Hedgehogs, the Keepers of Order and Knowledge in Slavic Fairy Tales

by Margaryta Golovchenko

The folk tales of various cultures have characters that act as guardians of some sort. Some are like Merlin, King Arthur’s wise advisor, while others are like Puss in Boots, the mischievous and clever protector of the miller’s youngest son. But arguably none are as unexpected, nor as little-known, as the hedgehogs of Slavic folk tales.

These adorable animals are predominantly found in Russian movies and fairy stories but they appear, also, in tales from neighboring countries. The Bulgarians have two particularly interesting accounts of the hedgehog, both of which point to his wisdom. In one tale, he advises God on how to use the sky to cover the earth, while in another he is the only animal not to attend the wedding of the Sun and the Moon. When asked for the reason, he says that he’s busy learning to eat rocks, for if the union takes place and the Sun has lots of little sun children, all the plants in the world will dry up.[1]


In other stories, the hedgehog is an embodiment of magical powers. The Slovenian duhovin, for instance, is a version of the bewitched child, possessing special abilities and qualities, and appearing with the body of an animal such as a snake, hedgehog, or raven.[2] And, in the Soviet animated film Ezhik v tumane (Hedgehog in the Fog, 1975), Hedgehog is the bridge between the conscious and the dream world, evoking sympathy from the audience as they watch him lost in a thick mist, chasing after the mirage of a white horse in the clouds.

Perhaps the infrequency of hedgehogs in other cultural stories speaks to a unique characteristic of Slavic culture–the stereotypically cold exterior of the Slavic people gives way to a wise and kind nature. Initially, the hedgehog’s kind personality might seem difficult to find under his intimidating façade. For the persistent reader who takes the time to discover more about him in Slavic tales, however, the hedgehog serves as a reminder that wisdom, kindness, and courage come in various forms.

Margaryta Golovchenko a first year undergraduate student at the University of Toronto, Canada. She serves as an editor for the journals Half Mystic and The Spectatorial.  Margaryta’s work has appeared in various publications including [parenthetical], The Teacup Trail, In/Words, and Pear Drop Press, and her debut poetry chapbook Miso Mermaid is forthcoming this fall from words(on)pages press.

[1] Tolstoj, Svetlana M. Словенска митологија: Енциклопедијски речник. (Zepter Book World, 2001), 244-45

[2] Kropej, Monika. Supernatural Beings from Slovenian Myth and Folktales. (Ljubljana: Scientific Research Centre of the Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts, 2012), 222.


Editor’s Note: Ancient Moments of Telling

Biologists reconstruct the descent histories of life forms on planet Earth as the tree of life, its dense trunks and branches leading from common ancestors to new species. Such phylogenetic relationships are not limited to biology. Sara Graça da Silva and Jamshid J. Tehrani from the New University of Lisbon in Portugal applied the same analysis tools and techniques to storytelling.[1]  Using the catalogue of categorized written folklore in the Aarne-Thompson-Uther (ATU) Index, they “recorded the presence/absence of each [of] these tales […] in 50 Indo-European-speaking populations represented in the ATU Index” and traced along the resulting tree-like descent histories how these stories were transmitted.[2]

The vertically-transmitted story is passed down within a culture through cultural inheritance. After migration and time, the story might show up around the world, told in daughter languages that emerged out of the original language in which it was first told. A horizontally-transmitted story leaps across cultural and language boundaries to reach foreign audiences. Graça da Silva and Tehrani found evidence for stronger vertical than horizontal transmissions for many of the folk tales they studied. When “accounting for spatial relationships among linguistically related Indo-European groups,” many folktales seemed to have been rejected by adjacent cultures. Rejection by foreign cultures and missed opportunities to translate and adopt such stories that might have changed them significantly helped them to retain much of their original form.

Graça da Silva and Tehrani traced this remarkable retention of the basic story arc across hundreds and thousands of years and miles to glimpse—for a few stories—ancient origins in the oral traditions. They discovered that “The Smith and the Devil” fairy tale might have originated over 6000 years ago in the Bronze Age. Preserved in the phylogenetic relationships are ancient moments of telling: a blacksmith and their fictional story about the struggle to smelt copper and alloy, or other community members and their fictional stories about the blacksmith. After all, to pursue craft is isolating; to pursue work with metals is magical, powerful, dangerous, and thus perfect for gossip and exclusion and storytelling.[3]

Certainly the Devil is involved.[4] There’s the bargain—the smith’s soul for mastery over the new dark arts—and there’s the twist—the morally questionable smith beats the Devil at his own game—and there’s the implication that art, craft, technology, knowledge itself are both divine and damning. From roots to branches, it’s an implication that susurrates thousands of years later.

This Editor’s Note was written by Tiny Donkey Editor Richard Leis.

[1]Graça da Silva, Sara and Tehrani, Jamshid J. “Comparative phylogenetic analyses uncover the ancient roots of Indo-European folktales.” Royal Society Open Science. 3: 150645. 20 January 2016. Web. 31 March 2016. <http://rsos.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/3/1/150645>

[2] “Aarne-Thompson-Uther Classification of Folk Tales.” Multilingual Folk Tale Database. Web. 31 March 2016. <http://www.mftd.org/index.php?action=atu>

[3] Monbiot, George. “The Smith and the Devil.” George Monbiot. 1 January 1994. Web. 31 March 2016. <http://www.monbiot.com/1994/01/01/smith-and-the-devil/>

[4]“330: The Smith Outwits the Devil.” Multilingual Folk Tale Database. Web. 31 March 2016. <http://www.mftd.org/index.php?action=atu&act=select&atu=330>

Interview: Michael Mejia


I  first encountered Michael Mejia’s short story “Coyote Takes Us Home” last year, while reading Kate Bernheimer and Carmen Giménez Smith’s anthology My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me. As a story based on Mexican folktales that addresses the U.S.-Mexico border, it stands out in an anthology that–while excellent–mostly draws upon European lore. Mejia carved out time in his busy schedule (he teaches creative writing at the University of Utah, is the Editor-in-chief of Western Humanities Review, the co-founding editor of Ninebark Press, and the author of the novel Forgetfulness) to talk to me about “Coyote Takes Us Home,” the fraught landscape of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands, and the trips he took south of the border in an effort to learn about his Mexican heritage.

I live near the U.S.-Mexican border–in Tucson, Arizona–and I encountered your story, “Coyote Takes Us Home,” while writing about borderland fairy tales and folklore for the Fairy Tale Review blog. Why did you decide to write a newfangled fairy tale about crossing the border?

As with any good fairy tale, there are three knocks required to open this question.

The first reveals an answer you may already know. In my note following “Coyote Takes Us Home,” I mention having half-heard, some years ago, a news report about unaccompanied minors stowed in cars crossing the border, in a way we might expect with shipments of drugs. It’s fantastic, of course, and dangerous, and absurd, and real. Parents leave their children with relatives, come to the U.S., work to pay for the kids’ care, eventually putting aside enough to have them sent north, through a network of strangers, and smuggled across the border. Sometimes the parents will be forced to pay thousands of dollars more, a ransom, to have the kids delivered as much as 2000 miles away, to North Carolina or Pennsylvania, Washington or Chicago. Or the kids might get caught along the way and repatriated to a shelter on the Mexican side of the border. A phone call or a fax from their parents, a promise to send them home, to not to try again, can be enough to get them released, and that night they’ll be back in the Arizona desert.

The story got even more desperate in 2014, when more than 40,000 kids from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala (far more than from Mexico) were fleeing gang violence and recruitment as well as poverty. They came walking, riding buses, and riding the tops of trains across multiple borders on their way north, with no family at all in the US.  Aside from finding these stories terrifying and sad—though if…when…the kids do make it across, I think we know there’s a real chance at something like a happy ending—I wanted to consider the issues of abandoning your home place, the socio-economic pressures that would make that place unlivable, the unexpected uprooting that occurs on that morning word comes that you’re to get in the car, on the bus, and the loss of cultural knowledge this journey represents. Which brings me to the second knock.

Continue reading Interview: Michael Mejia

A Ditmarsh Comedy

by E.C. Messer

Beset by the desire to identify and explain the effects of Poetry—his word for drama—upon his sensibilities, Aristotle explains the difference between tragedy and comedy this way: tragedy begins in order and ends in chaos; comedy begins in chaos and ends in order. The tragic fable of Hamlet, for example, shows the disintegration of the State; the comedic fable of Tartuffe the reinstatement of the nuclear family.

In the traditional fables and fairy stories of Western literature, there are no tragedies: the wicked are punished, the good rewarded. Benefits gained by the former and hardships suffered by the latter, in the interim, are of no consequence to the story’s driving force, its resolution. There are, however, many Aristotelian comedies to be found among these fabulist ranks.

A Tall Tale From Ditmarsh, collected by the Brothers Grimm, is an ideal tiny, bizarre encapsulation of the impulse toward order. Its opening, “I want to tell you something,” implies monologue, from which dialogue originally emerged. At first it appears to be all chaos—neither comedy nor tragedy but farce, or, in modern terms, absurdism. Absurdism can be funny, funnier even than certain comedies, but it is not itself comedy. It’s laughing while Rome burns, sometimes laughing because Rome is burning.

Ditmarsh, instead, is the kind of controlled madness that reinforces order: to consider the anvil and the millstone swimming across the Rhine acknowledges the existence of anvils, millstones, rivers that can be swum. More than that, it insinuates the whole domestic, quotidian world of tools to be hammered into useful shapes, grain to be ground into bread, and human mouths to consume it for sustenance.

The open-ended nature of pseudo-absurdism allows for infinite variation. Local household objects and native fauna may be substituted as the storyteller desires. In London the Thames might replace the Rhine, in Japan an usu for pounding mochi replaces the millstone, here in San Francisco a bicycle across the bay replaces sails across fields. Folk tales are fundamentally artisanal, but the result is the same: a Brechtian estrangement without which we would be unable to understand the most ordinary objects and behaviors.

And there’s even a catharsis, for those who require a catharsis: “Open the window so the lies can fly out.” Literally a release, a banishment, a moral exorcism that leaves the listener (reader) with truth—the ultimate order—restored. Unless the window won’t open.

E.C. Messer lives in the sunniest part of San Francisco with her husband and four cats. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter @ecmesser. She would like very much to know you.

Editor’s Note: What Goes Up Does Not Come Down

nundaSo it flew up higher still—so high that the earth shone like one of the other stars.
‘How much of you will be left if you fall from here?’ asked the bird.
‘If I die, I die,’ said the boy, ‘but I will not leave you.’

The Swahili fairy tale, “The Nunda, Eater of People,” is the story of a boy and figs, and a sultan, and a bird. It also contains, perhaps, the most extreme of what Max Lüthi, preeminent fairy-tale scholar and critic, would call a “blind motif”: an element not made use of, narratively, once it is introduced. An element whose purpose is only disappear. Think of a protagonist and their two older brothers, who are never referred to after their introduction, and yet are not removed by the author—the blind motif is the anti-Chekhov’s gun, a red herring gone amok. In “The Nunda,” our protagonist holds onto the bird until it relents and offers one of its feathers; in an emergency, the boy can burn the feather, and the bird will rescue him.

At the moment of transaction, the story is only halfway done: the latter half revolves around a murderous cat and our protagonist’s mission to kill it, with no more mention of the feather. The story seems to laugh in the face of expectations, the call and response. The idea of what goes up must come down. We enter the realm of the dreaded vague: For all we know, the feather has fallen out of the youngest’s pocket, been blown by the wind into some forgotten corner of his abode. For all we know, the feather has been pickpocketed by a neighboring child and put beneath a pillow to be forgotten. For all we know, the feather is kept until the boy becomes an old man who has never saw reason to flee anything.

That we do not dwell on how this bird carries the boy into space is beautiful. That in the quote above the bird asks not about dying in the fall, but having only a remainder of a body, is beautiful. That none of this is explained is beautiful. Can we truly not accept a gun that does not fire by the curtain’s fall? Are we really that against the motif that blinds, or refuses to be congruous? The sultan was mentioned in the first sentence here and never did return. Was he missed, or was his being forgotten something better?

“The Nunda,” as with all stories, could have offered us an answer as to the boy and his feather, but isn’t it better that we can leave ourselves with just one of a thousand better visions? For all we know, the boy burns his feather a decade after killing the Nunda, and only because he feels like taking a wing-borne joyride over Nalubaale and all its freshwater, the source of the thing many others call the Nile.

This Editor’s Note was written by Fairy Tale Review Prose and Managing Editor and Tiny Donkey Editor Joel Hans.

Interview: Carmen Maria Machado


Carmen Maria Machado writes rich, fabulist fiction that draws on fairy tales and folklore. She has some exciting publications forthcoming–including a debut short story collection, Her Body & Other Parties (Graywolf Press), and a story in The Ochre Issue of Fairy Tale Review. For this interview, however, I decided to ask Machado about an older story– “The Husband Stitch,” published by Granta in October 2014, and inspired by a frightening children’s tale, urban legends, and the experience of being an awkward kid at Girl Scout Camp.

“The Husband Stitch,” is a variation on “The Green Ribbon,” a popular scary story (I remember it well from childhood!). How did you first encounter “The Green Ribbon”? Why did you decide to write your own version of it? 

I first read “The Green Ribbon” in Alvin Schwartz’s In a Dark, Dark Room and Other Scary Stories, a children’s book in the vein of his Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series. (Though with significantly less terrifying illustrations.) Anyway, In a Dark, Dark Room had a story called “The Green Ribbon,” by which I was simultaneously repulsed and entranced. Of all the urban legend and folktale retellings in Schwartz’s oeuvre, that’s the one that stuck with me the most.

Later, when I was in graduate school, I was hanging out with friends when Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark came up in conversation. That series pretty much scared everyone in my generation, and each person in my group had a different story from it that’d scared the bejeesus out of them as kids.

My brain kept returning to “The Green Ribbon,” and it occurred to me that there are all kinds of interesting currents about gender running beneath that story’s deceptively simple ice. That summer, I sat down and wrote the first draft of “The Husband Stitch.” At the time, it was just a straight re-telling of the protagonist’s story from meeting her future husband to her head falling off; the metafictional elements and retellings of other urban legends came later in the editing process.

Continue reading Interview: Carmen Maria Machado

The Slit-mouthed Woman

by Lucy Randazzo

Traditionally, Japan has an extremely polite language and culture. Specific honorific and humble verb conjugations require knowing one’s place in the social structure, while an intricate system of bows changes the interpretation of interpersonal interactions by the adjustment of a few degrees. Grasping such a complex sociolinguistic structure takes a lifetime to master, and folklore teaches Japanese youth proper speech and behavior from an early age. In particular, the tale of the kuchisake-onna, or “slit-mouthed woman,” encourages children to properly beat around the bush linguistically under the violent threat of getting sliced from ear to ear.

This humanoid monster wears a mask over her mouth, confronting strangers to ask, “Am I beautiful?” If the answer is no, she immediately lashes out and slices up the person impertinent enough to be so rude, killing her victim with a blade or pair of scissors. An initial answer of “yes” is not the way to go either; even when given what someone from a Western culture would view as a compliment, she tears off the mask to reveal razor-sharp teeth in a mouth that has been slit open in a Glasgow smile. “What about now?” At this point, no matter what is said or done, the respondent is doomed to a grisly fate because the strict and immediate answer of “yes” is too enthusiastic and full of pressure, and the damage of that quick affirmation cannot be taken back. Except in the most intimate and close relationships, answering a question outright or too quickly shows a lack of concern or thought no matter what the answer may be.

A number of ways to avoid or escape the kuchisake-onna exist, varying regionally and individually. Wearing the color yellow prevents her from stalking you in the first place. Throwing hard candies sidetracks her like shiny objects distract crows. Yelling “pomade” at her three times makes her flee—something about her ex-boyfriend or the doctor who killed her wearing too much pomade in his hair (though speculations about her origins also include her being the vengeful spirit-lover of an unfaithful samurai; and getting hit by a car and mangled while chasing some children). The most prevalent solution when a confrontation with the slit-mouthed woman begins is to answer “maybe” or tell her that she looks “so-so,” which confuses the spirit long enough to escape. According to some versions, she is even polite enough to apologize for bothering her would-be victim if they respond that they have a prior engagement, very subtly insinuating that they cannot speak with her right then. Overhasty decisiveness is the courteous kuchisake-onna’s real pet peeve, but a mastery of how to answer questions or accept invitations keeps her wrath in check.

Lucy Randazzo is a senior studying English and creative writing with a minor in Japanese at the University of Arizona, her fiction thesis focusing on the interconnectivity of beauty and violence. Her short fiction prose has been published by Scribendi, the University of New Mexico’s honors undergraduate literary magazine. She is currently the managing editor of Persona, the University of Arizona undergraduate literary magazine, as well as an editorial assistant at Fairy Tale Review and an editing intern at the University of Arizona Press.

Editor’s Note: This Notebook is a Shattered Jar

The notebook arrived a few months ago in a box of old things my mom sent from the house I grew up in. It was originally a gift from a high school sweetheart, filled with notes from friends about my talents and how much they appreciated me. It sounds, at first description, like the kind of thing that would fill me with nostalgia for my punkish teen years. But opening the notebook was excruciatingly awkward. The gift had been prompted by my low self-confidence and anxiety, which left me feeling like friends secretly despised me and regularly led them to actually despise me, after I confronted them for imagined transgressions. I didn’t even read the notes–I didn’t need to, I knew they were full of the same kind comments that had been used reassure me throughout my life (comments that I would not–or could not–believe). Instead, I tore those pages out and threw them away. The only thing that remains from the original gift is a Tolkien quote penned on the notebook’s inside cover:

Still round the corner there may wait
A new road or a secret gate
And though I oft have passed them by
A day will come at last when I
Shall take the hidden paths that run
West of the Moon, East of the Sun.

tumblr_nmuvzrd51g1rne95fo6_500I recently watched Song of the Sea, an animated film by Ireland’s Cartoon Saloon. The film’s villain is the owl-witch Macha, who turns mythical creatures–like faeries and giants–into stone to “save” them from negative emotions. She stores her own difficult emotions and memories in bottles and jars. Of course (spoiler alert!), Song of the Sea is about a brother and sister’s successful attempt to turn Macha back into the good witch she once was and release the enchanted creatures from their stone holds. They’re able to do so when a magical song–sung by the sister who is, it turns out, a selkie– causes Macha’s bottles and jars to break. Macha’s forced to swallow up the despair she’s been hiding from, and this swallowing allows the desired transformation to take place.

My notebook feels a little like one of Macha’s shattered jars–a ghost of the emotions it once contained. The Tolkien quote on the inside cover doesn’t let me forget what this notebook was originally for; neither does my anxiety, which I’m learning to manage but continue to live with. Yet, I am able to re-inscribe it, re-purpose it, fill it up with something new. I’ve been using it as my Tiny Donkey notebook–where I jot down to-do lists or take notes during our editorial meetings. It’s a fitting use for it, I think. Reading, studying and writing about fairy tales has become, for me, a wondrous obsession, the kind of thing that serves as a temporary respite from a self-doubting and anxious brain.

This Editor’s Note was written by Tiny Donkey Editor Wren Awry.

Fairy Tale Cluedo

by Elizabeth Hopkinson


Fairy tales are well known for their use of familiar tropes and motifs. The persecuted heroine, the animal helper, the three wishes, the unassailable tower. I thought it would be fun to show the interplay of motifs across different fairy tales by mapping the fairy tale world in the form of a traditional Cluedo board. Instead of the usual weapons (dagger, revolver, lead piping etc.) I would substitute a selection of familiar fairy tale objects. Namely: key, spinning wheel, ring, apple, scissors, needle and slippers. All of these are common, everyday objects, but when they appear in fairy tales they are often imbued with magical powers or significance.

In the game of Cluedo, different combinations can be created by selecting person, room and weapon. I wanted to create similar combinations of character, room and object. I kept the traditional Cluedo rooms, with the exception of Billiard Room, which I changed to Turret. The connection of each character to their respective room may be tentative, but it exists nonetheless. My aim was to have at least one character in each room, and at least two characters sharing the same object or motif. In each case, the object (apple, needle etc.) features somewhere in a version of that character’s tale.

One feature of Cluedo that always excited me as a child was the use of secret passages. Fairy tales, too, have secret portals leading to strange underworlds. So I marked each passageway on the board with an underground destination from a different fairy tale, to which it might lead.

We cannot forget that the original game of Cluedo centers on a murder. Death and murder feature in fairy tales, too. So I marked the spot where the Murder Cards would traditionally be placed with the name of that shadowy fairy tale character, Godfather Death.

The fairy tales I have used for this map are as follows. For the characters in the rooms: Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel, Allerleirauh (The Coat of all Colours), Bearskin, The Almond Tree, Snow-White and Rose-Red, The Wolf and the Seven Little Kids, The Experienced Huntsman, The Six Swans, Rumpelstiltskin, Beauty and the Beast, Rapunzel, Briar Rose (Sleeping Beauty), The Glass Coffin, and Snow White. And for the secret passages: The Shoes Which Were Danced to Pieces, The Blue Lamp, The Glass Coffin (again) and Frau Holle.

Elizabeth Hopkinson is from Bradford, West Yorkshire (UK), home of the Brontë sisters and the Cottingley Fairies. She does her best writing in Waterstones, Bradford Wool Exchange, where a staff member was recently heard to say of her: “She can do anything she likes. She keeps this place running.” Elizabeth has had over 50 short stories published and one novel, Silver Hands, with Top Hat Books in 2013. She has won the James White Award, Jane Austen Short Story Contest and the Historic House Short Story Contest. Her website is hiddengrove.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk

“Fairy Tale Cluedo” won fourth place in Tiny Donkey’s Once Upon a Cartographer Contest.

White As Snow

by Kathleen Sawyer

“White as Snow” is a piece of book art that navigates the difficult ideological transition towards adulthood. The period of child development known as ‘foreclosure’ describes the refusal to enter the experimental phase most often associated with adolescence, in which the child tries out different experiences — often rebellious — as a fundamental part of forming their personality. A child who forecloses this period of freedom is unwilling to step outside their knowledge of themselves; instead choosing to remain frozen in one incarnation.

This work implements the ‘classic’ version of the Snow White story as a metaphor for foreclosure, as well as hinting at the consequences involved in maintaining purity and goodness (as defined in the fairytale genre itself). In the narrative, the active and cunning Queen is seen as transgressive and is punished, while the passive and personality-deficient Snow White is lauded as the ‘good’ character; a model for children to emulate. To step outside the rigid and restricted definition of what amounts to a positive female role model is to be irrevocably tainted as ‘bad.’ Anne Sexton’s poem on the subject depicts Snow White as a fragile china doll rolling her eyes open and shut, ever virginal, ever trapped within the limits of her self-imposed and immmobilising purity. The drawings animate as the pages are flipped, revealing a young girl (the model used was twelve) trapped under ice which slowly thaws, allowing her to blink at the viewer much like in the poem. However, the ice never fully melts and eventually freezes over once more, trapping the girl in the limits of her internalised self-restraint. In this way the character is ‘good’ only due to the lack of what is ‘bad;’ defined more by absence than presence.

Kathleen Sawyer is an art student and draughtsperson at Rhodes University, South Africa. Her Masters work investigates the societal impact of fairytales, focusing on themes of sexuality, femininity and coming-of-age. Her art can be found at KatSaw.com.

“White As Snow” won third place in Tiny Donkey’s Once Upon a Cartographer Contest.