The vibrant Czech tradition of graphic design, illustration, puppetry, and toy-making deserves much wider recognition that it receives in the Anglo-American world. For a taste of what you’ve been missing, try this post about a fairy tale you may know in other versions from different times and places. Years ago I simply couldn’t resist the toys and after they came to the library, Ian and I went hunting for the story that inspired them in the stacks. This is what turned up.
Široký a Bystrozraký” is a popular Czech folk tale by Karel Jaromír Erben (1811-1870), a celebrated historian, poet, and writer. The title is variously translated as: “Tall, Broad, and Keen,” or “Mr. Long, Mr. Broad, and Mr. Sharpeye,” or (my favorite) “High, Wide, and Cleareyed.”
Recently, Cotsen acquired a set of the three titular characters from the folk tale. . . as toys!
The toys were manufactured in the Czech city of Brno by Umělecko-řemeslné dílny Bohumira Čermáka (the Applied-arts workshop of Bohumira Čermáka) in the 1920’s. The figures are an excellent example of the Vienna Secession artistic approach being applied outside of Austria, and outside of mainstream art mediums (this latter boundary being one which the movement was especially interested in challenging).
Since we acquired these wonderful toys I wanted to see if Cotsen had any books related to the folk tale. As usual, the collection did not disappoint. We found several brilliantly illustrated books which include the folk tale. We were even fortunate enough to find an English translation of the tale.
The first book in the picture is a collection of Erben stories translated into English by Dora Round called The Fire Bird and Other Selected Czech Folk and Fairy Stories (London : P.R. Gawthorn, 1943), illustrated by Emil Weiss. The next book is Der Lange, der Dickbäuchige und der Scharfäugige, a German language retelling of “High, Wide, and Cleareyed,” strikingly illustrated by Květa Pacovská (Praha : Artia Verlag,1979). Then comes a Czech collection of Erben tales: Erbenovy pohádky, illustrated by Jiří Trnka (Praha : Melantrich, 1940). České pohádky is next, written by Erben and illustrated by Artuš Scheiner (Praha : Českomoravské podniky tisařské a vydavatelské, 1926). And last comes Povídám, povídám pohádku, including stories by Erben and other authors this book is illustrated by Rudolf Adámek (V Praze : Ústřední nakladatelství a knihkupectví učitelstva československého, 1929).
Below is a brief retelling of the classic Czech folktale (paraphrased from Round’s translation), complete with numerous illustrations from the sources above:
The story opens with an aged king and his only son. Since the king is old, he requests that his son marry soon, before he dies. The prince is eager to wed and make his father happy but he doesn’t have the slightest idea of who he can marry. The king hands his son a key and instructs him to climb to the top of a tower and from the portraits he finds there, he should select a bride.In the tower the prince finds twelve magical portraits of crowned maidens, each one beckoning towards him. They are all very beautiful, but behind a white curtain the prince finds the most beautiful of them all, but she is dressed all in white and looks pale and sad. The prince chooses her as his bride and informs his father who is immediately unhappy. The king explains that that particular maiden is imprisoned by an evil wizard. Many have tried to rescue her before but none have returned (of course).
At the start of the prince’s quest for his bride, he quickly gets lost in the woods. But he runs into High, who magically stretches taller than the trees and finds the quickest way out of the woods. Next High sees his friend Wide and brings him over. Wide demonstrates that he can expand to huge proportions.
Next they run into High’s friend Cleareyed, who explains that he must keep his eyes covered because he can see too well, if his eyes are uncovered he can look through objects, burst them into flames, or shatter them to pieces.
The prince’s three new helpers prove invaluable for overcoming obstacles and turning what would otherwise be a very long journey into a single day trip. They arrive inside the wizard’s castle at nightfall, and the drawbridge is drawn-up behind them.
Inside the castle, all the courtiers have been turned to stone. They happen upon the dining room where a lavish feast is prepared, after politely waiting, they decide to dig in. Suddenly the wizard rushes in. He is dressed in a long black robe fastened with three iron clasps at the waist; he is leading the lovely pale maiden, dressed in white and pearls. The wizard explains that the prince can take the maiden only if he can prevent the wizard from stealing her back over the next three nights in the castle. High stretches across the dining room covering all the walls, wide blocks the doorway, and Cleareyed stands vigil in the center. They all fall asleep.
When the prince awakes he realizes the maiden has vanished. Cleareyed, however, spots her one hundred miles off, turned into an acorn on a tree in a forest. High stretches to her position and Cleareyed fetches her. She turns back into a woman when she is delivered to the prince. The wizard, naturally, is furious and then one of the iron clasps bursts off. The travelers are left alone again and the prince realizes that everything and everyone inside the castle is frozen in time.
Our heroes are charged with watching over the maiden for a second night, they all fall asleep like before. Again the princess is gone when they wake. Cleareyed spots her two hundred miles off, this time turned into a jewel inside a stone, inside a mountain. He and High fetch her again. The furious wizard loses a second iron clasp.
Once again the our heroes are charged with watching over the maiden for a third night, once again they all fall asleep, and once again the maiden has vanished when they awake. Cleareyed spots the princess at the bottom of the Black Sea, as a gold ring inside a shell, three hundred miles away. This time High takes Wide and Cleareyed with him. High tries to stretch his arm to the bottom of the sea, but he cannot reach. So Wide puffs himself out and then drinks up the Black Sea, and then High can reach the gold ring.
The wizard bursts into the dining room triumphantly before the prince’s companions can return. But all of a sudden, the gold ring comes crashing through a window and turns into the princess (Cleareyed had seen the wizard coming and High had thrown the ring from very far away). The wizard curses, his last buckle bursts, and he turns into a crow and flies off.
The whole castle comes to life and time happily resumes. All the residents of the castle thank the prince, but he humbly insists that it is all thanks to High, Wide, and Cleareyed. The prince and princess are married and the wedding lasts three weeks. The prince tries to persuade his new friends to stay and have a comfortable life, but they choose to wander the world helping people instead.We hope you enjoy these tales, toys, and pictures as much as we have….