The Newt and Cuckoo is a Latvian fairytale about love and marriage (see below for full text). In its compact and entertaining style, the story manages to touch upon the common obstacles to a successful marriage: the tricky business of choosing a spouse, the marital contract, expectations partners have after marriage, the dangers of child bearing and difficult familial relationships, especially with in-laws. Below the surface of the jovial text, however, dangers lurk.
Times are hard when the hide of a flea becomes the material for shoe leather. But in the indomitable spirit of this tale, virtue springs from hardship. The winner who guesses the source of these unusual shoes happens to be a newt. According to the internal rules of the narrative, the newt must now become the lucky groom against all the objections of the protagonist’s parents. The newt, like the snake and frog in other fairy tales, symbolizes male fertility and the act of love. He is, in a word, a phallus. Also like snake and toad, the newt is traditionally an object of loathing and revulsion. Feelings of abhorrence toward the newt-as-phallus must be overcome by the young bride to assure a successful marriage and offspring is perhaps the most visible sign of this success. The fairy tale succinctly describes this difficult period of a young woman’s early marriage as learning to walk in iron shoes and says it lasts the “biblical” seven years. In the end the shoes are ripped to shreds and the wife has been blessed with three children. The wife has now achieved higher social status for she is able to make choices independently, such as when she shall visit her parents.
Perhaps the most powerful image in the narrative is the newt rising up in a maelstrom of blood or milk: a strong metaphor for the dangers of pregnancy and childbirth. These nine months culminate in either blood and death or milk and a healthy baby. The surging of milk and blood may also suggest the act of love itself, to the uninitiated something alluring yet feared.
The poignant conclusion of the tale leaves us with the image of a wife transformed by love for her husband. His death is forever memorialized in the cuckoo’s call.