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

Lecture notes for April 11, 2008

Sibelan Forrester

Literary fairy tales: Pushkin

Start reading Tsvetaeva’s Ratcatcher (on Blackboard) sooner rather than later - it's long and takes a while to read.

Just a bit more on horror: think of the part of Disney's Snow White where the evil stepmother gets mad and turns herself into a witch. What’s scary in that scene, what’s wonderful? If we’re supposed to identify with Snow White and want to be her, what traits does that preclude? (Many people who've studied the early Disney cartoons argue that the animators liked the villains best, found them most interesting and invested them with the most energy - and think about how many of the villains are female, especially if we count not only the fairytales.)

Horrible family situations we’ve seen: with stepmothers either competing with the “true” daughter (so, refusing to give up her status as a young sexual woman and symbolically join the older generation; “old” and “young” are relative in this culture rather than absolute) or else putting her own daughters forward (sometimes, as in “Tsar Saltan,” it’s the real mother who does that). Or trying to seduce stepson (as in Tsar-Maiden) – but what else would be a comparable situation for a story with a male hero? What examples can you think of where the villain is within the family? Is the male equivalent of the stepmother an evil king? (Sending his huntsman out again and again to get things, but finally dying and replaced by the now royally handsome hero?) Opposition to parents along gender lines or across them – there aren’t any tales in our selection from Afanas'ev (though there ARE in the censored tales!) where the father pursues the daughter with incestuous intent (as stepmother does in Tsar-Maiden), but there is “Danila Govorila,” where the brother is trying to marry his sister (it's blamed on an evil witch who gave his mother a magic ring).

Background on Aleksandr Sergeevich Pushkin (1799-1837; early success with the mock-heroic epic Ruslan and Liudmila, which also inaugurated a long trend of using Pushkin works as the basis of operas (The Stone Guest; Boris Godunov; Eugene Onegin, etc. – to pick from the works of various composers) – it's a mock-folk mock-epic. He was also much illustrated, check out the Bilibin vimages you can find on line – or see on my office door, the postcard with the brother/guards emerging from the surf taken from this poem.

Here, as with Disney or any number of written retellings, the fairy tale is separable from its folk matrix – partly stylized (the final reference to a feast: why would you say the mead dripped down your whiskers? – because you’d like a drink NOW, it’s not so different from the example Bogatyrëv and Jakobson give of a teller who finishes and asks for money for vodka), and partly reproducing the functions, though Pushkin wrote before anyone had the advantage of knowing Propp. (How small a part the bride/mother plays in this version! -- as if she’s there to get Saltan to stay on the island, and to send the bad grandmother and sisters back over the sea, and that’s all. It's not the first time, too, that Pushkin depicts a Tsar as puzzlingly clueless: why hasn’t he gone out looking for his lost wife and child, having all those merchant marines?)

Joanna Hubbs in Mother Russia makes the point that the nineteenth-century Russian writer, or even just the male “intelligent,” is in the position of sacrificial but loyal son vis-à-vis a country/land imagined as an old mother. (“Rodina,” “mat’ syra zemlja,” etc., are feminine in grammatical gender) Or, here, imagined as his nurse/nanny, Arina Rodionovna: she’s voluble but uneducated, and he takes her plots and turns them into literary gold. How? – turn into verse rather than prose that’s perhaps rhythmic or even sprinkled with rhyme but not fixed (of course if you write it down and labor over the drafts it will be really good, and moreover invariably good: equally good for every reader). Rhyme also helps with memorization, so for a reader/reciter who’s not from a primarily oral culture it makes it possible to have it down by heart (versus – oral composition techniques that vary; note though people who’ve memorized lots of poetry confess that they’ll sometimes “edit” a line or a few lines because they forget or like it their way better – but that will be only a few words). So in a way Pushkin’s tales in verse are a perfect embodiment of what Tatar describes: the move from a group oral setting to one-on-one – but he’s a reader one-on-one with the book, and his verse tales are aimed largely at adults.

Introduction of trochaic tetrameter line as a “folk” meter, though it isn’t (byliny have a longer line!) – thereafter, Nekrasov and other “folk” poets (here in the sense of a “folk” singer in the US! - some relatively upper-class who wants to represent the people, perhaps out of a sort of liberal guilt) stuck to that meter. Iambic tetrameter was Pushkin's best-known line for lengthy elite works (om Evgenii Onegin, the “southern poems,” and Ruslan and Liudmila too). What trochaic tetrameter works do you know of? (Perhaps “Hiawatha”! – another attempt to be folksy? in this case with a Native American setting rather than Russian peasants) And: “Сказки в стихах” 'Fairytale sin verse' are generically as non-conformist as his “роман в стихах” 'novel in verse,' Evgenii Onegin – the guy loved genre-bending (épatage for someone raised with Neoclassical Boileau-ian rules of literary composition).

What folk elements are in the tale, what do you recognize from things we’ve read in Afanas'ev?

The characters have funny names (Saltan, Gvidon) – like Barkhat 'velvet' in "Vaslisa the Priest's Daughter," or the three tsars in “Prince Ivan, the Firebird and the Grey Wolf.” What would they suggest (as opposed to “Ivan”)?

The miraculous growth of the young Gvidon Saltanovich (- the patronymic mwans that you always know who his father is!) in the barrel.

The verse form allows exact repetitions; trebling of the merchants’ visit followed by a fourth that differs (Gvidon stays with his wife instead of buzzing for a secret visit: he’s become a man upon marriage, and no longer needs his father the way he did before – as an example of what to aspire to?).


Return to the class syllabus

Proceed to the lecture notes for Monday, April 14, 2008.