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

Lecture notes for February 8, 2008

Sibelan Forrester

Fairy tales not yet all graded, but I notice a lot of good humor. Again, send me as an attachment if you’re willing to have me put it up for others to read; if you sent the attachment because you were sick on Weds, let me know if it’s okay to post. I’ll put them on Blackboard for the class, NOT on the searchable internet (because a student wound up asking me to take hers down when it started popping up first if she was googled), so you have less to fear…

signing up for presentations: 1) pick a theorist (on our list or not); 2) present a fairy tale – now you’ve read a good part of the book, right? pick one you find intriguing, to present from the point of view of some of the background we’re reading, or theory we’re practicing, or to read/recite from the point of view of your concern with folk performance. Let me know today after class, or e-mail me – by early next week I’d like to have everyone signed up.

Semyonova Tian-Shanskaya – the intro talks about who she is, then she offers a composite picture of peasant life. What tendencies or biases do you see in her? (Such an atmosphere of misery, poverty, darkness, limited affection – though then she describes a fire in a hut where the mother has managed to remove the corpse of a child who died earlier in the day: a lot of it is in how you interpret signs, and also in what signs peasants would give of grief: ritual lamentations or singing a sad song the next time they got drunk at a wedding, rather than a long wordy torrent or weepy conversation the day a child died?)

More re folk versus fairy tales – how would you define the distinction now as you continue reading?

The Afanas’ev stories! What can psychoanalytical approaches help you make of stories where the youngest child triumphs? (Are any of you youngest children? Does that matter as we read the stories -- to you, or to Bettelheim? Or is “youngest child” just a place to express a child’s, or a novice’s, feelings of being squashed by all the older, cleverer, more experienced and pretentious people?) These are quite various and wouldn’t all fall into one “type” in the Aarne-Thompson Tale Type Index (3rd revision came out in 2000).

Pay attention as you continue reading to what you're starting to expect from a fairy tale.

“Salt” 40-44 – older brothers so often steal not only the wealth the “fool” has acquired, but also the princess he means to marry. Why would they find the younger one’s success so threatening (surely they have often SAID they wished he was more like them)? What about the giant? Why does the princess say “This is not my bridegroom” only when the hero shows up (at the last second, in the nick of time)? What do you make of last-minute switches in marriage partners? Suspense, yes (the kinds of narrative tricks and rewards that stories still offer), and the obligation to reward the worthy while exposing and shaming or punishing the unworthy, make things good while they can still be changed – but does it also suggest a superficiality in the motivation or even in the marriage itself? What might a Freudian reading make of the giant?

“The Three Kingdoms” 49-53 – what does lying on the stove suggest? Threes (kingdoms, princesses, rings – in parallel to the three brothers) – of course it is completely unverisimilar (in the real world) that the princesses would just wait around for someone to take the path down and lead them out. That sort of observation supports the psychoanalytic approaches: do the princesses represent something that has lain dormant in the psyche? You get layers or sequences of helpers too: the dragon first (if a dragon shows up, what sort of role do you expect it to play?); the tiny man with big beard who sends him on to Baba Yaga; her eagle. Why does he have to give the eagle a piece of his own flesh? (which is then, thoughtfully, restored: willingness to sacrifice and bear pain is rewarded by healing the pain?) The ending feels truncated (he takes the golden maiden; that’s all), no punishment or forgiveness for the brothers, and he doesn’t become king – just marries a princess.

”Ivanushko, the Little Fool” 62-66 – “An old man and his old wife” – once you stopped having children, you moved into the old generation even if you were only 40 or so. Several iterations of what a fool he is (what a pain it would be to have someone like that in the household!): dumplings, sheep, market. Then he outfoxes the nobleman (plausible at all?) and does in his brothers – who turn out to be both greedy and fools. What sort of interpretation is possible here? Is this a fairy tale or a folk tale?

“The Princess Who Wanted to Solve Riddles” 115-117 – the first two sons aren’t even part of the tale – it’s just a way to introduce Ivan the Simpleton. His “homemade” riddles. The Princess solves riddles from a book, can’t admit defeat when his stymie her (why can’t she say, “That’s not a real riddle!”?). (Could her use of a book suggests an underlying plot where she's a sorceress and he out-magics her?) She sends her maid to cheat (if she buys the answer, does he die or is it a draw?); the princess has to stand all night in his room without sleeping to get the answer from him (a breach of propriety for a maiden!). Too bad we don’t hear the wording of the final riddle (how the hero’s language obscures her asking him for the answers).

“The Dead Body” 118-119 – another real fool, not just in name (or – is he a projection of the family “shadow”?): he kills his own mother; turns it to profit by tricking an official (wealthy, upper-class, and able to throw money at a problem). Father and brothers evidently forgive him; everything’s just ducky. What would the moral of this tale be? (Note: in real life, killing your own mother was one of the worst sins a Russian could commit!) The inversion of usually accepted values suggests jests, carnival, “world upside-down.”

“The Wicked Sisters” 356-360 – three sisters rather than three brothers (and they aren’t stepsisters, as is more usual with stories about sisters). Here the third one is not a simpleton, not even (at the start) an oppressed Cinderella. (Third-boy simpleton as the equivalent to the third-girl Cinderella or Belle?) Why does Ivan pick the third one (who wants to give him sons)? Why wait till the third child disappoints (after a kitten and a puppy!) to take measures? Why does his wife not protest when her children are taken away? Why are the princess’s eyes gouged out (to symbolize her own blindness towards something important? Or it’s more important that it’s at the prince’s command, and his realization at the end represents the really important healing, not hers?) Magic healing (all “by the pike’s command.” combined with the more orthodox “by God’s blessing”). It’s the fourth child, the substitute, who fixes things – heals his mother’s eyes, wins brotherhood by bringing the others cakes baked with his mother’s milk (so – he’s a milk brother) (opposite of the usual, where a a peasant wet-nurse nurses the higher-status children!). Monks report that the mother feasts her eyes on the kids – now that she has eyes again (now she knows what the senses are for). The prince comes to them and is beside himself with joy, repudiates the false wife (how could the older sister be an aspect of the self?), she she sinks in her barrel in the sea and vanishes (punished because she tried to have what wasn’t hers – covetous, envious, false?).

“The Golden-Bristled Pig, the Golden-Feathered Duck and the Golden-Maned Mare” 533-541 – double trebling: first there are three brothers (the older two don’t want to spend the night on their father’s grave), and then once the Simpleton (no name) marries he’s the third son-in-law, recreates the position he used to occupy in his natal family. How does the simpleton get the magic steed that brings him all wealth and achievement? How does he know how to summon the steed (singeing hairs) and then how to “use” him? Marriage is not the final reward here, just the end of the first pass. How would you analyze this one? (The cut-off fingers and toes and strips of skin on the other sons-in-law grow back; why did our hero need to carry out this bargain and then display?) (so he needn’t live as a simpleton any more, and he gives feasts)

“Prince Ivan, the Firebird, and the Grey Wolf” 612-624 – 3 princes; the elder two fall asleep (weak? not perceptive?), but Ivan gets the feather. Then he’s sent on a new quest: to bring the firebird. Ivan himself has to learn to listen, obey and be honorable! But then: when he wants Elena, the wolf proposes a series of shape-shifting cheats, and those are all apparently okay - because the wolf can pull them off? The brothers reappear once he has all the goods. Elena also reproaches the brothers for not fighting honorably, for killing Ivan as he lay asleep. He is revived by the wolf after lying dead in pieces for a month (what kind of psychic state might this torn-up death represent?) – outline how the water of death and the water of life work. The revived Prince Ivan comes to the wedding feast after the ceremony but before the couple goes to bed, which must be the crucial moment. (All the replacement of spouses in these tales suggests that divorce was a much smaller deal in pre-Christian Rusian culture than it became under Orthodox Christianity.) The father is outraged at the lie (and that Elena was compelled through fear of death to lie?), throws his older sons in the dungeon, and Ivan marries Elena the Fair.

Compare/contrast what sorts of happy endings the characters achieve, and what sorts of endings the narratives offer: the “exit ceremony” of the teller reminding you that this is a story, to put you back into an everyday mood (and to encourage you to give a tip or reward). Though of course a female teller would never have uttered that line about mead running down her moustache (does reading something from a book allow us to put quotation marks around it in a way that we can't if we present it orally?)


Return to the class syllabus

Proceed to the lecture notes for Monday, February 11, 2008.