THE BRITISH LIBRARY

European studies blog

39 posts categorized "Animals"

01 June 2018

Silver Darlings, Icelandic Gold: Herring in the Northern Imagination

Add comment

It’s been food season for the last 2 months at the British Library and sweeping through the Nordic collections with a gastronomic lens, there is of course only one thing on the menu: herring. The herring has formed the backbone of societies over the ages and, as Jonathan Meades says in his jaunt across the Baltic coast of continental Europe, Magnetic North, the herring’s own backbone has formed an even more literal foundation:

When excavations are made in Flanders for roads and railways, the bones of men slaughtered in the First World War constitute the first stratum that the diggers encounter. Further down are multitudinous herring skeletons. The people of Arras ate between two and three million herrings per year. That’s two to three hundred per every person.

From the material ubiquity of herring springs the idea or symbol of herring; it is not only the most important driver of socio-historical and political in the story of Northern Europe but it also stands for the cultural identity of the North.

Clupea Harengus - Skandinaviens Fiskar
The Herring — Clupea Harengus — in Bengt Fredrik Fries et al. A History of Scandinavian Fishes vol. 2 (Stockholm, 1895), J/7290.k.29
.

Herring has really always been fished, well, ‘since the Mesolithic era but commercial fisheries for these species developed only in the Middle Ages’ (Holm, p. 19). Its abundance in the marine area stretching from the Baltic across the North Sea and to the Atlantic around Iceland made it a vital commodity traded and controlled by various powers across the centuries. Abundance may be an understatement if we take Saxo Grammaticus’s words at face value in the Gesta Danorum, first written around 1204. Writing of the sound between Zealand and Scania, he notes: ‘the whole sound contains such plentiful shoals that sometimes boats striking them have difficulty in rowing clear and no fishing-gear but the hands is needed to take them.’ In fact, one possible etymological root for the word herring is from the Germanic Heer (army, troops) but the etymology of the common name for Clupea harengus is full of red herr… I won’t go there.

Olaus Magnus 152.e.9.
Herring-fishing in Scania, woodcut from Olaus Magnus, Historia de gentibus septentrionalibus, (Rome, 1555) 152.e.9.

It goes without saying then that with such a central presence in Northern life the herring is equally abundant in the Northern literary and artistic imagination. A scan of the British Library catalogue reveals a huge number of historical surveys, reports on methods of preservation, regional studies of the impact of fishing, but also such oddities (or not) as an announcement in 1785 by the Swedish Academy pertaining to, in the gloss provided by the BL’s Scandinavian Short-Title Catalogue of works published before 1801, ‘roof slates and herring fisheries’ (British Library, Ac.1070/20), or even the very recent (anti-)comic book by Antti and Esa Hakala, Sven’s Herring, or their graphic novel Lord of Herrings (2017).

Hakala combined
Exhaustive and exhausting jokes about herring in Anti and Esa Hakala, Sven’s Herring ([Great Britain], 2014) YKL.2016.b.5527

Douglas S. Murray’s comprehensive Herring Tales: how the silver darlings shaped human taste and history (London, 2015; DRT ELD.DS.80434) points us in the direction of a museum on the topic, “one of the finest of its kind”, namely the Herring Era Museum in Siglufjörður on the Northern coast of Iceland, once the bustling centre of herring fishing and processing in the country, the ‘Atlantic Klondike’ of the early 20th century. Murray sees in this unique museum a reminder of “the fact that without herring, Iceland – like so many other places on the edge of Norway, Scotland and elsewhere – would not have possessed a modern society.” The museum itself is fully aware of the historical, literary, artistic, film and musical impact of herring, listing numerous sources that show the expanse of work that sparkles herring-silver.

Gunnlaugur Blöndal - The Herring Worker
The lyrical beauty of ‘Icelandic gold’ in paintings by Gunnlaugur Blöndal. Above: ‘The Herring Worker’ (1934); below: ‘Herring Packers’ (1935-1940), reproduced in Gunnlaugur Blöndal (Reykjavik, 1963), Cup.20.w.13

Gunnlaugur Blöndal - Herring Packers

A three-volume history of herring in Iceland, Silfur hafsins: gull ĺslands: síldarsaga ĺslendiga (‘Silver of the sea: Iceland’s gold: the history of herring in Iceland’; Reykjavik, 2007; YF.2014.b.1514) has appeared in the last decade, adorned with epigraphs by the great Nobel Prize winner and herring champion Halldór Laxness. All three epigraphs are from Laxness’s 1972 Guðsgjafaþula (Reykjavik, 1972; X.989/30910.), which loosely translates as ‘The Song of God’s Gifts’—the book has not been translated into English. “God’s gifts” is another euphemism for the now not-so-humble herring and Laxness does not shy away from elevating them to an object of the aesthetic sublime:

‘Norðurlandssíldin er aðalborin skepna bæði að fegurð og vitsmunum, kanski það dásamlegasta sem guð hefur skapað.’
[The Scandinavian herring is a creature noble-born to beauty and wisdom, perhaps the most wonderful thing God has created]

And,

‘… þá munu margir men tala að þessi fagri fiskur hafi verið sannkölluð dýrðargjöf, já ein sú mesta sem himnafaðirinn hefur gefið þessari þjóð.’
[… then many will say that this beautiful fish has been the true glory, yes, one of the greatest things the Heavenly Father has given this nation.]

Guðsgjafaþula, about the fate of a fishing community who have entrusted their lot to a brilliant herring speculator, took as its source material the first history of herring in Iceland written by Matthías Þórdarson from Móar in 1934. The latter was the great-grandfather of contemporary Icelandic great, Sjón, who in turn used his ancestor as a model for the protagonist of the novel Argóarflísin (‘The Whispering Muse’; Reykjavik, 2005;YF.2007.a.24658). In Sjón’s novel we are introduced to Valdimar Haraldsson, who in 1933 published Memoirs of a Herring Inspector, immediately evoking Laxness and Þórdarson before him. One of Haraldsson’s early articles from his journal Fisk og Kultur, to which he refers at length at the beginning, espouses the link between fish consumption and Nordic racial superiority:

It is our belief that the Nordic race, which has fished off the maritime coast for countless generations and thus enjoyed a staple diet of seafood, owes its physical and intellectual prowess above all to this type of nutrition, and that the Nordic race is for this reason superior in vigour and attainments to other races that have not enjoyed such ease of access to the riches of the ocean.

The triumphal racialist rhetoric is antiquated and self-undermining in the context of the novel but the year of publication of Haraldsson’s memoirs is not lost on the reader. God’s gifts make for a chosen people it seems. At the same time, the maritime Nordic people is deliberately drawn in stark contrast to the ‘blood and soil’ rhetoric of continental fascism. Sjón’s novel is not the only place where fish and racial politics are brought into conversation. For the other notable example, we need to travel back to the Baltic and the shores of Danzig as imagined and lived by Günter Grass. But that is for another post…

Pardaad Chamsaz, Curator, Germanic Collections

References and further reading:

Saxo Grammaticus, The History of the Danes (vol. 1) [translated from the Latin by Peter Fisher] (Cambridge; New Jersey, 1979) X.800/28439

 Halldór Laxness, Brekkukotsannáll (Reykavik, 1957/1973) X.909/37610. (English translation by Magnus Magnusson, The Fish can Sing (London, 2000) H.2000/2872)

Sjón, The Whispering Muse [translated by Victoria Cribb] (London, 2012) H.2013/.5955

James H. Barrett and David C. Orton (eds.), Cod and Herring: The archaeology and history of medieval seas fishing (Oxford; Philadelphia, 2016), YC.2017.b.2914; especially the essay by Paul Holm, ‘Commercial Sea Fisheries in the Baltic Region c. AD 1000-1600’ 

 

16 March 2018

The Russian Love Affair with the Arabian Horse

Add comment

The title does not refer to the mythical indiscretions of Catherine the Great, although she indeed kept a number of Arabian horses, but to the enthusiasm which many famous Russian equestrians and breeders have had for the type.

A dappled Arabian horseAn Arabian from an album of characteristic horse breeds of the USSR, 1953. S. V. Afanas’ev, Al’bom porod loshadei SSSR (Moscow, 1953). Cup.1253.dd.28.

Among the British Library’s collections, one book in particular illustrates the aristocratic infatuation with the Arabian. Prince A. G. Shcherbatov and Count S. A. Stroganov’s Kniga ob Arabskoi Loshadi (Saint Petersburg, 1900; 7293.l.33.) combines an overview of the breed with an account of the authors’ journey to what is now Syria, purchasing stallions for breeding back in the Russian Empire. It was translated into English as The Arabian Horse: A Survey, which the Library also holds (London, 1989; YK.1990.b.3731).

Book cover with a desert scene and a Bedouin mounted on a horse in the foreground

Above:  The lavish cover to Shcherbatov and Stroganov’s book. Below: A mare called Latifa, bought by Stroganov in Damascus in 1895.

Photograph of an Arabian horse

Shcherbatov and Stroganov championed the Arabian against the English Thoroughbred, another popular breed. They considered the Thoroughbred inferior, as it had emerged during a great confusion of equine bloodlines after the English Civil War. Cromwell’s revolution had led to the destruction of stud books and heavy loss of stallions – ‘it turned out to be impossible to reconstitute the pedigrees of the surviving animals’.

By contrast, Bedouin traditions ensured no confusion of bloodlines: ‘Our belief in the pure blood of the Arabian horse stems above all from the importance which the Arabs in horse-breeding attach to blood’. The purity of the Arabian appealed to principles close to the hearts of Russia’s ruling classes, who meticulously traced their own genealogies as well as those of their animals.

Shcherbatov and Stroganov argued that the increasing encroachment of the railway and the disruption of traditional Bedouin ways of life, such as the shift in warfare to the use of rifles from the back of camels rather than lances on horseback, brought the future of this unspoiled breed into question in its native homeland.

It fell to Russia to ensure the preservation of the Arabian’s pure bloodline, for Russia alone remained true to the aristocratic conception of an ideal purity of blood within a perceived sea of international vulgarity. In its turn, they thought, only the pure-blooded Arabian could help breed horses to out-compete the constitutional monarchies and democratic republics in equestrian sports and on the battlefield.

By 1900, the Arabian had already clearly proved its worth for improving the Empire’s stock. In the late 18th century, an Arabian stallion named Smetanka had been used as the basis for one of Russia’s best known breeds – the Orlov trotter.

A chestnut 'Orlov Trotter' horse An Orlov trotter from the album of Soviet horses.

The project to develop a Russian trotting horse had been taken up by Count Alexei Grigoryevich Orlov-Chesmensky, in his retirement after an eventful military career. Orlov had been a central player during the 1762 coup which secured the throne for Catherine the Great, and was rumoured to have personally assassinated the deposed Tsar Peter III. Through his rigorous and experimental breeding programme, the Orlov trotter emerged as one of the leading horses for harness racing and other sporting disciplines of the 19th century.

Portrait of Count Aleksei Orlov-Chesmensky in military uniformAbove: A portrait of Count Aleksei Orlov-Chesmensky from Sergy Dmitrievich Sheremetev, Alekhan (Saint Petersburg, 1898). 09603.dd.13. Below: Tolstoy based his 1886 work Kholstomer on the life of the Orlov trotter Muzhik I, born in 1805. Leo Tolstoy, Kholstomer (Moscow, 1951). YF.2011.b.1596.

Cover of  a 1951 edition of 'Kholstomer' with an inset picture of a horse

According to the coaching expert Andreas Nemitz, wealthy Russians typically used Orlov trotters as the centre of a troika to pull their droshkys, flanked by two gallopers. Captain M. H. Haynes, a British observer of Russia’s equine culture at the end of the 19th century, wrote that Orlov trotters ‘admirably suit the requirements of fashionable Russians, who love to go as fast as their coachmen can drive them, even over the roughest cobble stone pavement, which of course does not suit the long fetlocks’.

An open carriage drawn by a pair of Orlov Trotters A pair of Orlov trotters in harness from Capt. M. H. Haynes, Among Horses in Russia (London, 1900). 07293.i.46.

Russia’s Arabian and Orlov trotter populations declined sharply during the 20th century, harmed by the wars and social upheavals of this time. In 1997, enthusiasts founded the International Committee for the Protection of the Orlov Trotter to secure the future of the breed.

Despite the development of more competitive breeds since its heyday, the Orlov trotter is still well loved by enthusiasts and amateurs alike. As Sherbatov and Stroganov wrote in 1900: ‘One has only to glance at the Orlov-type trotters … to recognise immediately in the proudly-arched neck, the bright, prominent eye, the thin skin, the silky mane, the high-soaring tail and the overall nobility of their bearing, the Arabian blood infused only once, more than a century ago’.

A dappled Orlov trotterAbove: An Orlov trotter, image from Wikimedia Commons. Below: 
 the Orlov trotter in action, image from Wikimedia Commons

An Orlov Trotter in a trotting race

Mike Carey, Eastern European Curator.

References

‘A Russian History’, The Arabian Magazine 29.5.2013 

Vsevolod A. Nikolaev & Albert Parry, The Loves of Catherine the Great (New York, 1982). 83/10566.

Andreas Nemitz, ‘Traditions and Styles in the Way of Driving Horses Part One’, The Carriage Journal 36, 4 (Spring, 1999), 152-4. P.P.8003.qn.

‘Orlov Trotter’, International Museum of the Horse (2018) [online] available at http://www.imh.org/exhibits/online/breeds-of-the-world/europe/orlov-trotter/ 

 

 

09 February 2018

Maria Prymachenko’s fantastic world of flowers and animals

Add comment

Among the outstanding figures of 20th-century Ukrainian culture Maria Prymachenko (1909-97), the Honoured Artist of Ukraine and winner of the Shevchenko National Prize, occupies one of the highest places. Her name belongs to the line of outstanding artists of naïve art, such as Henri Rousseau, Niko Pirosmanishvili, Ivan Generalic and Nykyfor Drovniak. 

Maria Prymachenko devoted nearly 60 years to her beloved occupation, painting. Her works are spread among Ukrainian museums and private collections. The largest part of her legacy, nearly 650 works, dating from 1936 to 1987, is kept in the collection of the National Museum of Ukrainian Folk Applied Art in Kyiv.

Photograph of Maria Prymachenko in 1936 wearing a traditional Ukrainian embroidered blouse
Maria Prymachenko in 1936. Reproduced in Mariia Pryimachenko. Al'bom (Kyiv, 1994) YA.1997.a.1106.
  

Maria Prymachenko was born in the Kyiv region into a peasant family. In her childhood she suffered from polio, which left her an invalid for the rest of her life. But this severe illness did not break her spirit. Having learned embroidery from her mother during childhood, in the late 1920s and early 1930s the future artist started to work in the Ivankiv Co-operative Embroidery Association, where she brought her own interpretation to traditional ornaments as well as creating her own artistic designs. The Kyivan artist Tetiana Floru saw Maria’s embroideries in the Ivankiv market, and in 1935 invited the talented girl to work in the Central Experimental Workshop of the Kyiv Museum of Ukrainian Art. Here folk artists from the whole of Ukraine were assembled together for the preparation of the First Republican Folk Art Exhibition, which took place in Kyiv in 1936 (photo of Maria Prymachenko from 1936 above), and was later shown in Moscow and Leningrad. In 1937 some of Prymachenko’s drawings were presented in the International Exhibition in Paris.

Stylised painting of a large bird eating a smaller oneBird of Prey (1936).  Reproduced in  Mariia Pryimachenko. Al'bom 

From the start Maria Prymachenko showed herself to be an artist with a unique world view. In the creation of artistic images in her drawings from the 1930s a decisive role was played by line and by the principles of traditional Ukrainian ornaments, presenting flowers, plants and animals in two-dimensional forms.

Painting of an imaginary beast   Beast (1936) Reproduced in:  Mariia Pryimachenko. Al’bom.

This period of Maria Prymachenko’s life was brightened by two important events: after several successful operations in Kyiv, she could stand on both legs – and in Kyiv she met her beloved fellow countryman, the Red Army lieutenant Vasyl' Marynchuk. After productive activity in the Workshop, she came home to her native village, Bolotnya. In March 1941 she gave birth to her son Fedir. A few months later Ukraine was occupied by the Nazis. The artist experienced all the horrors of war: her brother Ivan was shot by the Germans, and later her husband also perished. The hard war years were exchanged for post-war poverty, constant work on a collective farm, and bringing up her son. She had neither the time nor the strength for painting. But her intensive artistic energy constantly sought realisation. At the beginning Maria embroidered a lot, and later took up painting again,predominantly small compositions with animals, birds and landscapes on leaves from school sketchbooks.

With time the format of her paintings increased. The white backgrounds of the 1930s works gave place to coloured ones in the 1960s-1980s. At the same time her technique changed: from the transparent watercolours with clear graphic contours of her early works to thick intensive gouache, which gave birth to wonderful full-toned depths of colour. But the world of her images remained unchanged, as well as the virtuosity of line and colour.

Stylised painting of two bears eating honey from a beehive while the bees swarm around themBears in Beegarden (1965).  Reproduced in  Mariia Pryimachenko. Al’bom

Flowers had a special place in her artistic heritage. Bright, decorative, unusual in shape and colour, they rose to the rank of the miraculous, and joined the aesthetic-philosophical interpretation of relations between human beings and the universe.

Painting of a bowl of poppy-heads

 Poppies (1964) Reproduced in Mariia Pryimachenko. Al’bom

Images of birds, which for centuries have personified goodness, love, peace, and represent intermediaries between heaven and earth, occupy a significant place in her numerous compositions.

Painting of a peacock-like bird perched among flowers

 Bird (1962) Reproduced in: Mariia Pryimachenko. Al’bom

Decorative pictures with images of animals and fantastic creatures are a quintessential part of Prymachenko’s art. She impresses us by her talent for the creation of new unique images. Many critics noticed her specific 'philosophy of the good’, which she embodies in images of ‘kind’ beasts and birds (lions, hares, bulls, horses, storks, swallows etc.). In the 1970s an important innovation appeared – on the backs of her drawings she wrote captions, a kind of explanatory proverbs, organically linked to the images.

Cover of 'Dobryi lev Marii Primachenko' with a painting of a lion-like creature and its cub Cover of Grigoriii Ostrovskii, Dobryi lev Marii Primachenko (Moscow, 1990). YA.1993.a.25439

Many articles and albums with reproductions of her works were published, exhibitions held, films were made, coins and postage stamps issued in the independent Ukraine. The magic world of Maria Prymachenko continues to capture the imagination.

Postage stamp with an animal picture by Prymachenko Postage stamp with an animal picture by Prymachenko

 Two postage stamps with fantastic beasts by Maria Prymachenko (From Wikimedia Commons) 

Olena Shestakova, Head of Department, National Museum of Ukrainian Folk Applied Art

Further reading:

Oleksandr Naiden, Mariia Pryimachenko, Ornament prostoru i prostir ornamentu (Kyiv, 2011) YF.2012.a.9431

Oleksandr Naiden, Mariia Pryimachenko 100 (Kyiv, 2009). On order

Derzhavnyi muzei ukrains’koho narodnoho dekoratyvnoho prykladnohio mystestva URSR. Al’bom (Kyiv, 1983) L45/3278

Platon Biletsky, Soviet Ukrainian art. (Kyiv, 1979). X.421/20427

Natalia Brodskaia, Naïve Art. (New York, 2000). LB.31.c.12796.

17 January 2018

Władysław Reymont’s Revolt of the Animals

Add comment

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?

Cover of 'Bunt' with an image if a dog wearing a beret with a red star

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.

Painting of Reymont standing by the gate of a farm

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.

Title-page of the first edition of 'Bunt'Title-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.

Cover of a German translation of 'Bunt' with an image of a wolf howling at the moon

 Cover of a modern edition of Die Empörung (Frankfurt am Main, 2017). YF.2019.a.24968

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)

 

21 November 2017

Orwell in Translation

Add comment

George Orwell’s Animal Farm was first published on 17 August 1945 and on 28 August the Russian scholar and critic Gleb Struve wrote to Orwell to say that he found the book “delightful” and would like to translate it for the benefit of Russians, “who could read the truth about their country only when outside it”. Replying to this letter on 1 September, Orwell wondered “what the procedure is. Are books in Russian published in this country, i.e. from non-official sources?” He told Struve that, at about the same time, he had received a letter from a Pole who wanted to translate the book into Polish. Orwell’s main worry was how to pay his translators, but he said he was “anxious that the book should find its way into other languages. If translations into the Slav languages were made, I shouldn’t want any money out of them myself (The Complete Works of George Orwell (CWGO), vol. 17, pp. 274-5). 

Cover of a Polish translation of Animal Far, showing a pig in military uniform

Cover of Teresa Jelenska’s Polish translation: Zwierzęcy folwark (London, 1947). 012642.pp.100.

The first translation of Animal Farm into a Slavic language – in fact, into any language! – was into Polish. It was made by Teresa Jelenska, the wife of a Polish diplomat, and published at the turn of 1946 and 1947 in London by the League of Poles Abroad.

Teresa Jelenska was also instrumental in putting her son’s friend, a young Polish-born Ukrainian Ihor Szewczenko  in touch with Orwell. Szewczenko, then aged 25, wrote to Orwell in April 1946 immediately after he had read Animal Farm and saw at once, as he put it, “that a translation of the tale into Ukrainian would be of great value to my countrymen” (CWGO, vol. 19, p. 72). Szewczenko (who later changed the spelling of his name to Ševčenko, the heading under which his works can be found in the British Library’s catalogue), translated Animal Farm while commuting between Munich, where he lived with his wife and mother-in-law, both Soviet-Ukrainian refugees, and Quackenbrück in the British zone of Germany, where he worked for a Polish newspaper.

A year later, when the translation was ready for publication by the Munich publisher Prometheus, Szewczenko wrote to Orwell again asking him for a preface for the book and Orwell, although he was “frightfully busy”, did indeed write the preface to the Ukrainian edition, which remains his most detailed explanation of his motives for writing the “fairy story”. He was particularly glad to find out from Szewczenko, who published his translation under the pseudonym of Ivan Cherniatynskyi, that his publishers in Munich were the Soviet Ukrainians, who defended the “acquisitions of the October revolution”, but turned against the “counter-revolutionary Bonapartism” of Stalin and the Russian nationalistic exploitation of the Ukrainian people. Orwell was “encouraged to learn that that kind of opposition exists in the USSR” (CWGO, vol. 19, p. 73).

Cover of a Ukrainian translation of Animal Farm, showing a pig with a whip and a horse dragging a cartload of stones

Cover of  the Ukrainian translation by ‘Ivan Cherniatynskyi’,  Kolhosp tvaryn: kazka, with an introduction by George Orwell. ([Munich, 1947?]) 12593.f.40.

The first Ukrainian edition was not very lucky. Orwell informed his friend, writer Arthur Koestler on 20 September 1947 (CWGO, vol. 19, pp. 206-7), that “the American authorities in Munich have seized 1500 copies of it and handed them over to the Soviet repatriation people, but it appears 2000 copies got distributed among the DPs (Displaced Persons) first”. In the same letter Orwell told Koestler that he had given Szewczenko his address and added: “I have been saying ever since 1945 that the DPs were a godsent opportunity for breaking down the wall between Russia and the West”. Shortly before that, in his review of James Burnham’s book The Struggle for the World (London, 1947; 8011.ee.32.), he expressed a similar thought even more directly: “one of the most important problems at this moment is to find a way of speaking to the Russian people over the heads of their rulers” (CWGO, vol. 19, p. 105).

It was precisely the plan to send Animal Farm into the Soviet Union that made Orwell agree to fund the publication of Gleb Struve’s translation into Russian by the DP publisher Possev. Approached by Possev six months before his death, Orwell immediately supported the idea of publishing the translation in a book form (it had already been serialized in the publisher’s weekly magazine of the same name (no. 7-32, 1949) and smuggling it into the USSR, but he still wanted to know for sure who he was dealing with. “I suppose the editors of this paper are bona fide people and also not Whites?” – he asked his recent acquaintance, a German communist Ruth Fischer in a letter of 15 July 1949 (CWGO, vol. 20, p.146). The first part of his question could easily be confirmed, but it was more complicated with the second. As Orwell had feared Possev, unlike the Ukrainian publishers of Animal Farm, were indeed “Whites”. They enjoyed Orwell’s satire of the Soviet regime, but could not stomach him satirising the church and religion and the role they played in society. That is why – as it became known much later, in the 1980s – they censored Orwell and cut out from Animal Farm two paragraphs describing the role of Moses, the tame raven, who tells the animals about “Sugarcandy Mountain, to which all animals went when they died.”

Title page of a Russian translation of Animal Farm

Title-page of the  Russian translation. Skotskii khutor. ([Frankfurt am Main], 1950). 12654.de.12.

This was of course only the beginning. Eventually Animal Farm was translated into at least 70 languages, including Esperanto, but it is worth stressing that the Slavic languages (Polish, Ukrainian, Russian) were among the first. The French publication appeared later than expected, only in October 1947, because, as Orwell wrote to Koestler in January 1946, “The French publisher, who had signed a contract to translate Animal Farm, has got cold feet and says it is impossible «for political reasons»” (CWGO, vol. 18. p.28) – this no doubt was the result of the 1945 elections in France, when the Communists became the largest party in the French National Assembly. But those whose countries were directly under the Communist rule continued publishing the book abroad – in 1952 Animal Farm came out in Lithuanian and in 1955 in Serbian.

Cover of a  Lithuanian translation of Animal Farm showing an exhausted horse dragging a cart

Cover of the  Lithuanian translation. Gyvulių ūkis. Fantastině apysaka. (London, 1952). X.950/31145

Masha Karp, editor of The Orwell Society Journal and author of a forthcoming  Russian biography of George Orwell

References/Further reading

The Complete Works of George Orwell edited by Peter Davison (London, 2000-2002). Vols. 17 (YC.2001.a.13719), 18 (YC.2001.a.16202), 19 (YC.2002.a.23095) and 20 (YC.2002.a.23177)

Masha Karp. ‘The Raven Vanishes’. The Orwell Society Journal. No. 9, December 2016, pp. 16-19

Ksenya Kiebuzinski. ‘Not Lost in Translation: Orwell’s Animal Farm Among Refugees and Beyond the Iron Curtain’, The Halcyon: Newsletter of the Thomas Fisher Rare Books Library, no. 59, June 2017.  

07 September 2017

‘The father of evolutionism’: Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon

Add comment

For someone who would be among the first to examine heredity from a scientific viewpoint, the origins of a little boy born in Burgundy on 7 September 7th 1707 were not promising. His father, Benjamin François Leclerc, was a very minor official administering the much-resented gabelle, or salt tax, and his mother Anne-Christine came from a similar background of civil servants. They might have expected that their son, named Georges-Louis after his godfather Blaisot, might follow the family tradition. However, prefiguring the career of Alexander von Humboldt, he grew up to reject the civil service in favour of the far more colourful world of travel, scholarship and natural history. His final break with his heritage was symbolized by his adoption of the name by which he is known to history – Buffon.

Buffon portrait 07209.aa.33
Portrait of Buffon, from  Nouveaux morceaux choisis de Buffon (London, 1827) 07209.aa.33.

Young George-Louis’s life exemplified Perrault’s sage remarks in his Contes about the value of influential godparents. When he was seven his godfather, a wealthy tax-farmer, died without issue and left him a fortune. Despite the family’s sudden elevation (his father bought an estate containing the village of Buffon), there was no thought of raising him in luxury and idleness, and he was sent to study law in Dijon. In 1728 he transferred to Angers to pursue medicine and mathematics, and two years later accompanied the young Duke of Kingston on the Grand Tour through the south of France and into Italy. He made a hasty return to Dijon in 1732, as his mother had died, his father was about to remarry, and he feared that his inheritance might be in jeopardy. Having secured it, he set off for Paris to establish himself as a scientist – but not before buying back the village of Buffon which his father had sold, and whose name he had added to his own.

Mingling with Voltaire and other Parisian intellectuals, Buffon was admitted to the Academy of Sciences in 1734 in recognition of his achievements in calculus and probability theory. He was also taken up by the Comte de Maurepas, Secretary of State of the Navy and of the Maison du Roi, who was impressed by research which he carried out on timber for shipbuilding. With Maurepas’s help he was appointed to the directorship of the Jardin du Roi in 1739, expanding it by land purchases and the acquisition of numerous botanical and zoological specimens.

Buffon 1149c Kingfishers 2
Kingfisher, from  Buffon’ s Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière, nouvelle édition (Paris,  [1798]-1808). 1149.a-e

A true polymath, Buffon cultivated not only exotic species but literary style, and was admitted to the Académie Française in 1753, delivering his Discours sur le style before his fellow Academicians. The work which made his reputation was his 36-volume Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière (1749-88; 971.f.2-9.). It rapidly achieved a wide readership, and as well as several volumes in the original, the British Library holds a number of translations, including The History of Singing Birds (Edinburgh, 1791), in which we find ‘directions for choosing a Canary-Bird, and to know if he be in health’ (readers were advised not to select a German specimen, as they were ‘tender and short-lived’ on account of the ‘suffocating heat of the stoves’ in their native country).

Buffon 1486.d.30 Canaries
Canaries, from the 1791 translation History of  Singing Birds; 1486.e.30

Turning his attention to greater subjects, Buffon commented on the distinctive species to be found in different areas with similar climates, later systematized as Buffon’s Law, and suggested that the many varieties of quadrupeds derived from thirty-eight prototypes, as well as that their development might have been influenced by climate change. Climatic considerations also led him to claim that the mephitic vapours gloomy and forests of the New World caused its denizens (both human and otherwise) to be inferior to their European fellows – despite these tactless remarks, in 1782 he was elected a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. His theories proved too audacious for the Sorbonne, and he was compelled to retract some of them, including his estimate that the earth was 75,000 years old, and, in his Les époques de la nature (1778), that the solar system had come into being when a comet collided with the sun. At Court, though, his popularity was invincible, and in 1772 Louis XVI made him a count (in compensation for having to withdraw from an undertaking that Buffon’s son, then aged eight, should succeed his father at the Jardin du Roi in the event of Buffon senior’s death).

Buffon 1149c Toucan
Toucan, from Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière, nouvelle édition 

Despite concluding that humans and other primates were not closely related, Buffon’s theories bore certain similarities to those of Charles Darwin on the subjects of heredity and the survival of the fittest. He died in 1788, and his posthumous life was as curious as his earlier adventures; his tomb was broken open during the French Revolution, and the only remnant of his body known to survive was his brain, preserved in the statue by Pajou which now stands in the Musée d’histoire naturelle in Paris. However, through his influence on Lamarck, Cuvier and other natural historians of the 18th and 19th centuries, his intellectual legacy and scholarly reputation long outlived his scattered remains.

Susan Halstead, Social Sciences Subject Librarian, Research Services.

19 June 2017

Crying wolf: the Bête du Gévaudan

Add comment

In the current debate about the reintroduction of vanished species into their former habitats, apologists for the wolf often cite the species’ sophisticated social hierarchy and the benefits of predation in restoring the balance of nature in defence of a creature which, they claim, has been unjustly maligned. It is all too easy to forget that at the time when Perrault was writing fairy tales such as  ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ and ‘Hop o’my Thumb’, the wolf who features so ominously in them was not merely a fanciful threat. French parish registers throughout the 17th and 18th centuries record numerous burials of those who had fallen prey to wolves, with, in many cases, only pitiful fragments left to inter.

Although these deaths were a sadly frequent occurrence which only disappeared with the gradual extermination of wolves in France throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, one outbreak attracted particular notice because of the extent and savagery of the attacks. The culprit was the notorious ‘Bête du Gévaudan’ which terrorized the Margeride Mountains in south-central France between 1764 and 1767. Over a century later, when Robert Louis Stevenson visited the region, he noted in his Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes (Boston, 1879; 10109.n.63) that the inhabitants still recalled the terrible events and warned him against camping out because of the danger of wolves.

Bete 12517.bbb.23

The depredations of this mysterious creature have provided material for much speculation and also for some bizarre treatments of the episode, from Élie Berthet’s historical novel La Bête du Gévaudan (Paris, 1869; 12517.bbb.23; cover above) to Christophe Gans’ film Brotherhood of the Wolf (2006), where its ravages are attributed to a sinister religious cult. However, they have also been more systematically examined by historians and zoologists, and particularly by Jean-Marc Moriceau, an authority on French agricultural history (La bête du Gévaudan: 1764-1767, Paris, 2008; YF.2010.a.19761). Initially interested in the impact of the Beast’s activities on the rural economy, he went on to write a study of wolf attacks in France (Histoire du méchant loup: 3000 attaques sur l'homme en France (XVe-XXe siècle), Paris, 2007; YF.2009.a.3501) and to edit the proceedings of a conference devoted to relations between man and wolf (Vivre avec le loup? Trois mille ans de conflit, Paris, [2014];YF.2016.a.8804).

Bete farouche X.319-4064

A contemporary account of the beast, reproduced in  Jacques Delperrié de Bayac, Du sang dans la montagne. Vrais et faux mystères de la Bête du Gévaudan. (Paris,1970). X.319/4064

Contrary to the popular images of starving wolves prowling through snow-clad landscapes, the Beast claimed its first victim, Jeanne Boulet, just short of her 14th birthday, on 30 June 1764. The parish priest of Les Hubacs, recording her burial the following day, attributed her death to  ‘la Bête féroce’, suggesting that it had achieved some notoriety. In fact it had already made at least one previous attack, foiled by the cattle which the intended victim was guarding. Moriceau notes that while flocks of sheep were generally supervised by experienced shepherds with formidable sheepdogs armed with spiked collars, the practice of sending boys and girls to accompany the cattle to pasture rendered them especially vulnerable. In most of the fatal attacks which occurred over the next three years (up to 113, according to one source), the victims were young; of 79 cases cited where the age is recorded, 63 out of 79 were under 20. The spring and summer, when the rural population was engaged in outdoor pursuits in the fields and vineyards, offered special opportunities to a predator lurking at the edge of a forest or lying low in a cornfield.

Bete Figuren du monstre X.319-4064

Another contemporary view of the ‘monster’, reproduced in Du sang dans la montagne.

As the toll increased, even grown men were afraid to venture forth unarmed, leading to appeals for the ban forbidding the peasantry to carry weapons to be lifted. Fears were heightened by reports of the creature’s unusual size, strength and appearance, leading to rumours that it was not a wolf at all but a bear or a hyena escaped from the King of Sardinia’s menagerie. As even expert hunters failed to shoot it, it was claimed that it was no ordinary animal but a werewolf, invulnerable to firearms or to poison (more bizarre suggestions include a wolf/dog hybrid or, according to Pascal Cazottes in La bête du Gévaudan enfin démasquée? (La Motte d’Aigues, 2004; YF.2005.a.9199), a prehistoric Hemicyon.

This led to intervention by Louis XV himself; on hearing of the heroism of young Jacques Portefaix, who successfully defended himself and seven companions when attacked on 12 January 1765, he not only rewarded them financially but decreed that the Crown would send assistance to kill the Beast. This met with mixed success; the royal louvetiers were resented by the local residents on whom they were billeted, especially when their efforts achieved nothing. However, when on 20 September a large wolf was killed by François Antoine, the king's arquebus-bearer and Lieutenant of the Hunt, it seemed that he had exterminated the Beast, especially as several survivors recognized it by scars inflicted during attempts to beat it off. The stuffed specimen was displayed at Versailles, and Antoine fêted as a hero, but by December 1765 renewed attacks confirmed that the story was not yet over.

In May/June 1767 alone eight more victims perished, including a Carmelite nun and several young cowherds. On 17 June the burial of the last, 19-year-old Jeanne Bastide, was recorded by the parish priest of Binière. The following day the young Marquis d’Apcher organized a hunt and set out with a pack of hounds and around 300 huntsmen and beaters, including 12 named marksmen, one of them a farmer called Jean Chastel. At 10.15 on the morning of 19 June the Marquis sighted his quarry followed by its mate, and gave the order to loose the hounds. Chastel fired, and the Beast of the Gévaudan fell dead.

Somewhat anticlimactically, the corpse rapidly decomposed in the hot weather and could not be exhibited, and in contrast to Antoine, Chastel, on arrival at court, received only a modest reward of 72 livres. But he had earned the lasting gratitude of his neighbours for rescuing them from three years of terror, and 250 years later the surrounding area prepares to commemorate the events of June 1767 under the slogan Fête la Bête!’ 


Susan Halstead, Content Specialist (Humanities & Social Sciences) Research Services

28 July 2016

Petrus Cuniculus, Noisy-Noisette and Frau Tigge-Winkel: Peter Rabbit’s foreign friends

Add comment

Of all the fortnightly pieces which Paul Jennings (1918-89) wrote for the Observer between 1949 and 1966, few are funnier than ‘Babel in the Nursery’, collected in Golden Oddlies (London, 1983; X.958/20513). Glancing at the translations of Beatrix Potter’s works listed on the jacket on one of her books, Jennings reflected on the role of translators (‘heroes or fools’) in opening up the ‘transcendentalized English village’ set firmly in the Cumbrian countryside to young readers throughout the world. Even the characters’ names undergo changes which transform their bearers into very different figures: ‘Sophie Canétang , a Stendhal heroine … the awful Mauriac Famille Flopsaut … Noisy-Noisette, the Mata Hari of the twenties, as depicted by Colette … Tom Het Poesje, a kind of Dutch Till Eulenspiegel … Il Coniglio Pierino, the swarthy Sicilian bandit.’

Today, as we celebrate the 150th anniversary of Beatrix Potter’s birth, we may well admire the ingenuity of translators in tackling these challenges and giving her works to the children of the world in multilingual versions, many of which appear in the British Library’s catalogues.

Title-page of 'Histoire de Pierre Lapin' with Beatrix Potter's illustration of the sick Peter in bed
Beatrix Potter, Histoire de Pierre Lapin (London, [1921]) British Library 12800.a.55, Peter Rabbit’s first outing in French

The French translator Victorine Ballon was one of the first to attempt the task of presenting Peter Rabbit in a new guise. Her Histoire de Pierre Lapin was the first of several versions of Potter’s works in French, followed by Histoire de Jeannot Lapin (London, [1921]; 12800.a.56), translated in collaboration with Julienne Profichet, as were Histoire de Poupette-à-l’épingle (London, [1922]; 12800.a.57) and Histoire de Sophie Canétang (London, [1922]; 12800.a.54). While Peter’s cousin Benjamin Bunny was rechristened as the typically French Jeannot, Jemima Puddle-Duck presented more of a problem. Ballon’s clever solution combined ‘caneton’ (duckling) and ‘étang’ (pool), preceded by a first name recalling the French idiom ‘faire sa Sophie’, aptly suggesting the prim old-fashioned airs of Potter’s Jemima.

Cover of 'Le tailleur de Gloucester' with a picture of a mouse seated on a cotton-reel
Beatrix Potter, Le tailleur de Gloucester , translated by Deborah Chataway (London, [1967]) X.998/1267

Young readers in Germany were soon able to enjoy Potter’s tales too with the appearance of Die Geschichte des Peterchen Hase, translated by Clara Röhn and Ethel Talbot Scheffauer (London, [1934]; 12800.a.69.). Before long Peter had been joined by his relatives the Flopsy Bunnies in Die Geschichte der Hasenfamilie Plumps, translated by Hildegarde M. E. Marchant (London, [1948]; 12830.e.15), imagined by Paul Jennings as ‘a lesser version of the Krupp dynasty, an endless succession of stern characters extending the family factories in the Ruhr’. When the same translator set to work on The Tale of Mr. Tod, she found a more straightforward solution, replacing the Cumbrian dialect word for a fox with a name recalling the mediaeval beast epic and Goethe’s Reineke Fuchs in Die Geschichte von Herrn Reineke.

Title-page of 'Die Geschichte von Herrn Reineke' with vignette of two rabbits and frontispiece illustration of a fox entering a house
Title-page from Beatrix Potter, Die Geschichte von Herrn Reineke (London, 1952) 12830.a.120.

Translations into  Italian, Spanish, Dutch and Swedish also followed, issued, like the French and German ones, by Potter’s London publisher, Frederick Warne. Slavonic languages were slower to follow suit, and none are to be found in the British Library’s holdings, presumably because Warne did not publish any. But alongside the more familiar Western European languages, some surprises can be found. Who, for example, is mevrou Kornelia Kat, sunning herself on the stoep as she waits for her guests to join her for tea? Why, it is none other than Mrs. Tabitha Twitchit, mother of Tom Kitten (now Gertjie Kat – short for Gerhardus) and his sisters Pootjies and Oortjies (Mittens and Moppet), mysteriously transported to the veld in an Afrikaans translation by Louise Promnitz (Cape Town, 1970; X.990/4885). The disobedient kittens come to grief after an encounter with the Puddle-Ducks: ‘meneer Hendrikus Plassie-Eend’, Rebekka and Meraai – Jemima in the South African identity which she retains in her own story, Die Verhaal van Meraai Plassie-Eend, also translated by Promnitz (Cape Town, 1971; X.990/4883). Indeed, some of the earliest translations in the British Library’s collections are those into Afrikaans by Antoinette Elizabeth Carinus-Holzhausen, dating from the 1930s, where Benjamin Bunny features under a new alias in Die Verhaal van Bennie Blinkhaar (Pretoria, 1936; 12800.a.64) and Mrs Tittlemouse in Die Verhaal van Mevrou Piefkyn (Pretoria, [1936]; 12800.a.66). Peter had already pipped them to the post in Die Verhaal van Pieter Konyntjie (London, [1930]; 12800.a.65).

Covers of two of Beatrix Potter's stories in Afrikaans
Tom Kitten and Jemima Puddle-Duck in Afrikaans

Closer to home, Welsh-speaking children were able to read the adventures of Jemima Puddle-Duck as Hanes Dili Minllyn, translated by ‘M.E.’ (London, [1925]; 12800.a.61), followed by those of Peter Rabbit, Hanes Pwtan y Wningen (London, [1932]; 12800.a.62), an anonymous translation, and those of his cousin Benjamin Bunny, Hanes Benda Bynni (London, 1930; X.990/5922) by K. Olwen Rees, as well as Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle (Hanes Meistres Tigi-Dwt; London, [1932]; 12800.a.63). More recently, just over a century after his first appearance in 1902, Peter Rabbit addressed the world in Scots, courtesy of Lynne McGeachie’s The Tale of Peter Kinnen (London, 2004; YK.2006.a.4550), in which the murderous ‘Maister McGreegor’ finally gets to speak in his own ‘Scots tung’ as he pursues the intruder with a rake, ‘waggin a scartle an roarin oot, “Stop briganner!”’ For those of a scholarly bent, there are even three Latin translations, Fabula Petro Cuniculo (London, 1962; 012845.g.28) by E. Walker, Fabula de Jemima Anate-Aquatica (London, 1965; 12846.t.15) by Jonathan Musgrave, and an anonymous Fabula de Domino Ieremia Piscatore (London, 1978; X.990/10193), where the characters speak in effortlessly Ciceronian language (even Dominus McGregor as he chases Peter with cries of ‘Cessa, fur!’).

Covers of Beatrix Potter books in Scots, Welsh and Latin
Some of Potter’s characters in (l.-r.) Scots, Welsh and Latin

Though her marriage to William Heelis was childless, Beatrix Potter had a great love of her many young friends and correspondents (several of the books began as illustrated letters), and would no doubt have been delighted that her work was available to readers throughout the world. She never condescended in her use of language or compromised in the artistic quality of her illustrations for children’s books (C.S. Lewis, for example, in his autobiography Surprised by Joy ([London], 1959; 4921.cc.28), recalled those to The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin (London, 1903; Cup.402.a.5) as epitomizing the essence of autumn for him as a boy). On her 150th birthday, she would surely have wished to celebrate the efforts of those who had helped her creations to travel, like Pigling Bland, ‘over the hills and far away’.

Susan Halstead Content Specialist (Humanities and Social Sciences), Research Engagement

03 June 2016

Cats and Dogs

Add comment

Emblem showing cats and mice and dogs and hares chasing each others in circles
 Sebastián de Covarrubias Horozco, Emblemas morales (Madrid, 1610) 637.g.22. Centura III, emblema 79 (f. 279).

Anda agora el mundo tal
que no se cual va tras cual
[It’s upside-down!
Now, who can say
Who’s the chaser
And who the prey?]

This emblem shows mice chasing cats and hares chasing dogs (or is it the other way round?).

Nowadays I think we’d think in terms of cats chasing dogs: after all, the two are natural antagonists, as in the film of 2001. And in the 18th century this Portuguese mock epic does indeed pit the cat against the dog:

Cats and Dogs fighting in a kitchen while servants try to separate themJoão Jorge de Carvalho, Gaticanea, ou Crudelissima guerra entre os cães, e os gatos (Lisbon, 1781) 11452.aaa.20.

(I wonder if the phrase “raining cats and dogs” refers to the commotion caused when cats and dogs fight.)

But cat vs dog isn’t the only bout in town.

Back at the dawn of literature, in Aesop’s fables, the protagonists are never cats and dogs. To further complicate the matter, cats aren’t cats. Olivia and Robert Temple argue:

Precision in the terminology also reveals facts such as that household pets in ancient Greece were not cats but domesticated polecats, or house-ferrets (galē). (The Complete Fables, p. xix).

Terminological exactitude, or the translator’s age-old desire to outdo his predecessors?

Barry Taylor, Curator Romance Studies

References:

Alberto Pimentel, Poemas herói-comicos portugueses (Porto, 1922)
X.908/25214.

Aesop, The complete fables; translated by Olivia and Robert Temple; with an introduction by Robert Temple. (London, 1998) YK.1998.a.7044

 

25 November 2015

Wojtek, the soldier bear from the Polish Army

Add comment Comments (0)

On 7th November an unusual ceremony took place in Edinburgh: a monument to a soldier bear was unveiled to hundreds of people gathered in the middle of town. The statue had been commissioned by the Wojtek Memorial Trust, an organisation set up in 2008 by Aileen Orr. She is also the author of the book Wojtek the Bear: Polish war hero (Edinburgh, 2010; British Library YC.2011.a.10359), which makes a good read.

The story of the brave soldier bear started in Persia (today’s Iran) in 1942. Found in the mountains as an orphaned cub, he was sold to Polish soldiers for a few cans of corned beef. The Polish Army, newly formed in the USSR under General Władysław Anders, was on its way through Persia to Palestine.  Corporal Piotr Prendysz was appointed as the cub’s guardian, and the bear was given the name Wojtek (Voytek) meaning “joyful warrior”. The legend has it that Wojtek was enlisted as a soldier with the rank of Private and his pay was double food rations. In fact, he was adopted by the soldiers of the 22nd Artillery Supply Company of the 2nd Polish Corps and became their mascot.

Wojtek 1
Wojtek in Iraq, 1942. Courtesy of the Polish Institute and Sikorski Museum.

Initially Wojtek was fed with diluted condensed milk via an old vodka bottle. He quickly grew huge, weighing 250 kg and measuring almost two metres in length. He loved beer and cigarettes, eating instead of smoking the latter.  His favourite game was wrestling with his fellow soldiers, but due to his gentle nature he never hurt anybody.  He liked human company so much that at night he often slipped into tents and slept beside his mates’ beds. Wojtek soon became the soldiers’ best friend. Although he settled well into army routine his record of acts of mischief was steadily growing.  In a large Allied forces’ military camp in Iraq Wojtek stole a washing line of women soldiers’ underwear to the horror of the terrified women.  On Christmas Eve after a traditional Polish feast he made his way to the camp food store. In search of his favourite jams and fruits he devastated the place. Spilled cooking-oil was mixed with flour, grain and other foods on the floor.  However, in June 1943, in an attempt to commit another crime, he captured an Arab spy. Wojtek was barred from taking his much-loved showers due to the shortage of water, a precious commodity in the Middle East. The door of the bath house was locked but he would hang around outside.  On this day he spotted the unlocked shower door, and upon entering he found a man hiding in the showers whose screams alerted the camp guards.

Wojtek 2
Wojtek wrestling his comrade. Courtesy of the Polish Institute and Sikorski Museum

In 1944 the Polish Corps was transferred from Egypt to Italy to fight in the Italian campaign with the British forces. To embark on the ship Wojtek needed a special permit. Convinced by the argument that he contributed hugely to strengthening the fighting spirit of the soldiers, the British authorities approved his travel warrant just in time for him to join the Company on their voyage to Italy. However, the height of his fame came during the Battle of Monte Cassino in May 1944. Wojtek helped his comrades carry artillery shells to the front line. He watched what the soldiers were doing and stood upright with his front paws outstretched, indicating his intentions.  He carried the large boxes of ammunition from the supply lorries to the artillery positions even under heavy cannon fire.  After the battle Wojtek featured on the 22nd Company logo showing a bear carrying a shell. The Company fought in the battle of Bologna in April 1945, the last combat in the Italian campaign.  A year later they finally sailed for Glasgow and this time Wojtek was officially on the passenger list.

Wojtek 3
A happy Wojtek, Italy, October 1944. Courtesy of the Polish Institute and Sikorski Museum

Wojtek had spent one year at Winfield Camp in Scotland together with his mates before the company was demobbed, and was  then transferred to Edinburgh Zoo in 1947. Though he was the main attraction for numerous visitors to the zoo he greatly missed his comrades in arms and always reacted joyfully to the Polish language. He died there peacefully in November 1963.

  Wojtek 4Wojtek’ statue in the Polish Institute and Sikorski Museum. Courtesy of the PISM.

Magda Szkuta, Curator East & SE European Collections


References/Further reading

Wieslaw A. Lasocki, Wojtek spod Monte Cassino (London, 1968). X.631/769

Geoffrey Morgan and W.A. Lasocki, Soldier Bear (London, 1970). X.809/8265

Krystyna Mikula-Deegan, Private Wojtek – soldier bear (Kibworth, 2011). H.201/6712

Wojtek album (London, 2013) LC.37.a.1031