Towards the end of the seventeenth century, a young man called Laurentius Hylas moves from Holland to Estonia to study at the university in Tartu. He is searching for a cure for his melancholy (nowadays known as a mental illness, perhaps depression or bipolar), and also trying to understand the human soul. The country is in the grip of famine, with hundreds of people without food. Others become suspicious of him when he uses willow bark to treat his illness, because traditionally, willow bark was used by witches.
“Rainwater was streaming down the thick glass windowpanes, but he could just about make out the hazy forms of people on the street. They had their dark rain capes pulled tight around them, the hems flapping in the rain, which seemed to be even heavier than before. They were stooped forward as they struggled against the wind, hurrying to find shelter, to reach their destinations, wherever those might be.”
“He remembered how the peasant folk in Holland had spoken about a willow or alder king, who came to steal the souls of sick people. People with weak souls, especially children, would often see him, dressed in a crown and dark cape.The tall shadowy form would stand there in the dark void under bare-branched trees and beckon the sick to come with him. Laurentius knew very well that this was real witchery, and not just peasants’ imagination.”
“All those straw-heads in the university have just studied themselves stupid, everyone knows that.”
“It seemed that the man had already had his eye on him for some time – he could always sense that accurately, and he had learnt to keep his own gaze fixed on the ground, so as not to look straight into some curious bystander’s eyes accidentally. He had realized as a young man that this always led to trouble. At first people grew suspicious of him; then they would hold their fingers crossed behind their backs as they talked to him, or even turn street corners to avoid him. The safest thing was to keep his gaze fixed on the ground.”~Quotes from “The Willow King” by Meelis Friedenthal, translated by Matthew Hyde
- Kirkus: “Erudite and literary.”
- Historical Novel Society: “… an unusual story, combining medieval superstition and supernatural sightings with in-depth discussions about the existence of a soul. The belief in the Willow King by the villagers adds to the confusion and conflict between science and the superstitions long held by the local populace. Translated into English by Matthew Hyde, this book won the EU Prize for Literature in 2013. This is a well-written tale containing elements of history, philosophy, and science fiction. I became sympathetic to the main character, a man suffering from melancholia while trying to scientifically understand what was happening to him.”
Originally published in 2012 in Estonian as “Mesilased”
Awards: 2013 Winner European Union Prize for Literature for Estonia
Historical note: At the time of the setting for this novel in 1696, people in Estonia were dying from starvation. During the Great Famine of Estonia, 70,000–75,000 people died in two years, occurring during the time known as the Little Ice Age, when temperatures dropped across Europe, and there was constant rain. Crops failed, leaving thousands of people without food.