The Dæmon in the Wood


This is the green tree; 
what then shall be done in the dry?

- Samuel Butler

The investigation of oral narrative tradition reported in the following pages began as a footnote to a footnote to a Serbo-Croatian oral traditional epic poem collected in the Balkan town of Novi Pazar in 1934.1

Early in that epic’s narrative, an imperial military commander in the capital town of a frontier province of the Turkish Empire desires the assistance in a risky expedition into enemy territory of a specially knowledgeable outlaw, a chieftain of brigands named Golalija, who—like the English Robin Hood, the Irish Fionn mac Cumhaill, or the Turkic bandit-master Kuroglu—resides with his henchmen in a secluded wilderness retreat. The commander dispatches an emissary, a certain Fugitive Radovan, to penetrate the outlaw Golalija’s remote domain and recruit the headman for the mission. The emissary carries an official letter to that effect addressed to Golalija.

Wilderness places in this Balkan narrative tradition were preeminently rugged mountains, so that a mere word or two mentioning a mountainous upland was tantamount to saying “unsettled wasteland.” The Balkan storyteller described a series of surprises in the wilderness when Radovan the Fugitive reached Golalija’s distant mountain lair:

But when he emerged onto Mount Golješ    147
and gazed downward upon Golješ’s declivity,
there he saw a thousand ewes
tending a thousand lambs,    150
and a shepherd dressed in cloth of gold a-leading them,
and in the shepherd’s hands a golden whistle,
and a golden rifle slung upon his shoulder
all inlaid with silver and pure gold;
and twelve other herdsmen too,    155
and with them twelve bulldogs.
The dogs spied Radovan,
who fled up a green fir tree
until he’d climbed into its upper branches.
Thereupon the shepherd in cloth of gold approached,    160
taking his rifle from his shoulder as he came.
When he looked up into the fir
and caught sight of Radovan,
he shouted at him at the top of his lungs:
“Bastard, who are you intruding on this mountain?    165
Do you not know that passage through this territory
      is forbidden?
For the past twelve years
not even the birds have dared to overfly this space,
not to mention men who tread the earth!”
Then Radovan stammered from the fir tree,    170
for he had recognized the man, and so he said:
“Sworn brother of mine, sworn brother Ibro Huremović!
I am Fugitive Radovan.
Dire necessity has driven me hither.
I bear a letter addressed to Brigand Golalija.”    175
When Ibro recognized Rado, he said:
“Come down to me, Fugitive Radovan!
Come down, have no fear of me.”
Then Rado came down from among the branches,
but in that while he had grown mighty hungry,    180
so famished that he could not stand up.
Then Ibro Huremović said to him,
“Why are your legs buckling under you?”
To which he replied, “I am so hungry I cannot
       stand upright.”
He reached into his wallet    185
and drawing forth white bread gave it to Rado.
When Rado had eaten enough of the bread,
he asked Hurem’s son:
“What way am I to go to reach the chilly grotto
so that I may hand this letter to the Brigand?”    190
Then Ibro Huremović said to him,
“I shall tell you the way that you should go.
These are the sheep of Brigand Golalija,
and these are his shepherds that keep them.
Go in their direction, turning from right to left,    195
where you will come upon a dry-branched fir.
Bypass that dry-branched fir
and proceed till you find a great, towering fir tree
beneath which a thousand of the Brigand’s sheep
      are put to graze
—there they pasture a thousand sheep,    200
all in the shade of that great green fir.
Pass on, continuing uphill from there,
till you come to a carpeting of drugget spread
       upon the ground,
leading from another fir tree to the grotto,
stretching all the way to the very entrance of the cave.    205
Girdling its bole that dry fir
has forgings of gold,
three hoops of gold banded round it,
and beneath the fir water flows from spigots,
four spigots pouring forth fresh water.    210
The pipes are wrought of fine gold
and the drinking cups of bright silver
—that fir stands just opposite the cave.
There you must conceal yourself,” he said.
       “Stay behind the dry fir!
—the drinking cups are of bright silver—    215
Hide yourself there, keep the bole of the fir before you
so the Brigand does not see you anywhere on the mountain,
lest you die a miserable death.
When you have taken your position beneath the dry fir,
draw forth your scrivened letter.    220
The Brigand sits ever at the mouth of the grotto.
Some forty chairs are there set round,
and lads all squatting on their haunches
while the Brigand sits upon a chair of gold.
All hold their rifles at the ready.    225
The Brigand sits at the entrance to the cave
and in his hands he holds a medallion-decorated rifle
with four and twenty medallions along its length,
each medallion half a liter of gold
—its two sights are precious gems.    230
Every man of them holds a gun in hand,
and the Brigand’s companions are forty in number.”
“So,” he said, “you are to go to that fir tree.
Lie down facing the cave from behind the fir
and extending your right hand    235
hold out the scrivened letter to be seen.
When they catch sight of the letter,
he will send someone
to look more closely at the scrivened letter,
to see what it betides and whence it comes.”2     240

The American editor of this Serbo-Croatian text found some of its narrative’s details puzzling, and signalled his bafflement in a note to his English translation:

It is not clear what the function of the theme of hunger and bread is. It has not been foreshadowed, nor does it have importance in any later action.3

The treatise following this Prolog offers in considerable depth an explanation of the hunger and bread in the South Slavic narrative poem, as also of them and of the thematic matrix to which they pertain in the larger oral tradition of suchlike tales worldwide. In process of developing that explanation, a particular comparative method is also elaborated as a model for investigations of this sort generally.



  1. Milman Parry, collector, and Albert Bates Lord, ed., Serbocroatian Heroic Songs, vol. 2, Belgrade and Cambridge MA, 1953, pp. 107-116.

  2. The text in Serbo-Croatian is:
    A kad izbi na Golješ planinu
    pa pogljeda niz laz niz Golješu,
    a kad vide hiljadu ovaca,
    a pod njima hiljadu jagnjaca,    150
    a pred njima zlatna ćobanina
    —u ruke mu od zlata sviralja,
    a na rame zlatna džeferdara—
    vas u srmi i u ćistom zlatu,
    i s ovcama dvanaes’ ćobana,    155
    i sa šnjima dvanaes’ samsova.
    Opaziše dvanaes’ samsova,
    beži Rako uz jelju zeljenu
    dok se jelji uspe na ogranke.
    U to stiže, kaže, zlatan ćobanine,    160
    maće s ramena, kaže, pušku granaljiju,
    pa pogljeda uz jelu zeljenu,
    a kad vide Raka na jeljiku,
    pa zapisnu grlom i avazom:
    »Kopiljane, ko si u planinu?    165
    A znaš, ođe,« kaže, »prolaženja nema!
    Ima doba dvanaes’ godina,
    ođe ’tice nijesu proljetele,
    a deljatim na zemlji junaci.«
    Tā put Rako s jele zapoćeo    170
    —poznade ga, pa mu besedaše:
    »Bogom brate, Huremović Ibro,«
    kaže, »ja sam glavom Uskok Radovane.
    Velika me nagnala nevolja:
    nosim knjigu hajduk Golaliji.«    175
    Kad je Ibro Raka upoznao:
    »Skin’ se k mene, Uskok Radovane
    —skin’ se k mene, i s’ ne boj mene!«
    Tā put Rako niz granje se skide,
    a bijaše moćno ogladnijo    180
    —ogladnijo, pade sa nogama.
    Tā put reće Huremović Ibro,
    »Šta si, Rako, što ti noge kljecu?«
    Kaže, »Gladan, više držat ne mogu.«
    On se maši torbi obravnici    185
    te mu dade ’ljeba bijeloga.
    Dok se Rako ’ljeba ponajeo,
    sade pita Huremova sina:
    »Kako ću isti ljedenoj pećini
    da primaknem knjigu do hajduka?«    190
    Tā put reće Huremović Ibro,
    »Ja ću tebe đadu kaževati.
    To su ovce hajduk Golalije,
    i ćobani hajduk Golalije.
    ’Ajde ovde,« kaže, »z desna na lijevo,    195
    pa ćeš naći jelu suhogranu,
    pa prolazi jelu suhogranu,
    pa ćeš vel’ku jelu nalaziti
    što planduju ovce hajdukove
    —tu planduju hiljadu ovaca    200
    sve na hladu pod jelom zelenom.
    Pa prolazi, pa na više dođi,
    prostrtu ćeš ćohu nalaziti
    —od jele je do pećine ćoha,
    sve prostrta do vrata pećinska—    205
    a pod jelu je jela suhograna
    sakovata zlato naokolo
    —oko jelje tri obruća zlatna—
    a pod jelu,« kaže, »voda na fiskije
    —tu sve toću ćetiri fiskije;    210
    sve su lula od žežena zlata,
    a tasevi od srme bijele—
    a jela je taman pred pećinu.
    Ti ćeš se kriti,« kaže, »drž’ se za jelu suharu!
    A tasevi od srme bijele—    215
    ti se skloni, pa jeljiku turi
    da te ne vidi hajduk po planini,
    helj ćeš grdan moćno poginuti.
    Kad ćeš doći pod jelu suharu,
    ti izvadi knjigu šarovitu.    220
    Hajduk sedi taman pred pećinu.
    Tu su ’nake ćeteres’ stoljica,
    i sve momci sedu na nogama.
    Hajduk sedi na zlatnoj stolici,
    i svijemu su puške u rukama    225
    —hajduk sedi na vrata pećinska
    i u ruke me puška paftaljija,
    niz nju pafte dvades’ i ćetiri,
    svaka pafta po od ljitre zlata,
    dva oćnika dva draga kamena—    230
    i svakome puška u rukama.
    Kod hajduka ćeteres’ je druga.
    Ti ćeš,« kaže, »za jelu otići,
    pa za jelu ljegni pod pećinu,
    pa ćeš desnu izvaditi ruku,    235
    pa pomolji knjigu šarovitu.
    Kad će oni knjigu ugljedati,
    tā put on nekoga će otpratiti
    da on vidi knjigu šarovitu,
    šta je knjiga, od kudijer je.«    240


  3. Milman Parry, collector, and Albert Bates Lord, ed. & tr., Serbocroatian Heroic Songs, vol. 1, Belgrade and Cambridge MA, 1953, p. 372.


Go to Table of Volume Contents