With the assistance of his Finnish speaking friend Lydia Tulonen, Parker Hoysted Fillmore (1878–1944) wandered “through the byways of Finnish folklore”, glossing his volume Mighty Mikko as “the traveler’s pack I have brought back home with me filled with strange treasures”. Rather than translating the folklore in a manner faithful to their original language, which, he thought, could sound “stiff, bald, and monotonous” to English ears, Fillmore retells these stories in his own idiom. Like Russian formalist Vladimir Propp, who would author his “Morphology of the Folktale” six years after Mighty Mikko appeared, Fillmore recognized that these tales shared a deep structure with stories told the world over. They are nevertheless “dramatic and picturesque”, colored “with a wealth of charming detail which is essentially Finnish”. Yet unlike, for example, the European literary cycle of Reynard the Fox, where beasts are substitutes for political and legal figures, Fillmore believes that his creatures are “plain downright Finnish peasants, sometimes stupid, often dull, frequently amusing, and always very human”.
Mighty Mikko contains twelve stories loosely based on Finnish tales, concluding with the hundred-page “Mikko the Fox: A Nursery Epic in Sixteen Adventures”. All, it seems, were gleaned by Fillmore from the work of Eero Salmelainen (1830–1867), namely his 1852 Suomen Kansan satuja ja tarinoita (Fairy tales and stories of the Finnish people), which collected tales told across Finland. Thanks to vibrant contributions from the abstract artist Jay Van Everen, Fillmore’s text is intercut with more than a dozen full-page block prints, numerous ornaments and miniature illustrations, and a magnificent color frontispiece.
Among the stories, we find a perennial theme of youth shepherded across the threshold of adulthood by animal guardians. To leave the house and traditions of her forefathers, Ilona of “The True Bride”, based on “Merestä-nousija-neito”, must outsmart Syöjätar with the help of her dog Pilkka, and marry the King’s Son; in the eponymous “Mighty Mikko”, based on “Madon linna”, a huntsman mourning his deceased parents uses inherited traps to snare a crafty fox, who, in turn, helps him wed a princess and capture a castle. There are Bluebeard-like figures, such as the aged Vetehinen in “The Three Barrels” — a variation of the Grimm’s “Fitchers Vogel” — who beheads a farmer’s daughters for looking into a forbidden room in his aquatic kingdom. And there are stories of hygiene, like “The Little Sister”, that seem quintessentially Finnish: to banish Syöjätar, an ogress associated with disease in Finnish mythology, make sure the sauna stones are red hot.
Despite Fillmore’s belief that faithful translations would sound bald and monotonous, some of his choices — made to sanitize the stories for children — are no less stiff. In a stumpily-titled “Log”, his truncation of “Leppäpölkky eli Sininen risti” (Leppäpölkky or the Blue cross), a many-headed monster emerges from the dark ocean to utter an evil incantation: “Fee, fi, fo, fum! / I smell a Finn! Yum! Yum!” The original has a more adult mood: “Huh-huu! ohan täällä ihmisen veri haisee; jopa tääll' on miehen luita syödäkseni” (Huh-huu! here the blood of man reeks; and here too are the bones of men to eat). Elsewhere, Fillmore adds a welcome bit of slapstick. In “The Partners”, when the Fox secretly eats the Wolf’s share of butter and then denies it, the animals decide to have a trial by fire: each will lie in the sun and see if fat runs from the other’s mouth. Assured of his innocence, the Wolf falls asleep in the warm light, which allows the Fox to smear his lips and frame him. In Salmelainen’s original, the Fox wakes the Wolf by crying: “Nouse katsomaan, kuoma, miten suustasi rasva valuu kalliolle!" (Rise friend, see how the fat drips from your mouth onto the rock!) Fillmore, seizing an opportunity, modifies the channel of delivery: “‘Wake up, Pekka! Wake up!’ the Fox cried. ‘There’s butter running out of your nose!’”
Little remembered today, Parker Hoysted Fillmore was something of a children’s literature wunderkind in the first decades of the twentieth century. A 1909 profile in Hampton’s Magazine, for example, written when Fillmore was thirty years old, lauded his “wonderfully varied career” and “unusual success as a writer”. After graduating from the University of Cincinnati in 1901, the young man of letters was nominated by his college president to spend three years in Tigaon, Philippines working as a schoolteacher, part of a colonial mission to export American education to the country recently purchased by the United States from Spain. He supposedly taught himself Spanish during the voyage at sea and was installed as local postmaster not long after disembarking. It was here he became interested in the imagination of children, writing stories set in regional landscapes as pedagogical aids.
After returning to Cincinnati, Fillmore went into investment banking with his brother, but soon suffered from exhaustion. (The diarist Winfield Townley Scott recalls hearing his contemporaries speculate that Fillmore “would never write another good book, because he had used himself up in the first”.) To recover, he slept outdoors in the Berkshires for a full year, and then set off for a series of long walks across England, France, Switzerland, Spain, and Italy. In the later period of his career, Fillmore turned to folklore, retelling stories he heard from his Czechoslovak friends in New York during Czechoslovak Fairy Tales (1919), The Shoemaker’s Apron (1920), and The Laughing Prince (1921), which a critic from the Evening Mail described as so brilliant that “Czecho-Slovakia is likely to be annexed by our nursery autocrats immediately”. His final works looked toward colder climates, with Mighty Mikko followed by a retelling of the Finnish Kalevala, titled The Wizard of the North: A Tale from the Land of Heroes (1923).
December 6, 2022