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

Lecture notes for February 15, 2008

Sibelan Forrester

New online resource, “Friends of Russian Folklore,” at; see also their "Russian Folklore Expedition" site at

Why do some folklorists work on or according to typologies of tales? To allow interesting comparisons from various traditions and whatever point of view; chances are tales from the same type will respond to the same kinds of analysis; they also may serve to bring out the limitations or tendenciousness of the analytical tools or approaches you choose. Another related question: if people are telling stories, what will motivate the choice of the next story? Same hero, or same type of tale? Does telling stories to a collector work with different associative mechanisms than telling stories to an audience that might not want to hear 5 “animal bride” stories in a row?

Animal bride and animal groom tales – Bettelheim sees them as overcoming sexual disgust: important that adults who want kids to feel okay about sex (which, as the tales suggest in his interpretations, has NOT been the case for a good part of human history) should recognize that sex is disgusting to kids, that they have to accept this attitude at a certain point in order to overcome it, healthily, later in the process of maturation. “Snow White and Rose Red” (gentle bear and yucky dwarf; two-aspects of one personality: the sisters marry the unenchanted bear and his brother); “The Frog King” or more often “Frog Prince” – variants give a different length of time for the princess to get used to him AND for his getting used to her, and final (often) jolt where she throws him against the wall; influence of “Cupid and Psyche”; “The Enchanted Pig” – a Romanian tale, both bride (who tries to hurry things: the pig is self-aware enough to tell her she’ll have to do this and that to win him back, but couldn’t say it to her until she tried to intervene in the process with the magic string: it puts value on implicit trust between spouses or taking on faith that things will come out all right?) and the groom (who is enchanted into pig form) need time and suffering to get to the point where they can be happy ever after. “Bluebeard” – Jungian interpreters disagree with Bettelheim's focus on sexual infidelity (“That which happens in “Bluebeard” has nothing whatsoever to do with love,” he says after finishing his discussion). “Beauty and the Beast” – transfer of Oedipal (hm, not Elektral?) love of Beauty for her father to the mature and age-appropriate marriage partner. The boringness of her happy life with the Beast, when all her desires are anticipated, tells children that what we most truly want and need is to grow up. Here finding out secrets (how good and attractive the Beast really is) is a good thing - unlike in “Bluebeard.”

Whether or not we consider the orthodox Freudian tendencies in Bettelheim too focused on Oedipus complexes, castration anxiety, etc., it may make good sense that fairy tales about marriage, or ending in marriage, would be concerned with sexual things and the need for partners to adapt to one another.

But why, in a peasant milieu that doesn’t mince words about sex – as we’ll see soon with the bawdy tales from Afanas'ev – would there be any impulse to cover the nature of what’s being talked about, encode it rather than state it outright? Bettelheim presuming that the censorship and sexual repression of his own culture (he comes, remember, from the same place as Freud, at a slightly later time) are universal rather than local. (The bawdy folklore presumes that everyone likes and wants sex, of course they do, it’s only normal to like it? But few of those tales are magic tales - they're more folktales.)

Zipes on Bettelheim: what’s Zipes’s fundamental philosophical starting point? How does his critique (or the allegations of others, summarized in the beginning of the article as reprinted) impact your reading of Bettelheim? Did you have similar objections or reactions to Bettelheim?

I haven’t gone to read the book by Julius Heuscher, which Alan Dundes accuses Bettelheim of plagiarizing, but you may find it worth investigating.

Film clips! 1) Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête (1946) based much more closely on the literary fairy tale by Jean-Marie Leprince de Beaumont (1757), plus lots of expressionist and filmic indulgences: having the same actor play Avenant (a talking name? – who wants to take Belle away from all this) and la Bête suggests that they’re supposed to be read as 2 sides of the same person. 2) Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, 1991, makes a LOT of changes in the plot – no older sisters, father a mad inventor, the funny villain Gaston. Clearer that Belle really was in love with the Beast (who opens out into a very late-20th-century sensitive American guy). 3) Shrek (2001): based on a much more recent literary fairy tale (by William Steig). Why is it funny when creatures from different fairy tales come into the same movie? How do the original spell on Fiona and her transformation in the scene we watch turn fairy tale traditions on their heads? (What is still traditional here, not subversive? – the anti-short-person humor?) How do you recognize Snow White and other famus characters - costumes that resemble the Disney versions.

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Proceed to the lecture notes for Monday, February 18, 2008.