The social allegory and comic irony for which Čapek is famous is at its most incisive in “The Great Police Tale,” about a bank clerk who is persecuted by bureaucrats and bigots for keeping a seven-headed hydra as a pet. It is evident, too, in “The Second Robber’s Tale,” in which a highwayman’s son, too polite and kindly to carry on the family business when his father dies, becomes a toll collector. Through this legitimate form of highway robbery he becomes as rough and violent as his father had been.
Each of the stories has its own internal logic. When a princess, a magician, and an old woman compete for ownership of Youra the cat in “The Great Cat’s Tale,” the problem is resolved by feline logic. Canine logic dominates “The Dog’s Tale,” in which Grandfather’s dog Peanuts learns not only why dogs wag their tails but also how dog created man.
Modern characters among the traditional ones include magical mailmen, firemen, the famous American detective Sidney Hall and posses of comic detectives redolent of the Keystone Cops. In “The Great Doctor’s Tale,” which, like many of the stories, is divided into several subsidiary stories, water nymphs made of rays of light find fame and fortune as Hollywood stars.
The translation captures the lively, rhythmic style of the Czech original. The characters in “The Bird’s Tale” gossip in short, chirrupy sentences. Čapek’s teasing wordplay is effective in “The Tramp’s Tale,” about a naive wanderer, Frank King, who declares that wherever he goes he is King.
Although several of the tales are whimsical rather than satirical, Čapek’s concern for the survival of human and natural values in a soulless technological society is apparent throughout.