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The Tale of Bruncvik


This is the Czech Prince Bruncvik, to whom Russian readers appear to have been introduced in the second half of the seventeenth century.6 The Tale of Bruncvik is a translation of a Czech work of the same name. It tells of the adventures of a fictitious prince in exotic “unknown lands”. The Czech details are limited to two or three references to Prague and the statement that Bruncvik sets off on his wanderings to win a new coat-of-arms. At the end of the tale the eagle on the Czech standard is replaced by a lion (this change is historically accurate).

The Russian reader was able to connect this change in the coat-of-arms with various translated cosmographs which said that the Czech sign of the zodiac was Leo and that was why the Czechs “are alike in their way to the lion—and in their courage, their heart … their pride and their majesty … do portray their lion’s nature”.7 The Tale was not regarded as a source of information about the Czechs, however. The average seventeenth-century Russian reader took little interest in this land. Enslaved by the Hapsburgs, the Czechs existed in the Russian mind not as an independent political and cultural unity, but as one of the lands of the Holy Roman Empire. Russian scribes, who were not looking for any historical information in the tales, would replace the very name of the Czech land by “a certain land”, “a great land”, “the Greek land” or even “the French land”. The adventures that happened to the hero could have happened to a person of any nationality.

After leaving Prague, Bruncvik goes down to the sea, finds a ship and sails off where his fancy takes him. The ship is drawn to a magnetic mountain, at the foot of which he is forced to disembark with all his men. An old knight tells the prince that there is only one way to escape from this god-forsaken spot: once a year the “nog” bird comes to the island (this is the gryphon, the mythical creature with a lion’s body and eagle’s wings, known to the Slavs from The Chronographical Alexandreid). You must wrap yourself into a horse skin and the bird will carry you up into its nest. This is what Bruncvik does. After being carried away to the gryphon’s nest and killing its greedy young, he continues on his journey. In some deserted mountains, he suddenly sees a lion fighting a losing battle with a ten-headed dragon. Bruncvik helps the lion who then becomes his rescuer’s loyal servant. They visit many strange lands of people with dog’s heads and other monsters, and overcome many great perils, before they return to Prague. Bruncvik lives another forty years and dies a peaceful death. The lion dies on his master’s grave.

The Tale of Bruncvik is a work based on descriptions of a person’s wanderings in strange lands. Like Bruncvik, Bova also journeys, but in kingdoms inhabited by people, not monsters. Like Bruncvik, Bova also fights, but mainly with flesh-and-blood knights. The magical element plays a very small part in Bova, whereas Bruncvik is constantly confronted by a mysterious, fantastic world. The link between the hero’s adventures, between the descriptions of people with dog’s heads, sea monsters, exotic islands and mysterious mountains that rise up suddenly out of the sea, is a conventional link of a “geographical” nature. The waves bear Bruncvik’s ship to an unknown shore, and the readers learn about the evil, death-dealing magnetic mountain, then the gryphon carries the hero into wild, uninhabited mountains and the fight with the dragon follows; the raft bearing Bruncvik and the lion is carried out to sea and the astonished prince sees before him the shining mountain of Carbunculus.

It has long since been remarked that Bruncvik is the least heroic of all the characters in translated romances of the seventeenth century.8 He is timid and even tearful. A “great terror” seizes him in almost every episode. Bruncvik frequently refuses to do battle. The pleas for help with which he pesters the Lord are not a devout prayer for strength before battle that befits a Christian knight, but rather the ramblings of a lost and terror-stricken soul. Occasionally these scenes strike a comic note.

After the victory over the dragon Bruncvik does not trust the lion for a long while. In an attempt to get rid of it, he climbs up a tree with a store of acorns and apples. The lion sits under the tree for three days and three nights, waiting in vain for its rescuer to come down. Eventually the lion loses its patience and roars so loudly that the luckless Bruncvik falls down from the tree in fright, injuring himself badly.

Thus, Bruncvik was no knight sans peur et sans reproche. Yet nor was he a negative figure. The magnetic mountain, the gryphon and the fire-breathing dragon were far more “imagin­able” and less exotic for Russian and European readers in the Middle Ages than for us. There is no doubt that most people believed they were real. Therefore seventeenth-century man regarded the story somewhat differently from the way in which we regard it. We are inclined to assign Bruncvik more of a compositional (his presence links the individual episodes) than an heroic role. We forget about the great conflict that forms the basis of the tale, the conflict between man and the forces of na­ture.

The main hero is man in general, an abstract representative of the human race void of all national and social features. His exalted position on the social ladder neither helps nor hinders him. The fact that Bruncvik is a sovereign ruler may be considered as merely a feature of mediaeval literary convention which limited the choice of personages to a certain estate. Knowing that Bruncvik was a prince and seeing that he was frightened and lost, the seventeenth-century reader would believe that all men were equally helpless before nature, that princes and kings were no different in this respect from ordinary people. Herein lies the special democratic flavour of this Robinsoniana of the transition period.