A poor hungry soldier finds himself in an uninhabited castle where he discovers an empty room with a Bible. A black girl appears, orders him to read the Bible and gives him food. He stays in the room, well looked after and reading the Bible, until he has regained his strength and is able to lift a huge chest. For days, he keeps the stove going, and eventually heaves the chest into the fire and allows it to burn. It turns out that the Devil’s mother was in the box. His next task is to remain in the room without speaking, constantly reading the Bible, even while being chopped up and almost burned by a Devil who falls from the ceiling one limb at a time. He also succeeds in this task. He is healed by the girl who has become half-white, but has to undergo the procedure two more times. An old spell cast by a witch is broken, when he succeeds. The girl turns completely white, the castle and estate are saved. The soldier marries the girl and is crowned sovereign.
Rights held by: Gusztáv Szendrei (work/reading) — Mozes F. Heinschink (recording) | Licensed by: Gusztáv Szendrei (work/reading) — Phonogrammarchiv – Austrian Academy of Sciences | Licensed under: Rights of Use | Provided by: Phonogrammarchiv – Austrian Academy of Sciences (Vienna/Austria) | Archived under: MHE12/1 (excerpt)
Many love stories and tales of magic deal with the redemption of a beloved person, a relative or a future wife or husband, whereby the suffering and ordeals associated with that redemption vary according to the narrator. In Gusztáv Szendrei’s story ‘I čori ketana’ [The Poor Soldier] the hero is a regular veteran soldier. On his arduous way home, the exhausted man arrives at an enchanted castle and, after having regained his strength, must prove that he is ready and able to undergo further trials in order to redeem the inhabitants of the castle, above all a girl ‘as black as coal’ (‘tista kali sas, sar o angar’).
He undergoes these trials with the patience of a veteran soldier. Reading the Bible helps him endure his suffering and overcome the Devil. The narrator thereby introduces a Christian motif and so raises the tale to a religious level. Thus, the hero has to undergo the ordeal and the test of his loyalty through mistreatment by the Devil and not by any other magical powers. The motif of the limbs falling from the ceiling and materializing as a monstrosity or something similar is, however, a common motif in tales of magic.
The redemption of the girl manifests itself in her colour. ‘Black’, as in many languages in the world, is deemed negative and stands for ‘damned’. In the end the enchanted girl has turned completely white, whereby the colour white symbolizes the pale skin of a ‘refined’ princess. Moreover, pale skin is deemed positive and desirable, as expounded by some storytellers. Looking like most people and therefore being less conspicuous means less discrimination or less outright rejection from the outset by the majority population.
Gusztáv Szendrei told the story of ‘The Poor Soldier’ around 1965 within a small circle of his friends. The narrator begins with a poetic introduction: ‘Te na avlas kadi sunto ratji, či paramiča či phenlas pe, šavale’ (‘If this holy evening did not exist, this story would not be told, dear friends’). The audience answers with a set phrase conferring a blessing : ‘T’ al amenge baxtali, kadi sunto rat!’ (‘May this holy night be a happy one for us!’). In accordance with the code of politeness of the speaker’s community, this benediction is followed by an answer: ‘Amen ka te žutij o sunto Del’ (‘The holy Lord will help us’). During the course of the story, the audience takes an active part, asking questions or repeatedly summarizing the commentary of the narrator. This shows the narrator that the audience likes the tale and is eagerly following the narrative.
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