickle. ‘Conjure a trick, Tom Poes!’ is another phrase that has entered the Dutch vernacular, which almost literally means the same as Baldrick’s ‘I have a cunning plan’.

TomPoes6VerzineenList

Cover of Marten Toonder,Verzin toch eens een list (Amsterdam, 1973) X.990/6049

De Telegraaf insisted Marten Toonder used the format of the text cartoon by which the text is printed underneath the illustrations, rather than in speech balloons. This format had been invented by the Swiss teacher, author, artist and cartoonist Rodolphe Töpffer, who was famous in the Netherlands for his Histoire de Monsieur Cryptogame, which was actually the very first cartoon to feature in Dutch newspapers. In Calvinist Holland speech balloon strips were frowned upon well into the 20th Century, but text cartoons were just about acceptable.

TomPoes7Textstrip2 Example of text strip in newspaper De Telegraaf. Reproduced in Marten Toonder, De Andere Wereld (Amsterdam, 1982) X.958/14755.

Toonder perfected Töpffer’s format by treating text and illustrations as equal, so the reader needed both to make sense of the story.

Right from the start Tom Poes was translated into various languages: Swedish and Czech were the first, published in 1941, soon followed by French, Spanish and some British titles. The Loch Ness Monster, published in Tom Puss Comics is one example.

TomPoes8TPComicsCover of Tom Puss Comics (London, 1949) 12831.g.31.

Over 45 years Toonder wrote 177 Tom Poes / Olie B. Bommel stories. The newspaper strips became known as the ‘Bommel Saga.’

A sign of its popularity is the Toonderstripkatalogus (‘Toonder cartoon catalogue’), meticulously detailing all manifestations of the Tom Poes stories; in newspapers, in weekly magazines, in book form, in translation and in other media, accompanied by a history of Toonder and his creations.

TomPoes9Bommelbibliografie Title page of H. R. Mondria, Bommelbibliografie. 2nd ed. (‘The Hague, 1974) X:908/80234

In his study of Toonder and the Bommel Saga, Henk R. Mondria discusses whether Tom Poes can be considered to be ‘Literature’. He answers in the affirmative. His arguments are that Olie B. Bommel is a rounded character, Toonder is a language virtuoso and the stories always have deeper layers than just the plot line. Furthermore, literary critics wrote polemics about this burning question, which is a sure sign of the literary value of Tom Poes.

Then, in 2008 the publisher De Bezige Bij embarked on a project of re-issuing all Tom Poes stories in a series Marten Toonder: alle verhalen van Olie B. Bommel en Tom Poes, plus commentary, in 60 volumes. The last volume was published in 2018: Als dat maar goed gaat (‘What could possibly go wrong?’). That settles the discussion once and for all; Tom Poes is well and truly part of the Dutch literary canon!

TomPoes10AlleVerhalenFront cover of a publisher’s flyer for Marten Toonder: Alle verhalen van Olivier B. Bommel and Tom Poes

Marja Kingma, Curator Germanic Collections

References / Further reading

Wim Hazeu, Marten Toonder: biografie (Amsterdam, 2012) On order.

Marten Toonder, Vroeger was de aarde plat: autobiografie. (Amsterdam, 2010) ZA.9.a.5120

Marten Toonder, Alle Verhalen (Amsterdam, 2008-2018). 60 vols. Individual volumes held at various shelfmarks.

The British Library’s free exhibition Cats on the Page continues until 17 March 2019, with a series of accompanying events for all ages and interests.

14 January 2019

Pan Kotsky

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Pan Kotsky, or ‘Mister Cat’, if we translate his name literally, is the most famous cat in Ukrainian folklore. You will find him in virtually any anthology of traditional children’s tales . What does the story tell us about the Ukrainian way of life?

Pan Kotsky Hrinchenko
Opening of the story of Pan Kotsky from Boris Hrinchenko, Ukraïnsʹki narodni kazky vybrani dlia diteĭ (Kyiv, 1907) 12209.aaa.47.

The tale tells how a cat was too old to be able to do his job properly – catching mice - and his master decided to dump him in a forest. A dark and horrible future was waiting for the cat: he would slowly die of hunger and loneliness. But all of a sudden, our poor puss was given a second chance. A Lady Fox met him in the wood and became interested.

“What’s your name?" She asked.
“Pan Kotsky.”
“Great! Be my husband!”
“What a kind proposal!” thought the cat and agreed.

And they form a ‘typical’ Ukrainian couple often depicted in Ukrainian folkore: a clever and active woman with a kind and passive man. The Lady Fox cherishes her husband and presents him to the community. The Hare is the first to come to the house, and the Lady Fox announces her new situation: “Beware of my husband, Pan Kotsky, he’s fierce and will easily tear you to pieces!”

And the Hare believes her! The same happens with the other villagers: the Wolf, the Bear and the Boar. All of them are afraid of the new master of the forest.

“Let’s prepare a supper and invite him!” they decide. But nobody has enough courage to invite the fearsome Pan Kotsky personally, and so the Hare has no choice but go to the Lady Fox’s house. She plays her role awesomely well: “I’ll come with him, but hide away! Or he will tear you to pieces!!!” The others have no reason not to believe her, so the Bear climbs a tree, the Wolf hides behind a bush and the Boar finds a hole in the woodpile…

The table is full of tasty food and drink, waiting for the guests to dine. Pan Kotsky is a simple fellow and does not have good manners; he is just a peasant. He climbs on the table and starts to gorge himself on the meat. All of a sudden a mosquito decides to bite the Boar, who moves in his hiding place. Our cat does not forget his instincts and catches what he thinks is a mouse - but it is the Boar’s tail! The Boar roars and terrifies Pan Kotsky who promptly jumps into the tree, where he accidently disturbs the Bear… What a row! The surprised Bear falls on the Wolf and hurts the Hare, and all of them think they are going to die…

The image of Pan Kotsky as the most dangerous creature in the wood is well established now!

PanKotskyсто-казок-том-1

Pan Kotsky as seen by prominent Ukrainian illustrator Kost Lavro. Reproduced in: 100 kazok (Kyiv, 2005) LF.31.b.6371

What is this tale about? The Lady Fox is a master of manipulation, and Pan Kotsky just follows her without any opposition. Why should he oppose her?! He has a place to stay and food to eat; somebody takes care of him and makes decisions for him. He is a man, a ‘patriarch’, and as such, even if he is a fake one, he still deserves special treatment. The Lady Fox behaves like a ‘traditional’ wife: it’s better to be married to somebody than to be a single woman, even if you are perfectly self-sufficient and intelligent enough to live alone. But she uses her husband for her own purposes – to scare away other men and to establish her own social status.

Pan Kotsky Hnizdovsky
Pan Kotsky and Lady Fox as seen by J. Hnizdovsky.  Reproduced in Ukrainian folk tales, translated by Marie Halun Bloch (London, 1964). X.990/127

A conwoman and a conman, sly, dishonest and manipulative? Yes! In real life characters like them often succeed beautifully. The Lady Fox had her ‘LOL’ moment, and she and her husband do not seem to be punished in this tale for what they’ve done. They are the winners. It is a story of what the French call ‘être et paraître’, ‘to be and to appear’. A good image is more effective than actual status: fake it until you make it! It’s perfectly understandable in our own era of Instagram domination.

But we can see a different interpretation here, from Pan Kotsky’s point of view. Even if you are old and apparently useless, do not give up! You may still get a second chance. Maintain a positive attitude in life, stay open to opportunities…

The tale of Pan Kotsky inspired the Ukrainian composer Mykola Lysenko to compose an opera of the same title in 1891, and the writer Borys Hrinchenko  to write a version of the tale in 1904. In 1969 an animated film of the story, The Scary Creature, was created by a Kyiv animation studio - and many Ukrainian children are lucky enough to see Pan Kotsky on the stage!

Stamp_of_Ukraine_Mi521 (1)
Postal stamp of Ukraine from 2002 depicting Pan Kotsky (From Wikimedia Commons

Olena Yashchuk Codet, Artist, Author, Cultural Events Organiser, The creator of Katou-Matou Cat character

07 February 2018

Exporting the Animals’ Revolt: Kostamorov - Reymont - Orwell

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People say that there are only 3? (7? 11?) basic plots in the whole of world literature. Goethe claimed it was 36, but apparently he nicked the idea from a guy named Gozzi. I suspect the exact number will be argued as long as people tell stories but they can spin yarns of such striking likeness it makes one wonder how these plots travel, cropping up in different times and places, in seemingly disparate worlds.

Orwell’s Animal Farm is a good case in point. As discussed in two previous blog posts, for close on 60 years it was the prime example of a political allegory using the ancient form of animal fable to comment on 20th century politics, but the rediscovery of two earlier stories of animal revolutions, Władysław Reymont’s Bunt, and Nikolai Kostomarov’s Skotskoi Bunt  in recent years has raised the question of whether the three stories share the same genetic lineage. If they do, the next question is: how did the original idea travel from Russia to Poland to Britain?

The first possible route that immediately comes to mind is via Sonia Brownell, “the girl from the Fiction Department”, Julia from 1984, and Orwell’s future wife. They met in the early 1940s at Horizon magazine where Sonia was working as a secretary to Cyril Connolly, but already had solid editorial experience as assistant to Eugene Vinaver, a Russian post-revolutionary émigré and another specialist in fairy tales, though in his case they were Malory’s Arthurian tales.

Eugene was the son of Maxim Vinaver who was born, raised and educated in Warsaw before making a career as a lawyer in St Petersburg. He played an active role in the Russian Revolution but escaped to France before it could swallow him up. While settled in St Petersburg, the Vinaver family would almost certainly have subscribed to the legendary magazine Niva, which published Kostomarov’s story in 1917, as no respectable bourgeois family could function in society without it.

Maxim Vinaver RB.31.c.577
Maxim Vinaver as a member of the first Russian Parliament in 1905, from Pamiatnaia knizhka pervoĭ Gosudarstvennoĭ dumy (St Petersburg, 1906). RB.31.c.577

It’s practically certain too that Maxim Vinaver knew Reymont’s work; after all they went to school in Warsaw at the same time, a fact which wouldn’t have been lost on Maxim when Reymont won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1925. As a sociologist and a lawyer fighting for Jewish rights, he must have been familiar with Reymont’s rural and industrial novels of the Russian Empire, Chłopi (‘The Peasants’; Warsaw, 1904; 12591.b.52.) and Ziemia Obiecana (‘The Promised Land’; Warsaw, 1899; 12591.cc.39) and also with his journalism dealing with the rights of Polish minorities subjected to heavy Russification in the Lublin Governorate after 1912. Maxim might have even read Bunt, and would have shared both its anti-revolutionary sentiment and its interest in folklore – he was a founding member of the Russian Jewish Ethnographical Society and apparently infected his son with his interests badly enough for the young Eugene to study mediaeval literature and eventually to become an academic specialist in fables.

Clearly both Vinavers had good first-hand knowledge of both the mechanics of revolution and the art of fairy tales. Just as Orwell had towards the end of his spell at the BBC when he was working on radio adaptations of fairy tales. At that time he had already met Sonia Brownell. Could it be it was then she passed Vinaver’s infection (in-fiction?) on to Orwell?

Another possible route from 1920s Poland to 1940s Britain for the story of animal revolt as a parable of Russian Revolution could be via Teresa Jeleńska, Animal Farm’s Polish translator (in fact the first translator of Animal Farm into any language). Jeleńska was an aristocratic socialite in pre-war Poland, moving in European literary and political circles, who found herself as a refugee in London in 1941. Working as a journalist she met Orwell and the two became friends.

TeresaJelenska2
Photo of Teresa Jeleńska (Rome, 1924) from:  Jaroslaw Iwaszkiewicz, Teresa Jeleńska, Konstanty A. Jeleński, Korespondencja (Warsaw, 2008). YF.2011.a.6916 

Jeleńska’s son, Konstanty, or Kot, later an influential essayist and translator of Witold Gombrowicz, after the war ran the Eastern European division of Congress for Cultural Freedom (its Manifesto was drafted by Arthur Koestler, a close friend of Orwell). In a letter to Jonathan Brent of 7 August 1985,  explaining the biographical introduction to his first collection of essays Zbiegi okoliczności (‘Coincidences’; Paris, 1982; X.950/16831), Konstanty recalled, “During my war years in England I discovered the Horizon and Partisan Review and met some English writers like Evelyn Waugh, John Betjeman, Cyril Connolly, Raymond Mortimer and George Orwell (a friend of my mother…)”. It must have been at the same time that he met and befriended Sonia Brownell, though their shared interest then was probably more in painting than literature.

KonstantyJelenski

Title-page and frontispiece of Konstanty A. Jeleński. Chwile  oderwane (Gdańsk, 2008). YF.2009.a.16241

Jeleńska’s name doesn’t register in any biography of Orwell as one of his friends but only as a translator. Yet their paths apparently crossed quite frequently (probably after Jeleńska and Kot moved to Scotland in 1942), and their friendship, or at least their working relationship, was close enough for Orwell to trust her with the typescript of Animal Farm before publication. They may have been also Orwell’s Polish liaison behind his piece in Tribune (Sept. 1944) on the Warsaw Rising, in which he denounced the West for not helping the insurgents and Stalin for holding up the offensive and waiting for the Uprising to bleed to death. They corresponded regularly until Orwell’s death in 1950.

It’s unlikely that the Jeleńskis would not have known of Reymont’s story but whether they talked about it with Orwell remains unknown, as does whether Sonia Brownell regaled Orwell with stories heard from Eugene Vinaver about his years in St Petersburg or his father’s knowledge of a fellow Varsovian’s work on revolution. The readily available literature is mute on the subject, perhaps the secrets are still buried in the archives? These are mostly uncharted waters but perhaps one day someone out there will map them out. Sails up.

 Wiesiek Powaga, Polish translator

26 January 2018

Another Revolt of the Animals: Nikolai Kostomarov’s ‘Skotskoi Bunt’

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As discussed in a previous blog post Władysław Reymont’s Bunt (‘The Revolt’) – a story of farm animals revolting against their master, first published in 1922 and re-discovered in Poland in 2004 – raised the question of whether and how this obscure story by a long-forgotten Polish writer could have inspired Orwell’s more famous treatment of the same theme in Animal Farm.  The recent rediscovery of  an even earlier story of an animals’ revolt on a farm in 19th-century Ukraine told as  political satire makes the question of how such strikingly similar plots travel, cropping up in such seemingly disparate worlds, even more fascinating.

Kostomarov portraitPortrait of Nikolai Kostomarov from Thomas M.Prymak,  Mykola Kostomarov: A Biography (Toronto, 1996). YC.1999.b.6922

Written in 1880 by Nikolai Kostomarov, the great Russian and Ukrainian historian, writer and ethnographer, the manuscript of Skotskoi Bunt (‘The Farm Animals’ Revolt’)  lay dormant long after the author’s death in 1885. It was finally published in 1917  in one of the most popular magazines of the time, Niva. The fact it was published just before October Revolution may explain why the story never gained much readership at the time. But it doesn’t mean it was not read by Niva’s devoted audience – even as some of them fled the Revolution, such as the Vinavers, Zinovieffs and Nabokovs, who would later be influential in the London literary and cultural scene.

KostomarovNIVAIssue4-371917

Cover of  issue 34-37 of Niva, September 1917, where Skotskoi bunt was first published. Available in our Reading Rooms via Electronic Resources

There are various ways in which the story might have travelled from revolutionary Petrograd via post-revolutionary Poland to post-Second World War Britain, each worth a story in its own right. But the interesting thing would be to compare these tales to see how much they have in common.

The basic plot and the main dramatis personae remain the same in all of them, though each story takes its own, different narrative route. Kostomarov’s rebellious animals rise against the landlord but never in fact gain control of the farm. The person in control turns out to be a trusty old farmhand, Omelko, who possesses the gift of understanding animals’ talk. While the master panics, running around with a rifle, Omelko jumps onto the wall and quickly outwits the leaders of the insurrection – the powerful bull and the beautiful stallion – by giving in to their fervent demands and granting them and their folk freedom. But soon some of the rebels are forced, shouted or talked into submission, with many confused beasts gratefully returning to the fold. When winter comes and the liberated “horns and hooves” run out of food, which for the most part they had destroyed themselves, the leaders are punished: the bull felled and sent to the slaughterhouse, and the horse neutered. Omelko is instructed to take every precaution to prevent the uprising ever happening again, and the world returns into the old rut.

In Reymont’s story there is also a character who understands animals’ talk, called Mute, but he is on their side. He too feels mistreated by his fellow men and joins the animals in their mass escape from man’s bondage. Later he and his friends fall out and go their separate ways. Mute dies alone in the wilderness, but the animals continue their exodus east, towards the promised land.

Orwell’s story has the line between man and beast clearly drawn, the two facing each other on opposing sides, as in Kostomarov’s, though never on  an equal footing as they are with Mute in Reymont’s story; that line later blurs as some of Orwell’s animals become all too human.

Although the stories have the same triumvirate (triumbrutat?) of leaders, the original stirrers among them are different. In Kostomarov’s it is the bull, so wilful and strong it has to be kept in fetters at all times and beaten into submission if need be; in Reymont’s it’s a dog named Rex, not so long ago the master’s favourite but through some unintended mischief fallen out of favour; in Orwell’s it’s Old Major, the wise boar, the philosopher of change. Their characters and motivations differ too – from the injured pride of a bull aware of his power, through the vengeful hurt of the rejected man’s best friend, to the wisdom of the old swine who dreams of a fairer world. Yet the way they inflame their brethren to rise and fight is the same – with long idealistic speeches. The most surprising one is given by Kostomarov’s brawny bull who sells pure Marx to his fellow bovines, calling on them to assert the ownership of their labour and the right to enjoy its fruit as they see fit. But perhaps it was not Marx but Blanqui,  since it is the original elite group of the revolutionaries, the cattle, who establish the dictatorship. Interestingly, this shows that in Kostomarov’s time, although the Age of Revolution had already dawned, the exact way of doing it was still being debated, the Blanquists and Marxists soon joined by the ever-growing number of theorists who claimed to have the know-how.

Kostomarov Oxen
‘Ploughing  in Ukraine’, painting by Leon Wyczółkowski, 1892. (Image from Wikimedia Commons. Also reproduced in Urszula Kozakowska-Zaucha, The Borderlands in Polish Art (Olszanica, 2009), LF.31.b.7294. )

Interestingly, only Kostomarov’s and Orwell’s stories try to set the animals’ rebellion on a proper ideological foundation. Reymont’s story, much closer to the actual Russian Revolution, emphasizes the psychology of hurt and vengeance which drives the rebellion to its tragic end. Orwell on the other hand concerns himself mostly with exposing the mechanics of power and how it corrupts, painfully knowledgeable as to how these things end. And while Kostomarov and Reymont stay with the simple formula of a cautionary tale – one funny in still a fairly theoretical argument, the other bleakly confirmed by eye-witnesses, Orwell upgrades it to a biting political satire more suited to the sophisticated 20th century reading public.

The shifts in emphasis in each story reflects the time in which it was written, their changing social and political context practically covering the entire Age of Revolution from the mid 19th to mid 20th century. For undoubtedly, the parable of the animals’ revolt as told by Kostomarov, Reymont and Orwell tells the same story of revolution - how the idea developed, how it came to pass and what happened to it when it actually won and died. And why.

 Wiesiek Powaga, Polish translator

 

17 January 2018

Władysław Reymont’s Revolt of the Animals

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A recent Europen Studies blog post by Masha Karp examined the publication history of George Orwell’s Animal Farm  in the languages of Eastern Europe. That the book has maintained its canonical status worldwide for over 70 years is proof of its universal truth. But as Orwell sat down to write his tale – a warning against the creeping advance of Soviet Communism based on his growing awareness of its brutal reality – was he aware he was not the first modern writer to use the allegory of an animals’ revolt to capture the mad logic of revolution?

ReymontBunt2004

Cover of a recent edition Władysław Reymont’s Bunt (Warsaw, 2004) 

The question has been bugging me since I discovered Władysław Reymont’s Bunt (‘Revolt’) when it came out in Poland in 2004. While growing up in communist Poland in the 1970s I read Orwell’s Animal Farm in a samizdat edition, and while well acquainted with the rest of Reymont’s oeuvre, which was compulsory reading at school as well as being widely popular through TV and film adaptations, I never heard – and I’m sure very few in Poland at the time did – of Bunt. The similarity to Animal Farm was obvious. And another striking thing was that both stories are told as cautionary tales. I was very surprised it took the book so long to resurface, especially when its lesson seemed past its sell-by date. But apparently that’s how things are with truths and lessons.

ReymontPortrait

Władysław Reymont. Portrait by by Jacek Malczewski, painted in 1905 when Reymont was acknowledged as Poland’s foremost novelist, author of The Peasants and The Promised Land, both sweeping panoramas of late 19th-century rural and industrial Poland. (Image from Wikimedia Commons);

Bunt is a story of a revolt among farm animals who work for their master and often love him but are spurned, ruthlessly exploited and cruelly beaten in return. The revolt is initially stirred up by the dog Rex who calls on animals to rise against the landlord and follow him to the land of justice and plenty for everyone, a land that lies somewhere in the east. Sadly, the poor beasts, worn out by the never-ending quest, eventually turn against their leader and plead with a gorilla, the nearest they can find to a human, to rule over them.

Of course the two stories are different, both in detail and in tone – one is bleakly tragic the other tragically funny, but the basic idea and the narrative mechanism that delivers the moral point is essentially the same – a parable of human ideals falling victim to animal instincts, a lesson revealing the inherent fault laying at the heart of a revolution, or indeed at the heart of all power and authority, which may change hands even from the oppressors to the oppressed but nevertheless remain the same mechanism of oppression, and there is no escape from it.

ReymontBuntBLcopyTitle-page of Bunt (Warsaw, 1924). YF.2018.a.342

Originally Bunt appeared in the Polish weekly Tygodnik Ilustrowany (Mic.A.4839-4844) in 1922, and then in book form in 1924, the year of Reymont’s Nobel Prize for Literature, and just before his untimely death at 58. Despite being one of the first literary echoes of the Russian Revolution, it barely registered on the critical circuit. Reymont’s great champion, his German translator Jan Kaczkowski, a Polish diplomat hiding under the pen-name Jean Paul d’Ardeschah, felt the book, being topical as well as universal, deserved a better fate. He managed to place Bunt with a Swiss publisher in 1926 as Die Empörung: eine Geschichte vom Aufstand der Tiere. Later, after being transferred by the Polish Foreign Office to Holland, Kaczkowski instigated and oversaw a Dutch publication in 1928 as De Rebellie. That was the last the world heard of Reymont’s Bunt.

Reymont BuntGermanedition

 Cover of a modern edition of Die Empörung (Frankfurt am Main, 2017). Awaiting shelfmark

For a long while I was combing through Orwell’s biographies looking for ways he might have come into contact with Reymont’s story. Was he familiar with Reymont as a Nobel Prize winner? Could translations of Bunt have passed through his hands while he was working at Booklover’s Corner? Orwell did not speak German or Dutch, and the story was not translated into French, a foreign language Orwell knew – after all he read Zamyatin’s We  in French translation.

Another possibility were his friends who did read German – or Dutch or Polish – who were also interested in Eastern European literature and Russian Revolution. They may have discussed Reymont and brought up the story as part of the revolutionary lore and connected it with Orwell’s interest in fairy tales, which he had apparently developed during his time at BBC, just before he started working on Animal Farm. Could it be his publisher friends, Victor Gollancz or Fredric Warburg? The German-born Tysco Fyvel or the Swiss-born Jon Kimche with whom he worked at the Booklover’s Corner? Or was it Arthur Koestler with whom he discussed extensively how revolutionary logic worked? Perhaps someone – a Pole? – he had met in Spain? Perhaps, but I haven’t found a direct link yet.

And then my detective work suffered an unexpected twist. Discussing it with my friends at the BL one of them told me of another tale about an animals’ revolt, this time Russian, and written years before Bunt – in 1880 in fact! Following the new lead I discovered that Nikolai Kostomarov’s Skotskoi Bunt (‘The Revolt of Farm Animals’) was indeed written in 1880 but published only posthumously in 1917, in the popular magazine Niva, just a few issues before October Revolution consigned it forever to history. How come nobody knew of this story for so long? Could Reymont possibly have known of it and how? Could it be it was in fact Kostomarov’s story that seeped into revolutionary lore and inspired both Reymont and Orwell? It could be. But that’s another story. Or is it? Watch this space.

Wiesiek Powaga, Polish translator.
Wiesek’s most recent translation ‘Inside Red Spain’ by Ksawery Pruszynski, appeared in Pete Ayrton's anthology No pasaran! Writings from the Spanish Civil War (London, 2016; YC.2016.a.6057)

 

19 November 2015

From Poetry to Songs: Hare, Rabbit and Sirens in Apollinaire’s Bestiary

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Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918) moved to Paris and started publishing poems, articles and art reviews in the 1900s. He was close to artists like Pablo Picasso, André Derain, Maurice de Vlaminck or le Douanier Rousseau. In 1911, he published a deluxe edition of his Bestiaire, in 120 copies, composed of 30 poems illustrated with engravings by Raoul Dufy. 18 of these poems had previously appeared in 1908 in the journal La Phalange, under the title ‘La marchande des quatre saisons ou le Bestiaire mondain’.

Mediaeval interest in bestiaries often resided less in the naturalistic and physical descriptions of the animals and their behaviour, often fanciful, than on their symbolic and allegorical level. Although Apollinaire does not put the emphasis on the didactic aspect of the bestiary, his work is infused with both Classical and Biblical or religious references. The poet, who chose his pseudonym after Apollo, God of Music and Poetry, gave his 1911 Bestiary, the subtitle ‘Cortege d’Orphée’. The collection of poems is introduced and guided by the character of Orpheus, emblem of the poet himself, who addresses directly the reader, drawing his attention to the text, the images, and the animals, in four poems introducing and accompanying the collection. The poet plays on the concept of the animal series and on the combination of text and engravings. He accentuates the brevity of each entry, as each poem is only formed of a quatrain.

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The Hare, from Guillaume Apollinaire, Le bestiaire, ou Cortège d’Orphée, illustrated with woodcuts by Raoul Dufy (New York, 1977), British Library LR.430.e.10

In medieval bestiaries, and at least since Isidore of Seville, the hare is characterised by its velocity, associated with timidity and fearfulness, while the rabbit is known both for its fertility and the fact that it is hunted by dogs. In Raoul Dufy’s engraving, a hare bouncing in an open field appears encircled in a medallion formed by a horn, while the frame is completed with gun and whip and with two hunting dogs. In Apollinaire’s poem, both the hare and the rabbit are associated with love, sexual intercourse and fertility. The poem is formulated as an advice to the reader, who should not be like the hare and the lover, both ‘lascif[s] et peureux’, but should aim to reach the fertility and productivity of the doe, transposed in the field of imagination and intellectual creativity: ‘Mais que toujours ton cerveau soit / La hase pleine qui concoit’.

As for the rabbit, it is presented by Apollinaire as a symbol for the beloved, and the archaic or literary use of the French word  ‘connin’ for rabbit, reminds us of the medieval association of the animal with the female organ (‘con’), in the context of the love chase, an aspect often playfully illustrated in manuscript marginalia (as in this example).

3Carte_du_tendre_300dpiFrançois Chauveau, ‘Carte du Tendre’,  from Madeleine de Scudéry, Clélie, Histoire romaine, première partie (Paris 1654) Paris, BNF, Cartes et Plans, GE F PIECE- 11777

The use of allegory in the bestiary is reinforced in ‘Le Lapin’ by Apollinaire’s reference to the 17th century engraving of the ‘Carte du Tendre’. In La Clélie, a romantic novel by Madame de Scudéry, this allegorical map provides a topographical representation of the country or journey of love with all its delights and pitfalls. In the 1911 Bestiaire, Dufy’s engraving shows the rabbit in front of a peaceful hilly countryside with plants and trees and a church in the background (below).

4lapina

The only imaginary creature retained by Apollinaire is the siren, actually presented as a group: ‘les Sirènes’. They are preceded by a representation of Orpheus accompanied by a warning against flying Sirens (‘volantes Sirènes’, ‘oiseaux maudits’) and their deadly songs. In antiquity, they were half women half birds, reputed to charm sailors with their songs and lull them into sleep before killing them, but in the middle ages, sirens also started to be depicted and pictured as women with a fish tail.

  5Sloane 278 f.47 sirenlg
Mediaeval Siren and Onocentaur (man/donkey hybrid), Bestiary,  British Library MS Sloane 278. f. 147

The chant of Apollinaire’s Sirens can be contrasted with that of the poet, whose love and song has the power to raise Eurydice from the dead, or that of the pure and sexless angels in Paradise.  In both the Orpheus and the Sirens’ engravings, the sirens bear female heads and breasts, but also wings and lion arms, their body ending in a tripartite fish tail in the second engraving. This maritime aspect is highlighted in the corresponding poem, where the enticing song of the temptresses gives way to wails founded in tediousness (‘ennui’).

 
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Sirens from Apollinaire's Bestiaire

The position of the poet himself becomes ambiguous when his identification with Orpheus leads to an association with the sirens, as he depicts himself as the sea, full of ‘vaissaux chantants’ and ‘voix machinées’, in a curious conflagration of the tricky and enticing sirens and the ships and crews which become their victims. While in Orpheus’ poem, death was associated with the sirens’ songs, in the sirens’ verses, age may account for the voices haunting the poet’s mind, and his experience may be related to the use and mastery of crafty devices in the range of his poetical work.

 
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Orpheus from Apollinaire’s Bestiaire

After the First World War, without consultation, both Louis Durey  and Francis Poulenc, members of the Groupe des six  (a group of composers close to the poetic avant-garde circles, Jean Cocteau in particular) set Apollinaire’s Bestiaire  to music. In 1919, Durey produced melodies for song and piano for the 26 animal poems of the Bestiaire (Music Collections G.1270.b.(16.)), while the four Orpheus sections remained spoken. A later version, produced in 1958, is set for voice and orchestra. Poulenc set 12 of Apollinaire’s poems to music, although following Georges Auric’s advice, he finally retained only six of them: Le Dromadaire, La Chèvre du Tibet, La Sauterelle, Le Dauphin, L’Ecrevisse and La Carpe, a work which gave him notoriety and had a long lasting success (Music Collections H.1846.kk.(2.)).

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Record sleeve showing Le groupe des six (Le chant du monde, 1968); the recording includes Poulenc’s
Bestiaire, sung by Irène Joachim

Later musical adaptations include Claude Ballif’s  30 poems for soprano or baritone and piano (1945-1948), Jean Absil’s Cinq petites pièces pour quatuor vocal mixte (1964), Alan Mills’ 6 poems for baritone and piano (1985) , John Carbon’s 3 poems for soprano, horn, cello and piano (2002), and Régis Campo’s 11 poems for soprano and orchestra (2008). The British Library Sound Archive holds many audio recordings of Poulenc’s songs (from the ‘Groupe des six’ to contemporary adaptations), several recordings of Durey’s Bestiaire and one of Absil’s, recorded by the Chorale universitaire de Grenoble, which can be listened to in the British Library Reading Rooms.

Irène Fabry-Tehranchi, Curator, Romance Collections

References / further reading

Francis Steegmuller, Apollinaire: Poet among the Painters (London, 1963).

David Badke, The Medieval Bestiary: Animals in the Middle Ages  (online resource)

Debra Hassig, Medieval Bestiaries: Text, Image, Ideology (Cambridge, 1995). YC.1996.b.2164

Christian Heck and Cordonnier Rémy. Le bestiaire médiéval : l'animal dans les manuscrits enluminés (Paris, 2011) LF.31.b.9154

Francis Klingender, Animals in Art and Thought to the End of the Middle Ages, ed. by Evelyn Antal and John Harthan (London, 1971). X.322/1206.

L'humain et l'animal dans la France médiévale (XIIe-XVe s.) = Human and animal in medieval France (12th-15th c.), sous la direction d'Irène Fabry-Tehranchi et Anna Russakoff. (Amsterdam, 2014)  YF.2014.a.22449

 

30 October 2015

The ‘Esbatement moral des animaux’ : a 16th century French adaptation of Aesopian fables and their illustration

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The current Animal Tales exhibition includes a copy of the Esbatement moral, Des animaux (British Library C.125.d.23), an anonymous French verse adaptation of Aesop’s fables in sonnet form. It was published in Antwerp in 1578 by the engraver Philippe Galle (1537-1612). Little can be inferred about the identity of the anonymous author, who claims to be ‘tout nouveau en la langue Françoise’, apart from the dedication to Charles de Croÿ and his connections with Philippe Galle himself  and Pierre Heyns, writer of the verse preface, and part of the community of Antwerp humanists. Heyns’s preface refers to ‘des Heroiques vers / En Sonets bien troussez... / A Londres entonnez et finiz en Anvers’, pointing to a cultural relation between Flanders and England, which is also relevant to the illustrator, Marcus Gheeraerts the Elder.

 01 Esbatement
Esbatement moral des animaux
(Antwerp, 1578); image from a copy in the Bibliothèque nationale de France, RES P-YE-550, available online via Gallica

This work shows the interest in Aesopian fables within Flemish humanistic circles in the Renaissance. It expresses the desire to combine classical wisdom with the Christian message, using text and images to support this didactic purpose.

The title of the collection, ‘Esbatement moral’, or ‘moral entertainment’, covers the double ambition of the fables, docere et placere, to instruct and to please. Staging animals to represent human behaviours, foibles and virtues, is part of the appeal of these short didactic tales. The preface immediately plays on this double register, as man is characterised first by religion and second by the Aristotelian category of animal rationabile, as opposed to that of bestia. Interestingly, no reference is made to Aesop, either in the title or in the introduction: at the bottom of the frontispiece, a quotation from Psalm 148 exhorts animals to praise the Lord. The purpose of the book is clearly the didactic dissemination of a Christian moral.

The frontispiece shows animals on a theatrical stage in front of a curtain while men and women are attending the performance. Although the animals are represented in a naturalistic manner, the cushion used as seat by the lion, king of the animals and the fool’s outfit worn by the monkey contribute to their anthropomorphism. Animals are privileged actors on the stage of the theatrum mundi: a century later, Jean de La Fontaine presents his collection of fables as ‘Une ample comédie à cent actes divers, / Et dont la scène est l’univers’ (Fables, V, 1, 1668).

Around the central illustration, medallions containing portraits of individual animals are interspersed with Latin inscriptions allowing the reader to identify the protagonists of specific biblical or classical stories (Eve and the serpent, Balaam’s ass, the speaking dog of Tarquin the Proud...). This sets up a biblical and classical cultural horizon for this collection of fables, even if the core language of the collection is not Latin but French.

02 Esbatement
Dedication of the Esbatement moral des animaux, f. A2.

The Esbatement is dedicated to Charles III de Croÿ, prince de Chimay (1560-1612), a keen collector of books and artworks. The author highlights his religious and educational purpose: in his dedication, the expected association of fables with oral tales and classical fiction, gives way to references to the Gospel and the Holy Writ, mentioning ‘figures’, ‘similitudes’ and ‘paraboles’ as means to access the truth, ‘vive verite’.

The Aesopian sonnets are introduced by Pierre Heyns (1537-1598), who wrote and translated several didactic and pedagogical works. His  preface is directed to the ‘Spectateur et Lecteur’, highlighting the essential combination of the visual and textual aspects of the book.

03 EsbatementVerse preface by Pierre Heyns, from Esbatement moral des animaux, f. A2v

The author also considers the images as essential: his dedication mentions ‘plusieurs nouvelles figures... et divers passages de l’Escriture Sainte, accommodés aux figures et sonets...’. For the author, the biblical quotations seem as important as the fable itself.

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Edewaerd de Dene, De warachtighe fabulen der dieren (Bruges, 1567). Image from the Bibliothèque nationale de France copy , RES-YI-19, via Gallica

The artist, Marcus Gheeraerts the Elder, had illustrated a collection of Aesopian fables, De warachtighe fabulen der dieren (‘True animal fables’), translated into Dutch by Edewaerd de Dene (British Library 640.l.22 is a collection of engravings from this edition). The Dutch edition has a different frontispiece (above) and is introduced by the engraver and printer Hubert Goltz.

A preface to De warachtighe fabulen… by Lucas d’Heere, a Flemish painter, poet and writer was used as model for Pierre Heyns’s foreword to the French edition. The 1578 Esbatement des animaux also reused 107 etchings from this edition, with 18 additional illustrations, also by Gheeraerts.

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Durch version of   ‘The Lion and the Mouse’, from De warachtighe fabulen der dieren, ff. 202-203.

In the Flemish copy (above), the illustration of ‘The Lion and the Mouse’ features on the left page, preceded by a motto and followed by two Bible quotations: one from Proverbs 27, and the other from Ecclesiastes 3 (the choice of quotations in the French version is different). The Dutch fable is also versified, but in alexandrines, and is longer. The moral is set distinctively from the narration by the use of an indented paragraph and of italics, and it is preceded by a pointing hand, a manicula.

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French version of  ‘The Lion and the Mouse’, from Esbatement moral des animaux, ff. 11v-12.

In ‘Du Lion et le Rat’, the verse fable, placed on the left page, faces an etching on the right page, framed by a devise on top (‘Chascun peut faire recompense’) and a Bible quotation at the bottom (Ecclus. 12:1,2). In the illustration of ‘the Lion and the Mouse’, the lion is depicted with a lot of movement and vivacity, at the forefront of the image: he is trying to untangle himself from the net wrapped around him. He stands on his back legs, tail up, head contorted and expressing anguish, with an open jaw which reveals his tongue and teeth, and an aggrieved look. His confusion contrasts with the calm of the mouse in the bottom left of the image, who starts biting into the thread.

The sonnets follow the rhyme scheme set up by the French poet Clément Marot (1496-1544): two quatrains of alexandrines in enclosed rhymes (abba) followed by a couplet (cc) and a last quatrain of enclosed rhymes (deed). However, visually and syntactically, the poem appears as a sequence of two quatrains and two tercets, in the tradition of the Italian or Petrarchan sonnet. The last tercet is an ideal location for the moral of the fable, which echoes the two sentential statements on the facing page.

This collection of Aesopian fables in French can appeal to different kinds of audience: readers will enjoy this poetical rewriting of the fables in the short sonnet form, but the author first puts the emphasis on the moral and Christian instruction they provide, along with the lively illustrations which will appeal to both younger and older readers.

Irène Fabry-Tehranchi, Curator, Romance Collections

References / further reading:

Edward Hodnett, Marcus Gheeraerts the Elder of Bruges, London, and Antwerp (Utrecht, 1971) X.421/5858.

Hollstein’s Dutch & Flemish etchings, engravings and woodcuts (1450 - 1700) (Rotterdam;  Amsterdam, 1949-2001) L.R.419.bb.2  

Manfred Stefan Sellink, Philips Galle (1537-1612) : engraver and print publisher in Haarlem and Antwerp (Rotterdam, 2000) YA.1999.b.4195

 

 

26 October 2015

The Tale of Mélusine

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The ongoing exhibition in the British Library’s front hall, Animal Tales brought to mind one tale which holds particular resonance on the theme of allegory, which is so expertly dealt with in the exhibition.  This tale, however, is beyond the remit of the exhibition because it deals with mythological creatures.

The tale in question is the tale of Mélusine. It stands as a clear signpost in the transition which marks the intersection between myth and historicity. At the turn of the 14th century to the 15th century two versions of the legend of Mélusine appeared the first by Jean d’Arras (1393-1394), with another penned by Coudrette sometime in the opening years of the 15th century. This tale is about one of the most compelling female characters in medieval French fiction. It most likely draws on earlier myths dating back to Gallo-Roman and Celtic prototypes. Even the name ‘Fair Melusina’ may derive from the same ancient Gaulish root for the fair beings such as mermaids, water sprites, and forest nymphs.

The intriguing story tells or the beautiful Mélusine, the result of the marriage of the King of Scotland and his fairy wife. In her youth Mélusine entombed her father in a mountain leaving her mother heartbroken. The deed displeased her mother and as punishment Mélusine was condemned to transform into a serpent from the waist down every Saturday.

Melusine 12430 m 2  vol 7
Mélusine, from a 19th-century edition of the version by Jean d’Arras (Paris, 1859) British Library 12430.m.2. [vol. 7]

Archetypally for late medieval narrative, while out hunting in the forests (typically sites for magical encounters in fairy stories) of the Ardennes, Raymond, Lord of Forez in Poitou, a poor but noble gentleman, meets Mélusine. She was sitting beside a fountain in “glimmering white dresses, with long waving golden hair, and faces of inexpressible beauty”.  In discovering Mélusine by a watersource, this indicates a connection between her and the supernatural world. Raymond, so taken by her beauty and her amiable manners, falls totally in love with her. Mélusine agrees to marry Raymond, but on the condition he vows not to attempt to see her on Saturday when she will go into seclusion.   

Melusine Bathing C8 i 5
Mélusine bathing in secret, woodcut from Dis ouentürlich buch bewiset wie von einer frauwen genantt Melusina ... ([Strassburg, ca 1477]) C.8.i.5.

Over the following years under Mélusine’s direction the region of Poitou, situated in the westerly central France around modern day Poitiers, blossomed; forests were cleared, the land developed for agriculture and the planting of crops. She oversaw the building of cities and castles including her own seat, the Château de Lusignan. Here we see the connection between Mélusine, with her fae heritage, and the growing prosperity and fertility of the region of Poitou is indicative and the foundations of our modern construct of the benevolent fairy godmother. 

During this time of plenty she bore Raymond ten sons. Some became Kings while others became tyrants. Some were marked with strange signs and deformities because of their mixed heritage. Here the elements of myth and folklore are blended with epic to align the supernatural founder of the dynasty of Lusignan with the aspirations of late feudal society. By weaving the mythology of the supernatural from the folklore tradition into the lineage the myths and the powers therein can be ascribed to a family name, adding glamour and legitimacy.  

Melusine Frontispiece C97 bb 30
Title-page of Mélusine (Paris, 1530) C.97.bb.30.

With such ambivalence about Mélusine’s background and her activities on a Saturday tensions arose, possibly suspicsions of infidelity were planted in Raymond’s mind. Ultimately he was overcome with curiosity. Spying through the keyhole at Mélusine’s bizarre metamorphosis, Raymond was astonished to see her lower part of body take on serpentine qualities. His transgression was only apparent to her when later he called her a “serpent”. This results in Mélusine transforming in to the shape of a winged dragon and flying off. The mythology of a fairy bride whose body is not to be looked on and who. when the husband transgresses, immediately vanishes is common enough in folklore across a number of cultures. 

Melusine takes flight C8 i 5
Mélusine takes flight, from Dis ouentürlich buch …

It was said that Mélusine would return periodically to keep watch over her sons, flying around the castle crying mournfully. In parts of Europe to speak of the whining of Mélusine,“often refers to the sound the wind makes swirling around the chimney breast”.

In terms of common depictions of Mélusine, the siren on the Starbucks logo has been likened and contrasted with a Mélusine. This link via a coffee shop franchise brings us back to Animal Tales, where a copy of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick is on display. The character of Starbuck in Moby Dick, of course, lent his name to the coffee shops.

Jeremy Jenkins, Curator Emerging Media, Contemporary British Collections

References/further reading:

Jean D’Arras, Melusine (London 1895) 3642.97500 Vol.68.

Women, Gender in Medieval Europe: An Encyclopaedia, Editor Margeret Schaus  (London 2006) HLR 305.409  

Women in the Middle Ages: An Encyclopaedia, Vol.II, Editors: Katharina M. Wilson & Nadia Margolis (London, 2004)  HLR 305.409

Jacob Grimm, Teutonic Mythology Vol.I  (London, 1900) HLR 293.13

Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology & Legend, Editor Maria Leach  (New York, 1972) HLR 398.03

S. Baring-Gould, Curious Myths of the Middle Ages (London, 1892) 12431.bb.17.

Ann Rippin, "Space, place and the colonies: re‐reading the Starbucks' story", Critical perspectives on international business, Vol. 3 Iss: 2 2007, pp.136-149.  E-Resources.

 

 

19 October 2015

The Goats that Got Away

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As one of the co-curators for our current Animal Tales exhibition, one of the most enjoyable parts of the process was selecting the exhibits.  An opportunity to spend time exploring the collections, to revisit the known but also to make new discoveries, is a stimulating part of the work.  One of the frustrations was that, with such a broad subject area, we were not able to include all the items we might have liked.  There were inevitably some that ‘got away’. One such, a personal childhood favourite, was the story of the Three Billy-Goats Gruff. It comes from the compendium of Norwegian folk tales collected and edited by Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe in the 19th century.  These tales are much-loved classics in Norway, printed in many editions over the years. 

Billy Goats Gruff Folkeeventyr cover                     Detail from the cover of the 1874 edition of Norske Folke-Eventyr (Christiania [Oslo], 1874) 12430.dd.6                 

The story’s original Norwegian title in full (a bit less snappy than the English one we know) was De tre Bukkene Bruse, som skulde gaa til Sæters og gjøre seg fede which roughly translates as ‘The three Billy-Goats Gruff who were going to mountain pastures to fatten themselves up’.  ‘Bruse’, which is the name of the goats, was translated as ‘Gruff’ in the first English version, and this translation has stuck ever since but in fact the word refers to the hairy tuft on a goat’s forehead, as shown on the splendidly regal goat below, illustrated by Otto Sinding  in an 1896 edition. 

Billy Goats Gruff GoatIllustration from Norske Folke- og Huldre-Eventyr  (Copenhagen, 1896) 12431.f.44.  

The story was originally published in Christiania (as Oslo was called at that time) in 1843 in the third of four parts of Norske Folkeeventyr (Norwegian folk tales). 

The first English translation came in 1859 in Popular Tales from the Norse by G. W. Dasent.  It was also included in the shorter, illustrated edition in 1862, A Selection from the Norse Tales for the use of children.  From an introductory note in this edition it becomes clear that the subtitle ‘for the use of children’ has been very deliberately chosen. Dasent muses regretfully  that ‘this selection has been made to meet the scruples of those good people who thought some of The Norse Tales too outspoken for their children’. Luckily for us, The Three Billy Goats Gruff was not one of those considered unsuitable for Victorian tastes and, unlike most of the stories in the collection, it has continued to enjoy popularity in this country down to the present day. 

Billy Goats Gruff Dasent                   Illustration from A Selection from the Norse tales for the use of children  (Edinburgh, 1862) 12431.d.29.

Like many of the items featured in Animal Tales, this is a story about animals that allows the teller and the listener to explore some very human situations and emotions. The Three Billy Goats Gruff has echoes of other European folk tales of the time on a very similar theme, such as the Grimm brothers’ Little Red Riding Hood: in essence it is the story of a journey during which the protagonists pass from danger to safety. 

Billy Goats Gruff Troll                                             Illustration from Norske Folke- og Huldre-Eventyr  (12431.f.44)  

And the story itself?  The action unfolds as follows: three goats of different sizes, small, medium and large, have to cross a bridge on their way to pasture.  Under the bridge lurks a fearsome troll intent on gobbling them up.  The first two goats get over by promising bigger goats to come.  The final, largest, goat confronts the troll and sees him off in style, with the following words (in Dasent’s lively translation):

Well, come along! I’ve got two spears,
And I’ll poke your eyeballs out at your ears;
I’ve got besides two curling stones,
And I’ll crush you to bits, body and bones

So what made the story so appealing to my younger self?  In part it was the satisfaction of the goats outwitting the troll, in part it was the structure of the plot, simple, but with clever use of repetition (the presence of ‘three’ being a recognised feature of folk tales).  I remember too what fun it was to hear the story being read aloud. This is, after all, a story that was preserved for many years as part of an oral tradition.  The narrator can do a lot with the goats’ voices which are described as rising in volume according to the size of the goat. Stamping one’s feet to echo the sound of the goats tramping over the bridge and joining in with the roar of the troll, brings a mounting intensity to the story which culminates in the thrill of the troll’s resounding defeat!

Barbara Hawes, Curator Germanic Collections