The Art of Book Design: Pasakas

It’s Fairy Tale Saturday and this week we have a very special book that comes to us from our very own rq. It’s Latvian and a real departure from the fairy tales we’ve looked at so far. The pictures are very bold and some are darkly intriguing. I know you’ll enjoy it.

I don’t know Latvian so I’m including the publishing details in a photograph. I would surely botch it up if I tried to translate.

©rq, all rights reserved

I’ve attached photos of a classic Latvian family book – a large (perhaps THE) comprehensive compilation of Latvian folktales. Some are quintessentially Latvian, some are older than others, some resemble your well-known fairy-tales, and some are quite distinct and individual.

The artist is Pāvels Šenhofs, born 1924, died in 2011.

In any case, it’s a classic, and they don’t publish like they used to!

First, you have the book cover, which is a bit melodramatic.

Front cover, ©rq, all rights reserved

Back cover (with the price!) ©rq, all rights reserved

Then there is the fabric cover of the book itself-  how I knew it, as the copy we had when I was growing up did not have the cover anymore. It’s a dark green print on rough (almost canvas) textile, also the spine.

©rq, all rights reserved

©rq, all rights reserved

Then there is the inside covers, which are very traditional in style.

©rq, all rights reserved

Then some samples of the inside art: each story begins with an “illuminated” letter, drawn to look like it’s carved from wood, along with a distinctive introductory illustration, and most stories also have other line illustrations along the margins or at the end.

©rq, all rights reserved

©rq, all rights reserved

But the colour plates are simply fantastic. The stories are just as horrifyingly charming!

©rq, all rights reserved

©rq, all rights reserved

©rq, all rights reserved

©rq, all rights reserved

An extra picture for the antireligionists among us: the book has a whole series of stories about duping the local priest or pastor in a myriad of ways: as with German barons, if they’re not cast as the Devil himself, then they’re cast as the fool. And even the Devil can be tricked!

©rq, all rights reserved


  1. says

    I don’t know Latvian so I’m including the publishing details in a photograph. I would surely botch it up if I tried to translate.

    Latvijas PSR Zinātņu akadēmija

    The Science Academy of the Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic

    Etnogrāfijas un folkloras institūts

    Institute of Ethnography and Folklore

    … Izlase un kārtojums

    Complilation and arrangement by [several people’s names].

    Mākslinieks P. Šenhofs

    Artist P. Šenhofs

    Latvijas PSR Zinātņu akadēmijas izdevniecība

    Published by the Science Academy of the Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic

    Rīgā 1956

    Riga is the capital city of Latvia, 1956 is the year of publishing.

    And even the Devil can be tricked!

    Latvian pagan devil (called “Velns” in Latvian) was a pretty fun character. He was very rich, very powerful, and really stupid. There are lots of stories about the shepherd boy tricking him and getting his gold. Here’s one story. A boy meets Velns who proposes to compete to find out which one of them is stronger. Velns takes a rock and crushes it in his fist. Shepherd boy takes a bird egg and crushes it. No matter how hard Velns tries to crush rocks, he only gets dust and cannot squeeze any liquid out of the rocks. Thus the boy wins the first round. Next they compete in who can throw a stone higher up in the sky. Velns throws up a stone, and it takes a long time for it to fall back down. The boy releases a bird from his hands. No matter how long they wait, the bird never falls down. Thus the boy wins also the second round. Now Velns owes him the amount of gold that can be filled inside a hat. The boy digs a deep hole in the ground. He cuts a hole in his hat and places it on top of the hole. Velns throws into the hat bags of gold one after another, but the hat doesn’t fill up until Velns has emptied all his gold reserves. Thus the boy gets rich by fooling the devil.

  2. says

    Speaking of Latvian pagan myths, I once drew an illustration for the werewolf myths. It’s here—

    In Latvian pagan mythology werewolves are very different than in the European myths. Here they are the good guys. They were even called god’s dogs (Latvian pagan god’s not Christian one’s), because they did good jobs and in some way worked for god. Thought with time during Middle Ages werewolf myths did change in the influence of the Christian church, and with centuries people here slowly started seeing werewolves as evil. And also becoming a werewolf here is very different than in European myths. Being a werewolf wasn’t a curse, and it had no relation with the full moon. And you couldn’t become one when being bitten by another werewolf. In myths most of people who were werewolves decided to become such freely without being coerced. Thought it was also possible to become one unwillingly when an old werewolf who didn’t want to run as a wolf anymore could give his wolf’s skin to you without you knowing that or consenting to it. Usually this werewolf did that by giving you to drink some bewitched beer. Only after you had already gotten the wolf’s skin you realized what had happened, and by then you had no other choice but to run as a wolf every now and then.

    And one of the ways how one could willingly become a wolf (the one shown in this picture) was to creep under a tree root that appears from the ground and then grows back in it. In order to transform back into a human, you had to creep under the same root but in the opposite direction. Thought there were lots of other ways how you could willingly turn into a wolf. Of course, you could choose in which moment you wanted to transform into a wolf and also when to transform back into a human. And most of the time werewolves were living with their families and other people who had no idea that every now and then they turned into wolves. And Latvian werewolves looked like real wolves. They weren’t half wolf and half human creatures as shown in some modern day drawings. Through there were some differences from real wolves. When people turned into wolves, they were slightly larger than real wolves and their hind legs were longer than their front legs. And they also had human eyes.

    By the way, if your clothes (which usually were hidden somewhere in the forest) were found by some people and touched while you were in a wolf form, you couldn’t transform back into a human anymore. Then you were forced to keep on living as a wolf for the rest of your life. Although you weren’t completely doomed. There still was one way how you could turn back into a human after all. That happened if someone willingly have you (while in the wolf’s form) a piece of bread.

    Personally, I find mythology fascinating. Some of the stories are really fun. The only myths I really dislike are the Christian ones. All that Christian bullshit about sins and punishment is just so lacklustre. It’s gloomy and just boring. Greek stories about Aphrodite’s sex life or Latvian stories about a foolish devil who gets easily tricked by the shepherd boy are so much more fun.

  3. voyager says

    Thanks for the translation. I find it interesting that the Soviet Socialist Republic of Latvia felt that folk stories were worth publishing in such a beautiful way.
    Also, thanks for the fabulous stories. I also find mythology interesting and it’s great fun to learn new folk stories from other parts of the world. I like the sound of Latvian werewolves. Wolves are not senselessly violent -- men are. Wolves are very social and familial and kill to survive. It makes sense to cast them as workers and protectors of the gods.
    I agree about the Christian stories, too. They’re very dark and most don’t make sense. There never seemed to be a point to them -- except that God really likes to kill things. There was never a nugget of useful wisdom to be gained.

  4. Ice Swimmer says

    Truly gorgeous work.

    It seems the price of the book was 20 rubles, right? I’m not sure if what else you could buy with 20 Soviet rubles* in 1956. “Maksaa” would mean “costs” in this context in Finnish (the long wovel is expressed by writing two of the same in Finnish), I wonder if we got that verb from Baltic languages or was it the opposite?
    * = According to Wikipedia the fifth Soviet ruble was valid between 1947-61 and the 10, 25, 50 and 100 ruble banknotes all featured a picture of Lenin.

  5. says

    Ice Swimmer @#5

    It seems the price of the book was 20 rubles, right?


    I wonder if we got that verb from Baltic languages or was it the opposite?

    Here’s the answer—

    voyager @#4

    I agree about the Christian stories, too. They’re very dark and most don’t make sense. There never seemed to be a point to them — except that God really likes to kill things. There was never a nugget of useful wisdom to be gained.

    Apparently the “lesson” was that Christian God is vengeful and wants obedience and worship.

    Stories about the Latvian pagan god (there were multiple gods in the pantheon, here I’m talking about the one that is usually seen as the “boss god”) featured said god knocking on some people’s doors disguised as an old poor beggar who asks for a bit of food. If people are kind and give him food, he rewards them with good harvest and luck. If people are rude and refuse to help a poor beggar, then god reveals his true form and informs people about how now they will be denied his gifts. God doesn’t really punish mean people, instead he simply denies his gifts and blessings, which in itself is a “punishment” caused by missing an opportunity. The moral of such stories is obvious: be kind to everybody, including strangers who might appear poor and powerless.

  6. rq says

    I love this book for the illustrations, if there is interest I could translate some of the more interesting (and shorter!) stories, including photos of the art. Some are rather mundane fables featuring animals and God Himself (as explained by Andres above), others are quite fantastical tales with magic, the Rule of Three and mythological animals of various sorts. Most involve trickery of some kind, usually perpetrated by the youngest son or daughter (“A farmer had three sons, two intelligent, the third a fool…”) and are mostly based on lessons in respecting one’s elders, assisting those in need, and obedience to one’s parents.
    And yes, in older stories, the devil is less a force for evil and more a force of silliness and stupidity (as demonstrated by the story about the shearing of the pig, for example). Death also seems to get the short end of the stick from time to time. There appears to be a correlation between the advent of German rule and indenture and equating the devil with more evil doings, but I don’t have the academic background to say more about this. (And you can always recognize the devil because he may be finely dressed as a lord, but he always has a cloven foot that cannot bear footwear and the smell of sulphur about him. But he always offers a pretty good job to someone.)

  7. voyager says

    I’d like to hear the stories, rq.
    I’m especially curious about the animal (bull?) on his way into the pot. Who is that in there with him?

    I really enjoyed the artwork in this book. I’m sure the stories are just as fantastic.

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