Joan Aiken The Kingdom Under the Sea
and other stories
Pictures by Jan Pienkowski
Puffin Books 1973 (1971)
Morals are the standards by which a society or community lives by, or claims it lives by. Sometimes that morality becomes institutionalised, sometimes even stultifying, politicised, restrictive, but its ultimate aim is selfish: the perpetuation of that society. The fact that some of the hallmarks of morality — altruism and charity and compassion, for example — make individuals feel good about themselves and others shows perhaps that collectivism and individualism aren’t necessarily incompatible, and that the resulting symbiosis is good for all.
All this is by way of introduction to fairytales in general and The Kingdom Under the Sea in particular. This picture-book, a marriage made in heaven between Joan Aiken’s text and Jan Pienkowski‘s illustrations, is correctly described in the Puffin Book’s puff as “one of the most beautiful books of fairy tales ever produced”. Aiken has retold eleven stories from Eastern Europe, to which Pienkowski has added the most perfect silhouettes, some monochrome, others in glorious colour with marbled backgrounds. Silhouettes are in some ways the ideal way to present fairytale characters, as traditions the world over — from Javanese shadow-puppets to Lotte Reiniger’s animated films — demonstrate: the outlines suggest character but the lack of facial features make it easier for the audience to identify with protagonists. Even static images such as Pienkowski’s are magical, as both the popularity of portrait silhouettes in 18th- and 19th-century Europe and the book illustrations of Arthur Rackham in the 20th emphasise.
Many moralising tales can be patronising, especially when used by adults to explicitly inculcate goodness in children. But good fairytales don’t need morals spelled out: the action in the narrative does that naturally, allowing the listener or reader to draw them out for themselves. For example, eight of the tales feature kindness as the wellspring of the action, resulting in good things happening to the protagonists. Of the remaining three, cruelty is shown to have evil consequences in ‘The Imprisoned Queen’, braveness and boldness achieve good ends in ‘The Venetian Princess’ and St Peter is shown to be self-deluded in ‘The Goose Girl’ — perhaps displaying a sly hint of anti-clericalism here.
Three of the stories are from Croatia, as a note in the publication details acknowledges; many of the others from names or geography betray their Slavic origins (though I’m hard-pressed to locate most of them specifically other than mentions of, for instance, the Black Sea or neighbouring Romania). However ‘The Reed Girl’ references the ‘Operentsia Sea’; and as the Óperenciás Sea is an impassable ocean in Hungarian folklore, and therefore any far place on the edge of the world, I’m assuming this tale is from Hungary. But as the Isle of Bujan (where Alatyr the amber stone is found) is also mentioned in the title tale from Croatia ‘The Kingdom Under the Sea’ it’s clear that we’re looking at a fairytale world of the imagination that knows no national boundaries.
But fairytales are more than just moralising and imaginary lands. What of the protagonists themselves and the dangers they face? The three heroines featured show sensitivity but also boldness. The young orphan woman who becomes the fisherman’s wife is abandoned by her husband for an illusory quest to the sea king’s home, the titular Kingdom Under the Sea; in displaying due reverence to the sea-creatures dedicated to the Dawn Maiden she is able to negotiate the perils of a sea journey and rescue not only the fisherman but also their child. In ‘The Sun’s Cousins’ the miller’s daughter Neva (“bride”) grinds flour to bake a cake for the sun’s birthday, coincidentally her own birthday. For this he helps her when she is besieged in a poor knight’s castle by a haughty princess. In another story Vasilissa (“queen”) is a Cinderella figure, a drudge who is forced the get light from the Russian witch Baba Yaga; in this she is aided by Baba Yaga’s Daughter, a part played in some versions of this tale by Vasilissa’s doll. The final sequence in which Vasilissa and the witch’s daughter slow Baba Yaga’s pursuit of them by throwing obstacles behind them is an old, old motif: the same trick is used by Jason the Argonaut and Medea when chased by Medea’s vengeful father for stealing the Golden Fleece.
The same object appears in ‘The Golden Fleeced Ram and the Hundred Elephants’. Here it is a young shepherd Marko who owns the fabulous prize, a live ram, which a greedy king wishes to appropriate. With the help of a mysterious girl he sets about accomplishing the impossible tasks the king sets him, but — an unusual conservation touch this — baulks at slaughtering elephants for their tusks. These escape “over the mountains” to Romania, then Georgia, Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan before disappearing somewhere in India, while the ram escapes up a nearby mountain and the king and his wicked adviser drown. We never discover who the mysterious girl is.
Several heroes display kindness too: a poor young nobleman in ‘The King who declared war on the Animals’ takes into service not only his horse but also a fox, bear, mouse, mole, buzzard and wildcat; in gratitude they first find him a bride and then support him against the angry king (whose daughter it is who had been abducted) by defeating his army. In ‘The Pear Tree’ Christian overtones only slightly mask the usual folktale motifs: the youngest of three sons is consistent in showing the most kindness to a poor beggar (the angel Gabriel in disguise), and he is ultimately rewarded by good fortune and a good wife Militsa while his brother are returned to penury and indolence.
Not all the tales are about showing kindness. In ‘The Venetian Princess’ — a Serbian tale, I surmise — Roksanda is the princess, daughter to King Michael of Ledyen, whose hand is sought by Tsar Doushan of Serbia. Young Milosh, disguised as a Bulgar shepherd, accomplishes three impossible tasks to win the bride for the Emperor. This tale, from a legend based on the early 14th-century figure of Miloš Vojinović, emphasises Milosh’s bravery, resourcefulness and loyalty above any kindness. The remaining tales don’t end happily ever after, however.
‘The Imprisoned Queen’ ends in death for the innocent King Goika, whose wife has been walled up alive to appease a mountain deity and allow the city of Skadar (the Albanian city of Shkoder, on the border with Montenegro) to be built. When the queen is rescued by her grown-up son Jovo, the city is destroyed anyway. In ‘The Sun-God’s Castle’ three brothers who tend the sun-god’s shrine are urged by the god to look after their grandfather. Three goblins or vookodlaks (vlkodlak is also a Slovak werewolf) continually distract the brothers from their promise, and things go badly. Finally, ‘The Reed Girl’ concerns a prince who asks how he can find his bride; the answer is on the seventy-fourth island of the Black Sea, which he has to reach by riding a flying horse east via the Isle of Bujan. However the foolish prince can’t resist checking the three reeds he has garnered, and two of the women in them die of thirst. Will his curiosity also be the death of the third?
We have been lulled into thinking, partly due to animated films, that all fairytales have a happy ending. Joan Aiken knows that this is not so, that sometimes art is closer to life in that hopes can be disappointed. Alison Lurie, in the entry on Aiken in The Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales, puts it well in a comment on Joan’s own original stories: “Most of [her] tales are full of fun and surprise and end happily, but some look at the world from a more contemplative and poetic perspective. A few even end with sadness and loss, like ‘The Serial Garden’, where lovers are separated forever when a cut-out paper panorama from the back of cereal boxes is destroyed. Clearly, Aiken not only has tremendous inventive powers, but unusual emotional range.”
Even in her retellings of these traditional tales Aiken’s emotional range shows itself. Life isn’t all beer and skittles: perhaps that’s as good a moral as any to take away from this marvellous collection.