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Ivana Brlić-Mažuranić: Croatian Andersen and Tolkien


Croatian writer Ivana Brlić-Mažuranić, born in the late 19th century, is recognised today as one of the most significant writers of children's literature. Her works, which include short stories, poems, fables, and fairy tales, have been translated into numerous languages and are celebrated for their originality, imaginative power, and sense of wonder. Although she wrote mainly for children, her literary production is highly regarded by colleagues and literary scholars due to their distinctive combination of idealism, naturalness in language, and subtle humour. Her works, particularly her children's stories, are still popular in Croatia today.


Ivana Brlić-Mažuranić is frequently referred to as the "Croatian Andersen" due to her exceptional skill as a children's storyteller, as well as the "Croatian Tolkien" for her foray into the imaginative realm of mythology (Zec, 2021). This article will compare how Ivana Brlić-Mažuranić's most famous works use mythology and world-building to examine essential themes and values, highlighting similarities with the works of Hans Christian Andersen and J.R.R. Tolkien.

Figure 1: Portrait of Ivana Brlić-Mažuranić (1898)

Ivana Brlić-Mažuranić, born in 1874 in Ogulin, was a prominent Croatian writer celebrated locally and globally for her contributions to children's literature. She hailed from the illustrious and intellectual Mažuranić family. Her grandfather, Ivan Mažuranić was a distinguished politician, poet, and Croatian ban (a noble title), and he played a pivotal role in shaping Ivana's literary pursuits (Pentavec, 2017).


Even though she was gifted an exceptional private education, which included proficiency in various foreign languages, such as French, German, Russian, English, and Italian, Ivana Brlić-Mažuranić also took on the role of a mother to seven children. Thanks to her maternal experience, she had the unique opportunity to intimately acquaint herself with the intricacies of the juvenile psyche, enabling her to comprehend the unspoiled and innocent nature of the child's world. Despite having this valuable insight, she refrained from writing or publishing anything for an extended period, as it was not deemed suitable for a woman during that era. However, as time passed, she contemplated chronicling the tales she had conjured up to amuse her children during the long winter evenings (Zima, 2013).

Figure 2: Ivana Brlić-Mažuranić with her children and grandchildren celebrating her 60th birthday (1934)

One of her most famous works, Čudnovate zgode šegrta Hlapića (The Brave Adventures of Lapitch), was published in 1913. The novel follows the journey of Hlapić, a young apprentice of a shoemaker, who flees from his cruel master Mrkonja and embarks on a seven-day adventure with his dog Bundaš and a circus girl named Gita. Along the way, they encounter numerous challenges and have many exciting experiences, leading to a dramatic finale where Mrkonja is softened and takes the trio home. In a heartwarming ending, it is revealed that Gita is Mrkonja's lost daughter, and Hlapić and Gita eventually marry. Considered a classic of Croatian children's literature, Čudnovate zgode šegrta Hlapića is acclaimed for its compelling characters, coherent narrative structure, engaging style, and captivating theme that resonates particularly well with younger readers (Zima, 2013).


Priče iz davnine (Croatian Tales of Long Ago) was published in 1916. It originally consisted of six fairy tales, with the addition of two more tales in the third edition, bringing the total number to eight. The collection was motivated by several factors, including Ivana's scholarly interest in Slavic mythology and folklore, which influenced her creation of fantastic characters that derive from mythological and folkloric sources and are responsible for natural phenomena (Fučkar, 2016). Another influence was Christian philosophy, which served as a form of protection, i.e., psychological protection by providing a sense of stability and purpose, which in turn gave comfort and security; it also offered a framework for evaluating the world, with fairy-tale structures allowing for happy endings. Finally, Ivana's passion for storytelling and tales provided an additional driving force for the creation of this collection (Rendulić, 2015).

Figure 3: Front page of first edition of Čudnovate zgode šegrta Hlapića (Šenoa-Rojc, 1913)

Priče iz davnine touches upon several key thematics. Motherhood is a recurring motif in six of the tales, though interestingly, the portrayed ideas about motherhood vary greatly, from good mothers to evil stepmothers. Another key motif in the collection is Ivana's perception of the child, who serves as a symbol of life in various forms; it is a representation of parental yearning for offspring, an emblem of the child's connection to ancestors and tradition, a symbol of innocence that can overcome evil, or a representation of a child's role in contributing to the social community. Additionally, a common pattern seen in several fairy tales is the theme of conflict or meeting between the small and the large, where the smaller character emerges victorious. In Ivana's fairy tales, the smaller entity is always depicted as stronger than the larger one (Zima, 2013).


Widely regarded as the preeminent collection of fairy tales in Croatian literature, Priče iz davnine is meant for children and adults alike. The tales in the collection have garnered widespread international acclaim, having been translated in their entirety or partly into multiple languages, with the first English translation dating as far back as 1924. Indeed, the global popularity of Brlić-Mažuranić's tales is a testament to their enduring appeal and timeless relevance, and attests to the transcendent power of storytelling in uniting diverse cultures and communities across the globe (Fučkar, 2016).

Figure 4: Cover of the 1924 edition of Croatian Tales of Long Ago (Kirin, 1924)
Brlić-Mažuranić and Andersen

Ivana Brlić-Mažuranić and Hans Christian Andersen have different styles and approaches to storytelling, but there are some similarities in their works, particularly in terms of the themes they explore and the way they use fairy tales to convey important moral lessons to their readers (Narančić Kovač, 2016). One similarity between the two authors is their depiction of the powerful transformative power of love and kindness. In Andersen's famous tale The Little Mermaid (1837/1968), the protagonist learns that selfless love and sacrifice are more important than personal gain (Hennewig, 2022), while in Brlić-Mažuranić's story The Brave Adventures of Lapitch (1913/1971), the main character discovers that compassion and forgiveness can transform even the most wicked of characters, and selflessness and bravery are rewarded (Flegar & Moritz, 2016).


When comparing the Croatian Tales of Long Ago (1916/1922) and Andersen's tales, it is important to note that there is a focus on moral lessons and the exploration of the human condition (Flegar & Moritz, 2016). Andersen's stories often have a clear message or lesson that is conveyed to the reader, and Brlić-Mažuranić's tales similarly use folk tales to delve into meaningful topics, such as the importance of love, kindness, and compassion (Narančić Kovač, 2016).


In addition, they use fantastical elements to create an imaginative and engaging story. Both authors use fairy tales, myths, and legends to create rich, immersive worlds that captivate readers and transport them to another place and time. Brlić-Mažuranić utilises Croatian folklore and mythology to craft a captivating world of fantastical creatures and heroic acts in Croatian Tales of Long Ago, while Andersen's tales often feature fantastical elements such as talking animals and enchanted objects (Narančić Kovač, 2016).

Figure 5: The sea witch and the little mermaid (Clarke, 1916)

Brlić-Mažuranić, I. (1922). Croatian Tales of Long Ago

And out of the stump slipped a snake, and began to fawn upon him. Now this wasn’t a real snake, but a human being transformed into a snake for its sins, and it could only be set free by one who was willing to wed it. (Stribor's Forest, p. 163)

Andersen, H. C. (1968). Forty-Two Stories

You want to be rid of your fish tail and have two props to walk on instead, like humans, so that the young Prince may fall in love with you, and you may get him and an immortal soul. (The Little Mermaid, p. 94-96)

In summary, while Andersen's tales often have a darker and more melancholic tone, Brlić-Mažuranić's tales tend to be more optimistic and uplifting. Even though Ivana Brlić-Mažuranić and Hans Christian Andersen exhibit distinctive styles and methods in narrating their stories, they share some common themes and messages in their works, particularly in their exploration of the transformative power of love and kindness, the importance of inner beauty, and the dangers of greed and selfishness (Flegar & Moritz, 2016).

Figure 6: (Left) Cover image of Stribor's Forest (Tomić, 2002); (Right) Cover image of Forty-Two Stories (Jacques, 1930)

Brlić-Mažuranić and Tolkien

Ivana Brlić-Mažuranić's stories are known for being inspired by Croatian folklore and mythology, featuring anthropomorphised animals and themes of friendship, bravery, and adventure. Similarly, J.R.R. Tolkien's work was heavily influenced by Norse, Celtic, and Anglo-Saxon mythology, and his writing is filled with mythical creatures and ancient histories (Hiley, 2004). These two authors' love of folklore and mythology helped to ground their works in cultural history and identity, as they drew heavily on traditional tales and legends from their respective cultures. Additionally, both authors used this fascination with folklore and mythology to create intricate imaginary worlds, populated with fantastical creatures and elements (Flegar & Moritz, 2016).


One key similarity is using heroes and quests to explore important themes and values. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings (1954/2005) trilogy follows a group of heroes on a quest to save Middle-earth from destruction (Hiley, 2004). Brlić-Mažuranić's The Brave Adventures of Lapitch (1913/1971) similarly follows a young hero on a journey of self-discovery and heroic deeds. Both authors use these heroes and their quests to focus on meaningful subjects, such as the importance of bravery, sacrifice, and selflessness (Narančić Kovač, 2016).



Brlić-Mažuranić, I. (1971). The Brave Adventures of Lapitch

Then Lapitch took his red leather bag and crammed into it all he needed for the journey. First he put in a piece of bread and a slice of bacon. That was his supper which he had been too miserable to eat. (p.8)


Now he was ready for his journey: in his green trousers, red shirt, shining little boots and bright cap, with his red leather bag slung across his back, he looked like a toy soldier. (p.9)




Tolkien, J.R.R. (2005). The Lord of the Rings

After their breakfast the hobbits had to re-pack, and get together further supplies for the longer journey they were now expecting. It was close on ten o’clock before they at last got off. (p.180)


All were well furnished by Elrond with thick warm clothes, and they had jackets and cloaks lined with fur. Spare food and clothes and blankets and other needs…(p.280)

Figure 7: Set of three cover images for Ballantine paperback editions of The Lord of the Rings (Remington, 1965)

A further resemblance is the use of world-building and mythology to create an immersive and detailed universe. Tolkien is well-known for having created Middle-earth, a rich and complex world filled with its own, history, languages, and cultures (Hiley, 2004). Similarly, Brlić-Mažuranić's Croatian Tales of Long Ago draws on Croatian folklore and mythology to create a vivid and enchanting world filled with magical creatures and heroic deeds (Narančić Kovač, 2016).


However, similarly to Andersen, Tolkien's work is often more complex and dense, with a greater focus on world-building and the intricate relationships between characters and cultures (Hiley, 2004). At the same time, Brlić-Mažuranić's tales are often more straightforward, with a more explicit focus on the hero's journey and the hero's discoveries. Additionally, while Tolkien's work often explores darker themes such as war, power, and corruption, Brlić-Mažuranić's stories tend to be more cheerful and inspirational, with a greater focus on the transformative power of love, kindness, and compassion (Flegar & Moritz).


Overall, the works of Ivana Brlić-Mažuranić and Tolkien are united by their exploration of universal themes and ideas. For Tolkien, his stories often reflect on the nature of good and evil, the power of friendship, and the importance of perseverance (Hiley, 2004). Similarly, Ivana Brlić-Mažuranić's stories often contain themes of self-discovery, bravery, and friendship, which resonate with readers of all ages and cultures (Narančić Kovač, 2016). Ultimately, while their cultural and literary background might differ, Ivana Brlić-Mažuranić and J.R.R. Tolkien share a deep respect and love for folklore and mythology, which shines through in their works.


Figure 8: Stribor's forest (Job, 1969)

Interestingly enough, what also connects these authors are the sources of their stories. While Andersen retells part of the stories his mother told him, Brlić-Mažuranić and Tolkien both published the tales they used to invent for their own children.

In conclusion, although they originate from distinct cultural and literary backgrounds, Ivana Brlić-Mažuranić, Hans Christian Andersen, and J.R.R. Tolkien share a commitment to using mythology and world-building to examine powerful ideas and values in their works. While Andersen's fairy tales and Tolkien's epic fantasy draw on the traditions of Northern Europe, Brlić-Mažuranić's Croatian tales are firmly rooted in the folklore and mythology of Southeastern Europe. However, all three authors use their richly imagined worlds and heroic characters to examine themes such as the importance of bravery, sacrifice, selflessness, and the transformative power of friendship, affection and empathy.


Bibliographical References

Andersen, H. C. (1968). Forty-two stories. Internet Archive. Retrieved February 26, 2023, from https://archive.org/details/fortytwostories0000ande/mode/2up (Originally published in 1930).


Brlić-Mažuranić, I. (1922). Croatian tales of long ago . Internet Archive. Retrieved February 26, 2023, from https://archive.org/details/croatiantalesofl00brli/mode/2up (Originally published in 1922).


Brlić-Mažuranić, I. (1971). The brave adventures of Lapitch. Internet Archive. Retrieved February 26, 2023, from https://archive.org/details/braveadventureso00brli/mode/2up (Originally published in 1913).


Flegar, Ž., & Moritz, I. (2016). Treasure, thievery and mischief: Blending culture and negotiating boundaries in the worlds of little people. Libri et liberi, 5(2), 357-372. https://doi.org/10.21066/carcl.libri.2016-05(02).0003


Fučkar, A. (2016). Bajke Ivane Brlić-Mažuranić i suvremene bajke: komparativni pristup (Thesis). Retrieved February 26, 2023, from https://urn.nsk.hr/urn:nbn:hr:147:502650


Hennewig, L. (2022).“The most wonderful fairy tale is life itself” - On H. C. Andersen, art fairy tales and ever-ready scissors | DDB Journal - Deutsche Digitale Bibliothek. Retrieved February 26, 2023, from https://www.deutsche-digitale-bibliothek.de/content/journal/entdecken/das-wunderbarste-maerchen-ist-das-leben-selbst-ueber-h-c-andersen-kunstmaerchen-und-allzeit-bereite-scheren?lang=en


Hiley, M. (2004). Stolen language, cosmic models: Myth and mythology in Tolkien. MFS Modern Fiction Studies, 50(4), 838–860. doi:10.1353/mfs.2005.0003


Narančić Kovač, S. (2016). Tales of Long Ago as a link between cultures. ESSE Messenger 25(1), 93 – 107.


Pentavec, K. (2017). Ivana Brlić-Mažuranić u kontekstu građanskog života u Brodu na Savi (Thesis). Retrieved February 26, 2023, from https://urn.nsk.hr/urn:nbn:hr:111:074524


Rendulić, M. (2015). Sintaktostilističke značajke bajki Ivane Brlić Mažuranić (Thesis). Retrieved February 26, 2023, from https://urn.nsk.hr/urn:nbn:hr:186:578673


Tolkien, J.R.R. (2005). The lord of the rings. HarperCollins Publishers. Retrieved February 26, 2023, from https://gosafir.com/mag/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/Tolkien-J.-The-lord-of-the-rings-HarperCollins-ebooks-2010.pdf (Originally published in 1954).


Zec, B. (2021). Ivana Brlić-Mažuranić. Croatian Hub. Retrieved February 26, 2023, from https://croatianhub.com/iconic/ivana-brlic-mazuranic/


Zima, D. (2013). Baza bajki. Retrieved February 26, 2023, from https://baza.ivaninakucabajke.hr/hr/o-bajkopiscima/ivana-brlic-mazuranic/


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