I finally finished my collection of Russian fairy tales (650 pages! A nigh-Dostoyevskyean endeavour.). After so many stories I find it difficult to know where to begin discussing them. I noticed the oral traces of these tales more than in Grimm’s or Perreault’s — a quality which Roman Jakobson (in the commentary to the collection) attributes to the Orthodox Church’s control over printed works: that is, sacred works were printed, folk and fairy tales were not (632-33). Consequently, tales, when finally written down, show the traces of accumulated retellings. Many of the stories felt like different variations on a single tale. And many of them share common phrases or sayings: “the morning is wiser than the evening” (go to bed, everything will sort itself out), “after a short time or a long time” (deeds take a long time to accomplish, but a short time to write), “The wine/soup/beer ran down my moustache, but it did not go into my mouth” (“in other words, the still thirsty teller awaits his refreshment”, Jakobson 645)
The stories champion clever youths, youngest sons and daughters, adventurers who can follow directions, God-fearing husbands and wives, and the wisdom of the common people. In fabliaux stories, though, wicked animals sometimes win the day (because this is how the natural world works). Fair princesses are almost always named Elena or Vasilisa. And Russia’s cultural history is deeply patriarchal.
Some of the stories were familiar (Cinderella variants, the wish-giving Goldfish). I finally understand why the Giant in the English tradition makes such a fuss about smelling the blood of an Englishman (Russian fairy characters — dragons, whirlwinds, and Baba Yaga — always smell a “Russian breath” — an indication that a mortal hero has crossed into immortal territories). Russian vampires are are both familar (killed with a stake through the heart, warded off with crosses and holy water), but also unfamiliar (they eat corpses and kill without touching). Occasionally, though, the similarities between Russian and Western European fairy tale traditions broke down. I found the morals of a number of the tales bewildering and realised just how embedded fairy tales are in specific cultural contexts and rules.
There’s far more to say about these stories, but I am absolutely exhausted. They’ve been very good company in the evenings though, and I’ll miss reading them. Especially stories about clever-but-morally-questionable foxes. And Baba Yaga.
15 April 2013 ~ Hamilton
Afanas’ev, Aleksandr.Russian Fairy Tales. Trans. Norman Guterman. Illus. Alexander Alexieff. New York: Pantheon Books, 1973.