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When I was a child, my grandmother brought me back The Legends of Prague by František Langer when she returned from one of her trips toPrague.  Though she had been telling me Czech myths and legends for years, this was the first time I had seen any written down – and in English no less!  But while I loved to look at Cyril Bouda’s spirited illustrations, I rarely read the stories themselves.  After all, I had a real live storyteller at my disposal for years – what did I need a book for?  But ever since I was back in Prague this September I’ve been thinking of all the beautiful books I saw in the stores there, full of the country’s beloved fairy tales and legends, all of which were in Czech.  There is nothing more frustrating that spotting a book you want to read but not having the education to be able to do so.  Since I’m not likely to suddenly learn Czech, I decided to seek out for the first time in years this slim childhood book with its eight lovingly told legends.

It has been years since my babi used to terrify me with tales of the Vltava’s vicious water sprites but I have never forgotten them.  So I was rather surprised when the book began with a trio of quite friendly water sprites.  Now, most water sprites are a bit sinister, just waiting for children or fishermen to flounder in the water (occasionally helping them along the way) so that they can then collect the souls of the drowned.  Not so these gentlemen.  All three featured sprites save rather than take lives and even enjoy communing with other Praguers on dry land in local pubs, theatres, and tobacconists.  After hundreds or thousands of years in the river, all three also decamp to dry land, taking up more conventional jobs and assuming roles as pillars of their communities.  The stories are very nice and charming, and really quite funny but there is something very wrong with kindly water sprites!  I did love the third tale, of the water sprite Mr. Henry, who has spent two thousand years accumulating a vast library in his underwater home, preferring to sit and read his books rather than do his appointed work (his wife is deeply unimpressed with such delinquent behaviour).

These are modern legends, the author having realised that “if I myself did not take a hand in the creation of folklore” the many worthy stories “would be interpreted for all times in the most implausible manner or, at least, in a way unworthy of…old Prague.”  Originally published in 1956, they deal with events that are said to have taken place in the relatively recent past: from the 1840s to the 1940s.   St Ludmila worries about ugly war memorials being erected in front of her church, the children of Prague find and hide away the St Wenceslaus sword from the occupying Germans, and one of the stone godfathers of Charles Bridge watches proudly as his goddaughter becomes a heroine of the 1848 uprising.

A note of explanation about these stone godfathers: as the citizens of the island of Kampa have sworn to maintain Charles Bridge, so have the statues on the bridge sworn to look over the children of the island.  Each time one is born, one of the statue figures assumes the unknown role of godfather, looking after the child throughout his or her life from afar.  There is the strong litter carrier whose godson becomes a champion weight lifter.  There is the Turk whose ensures that not only his godson but his godson’s descendents are well provided for.  And then there is the brave knight who is horrified to find himself godfather to a little girl.  A little girl who grows up into an unremarkable young woman who works at the dye works until, bringing despair to her godfather each time he sees her until one day, during the 1848 uprising she shows unexpected bravery when delivery food to the student fighters, rallying the flagging legion who would otherwise have been overrun by Austrian troops.  Forever afterwards, even as the girl returns to a distinctly unmemorable domestic life, her godfather remains delighted with her, remembering the brief, pivotal moment when his legacy to her helped protect their beloved city:

He had a good view of her that time from his position and he was happy that when he could not himself descend from his pedestal to assist Prague, he was so ably represented by his godchild.  Whenever she passed over the bridge afterwards, his chest would swell with pride and he would raise his knightly sword in greeting and look boastfully about at the other statues.  Of course it was hardly likely anyone else would notice and, if they did, they would have been most surprised that he so highly honoured the wife of a stove-fitter, later a plump mother, who led her children over the bridge in mortal fear of them being run over by a horse and cart or a hackney cab.

The translation is a bit awkward at points but the stories still have a lovely flow to them.  All the legends are related in a very warm, confiding, conversational tone.  The stories from 1939 and 1940 are particularly patriotic and sentimental, reminding children that though the darkest days have not yet come (for, as everyone knows, in the darkest days St Wenceslaus and the Knights of Blanik will return to destroy the enemies of the Czech Lands) they must “grow well and grow strong and be of good stature so that you are brave and of firm resolve when your time comes.”  Oh yes, I teared up.  While these stories are definitely friendlier and less bloodthirsty than the ones I adored as a child, they captivating and delightful.  And they do what any book about Prague should do: bring the magic of that city to life, allowing the reader, regardless of age, to take as a matter of fact that normal Praguers share drinks with known water sprites and headless horsemen, that statues act as godparents, and that saints still shape the city as they wish to see it, regardless of the bureaucrats’ intentions.  Because if it could happen anywhere, it would be there:  “Do you understand? Prague is a vision, a dream, an enchantment.”

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