In memory of prof. Philip Panayotov we recall his only book for children "The Guslarist"

  • 16.06.2023
  • Antonia Mechkova

Recently, the journalist and researcher of the history of Bulgarian journalism Antonia Mechkova published on the website a story about the only book for children written by prof. Philip Panayotov half a century ago - "The Guslarist" (“The Rebec-player”). The article on this occasion was published shortly before the professor´s death on 14 June this year. Today we recall it in a tribute to his memory.

Half a century ago, the historian of Bulgarian journalism Prof. Dr. Philip Panayotov (born in 1933) published a landmark work on the history of the left press in Bulgaria - "Dimitar Naydenov - the known and the unknown" ( published by Partizdat). This is how the author Antonia Mechkova begins her article in

A lot has been said and written about the publication. But just about the same time the professor published yet another book for children, entitled "The Guslarist". I think that most of his students at Sofia University have no idea about this tale which appeared under the motto "Bulgaria Ancient and Young", and if they have read it in their adolescence, they hardly associate it with their demanding professor.

Is there any reason to return to this booklet? The illustrations are by the great Hristo Neykov. The publisher is the former Nauka I Izkustvo  (Science and Art). The State printing plant "Dimitar Blagoev" on blvd. Lenin 47 in the capital is now a building with a changed address and although it stands on its place, it is someone else's property and has different functions... The price of the book is only 80 cents - then equal to 10 poppy seed muffins or 300 grams of cow cheese. If one looks for it today, he will find it only in large libraries. It is probably decommissioned from school and community libraries, and hardly someone will try to find it in antique bookshops...

The plot of "The Guslarist" is simple, traditional. A blind old man goes to a picturesque village, frightened by the raids of an invader, and sings of battles for the independence of the homeland. The song however does not end with the historically documented fact of the blinding of thousands of warriors and the death of (king) Samuel, but somewhat differently. "The Bulgarian king died of grief, but on the spot where his tears dropped, a clear spring suddenly gushed out. The blind men washed their eyes with water from Samuel's spring and immediately started to see again. Frightful were their eyes, piercing the enemies like sharp arrows dipped in Saracen poison! They swore an oath to take revenge on the Byzantine Emperor and to expel the enemy horde..."


It is the guslarist (the rebec-player) who instead of the heralds informs the listeners of various events - Krakra gathered an army, Ivan Vladislav meanly killed Gavril Radomir, the voivode Ivats summoned an army to continue the fight. The blinded soldier of Samuel himself fought with his gusla and speech, motivating the peasants to defend our beloved land. And as the blind bard leads them with his whistle not straight ahead but through villages and huts in the countryside, new men join the band all along, day and night.

"Should they reach a river," writes Philip Panayotov, "the water in the ford would spill out to make them cross it faster. If they walked through a field, springs gushed by their side to quench their thirst. The moon was low at night to shine on them, that they might not lose their way. Eagles and falcons flew over them by day - with their winged shadow to keep them safe. In the greatest heat the sea wind blew over them - with its breeze to cool them... None of them returned, nor did anyone know where and how they had perished. But one evening another guslarist arrived in the village and sat down under the ancient oak tree. He was young, and his eyes glowed like embers. He pulled his bow and sang a new song, which no one in these lands had heard. Mothers listened for the heroic death of their sons. Brides could hear for the doom of their husbands. Sons listened for the covenant of their fathers: not to let an enemy desecrate their native land..."

Why not look at the story from the perspective of the history of journalism, because Prof. Philip Panayotov is an expert in this field? We would immediately think of concepts such as a newspaper in the form of a song (and sung for good measure) and folk journalism. I think we can afford to reason either way on the subject. After all, the author has said what he wanted to say, and the reader will interpret it according to his personal experience of life and communication with art. I will also recall the words of prof. Georgi Borshukov: "The dissemination of news through songs also existed in our country in the distant past. Folk singers used to spread the news at gatherings and meetings. Something more, in their songs there is not only pure information, but also attitude to events, a journalistic moment - interpretation, commentary... K. Miladinov promulgated a song about the exploits and actions of Sirma Voyvoda, whom he personally knew. P. Kisimov reports on the origin of a folk song, reproducing the story of Archimandrite Pachomius, who conversed himself to the Turkish faith..."

Here's your excuse if the musical story about how "Lenche was tossing an apple, tossing and calling”, that whoever the apple falls upon - the bride would marry him, and you are left in confusion when and where exactly it happened. But you will remember the perfidy of the sobbing Lenche and her mother who both sent the old man (the lucky target of the apple) to the woodcutters in the forest, hoping that a bear will eat him! And you'll sigh with relief when you realize: he's back at the front of the party, carrying a felled tree on his shoulder and leading a meat-eating-bear by the ear.

The biblical parable of the fruit of temptation and the Troyan War are inseparable from the history of mankind. Falling apples and a law are hinted at... And the chorus of witnesses to the trivial "case" of Lencheto does not reveal whether foresters and other environmentalists interfered when the old man, luckily  by the apple, proved his manliness. The important conclusion is: one should judge others impartially, by their deeds. This is how, through a folk song, the listener receives both happy and sad tidings and lessons in morality.

Examples abound, but let us return to the booklet about the guslarist. The narrative flows, the illustrations suggest that we are part of the fairy-tale visions, and alongside them in the wide white margins there are other, documentary additions: copies of miniatures from Manasseh's Chronicle and from the chronicle of the Byzantine chronicler John of Scylla. As well as photographs of finds from the excavations of the Eastern Gate of Sredets-Sofia, the fortress of Pernik defended by the voivode Krakra, the stone inscription of King Samuel from 993, also extracts from the history of Leo the Deacon and verses of John the Geometer. All objects of serious scholarly research. What, then, is the story about the guslarist - entertainment for children, artistic technology of the newspaper sung in the distant past, a fine poem in prose? In my opinion, about this tale it can be admitted: it is true, though we know: its plot is a cherished figment of fantasy...

And one more thing. Hassn’t the historian of Bulgarian journalism told more “tales" in his many years of work in this hypersensitive field of social relations? In my humble and biased opinion - yes, because the "heroes" of prof. Philip Panayotov are entirely devoted to work for an idea and for the people's interest, as he understands them. They don't always live to see their laurels, and if they do - they are often disappointed by the changes that have taken place, but in themselves they remain victors. Let us not idealize them in their personal fate-tale, full of mistakes, and delusions, and painful battles, but also gradual maturing. The glue that unites these men alive in our mind and soul is the duty and honour of newsmanship for the good of nation and country. And so after every guslarist comes a new guslarist, who gives with his songs courage to his listeners to move forward. Half a century is no small test - both for the teller of tales and for the lessons to be learnt from them.