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Robert Elsie
Albanian Literature

Oral Literature  |  Legends

 

   
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Gjergj Elez Alia

The legend of Gjergj Elez Alia is one of the most popular in Albanian folklore. This is a prose rendition, taken from Mitrush Kuteli (1907-1967), of the original recording in the form of epic verse.

Gjergj Elez Alia had always been the greatest of heroes. For years he had been the strongest in the land of our forefathers and had always defended its honour. With cudgel and sword in hand he fought enemies who came from land and sea to ravage and enslave our country. Gjergj Elez Alia brought all enemies to their knees.

In the course of his many battles, however, he had received nine wounds and now lay nine years in his tower wasting away. Everyone had forgotten him and abandoned him to his fate, except his sister. She sat day and night at his bedside, cleansed his wounds for nine years with spring water, rinsed them with her tears and dried his blood with her hair. She bound his wounds with their mother's shawl. Their father's old clothes provided shade. His weapons hung at the foot of the bed. Whenever he looked at them, he felt his heart beating fervently and was filled with a ray of hope.

When his sister bound his wounds, he endured the pain like a man. There was but one pain Gjergj could not endure, that of seeing his beloved sister with him in the high tower, shut in as if buried alive, looking after him and caring for his wounds. This pain caused Gjergj to rage. His sister had never had any pleasure in life. Her friends had enjoyed the fruits of their youth, had fallen in love, married and had children. She lived alone in the tower with her sick brother Gjergj.

As the ninth year passed, the word spread that a swarthy Baloz had risen from of the sea, a mighty and cunning giant, worse than anything that had ever befallen the land before. This evil Baloz had demanded a heavy tribute from the country: every family was to give it one young maiden and a roast of mutton. Day after day, it continued its murderous course. Week after week it devastated whole regions. It had slain so many warriors that no one had the courage to oppose it, for its cudgel was huge, its sword razor sharp and its lance able to transfix all bodies in its path. The whole country suffered from the evil deeds of the Baloz.

Gjergj Elez Alia knew nothing of these evil deeds. He wasted away in bed like an unburied corpse. No friends came to tell him their woes or to ask his help since they all knew well that he could not even get up and walk to the door.

When the turn came for Gjergj's house to pay tribute to the Baloz, the sister began to weep, curse and lament, "Why, oh why has death forgotten us, brother? Our parents are already resting in peace under the linden tree, the brother is at death's door in his own house and the sister is now to fall prey to the Baloz. Why doesn't the tower simply collapse and bury us. Death would be sweeter than a life without honour."

At that moment, Gjergj awoke and looked around, unaware of what was happening. He could feel moisture on his face and thought that the tower was decaying and letting the rain in. With a heavy heart he looked up at his sister and saw the traces of tears on her pallid cheeks. In his rage he cursed the tower. "May you turn black, oh tower! May you rot from top to bottom and be inhabited by snakes! How can you let raindrops fall on my bed?" His sister wiped the tears from her eyes and said, "No, brother, it is not raining nor is the roof leaking. Your wounds and the solitude have weakened you so much that you don't know what you're saying. I have just been weeping, brother!" Gjergj stroked her arm with his emaciated hand, stroked her face, looked into her tender eyes and spoke, this time more lucidly, "Why are you weeping, sister? I have been wasting away for nine years now, and in all these nine years your brother Gjergj has found no peace, he has trembled like the leaves of the beechtree in the sunlight. Have you not had food and drink over these nine years? Has your brother not left you clothes? Has he offended you or bored you so that you now want to leave him and marry?"

The sister took his hand, placed it on her forehead and replied, "Oh, brother! It is your suffering that has confused you and made you talk this way. I would rather be buried alive than think of marriage. I have enough to eat and drink, and enough clothes. Nor have you ever offended me. You have been a brother and a father to me. But now, Gjergj, the time has come for me to tell you of the calamity which has befallen us. You have not risen and gone out the door once in all these nine years and your sister has never complained. But why should I now have to suffer the disgrace of being offered to the Baloz?"

When Gjergj heard this, he suddenly forgot his wounds and sprang to his feet as if he had never been ill. A hero, slim and slender as he had always been, he stood there and said to her, "Sister, take the warhorse into town at once and bring it to the smith who is my blood brother. Bring him greetings from Gjergj and tell him to fit the steed with shoes of iron and nails of bronze, for I am going to challenge the Baloz. If my blood brother will not shoe the steed, take it to the other smith who is my friend." The maiden mounted the steed and rode as swiftly as she could into town to see the blood brother. When she greeted the smith and asked him on behalf of her brother to shoe the steed, he began making excuses. In the nine years Gjergj had been shut up in the tower, the smith had forgotten they were blood brothers. He proposed slyly, "If you were to be kind to me, young maiden, and do me a favour, I'd save your brother Gjergj and shoe his steed so well that he could fly with it like the wind."

The maiden was shocked and turned away from him. "How can you say a thing like that, oh smith? May your tongue wither! I thought I had knocked on the door of a blood brother, but find instead that I have knocked on the door of some wandering minstrel. I've done enough favours to my parents whose bodies now rot under the earth and to my brother Gjergj who has been wasting away for nine years now."

Breaking off her indignant reply to the devious smith, she mounted her steed and rode to the other smith, greeting him on behalf of her brother and conveying his request. The second smith lost no time and shoed the steed as if it were his own. Then he replied, "Greet Gjergj for me. May he be victorious in his battle with the Baloz!"

The maiden set off, expressing her gratitude to the smith, and returned home that evening where Gjergj was waiting for her under the linden tree. He was already dressed and bearing his weapons. Gjergj had heroically overcome the pain in his body to defend the reputation of his house and homeland and to seek vengeance. Gjergj Elez Alia then sent his greetings to the Baloz, telling it, "I have no maiden for you, Baloz! The sheep of my land have not been fed for you. I have but one sister but cannot offer her to you, because otherwise I would have no one to tend my wounds. I therefore challenge you to combat on the battlefield."

When the next day dawned, Gjergj and the Baloz arrived at the battlefield and began exchanging insults. The Baloz was dressed in a heavy coat of armour with a steel helmet on its head and armed with a huge cudgel and a long sword. Even its steed was covered in armour and the earth itself trembled as they advanced. When the Baloz caught a glimpse of the emaciated Gjergj on his steed, it began to laugh and called out, "Have you come back from the grave, Gjergj? Why have you called me to the battlefield in vain? Do you not know that I am the Sea Baloz? I have toppled many a hero from their steeds and sent them to the underworld. I can topple you with my little finger." Gjergj replied, "You have spoken well, Baloz! I have indeed been at death's door for these nine years. But you have brought me back to life. You have demanded my sister before doing battle with me. You have demanded sheep before asking the shepherds. Now I have come to teach you the ancient customs of our people. For we never give up anything without a fight. We will never give our sisters to the Baloz without doing battle with it first. Get ready, Baloz, your final hour has come!" Thus spoke Gjergj Elez Alia!

Then they spurred their steeds and galloped onto the battlefield. The cunning Baloz seized the first opportunity and hurled its cudgel. Gjergj's steed dropped down on its front legs and ducked, and the heavy cudgel flew over Gjergj's head twenty four yards down into the valley. When it hit the ground, a cloud of dust rose twenty four yards in the air. Now it was Gjergj's turn. He hurled his cudgel so expertly that it struck the Baloz right on the head. The Baloz collapsed and fell over dead. As it hit the ground, the earth gave a shudder, and its steed took flight. Gjergj swiftly drew his sword and chopped the monster's head off. He hung the head from his saddle, dragged the rest of the body by the feet through the bushes and thickets and threw it into a well where the blood of the swarthy Baloz blackened the whole river.

Then the victorious hero returned home, gathered his friends around him and said: "Lend me your ears, my friends! I am leaving you my tower and giving you all my money, my animals and my possessions! Take good care of the sister of Gjergj Elez Alia!" The hero then embraced his sorrowful sister who was waiting for him.

And at that very moment, the two hearts ceased beating and the brother and sister passed away. No one had ever seen a simpler and sweeter death. Their friends grieved for them and buried them in a grave wide enough for both brother and sister in their embrace. Around the grave they constructed a thick wall so that no one might forget how much the brother loved his sister and how much the sister had loved him.

 

[from Mitrush Kuteli (ed.) Tregime të moçme shqiptare (Tirana: Naim Frashëri, 1965, reprint 1987, 1998). Translated from the Albanian by Robert Elsie.]

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