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Croatian Tales Part Two image 

Twice-told Tales

Croatian Tales of Long Ago, Part Two

edited by Helena Bulaja; written by Ivana Brlie Mazuranic; animated by Edgar Beals, Mirek Nisenbaum, Laurence Arcadia and Helena Bulaja

Boxed CD, available from Bulaja Naklada

reviewed by Edward Picot

Croatian Tales of Long Ago was originally a book of stories, published in 1916 by the author Ivana Brlie Mazuranic, one of the best-known names in Croatian literature. In 2000 Helena and Zvonimir Bulaja, also from Croatia, launched a project to create an "interactive book" based on the Tales, using Flash as the medium and employing the talents of various artists from around the world. Their first CD-ROM, containing four of the eight stories, was published in 2002, and to date it has sold 10,000 copies - about 7500 in Croatia and the rest abroad. It has also won numerous international awards. The second CD (which appeared at the end of 2006) contains the other four, but that doesn't mean the project is now at an end: Zvonimir says they are planning a set of "real" children's books ("one for each tale with a CD/DVD supplement") and a DVD version of the whole project. They are also planning more translations: at the moment the CD-ROMs offer a choice of English, Croatian or German, but "Chinese, Italian, Slovenian and French translation are on the way, and we are also negotiating Japanese."

On the first CD, two of the adaptations reworked the original Tales as full-blown animations, whereas the other two retained the text of the stories and used animation more peripherally, as a kind of interactive hyper-illustration. This made the collection very interesting from a technical point of view, but rather uneven in terms of audience experience - at one moment you were simply being asked to watch and listen, as to a conventional cartoon, whereas at another moment you were expected both to read large amounts of text from the screen and click around the page to make things happen. On the second CD all four of the Tales have been turned into animations, and although the animations are very different from one another this does give the collection a more unified feel.

Now that both volumes are available, however, it really makes sense to evaluate Croatian Tales as a single collection, which is how it was conceived in the first place. Probably it will mainly be regarded as a collection of Flash-animated stories for children, especially outside of Croatia, in countries where Mazuranic's original Tales are hardly known. It is worth looking beyond the Flash pieces, however, because there is a good deal of other interesting material on these CDs, especially information about Ivana Brlie Mazuranic herself, plus the complete text (in translation) of each of her original Tales. Once you begin to delve into this material, your impression of the project as a whole is altered. It starts to seem less exclusively designed for children, more literary, and more the product of a certain literary tradition.

Regoch imageThis literary tradition, of course, is the tradition of the fairy-tale, which can be traced from mythology and folklore, through Aesop's fables and the Arabian Nights, down to Charles Perrault, the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen. Like the folk tales from which they were derived, fairy tales prior to the twentieth century were intended for adults as well as children. Some of the details can be surprizingly gruesome: in Perrault's version of The Sleeping Beauty, the prince who marries the sleeping beauty is the son of an ogress with a taste for human flesh, who in the latter part of the story attempts to eat his wife and children; in the Brothers Grimm's version of Rapunzel, the prince falls into thorn bushes which pierce his eyes and blind him; and in Andersen's story The Red Shoes, Karen, the girl of whom the red shoes take possession, has to have her feet cut off in order to get free of them.

Another indication of the seriousness with which fairy tales were regarded by adults is that when the Brothers Grimm brought out their first collection, Kinder- und Hausmärchen ("Children's and Household Tales"), in 1812, they were criticised for being insufficiently German, not only in their choice of tales but in their use of language. Since their tales were supposed to be drawn directly from German oral sources - although recent scholarship has largely disproved this claim - they were not politically neutral, but on the contrary a deliberate contribution to the German nationalist movement: the effort to identify, or where necessary create, a distinctively German culture and tradition, at a time when Germany was still a disparate collection of principalities and small countries, and a unified German state nothing but a nationalistic idea. The greatest unifying force in the area at this time was the German language, and it is significant that as well as collecting folk tales the brothers Grimm also worked on a German dictionary, the Deutsches Worterbuch - although they only ever got as far as the letter "F".

The same nationalistic impulse is certainly at work in Mazuranic's Croatian Tales: in a note to her son about the creation of the Tales, which is reproduced on these CDs, she admitted that "unfortunately, our Slavic mythology as a whole is a field full of ruins..." and claims that for this reason the Tales are not derived from any authentic folk tradition but are her own work, although she uses names and characters from folklore. She then continues:

If any link exists between the 'Tales of Long Ago' and our traditional folk poetry, it is perhaps on a deeper level. From this point of view my stories really are not mine: they are inspired by the storytelling, visions, hopes, beliefs and secrets which comprise the soul of the Slavic tribe. From Slavic land and air, from the white hazes of Slavic waters and seas, from Slavic snows and blizzards, from the grain of Slavic fields, our body is being created and renewed - body of all Slavs... So, when we dive into ourselves, to write something from our hearts, then everything we create is truly Slavic folk poetry.

Along with this sense of nationalism goes a deep conservatism, a feeling that the Slavic nation has become fragmented not just because of historical events, but because the Slavs themselves, in recent generations, have been inclined to abandon their customs and traditions out of laziness or greed. It is noticeable in the Tales how frequently the old, especially grandparents, appear as figures of wisdom and virtue, whereas middle-aged adults are generally confused at best and villainous at worst. There is also a constant emphasis on the idea that people should be contented with their lot, as their forefathers were, rather than anxious to better themselves: they should stay on the farm; they should make do with what they can grow or catch or build with their own hands; and any desire to change is seen as a falling-away from virtue. One example of this is the tale of Fisherman Plunk, who has to learn that his poverty-stricken life of fish caught from the sea and wild spinach harvested from the shore represents true wealth, whereas the fabled riches of the kingdom under the sea, of which he has always dreamed, are illusory.

During her own lifetime Mazuranic was known as "the Croatian Andersen". The Bulajas, in one of their notes on her work, make the counter-claim that she should be regarded as "the Croatian Tolkein" instead, and they present several pieces of evidence for this case: the first translation of "Croatian Tales" was published in England in 1924 by George Allen & Unwin, the same publishers who brought out "The Hobbit" thirteen years later; both authors started to publish fiction fairly late in life; and both wrote their most famous work during world wars - the First World War in the case of Croatian Tales, and the Second World War in the case of Lord of the Rings.

It is certainly true that Mazuranic's stories contain a militaristic element which is without parallel in Andersen. Her story "Neva", for example, finishes with a siege, a pitched battle, and a whole army being roasted alive in its armour by the sun god. “Regoch” features two villages at war with one another: at the end of the story one village attempts to destroy the other by breaking down the banks of a river, but the plan goes disastrously wrong, with the result that all the adults in both villages are drowned, and only the children and two grandparents survive. Andersen is certainly not without his moments of cruelty and suffering, but they tend to happen on an individual scale rather than an epic one.

Fisherman Plunk image All the same, it is with Andersen that Mazuranic shares the strongest stylistic bond. Probably the most noticeable point of resemblance is their shared technique of using innocents, often children, as central figures in their stories: innocents who become embroiled in trouble and must suffer and struggle before they can win their way back to happiness. There are a number of elements in play here: nineteenth-century sentimentality, Christian ideas about the world as a vale of soul-making, and the Romantic notion that children (or simpletons) are closer to God than adults. Whatever our feelings may be about these underlying themes, the fact remains that the trials and sufferings of a fundamentally innocent individual still provide an extremly effective hook on which to hang a narrative, even if modern readers do tend to feel conscious at times that their emotions are being manipulated.

As with Andersen, so with Mazuranic, the fact that the protagonist of a tale is fundamentally innocent does not preclude him or her from becoming deluded or misdirected: thus Gerda in Andersen's “The Snow Queen” forgets her mission and becomes mesmerised by the beauties of a flower-garden; while Quest, in Mazuranic's tale “How Quest Sought the Truth”, is unable to remember the instructions given to him by All-Rosy the Sun God, and abandons his grandfather to his rapacious brothers as a result. We, the readers, do not lose sympathy with the protagonists when they fall into these errors: on the contrary, we find ourselves desperately hoping that they will manage to get free of them again; and we also feel that these are examples of the way in which innocence becomes embroiled in complications and loses sight of the straight and narrow path as it attempts to make its way through life. In other words, precisely because of their innocence, we are inclined to interpret the central figures in these stories as representative and symbolic, and to read their narratives in the same way.

These tales, in other words, are at least partially parables about the progress of the soul through life; and another similarity between Andersen and Mazuranic is the fact that, despite their numerous references to pagan folklore and mythology, the undertones of their stories are always profoundly Christian As a result both authors are perfectly prepared to round off their tales with a "happy ending" which involves the main character dying and going to heaven - this happens in both Andersen's “The Red Shoes” and Mazuranic's “How Quest Sought the Truth”.

Neva image These are all themes and ideas which are likely to be challenging for twenty-first century animators; and an additional degree of difficulty is added by the fact that Mazuranic, again like Andersen, often allows her tales to follow rather meandering paths, filling them with symbolic minor incidents and details, rather than sticking to the essentials of plot-development. Edgar Beals, the animator of "Neva", describes the process of adaptation as follows:

My original attempt at the story was, more or less, a direct retelling of the original. It was rather bleak in tone and I soon realized that if I continued that way, it would end up being close to an hour long... In the end I boiled the story down to a much simpler, straightforward narrative...

In the original story, for example, the heroine Bride Bridekins has been kind to an earth-witch called Mother Muggins, who promises to help her in return. The King's daughter loses the keys to her chest and wardrobe, and all the knights and dames of the court are searching for them in a meadow in front of the castle. Mother Muggins turns herself into a quail and leads Bride Bridekins to the lost keys, under a clump of love-lies-bleeding. In Edgar Beals' adaptation, by contrast, the King and his daughter simply lock themselves out of their castle, and Mother Muggins simply gives Bride Bridekins the lost key. Likewise at the end of the Tale, as mentioned earlier, the Princess turns against Bride Bridekins and there is a pitched battle, described at considerable length, in which the Sun roasts an entire army alive inside their armour; whereas in Beals' version, the Princess's army is represented by three archers, the Sun knocks the three of them down with his rays, and he then knocks the crowns off the heads of the King and his daughter to signify their defeat. These instances show both how Beals simplifies the Tale on which he is working, and how he lightens its "rather bleak" tone in the process.

Beals' version of Neva is probably the most completely successful of the four animations on this CD. Instead of attempting to animate the Tale in a quasi-realistic way he turns it into a puppet-show, in which all the characters and props are flat, simple shapes held up by lollipop-sticks or lowered by strings. There are no voices: virtually the whole story is told visually, but any extra narration which is required appears in the form of short text-cards held out on sticks. This brilliantly inventive format does away with many of the difficulties which normally beset Flash animations - how to make the characters walk convincingly, for example - but it also allows Beals to completely remake Mazuranic's Tale on his own terms, and the success of his piece seems to be in direct proportion to the radical vigour with which he has done this.

By contrast, Mirek Nisenbaum's "Yagor" follows the original story much more closely. It is narrated in a rather lugubrious male voice with a strong Russian accent, and the animation takes the form of pen-and-ink-style drawings on lurid, blobby, watercolour backgrounds. This is no pedestrian retelling, however. In Mazuranic's original, Yagor, the little boy who is the hero, is carried off by the noon witch and forced to look after her monstrous sheep. Nisenbaum seizes on the fact that the noon witch is always associated with extreme heat, and turns her mountain stronghold into a volcano; and whereas the sheep in Mazuranic's story are simply huge and red, Nisenbaum makes them more thoroughly monstrous by giving them feet like elephants and heads like skulls. He also simplifies the story quite considerably; but in the end, despite these alterations, his animation is much closer in tone to the original story than Beals'. He retains the brooding emphasis on suffering, the stretched-out tension of the climax, and the vengeful brutality with which the wicked characters are given their come-uppance. The animation is not quite such a complete success as in “Neva”, but it could be argued that "Yagor" has greater depth and more of the feel of a Slavonic folk-tale, which is the feel for which Mazuranic herself was striving when she wrote the original.

“Fisherman Plunk” is probably the most lighthearted of the eight Tales, and the treatment it gets here, from Laurence Arcadias, is appropriately brisk and cheerful. The characters and backgrounds are rendered in geometric shapes and bright colours, occasionally mixed with pasted-in photographic details. There is one unexpectedly dark moment when Fisherman Plunk beats up his wife, and her face – hitherto a blank oval of pale pink – suddenly sprouts a line of blood from nose to chin. “Regoch”, on the other hand, is one of the more rambling tales, with one of the grimmest endings. This one has been adapted by Helena Bulaja herself, and she has fallen slightly foul of the difficulties in the original story. Mazuranic's Tale falls into two distinct halves: in the first half, the fairy Kosjenka meets the giant Regoch, and the two of them take an underground journey together; while in the second half they become embroiled in the war between two villages. In Helena Bulaja's version the separation between these two halves is even more noticeable, with the story of the warring villages seeming to have very little connection with what has gone before, and a distinct change in visual style at the halfway point. But it also contains some of the most poetically suggestive sequences on either CD, especially the opening scenes, which combine black-and-white with colour, woodcut-style simplicity with more ornate graphics, and transparent silhouettes with background-glimpses of the original text, to great effect.

Yagor imageEvery animation on this CD - indeed, every animation in the entire project - is worth seeing for its own sake; but when they are viewed in conjunction with the original Tales, and the background information about Mazuranic herself, then a much more rich and complex picture emerges. This is a project with genuine popular appeal, which is bound to engage both children and adults: but it is also a slice of literary history, a valuable reminder of the importance of fairy stories to our literary traditions, and an introduction to the work, within that genre, of one of the best-known and best-loved Croatian authors.

© Edward Picot, May 2007

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