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KĀRLIS SKALBE. "ZIEMAS PASAKAS"

The name of Kārlis Skalbe is so closely tied with fairy-tales as winter with children waiting for the first snowfall or autumn with the melancholy of unfulfilled dreams.  Mentioning Skalbe’s name, the sailor who went after the Maiden of the North; Cat who lost his windmill; the sauna keeper Ansis with the farthing that could not be spent, and many others join the images of his poetry. Or, a giant falls silent under a mountain and it is so quiet as can "only be because of great happiness". In Skalbe’s fairy-tales some lost world or one that has never materialized is preserved: it is beautiful, melancholy, and full of unexpected miracles.  A fairy-tale can after all happen at any moment, someone only has to begin the story with "Once upon a time". .

Skalbe writes his very first fairy-tale at the age of 25 in Ērgļi, Latvia (1904) and his last one forty years later when the author has ended up as an exile in Sweden (1945).  Writer Antons Austriņš rightly dubbed Skalbe "the king of the fairy-tale": he created a fairy-tale world of his own, completely sovereign and unique, where, a little sad like his fairy-tale kings, he observes and narrates the events that take place. Skalbe’s fairy-tales are not didactic; alongside his characters, he ponders events and emotions they elicit. As one of the first he tried to blend a tradition based on Latvian culture and world view with European modernism, creating a new fairy-tale where the mysterious world characteristic of symbolism is revealed and, in the narration the fantastic melds with the familiar, life with dream. Skalbe’s tales defy the strict limits set by the Latvian fairy-tale tradition: everything exists and acts at the same time: a familiar landscape, the plot of a fairy-tale, an observation of nature, and awareness of eternity. The fairy-tale world is populated by objects and events and each has its place, importance, and life. In this self-created world, Skalbe does not regard any thing, emotion or person as not important.

Skalbe’s fairy-tales have been collected and selected, and included in textbooks; various artists have visualized their characters in illustrations and animation films; they have been staged or read from stage, yet the only book that has retained its status as a whole is the collection "Ziemas pasakas" ("Winter Tales") (1913). In this collection Skalbe included fairty-tales that he wrote while in prison for articles that were published in 1906 in the magazine he edited, "Kāvi". In a letter to his wife Lizete Skalbe writes from prison: "What shall I tell you? Nothing happens here. Days come and pass without any color. All life during the day consists of trivia which acquire the value of events. For instance, it was snowing today. For me, it was a great event that filled almost my entire day." The fairy-tales too must have become an event for their author, for a whole multicolored world, full of life was created where dreams, fantasies, and memories "awaken feelings".

The collection includes nine fairy-tales: "Pasaka par vērdiņu" ("Fairy-tale of the Farthing"), "Mūžīgais students un viņa pasaka" ("The Perpetual Student and His Fairy-Tale"), "Meža balodītis" ("Wood Dove"), "Jūras vārava" ("The Mermaid"), "Bendes meitiņa" ("Executioner’s Daughter"), "Ķēniņa dēla trīs dārgumi" ("The Three Treasures of the Prince"), "Pelnrušķīte" ("Cinderella"), "Milzis" ("Giant"), and the most popular of them all "Cat’s Windmill". To the sad King’s question what should be done to those who have hurt the Cat, the latter answers: "Why multiply pain? Let joy multiply." Only those of Skalbe’s characters who can listen to another’s pain and accept suffering can find inner harmony and peace. Pain and sadness is what can awaken the human in a person and allows them to accept the world. The happy people in Skalbe’s tales are cruel, they don’t understand others. The real heroes for him are the melancholy dreamers, the humble souls unnoticed by others, who, feeling their own pain and that of the others, can notice both good and evil in the intricate play of the world. A person can be happy even if very little belongs to him: like water, warmth, and bread, as the imprisoned prince learns from the gifts bestowed by a fairy.

The poetic world of Skalbe’s fairy-tales opens up to a slow and careful reader who yields herself to the author’s observations of the world and to the language, its rhythm and flow. There have been few Latvian writers in such full command of the flavor and potential of the Latvian language. To children Skalbe’s fairy-tales often seem too sad, but they were not really written for them. They were written to help the adults keep a child’s perception of the world and ability to empathize.

Raimonds Briedis

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