Today – 26 February – is Fairy Tale Day so I thought I’d try to tell you a fairy tale. Although it is Romanian, called Miorita (I don’t have the Romanian characters but it’s pronounced mee-oh-ree-tsa), the little ewe lamb, I’ll try to tell it in English. My very free – not literal – translation (I would not attempt to versify it) is based on a version collected by Vasile Alecsandri (1821 – 1890, Romanian poet, playwright, politician and diplomat who came from the Moldavian city of Bacau, a little south of where I spent most of my time in Romania).
It’s not really a ‘fairy tale’, it’s an ancient ballad which, when I thought I understood it after several years in Romania and knew the language reasonably well, I began to say “Understand Miorita and you can understand Romanians”. Some Romanians may say that is presumptuous, but I believe it to be true though perhaps I should say “Understand Miorita and you can understand Moldavians”.
Moldavia is the part of Romania in which I stayed most of my over 11 years there; if I have a favourite part of this wonderful country it is Moldavia, though my specific favourite is the Bucovina, where some of the more fragile aspects of Moldavians have been strengthened by influences from the western side of the Carpathian mountains.
Once upon a time there were three shepherds, each tending their flock on the plain below the lower slopes of hills which seemed to lead to heaven. One of the shepherds was Moldavian, one Transylvanian and one Vrancean (from three parts of ancient Romania).
The Moldavian had more flocks with the most beautiful sheep, with long horns. He had the best, well-trained horses and the most ferocious hounds; in short he was the richest of the three.
The Transylvanian and Vrancean were envious. In their minds, and planning together, they intended to ambush the Moldavian, and kill him, when the sun went down.
Meanwhile, one small grey-dappled ewe lamb had bleated loudly and continuously for three days, refusing to eat.
The Moldavian shepherd asked her: “Don’t you like the grass? Why do you bleat so long and loud? Are you too sick to eat, sweet little lamb?”
She answered: “Dear master, take the flock into that far field, where there is shade for you. Call a large hound, a fierce, fearless one, strong and loyal, to be near you. When the daylight is gone the Transylvanian and Vrancean intend to murder you”.
The shepherd said to her: “If I am to die here, tell the Vrancean and Transylvanian to let my bones lie somewhere near, by the sheepfold so that my sheep are close by and I can hear my hounds. Put beside me a small beech pipe with its soft, sweet sound, a small pipe of bone which has a loving tone, and one of elderwood, good but fiery-tongued. Then, when the winds blow and play on them all my listening sheep would come near and weep”.
“Do not tell them how I died. Say that I could not stay but went to marry a princess, the most beautiful princess in the world. Tell them that at my wedding a bright star fell, the sun and moon came down to hold my marriage crown. My guests were trees – firs and maples. The high mountains were my priests, my fiddlers the birds, my torchlights the stars”.
“However, if you should meet somewhere my little, old mother with her girdle of wool, crossing the plains with tears flowing from her eyes, asking everyone she meets whether they had seen, had known, her fine shepherd son, slim as a willow tree with a face as bright as milk foam and a small moustache like a young ear of wheat, with hair as black as the feathers of a crow, and small black eyes that glow like ripe sloe berries, have pity and tell her that I have gone to marry a noble princess on the far hills there which lead to heaven”.
“But do not tell my old mother that a bright star fell for my bridal night, that firs and maples were my guests or that the high mountains were my priests, my fiddlers the birds and my torches the stars”.
I have stood on those hills which lead to heaven and can assure you that they do.