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

Lecture notes for April 16, 2008

Sibelan Forrester

Children’s lit and other pedagogical approaches

The question of utility in literature is often raised: even Bettelheim called his book The Uses of Enchantment. A basic presumption that reading or listening to stories does something to us; trying to figure out what it does (especially to malleable children) so often moves into wanting it to do something we approve of, imposing control or censorship.

Maria Tatar, “Fact and Fantasy: The Art of Reading Fairy Tales” – this is a sort of hard-nosed approach, moving away from consideration of the enchantment factor. – Refer to Jessica’s presentation online.

Various ways “Little Red Riding Hood” or other tales have been interpreted/mined for the point of view its readers thought most appropriate even before they read it! Literal readings; symbolic readings. The correctives to interpretation that are offered by broad comparative study of folktales (as with the Aarne/Thompson tale-type index). Tatar outlines the concerns a student of folk tales must have in order to study or do scholarship responsibly – what caught your attention?

She quotes the very quotable W. H. Auden (p. 56): “No fairy story ever claimed to be a description of the external world and no sane child ever believed that it was.”

Jack Zipes, “Who’s Afraid of the Brothers Grimm? Socialization and Politicization through Fairy Tales.” (There’s simply a lot more scholarship in English about the Grimms than about Afanas'ev – and the Grimms' versions are likely to lie at the source of our own pop-culture treatments of fairy tales.) Can you tell that Zipes takes a Marxist approach? (Chernyshevskij question: what are the motives of a scholar or philosopher, what’s in the argument for them?)

Opens with the possibility (p. 45) that “the Grimms’ stories contribute to the creation of a false consciousness and reinforce an authoritarian socialization process.” Walks us through examples from the various editions of Grimm. The effects of spreading literacy on a society that was experiencing growing prominence of the bourgeois. But also the potential for fairy-tales to challenge the accepted shape of society (p. 55): “In some respects reading can function explosively like a dream and serve to challenge socialization and constraints.” Zipes doesn't note here, but you might, that Marxism largely spread through reading.

Concentrating in part II on how a fairy tale educates or rather socializes a child. Like Tatar, he mentions “The Table, the Ass and the Stick.” And: examples of “reutilized” fairy tales by West German authors (- a term that dates his study to pre-1991! – he mentions that it’s 1982 as he writes). How do the examples compare to Politically Correct tales you’ve read or heard?

Frank J. Miller’s Folklore for Stalin: any observations, questions?

Where socialist realism overlaps with kid lit: Puritanism (19th century/Victorian or Biedermeier), pedagogical bent, and other kinds of censorship; Positive Examples. (Do you know what socialist realism is?) How you’re supposed to think and act, underlined by the presumed “naturalness” and also “nationalness” of folklore.

The first part I asked you to read reflects the Soviet situation (the book was published in 1990, and the USSR fell apart in 1991) – from the 1920’s, when there was still considerable freedom (and honesty)!) through the general repression on artistic etc. expression of the 1930s. Frank Miller’s somewhat scornful comments about how the folklorists really considered the new fake stuff real folklore seem not to take into account that people in ALL kinds of fields were pretending that things were just great under Stalin - why should the folklorists be more honest or outspoken (or inviting of death and retribution) than the others!? (Cite a colleague’s comments on the little notebooks she collected from her students, who often practiced fieldwork with members of their families or neighbors: under Stalin they’d have impounded both the notebooks and the folklorist! – and how student notes were used to de-kulakize villages in the very same Russian North where so many of the most respected fakelore artists came from.) But other than that – the "fakelore" shows both homogenization and editorial interference, as well as insistence on composition on order (to celebrate some new achievement of the Great Leader, or to mourn the death of one of his trusted lieutenants). The interference of growing literacy (as Ong said: who wouldn’t want to be literate! – but you do lose some things as well). And: because it wasn’t a controlled experiment, you can’t say how much this interference and folklore-on-purpose killed off any remaining real stuff in those genres. Many of them were dying out by the Revolution anyway – accordions were replacing gusly, and chastushki stepping in for many kinds of folk songs, town dances for the old folk ones).

The chapter “The Fate of Pseudofolklore” shows just what you’d expect! After 1953, the noviny were attacked instantly as “stillborn” – in other words, neither viable nor able to generate further progeny. But even now: folklore generally means old stuff, perhaps preserved in memory (the last few village babushki with memories from before 1930) – for collection and study of recent materials Russians will more often say ethnography than folklore. Genres such as pornographic or political jokes were considered incorrect, and only published (and only a bit!) under glasnost’. And, as before, folklorists continue to help folk performers; people working in the living history museums wind up collecting songs and performing them, etc.

In general: where does folklore move into ethnography, or popular culture? (Where would you put Disney?) What is the status of a “literary reworking” – whether by someone ostensibly from the folk, or by someone like Marina Tsvetaeva? And: why would they have invested SO much time in creating/collecting/publishing/republishing all this pseudo-folklore?

A quick intro to Tsvetaeva - see the notes for April 18.


Return to the class syllabus

Proceed to the lecture notes for Friday, April 18, 2008.