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

Lecture notes for February 13, 2008

Sibelan Forrester

(The 2-hour delay because of bad weather kept me from using these notes for class, but they may still be worth reading.)

Bettelheim on “Two Sibling” tales – 78-83 he looks at “Brother and Sister” as relations of the younger brother as id (tiger, wolf, deer) and older sister who represents ego and super-ego – but how then do we understand her smothering by the witch, who replaces her with a false queen (her own ugly daughter)? More trebling. Only justice can bring the brother back to human form.

90-96: Two brothers, one a stay-at-home versus one who goes out into the world (seeks differentiation), connected by a magic object. The tale from an Egyptian papyrus: the wife of the older brother claims the younger has tried to seduce her – B. says she’s in the role of mother to everyone in the household, so it’s an Oedipal crisis (in which the all-good mother of infancy becomes an all-bad denying mother – the witch or evil stepmother). The two siblings start out undifferentiated, then seek different fates (the magic object: a knife stuck in a tree), and one has to rescue the other. But also: fathers were two brothers (one evil and one good) – so it's as if we have nesting psychic processes? Note his last paragraph on p. 96.

Apply to the Afanas’ev stories:

The quality of the relationship between the two siblings seems to make a big difference: are they completely friendly or true to each other (undifferentiated, even if of different gender), or are they already at odds, polarized by their traits (rich/poor, fortunate/miserable, miserly/generous, prideful/humble)?

“Misery” (20-24) – a personification of bad luck and especially of the ravages of alcoholism, which a crafty peasant can unload (but which will stay around to plague a greedy or envious one!). Personification as a way of understanding bad luck (like love or illness) as something that comes and settles on a person. A new treasure is available once everything is gone, but our peasant is too wise to risk it (he tricks Misery, and his trick works). The formerly poor peasant is still honest and generous with his brother, tells him what happened. Even the envious brother learns his lesson in time and tricks Misery too – in the end he lives again as of old. (What has HE learned? We don't hear any more about the relationship between the two brothers.)

“The Armless Maiden” (294-299) – a sorceress has to be bad (envious). What role in the psyche does she play, trying to upset the integration between the two siblings? How do you interpret the sorceress’s ability to sow bad things for the sister, or how the brother puts up with everything and then “gets even” without asking his sister what really happened? And why is the sister quiet about it for so long? (The trouble between them isn’t what happened but that he thinks she did it – the trouble is the sorceress’s lies, which he believes, and that have to be undone with language, telling not a tale but .) Why does she spend several years in the woods before she finds a path out? And what’s the role of her husband, the son of a rich merchant? Her arms grow back when she has to bend to recover her baby (-- she can’t get that for herself, but she’s able to get God’s help once her innocent infant is at risk?)? Finally: the role of the story in working out the tale and its happy-end requirement of justice: telling truth, being willing and able to tell it, and having the other elements of the psyche (?) willing to stand up for you, not let the story be censored. The importance of visible proofs. Violent retribution against the evil sorceress – the punishment section where she’s tied to the tail of a horse and sent out into the fields (where screaming and struggling just make it worse) is a common ending of this kind of tale (like the evil queen forced to dance in red-hot shoes until she dies - how do we react to this kind of violence?). They all move to live with HER new family – why? Brother and sister are reintegrated, and the bad demonstratively cast out.

“The Magic Swan Geese” (349-351) – as in Tian-Shanskaya, the very young older sister is left to care for her younger brother (this doesn’t even seem to be a poor family – the parents are offering her a bun, a dress and a kerchief). Any insight into this from reading Tian-Shanskaya? Who are the magic swam geese? She has to get brother back to avoid punishment by the parents (super-ego figures?), but also she needs to learn not to be snooty as she seeks help (why would she have to accept the things they want to offer her – a rye cake, etc. – before they’re willing to conceal her? To make them feel valued? or just to have her show a bit of humility, as if she has to admit her wrong act in letting the birds have access to the baby?). What does it signify that they conceal her and the swan geese fly past? How might Bettelheim read it? The girl’s reward is lack of punishment: by being less snooty and willing to accept help in the odd packages it comes with she manages to undo the damage she had allowed to happen.

(Right after that tale: “Prince Danila Govorila” (351-356) – he wants to marry his own sister and she has to get away with the help of magic dolls and bring back a lookalike bride for him – something to present in class if anyone's interested?)

“Two Ivans, Soldier’s Sons” (463-475) – we hear a bit about their childhood (note: the king judges them fairly – compare to Shemiaka!). What could more clearly suggest that they’re two parts of the same psyche than their having the same name? The difficulty of finding proper horses and proper swords; they leave home and never come back (mother interprets the signs correctly: horse and sword are not the tools of a peasant farmer). The post with the warning inscription that informs them of upcoming plot twists or even lets them choose which twists they want: you can choose your fate, but of course it’s never as clear as it sounds; chance for the two to differentiate by seeking different fates. They take each other's handkerchiefs as magic objects that link them, agree to check every day and come to the rescue if one of them dies. Note the importance of a handkerchief or a towel in many of these stories.

The Ivan who goes to the right becomes king uncomplicatedly. (And he gets phials with water of life and death uncomplicatedly – simply finds them in his saddle, is smart and saves them just in case – rather than having to send a magical helper for them as in many other tales.)

The Ivan who goes to the left kills the dragons; why does he pretend to be sleeping till the dragon appears, with the princess charged to wake him (so she has to play a role?), and why does he hide his identity and allow the imposture of the water-carrier rather than just being the hero from the start for all to see? Would that sap his ability to fight subsequent dragons, or keep him from eventually winning the princess he's supposed to win instead of some other? The third dragon is harder: the princess has to help him by wetting her kerchief. Again, she has a role in the rescue, and he's left with a token that she'll recognize later. At the last minute he arrives to stop the wedding and substitute himself for the false bridegroom (who’s hanged on the spot).

Later in t his complicated tale, a maiden swells up, turns into a lion (not typical Russian fauna) and eats Prince Ivan to punish him for having a brother who killed her dragon brothers (again – are the two Ivans aspects of the same personality?). Now all of a sudden it’s Ivan the Champion who has the phials of water of life and death! (same guy?) Pities the fake maiden and lets her go – with the inevitable eventual bad results, later, when each pities a beggar. What kind of ending, when one can no longer come rescue the other? Does the tale feel truncated, as if one more cycle of rescue was left out?

“Shemiaka the Judge” (625-627) is a well-known tale, often rewritten in the 20th century: again, we have a poor brother versus a rich brother, and here with very sharp "class consciousness." The rich one has little compassion, the poor one knows the system well enough to expect that he’ll lose in court because he has no money for a bribe (and as we see, the judge was expecting a bribe). (Remember Ivanits on folk magic? There were whole categories of charms, zagovory, to make one’s day in court go well.) The plaintiffs evidently don’t think they need a bribe, since they’re obviously in the right, though they can afford it. The “clever” judge’s imposition of judgments that have an element of justice, but that of course no one would be willing to accept – after that, the poor brother gets the break he must have deserved, payoffs from the plaintiffs (mirror image of the bribes he wasn’t able to afford?). Why is he the hero, rather than the rich brother? – because the rich one is an ungenerous snob? Because the rich one has no family feeling? How would Bettelheim read this one? Need to integrate what with what? (Need to pay for what you have, rather than presuming that you have it because you somehow deserved it? – but why then are the other plaintiffs dragged into this story? – the rich peasant may be to blame for being nice to the rich brother and leaving the poor one to pine on the stove, rather than being hospitable to both – but you can’t at all blame the guy whose father was crushed when the poor peasant jumped off the bridge.) Important that in the end they all make peace with him: a happy resolution, and one that won’t turn into another conflict later on.


Return to the class syllabus

Proceed to the lecture notes for Monday, February 15, 2008.