Czech Folk Tales/Introduction
The present collection is intended to exemplify the spirit of the Czech race. It may perhaps be objected that folk-tale themes are part of a common stock belonging to all European races, and even to many primitive peoples: but though this is perfectly true, it is also no less certain that the spirit of the nation manifests itself in the manner of their telling. The selection has been made from all sorts of folk tales, artistic and primitive alike; and yet two things are common to all of them: the moral tendency and a sense of humour. By this I do not mean morality in the vulgar sense of retribution for evil, or of filial devotion, or the sentimental insistence upon "every one living happily ever afterwards," and above all upon Jack marrying his Molly. I mean that higher sort of morality which was the mainspring of Protestantism. It is often supposed that Protestantism is very unfavourable to the development and preservation of folk tales; but those of Bohemia are certainly an exception to this rule. The Czech nation was the first to adopt the Protestant faith, and even to-day is still Protestant at heart, though the Habsburgs forced it back into the Catholic fold.
The Czechs, then, have preserved their love for folk tales, adapting them to the higher morality and to the national sentiment, and discarding many of their supernatural features, or where the supernatural was allowed to remain for a moment, reverting very soon to the strict limits of probability. It is the very same method which, for example, Mr. Wells employs in some of his novels. That the Slav nations have a certain tendency to lay stress upon the ethical side in their folk tales has already been pointed out by the Czech poet Erben, whose tales have been translated into English in Wratislaw's Collection.
As for their humour, the Czechs have a natural tendency to satire. The best works in Old Czech literature are satires, and in modern times one of the most brilliant of Czech politicians, Karel Havliček, was also the greatest Czech satirist. This spirit may also be seen in the present collection; but in every case the story-teller, instead of assuming the attitude of the morality preacher or of indulging in theatrical invective against the wickedness of the times, rests content with a good-humoured gibe at the folly of the world, at the frailty of his fellow-men, and, it may be, at his own.
These two traits are inherent in the nature of the Czech people; and those who know their love of such tales and of the literature which has grown out of them, can realize their search for a haven of refuge from the cruel present and their fond dream-pictures of a land where all was good, where at last everything was bound to end well, where truth and justice at last had conquered. Alas! to the victims of Habsburg rule and Austrian bayonets the bare possibility seemed utterly excluded. And yet why should they not dream of such a land? Amo quia absurdum! But at the very moment their humorous ego could not suppress a sneer. Yes, even in that wonderland which their fancy painted are foolish kings, ever prone to break their word: even there people are bad and stupid! But our tale says that the bad were vanquished and the foolish put to shame: let, then, the tale be told! And even as he tells it, his heart nurses the inward hope that the foreign tyrants who oppress him may one day be vanquished and annihilated.
That such were the wishes of the Czech people, the Great War has shown. They have proved by their deeds their love of freedom; and to-day Czechs are fighting bravely in every Allied army and in their own national units formed in Russia. May their Austrian oppressors be brought to the ground, and may Bohemia regain the freedom for which she has longed for three centuries!