Fairy tale is the foundation of (Estonian) children’s literature

The ancient and mighty source of Estonian literature, which still provides material, is oral heritage – folk songs, fairy tales, puzzles, proverbs, merry tales – in which children have always had a share. Among folk songs, we distinguish songs sung to children and songs produced by children themselves. The first category includes lullabies, verses read during playtime and limericks. Funny verses helped children to remember numbers and the time of day. They have created verses for drawing lots, mocking verses and so on.

Fairy tales have not always been intended solely for children. They conveyed moral evaluations and instructions of behaviour, and were, of course, entertaining. The first fairy tales to become children’s stories were about animals.

In Estonia, the compiler of our national epic, F.R. Kreutzwald (1803-1882), gathered ancient stories from around the country and retold them in literary form. He explains the appearance of Cinderella and other recognisably borrowed tales among the collection of Estonian stories by pointing out that Baltic-German children told them to their Estonian nannies, and they in turn retold them, readjusting them to local circumstances. Kreutzwald’s “Old Estonian Fairy Tales” (Eesti rahva ennemuistsed jutud), published in 1866 in Helsinki, contains 43 fairy tales and 18 legends.

Inspired by Kreutzwald, other writers gathered, retold and published ancient stories, among them Jakob Kõrv, Juhan Kunder and Ernst Peterson-Särgava. Fairy tales from the wider world reached Estonian readers via translations. Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales appeared 40 years after their original publication. Many other tales gradually found their way into the Estonian language. The tradition of publishing fairy tales has been continuous, the only change being the places from where the tales have been taken. After the Soviet Union’s occupation of Estonia, the emphasis was on the fairy tales of the so-called “brotherly nations”. “Tales of a Hundred Nations” (Saja rahva lood), a series started in 1973, introduced stories from east and west. A parallel series, “Fairy Tales from Around the World” (Muinaslugusid kogu maailmast), presented the stories of indigenous peoples, as well as tales from a lady at the court of Louis XIV. A 1978 collection of Irish and Scottish folk tales, “Bag-pipe, Fairies and Giants”, also includes commentaries. Readers used to the Grimms’ fairy tales took to them eagerly, as they seemed different and had a charm of their own. The publication of Irish tales has been especially vigorous in recent years.

Jüri Parijõgi’s collection of stories based on fairy tales (1933) stresses the purity of Estonians’ ethical principles. August Jakobson, a representative of the naturalistic and realist literary trends who cultivated socialist realism, also published collections for children: “The Nightingale and the Blindworm” (Ööbik ja vaskuss) (1947); “Big Uncle and Small Nephew” (Suur onu ja väike vennapoeg) (1964); and “Plague with a Wooden Leg” (Puujalaga katk) (1965). The latter pair contain legends based on folk beliefs and feature elves, goblins, incubi, malaria and plague. Jakobson’s lively narrative style and horrifying plots certainly make them unforgettable. Several collections for younger schoolchildren of folk poetry in its genuine form were also published, containing fairy tales, folk songs, puzzles, proverbs and sayings.

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