THE Russian skazki (skazatz = to tell) are the mass of folk tales distributed widely throughout all the Russias. Handed down, by constant repetition, from generation to generation, a possession common to peasant's hut and Prince's palace from a time when history did not exist, they are today, from Archangel to the Black Sea, and from Siberia to the Baltic, almost as much a part of the life of the people as the language itself. Their adventures are linked to a hundred phrases in common parlance; their heroes peer from every page of Slavonic literature; and the delver in historic debris finds each stratum sown thick with skazka shards to the very bedrock of legend.
To the casual eye, the skazki, aside from their unfamiliar nomenclature, do not seem to differ greatly from the tales of other peoples. The wild and wonderful machinery has all the artifices which belong to the mass of folklore owned in common by the Indo-European group of nations. Here, however, the superficial resemblance in great measure ceases. It is seen that the true "fairy" element does not predominate. Not only are the relations between man and the spiritual world different, but that spiritual world itself is less familiar. The field of the skazki is not so much fairyland as a natural Wonderland, approaching in its variety and gorgeousness of surprise the "Empire of the Thousand Nights and a Night." Who originated these tales? In what forms did they first appear? And how can one account for the enormous number of their variants, and the hold they possess upon the millions of the Slavonic race who tell them to their children every day?
Russia was long in asking herself these questions. Until little more than a century ago she considered the skazki of small interest to the world of culture. The earlier Russian writers regarded them with mild curiosity, and had no conception of their origin. The first printed collection was not made until near the end of the eighteenth century, and the next was half gone before the "scientific" collector appeared. Active interest in them then began to be manifested, and it was not long before serious study had convinced students of the literature that not only did this submerged fiction of the people go back to the very beginnings of the Slavonic race, but that its tales were direct descendants of the primitive nature myths and that their variants retained, in the guise of wonder stories for the child, the persisting fragments of a great original epos which at one time pictured the heathen mythology of the old Slavonians: that the presumed purpose less nursery invention, in fact, deduced its high origin from the ancient gods themselves.
These older meanings, for the teller, vanished many centuries ago. The only things the skazki picture that are common to Russian country life today are those things which in Russia never change-the wide, windswept steppe and dense forest, the love of animal life and the comradeship of the horse, the dread and terror of the long winter cold, and the passionate welcome given to the springtime sun. What ever else they may tell the student is in a tongue now un intelligible to the peasant, who has least of all been aware that, in these centuries-old repetitions there have been handed down to a new era pictures indelible, though blurred and indistinct, of an ancient age, of times, customs, religion and deities no longer his own.
For the beginning of the skazki we must go back to the remote time when the early Slavonians, parting from the parent stock in Central Asia, reached the Russias, developing there their myth-mass and setting up their hierarchy of Pagan gods. These gods, good and evil, were personifications of the forces of nature. The religion of which they were the foci was thus a nature religion, and upon it was grafted a system of ancestor worship not greatly different from other Oriental forms. And the race's conceptions of these gods and the material world, the soul, the birth and passing of human life, the individual's relations to the deities and his fellows, and the manifold observances in which beliefs and customs were enshrined, were embodied in a mass of myths, all more or less variations of the primal solar myth with which all nations seem to have begun their cosmogonies.
The dawn of Christianity-late in Russia-marked the sunset of these ancient deities. The new Byzantine faith, in its irresistible progress, either crushed out wholly their memories or transferred their attributes to the keeping of Christian saints, leaving their myths to struggle for existence against an ever-increasing weight of foreign legend. And as the form of the old Pagan religion merged more and more into the new, these myths sank beneath the surface of the everyday life of the people, while the primitive mythology, with its symbolism, was forgotten.
The demiurge became first the merely supernatural being, man's henchman or servitor, and the ethereal abode of the old gods merely a mysterious upper country beyond the visible sky, inhabited by magical creatures pictured in a group of tales which are the Slavonic equivalents of the "Jack and the Beanstalk" story. In the next step these super natural beings descended to the plane of the pseudo-historic, and finally merged into the real, becoming the old-time champions of the new faith, as, for example, the companions of Vladimir, who introduced Christianity into Russia. Lastly, these faded into the purely imaginary. By this process the Slavonic god of the thunder (Perun) sank by gradual degrees to Christian Paladin, to the conventional "Tsarevitch Ivan" of the skazki, and in the last step to the friendly beast-the fire bird, the heroic horse, the aid-giving wolf and bear- whose constant reappearance gives the tales such a surprising variety of incident. The deities of evil underwent a like process, becoming the Koshchei, the Baba Yaga, and the many malevolent beings which the skazki hero overcomes.
In lapse of time, too, the form of the myth deteriorated as had the content. The tales lost their coherency, becoming separated into episodes which in turn disintegrated to collections of mere fragments. These became localized in different versions, each of which retained or discarded detail at its provincial pleasure, the result being an incredible reduplication of variants of the same fundamental tale. An opposite process went on at the same time: similar fragments coalesced and grouped themselves about a single axis of incident, in finitely increasing the multiplication. So that the skazki, as they appear today, are less a cluster of individual tales than an elaborate mosaic, with whose fragments of color and incident the modern adaptor (such as Pushkin or Ershoff) produces variant and highly tinted designs, on the kaleidoscopic principle.
Such, in brief, is the genealogy of the Russian skazki, from the poetic symbolism of a primitive religion to the despised Cinderellas of fiction, from a revered drama of the high gods to a group of peasant "old wives' tales."
It is a matter of regret that the English-speaking world has bad little opportunity of acquaintance with these naïve, old- world stories, although they by no means suffer in comparison with the German Marchen, upon which there exists such a formidable literature in English. Mr. W. R. S. Ralston's Russian Folk-Tales, published in 1873, was primarily less of a collection than a treatise on Slavonic folklore, and perhaps for this reason its engrossing and scholarly qualities failed to gain for the skazki a popularity they richly deserve. And beside this, so far as I am aware, but one other well- known collection is available. In 1874 Petr Nicolaevitch Polevoi, the historian, published thirty-six of Afanasiev's tales (with a single exception none of these was cited in Mr. Ralston's work) variously recombined and elaborated, in a volume intended for children, and of these versions twenty- five have been Englished by Mr. R. Nisbet Bain.
The twelve tales of which the present volume consists are, in part, the result of an attempt to select types of those motifs of widest distribution throughout all the Russias, taking into account the number of distinct variants and the mass of population to which each is known. The attempt has been made, also, to combine cognate variants and to reconcile detail-the result in each case being in a sense a composite-and to treat each in somewhat of the method and manner of the folk tales of Western Europe.
"There is the Russian soul! The very
odor of Russia!
The text came from:
Wheeler, Post. Russian Wonder Tales.
New York: The Century Company, 1912.
To read more about the changes made to the text and various editions of this book, please see my Notes About This Book.