Dead Mothers and Absent Stepmothers in Slovak and Romani Fairy Tales

Katarina Labudova

Slovak and Romani Folk Tales

Slovak and Romani folk tales (and folk songs) obsessively return to motifs of dying and dead mothers, absent mothers replaced by stepmothers who make trouble for the orphaned children, and the starvation, cruelty and injustice that these children suffer. This study critically re-visits the traditional binary split between positive and negative mother figures. It is customary to associate birth mothers with positive characteristics such as creating and giving life, protecting, sheltering, feeding, and nurturing. However, in the stories these mothers are often dead or absent for other reasons. The women who replace them are frequently negative types: cruel stepmothers, jealous mothers-in-law, and evil witches.

Drawing on previous work by Shuli Barzilai, Marilyn Francus, Jack Zipes, Karen E. Rowe, Marianne Hirsch, and Marina Warner, I discuss the motifs of absent and monstrous mother figures in the Slovak folk tale ‘Little Fawn Brother’ and the Romani fairy tale1 ‘Black Brother and White Brother’. The texts feature mothers who die, as well as several types of substitute mothers, including wicked stepmothers, evil mothers-in-law, and

K. Labudova (*)

Department of English Language and Literature, Catholic University in Ruzomberok, Ruzomberok, Slovakia e-mail: This email address is being protected from spam bots, you need Javascript enabled to view it

© The Author(s) 2017

B. Astrom (ed.), The Absent Mother in the Cultural Imagination, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-49037-3_5

a spectral mother, all of whom fail to protect and nurture the children. Although both tales are conventionally narrated from the perspective of the children, who are struggling to develop their own identity and independence, my analysis also offers an alternative perspective: the viewpoint of the mother figure.

Before discussing the absent mother in selected Slovak and Slovak Romani fairy tales, however, it is useful to look at the history of these texts, and how they came to be written down. Collecting and editing folklore and folk tales was considered crucial in constructing and preserving national identities in Central and Eastern Europe. For Slovaks, the process started in the first half of the nineteenth century. The collectors, Pavol Dobsinsky and August Horislav Skultety, despite many financial and political difficulties, sought to preserve the authenticity of Slovak oral traditions in their collections of Slovak folk tales published from the 1850s to the 1880s. Although The Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales states that ‘Slovak authors were less interested in fairy tales than their Czech colleagues’ (Zipes 2000, 473), Slovak fairy tales not only survived the national oppression in the nineteenth century but also the later efforts of Communist censors to suppress fairy tales as a ‘bourgeois form [...] dangerous, escapist and undesirable reading matter’ (Zipes 2000, 469).

The traditional Slovak folk tales were greatly influenced by the Hungarian and German traditions, for reasons including geographical and cultural proximity. Nevertheless, the fairy tales and folk tales told in the territory of Slovakia retained many distinctive features. The first published collection of Slovak fairy tales was actually a Czech translation, whose title is usually given in English as Slovak National Fairy Tales and Legends (1857-1858). Slovak researchers had made a collection but financial and political difficulties obstructed its publication. In 1856, Pavol Dobsinsky (together with August Horislav Skultety) sent the first volume of the Slovak folk tales and legends they had been collecting over a number of years to Bozena Nemcova. Nemcova, who was already an acclaimed Czech writer, translated and published these fairy tales. However, she also rewrote them and stylized them. Although Nemcova’s elaborate tales are strongly influenced by her political views, as Milada Souckova argues, Nemcova’s volume of Slovak fairy tales was her ‘response to her stay in Slovakia. In the Slovak collection many things came together to produce a work of enduring value: her former experience, the colourful ethnographical milieu’ (Souckova 1958, 135). Nemcova never claimed that her Czech and Slovak tales were ‘authentic folk tales’. Although she ‘kept the dialogues in the original Slovak and used many Slovak proverbs as well’ (Zipes 2012, 100), Pavol Dobsinsky decided to reedit Nemcova’s version because he thought her stories were not following the specific Slovak oral tradition.

Dobsinsky was building on foundations laid down by Slovak intellectuals of the eighteenth century, including Jan Kollar, Samuel Reuss, and Pavol Jozef Safarik, who had begun collecting Slovak oral folk songs, proverbs, and tales. Like his predecessors, Dobsinsky made it his priority to preserve the authentic and original character of discourse reflecting not only the numerous dialects of the Slovaks, but also their values and way of life. He refers to the political oppression of the Hungarian state, which banned the use of Slovak language in schools. In a way, collecting the pieces of Slovak oral tradition was an act of rebellion against the marginalization of the Slovak nation. Count Kalman Tisza pushed an official Magyar nationalism to homogenize the population of the region and, as has been documented in the work of Silvia Mihalikova, Slovak language, schools, newspapers, and cultural and academic institutions were closed (2006, 174). Preserving Slovak fairy tales was a way to document the use of Slovak dialects as well as their distinctive narrative styles.

Another aim of their collection was to document the Slovak identity and way of life. Dobsinsky always gives credit to the collector of a particular tale as well as the original narrator and his region, even while using the new codification of the Slovak laid down by Ludevit Stur and his co-workers in 1843. Dobsinsky’s editing of the texts was intended to make the original dialects more accessible to adult as well as young readers. It should be noted Slovak fairy tales were not originally intended for children but only for adults, and they were originally narrated in adult storytelling communities. These communal events occurred seasonally: women would gather in each other’s houses to work together on seasonal tasks such as spinning flax. The folk tales served not only to pass the time but also to share common experiences and rituals. Consequently, they were used to warn and to reinforce expected behavior and stereotypes. The original folk tales were partially sanitized for children as they included erotic motifs as well as sexual violence, and naturalistic descriptions of labor and death.

Similarly, Slovak Romani fairy tales, paramisi, were told to adults by adult performers, paramisaris, at special gatherings. These gatherings, ‘often attended by even more than hundred Roma—at which strict cultural norms have to be observed’ were still popular cultural events in the

1980s (Bakker and Kiuchukov 2000, 48). The storyteller should always be older and male. ‘It is by listening that younger members of the audience learn how to live and behave like Roma in relation to the external world’ (Toninato 2014, 48). Many stories serve as warnings against unethical behavior. The audience was not supposed to interrupt the narrator; however, they were expected to evaluate the heroes of the story, those whose actions were honest—pat’ivales, or embarrassing—pre ladz (Nemcova 2008, 24). The listeners also encourage the storyteller (and his heroes) with sighs of horror and/or laughter. Hence, the gatherings not only provide entertainment, but also fulfill social, educational, and therapeutic functions.

The Slovak (and Czech) Romani fairy tales were first collected by Milena Hubschmannova. She tape-recorded 71 fairy tales in the years 1953-1954 and then in 1967-1970. As an ethnographer, she attempted to record the original narrative style of every narrator and did not impose her own styling or editorial choices in any way. Because of this, there are obvious gaps and inconsistencies in meaning, logic, and chronology. However, this gives the fairy tales their own stamp of authenticity and for many readers, a seductive charm.

A Romani written literature began to emerge only in the 1960s in response to the Communist persecution of Roma people. The Communist regime of the former Czechoslovakia constantly pushed for the complete assimilation of the Roma into mainstream society. Established Romani authors constantly returning to fairy tales include Marie Voriskova, Elena Lackova and Dezider Banga. Dezider Banga published several books of fairy tales between 1964 and 1993, including Cierny Vlas, [Black Hair] 1970 and Paramisa [an anthology of Romani fairy tales], 1993.

Marie Voriskova, in the Preface of her Carovne pero: Ciganske rozpravky, [Magic Feather: Gypsy Tales], explains that the tales were not for children but for adults. Voriskova emphasizes that although the tales draw on ancient Romani narratives, they are ‘intertextually linked with Slovak folk tales and legends’ (2014, 6). The most appreciated are the tales about heroes (vitejziko paramisa) and as they can last more than four hours, they are also called long tales (bareparamisa).

Another genre is made up of short tales (charne), which are usually humorous (pherasune) and, sometimes, also dirty (dzungale). If a dirty tale (dzungali paramisi) is narrated, ‘children are always sent out of the room’. (Bakker and Kiuchukov 2000,49) Traditionally, the public storytellers were men; women could tell tales at home. Although Romani folk tales and fairy tales are intertextually linked with the Slovak, Hungarian (and the German) traditions in whose vicinity they developed, I show that most of them manifest specific regional differences and local color.

The fairy tale ‘Black Brother and White Brother’ is taken from the collection of Romani tales, Romani Paramisa, written in 1959 (second edition in 1999) by Elena Lackova. The fairy tales were written in Slovak first andthentheywere translated into Czech and several Romani dialects by Lackova and her cotranslators. Traditionally, the tales were not intended for children, so Elena Lackova edited them and transformed them to be more accessible for children and contemporary readers. Lackova’s autobiography was later translated into Czech and English as A False Dawn: My Life as a Gypsy Woman in Slovakia (1999). Lackova refers to the strict rules of the storytelling gatherings: ‘As best as we could, we tried hard to live in accordance with pat’iv—with honor, virtue, politeness, which we were constantly reminded of in vitejziko paramisa—in heroic tales, in songs, sayings, in wise words of old Roma’ (Lackova 1997, 133). Lackova is also the author of several novels and plays about the Romani Holocaust. In 2001, she received the Chatam Sofer Medal from the Slovak Museum of Jewish Culture for her Holocaust writings.

Even though the Slovak and Romani narratives are edited, they reflect the experience of the ordinary people: poverty, hunger, and mothers dying in childbirth. The fairy tales were for adults but children adopted them, so the traditional values and ideals would be conserved and again reconstructed in every telling. If Pavol Dobsinsky is seen as the father of Slovak fairy tales, Elena Lackova is the mother of Romani fairy tales.

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