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  • Writer's pictureBen Hellman

"This Little Book;" Marjory Wardrop and the Tales of the Georgians

Updated: Sep 23, 2020

Statues dedicated to Marjory Wardrop and her brother Oliver in Tbilisi, Georgia in 2015, for the siblings' dedication to the nation and its culture and a photograph of the scholar herself. Tbilisi also boasts a square named for Oliver Wardrop and a room in parliament's national library that bears both of their names.

The very best version of the Cinderella story is that of the female Victorian scholar who starts her studies in secrecy, hiding her work from even from her parents, and ends it with her previously hidden work, her talents and herself celebrated by an entire nation. This is the story of the English scholar Marjory Wardrop, who introduced the English-speaking world to the ancient literature and folktales of Georgia. The conflict Wardrop faced in trying to break out of the domestic sphere assigned to her is palpable in this letter to her brother Oliver:

“I have got to stay at home just doing nothing when I might be living, learning and working. If I had been a man, I should have run away long ago and seen the world. You cannot think how rebellious against my situation I often feel. But there is no help for it: a woman must not have strong feelings, and I must pretend I am delighted with my happy existence. Nobody seems to understand that the soul, or I suppose I must say the heart as I am only a woman, strives and longs for something more than a well-built house and good things to eat, with a certain amount of paternal and maternal affection and a few respectable acquaintances. I don’t think you can feel much more lonely than in the far-away East than I often do at home.” (7)

Wardrop's words en totem echo those of certain revelations from Charlotte Bronte’s heroine Jane Eyre, in a novel Bronte felt she had to publish under a pen name almost fifty years before. Those about the prohibition of women having strong emotions unfortunately reflect complaints I read from women striving for equality in the workplace today. I felt an admiration and kinship with Wardrop before learning more about her personal experience, but learning about her aptitude in learning Old and Modern Georgian before having ever set foot in the country, she has truly become a hero to me. I write this article having just read Nikoloz Aleksidze’s handsome coffee-table book, Georgia; A Cultural Journey through the Wardrop Collection, published this summer by the Bodleian Library, and having long wanted to review Wardrop’s collection of Georgian Folk Tales. I will do both here.

There were two things that I enjoyed most in Aleksidze’s text. The first was learning more about Marjory Wardrop. I must register the complaint that this was not a more Marjory-centered book, but given the text’s focus on the Bodleian’s Wardrop Collection, built by Marjory and her brother Oliver, I am grateful for what I got. Aleksidze recounts the effects of a letter Wardrop wrote to Georgia’s literary luminary of the day, Ilia Chavchavadze, to ask Chavchavadze if he would give her permission to publish her translation of his poem, “The Hermit.” Chavchavadze was so impressed with Wardrop and her grasp of his language that he printed her letter in a newspaper he edited and the letter set off a debate about the state of women’s rights in Georgia. It received a flurry of lively responses in the newspaper, including: “The letter is written in fine Georgian, such fine Georgian that I wish a young Georgian woman had been able to write in it” (22). Ekaterina Gabashvili, a founder of the Georgian feminist movement, wrote: “Today, every young woman, if not entirely devoid of energy, can act freely, can receive higher education, and an educated person will never succumb to anyone these days. A modern woman will never bow in front of a man: please take me as your slave” (22). The irony to these responses is that the woman sparking debate in the state of rights of Georgian women felt compelled to ask her brother Oliver not to reveal to their parents, who disapproved of her interest in learning Georgian, that she was, in fact, compiling a Georgian-English dictionary that would exceed a thousand words!

Public Poets

Image of ashughs, public poets and musicians from Aleksidze’s Georgia, with traditional drums, daf, a large somewhat tambourine-like instrument with jingling internal rings, the plucked tar, and the bowed kamanche.

The second thing I most enjoyed learning about in Aleksidze’s Georgia was just how much the culture values storytelling. From the photograph of the four ashughs, the public poets and musicians who performed in public squares and challenged each other to the equivalents of rap battles, to the number of kings who produced their own poetry, a love of stories is apparent. The ashughs composed and performed in Georgian, Armenian, Azeri, Turkish and Farsi, and Aleksidze writes that Tbilisi’s greatest poet, Sayat-Nova, “exhibited poetic virtuosity in all of these languages” (15). And the works of the poet kings were not just the extravagant hobbies of powerful men with captive audiences, but texts that were popular and handed down. King Teimuraz I produced adapted the Biblical story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife, a tale popular throughout the region. Aleksidze writes that his greatest poetic achievement was a poetic adaptation of the martyring of his mother, Queen Ketevan, which he witnessed. Georgia’s location north of Iran and Turkey placed it in the historical reach of competing empires, but also in the midst of different language groups and cultural histories. The English Wardrop also brought her own love of stories to Georgia, first seeing the land through the classical lens of Greek mythology, marveling that she was in the lands of Jason, Medea and the golden fleece, of Prometheus’s chaining. One can hear her poetic heart gush as she brags of meeting Georgians named Jason, Medea, Telemachus, Juno and Venus: “In Imereti we are in the land of romance” (10). These are the sentiments of a romantic finally discovering herself unbound .

Marjory Wardrop's Georgian Folk Tales

For those who love folk literature, but who have not yet read Marjory Wardrop’s Georgian Folk Tales: do. You will not be disappointed. I read these tales in bed and found myself repeatedly laughing out loud and feeling compelled to interrupt my wife’s reading to share details with her that made her laugh out loud as well. There are obvious similarities with Grimms’ tales and other folk tales I've read, but the Georgian tales go to unexpected places, particularly when characters do the wrong thing and are somehow rewarded for it. Some of the tales have motifs so familiar to readers of Grimm that I wonder whether the Grimms scrubbed tales of moral ambivalence to be more socially correct. If so, it is our distinct loss, which you will discover upon reading Wardrop's translations. I delight in their many unexpected moments: I like the mother siding with the troll over her son. I like the women who claim their sister gave birth to a puppy. I like the youngest brother who feels a sense of responsibility to a frog, when his older brothers won high born maidens. These are just fun!

The tale of “The Fox and the King’s Son” is illustrative. It begins, “There was once a king who had a son. Every one treated him badly, and chased him away. Even passers-by looked upon him with disfavour” (106). I expected this prince, who decides to leave to live in the woods, to be a sympathetic character, but he isn’t. The fox who befriends him does so because the prince hunts every day and throws out the majority of his kill, which the fox finds wasteful. In order to economically deal with the prince’s wastefulness, the fox eventually brings in an entire staff of animals who work for the prince even though the prince is uncomfortable and frightened by this menagerie. The animals provide the prince with everything one in his station in life could want, and he just fouls it all up. One of the funniest moments of the tale is when the animals pretend to be a band of roving performers in order to kidnap a princess bride for him. You will have to read it to find out where it goes from there.

The first tale in the collection, “Master and Pupil,” sets the morally ambiguous tone I find so exciting. It is about a poor peasant who apprentices his son to the devil and manages to come out well from it. After swindling the devil, the father and son set out to swindle more people, with his son turning into animals that his father sells at a high price with both fleeing afterwards to repeat the con. Each time the pair dupes someone, my expectations of punishment rose higher. When the father sells his son back to the devil I thought they were done for, but he manages a way out of it that recalls the tale of the Welsh Taliesin. One might feel that the peasant and his son would become annoying or villainous, but the tone of the tale entirely allows them to be sympathetic and in the right, from the moment the peasant’s wife insults and berates him for being so poor and stupid.

Wardrop’s collection of folk tales has become my favorite. They glitter in ways that make their closest literary relatives seem dull in comparison and though there are thirty, I never found myself yearning for one to be finished because it lost my interest. I can’t say the same of any other collection of folk tales. It is the utmost irony that she translated them "as a relaxation from these more arduous studies (of translating Georgia's premier epic poem)," and characteristic that she introduced them with the hope that: "this little book may perhaps claim some attention from the public" (1).

My main takeaway from Aleksidze’s Georgia and Wardrop’s Georgian Folk Tales is that Marjory Wardrop, as revered as she still is in Georgia, lacks the critical attention in the west that she so richly deserves. Wardrop’s translations of the tales and her great work, a translation of Georgia’s shining poetic jewel, Shota Rustaveli’s The Knight in the Panther’s Skin still remain the gold standards for English translations of these works. Georgia in 2015 dedicated statues of Marjory and her brother Oliver, who was England’s ambassador to Georgia, near the Georgian parliament. Oliver’s likeness is animated, but Marjory clutches her book, the literary heritage of Georgia, to her bosom. Her chin is raised in defiance of anyone who would question that this brilliant woman should be a scholar. I long for an annotated version of her tales and for dedicated biographies that a scholar of her importance, and person who would be regarded as a truly inspirational feminist hero, currently lacks. Wardrop deserves our attention.

But what do you think? Are you a fan of Georgian Folk Tales? Do you feel a kinship with Marjory Wardrop, her passion and her struggle? Would you (like me) like to know more about this woman and her editorial and research process? Let me know in the comments below!

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