Each country has its well-known and loved literary characters whose essence is deeply connected to the identity of a nation or region. This exhibition is about those characters, introducing the fictional world, authors and cultural surrounding of smaller European states. Estonia, Finland, Greece, Hungary and Luxembourg are represented with their literary characters. Learn about the project


John the Valiant


John the Valiant is protagonist of a 27 chapter long narrative poem, based on the Hungarian fairy tale-tradition: the protagonist from an unfavourable starting position eventually gains a good life as a reward of his virtuous deeds.

He is an abandoned child found in a cornfield and given the name Kukoricza Jancsi (“Johnny Corn”). He becomes a shepherd. He falls in love with an orphan girl, Iluska, raised by her wicked stepmother. Once while the lovers become completely absorbed in each other, the sheep wonder away. Jancsi’s furious master chases him from the village. He founds himself deep in the woods, at the hiding place of a gang of marauders. He sets their house on fire. Soon he meets and joins some hussars heading to France to fight the Turks. In the battle he saves the French princess and the king as a sign of his gratitude offers him her hand and the kingdom. But Jancsi is faithful and only wants to return to Iluska. As Sir John, the Valiant arrives home only to find that Iluska was worked to death. He goes to the cemetery and plucks a single rose from her grave. Leaves the village, wanders aimlessly in the world and wishes to die. At the Land of Fairies he finds a small lake suitable to kill himself into. He throws the rose in first. The Lake contains the water of life and the rose changes to his beloved, Iluska. They get married and live happily ever after.


Sándor Petőfi

Sándor Petőfi


If there is a collective cultural identity of a nation Sándor Petőfi’s work definitely forms a decisive constructive element of the Hungarian one. He was only 26 when he disappeared in the war of independence in 1849, but during this short lifetime he became a symbolic figure of the Hungarian culture.

Born as Petrovics into a well off family when he reached 16 his father lost all his money. He had to leave school and find an occupation to make ends meet: he decided to join the army which he left soon to join a theatre company, but neither his physical qualities nor his acting skills brought him the fame he was longing for. He changed his name to Petőfi and moved to the capital city, Pest to become a famous writer. He accepted a job at a literary magazine, where he had the possibility to write and also to outlive his extravagancies. His poems became immensely popular. His desire for freedom and independence make him leave editorial life behind. He started to dedicate himself to the politically radical idea of Hungarian independence. The National Song (one of his most popular poems) became the slogan of the revolution. Thus he fought with sword as well: he joined the southern defence under the leadership of general Bem. On 31st July he participated in a battle, and nobody has seen him since then. He vanished but still, the collective memory marks his figure in every Hungarian’s mind.


Created in 1844/45 John, the Valiant is an iconic figure of Hungarian Romanticism, which in search of a national literature announced the poetical program of the elevation of folk poetry on the aesthetical level of literature. The Reform movement sees the question of the Hungarian language as a central part of a wider program, namely the national modernisation. The first part of the 19th century is the period of the elaboration and establishment of modern Hungarian language of literature and sciences.

The modernisation was linked to various phenomena of the national idea: that was the time when the National Theatre was founded or the national Hymn was born. Petőfi also turns to folk poetry, focusing mainly on the idea of naturalness: he wishes to bring his poems in their language as close as possible to the common way of speaking; in their rhythm to the syllabo-tonic system of Hungarian folksongs. That is why John, the Valiant is written in the most common metre system, the syllable-counting tonic metre, but within this metric system, follows a structure of lines that is mostly used in the narrative epic poems written by educated writers (in every stanza we find four twelve-syllabic lines divided into two six syllable hemistichs). Thematically Petőfi handles the Hungarian folk tradition from an urban intellectual point of view, which gives the text an ironic hint bringing the 21st century reader close to the world of the poem.

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