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

Lecture notes for April 14, 2008

Sibelan Forrester

More Pushkin!

Look online for June’s, Jessica’s, Kristen’s presentations.

If you haven’t yet signed up for TWO presentations, do so quickly: only two weeks of classes left after this one. Mark your calendars for 3:00 on Friday the 25th, for the make-up Ratcatcher meeting. Again: either come to class at the regular time this Friday and discuss the work together, and hand in a couple of pages of notes on the following Monday, or else come on the 25th (for snacks!) – or both, if you have time and want more discussion of this fun but difficult work.

Any questions about the next assignment? Due Friday, April 25 – so I’ll have time to grade and return to you the final week of classes. Feel free to check out one of the Russian fairy-tale ballets, and pay attention as you’re reading Pushkin, Tsvetaeva and all: Aksakov’s “Little Scarlet Flower,” etc. Your reading of a text may be from the point of view of one of the theories we’ve read, OR just a piece of close reading, or connecting the fairytale with one or another historical or sociological piece of background. – The final will be a take-home exam, three hours, NO books or notes, handed out the last day of classes.

Pushkin’s “Tale of the Golden Cockerel” – I’m sorry this translation isn’t as elegantly readable as some of the others so far have been: read a bit of the original aloud. And since we were talking about fairy-tale illustrations – hand around one of Pushkin’s drawings (he doodled in his margins, famously, but also for the final “fair” copy he’d often do a title page, like this one for “The Golden Cockerel”; upper-class amateur art as a cultivated pastime in the 18th-19th centuries – how else to record the vistas you’d see as a tourist, or draw some society beauty’s profile in her album to accompany your firtatious verses, etc.?).

Sources: two chapters in Washington Irving’s “Tales of the Alhambra,” published in the US and in England in 1832, while Irving was moving around Europe where he was assigned as a diplomat. Irving: 1783-1859 (born 16 years before Pushkin, and died 22 years later!) (the Pushkin plot was also made into an opera by Rimsky-Korsakov in the early 1900s: he too had trouble with the censorship, even for some lines that were taken directly from Pushkin.)

Correct/refine the final two lines of the translation – where he suddenly sounds serious; a moral rather than a mead-drinking formula. (An oversimplified way to distinguish Romanticism from Neo-classicism, with its appended morals – think of the endings of Perrault’s tales, or even better La Fontaine’s fables.)

What about the tale’s Orientalism? (…Though “Dadon” sounds more French to me, perhaps supposed to make us think of the Dodo; the “Shamakhan” tsaritsa is definitely Central Asian sounding. So – a decadent western ruler undone by sensual Eastern temptations?)

For whom would this kind of tale be written? (With its not-quite-appropriate-for-children story line: eunuch; fratricidal rivalry over a super-babe; tsar in his dotage falling for the super-babe; murder of the eunuch wise man and finally death by pecking and the evaporation of the tsaritsa.) Does this feel as much like a Russian fairy tale as “Tsar Saltan” did?

Comments or questions? (Or on anything else we’ve read or discussed?) After this Friday (fairy tales as children’s literature and the closely-related phenomenon of socialist realism interfering in folk genres), we’ll be turning to 20th-century treatments/adaptations/appropriations of Russian fairy tales.

But more from the 19th century: we’ve talked about Gogol' using Ukrainian folk material to literary advantage, and Pushkin setting up this new genre of the tale in verse. Nikolai Nekrasov’s “folk” poems such as “Moroz, krasnyj nos” 'Frost Red-Nose' (cf. "Morozko"). And Leo Tolstoy took fairy tales as well as all kinds of literary plots in his readers for peasant children (heavily pedagogical not only in the sense of learning to read!) – definitely post-Romantic, and what Bakhtin would call “monologic” in its authorial control of the voices of the discourse. Tolstoy’s activity, up to and including a version of the Gospels that takes out all the miracles, feeds right into the topic of fairy tales as children’s lit. (But followed by the Modernists – Tsvetaeva’s a wonderful example of their potential as neo-Romantics, figuring out a version of Russian-ness that includes a strong folk component. Tsvetaeva loved and quoted one comment by Pushkin, "Я сам народ" 'I myself am the people' - as opposed to the aristocrat's fear or guilt at being divided from the people by the weight of class, education, history.)

Here you are, already past childhood but still close to it: what do you think children need from stories? Let’s talk in ideal terms today, so as to discuss Tatar’s and Zipes’s versions of what really happens on another day.


Return to the class syllabus

Proceed to the lecture notes for Wednesday, April 16, 2008.