A Gothic footbridge made of stone spans the broad Vltava River, linking five ancient towns together into Prague, the hauntingly beautiful capital city of the Czech Republic. West of the bridge is the Old Town; to the east is Mala Strana (the Little Quarter), a collection of crooked cobbled streets between the river and the castle on the hill. Strolling across Charles Bridge at twilight, the "City of One Hundred Spires" looks distinctly unreal, as dreamlike and hallucinatory as any of the art it has inspired. This is Franz Kafka's city, after all. A town where nothing is quite as it appears. A town steeped in legends and alchemy, with a long, bizarre, rather tragic history. Where the past is tangible, crowding the present-day streets with ghosts and stories.
The apartment where I am staying is in Mala Strana, tucked between crumbling Baroque buildings, quiet parks and the bubbling Devil's Stream -- named, I am told, for a demon in the water, or else for a washerwoman's temper. I have come because of the Art Nouveau movement which blossomed here one hundred years before. With its roots deeply planted in Czech folklore, Art Nouveau architecture and design has turned Prague into a fantasist's dream: extravagantly adorned with sprites, undines, and the pensive heroes of myth and legend, standing draped over doorways, on turret towers, holding up the red-tile roofs. Stories surround me everywhere I look. Music, too, is a constant presence. The sound of Mozart on a solo violin follows me down a dusky alleyway. I glimpse the form of the young musician in a lit window on a floor above. The next block, I hear piano scales; and down the street, the strains of a string quartet from a small palace concert hall. The night air is crisp, cold, the last of autumn shading into winter.
The friends I am visiting here in Prague are involved in a world of magic themselves. William Todd-Jones is a Welsh puppeteer at work on a film of Pinocchio. The film crew, directed by Steve Barron, have made use of these old, unspoiled streets to recreate the timeless landscape of a classic children's story. Although ostensibly set in Italy, Carlos Collodi's tale of a wooden puppet who longs to be a real boy is a fitting one to bring to Prague -- and not just because of the economic climate that lures so many film productions here. This is a city filled with puppets: from the simplest wooden marionettes hawked by street vendors on Charles Bridge to the elaborate, fanciful figures found on display in posh art galleries. This ancient folk art/folk theater tradition still flourishes here in Eastern Europe in a way unimaginable in the West -- where puppetry, like fantasy itself, is deemed to be for children only.
Czech puppets often depict the figures from old Bohemian folktales, a rich oral storytelling tradition that dates back to the founding of this land. According to the history books the Czech tribe established itself in Bohemia sometime between the 5th and 8th centuries, following a vanished Celtic tribe, and one of Germanic peoples. The Premysls were the first ruling dynasty, founded by the Queen Libuse -- a romantic, half-legendary figure described by Cosmas of Prague (c. 1045-1125) as ". . .a wonderful woman among women, chaste in body, righteous in all her morals, second to none as a judge over the people, affable to all and even amiable, the pride and glory of the female sex, doing wise and manly deeds; but, as nobody is perfect, this so praise-worthy woman was, alas, a soothsayer. . . ."
When the men of her tribe grew disgruntled about being ruled by a woman, she fell into a trance, pointed toward the hills, and instructed them to follow her horse; it would lead them to the simple ploughman who was destined to be her husband. That ploughman was the first Premysls, a muscular and handsome young man according to the legends -- and to the many statues of the pair one finds in Prague today. Another legend attributes the founding of the city itself to Libuse's visions. In a trance she saw two golden olive trees and "a town, the glory of which will reach the stars." The spot described by the queen was found, and on it was a man building a doorsill for his cottage. The Czech word for doorsill is prah, giving Libuse's new town it's name: Praha (Prague). The town was then erected on the hill where Prague Castle stands today.
The Premysls rule over Bohemia lasted well into the Middle Ages. Prague thrived, and by the 14th century, under the rule of Charles IV, the city was larger than London or Paris and boasted western Europe's first university. But religious strife between various Christian faiths presented serious on-going problems, resulting in many bloody massacres, assassinations and executions. A series of weak absentee Kings further damaged the independent kingdom until, in the 16th century, the Austrian Habsburgs claimed the throne. German became the official court language as tiny Bohemia was swallowed up by the Holy Roman Empire.
In 1583, the Emperor Rudolph II moved his capital from Vienna to Prague. Rudolph was an unusual man: an intellectual and a mystic, reputed to be mentally unhinged (he walked around with the fingers of a dead man stuffed in his back pocket). Rudolfine Prague was glittering and surreal, a city teeming with alchemists, astrologists, necromancers, soothsayers, artists, musicians, brilliant mathematicians, and religious zealots of every stripe and color. The search for the Philosopher's Stone ("the stone which is not a stone, a precious thing which has no value, a thing of many shapes, this unknown which is most known of all," according to the alchemist Hermes Trismegistus) consumed Rudolph and his court, and indeed much of Prague nobility. The famed English astrologer/wizard John Dee and his partner Edward Kelly spent five years together in Prague (much of it on Rudolph's payroll), gazing into crystal balls and conducting conversations with angels. Kelly stayed on when Dee returned to England, claiming to have discovered the coveted secret of turning lead into gold. Kelly gained a knighthood, but eventually landed in prison on sorcery and heresy charges. Legend has it he died in Prague, but no one really knows for sure.
Despite continued religious strife, the Habsburg Austro-Hungarian rule did not weaken until the 19th century. Then the Czech language, which had all but died out, was revived by a handful of writers and language scholars. A wave of nationalism swept the country, and a strong desire for Slav self-rule. In the arts, this translated into a passion for the history, myths and folklore of Bohemia. The national operas of Bedrich Smetana drew upon rustic traditional stories, and the symphonies of Antonin Dvorak were influenced by Slav folk music. Art Nouveau was a 19th century movement that came to Prague via Paris and Vienna. In architecture, the style was distinguished by the abundant use of decorative elements drawn from sensual, natural forms: vines and lilies, sunflowers, poppies, and the shapes of the human body. Czech artists used this fluid style to cover the faces of new buildings with figures drawn from Slav folklore, creating some of the finest examples of Art Nouveau to be found anywhere in Europe. A huge slum clearance in the old Jewish Quarter led to many new buildings in the Art Nouveau style -- buildings miraculously preserved despite the ravages of two World Wars.
The most famous Czech Art Nouveau artist was not an architect but a graphic designer: Alphonse Mucha, whose theater posters for the actress Sara Bernhardt catapulted him into sudden fame. In Paris between 1890 and 1910, his posters, prints, even jewelry designs, were ubiquitous in fashionable circles -- standing the test of time with their great popularity to this day. Although Mucha's distinctive work has come to exemplify the Art Nouveau style, he himself hated the term, insisting that art could never be "new" because it was eternal. A fiercely nationalistic man, literate, and prone to mystic leanings, Mucha himself was most proud of the work completed upon his return to Prague: the Slav Epic, comprised of twenty large panels in tempera and oil paint. Commissioned for Prague's Municipal Building, an Art Nouveau masterpiece itself, these gorgeous paintings illustrate Slav history and legend in rich detail. Mucha spent his later years in Prague, watching his dream of national independence turn to reality in 1918, when the Czechs paired with neighboring Slovakia to establish their own republic. Twenty years later that dream crumbled as Hitler's army rolled into the city. Mucha was one of the first of the nationalist intellectuals to be grilled by the Gestapo. Already in poor health, the artist died three months later, a broken man.
A lesser known but equally interesting Czech artist is Frantisek Bilek, who brought Art Nouveau ideas back to Prague after studying in Paris in the 1890s. Bilek was an intelligent, iconoclastic and wildly inventive man, a sculptor and designer who worked with an astonishing variety of materials. Like Mucha, he had a strong mystical bent, and a passion for Czech history and lore. His art combined ideas from music, literature and philosophy to explore the mysticism, magic and spirituality inherent in everyday life. The peculiar house Bilek built for himself (in a design meant to represent a cornfield) is now a museum of the artist's work and philosophy.
The most famous of Prague's creative figures, of course, was the German-speaking Franz Kafka (1883-1924), whose brooding surrealistic vision captured the darker flavor of the city where he lived for all but a few years of his life. The tormented man-turned-cockroach in Kafka's Metamorphosis and the bleak labyrinthine despair of his novel The Castle are now well known to generations of readers and philosophy students around the world. Kafka never lived to see any of the fame that would one day emblazon his name across his city's tourist maps and postcards. He died, surrounded by unpublished manuscripts, in a small flat over Old Town Square -- a place of Gothic towers and Baroque rooftops aptly described as the Brothers Grimm in stone, which Kafka considered "the most beautiful setting that has ever been seen on this earth."
In Czechoslovakia, as elsewhere in Europe, artists moved on to Cubism and Surrealism in the period between the two world wars. It is not surprising that a city with a history of alchemy and mysticism would become the second most active center of Surrealism after Paris. Karel Capek was a writer whose engaging work shows the influence of both movements -- combined with a love of Czech folklore, and a distrust of industrialized life. Often called "the Czech Kurt Vonnegut," he is best known for his novel War of the Newts, and for his science fiction play R.U.R., a Broadway hit which gave the world the word robot (from the Czech robota, meaning: hard labor). His brother Josef was a noted Cubist painter, but he also produced Thurber-esque cartoons to illustrate some of Karel's work. Together they published a charming book called Nine Fairy Tales and One Thrown in for Good Measure. Translated into English by Dagmar Herrmann, it was published in the US in 1990 to mark the centenary of Karl Capek's birth.
The extraordinary Prague art scene that existed between the two World Wars was all but stamped out when the new country fell to Hitler's armies. Intellectuals, many of them Jewish, fled or were exterminated. Out of ninety thousand people in the Old Jewish Quarter of Prague, eighty thousand were killed. The Old Jewish Quarter, an extravaganza of beautiful Art Nouveau architecture, had originally been established many centuries before as a walled medieval ghetto, often locked to segregate its inhabitants. The community had its own folktales, particularly those of the Golem and Rabbi Loew. Loew was a Talmudic scholar said to have lived in the 15th century -- a hero in various fairy tale exploits whose villain was usually Brother Thaddeus, a wicked cleric prone to pogroms and accusing Jews of killing Christian babies. The Golem comes from the mystical cabalist idea that each mortal contains within him a spark of the divine. In prayer, Loew was instructed to build a man out of mud, to walk around it several times, and then place the unknown name of God (the shem) in its mouth. The Golem thus created is a rather humorous, slapstick creature who nonetheless appears at times of crisis to save the Jews from danger. He did not, alas, make an appearance when Hitler's Gestapo came to town.
After the war, Czech arts fared no better under the strict Social Realist doctrine of Communism. In the Sixties, this seemed to loosen a bit; art and optimism swept Prague, culminating in the student revolt of Prague Spring in '68. Then Soviet tanks rolled into the city, and all Prague watched in horror as hundreds of unarmed people were shot, effectively crushing the resistance and the spirits of a whole generation. Another two decades of Communism passed before the Czech people revolted again. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Prague students confronted baton-wielding police on the streets of New Town. The televised confrontation, showing the brutality of the police against students armed only with candles and flowers, shook the Czech population to the core, and a million people took to the streets to demand the government's resignation. This extraordinary peaceful uprising, known as The Velvet Revolution, toppled the old Communist regime, and in less than two months playwright Vaclav Havel was elected to the presidency.
Since then, Czech and Slovakia have formed two separate nations. Prague has opened its doors to the West, and called home its many exiles. The city's beauty, mystique, and cheap rents have attracted a large English-speaking community, many of them writers, artists and filmmakers hoping to find, or recreate, the "cafe life" of Europe between the wars. At sidewalk cafes and in coffee bars one sees many young faces these days and hears many different languages spoken. Some Czechs are delighted with this new infusion of young energy, others are dismayed by the tourist invasion. But despite the crowds in Old Town Square and around the other tourist attractions, the real life of Prague goes in the back streets of the city -- in the casual and unmarked beer halls which one discovers only with the aid of Czech friends, in the art studios, theaters and jazz clubs tucked away on unlikely streets, where the Czechs exercise their hard-won right to gather, to argue, and to create.
In recent years, Hollywood in particular has discovered the charms of Eastern Europe, with its economical labor pool and a wealth of exotic locations from castles to cities to countryside. My friend's film, Pinocchio, has been shot in Prague's back streets, on its rooftops, in a quarry, and in a small Czech village. Now they are doing bluescreen shots in the large film studio on the outskirts of town, the painstaking work that will make the wooden puppet come to life on film. It is fascinating to watch Todd and the others at work manipulating the puppet. It takes several puppeteers working together to move, in co-ordination, the legs, the arms, the torso, the head, and all the facial movements that give the puppet expression. Todd wears what looks like a blue diving suit so that he can be eliminated from the picture, leaving behind only the image of the wooden puppet in motion. It is an unusual and highly skilled form of acting -- physical, even acrobatic. A good team seems to work together as if by magic or telepathy.
At a break in the filming, the director, Steve Barron, talks about Pinocchio with me. It is, he says, a tale that he has long wanted to film. He has an abiding love for fantasy stories, particularly ones grounded in the world we know. Steve directed the "Storyteller" series (created with Jim Henson, of Muppet fame), filming beautiful and intelligent retellings of lesser known fairy tales, such as the quirky Hans My Hedgehog. What drew him to Pinocchio was the human emotion lodged within Collodi's magical adventure tale: the wooden boy who longs to be like the other boys, to be real, to fit in. That deep desire to belong, Steve says with a smile, is a feeling he remembers well.
Carlos Collodi was an Italian journalist who became a popular writer of children's stories. He first published Pinocchio in an episodic, serial form; it was then gathered together as a single book in 1883. Since then the story has been filmed several times, but never (in America) quite successfully. The Disney version in particular lacks the original story's sinister edge that makes the ultimate reunion between the puppet and his father so affecting. Like Steve, Mac Wilson (the head puppeteer) says it is a story he has long wanted to film, the ultimate story for a puppeteer. And a technically challenging one, for the puppet is on-screen for a great deal of the movie. The task of Mac's team of puppeteers is to show how a bit of carved and painted wood can be turned into a living, breathing character whom an audience will come to love.
It seems fitting that they must accomplish this here, in the ancient land of Bohemia, where puppet-makers have been bringing such creatures to life for centuries. The folktales of Bohemia are full of creatures carved from trees: male and female, painted, then dressed, then brought to life by the power of speech. One becomes a ravenous child, eating everything in sight, his parents, his village, the countryside, until he's finally destroyed. Another is a girl, ravishing but mute, who is wed to a prince and then turns back into wood in his arms on their wedding night. Creation, destruction, illusion. . .reminding us that all is not as it appears. . . .
Since the Revolution, fantasy, folklore and surrealism is catching up with Social Realism as a vibrant presence in modern Czech arts. Adolf Born is an artist whose phantasmagoric paintings could almost be children's book illustrations but for the macabre, perversely erotic elements of his imagery. Jiri Anderle is a master of delicate, surreal pencil drawings. The collection of his art with text by Vaclav Havel is particularly worth seeking out. Peter Sis is a Czech painter, filmmaker and children's book author now living in New York. The Three Golden Keys is a gorgeous, dreamlike picture book about his home city of Prague, created for his young daughter who was born in America. The book captures the beauty and melancholy of the old city streets; it is an intimate and haunting work which I strongly recommend. For those interested in Czech folklore, K.J. Erben's Tales from Bohemia is a particularly nice collection, reprinted from the original Prague edition with lovely illustrations by Artus Scheiner.
One Prague book critic has decried the surge in popularity of "works of mere escapism" -- such as J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings (a best-seller in the Czech Republic), as well as home-grown magical works by young Czech fantasists. Yet it is not surprising to learn that after years of force-fed Realism, readers have discovered the pleasures to be found in works of modern fantasy, the best of which speaks on two levels at once: not only as a magical "escape" from humdrum reality but also as a metaphorical exploration of the basic truths underlying modern life: love and hate, loyalty and betrayal, courage and despair, survival, transformation. Tolkien's tale, for instance, is a bittersweet story of war, heroism, and loss. Sauron's dark hold on Middle Earth, and the terror of his Dark Riders, must have a particular resonance for those who saw the Prague Spring crushed, and watched in horror as police attacked young people armed only with flowers. . . .
Prague is a place where the old and the new, the realistic and surrealistic, have come together in a singular manner -- in its arts, its streets, its politics, its way of life, and its stories. This capital city is contemporary, vital and full of promise for the future; yet ancient blood still stains the stones and ancient ghosts still haunt the roads: the innocent women burned as witches, the religious martyrs thrown from the towers, the men and women executed for the wrong faith, the wrong name, the wrong ideas. I have never been in a place where so much history seems crowded together, packed into the few square miles overlooked by old Prague Castle.
On my last night in Prague, I pass through the city riding on the back of my friend's motorcycle, the sleek machine passing over the old cobblestones, slippery with rain. The old and the new flash past us as we speed across the river and down the streets of Mala Strana. The ghosts of the past are still whispering their tales: folk tales, fairy tale, history and legend. But I'm back in the modern world now. I'm moving too fast to listen.
Art: "Revierie" by AlphonseMucha, 1898
About the Author: Terri Windling is a writer, artist, and editor, and the founder of the Endicott Studio and the Journal of Mythic Arts. For more information, please visit her website for more information.
Author's Note: With thanks to William Todd-Jones and Carol Amos for their hospitality; and to Steve Barron for graciously allowing me on the Pinocchio set. — T.W.
Copyright © 1995 by Terri Windling. This article appeared in Realms of Fantasy magazine in 1995. It may not be reproduced in any form without the author's express written permission.