Archive for May 5th, 2013

Thinking nice thoughts about Estonia…

Sunday, May 5th, 2013

2013-05-01 13.23.46So here I am, bumping along a train outside Boston, after a harrowing day of travel from New York City.  It makes one wish to be far, far away … somewhere like Estonia.

I’ve been thinking about Estonia because a friend in Tallinn sent me a colorful Estonian scarf last week, with some Estonian chocolates in a tin with some of the national highlights, via a conscientious Stanford faculty courier.  It was a kind present, from a kind man … who seems to come from a rather kind nation.  (I wrote about its president here).

The chain of associations inevitably led me back to the fascinating documentary about Estonia’s “Singing Revolution” I wrote about some time ago in a post titled “This is the story of how culture saved a nation,” here.   One comment from the film, in particular, intrigued me – an Estonian remarked that the difference in the national identity is signaled by Estonia’s very different national hero. In England, for example, St. George slays the dragon. Most national legends feature some kind of warrior or conqueror.  But Estonia’s hero is the Barn-Keeper, who waits and watches for his moment, and achieves through sagacity rather than through feats of derring-do.


Literary black cats: Behemoth

You can find Friedrich Reinhold Kreutzwald‘s “The Courageous Barn-Keeper” here.  I’m told Kreutzwald is something of the national bard, the author of several books of folk tales.  I finally read this story on this train, feeling like I was on a dangerous journey myself:

Hereupon he took from his bosom a chain woven of fine gold thread, as thick as a shoe-string, which he handed to the barn-keeper, and then vanished, as if he had sunk into the ground. A tremendous crash followed, as if the earth had cloven asunder beneath the barn-keeper’s feet. The light went out, and he found himself in thick darkness, but even this unexpected event did not shake his courage. He contrived to grope his way till he came to the stairs, which he ascended till he reached the first room, where he had boiled his porridge. The fire in the hearth had long been extinguished, but he found some sparks among the ashes, which he succeeded in blowing into a flame. …


Estonia’s bard

One character, in particular, caught my attention: “a large black cat with fiery eyes dashed through the door like the wind and rushed up the stairs.”  When the story promised, “We will afterward make it so tame that it cannot hurt anybody again,” I had hoped for a non-violent, happy ending for the feline, in keeping with the Singing Revolution.  Alas, it is a promise broken.

It is not the only famous black cat to come out of Eastern Europe.  Think of the nefarious cat Behemoth in Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita.  I can’t remember what kind of end Behemoth comes to, but as the owner of a 17-pound black cat myself (not quite the size of Bulgakov’s invention) I hope for the best.

Don’t believe me about the kindness part?  Try watching this short clip for the documentary, “The Singing Revolution,” if you missed it before: