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

Lecture notes for February 22, 2008

Sibelan Forrester

“Bad Wife” and “Wise Maiden” tales

Why refer to the typologies of tales? “Bad wife” and “wise maiden” serve to unite similar tales or to compare dissimilar treatments of the themes. Here the typology can be a way to choose tales that might respond especially well to a feminist analysis, sociological or political rather than psychoanalytic. These are two rather ancient types. (E.g., the wise and foolish maidens in the Bible.)

One comment about feminist readings of tales: the ones we’ve looked at tend to be more sociologically oriented, not psychoanalytically – they're more Anglo-American, as opposed to the very influential school of French feminism, to describe the general tendency in those somewhat crude terms. In fact, Freud via Lacan has been quite influential on many well-known French feminist theorists – Irigaray, Cixous, Kristeva (who is actually Bulgarian, but has lived in France for a long time now). If any of you would like to look at them to illuminate fairy tales, that would be extremely interesting.

The tale of Peter and Fevronia – Zenkovsky presents this stuff almost the way it was written in manuscript collections, the text packed in, with hardly any break between different texts – it pronanly wouldn’t be read fast, there was a rather different culture of reading at that time – merely reading it was improving for monks). This tale is an example of how folklore material enters the “canon” of written sources, though at this point it was in the form of chronicles, hand-written before printing came to Russia. Since you’ve now read quite a number of tales from Afanas'ev, what folk elements do you perceive here? What non-folk (elite, or church) elements?

Zenkovsky’s little introductory section points to one big contradiction: even though this was written down by a churchman (scribe) – because who else was literate in the 16th century? – the marriage-and-family happy end of folk tales doesn’t fit the death-and-salvation, ascetic and sex-rejecting happy end of a saint’s life, the other big influence on the piece. Not having kids could be a big problem for a prince – but it was less of one in the Kievan period, when power passed along through those odd lines of appanages, to brothers and nephews. (Zenkovsky suggests, “Here, the elements of the purity and sanctity of the family supersede the usual ascetic tradition of hagiographic works.” – p. 290)

A serpent/dragon who flies to visit a princess is interested in only one thing! (Id id id!) Here it’s clearer than in many fairy tales: he “seduces and debases” her. (And her husband isn’t jealous, so much as he wants to help her out of the sin.)

Afanas'ev tales:

“The Wondrous Wonder, the Marvelous Marvel,” pp. 13-15: magic uncovers a very prosaic sin – the main character beats the wife's lover, then his wife. (Many tales treat magical items misused that the misusers stick to, or can’t turn off [they don’t know the second half of the spell, or the “off” spell], etc. -- they are frequent punishments in fairy tales for taking something that isn’t yours, or in this case offering the goose feast to the wrong man: meat as figure for sex, or nourishment as an expression of love? – a Very Eastern European thing.)

A general note on merchants: before Peter the Great, so the late 17th century more or less, they were the people who traveled, were adventurous, saw interesting things. They had ships because of the Novgorod/Hanseatic or White Sea trade – and so they were very often fairy-tale heroes. A merchant would go away and maybe not come back for a long time (like a soldier, but with more control over it), had to be daring and face dangers, etc.

“The Princess Who Wanted to Solve Riddles,” pp. 115-117 (review) – do the feminist approaches change the way you read this one, or are we already enough inoculated with feminism from the culture all around us that you didn’t see anything new? Does the princess get what she wants in the end (she manages to postpone marriage – gets to behead lots of guys – until she meets someone cleverer or better at manipulating the rules than she is)? How can they live happily ever after on the basis of what we’ve seen of their characters?

A big question, for fairy tales and even many folk tales: how much plausibility does this have, and how much plausibility does it really need in order to work for a listener (or, latterly, a reader)? How much of it is for learning and how much for entertainment? (though we must recall Lieberman’s point that we may learn in a relatively helpless or uncritical way while we’re being entertained.) How much is a peasant kid (or adult) likely to model his or her own life, behavior, expectations on a story about a tsar or princess? Or could you argue that the listener sees self as the ruler of own life, queen or king of own fate – even aside from psychoanalytic issues? (Robert Bly’s interpretation, influenced by Joseph Campbell and essentially Jungian, of the fairy tale “Iron John” – he argues that men in late industrial patriarchy have abandoned the inner king or abdicated that position – does it make as much sense for a peasant as for a white-collar late-20th-century office worker?)

“The Mayoress,” p. 141 – a woman who wants a man’s job is shown as absurd and unqualified – yet people evidently elect her (so she gets a chance to do poorly – and in doing such a bad job she acts just like a male mayor, “drank wine with the peasants, and took bribes”): how might this little story work on a young female listener?

“The Wise Little Girl,” pp. 252-255: how does her riddling, and handling of the tsar’s riddles, compare to Fevronia’s? Why does the tsar get distracted with riddles to begin with, versus dispensing justice the way he’s supposed to? What sort of reward is it that she gets to marry the tsar when she grows up? Are we supposed to think that she’s really only 7? Is she readable as some kind of anima-like or super-ego function of the poor peasant, her father, or of the tsar? Or does she take over from her father as heroine and main character of the story?


Return to the class syllabus

Proceed to the lecture notes for Monday, February 25, 2008.