Russian Magic Tales from Pushkin to Platonov (Penguin Classics) (2 page)

BOOK: Russian Magic Tales from Pushkin to Platonov (Penguin Classics)
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‘The Tsarevna who would not Laugh’ affords a still more striking example of the link between the magic tale and archaic rituals. Afanasyev’s version (
p. 70
) begins with the tsarevna sitting miserably in her room, unable to laugh or take any joy in life. Her father promises her in marriage to whoever first makes her laugh. A peasant has been working hard for three years, making his master’s crops grow and his animals multiply even in the most unpropitious conditions. While on his way to the city, this peasant shows kindness to a mouse, a beetle and a catfish. He then falls down in the mud outside the tsar’s palace. The three creatures appear and express their gratitude to him by cleaning him up. The tsarevna sees all this from her window and laughs. A rival tries to take the credit for her laughter, but the tsarevna points to the peasant and says that it was he who made her laugh. The tsarevna then marries the peasant. Propp relates this tale to the Eleusinian mysteries and the myth of Demeter, one of whose titles was ‘the unlaughing one’ (
agelastos
). Citing evidence from many different cultures, he establishes that laughter was once credited with the power to evoke life and – after the beginning of agriculture – with the power to bring fertility to crops. Then he summarizes the story of how Demeter, in mourning for her lost daughter, subjected the earth to months of famine. The famine ended only when an old woman by the name of Baubo lifted her skirt and exposed herself to Demeter; this made Demeter laugh – and the earth then regained her fertility. Demeter and Afanasyev’s tsarevna are evidently one and the same figure; the tsarevna must be made to laugh in order for the crops to grow.

In the same context, Propp discusses another tale (not included here) in which the tsar promises his daughter not to whoever can make her laugh, but to whoever can say what birthmarks she has on her body. A peasant with miraculous power over animals (in a version published in 1915 by Dmitry Zelenin he is accompanied by dancing pigs,
7
while in ‘The Herder of Hares’ (
p. 304
) he has power over hares) sells her three
of his animals on condition she expose herself to him. He then tells the tsar that his daughter has a golden hair to the right of her groin and a birthmark under her right breast. The peasant discredits an aristocratic rival by tricking him into smearing himself with his own shit, then marries the tsarevna. The Demeter myth and the two Russian tales are evidently different arrangements of the same constituent elements. The association of hares with fertility is universal and, since Baubo was married to a swineherd, the dancing pigs are no less closely linked to the theme of Demeter and the earth’s fertility.
8
And there is, of course, no fertility without manure. In Afanasyev’s tale it is the hero who falls into the mud, while in Zelenin’s it is the hero’s rival who ends up smeared with shit. As so often, what is important in a magic tale is the presence of a particular motif; which character is associated with it seems to be of only secondary importance.

In Russia, Propp is best known for his
Historical Roots of the Wonder Tale
. In the English-speaking world, however, he is best known for an earlier study,
The Morphology of the Folktale
. At first glance, this almost-mathematical analysis of the structure of magic tales may seem like the work of a different writer. These two studies, however, were originally conceived as a single book, and there is a clear link between them. In
The Morphology of the Folktale
, Propp establishes that all magic tales share a common structure; only then can he go on, in
Historical Roots of the Wonder Tale
, to show how this common structure mirrors the structure of initiation rites. Propp himself has provided the best summary of his understandings and how he first came to them:

In a series of wonder tales about the persecuted stepdaughter I noted an interesting fact: in ‘Jack Frost’ [
p. 300
] the old woman sends her stepdaughter into the forest to Jack Frost. He tries to freeze her to death, but she speaks to him so sweetly and so humbly that he spares her, gives her a reward, and lets her go. The old woman’s daughter, however, fails the test and perishes. In another tale the stepdaughter encounters not Jack Frost but a forest spirit, in still another, a bear. But surely it is the same tale! Jack Frost,
the forest spirit and the bear test the stepdaughter and reward her each in his own way, but the plot does not change. [ … ] To Afanasyev, these were different tales because they contained different characters. To me they were identical because the actions of the characters were the same. […] I devised a very simple method of analyzing wonder tales in accordance with the characters’ actions – regardless of the shape these actions took. To designate these actions I adopted the term ‘functions’. [ … ] It turned out [ … ] that all wonder tale plots consisted of identical functions and had identical structures.
9

Soviet folklorists collected a vast number of tales and made a still undervalued contribution to our historical understanding of them, but they said little about why these tales should still hold our interest. In Europe and the United States, however, a great deal has been written about the psychological and moral truths concealed in these seemingly primitive tales. Carl Jung and his colleague Marie-Louise von Franz look on magic tales as illustrations of universal patterns of psychological maturation and the obstacles that stand in its way. Often they see these tales as expressing values, or giving a place to images, that are compensatory to the dominant values and images of a particular culture; they see the image of the folktale witch, for example, as a necessary balance to the image of the Virgin Mary. The Freudian analyst Bruno Bettelheim, in
The Uses of Enchantment
, also sees magic tales as illustrating universal patterns, though he focuses more exclusively on the transitions of childhood and adolescence. These psychological approaches to the magic tale complement – but do not in any way contradict – Propp’s historical and structural analyses. Jung did not have the opportunity to read Propp, but he would have valued Propp’s elaboration of the parallels between magic tales and archaic rituals; he himself saw both tales and rituals – along with dreams, alchemical texts and accounts of religious practices of every kind – as a guide to the innermost structure of the psyche.

The magic tale usually says little or nothing about the emotions experienced by a hero or heroine; situations and actions
are left to speak for themselves. It is, no doubt, frightening to be approached in the forest by Jack Frost, but the storyteller’s reticence leaves the listener or reader free to sense this fear as much or as little as they choose. This is part of what lends these tales so universal an appeal. Every transition in life – from childhood to adolescence, from adolescence to adulthood, from being single to being married – is frightening. The magic tale speaks of these transitions succinctly, vividly and in a language that can be understood by all of us.

It is generally thought that the magic tale did not fully acquire its present shape until the early medieval period. Nevertheless, something similar to the European oral magic tale can be found in many of the earliest works of written literature, and in many different parts of the world. Versions of several of the tales in this collection can be found in the
Mahabharata
, the Sanskrit epic from ancient India. The earliest written version of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ – the story of Amor and Psyche – is included in Apuleius’s
The Golden Ass
, written in Latin in the second century of the Common Era. In these and similar instances, there is little doubt that the written text draws on an earlier oral version. It is equally clear, however, that the written text then influenced subsequent oral versions. Since literature was first written down, there has always been interplay between written and oral texts.

The magic tale, as we have seen, is remarkable both for its stability and for its fluidity. The central plots of most tales – what folklorists refer to as ‘the tale-type’ – vary little from country to country. What changes are the surface details, the ways in which the tales reflect different social, climatic and geographical realities. There are also differences of emphasis. The magic tales of all European countries, for example, include dangerous witches, but the image of Baba Yaga – the archetypal Russian witch – is especially vivid and well developed. Baba Yaga appears in many of the stories in this collection, and the American scholar Sibelan Forrester discusses her at length in an article we have included as an appendix.
10

The Russian magic tale stands out in at least one other respect.
Russia’s vastness, and her backwardness compared with other European countries, meant that there was a much longer period during which it was possible for folklorists to study a relatively intact peasant culture. In many European countries, scholars began recording folklore only after industrialization was well under way; in Russia, by contrast, an entire century passed between Pushkin’s first transcriptions of folktales and the assault on the peasantry constituted by Stalin’s collectivization of agriculture. We cannot be certain how folktales were told four or five hundred years ago, but we do know that they were enjoyed by members of
all
social classes until the late eighteenth century. And we have reliable and detailed accounts of the social setting in which tales were told in the north of European Russia in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Here, for example, is an account by the brothers Boris and Yury Sokolov of what they call ‘the local conditions of the life of the tale’ in the Belozersk region in 1908–9:

Here the tale lives a full life. […] The development and life of the tale in the places where we were collecting is greatly influenced by the nature of the peasants’ work. First, there is tree felling: often an entire village – men, women and children – is gathered together deep in the forest, in winter and far from any habitation. The day is taken up by heavy work but, as soon as it turns dark, everyone enjoys a well-earned rest by a blazing hearth. There in the forest they have constructed a ‘camp’; that is, a spacious hut dug into the earth with a hearth in the middle. Everyone crowds inside. And once they have warmed their frozen limbs and satisfied their hunger and thirst, they begin to while away the long winter evening. How glad they are then to see the storyteller! Deep in the forest, amid trees letting out loud cracks in the extreme cold, to the accompaniment of the howls of wolves and beside a blazing fire – what more appropriate setting, what richer soil could there be for a magic tale filled with every possible terror! [ … ] Then comes the jester, the teller of funny stories. Witticisms and mocking jibes pour out as if from a horn of plenty. The entire audience is attuned to joy and merriment. An unbroken stream of enthusiastic exclamations encourages the jester in his
merry wit. Had it been possible to write down the tales with absolute stenographic exactitude, recording on paper every exclamation from the public, there is no doubt that our transcripts would create a far livelier and fresher impression. [ … ]

Just as ‘collective’ life in the forest camp creates supportive conditions for the life of the folktale, so does fishing in the region’s lakes. The fishermen go out onto these lakes for long periods of time. After they have cast their nets, or while they are waiting for a following wind, they often have to sit through long hours of forced inactivity – and this makes them particularly well disposed towards storytellers. There was an occasion when the fishermen took advantage of our presence. They joined us in the hut where we were recording tales, listened to the different storytellers and then concluded a kind of bargain with the teller they liked most, promising him a certain proportion of the catch if he would go out onto the lake with them.

Yet another supportive environment for stories of every kind is the mill – a peculiar kind of rural club. Large numbers of peasants gather there and sometimes they have to spend several days there as they wait for their turn. Here too there is no better way to while away the time than telling tales. The diffusion of tales is also greatly helped by people who have to travel from place to place in the course of their work, people who have the opportunity to see a great deal and to listen a great deal – people like ‘icon daubers’, tailors, soldiers, beggars and other wanderers.
11

Russian high culture, at least from the late eighteenth century, has been as sophisticated as that of any country in Europe. Until recently, however, most of the inhabitants of Russia were peasants – and until the emancipation of the serfs in 1861 the government’s intermittent moves towards modernization had barely affected their way of life. The imperial capital, St Petersburg, was an island of avowedly Western culture surrounded by a world as Asian as it was European. Even the most Western-oriented of nineteenth-century Russian writers could not help but be more familiar with folk ways and folk literature than their contemporaries in other parts of Europe. It is, indeed, often difficult to understand much of Russian literature without
some knowledge of folklore.
12
Because, in Russia, there has always been such a close link between the written and oral traditions, we have included in this volume not only translations of anonymous magic tales, as recorded by a number of nineteenth- and twentieth-century folklorists, but also versions of these magic tales by four great Russian writers: Aleksandr Pushkin, Nadezhda Teffi, Pavel Bazhov and Andrey Platonov.

Andrey Platonov once described Aleksandr Pushkin as being one of a very few writers endowed with the ability ‘to enrich and inform a popular folktale with the power of [his] own creativity and endow it with the definitive, ideal combination of meaning and form that will allow this tale to continue to exist for a long time or forever’. My aim has been to include only those literary retellings to which these words seem applicable. Lev Tolstoy’s versions are omitted because they are moral fables rather than magic tales. I have omitted Aleksey Tolstoy’s well-known versions from the mid 1940s because they are no more than competent paraphrases of Afanasyev; Aleksey Tolstoy has not informed them ‘with the power of his own creativity’. I hesitated for longer over Boris Shergin. The baroque energy of his language is attractive, but in the end I came to feel that it is a surface overlay; he has not, like Platonov, entered deep into the heart of a tradition and then created afresh. I have omitted Pyotr Yershov and Marina Tsvetaeva for a different reason; their verse tales are so brilliant that they seem all-but impossible to translate.
13
Lastly, I have excluded literary fairy tales with little relation to the folk tradition; this meant omitting Pogorelsky from the nineteenth century and many important representatives of Russia’s Silver Age.

BOOK: Russian Magic Tales from Pushkin to Platonov (Penguin Classics)
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