Friday, May 18, 2012

Serbian fairytales

-By Petar Meseldzija

Golden Apple and the Nine Peahens, detail

A few months ago I posted an entry about a book project on Serbian fairytales that I am participating in (click here ). After that I was approached by a person from Imagine FX who wanted to talk to me about the Serbian fairytales for a fairytale fantasy art special issue of Imagine FX magazine. I said yes, and after that got a number of very nice questions from them. The interview will be published in the issue 84. Here is a part from that interview that you might find interesting, in one or another way, and one of the illustrations from the fairytale named Golden Apple and the Nine Peahens.

What specific Serbian tales struck a chord with you, and why?

There are three Serbian fairytales that I like in particular. The first one is Baš Čelik (Steel Bashaw) which is one of the most popular Serbian fairytales. My book The Legend of Steel Bashaw is based on this ancient folk tale. What I like about this tale is that it’s dynamic, inspiring, exciting and it possesses all the fantastic elements that make up the epic journey of a hero fascinating. It is in a visual sense very inspiring for the illustrator.
The second fairytale that captured my imagination is called The Real trouble cannot be hidden. There is a fascinating detail in this tale, which I did not find in any other story. That part of the tale goes as follows; A very modest, honest and poor man decides to work for a wealthy person. In return, and when a whole year has passed, the rich man will pay to him what he thinks that our poor man has earned during that year. When the first year of hard labor for our honest man came to its end, the rich guy, being a greedy person, paid him with a tiny little coin. Obviously the hardworking man was inadequately paid, but never the less, he gratefully took that little coin and went home. He came across a stream and said: “Dear Lord, let this little coin float on the water in case I really earned it. And let it sink to the bottom if I did not earn it.” Of course, the coin sinks to the bottom and our good man goes to his boss and gives the coin back to him saying: “ Take this coin back, for I did not work hard enough to earn it”. After that he spends another year working for the rich guy, gets another coin, coin sinks to the bottom of the river, and he gives it back to the owner once again. After the third year of hard labor he was paid with another coin, he goes to the river and, this time, the coin starts floating on the water….I find this story very fascinating (although it is just a part of the whole tale). There is a beautiful symbolism in it. It is so remote from the way of thinking of most of us today. On one hand this kind of behavior would be considered as quite irrational, even insane in our contemporary materialistic world. On the other, I think that many of us, after reading it, would somehow feel that this little story embodies a kind of mysterious sanity of a higher (deeper) level, so to say.

The third Serbian fairytale which I am quite fond of is called Usud, which means Destiny. There is a fascinating detail in this one as well. First of all, the same fairytale is to be found in the literal heritage of several other nations. I know about the Chinese and the Irish version. All three of the versions have the same main theme, but they differ in details, and this has to do with the historical and cultural differences between the countries. However, only the Serbian version contains this particular detail. The story goes as follows; A man who had lost all his riches and did not have luck in his life any more, although he worked very hard, decides to go in search of Usud, who was supposed to know the reason for his troubles. During his journey he encounters different people with various problems, who, upon hearing about the purpose of his journey, ask him to ask Usud about the reason for their own troubles. One of this troubled “characters” from the story is a river. Our guy needs to cross the river, but there is no bridge and no boat. So, he asks the river to bring him to the other side. The river does it but, just as others, asks him to ask Usud why there is no life in her waters. Our guy eventually finds Usud and gets all the answers ,including the answer to the river’s question. And the answer to the question why there is no life in the river was: “ Because nobody has drowned yet in that river. After a person is drowned in the river, there will be life in her waters”...Well, what do you say about that? For a long time I did not understand the meaning of this controversial detail from the story. But a few years ago I read Joseph Campbell, who was one of the greatest mythologists (comparative mythology) of the 20th century. I was especially impressed by his famous and extremely influential book The Hero with a Thousand Faces. After that I was able to understand the symbolism of this creepy detail. This part of the fairytale is one of the very few direct links to the Mythology and the Mythological Truth that I have ever found in the Serbian fairytales. In fact it undoubtedly reflects the first function of Mythology, which is to reconcile the human psyche with one of the major and most horrifying truths of Life, which is – Life feeds itself with Life. There is no Life without Death. Today I eat you, tomorrow you eat me, as Joseph Campbell wrote in one of his books. It is horrible, but it is absolutely true, and Mythology has found a wonderful and clever way of presenting these kind of big and scary truths about the existence in the form of such symbolic stories.

Is national character important in fairytales?

In these times of globalization and intense intercultural interaction, when many things that have marked the previous ages are irreversibly changing and vanishing, a kind of global culture is being shaped. In order to survive this process, as well as to participate in it most optimally, it is an imperative for a person, as well as for the nation, to have a developed sense of his/its own identity. In order to be able to function properly in this newly emerging global culture, one must know who he is first. For I believe that if you don’t know where you come from, you cannot know where you go to. Besides, this new global culture can only profit from the diversities that are brought in by the unique national elements. In that respect the national character in fairytales is indeed important.

Golden Apple and the Nine Peahens, illustration no. 3


  1. Great painting, I remember the scetches for it.As for the tales I think that there is a lot of wisdom behind them. Even though we call them children's tales and our own grandmothers used to tell them to us, there is a lot more to them than there is in most 18+ movies. I compare them to movies for I believe the cinema is the narrator of our time. People used to put more wisdom and essential truth even in the simplest of things :)

  2. I don't like her head, it looks too big.

    I'M KIDDING! just trollin'.

    I love common mythology, and this post has inspired me to investigate it further.

  3. Really interesting part of the interview... I definitely need to read more Joseph Campbell. I've watched some of his lectures, which in and of themselves are extremely insightful and inspiring. I'm a big fan of fairy tales and myth, so it was fun to read about some Serbian ones. I'll have to keep an eye out for that ImagineFX issue. Good luck finishing work on your Serbian fairy tales project. It looks like it's coming along great so far.

  4. It was great to seeing you at Spectrum! Seeing your paintings in real life was a humbling and wonderful experience. Thank you!

  5. Love the structure and color vibe in your pieces. Good work, only the man looks pretty short to me.^^

  6. Petar, I'd love to hear more of what you know about the psyche and mythology in future posts! That was very insightful. :)