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

Lecture notes for April 9, 2008

Sibelan Forrester

“Viy” and tales of horror and sorcery!

Alex’s presentation on demons is now on Blackboard in week 11 – read for Friday and bring any questions.

Background on Nikolaj Gogol' or Hohol' – he came from Ukraine, and was a native speaker of Ukrainian. What “Little Russian” means: it was used in the 19th century to mean Ukrainian, and some posit that coming from "malaja Rus'" it meant the heart of Rus', as opposed to something like "the greater Philadelphia area, outline the debate over whether it’s pejorative in the 19th century; a wee bit of the history of censorship of Ukrainian publishing. (And a particularly “folk” deployment of stereotypes about Jews; gender relations in the Cossack household.)

Gogol' was born in Sorochinsky (in the Mirgorod/Mirhorod district of Ukraine), 1809; had a local education, big fan of folk puppet theater. 1828 moved to St Petersburg, his first work (an epic poem, “Ganz [sic!] Kjukhelgarten”) was a huge flop. He started to hang around in the same circles as Pushkin (who gave him a bunch of his plots), his big success came first with folk-inflected Ukrainian tales, then somewhat surreal “Petersburg tales,” lots of theater criticism and plays “Revizor” and “The Marriage,” the "infernal" novel Dead Souls, etc. Spent one dismal year as a professor of universal history at St. Petersburg university (Ivan Turgenev was in the class and left suitably dismayed recollections)! Spent a good part of his adult life in Italy, keeping company with artists; Selected Passages from Correspondence with Friends damaged his reputation in left-leaning circles; religious mania, burned the draft of Dead Souls, vol., II, which he had imagined as Purgatorio in his own Divine Comedy. And a miserable death (Nabokov describes it vividly in his Lectures on Russian Literature). There is LOTS of scholarship on Gogol' in Russian and in other languages; Simon Karlinsky’s book The Sexual Labyrinth of Nikolai Gogol' might be interesting – Karlinsky was one of the first Slavists to treat themes of homosexuality in scholarship.

“Viy” was published in the collection of stories Mirgorod, in 1835, republished in a revised version in 1842. Gogol'’s author’s note (p. 155) claims that “Vyi” is a figure in popular lore – but no one has been able to find any other references yo anything like it! The rest of the tale is very authentic; the tale type of the witch making a young man read or just guard her corpse in the church is widespread (can end in two ways: he succeeds, perhaps with guidance from a wise helper, or else he fails and dies).

The “Seminarians” are young boys being educated for the priesthood, though they may not all go on to become priests; solemn (ironic!) titles for each stage of the process. Food and drink humor. How often God or the devil is invoked in the text or in characters' speech, and with what associations? What does this witch do – how does that compare to the information on witches you’ve seen in Ivanits or Worobec? What does Khoma Brut do that lets Vyi see him?

Can you tell what in “Viy” is literary, what comes from folklore, what’s a stylization? (A different folklore genre from the fairy tale: the rambling yarn – we see some of the Cossacks practicing it (p. 177 ff), making commentary on each other’s performance and abilities as a teller. A work that comments on its own narrative qualities?)

How about the elements of not-very-sublimated sex?

Afanas’ev tales:

“Ivan the Cow’s Son,” pp. 234-249 – p. 235, a problem with translation – “a pike with golden wings” should be “golden fins.” “Buria” like “Buryonushka,” from бурый “buryj,” a shade of brown (dun?) found in animals but not people. How about the relationship between these three identical triplets? (An Aristotelian vision of genetics! - where the mother is a mere incubator, the father plants the seed: though here the "father" is a fish, suggesting a vision of conception that predates Aristotle's cultural advancement by quite a bit.) What sort of sorcery is involved in this story? (Ivan the cow’s son, versus the dragon family.) When do we begin to see that Buria is a magician as well as a hero?

(Turning huts, as with the ones on chicken legs more usual with Baba Yaga, related to the sun’s movement – and time magic?) (Twelve blacksmiths on p. 245, too.) Beating the princess with metal rods, in the end of the story: she’s a magician too. Burya turns from hero to magical helper of his own brother.

What kind of a world is this?

“The Vampire,” pp. 593-598 – Marusia is a nickname for Marina. Vampires in the Russian tradition may drink the blood of the living (…as in that story the Cossacks tell in “Viy” – or compare the tales with dragons who fly to maidens or queens and “exhaust” them), but more often they eat corpses, as we see here. Vampires become vampires because their bodies weren’t properly buried. What kinds of magic or sorcery do you see in this tale? And: another case of a character's perplexing inability to speak about what’s going on, what’s wrong. A tale that ends happily, though not with a marriage.

Ivanits, “The Colonel and the Witch,” pp. 194-95 – how is this different or similar, what does it add, what questions does it provoke? (Riding vs being ridden – compare “nightmare,” “Hag-rid” – it’s not just in Russian folk culture!)


Return to the class syllabus

Proceed to the lecture notes for Friday, April 11, 2008.