Monday, September 21, 2020

Ivans and Vasilisas everywhere (Following folktales around the world 169. - Russia)

Today I continue the blog series titled Following folktales around the world! If you would like to know what the series is all about, you can find the introduction post here. You can find all posts here, or you can follow the series on Facebook!

A tűzmadár
Orosz varázsmesék
Alekszandr Nyikolajevics Afanaszjev
Magvető, 2006.

This book is a Hungarian selection of Afanasyev's classic 19th century Russian folktale collection (see an English version here). It contains 75 wonder tales (according to the collector, these were the most important group of folktales), and seven chapbook tales from the 18th and 19th centuries. The book didn't come with any notes, but the tale types were numbered, and the Afterword gives details about Afanasyev's life, and the history of the collection. The latter was especially interesting. Afanasyev only collected a few tales first hand, the rest he found in the archives of the Russian Geographical Society (geographers also collected folklore materials on the side). In addition, he used Vladimir Dal's folktale collection; Dal collected stories via a network of mailing partners, researching the Russian language and its dialects.
The book is a fun read, it contains many of the "great classics" of Russian folklore, and it's illustrated by the amazing pictures of Ivan Bilibin (although, sadly, in black and white). I also have the English volume I linked above, and there is a lot of overlap.


One of my favorite Russian folktales is featured in this book: Elena the Wise flies in a chariot drawn by dragons, and teaches magic to girls who sneak away from home at night. The hero wins her hand by hiding from her sharp sight. The tale of The Sun's sister and the witch is a lovely variant of the "prince seeking immortality" tale type - especially because the hero didn't use his magic objects to save himself, but rather to help others who needed them (e.g. the brush that turns into a forest, for a woodcutter). In the end, the people he helped saved him from the witch (his own sister). I also love the Future dream, a variant of the tale where the hero refuses to tell his dream to anyone; here the dream foretold that he was going to help his best friend win the hand of a princess.
I was amused by the tale about How the soldier cured the tsar's daughter, by outwitting various devils (and he didn't even marry her in the end). I also liked the tale about The blind and the legless soldier, where the true hero was a prince's magical helper, Uncle Katoma. He defended the naive prince from the intrigues of an evil princess, and when she cut off his legs in revenge, Uncle Katoma teamed up with a blind old soldier, and together they managed to set things right.
The Bear Tsar was a fascinating story, included in more than one version. Two children, promised to an evil bear, tried to escape with the help of various animals unsuccessfully, until a young bull managed to rescue them. I also enjoyed the long and intricate tale of "Go I-don't-know-where and bring me I-don't-know-what", where the hero eventually managed to complete the vague mission by finding a mysterious invisible helper named Sense. Another symbolic figure in the stories was Sorrow, who attached itself to a poor man and made him drink away all his fortune, until he found a clever way of getting rid of the mean spirit. Sorrow then attached itself to a rich man, but, surprisingly, this victim also managed to outwit it.
There are many classic Russian tales in this book that might already be familiar to international readers. For example, the tale of Morozko, Father Frost, who rewards the kind girl but freezes her unkind stepsister. Or the legendary Vasilisa the Beautiful, who sets out deep into the woods to bring fire from Baba Yaga. Or Maria Morevna, the warrior maiden, and her arch-enemy Koschei the Deathless, who hides his life inside an egg. Or the Frog Princess, who brings valuable items to her prince and dances a dance of creation; or Ivan and the Grey Wolf, setting out to find the legendary Firebird; or Finist the Radiant Falcon, a well-known Russian variant of the hurt-and-rescued bird prince tale type.
Obviously, many tales feature Baba Yaga, the terrifying witch who flies in a mortar, lives in a house with chicken legs, and often eats people. My favorite was a little tale about a cat, a sparrow, and a "nimble youth" (possibly a gnome) living together; whenever the cat and the bird left, Baba Yaga came into their house to count their spoons... Eventually, the nimble youth managed to get rid of her.


Texts in this book were arranged in a way that similar tales followed each other, sometimes in more than one version. There were many familiar stories: Kind and unkind girls (The girl and her stepsister, where a mouse helped the kind girl get away from a bear), three kidnapped princesses (Copper Kingdom, Silver Kingdom, Gold Kingdom, where Baba Yaga's bird flew the hero back to the surface; also Dawn, Evening, and Midnight, where the older boys pulled their younger brother back up instead of betraying him), extraordinary helpers (The flying ship; The Seven Simeons - the latter also featured a magical Siberian cat, and a lad whose power was to submerge ships and then bring them back to the surface, á la Pirates of the Caribbean), twin princes (The Two Ivans, who were sadly hunted down by the dragon's sister after the happy end), animal brothers-in-law (or, in the case of Fyodor Tugarin, Wind, Hail, and Thunder), princess on the glass mountain (Sivko-Burko, Silly Ivan), Aladdin (The magic ring), Fortunatus (Horns), gold-spitting princes (The duck and the golden eggs), Snow White (The magic mirror), magic flight (The sea tsar and Vasilisa the Wise), gemstone mountain (or, in this case, Gold Mountain), magician's apprentice (The secret knowledge), Bearskins (Unwashed soldier, who was basically the thesis work of a little devil), golden-haired gardener (I don't know), and the devil's three golden hairs (Marko the Rich and Unhappy Vasily).
The kind and unkind girls type was especially interesting in the case of The swans; here a girl's brother was kidnapped by birds, and she set out to rescue him. She was both kind and unkind: on the way there she refused to help the trees and animals, but on the way back she changed her mind.
I once again encountered the trope where a hero only strikes a villain once.

Where to next?

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