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

Lecture notes for March 24, 2008

Sibelan Forrester

censored tales

Any questions about anything? Paper due Friday of this week. Talk with me, or send e-mail or something, if you need to discuss any aspect of it.

Start with Jessica’s fairytale and Camille’s presentation on Russian ballet. (They both happen to fit well with the topic of eroticism in folklore.)

Questions? “Prince Danila Govorila” – the threat of violation of the incest taboo caused by an ill-wishing old woman. Why is the tale named for Prince Danila Govorila when the princess (more often called “fair maiden”) is the heroine? (“Govorila” – looks like a past-tense feminine verb form?) How might this tale relate to the obscene ones we’re reading today?

Russian ballet: does the traditionally central role of the ballerina undo her secondariness in many folkloric plots? In a genre where no one gets to speak, greater equality? Using the critic Sally Banes. Or does her visible bodily discipline (ideal shape; relative nakedness, to go back to Bottigheimer for a moment) place her in a kind of masochistic position? (How many ballets involve a dying or ghostly heroine? Giselle, etc.) Does classical ballet’s emphasis on partnered dancing inscribe the heterosexual romance? As we view a ballet, do we presume that a female character whose dancing and costuming mark her as central must be the love interest? (Opening of “The Firebird:” he snags a feather, she gets away.) Why does ballet work as a “translation” of fairy tales, and does it work as well if you don’t already know the plot? “The Little Humpbacked Horse” (Konyon-gorbunok) – based on a literary fairytale by Pavel Ershov, but one that’s very close to the folk spirit, clearly based on close acquaintance with them. (It has also been made into cartoons!) VERY nice description of how the queen teaches Ivan to dance, how dance can be an expression of the acquisition of magic powers (and all the things those imply).

Two important aspects of Russian ballet: 1) preserved classical tradition, kept relatively unevolved during the Soviet period, which means that even today Russian-trained dancers have fabulous technique (and: the cliché of emigree ballerinas as teachers, costumers, etc.), 2) The “Ballets russes” and the innovations that led into Ballanchine, thence into modern dance in North America. In #2 here, as Camille notes, the male dancer is relatively desexualized – perhaps partly because Diaghilev and lots of the others involved in Ballets russes were gay; costumes that both revealed and objectified the male body. Also, Modernist era in which woman were doing set decorations (Natalia Goncharova) or choreography (Bronislava Nijinska, Nijinsky’s sister, her dates are 1891-1972).

Innovations: dancing with flat feet, unpointed toes, heavy or mechanical movements. Exploring different kinds of potential for the dancing body.

Censored tales: history. Afanas'ev collected, or rather received most of them from Vladimir Dal', along with all the others. Possibly published in Russia at his own expense in 1859? But for sure the collection was published anonymously in Geneva in 1860s or early 1870s, and found its way into various people’s hands, was reprinted, etc. Not published in Russia until 1990s – my edition is from 1994, but it isn’t complete. Sorry I can’t pass it around – it’s printed with titles in a faux old-fashioned font, and illustrated in “woodcut” (lubok)-like style. Topic of how to illustrate a folk or fairy tale – how do you avoid cramping the reader/hearer’s imagination? On the other hand, for obscene tales the dirty pictures might make a printed edition doubly interesting to some buyers.

Three “obscene” elements in these tales, sometimes combined in a single tale: sex, scatology, and blasphemy (the Russian Orthodox priest, especially, as a figure of fun). (The etymology of “obscene” – means it’s whatever a culture considers too hot to WATCH, but what every member of the culture is aware of. Medea murdering her children offstage.)

There’s been quite a lot of work done on Russian pornography, and erotic lit., but most in Russian (not yet translated). So I asked you to read Tatar and Bottigheimer: anything useful in their pieces? Compared to the eventual much-censored Grimm versions of tales, Afanas'ev’s main collection is fairly frank about sex (there's just not much about priests!) – “Prince Danila Govorila,” where he's calling his sister to bed and she calls back that she's taking off one piece of clothing after another, etc.

Bottigheimer: not just her examination of the ways some tales have been censored over time (she stresses the Grimms again) and of how illustrations of fairytales impact the reader’s perception of their contents, but also the important point that tales could exist in more or less obscene variants, depending on the teller and the company. When is not mentioning sex explicitly censorship, and when does it mean that everyone in the audience already gets it?

Tatar: not only shows how the Grimms censored the sexual content of the tales, but WHY: criticism from competitors, and the desire to sell better. (p. 23: outlines why folktales ceased to be adult fare in Germany with industrialization) Points out that it makes perfect sense to change oral to written style for publication! The Grimms were much mopre comfortable with violence than with sex.

Mikhail Bakhtin (1895-1975) and ritual obscenity as part of his theory of carnival: things turned upside down, acceptance of the body and its messiness, accepted and even ritualized lewd behavior. Sort of a cathartic function to the King of Fools during carnival etc., which, some critics of Bakhtin have argued, really makes this kind of custom or even literature work to maintain the status quo, at least politically: after the hoi polloi has let off steam, the next day they’re relieved and hung over and the regular king is back in power. So all that doesn’t imply that obscenity would be practiced all the time. On the other hand, see how freely female sexuality is expressed in some of these tales! (The girl in “The Magic Ring” wants a husband with a prick to his knees; then her mother wants to give it a try: so much for the incest taboo, often referenced in its violation or attempted violation.) Note too how the translations may be priggish and winking or very frank - probably reflecting all the possibilities of the originals.

What peasants or lower class people find acceptable vs. what educated society can tolerate. The history of Afanas'ev’s collection suggests that obscenity in folklore is okay with the folk (who live with animals, and in one-room houses: no secrets, no pretense) and with the upper class (the private purchasers of the collection, who had access to pornography and presumably to sexual services for hire), but not with anyone else. (Possible parallel, say, to British society in late 19th and early 20th century, where sex or extramarital sexual relations were much more accepted in lower and upper classes, but unspeakable (even if not unimaginable!) to the middle class.) Then again, compare to some of the tales in the regular collection of Afanas'ev: “The Wondrous Wonder, the Marvelous Marvel” – it wouldn’t take much to spice that one up to the point where it would be unprintable. Here something like Tatar’s study is useful: the same tale often can be told in a variety of ways, depending on the audience, teller, purpose, etc. In the complete collection of Censored Tales, you have several examples of the same tale – some were popular and collected multiple times. As if to see how many ways an explicit sexual content can be expressed without making the censor come down on the author or editor.

How big a deal would it be for folk tales, in particular, to turn up very obscene in publications? On the one hand – any upper-class Russian except the MOST sheltered and idealistic would have the sense that the peasants were much franker about sex, bodily functions, etc. On the other hand: folklore is the basis, for a romantic nationalist, of the national character! So, even before the tales are imagined as being for children (…this happened somewhat later in Russia than in Germany and other western countries), you start to see the same kind of censoring and improving impulse. Moreover, public discourse in the Soviet period was very puritan (when western-style pornography came flooding in after 1989 or so it was a shock for many people).

General outlines: animal tales, folk tales (“The Fearful Bride” is clearly just fooled, there's no magic involved), versus a particular subclass of magic tales that might work with Propp’s typology – “A Crop of Pricks” and “The Enchanted Ring,” in this selection.

Another thing to discuss, since I wound up getting hold of examples from a different translation: the effect of a coy and euphemistic translation, versus a very frank translation that aims for exact equivalents of vulgar language (Afanas'ev’s versions of these stories don’t mince any words).

Specific tales:

“A Timorous Young Girl” –

“No!” –

“The Peasant and the Devil” –

“A Crop of Pricks” – several “moves” to this one! First: An old man like St. Nicholas – and the peasant is punished for his snide reply, but then the peasant makes good and the Lady is the fool. But then she’s doing all right and the lackey is the fool.

“The Enchanted Ring” – there are multiple versions of this one.

“The Excitable Lady” – here, nothing magical at all, but: the sexual content (her begging him at the end to “put it in”) is essential to the progress of the story (nothing else would make the old man interrupting with advice so big a disaster!).

“The Comb” – again, several moves, but no magic. Here misogyny combines with an anti-clerical mood.

“The Greedy Pope [read: priest]” – I wanted to include one example where NOTHING is sexual or scatological, and all the humor is based on the stupidity, greed or dishonesty of the clergy. Why would this require censoring? (Orthodoxy as a crucial component of 19th-century official Russian-ness: Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and "Narodnost'" - roughly translatable as "nationality," but the word "narod" means "the people" or "the folk" -- Afanas'ev's collection of tales is entitlted Русские народные сказки, 'Russian folk tales,' or 'Folktales of the Russian People' perhaps.


Return to the class syllabus

Proceed to the lecture notes for Wednesday, March 26, 2008.