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Book Reviews

Music for the Tsar of the Sea

by Celia Barker Lottridge, Harvey Chan, illus.

Weighing the Elephant

by Ting-xing Ye, Suzane Langlois, illus.

Each country has its share of folklore – stories sent from the past through the oral tradition. They were never intended especially for children; they were for everyone. Whatever their country of origin, folk tales share basic characteristics. They represent the collective wisdom of the common people as opposed to the elite educated classes. They are imbued with common sense and a basic morality: wisdom is contrasted with foolishness, generosity with selfishness, the true with the false.

Each country provides its own distinctive coloration, either through recognizable backgrounds or definite characteristics. Spanish tales, for example, always seem bathed in sunlight while English ones stress the cunning of the weak over the strong. Russian folklore is filled with tsars and peasants, animals, vast plains, and above all, music. Chinese stories feature cruel emperors, wise magistrates, and clever animals. Two new Canadian-published folktales are interesting examples of this genre.

Music is the chief theme of Celia Barker Lottridge’s retelling of a Russian tale called Music for the Tsar of the Sea. In the ancient city of Novgorod (which at that time did not have a river), there dwelled a young musician named Sadko who eked out a living entertaining wealthy merchants on his gusli (a little harp). When this source of income dried up he took his instrument to the shores of a lake outside the city where he played. There, on the third evening, Sadko was confronted by a gigantic figure rising from the lake (the Tsar of the Sea) who told him how much he and his daughters enjoyed his music. The Tsar gave Sadko a box of jewels but asked him, in return, to descend to his underwater realm sometime to entertain them in person. Too frightened to speak, Sadko nodded agreement.

With the jewels, Sadko became a wealthy travelling merchant but forgot his promise. One day when his ship was crossing the Caspian Sea, it was suddenly becalmed and Sadko realized that he was being reminded of his promise. He took his gusli and leapt into the sea. Down he sank until he reached the Tsar’s palace made of coral and sunken ship timbers. As Sadko played, the Tsar began to dance and his dancing brought devastation above the waves, causing ships to sink and rivers to overflow. One of the Tsar’s beautiful daughters rescued Sadko by telling him how to stop the destruction. In this version, Novgorod got the river that flows to the Caspian Sea, and Sadko returned to Earth.

This is not a well-known Russian tale, although Arthur Ransome’s Old Peter’s Russian Tales, published in 1916, has a softer, more charming retelling with a typical fairy tale ending though lacking the elemental quality unleashed by Lottridge. Celia Barker Lottridge is a well-known writer of children’s books, especially Ticket to Curlew, a very special novel of prairie pioneer life. This book is enhanced by award-winning Toronto illustrator Harvey Chan’s full-page paintings. Classically Russian in colour and design, the illustrations move from outdoor scenes to the undersea palace of the Tsar with its glimpses of marine life. It is a beautifully produced book.

Ting-xing Ye’s Weighing the Elephant has many characteristics of the folk tale, although it doesn’t appear in available collections of Chinese traditional tales. Set in ancient China, it features a greedy, selfish emperor who wants a baby elephant that lives in one of his distant villages. To obtain it, he sets the villagers a nearly impossible task (a strong folk tale convention) – to tell him how heavy the elephant is. The humorous tale is resolved when a clever seven-year-old boy suggests a sensible solution to the problem.

Born in Shanghai and now living in Orillia, Ontario, Ting-xing Ye is noted for her autobiography, A Leaf in the Bitter Wind, about the first 35 years of her life in China. The illustrations by Montreal artist Suzane Langlois are especially remarkable for their activity and fluidity, while retaining a folk tale quality. Storyteller and artist have produced a long-lasting delight for primary grade children.

Both these tales reflect our multi-ethnic population. With such talented storytellers and illustrators, we’re bound to have more. But there’s also a place for illustrated collections of tales directed to an audience of older children and adults. The publication of single folk tales in picture book format is a recent trend in publishing, probably dating from the 1940s and 1950s. This trend has given us beautiful books that often seem to be a vehicle for the illustrator. Collections such as Maurice Sendak’s retellings from the Brothers Grimm, The Juniper Tree (1973), and Eva Martin’s Canadian Fairy Tales (1984) are rarities, unfortunately. Long gone are the deluxe early 20th-century collections by such distinguished artists as Arthur Rackham and Edmund Dulac. The high incidence of single tales in picture book format suggests that these tales are for young children. But all cultures have tales that are far more sophisticated than The Three Billy Goats Gruff, as is shown by Music for the Tsar of the Sea. Let’s bring back more illustrated collections of old tales directed to an audience of older children and adults. Let’s share the wealth of folk tales with all ages of readers.

And while we’re at it, let’s explore the wealth of folk tales in such Canadian collections as Marius Barbeau’s The Golden Phoenix and Other French-Canadian Fairy Tales (1958).


Reviewer: Sheila A. Egoff

Publisher: Groundwood


Price: $16.95

Page Count: 32 pp

Format: Cloth

ISBN: 0-88899-328-5

Released: Oct.

Issue Date: 1998-8

Categories: History

Age Range: ages 4-7

Reviewer: Sheila A. Egoff

Publisher: Annick Press


Price: $6.95

Page Count: 32 pp

Format: Paper

ISBN: 1-55037-526-1

Released: Aug.

Issue Date: August 1, 1998

Categories: History

Age Range: ages 4–6