Russian Fairy Tales, Part I
The Fantastic Traditions of the East and West
In this first installment of a two—part article, Helen Pilinovsky offers an overview of the subject of Russian fairy tales. Part II examines the tales of Baba Yaga and Koshchei the Deathless, and their use in contemporary mythic fiction.
In English, we call them fairy tales. This term comes from the French contes des fées, which can be literally translated as “tales of the fairies”—a name used both for stories that literally concern fairies, and for tales that are somehow, otherwise, within their purview—tales which the fairies themselves might have cared to tell. In Russian, the designation for stories concerning the marvelous is skazka, meaning simply “story.” Russian fairy tales are separated into numerous categories—volshebniyi skazki, or “magical tales,” skazki o zhivotnykh, or “tales about animals,” and bytovye skazki, or “tales of everyday life,” to name only a few of the myriad varieties. However, in Russian, there is no onus of falsehood attached to the term, as there is to the English “fairy tale.”
Given this fundamental difference in the viewpoint of each culture towards the nature of fairy tales, it is unsurprising that there are significant differences between the nature of the messages put forth by the variants of Eastern and Western European folklore. This can be attributed in part to the fact that where Eastern European folklorists were more likely to record straight transcriptions of the tales with few changes, Western European folklorists had a well-documented tendency to edit and rework their finds to conform to the values of their intended audience. The differences between the attitudes towards the genre, and between the archetypes of the Eastern and Western European cannons of fairy tales themselves, have had significant effects upon the later fantastic traditions of both regions.
One of the more interesting contrasts in the use of Russian fairy tales by Eastern and Western writers lies in the fact that while Russian authors use the form of the fairy tale (its structure) in their creation of imaginary worlds, focusing particularly on the utopianism inherent in the Russian fairy tale genre, Western authors are far more likely to co-opt particular characters from Russian lore (such as rusalkii, Baba Yaga, or Koshchei the Deathless) and simply incorporate these characters into new stories. The development of the Russian tradition can be attributed partially to the distinctive nature of Russian fairy tales (which are frequently predisposed to commentary on contemporary conditions, and to a fundamental utopian idealism), and partially to the influence of Russian structuralism (particularly to the work of folklorist Vladimir Propp). The Western tradition, in turn, owes much of its attitude to the predetermined manner of reading the tales, which developed from the more chronologically, geographically, and politically diffuse stories of Western Europe, set “long, long ago,” and in lands “far, far away”—diluting the immediacy of the critical weight of the form.(1) Much of the Western attitude toward fairy tales can also be attributed to the philosophies espoused by men such as the Brothers Grimm, Andrew Lang, and Hans Christian Anderson, who played a large part in shaping our modern notions about fairy tales—first by editing and rewriting traditional tales, and then by composing entirely original works that were only loosely based upon traditional stories.
As most Western readers are more familiar with the development and subject matter of Western European fairy tales than those of the Russian fairy tale cannon, an examination of the history and nature of Russian folklore is in order before I discuss its influence upon contemporary writers. Let's first look at the development of the fairy tale in Russian literature, the foreign influences that affected it, and the intended audience of the tales—as well as upon the utopianism inherent within the Russian fairy tale, and its effects upon fantasy and science fiction in the East and West.
In An Introduction to the Russian Folktale, Jack V. Haney notes that while scholars tend to be concerned about the relationship of folklore to myth and reality, to the peasant class of pre-revolutionary Russia, this was not an issue. Rather, “tales were believed to be true or to have been true in times past.” When the tales of Russia began to make their way into literature in the sixteenth century, they did so not as folktales, but as historical fact. Those tales that were recorded specifically as folktales were initially met with opprobrium and disapproval. One contemporary reaction to a book of tales in 1780 expressed the opinion that “Any imaginative peasant can think up ten similar [stories] without difficulty, which, were they all to be put to press, would be a waste of paper, pens, ink, and typographic letters...”(2) Yet this critic's attitude, while common, was far from universal.
During the eighteenth century, at the beginning of a time of relatively wide-spread literacy in Russia, two types of publications focused on folktales: bast-books and “gray issues.” The former, which can be described as woodcut broadsheets, took their name from the material of which they were made: the inner bark of the linden tree, commonly known as “bast wood.” These works presented fairly simplistic versions of familiar narratives, concentrating more on the accompanying illustrations than upon the text, and were generally regarded as crude by the upper classes and literati. “Gray issues” derived their name from their appearance, as they were printed on a grayish paper and bound in periodical form. They typically contained longer, more complex versions of the tales than could be found excerpted in the bast-books.
These editions can be compared, respectively, to the English chap-books of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, which were intended primarily to provide reading practice for the newly literate, and to the French blue-books of the seventeenth century, which were intended primarily for the purpose of entertainment (and which made the literary contes des fées available to a lower class readership.) It is interesting to note a similar contempt for these publications in both Russia and France.(3) The constituency of the fairy tale reading audience—in Russia, mostly the peasant classes, and in France, largely women—attracted disdain from those in power, an attitude which then attached itself to the material in question. In Russia, however, these opinions did not bear the same weight that they did in France, quite possibly because the prejudice of class was less pervasive than that of gender, and their holders did not succeed in discouraging the growing interest in the subject matter of the fairy tale.
Russian fairy tales cannot be considered solely the result of Slavic heritage and tradition, for a tremendous debt is also owed to numerous foreign sources. Russian myth is pervaded with elements that originated with other cultures: for example, Linda J. Ivanits notes (in Russian Folk Beliefs) that “Khors, Stribog, and Simargl, the winged dog and guardian of seed and new shoots, represent the Iranian element in the ancient Slavic pantheon, thus reflecting the long years that the ancient Slavs lived side by side with the Scythians.” Similarly, the folktales and literary fairy tales of Russia reflect external influences, particularly after the advent of widespread literacy.
Thanks to the popularity of the French contes de fées—which included re-written stories from Italy and other countries, and which in turn were translated into numerous languages—European fairy tales from the seventeenth century onward achieved new methods and levels of cross-cultural pollination. For example, when the Grimms collected “German” fairy tales in Kinder-und-Hause Marchen, in the nineteenth century, they included a number of tales from France which were then adapted to fit Germanic ideals. The French tales underwent a similar process in Russia, as did the German tales in turn—including those German tales which had originally been French, illustrating the difficulty of tracing any tale to its “roots.”
Variants of fairy tales in Russian may safely be assumed to carry some foreign influence; however, such stories have been retold and remade to suit the tastes of their time and region. Interestingly, the famed Russian folklorist Alexander Afanasyev hoped that “the revival of [native] fairy tales would promote the triumph of the Russian language over the French language, which had been adopted by the aristocracy,”(4) a fact which can be seen reflected in the work of an author known as one of Russia's great proponents of the fantastic: the poet Alexander Pushkin. Though Puskin did write a number of “origimnal folktales,” if such a contradictory description may be permitted, they were referred to by his peers (namely, by Belinski) as “artificial flowers.”(5) Modern scholars feel that “whatever interest in folktales Pushkin might have claimed, his own acquaintance [with them] was strictly limited and his own creations were based on foreign models, chiefly French.”(6) Further, it is worth noting that Pushkin did not write his “original folktales” in prose. They were written in verse, in troachic tetrameter, which is foreign to the Russian fairy tale tradition. Coincidentally, it is the same form that Charles Perrault used for his verse tales.
One interesting element of the Russian folktale lies in its assumed audience. Jack Haney points out (in An Introdiction to Russian Folktales) that “One might expect that the class of the audience might have had an impact on the type of tale told. However, until the end of the eighteenth century virtually everyone from tsar to peasant took delight in the folktale. After that time, folktales became increasingly the provenance of the lower classes. In the countryside the tradition continued much as before, but as more and more Russians lived in cities, the enjoyment of folktales there retreated into private homes.” This parallels the developing attitude towards fairy tales in Western countries, but some of the particularities of Russian attitudes towards the tales, and their tellers, deserve attention.
In Western culture, the stereotype of fairy tales as the province of children is deeply entrenched despite its falsity,(7) but in Russian culture, this idea has absolutely no place in a discussion of fairy tales. Russian fairy tales were traditionally told only after dark, when younger children were asleep—for as Haney comments, “telling tales to small children would cause them to wet the bed or to have nightmares, both of which were connected ... to the telling of wondertales.” This makes for quite a contrast to the customs of other countries, Germany in particular, where terrifying tales were used for the specific purpose of frightening children into obedient submission.
It is also interesting to note that whereas folktales are commonly associated with women in the Western tradition, sometimes with negative consequences for both the gender and the genre,(8) in Russia, the inverse is true and the tales are associated with men. Haney notes that “nearly all Russian scholars believe that wondertales were originally told by men to men and youths and that girls and women were absent”—largely because the occupation of skazatchnikh, or, more formally, skomorokh, meaning bard or minstrel, was almost exclusively a male profession until the late nineteenth century. Yet a closer look reveals that in Russia, too, women played a stronger role in the transmition of fairy tales than was commonly perceived by early folklorists. The role of Pushkin's nurse, Arina Rodionovna, in inspiring her charge in his interest in fairy tales and the fantastic, is the stuff of legend in popular Russian culture. Similarly, Alexander Afanasyev is said to “have become acquainted with folktales from local women in his home town of Bobrov,”(9) and Haney admits that “Russia's literary figures ... seem to have heard their tales from their mothers or grandmothers.”It seems best to keep in mind Marina Warner's assertion (in From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers) that “It would be absurd to argue that storytelling was an exclusively female activity—it varies from country to country, from one people to another, and from place to place within the same country, among the same people,” while also noting her observation that “although male writers and collectors have dominated the production and dissemination of popular wonder tales, they often pass on women's stories.” When we look at the material of the tales in question, women are not absent from them. Although Haney claims that few Russian tales feature female protagonists, when one compares the number of Russian tales containing female heroes to the numbers found in other regions, taking into account as well the actions of women in tales in which they are not necessarily the main characters, one observes a definite level of female enpowerment across the board.
When Avdotiia Kireevskii plotted the structure of her Library of Folktales, she wrote that Russian folktales “are completely the same as those of other people in content, but the locality gives a certain color to each.”(10) Her observation serves as an excellent starting point for an examination of familiar tale-types depicted in a Russian context. The content of Russian fairy tales differs from those of Western Europe in a number of important ways. Though they all render the details of magical quests and adventures, the fairy tales of Russia are dictated by an inherent utopianism, an ideal of a better world.
Typical Russian tales, as Haney points out, “set the time and place (no time, no place) ‘In a certain tsardom, in a certain country, there lived and dwelt...’ or, ‘In the thrice-nine tsardom in the thrice-ten country there lived and dwelt...’” This introductory formula “serves to disconnect the audience from its own small world simply by abolishing concrete geography.” However, this common introductory technique is used in a different way in Slavic tales than in Western tales. In the latter, most often, once the introduction establishes the occurrence of events in some otherland, no information is subsequently given to contradict the reader's ‘suspension of disbelief’. In Russian tales, by contrast, although the world in which the action of the story takes place is typically separated from our own, the characters in many tales ineluctably come not only from mortal lands, but specifically from Russia.
In Russian stories, Haney tells us, “while other types of tales ... contain virtually no mention of ethnicity ... tales dealing with magic ... mention res russica... At the end of such tales it is common for the hero to come ‘back to Rus’ to live out the rest of his life.” Frequently, during the hero's travails in the otherworld, “the villains Baba Yaga, Koshchei the Immortal, and the dragons all detect the presence of the hero because he has ‘the smell of the Rus’ about him.” Similarly, though “in a considerable number of tales the action begins without reference to concrete space, but the hero at the end comes to claim his reward and/or bride in ‘Rus’ or ‘Russia.’” In Russia, folktales and history were inextricably entertwined, and the tales reflected a belief that the world of the tellers, too, could somehow change for the better.
This relates to the fact that Russian tales invariably present some change to the established order of things, frequently on a grand scale. Haney notes that it “is not enough to state that the hero and his bride returned and lived happily ever after, to quote the English exit formula ... although the transformed hero will return from his or her quest, the world will not be the same...” For example, at the conclusion of a Russian variant of tale-type 510B, entitled “The Golden Lantern,” a daughter defeats the incestuous advances of her father by demanding a golden lantern which she then uses as a hiding place, and as a means to select a suitable bridegroom. After her marriage, the lantern is hung as a second sun in the sky and we read that “the earth is fertile from its warmth ... all that's good began to be borne of it.”(11) In such stories, heroes and heroines not only succeed in healing the breach in the social order that set them forth on their adventures; they also improve the world around them as they go.
Russian folktales end in a manner similar to the common end of English folktales (“and then they lived happily ever after”)—but these endings are somewhat more formulaic and more intricate than their Western equivalents, frequently consisting of assertions that the storyteller was physical presence at the event, and of the truth of the tale. One example, taken from the conclusion of “The Crystal Mountain,” which ends with a nuptial ceremony, concludes in a typical manner: “The wedding was held at once. I was at that wedding, too. I drank beer and mead; they flowed down my beard but did not go into my mouth.”(12) The “real” nature of these events, uninfluenced by any inebriative or unverifiable elements, is one of the most crucial elements of the story.
The subversive tone of Russian fairy tales (which are commonly peopled by venal priests, incestuous relatives, and abusive tyrants) was not lost on the ruling classes Haney notes that the “folktale was a powerful form for the expression of social values, and there is evidence that it flourished at times when social values were in conflict with the ideas of a dominating social group.” Proof of this can be found in the fact that “medieval Russian skoromohks were suppressed, not because they offered a spiritual alternative to Russian orthodoxy, nor because of their suspect behavior, but because they offered an image of the physical world that was highly preferable to the one in which they operated, because they offered a scathing indictment of the world created by ‘the powers that be.’” In an example of the philosophy of “if you can't beat them, join them,” Catherine the Great wrote her own folktales in an attempt to influence popular opinion—her behavior likely based as much on her German upbringing and knowledge of Machiavelli as anything else. Her tales, however, like Pushkin's “artificial flowers,” never gained the same level of popularity as the native tales that had evolved over the years, first through oral transmission and then through the medium of the printed word.
It is perhaps due to the relative failure of such “artificial” tales that Russian authors working in the fantastic tradition in the twentieth century decided to take a wholly different route in their work. Rather than choosing to craft new tales set in old lands, these writers—Evgennii Zamiatin, Aleksei Tolstoi, Ivan Efremov, Valentina Zhuravleva, Olga Lariovna, and the Strugatsky brothers, to name only a few—chose instead to continue the tradition of Russian realism within the format and structure of the fairy tale. By contrast, Western writers such as China Miéville, C.J. Cherryh, and Orson Scott Card, working from within a tradition of purely imaginative fantasy, found it very natural to co-opt characters from Russian folklore, creating imaginary worlds based on the foundations of Russian fairy tales though diverging from their structure. The two movements can more or less be placed in binary opposition.
It sounds, at first, almost paradoxical to claim fairy tale antecedents for the Russian tradition of science fiction—but in the context of Russian literary theory, and particularly in light of the work of Vladimir Propp, it is in fact a fairly natural progression. Propp published his famous Morphology of the Folktale in 1928. In nature, this imporant text was similar to Antti Aarne's Index of Types of Folktales, first published in 1910, translated and enlarged by Sith Thompson in 1928. But whereas the Aarne-Thompson index was intended for the purposes of classification and research, Propp's work provided an analytic tool helpful in the actual examination of various folktales. Instead of following the nineteenth century model of external classification, Propp developed a system of fundamental analysis based upon the internal functions, “the small component parts,” of the tales. Propp was concerned with forms of structure; his classification depends upon the fundamental characteristics of the tales. His resulting masterwork, Morphology of the Folktale, provided a careful narratology for folk stories, categorizing the thirty-one stages he saw as typical of the genre.
Propp classified the components of his tales scientifically, as constants and variables. These elements consisted of functions, defined as the actions or events which produced the plot; dramatis personae, defined as the characters or figures who enact or react to the functions; and spheres of action, the interaction of the two, which shifted relative to one another from tale to tale. Propp observed that “the number of functions is extremely small, whereas the number of personages is extremely large. This explains the two-fold quality of a tale: its amazing multiformity, picturesqueness, and color, and on the other hand, its no less striking uniformity, its repetition.” This led Propp to the conclusion which would be the source of his influence on (and notoriety within) the field of folklore: he concluded that “All fairy tales are of one type in regard to their structure.”
After providing a painstaking exploration of the study, theory, and formulas which led him to this conclusion, Propp admitted that “this most important general conclusion at first does not coincide with our conception of the richness and variety of tales,” admitting also that this idea shocked him as well at first, but that the results of further research only confirmed his initial impression. However, there are problems with the methodology that led Propp to his conclusions, primarily with the breadth of the material that inspired his concluding thesis. The primary problem is this: Propp had not proven the similarity of all folktales across the board, but rather the similarity of a small cross-section of tales originating from a single culture. Propp limited himself to a sample group consisting of one hundred of Alexander Afanasyev's tales. Bearing in mind Propp's own admission concerning the innumerable tale types present among the myriad nations of the world, a hundred tales seems insufficient for such a sweeping generalization, even within Russian culture. For this reason, while subsequent thinkers have admitted Propp's influence,and admired his groundbreaking approach, they have at times found his theory inapplicable to folklore across the board. They include in their numbers scholars as varied as Claude Levi-Strauss, Alan Dundes, and Peter Gilet, to name only a few of the many later folklorists who have suggested modifications or expansions to Propp's methods and theories.
At the inception of the field of Russian speculative fiction, however, Propp's work was considered to be groundbreaking, and it was widely accepted—leading modern readers to an understanding of why Russian authors chose to utilize their inheritance of fairy tales in the ways that they did. In the early half of the twentieth century, Russian authors of speculative fiction embraced Propp's theories wholeheartedly. Operating in conjunction with the preexisting Russian attitudes towards fairy tales—their “true” nature, and their inherent utopianism—Propp's theories helped to shape the modern genre of Russian speculative fiction. These factors were emphasized, in many ways, by the very nature of the utopianism inherent in Russian thought, as well as by the natures of the genres of fairy tales and science fiction.
Utopianism, in the context of speculative fiction, has been defined by critic Gary K. Wolfe (in Critical terms for Science Fictrion and Fantasy: A Glossary and Guide to Scholarship) as “a fictional narrative whose central theme is an imaginary state or community, sometimes with the corollary that it should be idealized or that it should contain an implied critique of an existing society or societies.” Is science fiction the correct genre to address that question, in and of itself? In the same volume, Carl Freedman addressed this question eloquently by pointing out that “the perfected knowledge of utopia required to compose a purely science-fictional text could only be obtained by the kind of residence in utopia that would leave one without a nonutopian actuality to be estranged.” Just so. As the writers of early and mid-twentieth century Russia did not have the experience of such an environment, they instead fell back on what experience they did have—that of the fairy tale.
In The Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales, Amelia A. Rutledge writes that “science fiction and the fairy tale both deal with situations that are contrary to fact, a quality that Samuel R. Delany calls ‘subjunctivity’. Her view of the two genres stems in large part from Darko Suvin's position that science fiction is largely dependent upon an “imaginative framework alternative to the author's empirical environment,” going on to say that that environment “both generates and grants an inner logic to the plot; its value rests not in sheer novelty but in its genuine alternatives to what we know and to the social structures we now inhabit,” a definition that sounds suspiciously close to that of utopianism. Rutledge acknowledges the connection between the two, expressing the belief that the “obvious utopianism of traditional folk tales which advocates the destabilizing of social hierarchies” is conducive to the goals of science fiction, as the “fairy tale has two primary functions in SF: it offers a structural formula, following to a greater or lesser degree the motif patterns of quest and initiation (departure-test-return) described by Vladimir Propp, and it provides the reader with appealing compensatory fantasy.” She also admits that “problems in disentangling SF from fairy tale arise, however, when a futuristic device is employed as a substitute for a magic wand, as it tends to be in the variety of SF known as ‘space opera’.”
* * *
The renowned science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke once stated that sufficiently complex technology was indistinguishable from magic. The inverse is equally true. It matters little which device is used when the purpose—social criticism—is the same. The key difference between Eastern and Western fantasy lies not so much in the trappings used to accomplish the goals of the story, but in the mentality behind them. Where Eastern tales combine traditional folkloric structures with futuristic technological paraphernalia, Western tales more frequently combine innovative narrative strategies with established fairy tale tropes and characters. The goals of the former have tended more towards overt social criticism, coupled with the tale-teller's inherent desire to entertain, while the goals of the latter reverse the order of importance, but share the same basic purpose. It is important to note that despite their intrinsic differences, both still use the genre of the fairy tale as a foundational resource.
Fairy tales address common human themes; they offer etiologies and solutions, potential paths to be taken and happy endings to be won. In fact, they have often been described as being universal. However, modern scholars of fairy tales have diverged from this position. Instead, they note that no one version of a fairy tale can be considered as a normative rendition. Each variant of a tale is unique to its circumstances, including its geographic locale, its chronological period, its cultural norms, and the idiosyncracies of its teller. As Elizabeth Wanning Harries has noted (in Twice Upon a Tale: Women Writers and the History of the Fairy Tale), “Though [fairy tales] may have roots in oral narratives, all the stories that we now call fairy tales have been written and rewritten, printed and reprinted over centuries. Some versions of the tales are simpler ... than others, and therefore may seem more authentic, but we have no access to any original versions or ur-texts.” She goes on to acknowledge that “folklorists have recently become acutely aware of the ‘politics of folklore,’ articulating the conceptual problems inherent in our representations of authentic, traditional, folk culture.” An examination of the respective attitudes towards fairy tales in the Eastern and Western traditions underscores this truth. Similarly, this logic is applicable to the genre of speculative fiction.
Regardless of what we term the stories—contes des fées, marchen, skazki, or fairy tales—it is important to acknowledge their lasting influence upon the modern literary fantastic. It is equally important to remember the differences between the regional sub-species of tales, and to factor those differences into account when analyzing the ways in which they have affected their intellectual progeny. For, though their effects are as sweet regardless of the terminology employed in criticism, there can never be such a thing as “pure semantics” in a derogatory sense. Rather than dividing the various types of the fantastic into unconnected categories, or massing them into a single nebulous class, today's scholars must cultivate a developing system of classification for the various types of the fantastic in literature that contextualizes their various inter-relations, as Part I of this essay attempts to do.
In Part II, we'll look at specific stories from the Russian fairy tale tradition and examine the ways these tales have been used by three contemporary Western writers.
(1) I'm discounting the subversive nature of the original French contes des fées here, for the subversive elements of the tales lost much popularity after their immediate period. return to text
(2) Novikov, 1971:18; from the Sankt-Peterburgskii vestnik, April 1781:295 return to text
(3) In France, the Abbe de Villiers wrote that the admirers of fairy tales “enjoy reading only because they enjoy laziness and the trivial; not only in the provinces but also in Paris and at the court one finds among [them] this taste for frivolous books. Everything that requires a little effort tires and bores them ... So does it astonish you that tales and little stories are popular?” return to text
(4) Quoted by Maria Tatar in The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales, 334. return to text
(5) Quoted by Jack Haney in An Introduction to the Russian Folktale, 25. return to text
(6) Ibid., 28. return to text
(7) The tales of Basile and Strapparola, and the contes des fées, were certainly intended for adults, and the earlier tales of the oral tradition were told to audiences of young and old alike. return to text
(8) The phrase “old wives' tale” is undoubtedly familiar as a referent for falsehood, superstition, and gossip; it is also associated with the form of the fairy tale, for the reason that tales of this type were inextricably linked with the traditional image of the female storyteller in the West. return to text
(9) Afanasyev quoted by Haney in An Introduction to Russian Folktales, 44. return to text
(10) Quoted by Haney, 27. return to text
(11) Russian Wondertales, 41. return to text
(12) Russian Fairy Tales, Collected by Alexander Afanasyev, Norman Guterman, 484. return to text
Nonfiction and Folklore Collections:
Related Articles by Helen Pilinovsky:
"The Mother of All Witches: Baba Yaga and Brume in Patricia A. McKillip's In the Forests of Serre," a paper presented at Wiscon, May, 2003. For a copy of the paper, write to the author: HPilinovsky@aol.com.
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