It’s July! And July is a very special month for both Emma and me, since we will be spending most of it in each other’s company, in Germany, taking part in a course led by Shane Fero, as part of the summer academy programme at Bildwerk Frauenau. Wow. That was a pretty long and convoluted sentence.
Anyway, I thought to honour our foray into foreign territory, I thought it might be time to veer away from the very well-known fairytales, although I’m sure we’ll return to them in future. For July, I suggested a figure which has been the subject of many fairytales, although few of them are known in the UK, as far as I know. This figure is…Rübezahl. Never heard of him? Let me explain.
When I was a child, there were many books floating around the house, but none influenced me as much as a giant book of fairy tales. More than a decade after I moved out, when I was pregnant, I asked my Mum whether I might take the book with me. On closer inspection, it’s nothing special – a Readers Digest edition, dated 1969, full of fairy tale classics, and the odd not-so-classic tale. As a child, I was mostly fascinated by the lesser-known stories – the international ones, and those of Rübezahl. Let me translate the half-page introduction to the four fairy tales in the book:
“Rübezahl is the Lord of the Giant Mountains. On the surface of the Earth, only a small part of land is his, his actual realm lies inside the mountains. He is Lord to the dwarves and earth spirits, who live underground and work in Rübezahl’s infinite treasure chambers. Every now and then, the mighty mountain spirit leaves his underground realm to explore the surface. He likes playing tricks on humans, and these tricks have made him famous.
You can never know in advance how Rübezahl may behave when you meet him, for he is moody and unpredictable. Often, he is mild and friendly, yet soon, he may be full of mockery and schadenfreude. He may appear as a charburner, a wanderer or a rider, and many stories are told of him…”
The stories in the book tell of a mighty Lord, I suppose, a minor pagan God, really, who is interested in humans in the same detached and slightly bemused way in which a human might wonder about a gnat. He is not nasty by nature, but impulsive and easily angered, a force of nature who controls all life and weather in the mountains that are his realm. There is a story of a poor mother of three gathering leaves for their goat. Rübezahl listens to her story (her husband leaves a lot to be desired), and decides to help her by turning the leaves she has taken home to gold during the night. Of course, the goat has already eaten them, and died, since Rübezahl never thought to warn the woman. Then he goes to find the husband to beat the proverbial out of him. In a different story, he loans a desperate man money. When he returns three years later with his wife and children, he cannot find the wood spirit, only his IOU, with the words ‘paid with thanks’ – the gratefulness he and his family have displayed over the three years was payment enough.
Rübezahl is a difficult character to explain – historically, he appears as early as 1561 on a map, the first story found dates to 1565.
To me, Rübezahl stands for violence and kindness, and forces of nature. He is as mighty as the weather, and about as un/predictable. And he’ll be our ‘man of July’!
I’m not 100% sure yet what I’ll be making, but I think I’m aiming for something organic, rustic and natural, something that could live in Rübezahl treasure chamber, maybe…we’ll see!