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]

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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.

 

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.

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.

Fairy Tale Cluedo

by Elizabeth Hopkinson

cluedo

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.

Lady Folk

by René Ostberg

Biddy Early peered down a bottle’s neck to see the future. One wonders if she ever saw Lady Gregory coming decades down the road, gossiping with Biddy’s old neighbors, collecting astonishing tales about this wise healer woman of western Ireland. Biddy Early was already legendary before she died—accused of witchcraft once, eternally at odds with the local priests, married four times over. She didn’t need Lady Gregory to make her famous-slash-infamous, or whatever the liminal space is where wise women dwell.

But Gregory needed Early. Her name lent authenticity to the cast of banshees, blacksmiths, and other characters in Gregory’s folklore collection Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland (1920). And her neighbors’ trusting chattiness about their own peasant practices and beliefs eased Gregory’s aristocratic guilt.

Both women were western Irish—Early born Bridget Connors in County Clare in 1798, Gregory born Isabella Augusta Persse in County Galway in 1852. Early was born the year of an uprising in Ireland against British rule—a fitting start for a figure of female rebellion. Gregory came into the world at the end of the Great Potato Famine, a time when 1 million Irish died by fever or starvation. She grew up only 25 miles from Early’s humble cottage, but she was a member of the gentry, an Anglo-Irish Protestant not only protected from the ravages of the Famine but a benefactor. The man she married, Sir William Gregory, was a member of Parliament with a Galway estate called Coole Park—a place of lakes, limestone, woods and wild swans. At the height of the Famine, Sir William drafted a clause in the Poor Relief Laws that led to the eviction of thousands of peasants in the west. These were among Ireland’s poorest population, the ones who suffered the Famine’s worst destitution, the most deaths. And the strongest bearers of the old Gaelic folkways and language. Biddy’s people. With their decimation, would Ireland’s folk culture follow?

Early survived the Famine, dying around 1872 with a priest’s blessing in exchange for breaking her magic bottle. Lady Gregory was widowed in 1892. Within a year she was immersing herself in the Irish language and folk culture and soon professing Irish nationalism. She sometimes paid her peasant storytellers small tokens for their memories—but never stopped collecting their rents.

Maybe Biddy’s chatty neighbors did trust Lady Gregory. Or maybe they were simply squaring another uneven exchange with a landholder—embellishing their barter by telling tall tales. Perhaps Biddy Early also managed to square an uneven barter. Maybe those glass shards beside the blessed deathbed belonged to a decoy bottle.


René Ostberg is a native of Chicago. She has a B.A. in English from Southern Illinois University in Carbondale and spent several years living and working in Ireland, on the Aran Islands and in County Down. Her writing has been featured at Literary Orphans, Drunk Monkeys, Booma: The Bookmapping Project, We Said Go Travel, Eunoia Review, and other places. Her website is reneostberg.wordpress.com.

“Lady Folk” won second place in Tiny Donkey’s Once Upon a Cartographer Contest.

Simultaneous Map

by Brian Ma

Staring at the map on which I had traced all the known movements of my aunt, who had gone missing during the war, the vertiginous suspicion that her movements were taking place at the same time as my search for her came over me. In that case, her itineraries on my map (traced in red) and the ground I had already covered (traced in green, the two not necessarily neatly overlapping) were not two journeys that happened at two discrete and different times but were, in actuality, occurring simultaneously. This meant that at any one moment I was anywhere along the green trail she was, at that same moment, on any one point of the red trail. To continue this logic, it meant that at any intersection of our itineraries we had unknowingly crossed paths, meaning that I had already uncomprehendingly seen her seven times, meaning that my quest, in actuality, has ended seven times, meaning that I had already discovered penetrating truths about myself seven times. Along the way I would have seen the new gleaming buildings that were built after the war and the foreign investments but also trees on fire and falling bombs. There was no need anymore to search for her to keep her from disappearing and there was no need to keep myself from disappearing either. Her world: dark then bright. The simultaneity spread like a virus. Like a sketch being colored in, everything became, was, and is, Time Present. The war, the buildings, and, in fact, all the wars and all the buildings.


Brian Ma lives and works in Seoul, South Korea.

“Simultaneous Map” won first place in Tiny Donkey’s Once Upon a Cartographer Contest.

The Pleasant Grove

by Aimee Harvey

The place I was born was neither magical nor dream-like, but for us—her seven and I five—it was a place of wonder. The truth of it, though, was that my cousin and I were simply too young to realize the grim conditions in which we lived. The place we grew up was called Pleasant Grove, which proved itself to be a lie of a name because it was neither pleasant nor a grove of any sort, it was instead an ugly place, the bad part of an urban paradise. There, the houses had walls with holes in them, and pieces of old and broken-down cars littered the lawns around us. But this is something one does not notice until they grow older, when they become desensitized to the wonder of even the most magical places. Of my time there, I can only remember the summers, which were always unbearable and humid. The air was always thick and our hair was always frizzy; we were happy and we did as we pleased. We were ignorant to the ugliness, to the despair felt by those who lived in that place, many of whom could never leave.

For us, though, every single day there was one of exciting routine. We’d circle the pecan trees in the yard of our neighbor, and gather the pecans in plastic bags our grandmother saved from the grocery store. We would crack the shells in the way our grandfather had taught us, enjoying the fruits of our labor between slurps from the garden hose. We’d pet the goat that my grandmother had stolen from my grandfather, who lived across the street, partly to spite her ex-husband and partly to save the goat from being turned into dinner. The goat was kept in a makeshift pen made of chicken wire in our backyard, and we would squat beside him, laughing at the socks my grandmother had taped to his horns to keep them from causing us pain. During the evenings, we would be taken by the hand to St. Augustine to show our devotion. We would sit in the pews in a room lit softly by white candles, in peaceful silence. We would clasp the plastic beads we were given, not really knowing what anything meant. This was youth, but this was ignorance. This was poverty, but this was bliss.


Aimee Harvey is a nursing student at the University of Arizona.

Hungover and Fever Dreaming

by Brittany Hailer

In my white negligee—grease-stained, straps falling to my elbows—I suck marrow through the bones of a chicken carcass. I lean on the rickety table, my knees on the hardwood floor. I’ve woken up starving again. Insatiable and needy, I toss the fragments of skeleton over my shoulder. I can hear them scraping across the floorboards behind me. What is left drips from my chin. Hunched over, I see that the bones were bleach-white, picked clean. My kitchen is a desert. I crawl to the fridge for more.

On the bent wooden table is Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber. The book is open to “The Tiger’s Bride.” I read the words and drool across the pages. I bite my cuticles until they are soft and wet. My skin peels back leaving red ditches along my nail beds. I read the fairy tale, humming, mouthing Carter’s words.

I decide I want this mask the Tiger wears: a man’s face, too perfect, rich eyebrows and yellow eyes. His body, striped and muscular, paces the castle. Although his jaws drip blood, he is still hungry. He growls from beneath the mask, but no one pays him any mind. The ceramic gentlemen face goes on smiling as the animal adjusts his silken black gloves.

I wipe my mouth with bare wrists, hair past my waist in knots. I hate the tattered negligee clinging to my hips. It pulls at my belly, and sticks to my skin. I can’t move like I want to.

“Or maybe I should be the Tiger’s Bride?” I say to the flickering light bulb in the empty fridge, “I’d get up off my knees and stop eating scraps then!”

I walk back to my bedroom and pull the nightdress over my head. I imagine the Tiger licking my skin to reveal a shiny new coat underneath, black and orange stripes snaking up my torso.

If I were the Tiger’s Bride I’d place my hand firmly in his offered paw, I think to myself. I’d crawl into the earth then, and come out clean then. I wouldn’t be hungry then.

I lie on my back, the ceiling fan rotates, a soft breeze lilts over my body. I lift my hands to catch the cool air. I stare at the dirty cracked fingernails I want so badly to become claws.


Brittany Hailer is a creative writing teacher in a women’s rehabilitation center. She has taught creative writing workshops at the Allegheny County Jail. She is the managing editor for IDK Magazine. Her work has appeared in In the Doorframe Waiting, HEArt Online and Atlantis Magazine.  She earned her MFA from Chatham University. She lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

The Ghost Moose

by Ivy Jade

I should note that there were no moose in my fairy tales. Mice would weave dresses and songbirds wing in to harmonize, rats prey on babies, wolves leer at unaccompanied minors, and snakes give terrible advice, but for all her bedtime vespers Grandmother never had a word to offer on the moose. Moreover, I lacked an authoritative source to aid in personification of muskrats, ground squirrels, and particularly heather voles. The cats (duplicitous, self-serving) enjoyed sucking members of our abundant backyard vole community down to dollhouse rugs, and I struggled to decide what to make of it. Of course, a mouse in the house was inclined to die in the walls as opposed to sew me a back-to-school sweater, and the only rat I knew was Evans, who ate a lot of yogurt chips and liked to sleep in my sleeves.

Of the moose I had absolutely no guidance. Rocky and Bullwinkle couldn’t be taken as communion; it lacked the mystic energy of tale layered over tale, the spiritual ambiguity of a frog emerging from the well with a golden ball or an ugly little man spinning straw by starlight.

Now that the moose are dying I wonder what it means for the stories, and I figure not much. There are ghost moose, which surely should mean something (hypothetical: the Little Match Girl is rescued from mortal hallucinations on the back of patchy, white-skinned moose), but moose as a fairy-species were passed over when they could have been messengers of kind fatality or knobby-kneed saviors, always owl-like with wisdom. Instead the ticks got them, a thousand sucking parasites to fell a thousand pounds of animal. Carbon dioxide got them, far from the realm of wicked witches or sadistic stepparents.

When I tired of the princesses, Grandma ought to have subbed in a moose for Little Red. I like to believe a moose would know a wolf in sheep’s clothing. She would never be selfish or preening. She would know to fear the foe and not the forest, though I admit I’m spouting pure conjecture. I do know that a moose forswears a moral. She promises uncertainty and wildness. Moose are all the allegory I need for a good story, antlers added. They fade into Faerie meek as ghosts, and the birds build nests from their fur.


Ivy Jade studies biology at Smith College. She is originally from Minneapolis, Minnesota and maintains a personal interest in the preservation of at-risk species.