A Bouquet of Czech Folktales is a collection of ballads written by Karel Jaromír Erben. It was first published in 1853 and contained 12 poems. Its second edition is from 1861 and had 13 poems. Erben had plans for more ballads, but they were not finished. The poems enjoyed a huge success and the book has been considered a treasure of Czech literature ever since it first appeared.
Erben focused on women and their role in life and society. The most important relationship for him was a relationship between a mother and her child. Sometimes, his heroine is torn between her role as a daughter and her role as a mother, and she cannot make the right choice — as it will always wrong one of her loved ones.
Four of these tales were adapted into tone poems by Antonín Dvořák.
A Bouquet was translated into English in 2013.
List of poems:
- "A Bouquet": An introduction to the collection. A mother dies and her orphans mourn her, coming to her grave daily. The mother's soul comes back to them in the form of the thymus. The children can sense their mother's breath in the scent of thyme and know that her soul is returned.note
- "The Treasure": Easter is a magical time when rocks and caves open and reveal their vast treasures like gold, silver and gems. A young widow finds such a cave; but caring for her newly acquired wealth, she forgets her toddler who gets shut in the cave.
- "Wedding Shirts": The heroine longs for the return of her lost lover. He does, as The Undead. She doesn't notice and travels with him to his home, a graveyard. He is stealing her soul away from God and he's removing her from his protection.
- "Noon Witch": A mother gets frustrated with her child who's very troublesome. She calls a noon witch to get him.
- "The Golden Spinning Wheel": This poem is based on a fairy-tale. A nobleman falls in love with a pretty spinner and wants to marry her. The heroine's evil step-mother murders her, and her step-sister who looks exactly like the girl acts as her imposter.
- "Christmas Eve": Christmas Eve is the most magical night when the Earth reveals its secrets and it's possible to read one's future. Hana and Marie tempt their fate with dangerous fortune telling. Hana sees a happy marriage with her sweetheart. Marie sees her own funeral.
- "The Dove": Dove in Slavic mythology symbolizes a pure and innocent soul. The dove in the ballad is the soul of a poisoned husband. His guilt-ridden, unfaithful murderess of a wife cannot stand his cooing.
- "Zahor's Bed": A legend about guilt, redemption and God's forgiveness.
- "Water Sprite": Water Sprite (see Vodyanoy) is a creature who lives in lakes and rivers, drowns people and keeps their souls trapped under the water. In some fairytales or folktales, he can be a benevolent and friendly figure, but he's a horrific being in Erben's poem. He kidnaps an innocent girl and forces her to live with him. When she leaves, he decapitates her child and leaves the remains on her doorstep.
- "Willow": A ballad about a woman whose soul lives in a willow at night. Her husband finds out and is disturbed. He decides to cut down the tree.
- "Lily": A young girl dies and her soul is transferred into a lily. At night, she's allowed to appear in her human form and a prince falls in love with her. His mother does not like his new bride.
- "A Daughter's Curse": A short ballad about a girl who killed her baby and curses her mother for bad parenting.
- "The Prophetess": The closing poem includes prophecies about the future glory of the Czech nation.
A Bouquet of Tropes:
- Be Careful What You Wish For:
- The heroine of "Wedding Shirts" lost her entire family (they died) and has only one hope — her lost lover might come back. She blasphemes in her prayer and says that either he returns, or that God should kill her as well. God grants her her wish — her lover does come back, but he's dead.
- The mother in "Noon Witch" gets so angry that she starts calling for the title character to take away her child. She doesn't seem to expect the noon witch to actually show up to take the child, and is horrified when that happens.
- Bittersweet Ending: Sometimes there is some hope in the fates of the heroes or heroines.
- Creepy Souvenir: In "The Golden Spinning Wheel", the wicked step-mother and step-sister keep the heroine's legs, arms and eyes after they murder her.
- Downer Ending: Lots of the ballads end in tragedy like the death of children or young people.
- Driven to Suicide: The daughter in "The Daughter's Curse". She blames her mother for poor parenting and is torn about her feelings to her seducer. She killed her baby and feels irredeemable guilt.
- Half-Human Hybrid: The child in "Water Sprite". His mother is human and his father is a water goblin.
- Identical Stranger: The two step-sisters in "The Golden Spinning Wheel" look absolutely alike, despite the fact that they share no genetic material.
- Lit Fic: Big time. Czech kids must know this book perfectly as it's one of the most important texts from the 19th century and is counted in the Czech literary canon. They usually have to learn at least one poem (or a part of one, as some are quite long) by heart.
- Offing the Offspring:
- In "Water Sprite", the protagonist's mother refuses to let her daughter go back to her monster of a husband and her child. As a punishment, the water sprite kills their little son.
- The woman in "Noon Witch" accidentally squeezes her child to death. She was protecting them from the noon witch.
- Parental Abandonment: There is a total family abandonment in "Wedding Shirts". The heroine describes her life as basically Everybody's Dead, Dave at the beginning of the story. Her father died, then her mother shortly after him, then her sister died within a year and her brother died in a war. She still waits for her betrothed to come back. He does come back, but he's dead as well. She doesn't notice.
- Rule of Three:
- In "Wedding Shirts", the undead lover takes three items from the heroine, all of which symbolize protection from God. He throws away her Bible, her prayer beads and her cross necklace.
- When the heroine of "Wedding Shirts" locks herself in the deadhouse near a church with a dead man who is about to be buried, her undead lover tries to raise him as well to kill her. He calls him three times. She manages to make him lie still.
- In "Water Sprite", the water sprite comes three times, asking his wife to go home to the lake with him. Each time the weather gets worse. The last time, he brings their son with him. When the heroine is still not coming back with him, he kills the baby.
- In "The Golden Spinning Wheel," a series of three barters is arranged in order to convey the missing parts of the girl's body from the Wicked Stepmother to the mysterious old man who needs them to bring her Back from the Dead. A golden spinning wheel is exchanged for the legs, a golden distaff is exchanged for the hands, and a golden thimble is exhanged for the eyes. When the king returns and asks his new wife to demonstrate the golden spinning wheel, the wheel plays a song in three verses exposing the murder and deception.
- Shapeshifting Lover: Usually it's that a person takes an animal form, but Czech folktales seem to prefer plant forms.
- "Willow" is about a woman who shares her life with a willow. She's a woman during the day, but she's lying as if she were dead at night. When her husband finds out she actually lives as a willow, he decides to cut the tree down because he wants to have her fully. It ends badly. She dies the instant he cuts it.
- "Lily": A lady in this poem is a woman at night, but a lily during the day.
- Textile Work Is Feminine:
- The heroine of "Golden Spinning Wheel" is a hard-working girl who likes spinning. Her step-sister takes her place as the bride of a nobleman. She longs to have the golden spinning wheel from the title, which reveals what she did to her sister to her husband.
- The heroine of "Wedding Shirts" is waiting for her lover who went abroad. He told her to spin, weave and sew their wedding shirts and fill her bottom drawer until he comes back.
- The Undead: The heroine's dead lover in "Wedding Shirts" comes for her and takes her with him to his new home — a graveyard that is quite far away. It's not specified what form of raised dead he is, but she doesn't recognize that he's dead and she goes with him.
- Unexplained Recovery:
- The child in "The Treasure" is kept for a year in the magical cave and survives. According to the folklore, that is because time flows differently in the cave.
- "Lily" starts with a narrator telling that a young virgin died of illness. She starts living as a lily during the day and a woman at night.
- Wicked Stepmother: In "The Golden Spinning Wheel", the stepmother favours her own daughter and kills her stepdaughter who was supposed to marry a lord.
- Widow Woman:
- The protagonist of "Treasure" is a young widow with a baby.
- The heroine's evil stepmother in "The Golden Spinning Wheel" is widowed.
- The heroine's mother in "Water Sprite" is widowed and lives with her only daughter.