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

Lecture notes for March 28, 2008

Sibelan Forrester

epics and byliny

Hand out Sadko printout (the first move). (I figured you wouldn’t have time to read too much while finishing the paper.)

Quick background on these epics: imagine traditional society in the north of Russia, where they were collected (to the initial great surprise of the educated collectors!). Point out Novgorod, lake Il'men', on the map. LONG dark winter nights; livestock kept indoors or in yard all winter. Mending farm equipment, fishing nets; spinning up and then weaving all the wool you sheared before (the best shearing’s in spring, just before they start to shed their winter coats), etc. Preserving food: smoking ham etc., and cooking dried or preserved stuff often involved long slow boiling or baking. So – lots of boring down time to sit in semi-darkness; winter travel over ice or snow to neighboring villages (this is when courting would happen) – also encouraged story-telling, passing on news and gossip.

There was a set rhythm for performance of byliny, and it was usually done with gusly (a somewhat primitive stringed instrument, sort of tuneless to the modern ear) (when Russian empire expanded and Gypsy and Jewish orchestras started to be available, or accordions and guitars, people really went for those new things). You can hear recordings of the old byliny on the internet now – let me know if you’re interested. We'll read more about them in Frank Miller's book, FOlklore for Stalin.

Quickly look at Sadko. It’s a great story (Novgorod merchant culture: sea-faring merchant as wise man and hero – not otherwise a typical Russian character). After the first move, when he gets rich, he gets bored, corners the markets in Novgorod, and sails 30 ships to trade with the Golden Horde (Mongols), makes a killing. On the way back the sea gets rough, so he has his guys toss in first a barrel of gold, then a barrel of silver, then a barrel of pearls, but none of that “tribute” is enough for the Sea King. He says they must draw lots to see which of them must go into the sea: first gold ones (his comes up), then oak ones (his comes up), then linden ones (soft wood!) – his comes up. So he writes his will (using a swan feather for his plume!), has his crew float an oak board (so he won’t be so afraid to die at sea), then falls asleep and wakes up at the bottom of the sea. There sits the Sea King, who says he’s been sailing all this time without paying tribute, but he’s heard he’s a master on the gusli, so wants to hear him play. He plays and the Sea King starts dancing – the waves kick up! people at sea start to pray to Saint Nicholas! and suddenly a little old man appears, pokes Sadko in the right shoulder, tells him to stop. He says he can’t, since he’s not master under the sea. The old man tells him to tear the strings and break the tuning keys. Tells him how to choose the right wife for his happiness from among the ones the Sea King will present him, but warns him not to sleep with Chernava while still under the sea, or he’ll be stuck there forever instead of waking up back in Novgorod, where Chernava is the river. And tells him to build a church to St Nicholas once he’s back in Russia. He wakes up there, his guys and wife find him and are much amazed.

“Ilya Muromets,” .pdf – set heroic figures, fixed epithets (“daring youth,” “stout youth,” but “old Cossack” even though he's not old!); Nightingale the Robber. What is a bogatyr'. Ilya is the peasant one (there were also Alyosha Popovich and Dobrynia Nikitich, clergy and noble respectively). What’s similar to the structures or plots in the fairy tales?

“Ivan the Simpleton,” pp. 142-45 – more a parody of a bylina, with the heroes in such a subordinate position. “Vaniukha,” “Iliukha,” “Fediunka” – not affectionate diminutives. Typical peasant humor that a crafty fool can get ahead by compelling his “betters” to play by rules that he himself doesn’t observe.

“Foma Berennikov,” pp. 284-87 – very similar! Lack of suspicion of Foma by other characters – they presume a hidden strength, that he can live up to his boasts (recall “Seven at One Blow”!). In this one he actually is willing to ride to his own death, but gets lucky. A little nice Russian patriotism: “the stupid Chinamen did not know the Russian language” – so didn’t understand that he was yelling “help!” And this one comes with a moral too.

“Ilya Muromets and the Dragon,” pp. 569-75 – this one takes the bylina plot seriously, not humorous. How Ilya got his start: familiar fairytale stuff, only he’s not named Ivan. Note that he picks the direction where he’s supposed to be slain! One more way of handling Baba Yaga: beat her before she can cut your head off, and then she’ll treat you nicely. Nightingale the Robber again (associated with Ilya in several genres). Plot similar to the bylina, except with the fairy tale ending (marriage) glued on.

Folk humor: gluing together different plots for humorous effect. Often very broad forms of amusement.


Return to the class syllabus

Proceed to the lecture notes for Monday, March 31, 2008.