Croatian Tales of Long Ago, by Ivana Brlić-Mažuranić (1922)

From the cover of Croatian Tales of Long Ago

One day late, but in keeping with the spirit of Halloween, which reminds us each year of the didactic benefits of scaring the crap out of kids, I want to celebrate a fine example of fairy tales told with the gloves off. As Bruno Bettelheim (perhaps somewhat plagiaristically) reminded us, uniformly pleasant and positive stories have their place in children’s literature, but so do terror, violence, and horrible-looking monsters with sharp teeth: “‘Safe’ stories mention neither death nor aging, the limits to our existence, nor the wish for eternal life. The fairy tale, by contrast, confronts the child squarely with the basic human predicaments.” And while Bettelheim’s argument may have been weakened by the facts of his credentials and practices that have come to light since the publication of The Uses of Enchantment, there is an undeniable edge of terror in many folk tale traditions.

In an article in The Looking Glass: New Perspectives on Children’s Literature, David Boudinot wrote, “Teaching fear through fairy tales is a proven method of helping children learn about safety, and it can help improve a child’s judgement and critical thinking skills.” By this standard, Ivana Brlić-Mažurani&cacute deserves a posthumous plaque from the folks at the National Safety Council for her collection, Croatian Tales of Long Ago available in its English translation by F. S. Copeland on the Internet Archive (link). Here are a few excerpts to demonstrate how these tales can help spice up the endless flow of Paddington pablum:

“Come along, brother, let’s get rid of grandfather. You have weapons. Wait for him by the well and kill him.”

There was the poor little fairy Curlylocks caught in the bowels of the earth! She was buried alive in that vast grave, and perhaps would never again see those golden fields for which she had set out, and all because she would not go straight on by the way they had intended, but would loiter and turn aside to the right and to the left to pry into God’s secrets!

Through fog and twilight ran Reygoch with the children in his arms and the terrified flocks at his heels in frantic flight—all running towards the dyke. And out to meet them flowed the Black Banewater, killing and drowning as it flowed. It is terribly strong, is that water. Stronger than Reygoch? Who knows? Will it sweep away Reygoch, too? Will it drown those poor herd boys and girls also, and must the dear little Fairy Curlylocks die—and she as lovely as a star?

Already the soldiers were battering at the entrance. Heavy clubs hammered on the doors and portals, banging and clanging till all the courts and passages of the soot-blacked house rang again, as though a host from the nethermost Pit were beating on the gates of Oleg the Warden.

Suddenly the Mountain rang with the most awful noise, so that the branches swayed and the leaves trembled on the trees, and the rocks and cliffs re-echoed down to the deepest cavern. It was Belleroo roaring.

So now the Sun thundered forth his anger. All the land fell silent with fear; axes and clubs were dropped in terror as the Sun thundered.

Illustration by Vladimir Kirin from “Croatian Tales of Long Ago”

The Copeland translation, published in 1922 by Frederick A. Stokes Company, is further spiced up with intricate paintings and black-and-white illustrations by Croatian artist Vladimir Kirin. The painting of the lion, bear, and wolf attacking the dragon—speaking of educating through fear and violence—from the book’s cover, however, is by the American illustrator, M. M. Williams (and depicts an event that doesn’t occur in any of the tales).


Croatian Tales of Long Ago, by Ivana Brlić-Mažuranić, translated by F. S. Copeland
New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1922

2 thoughts on “Croatian Tales of Long Ago, by Ivana Brlić-Mažuranić (1922)

  1. This sounds like fascinating work! I enjoyed the excerpt, and I especially enjoyed the accompanying illustrations that enhance the vividness of the prose. Thanks for including them!

    While the genre of the Fairy Tale (assuming one can refer to it as a “genre”) has made an undeniable impact on popular culture – and literary culture, for that matter – its educational potential in the manner you describe is not something I had ever really considered, at least not in any depth, but now I’m intrigued.

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