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

Lecture notes for April 7, 2008

Sibelan Forrester

Literary fairy tales; “The Snow Maiden”

I asked you to review Ivanits pp. 5-12, about calendar rituals. Any comments or questions? Carnival in particular. Do the kinds of interpretations she advances (as on p. 7 – rich foods eaten to cause a “like” situation of plenty and bounty) remind you of some of the psychoanalytic interpretations we’ve been discussing? (This sort of thing makes me think of docents’ presentations of the "reasoning" behind animals’ mating choices in zoos or parks: “She sees that he’ll be a good strong mate…”) How we interpret data that doesn’t come with its own explanations, or even that does supply some explanation, is always questionable. But this also suggests that maybe there’s a taboo in magic on SAYING what you’re trying to do, as if this will clue in the weather or the spirits or the animals that you’re hoping to lure them into certain kinds of behavior.

Vladimir Propp defines a skazka as something told for entertainment, known to be untrue (only children believe, and many of them don't believe): why do educated humans want to find MEANING there?

Literary fairy tales in general: how would you imagine they might differ from the folk fairy tales? (From the most obvious things to really subtle ones.) You’ve already see Pushkin’s treatment of “Rusalka,” and we’ll see more from him, plus Aksakov’s “Little Scarlet Flower” – in which he claimed, at least, to be reproducing the narrative style of the serf nanny who told the tale.

Aleksandr Ostrovskii – famous playwright (1823-1886), known for bringing powerful realism into the Russian theater, as well as figures from the lower classes, especially the merchant class. He has both humorous and tragic plays. This however was a fairy-tale play; it’s been retold here as a tale (I don’t know by whom, or who translated it). Tchaikovskii wrote incidental music for the opera version, which you may know. So maybe we can see traces of its origin as a play in the set of roles here (Lel’, etc.); maybe this recap you read was made for distribution to the members of a theater company. "Snegurochka" is a "spring tale," written in 1873, draws on Slavic mythology (the figure of Lel', for example).

“The Snow Maiden” (in Soviet kitschy seasonal celebrations she accompanied Jack Frost (Morozko), who dressed rather like Santa Claus, to give presents to good little children). Just the title tells you it’s a fairy tale, right? – a maiden made of snow! And, like Jack Frost, another personification of winter. (We don’t get to see her immortal aspect in this tale: but nothing in Russia is more sure than snow every year.)

Her “birth” in a “miracle” (sort of like Pinnocchio! – the old “mother” has called on “the good Lord”) – the snow-maiden has an aristocrat’s clothing (so aesthetic more than useful, though they want and she promises someone to look after them in their old age) – precious stones in a diadem; cape of brocade; embroidered boots. But once they get home she helps with chores, etc.

At first she’s happy to stay inside (though her old “mother” urges her not to be shy – wants a complete human life for her), then “can’t resist” at carnival time (Maslenitsa!). Shepherd boy “Lel'” – a name that shows up in folk songs, and connected with some kind of pagan figure (so Ostrovskii is trying to make this sound REALLY archaic – “Kupava” is pre-Christian sounding, “Mizgir” sounds definitely Tatar). Suggests maybe 14th-15th century, Muscovite period?

Why would Snegurochka grow sadder and sadder after Kupava threw herself into the well? (Obvious why she’d grow paler and sadder as the sun gets higher.)

What’s fairy-tale-like here, and what strikes you as not fairy-tale-like? How about the ending, in particular?


Return to the class syllabus

Proceed to the lecture notes for Wednesday, April 9, 2008.