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

Lecture notes for February 25, 2008

Sibelan Forrester

Strong heroines (or not)

There are lots of possible distortions in the tales that compose Afanas'ev’s collection which would prevent us using it as sociological evidence, unless we supplemented with a lot of other material as well. These include that this is a one-volume selection from his original three volumes, chosen by our English-language editors, plus the translation itself, and the ways the tellers or collectors might have censored tales. Nonetheless, there are some strikingly female-centered tales. A few offer unexpected martial or imperial female figures, a few offer a quest narrative with a female heroine – though still with significant differences from the stories where a man has to go out and rescue his bride. When does a female character leave her home? - To retrieve her groom, or sometimes a stolen baby (as in "The Magic Swan-Geese"), OR she's driven out by an evil stepmother or the like.

A comment in passing about the style of the tales – notice that there are lots of semi-colons. The tales are told in a kind of run-on way that’s typical of oral style; the semi-colons don't work the way they do in literate style, but just to break up otherwise run-on narration.

What issues of female authority do you see in these tales? Who is the hero or heroine, and what role does the romantic vis-à-vis play? Who is the villain? How do things work with different distributions of gender? (Baba Yaga versus Koshchei?)

“The Maiden-Tsar,” pp. 229-34 – she has no name, but “tsar'” is masculine in gender, “devitsa” feminine: it suggests a combination of gender traits otherwise not reconcilable? (The Firebird, "Zhar-ptitsa," has the same combination of masculine and feminine in its/her name.) Evil role of stepmother (what might she represent, in psychoanalytic terms?), who wants Ivan for herself. A magic pin for sleep, as in Finist the Bright Falcon; the Maiden-Tsar writes him a letter which the tutor (is this plausible) hands over without reading, or maybe he can’t read, he wasn't that sort of tutor – and then gets his head cut off. After this, evidently, the stepmother has no more ways to intervene and she’s not mentioned any more in the story. (Consider the sociological position of a youngish stepmother, like Phaedra in Greek myth. Or: does she represents Ivan’s inappropriate ties to home and his youthful state before he’s ready for marriage to make him grow up?) The Tsar-Maiden came from overseas in her ships: the sea (as in tales with merchants) can represent liminal times and spaces, an embodiment of the threshold, the death of old self and watery birth of the new self? The Tsar-Maiden has picked him, and he seems to like the idea just fine (he’s uncorrupted by stepmother, just too far under the influence of his tutor, or too unsuspicious – is the tutor a substitute father?).

Ivan leaves, visits three Baba Yagas in a row (sisters) – what are the roles of their questions, and then his questions? (“Are you here of your own free will or by compulsion?” – once he answers those, he can ask about the Tsar-Maiden). The second Baba Yaga tells him how to avoid being eaten by the third. The Firebird as rescuer: again, with the same combination of genders as the Tsar-Maiden, flies him to the seaside, where of course there’s a little old lady whose daughter lives in the Tsar-Maiden’s court as one of the foster-sisters. She warns him that the Tsar-Maiden no longer loves him and would like to tear him to shreds (psychologically plausible? – he slept through her three visits, even if it wasn’t his fault. Why wasn’t he himself suspicious when it had already happened twice? In a way it is his fault). Then the old woman turns him into a pin, sticks him in the wall while her daughter “flies in” (we don’t see her in bird form, but other tales suggest that this is what happened) to find out where the Tsar-Maiden’s love is hidden. He goes and gets it (once you know the complicated instructions, there’s little difficulty: he just needed to get rid of bad tutor’s influence and then find older women with the right attitude towards him, then acquire the necessary knowledge to get her). Tsar-Maiden and her 30 foster sisters (from the 30th kingdom) “fly in” to visit; suggesting that (as in many other tales) they can turn into birds. The old lady tricks the Tsar-Maiden into eating the baked egg containing her love, not mixing her up with any of the other maidens, after which Ts.-M. “conceives a passionate love” for him; they marry and live happily ever after (where? – back home with the lustful stepmother? Or in her kingdom, where she’s evidently Tsar?).

“The Merchant’s Daughter and the Maidservant,” pp. 327-31 – The merchant-father tells a king about her; she gets the letter saying she’s to be married, bursts into tears (clever enough to foresee what’s going to happen?) – so why does she bring the look-alike maidservant with her? Two aspects of the same woman? – one clever and patient, the other “full of spite,” violent and crafty but not clever or wise (the king himself notes that she doesn‘t know anything, after they marry), though she knows how to brew or at least obtain sleeping potions. One figure as the elements of intelligence and clear sight, the other as lust or envy or greed, bad traits which can stand in the way of good traits? As in “The Wicked Sisters,” the true bride’s eyes are cut out (the false one keeps them in her pocket). The true bride embroiders a crown (what do rich merchants’ daughters actually know how to do?), sends the old-man protector to sell it to the king for an eye – she goes outside at twilight, spits on the eye, and can see again: she has tacit knowledge of magical acts, which times of day work for which behaviors? (Now suddenly she has money too: before, she had to ask the old man to buy velvet and silk on credit; note the little moralizing detail that it’s a small shop-owner who gives credit; the big rich ones won’t.) The second crown is an even bigger hit, and the second eye works too; she lies down to sleep in the old man’s hut but wakes up in a magnificent glass house, where she begins to live magnificently – like a rich merchant’s daughter, if not like a queen.

Once the house becomes a magnificant mansion, the king comes to visit (now that there’s something to see). The merchant’s daughter (the true bride) is delighted: he invites her to come see him. He visits again; the false queen is full of spite; true bride knows what’s coming, rewards the old man with a bottomless chest of gold (why did she have to ask for credit to buy the silk etc. the first time?) and warns him she’ll be killed and cut up - he must gather the pieces and bury them in a coffin. Odd, specific details of how the false queen has her cut up, heart taken out, and buried. The glass house vanishes, but a garden grows up; when king visits again he finds the garden and tells his false queen, who orders it cut down (but it turns to stone so she can’t). Who’s the boy found wandering in the garden, who cries until he’s given the true bride’s heart to play with, and disappears once the king comes back to the stone garden and finds the heroine? Why does the tale's teller feel no need to explain how she's suddenly alive again after alll that mayhem?

The maidservant is to blame for all the suffering (the king had no idea, though he found the false bride ignorant, and he clearly liked the true bride once he met her); she asks forgiveness in the end, true bride says “You have never forgiven me,” so the false one’s blinded and dragged by a horse; king marries the proper queen and they live happily. As if by marrying him as an imposter/pretender the false queen was a proxy for the true queen – who turns out therefore to be already married to the king? So all they had to do was get straight who’s who: she can’t tell him who she is until she’s been through all these phases: lost eyes, got eyes back; lost heart and life, then got both back. Or else – marrying king under false pretenses means the false queen wasn’t really his wife; or, for a more political reading, since he’s king he can get rid of her if he wants to. (But it seems the true wife could have forgiven her and let that element reintegrate into society or personality: she’s not that self-sacrificing? Or, as Self Theory argues, there has to be a violent and satisfying retribution?)

How does the heroine's foreknowledge of things or awareness of how to handle it all mesh with either psychological (within one personality) or real-life (within a society with its own rules and customs) plausibility?

“The Merchant’s Daughter and the Slanderer,” pp. 415-418 – Another two-siblings tale, in which no characters have names: brother leaves (to differentiate from his birth family?), gives sister conservative advice about how to behave (“don’t consort with strangers” – don’t risk reputation, but also: don’t meet or learn anything new while I’m gone). They trade portraits; after 3 years a king visits the brother’s ship and sees the portrait hanging, wants to marry her (IF her character is as suitable as her appearance – “quiet and chaste as a dove,” says the brother). This time it’s one of the king’s generals who tries to ruin things: not to get her for himself, but because he’s spiteful and envious and hates the thought that anyone else could be happy; also, class concern: “Now… our wives will have to bow to a woman of the merchant class!” (Recall the same issue in “Peter and Fevronia of Murom” – blaming the wives for this objection. The wording suggests the general’s married; evidently it’s no big deal if a married man in this society has played around with a single girl in another city.) Says she’s dissolute, that he himself has “played amorous games” with her many times.

Brother (foolishly!) says, “If the general is not lying, let him get my sister’s ring from her and find out what is her secret mark.” Sure he can count on her (because she is an aspect of himself?). General doesn’t know how to do this, but finds an old woman who does – the maiden is bewitched by the old woman’s conversation, and the old woman gets both ring and secret (a golden hair under her left arm), passes on to the general, who rewards her richly.

King’s outraged, brother is in trouble: the king lets him write to sister and say farewell. She leaves at once to save him, weeps diamonds (a sign of election! – she’s rich not only as a merchant’s daughter, but because it comes from within herself), knits a golden glove; approaches the king to claim the match to the glove was stolen, puts general on the spot in a context he doesn’t expect and so leads him to tell the truth: not only has he never slept with her, he’s never even seen her before (“Not for anything in the world could I say at this moment who you are or whence you have come”). His presumption that she’d never show up to present the truth to the king (– in other words, he also in fact believed what the brother said: she’s quiet, obedient, powerless). The two gloves symbolize siblings – two of a pair? Her suffering is all emotional (compare to the merchant’s daughter whose maidservant cuts her eyes out).

A possible final moral: being quiet and chaste as a dove wouldn’t have fixed things here. The sister rights the situation by out-tricking the trickster. The general is hanged, and the sister marries the king, which makes the brother the king’s brother-in-law, though we don’t hear any more about him. (Again, because the siblings are two aspects of the same personality?)

“Maria Morevna,” pp. 553-562 – note the oddity of her patronymic: “Maria Sea-Daughter” (“sea” is neuter in gender, so could one consider a link back to Aphrodite or something?)

Prince Ivan’s three sisters – all good, all marry magical husbands (falcon, eagle, raven). Parents’ advice that he not keep them long – he says, if they like you, I won’t oppose the match, and thus he allows their happiness. His willingness to let them go is in funny contrast to his difficulty keeping Maria Morevna for himself? (Another magical spouse). He goes to visit his sisters because he starts to feel bored and lonely, comes upon a battlefield where the victorious Maria Morevna has killed a lot of men – she invites him to tarry, takes a liking to him, and they marry. Like the bird-suitors in reverse, she takes him to her kingdom, warns him never to look into a certain closet (shades of “Bluebeard”!?), but he does, the instant she’s gone: pities captive Koshchei (from kost', bone: depicted as a skeleton – deathless because you already can’t be alive if you’re a skeleton: magic after-life; and deathless because in many tales his death has been hidden somewhere far away, inside an egg etc.); Ivan gives Koshchei water, which returns his strength. You can’t take pity on these bad guys. Why didn’t MM explain why Ivan shouldn’t look in that closet? Koshchei flies off and captures MM – upon which she loses all her martial potential. Just getting married didn’t destroy it, as it does in some stories where power is linked to virginity: she was able to set out again to make war, leaving Ivan at home to mind things. Is the otherwise id-like Koshchei interpretable as her animus? – whose freedom in the world (as opposed to confinement in a closet, unconscious or domestic space?) defeats her own self-image as a competent person, undoes her ability to act, turns her into a “typical” female character who can’t defend herself against K., can’t escape on her own, can only sit there waiting for Ivan to rescue her? Though she can help him by getting the secret of Koshchei’s great horse and stealing his handkershief - typical "feminine" ways of helping the hero.

So Ivan sets off to find MM, visits the falcon and Maria (leaves his silver spoon); eagle and Olga (leaves silver fork); raven and Anna (leaves silver snuffbox – recall Lüthi’s point about the special role of metal in fairytales). He finds MM without much trouble and they leave – but Koshchei follows them (on his super horse) and takes her back, warning that the third time he’ll cut Ivan to pieces, once he’s used up the forgiveness in exchange for the water (so – even a mistake can have good consequences, and even a villain can have a certain sense of honor and obligation – otherwise, why go through the second time? – the first time lets Koshchei deliver the warning, third lets him carry it out). Indeed: the third time he does cut Ivan into pieces, puts the pieces in a barrel and tars it shut. At this point the silver objects tarnish, Ivan’s brothers-in-law know he’s in trouble and fly to his rescue, bringing the water of death (which knits the pieces back together) and life (which brings him back to life – if you do this in the wrong order, will the pieces come back to life severally? Ouch!). Formula: “Ah, how long I have slept!” – “You’d have slept forever if not for us.” Just going to get MM isn’t enough – he has to be able to keep her, meaning to resist Koshchei (to learn something besides giving water and being sweet and insistant: grow to the point where he’s a suitable husband and protector?). (If we read Koshchei as an animus figure, then what is Ivan supposed to learn to do to deliver MM from it? Does she represent a psychic element that’s not supposed to be carrying out functions such as making war?)

Now Ivan comes to M. M. aware that he needs to know more in order to succeed: asks where he can get a horse like Koshchei’s: from Baba Yaga! MM steals K’s magic handkerchief and gives it to Ivan, who goes off to Baba Yaga, on the way sparing the baby animals he wanted to eat, so that they owe him a favor too: preparing his helpers for the next round.

Eleven heads on stakes around Baba Yaga’s house (like the Snotty Goat’s) – one stake bare for his head, or perhaps one month of the time that had to pass for him to grow up still to elapse. (If you have two of something and it's the third time, or eleven of something and it's the twelfth time, it conveys a sense that time's about up, things are about to change, move into a new cycle?) He can’t herd the mares, they run off and totally disrespect him – but the creatures whose babies he spared before gather them for him thrice. (He sits on a stone, weeps, and falls asleep – unconscious processes at work here?) The third time (of course) the bee tells him what to do: steal the mangy colt, since Baba Yaga won’t keep her promise and will try to kill him. (Say what you like about Ivan, he’s not a champion.) It’s the ugly-duckling mangy colt he needs to take, as in many other tales: not only is the hero a simpleton or a beggar to start with, but his heroic horse doesn't look like much until he finds it. But he’s growing in cleverness, can figure out something additional by himself: leaves only a thin partial bridge over the river of fire, so Baba Yaga falls off it the next morning and dies a cruel death, and he doesn’t have to worry about her any more. (Unlike the unkilled sister of dragons in "Two Ivans, Soldier's Sons".)

This Koshchei isn’t really deathless, though we see the fixed formula again: his head’s crushed by a blow from Prince Ivan’s magic steed (= his newly symbolized manhood?); Ivan finishes him off with his mace, and he burns him and scatters the ashes: wising up, not leaving a seed from which he could grow back, and certainly not chaining him in a closet. Maria Morevna takes Koshchei’s steed (his death liberates her own martial heroism again?), Ivan stays on his own. Then they visit the sisters and brothers-in-law; the magic brothers-in-law comment on Maria Morevna's beauty, not any of her other traits. Then they return to “their kingdom” (but we don‘t know whose that is – or they managed to combine the two?).

Is the point that now he and his wife are equals for martial valor? In the end it’s her beauty that is praised, not her conquests. Her wars may not have marred her beauty, but the two may be mutually exclusive.

“The Feather of Finist, the Bright Falcon,” pp. 580-88 – “Bright Falcon” is a typical folk fixed epithet for a heroic and admirable young man. “Finist” is the Russian distortion of “Phoenix,” so maybe begins as the masculine parallel of Firebird (who burns but doesn’t burn up?). Three sisters; the two elder only like frills and furbelows, while the third likes household tasks: a sort of Cinderella arrangement without the stepmother (or Belle in Cocteau’s movie version!), though their real mother doesn’t seem to be in the home either. Our heroine has no name – just “the maiden.”

Note that the heroine doesn’t go initially to seek anything: she asks her father to bring her a feather of Finist, she somehow already knows how to get him. The first two times, he can’t find a feather of Finist the Falcon; the older sisters laugh at her. Finds an old man who has it the third time – it comes in a box (so, accompanied by its own magic of concealment); she pulls out the feather and it turns into a handsome young man. They talk, the envious sisters hear them talking (conversation presented as a great pleasure in a love relationship), try to catch them. By the third night they have come up with a scheme to put sharp things on her window (so do they all know something about Finist? or at least suppose that her lover must be entering through the window?). Her enchanted sleep as he tries to break through the knives (echoed in his sleep as she tries in the end to wake him with her words), but she hears what he says about what she has to do to find him again, runs to a smithy and forges herself 3 pairs of iron shoes and 3 cast-iron staves (could she really forge them for herself, or is this an inaccurate translation of “had forged for her” or something?), sets out to find him.

Losing and then painstakingly finding one’s true love: more often in Afanas'ev it’s the man who loses the woman and has to go seeking her, often to find her when it’s nearly too late, she’s fallen out of love with him or is about to marry someone else. Our heroine visits three old women on her way (in some versions they’re Baba Yagas), they give her advice and gifts (pretty things, and marvels in their way, but also representing the household tasks she likes: spinning; a dish with egg for food; embroidery frame and needle for adornment). Rolling a ball to follow. She learns that Finist is already married to the wafer-maker’s daughter, who’s willing to trade a night with her husband for each of the magic toys – but who knows some magic, and puts him to sleep with a potion so he doesn’t hear the maiden speaking. The third night, at last, her tear burns him and he wakes (her tear as a counter-potion? Or the heat of her longing? – some prohibition against touching him?). He recognizes her; they flee and quickly return to her home, where he turns into a feather she hides in her bosom.

Now he’s a prince; they visit the church disguised in magnificent clothes, a Cinderella aspect to the tale. Why does she keep him a secret even now? (That’s what caused the trouble the first time!) But after the second church visit the father questions her and she admits everything – so they sort of shrug and get married. Why couldn’t this happen before? Why is the marriage to the wafer-baker’s daughter now invalid?

How can we read the various figures in the story? Does her impulse to keep lover a secret, to herself (not assume the role of married woman in society) suggest that she’s trying to remain infantile and at home? – or, to have all the pleasures of marriage without the change of state and the obligations?

How many threes are in this story?


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Proceed to the lecture notes for Wednesday, February 27, 2008.