Russian Fairy Tales (RUSS 047/LITR 047R) -- Spring 2008 -- Swarthmore College

Lecture notes for January 28, 2008

Sibelan Forrester

Ivanits: this time I asked you to read the stories about sorcery, spoiling and healing before reading her analytical section, for Wednesday when we’ll be discussing those topics. For now, any questions about the memorates on pp. 190-205? General attitude towards sorcerers: you try to stay out of their way, by doing prophylactic charms or hiring a protector to render them powerless, and you DON’T go to a crossroads at midnight, stand on an icon (!) and wait for “him” to come!

Ong lists these characteristics of oral style: talking mostly about long narratives (epic), but a lot of these could apply to a fairy tale. He concentrates on narrative: whatever other kinds of information are included, they’re attached to a set of human actions or experiences that occur through time. Epic narratives tend to jump around, have a structure like a set of boxes within boxes (unlike the classical dramatic triangle), but fairy tales are shorter narratives where the chronological order usually can be maintained – very often the chronology depends on the logic of the plot development (you can't meet the witch until you've left home, etc.), and the frequent brevity can mean much less variation from performance to performance or teller to teller -- though also huge variations in the performance of one tale from teller to teller and even time to time. A “nugget” or basic outline of a plot is enhanced or embroidered in every telling, and it may contain certain fixed phrasings particular to the story (“I’ll huff, and I’ll puff, and I’ll blow your house down!” -- the sort of thing children insist be maintained when they hear a story often) as well as fixed epithets (Ong mentions: brave soldier, beautiful princess, wicked witch), or standard openings or closings (the mead ran down my mustache: not a sign of realism, "I was really there," as much as a hint that a tip would be most welcome: I'm thirsty!). The shape of the plot is not the Aristotelian climactic one based on drama (which, Ong says, depended on writing in the works we know from Greece onward – different from religious rituals, which also went into writing early due to the need to remain the same, or puppet shows etc.). A fairy tale may have several interruptions, new obstacles to overcome; different plot elements can be combined into one longer tale, as long as the result is satisfying. How greatly all this is distinct from the novel!

The characteristics of oral style that Ong lists on pp. 36-77, “Some psychodynamics of orality:”

There are also particular paths of oral memorization. The novel has “rounded” characters with psychological depth and a mix of good and bad traits and actions; “flat” characters in folk tales: “oral narrative […] can provide characters of no other kind.” Tend to see a split into good guys and bad guys. Ong p. 151: “The type character serves both to organize the story line itself and to manage the non-narrative elements that occur in narrative. Around Odysseus (or, in other cultures, Brer Rabbit or the spider Anansi) the lore concerning cleverness can be made use of, around Nestor the lore about wisdom, and so on.” So – lacking complexity of motivation or internal psychological growth with the passage of time (though may suddenly flip from good to evil and back again – to be perhaps punished, perhaps forgiven and reintegrated). These things are very true of folk tales even if the particular compositional traits of the epic aren’t shared.

Insights from Max Lüthi (born 1909, eventually became very prominent, taught at Bread Loaf in Vermont etc.). He lists a bunch of typical stylistic and compositional traits of fairy tales: p. 40 of The Fairytale as Art Form and…: “The style of the fairytale has the beauty of the clear, the definite, the orderly – the beauty of precision.” 1) Inclination to the abstract; 2) use of juxtaposition and sequencing; 3) artistic economy; 4) depthlessness; 5) one-dimensionality; 6) tendency to isolate; 7) use of metallic and mineral transpositions; 8) sublimation; 9) abstract style. Linear ordering of episodes rather than subordination (which would result in a 3-dimensional structure), or even subordinate clauses [note: this trait may be taken out by an editor or collector, because it makes the telling take longer – subordination is also more economical]. A particular set of props: very concrete and specific; sharply outlined spaces with clear verticals and horizontals; prefers to describe clothing or weapons or spinning wheels, etc., rather than the body.

Particularly, besides linearity: isolation: “each individual adventure constitutes a unit of its own” (p 42) – in the ideal case, “even when the same thing happens again, everything is narrated anew, and completely, without any reference to the earlier episode”. The figures are also isolated: “Their psychological processes are not illuminated; only their line of progress is in focus, only that which is relevant to the action – everything else is faded out. They are bound neither to their surroundings nor to their past, and no depth of character or psychological peculiarity is indicated. They are cut off from all that – isolated. In the extreme case, they are just carriers of the action, figures.” (pp. 42-43). This leads to a tendency to the extremes – poverty and riches, good and evil.

The structure of that world is opaque: “It is seldom clear what the source of the power of the otherworldly helpers is and who has sent them, what sort of framework they belong to.”

Formulas: the number three (trebling), other “memory props.” (p. 44) In Russian tales, thrice-ninth or sometimes thrice-tenth stand in for big numbers. Openings and closings are often truly formulaic: “'Once upon a time,’ because it is a familiar fairytale opening, is indeed already the signal that one is entering into a nonreal realm, the realm of literature.” (p. 49) Closing formula similarly creates distance as it brings the narrative to a close, effectively brings the listeners back into their everyday lives.

The structure of the magic tales is very precise: characterized by clearness, compactness and exactitude. (Lüthi mentions Propp’s “iron rules” of composition – we’ll read them soon.) Propp says: “A lack (or a villainy which causes a lack) and its liquidation provide… the basic structural pattern of the fairytale.” Alan Dundes has coined the abbreviation L-LL: Lack/Lack liquidated for this pattern. What kinds of fairy tale lacks can you think of?

Overall structure often:

Order/Disorder/Order, or

Happiness/Disturbance/Happiness Restored.

The fairy tale seeks extremes, high degrees, the strongest and loveliest and best, etc. But hero or heroine will have one tiny flaw and provoke the problem that is solved in the rest of the narration.

“Ivan the Peasant’s Son and the Thumb-Sized Man” (Afanas'ev, pp. 262-268)

What does this story suggest to you about the style of fairytales?
What’s Ivan’s character like?
How does the story’s chronology work? (Chunks of three years)
What nuggets of wisdom does it convey or imply? (Respect for your elders?)
How do the plot sections fit/string together, and what kinds of knowledge or ability do the characters have or acquire?
How does the sorcery (shape-changing etc.) described resemble what is described in Ivanits’s collection?

When you’re the hero it’s all about you (the dragon knows his name, “Ivan the Peasant’s Son” – and “Ivan” is the Russian John, the most common name ever). When you lose your hero spot (or magic horse, etc.), you have to use all your resources and pay dues or spend years as necessary to get it back.


Return to the class syllabus

Proceed to the lecture notes for Wednesday, January 30, 2008.