“Folk-toys. Les jouets populaires” by Emanuel Hercik (In French and English)
This is a very unusual book. Published in Czechoslovakia, it is a study of Czechoslovakian folk-toys, with a comparative visual appendix of specimens of toys from all over the world. It also contains a number of drawings of the oldest toys in the world, to show the historic evolution of the toy. All the drawings are so clear, that it would be possible to reconstruct these toys, just using these images alone. So if you fancy trying your hand at a bit of toy-making, and resurrecting the art, simplicity and pure beauty of the ancient folk-toy, then this book is for you.
There are pages and pages of carefully coloured drawings which are wonderful and charming in themselves, with several similar toys drawn on each page. The images manage to show the smooth shapes and real solidity of the toy, so I can imagine each toy held in my hand, which is a very pleasing thing. Animals, birds, figures, boxes, musical instruments and moving toys, all fit nicely into my imaginary hand, and I am transported back in time, with childish fascination and delight.
My favourites are the portly little Adam and Eve, complete with tree, snake and fig leaves, the seed pecking birds, the hammering man and hairy beast, the cute tiger trying really hard to look fierce, and the three surprised horses. There are some dark beast-men with very long tongues too, which seem to have come straight from a child’s nightmare, and some pretty nifty throwing and spinning toys as well.
Looking at the indexed notes for each toy, the man and beast is apparently a blacksmith and bear, based on a fairy tale. The oldest blacksmith folk tale interestingly, is about a blacksmith forging a deal with the devil. The association between iron and magic was widespread and pre-dates the iron age. The iron of Tutankhamen’s dagger was made from meteorites which were believed to be ‘the solidified tears of the sun’ and mimicking the work of the gods, by forging metal, was seen as dabbling in the domain of the devil. So perhaps the bear creature is actually the devil in disguise?
The dark beast-men pictured are commonly supposed to be the devil himself, and most are made to be quite humorous, but these ones are meant to be the real thing, carrying “naughty children to roast in hell fire with evident enjoyment.” A toy with a definite sting in its tail. (And in this case, a three-pronged one.)
All this reminds me of that children’s classic “Struwwelpeter” the 1845 German children’s book by Heinrich Hoffman, where each rhyming story has a clear moral, and some very graphic pictures of the disastrous consequences for the unfortunate child who misbehaves.
It becomes evident that both toys and stories have been used by parents around the world, as deterrents of naughtiness.
It is not all about parental efforts to influence (scare the hell out of) though. In “Folk-toys. Les jouets populaires” the throwing and spinning toys pictured were originally made by children themselves, and show a simple gleeful delight in just throwing and manipulating things. These are variously called; “The Comet”, “The Arrow”, the “ Bull-roarer”, “The Devil’s Knot”, and the “Tip-cat.”
It is the illustrations showing some of the specimens of the oldest toys in the world, that are the most fascinating, however. There are prehistoric rattles from the period between the bronze age and the iron age, a crocodile and a lion with moving jaws from 500-1000BC, and a very unusual double-figure toy from 2000BC, of a man being attacked by a tiger. There are ancient Egyptian and Coptic wooden dolls, marble figures from children’s graves in ancient Greece, and a burnt-clay whistle in the shape of a pigeon from 200BC Rome.
It is surprising how many contemporary craft toy-makers, make similar naive looking figures and moving toys today. Or maybe not so surprising. The fun and appeal of a colourfully painted carved bird, or a quirk and charm of a funny moving toy is always going to hold delight for children and secretly for adults too.
“Folk-toys. Les jouets populaire” is currently available online and in our Darwin Rare Books Room for £97, so come and visit to enjoy the images of this informative and very pretty book, for yourself.
If, alternatively, your prefer hilariously gruesome, albeit beautiful illustrations, and macabre moralising with no holds barred, or you have some wayward children who are in need of some shock tactics (only joking) we have an 1890 edition of “The English Struwwelpeter” both online and in the Darwin Room for £82. But more about that naughty boy and all his miscreant play-mates next week…..
-Written by Diane Newland. Darwin Bookseller.
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