The Short Story Collection "Winter Tales", 1913, by Writer Kārlis Skalbe (1879−1945)
If Rainis (1865–1929) is Latvia’s most esteemed writer, Kārlis Skalbe would have a strong claim to be regarded as its best-loved. He was a deceptively complex writer – known as “the king of fairy tales” (pasaku karalis), although he was not a writer of fairy tales in exactly the way that most Western readers would understand the term. The 76 strange and beautiful tales he wrote during his life are especially close to the Latvian heart, but he was also an accomplished poet.
The short story collection “Winter Tales” (Ziemas pasakas), regarded as Skalbe’s most accomplished, was published in 1913. It includes nine tales, among which is his most popular and famous tale “Kitty’s Windmill” (Kaķīša dzirnavas), the story of a windmill-owning cat who is forced to pawn his windmill to pay for his daughters’ dowry, and then takes to the road, where he meets with various misfortunes, eventually ending up at a palace, where he is able to comfort a king who has fallen into a state of despair after the death of his wife. The other tales in the collection are “The Fairy Tale of the Farthing” (Pasaka par vērdiņu), “The Perpetual Student and His Fairy Tale” (Mūžīgais students un viņa pasaka), “The Wood Dove” (Meža balodītis), “The Mermaid” (Jūras vārava), “The Executioner’s Daughter” (Bendes meitiņa), “The Three Treasures of the Prince” (Ķēniņa dēla trīs dārgumi), “Cinderella” (Pelnrušķīte), “The Giant” (Milzis).
The rich, poetic and sometimes archaic language Skalbe uses bestows a sense of nobility and spirituality to everyday human experiences. On this subject, Raimonds Briedis (1965) has commented “the poetic world of Skalbe’s tales appears to slow and careful readers, who let themselves surrender to the author’s observations and language, their rhythm and flow. Rarely has a Latvian writer been able to feel so deeply the flavour and possibilities of the Latvian language.”
The British literary critic William Matthews said that Skalbe’s fairy tales had a similar place in Latvian literature as those of Hans Christian Andersen (1805–1875) hold in the literature of Denmark. Although frequently fantastical with their kings and princesses, talking animals and enchanted trees, Skalbe’s tales were not truly intended for children and often have dark endings.
Despite the sadness and darkness that often prevails in Skalbe’s stories, he promotes a fundamentally humanistic view of existence, showing a deep concern with ethical issues and the proper treatment of others. Arveds Švābe (1888–1959), who was among the first to conduct research into Skalbe’s tales, claimed that by comparison with Oscar Wilde (1854–1900) – who, he felt, placed Beauty as being of central importance in his stories – the primary hero of Skalbe’s tales was Virtue. This is all the more striking considering that he wrote “Winter Tales”, which contain some of his most humanistic works, while imprisoned in Riga Central Prison. As the cat in “Kitty’s Windmill” expresses it, when the king asks him how he would like the people who have tormented him on his travels to be treated – “do to them only good”.
Born in 1879 as the son of a blacksmith and the youngest of ten children, Skalbe grew up near Vecpiebalga. After leaving school, he worked variously as a farmhand, ploughman and bookseller. At the age of just nineteen, he published his first collection of poetry, “By the Sea” (Pie jūras). In 1901, he began work in the small town of Ērgļi, becoming only the second teacher ever employed at the local school.
While living in Ērgļi, he wrote a number of his most famous works, but in 1904 he was dismissed from his position for “political unreliability”. In 1905, he founded the magazine “Kāvi” (Northern Lights), becoming its chief editor, but the following year, it was shut down for publishing articles sympathetic to the 1905 revolution. As a result, Skalbe was forced to flee Latvia, first for Finland, and later for Switzerland. He tried to return after a couple of months, but was forced again to leave, settling in Oslo.
After the successful establishment of the independent Republic of Latvia, Skalbe achieved considerable fame and success, serving as a member of the Saeima (the Latvian parliament) and building his own summer-house in a beautiful location not far from his birthplace; his family spent summers there throughout the 1920s and 1930s. But the end of his life was troubled, as Latvia suffered invasions by both the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. Skalbe served as a member of the Latvian Central Council, a resistance organisation in 1944 which called unsuccessfully for the restoration of Latvia’s independence and the removal of both Soviet and German troops from its territory. But in 1944, as Red Army troops once again crossed Latvia’s borders, Skalbe decided to flee the country for Sweden. He died in Stockholm the following year.
Skalbe’s works remain popular with Latvians of all ages and backgrounds – as was confirmed in 2014 when “Kitty’s Windmill” was selected as the nation’s best-loved book in a national survey. His summer house near Vecpiebalga is now a museum.
Raimonds Briedis on Kārlis Skalbe in the Latvian Culture Canon, 2008. (in Latvian)
Skalbe, Kārlis. (1934). Pasakas. Rīga: J. Rozes izdevums. Illustrations by Niklāvs Strunke. (in Latvian)
Invitation to Skalbes evening in the Natālija Draudziņas Gymnasium on 5 November 1939. National Library of Latvia, collection of Small Prints. (in Latvian)
Kārlis Skalbe song evening in the University of Latvia Great Hall on 7 December 1942. National Library of Latvia, collection of Small Prints. (in Latvian)
Kārlis Skalbe – 100: [brochure]. (1979). Rīga: Latvijas PSR Brīvprātīgā grāmatu draugu biedrība. National Library of Latvia, collection of Small Prints. (in Latvian and Russian)
Writer Kārlis Skalbe's 100th anniversary's celebration program. (1979). Rīga: RS Literatūras propagandas birojs. National Library of Latvia, collection of Small Prints. (in Latvian)
Raimonds Briedis on Kārlis Skalbe in the Latvian Culture Canon, 2008.
Spēlfilmas „Kaķīša dzirnavas” (1932) saglabājušies fragmenti. Režisors Vilis Segliņš, Kaķīša lomā Arveds Mihelsons. Latvijas Nacionālā arhīva Latvijas Valsts kinofotofonodokumentu arhīva Apvienotais arhīva fonds.