Russian Fairy Tales | Annotated Tale

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THERE are but few among those inhabitants of Fairy-land of whom "Popular Tales" tell, who are better known to the outer world than Cinderella--the despised and flouted younger sister, who long sits unnoticed beside the hearth, then furtively visits the glittering halls of the great and gay, and at last is transferred from her obscure nook to the place of honor justly due to her tardily acknowledged merits. Somewhat like the fortunes of Cinderella have been those of the popular tale itself. Long did it dwell beside the hearths of the common people, utterly ignored by their superiors in social rank. Then came a period during which the cultured world recognized its existence, but accorded to it no higher rank than that allotted to "nursery stories" and "old wives' tales"--except, indeed, on those rare occasions when the charity of a condescending scholar had invested it with such a garb as was supposed to enable it to make a respectable appearance in polite society. At length there arrived the season of its final change, when, transferred from the dusk of the peasant's hut into the full light of the outer day, and freed from the unbecoming garments by which it had been disfigured, it was recognized as the scion of a family so truly royal that some of its members deduce their origin from the olden gods themselves.

               In our days the folk-tale, instead of being left to the careless guardianship of youth and ignorance, is sedulously tended and held in high honor by the ripest of scholars. Their views with regard to its origin may differ widely. But whether it be considered in one of its phases as a distorted "nature-myth," or in another as a demoralized apologue or parable--whether it be regarded at one time as a relic of primeval wisdom, or at another as a blurred transcript of a page of mediæval history--its critics agree in declaring it to be no mere creation of the popular fancy, no chance expression of the uncultured thought of the rude tiller of this or that soil. Rather is it believed of most folk-tales that they, in their original forms, were framed centuries upon centuries ago; while of some of them it is supposed that they may be traced back through successive ages to those myths in which, during a prehistoric period, the oldest of philosophers expressed their ideas relative to the material or the spiritual world.

               But it is not every popular tale which can boast of so noble a lineage, and one of the great difficulties which beset the mythologist who attempts to discover the original meaning of folk-tales in general is to decide which of them are really antique, and worthy, therefore, of being submitted to critical analysis. Nor is it less difficult, when dealing with the stories of any one country in particular, to settle which may be looked upon as its own property, and which ought to be considered as borrowed and adapted. Everyone knows that the existence of the greater part of the stories current among the various European peoples is accounted for on two different hypotheses--the one supposing that most of them "were common in germ at least to the Aryan tribes before their migration," and that, therefore, "these traditions are as much a portion of the common inheritance of our ancestors as their language unquestionably is:" [1] the other regarding at least a great part of them as foreign importations, Oriental fancies which were originally introduced into Europe, through a series of translations, by the pilgrims and merchants who were always linking the East and the West together, or by the emissaries of some of the heretical sects, or in the train of such warlike transferrers as the Crusaders, or the Arabs who ruled in Spain, or the Tartars who so long held the Russia of old times in their grasp. According to the former supposition, "these very stories, these Mährchen, which nurses still tell, with almost the same words, in the Thuringian forest and in the Norwegian villages, and to which crowds of children listen under the pippal trees of India," [2] belong "to the common heirloom of the Indo-European race;" according to the latter, the majority of European popular tales are merely naturalized aliens in Europe, being as little the inheritance of its present inhabitants as were the stories and fables which, by a circuitous route, were transmitted from India to Boccaccio or La Fontaine.

               On the questions to which these two conflicting hypotheses give rise we will not now dwell. For the present, we will deal with the Russian folk-tale as we find it, attempting to become acquainted with its principal characteristics to see in what respects it chiefly differs from the stories of the same class which are current among ourselves, or in those foreign lands with which we are more familiar than we are with Russia, rather than to explore its birthplace or to divine its original meaning.

               We often hear it said, that from the songs and stories of a country we may learn much about the inner life of its people, inasmuch as popular utterances of this kind always bear the stamp of the national character, offer a reflex of the national mind. So far as folk-songs are concerned, this statement appears to be well founded, but it can be applied to the folk-tales of Europe only within very narrow limits. Each country possesses certain stories which have special reference to its own manners and customs, and by collecting such tales as these, something approximating to a picture of its national life may be laboriously pieced together. But the stories of this class are often nothing more than comparatively modern adaptations of old and foreign themes; nor are they sufficiently numerous, so far as we can judge from existing collections, to render by any means complete the national portrait for which they are expected to supply the materials. In order to fill up the gaps they leave, it is necessary to bring together a number of fragments taken from stories which evidently refer to another clime--fragments which may be looked upon as excrescences or developments due to the novel influences to which the foreign slip, or seedling, or even full-grown plant, has been subjected since its transportation.

               The great bulk of the Russian folk-tales, and, indeed, of those of all the Indo-European nations, is devoted to the adventures of such fairy princes and princesses, such snakes and giants and demons, as are quite out of keeping with ordinary men and women--at all events with the inhabitants of modern Europe since the termination of those internecine struggles between aboriginals and invaders, which some commentators see typified in the combats between the heroes of our popular tales and the whole race of giants, trolls, ogres, snakes, dragons, and other monsters. The air we breathe in them is that of Fairy-land; the conditions of existence, the relations between the human race and the spiritual world on the one hand, the material world on the other, are totally inconsistent with those to which we are now restricted. There is boundless freedom of intercourse between mortals and immortals, between mankind and the brute creation, and, although there are certain conventional rules which must always be observed, they are not those which are enforced by any people known to anthropologists. The stories which are common to all Europe differ, no doubt, in different countries, but their variations, so far as their matter is concerned, seem to be due less to the moral character than to the geographical distribution of their reciters. The manner in which these tales are told, however, may often be taken as a test of the intellectual capacity of their tellers. For in style the folk-tale changes greatly as it travels. A story which we find narrated in one country with terseness and precision may be rendered almost unintelligible in another by vagueness or verbiage; by one race it may be elevated into poetic life, by another it may be degraded into the most prosaic dulness.

               Now, so far as style is concerned, the Skazkas or Russian folk-tales, may justly be said to be characteristic of the Russian people. There are numerous points on which the "lower classes" of all the Aryan peoples in Europe closely resemble each other, but the Russian peasant has--in common with all his Slavonic brethren--a genuine talent for narrative which distinguishes him from some of his more distant cousins. And the stories which are current among the Russian peasantry are for the most part exceedingly well narrated. Their language is simple and pleasantly quaint, their humor is natural and unobtrusive, and their descriptions, whether of persons or of events, are often excellent. [3] A taste for acting is widely spread in Russia, and the Russian folk-tales are full of dramatic positions which offer a wide scope for a display of their reciter's mimetic talents. Every here and there, indeed, a tag of genuine comedy has evidently been attached by the story-teller to a narrative which in its original form was probably devoid of the comic element.

               And thus from the Russian tales may be derived some idea of the mental characteristics of the Russian peasantry--one which is very incomplete, but, within its narrow limits, sufficiently accurate. And a similar statement may be made with respect to the pictures of Russian peasant life contained in these tales. So far as they go they are true to nature, and the notion which they convey to a stranger of the manners and customs of Russian villagers is not likely to prove erroneous, but they do not go very far. On some of the questions which are likely to be of the greatest interest to a foreigner they never touch. There is very little information to be gleaned from them, for instance, with regard to the religious views of the people, none with respect to the relations which, during the times of serfdom, existed between the lord and the thrall. But from the casual references to actual scenes and ordinary occupations which every here and there occur in the descriptions of fairy-land and the narratives of heroic adventure--from the realistic vignettes which are sometimes inserted between the idealized portraits of invincible princes and irresistible princesses--some idea may be obtained of the usual aspect of a Russian village, and of the ordinary behavior of its inhabitants. Turning from one to another of these accidental illustrations, we by degrees create a mental picture which is not without its peculiar charm. We see the wide sweep of the level corn-land, the gloom of the interminable forest, the gleam of the slowly winding river. We pass along the single street of the village, and glance at its wooden barn-like huts, [4] so different from the ideal English cottage with its windows set deep in ivy and its porch smiling with roses. We see the land around a Slough of Despond in the spring, an unbroken sea of green in the early summer, a blaze of gold at harvest-time, in the winter one vast sheet of all but untrodden snow. On Sundays and holidays we accompany the villagers to their white-walled, green-domed church, and afterwards listen to the songs which the girls sing in the summer choral dances, or take part in the merriment of the social gatherings, which enliven the long nights of winter. Sometimes the quaint lyric drama of a peasant wedding is performed before our eyes, sometimes we follow a funeral party to one of those dismal and desolate nooks in which the Russian villagers deposit their dead. On working days we see the peasants driving afield in the early morn with their long lines of carts, to till the soil, or ply the scythe or sickle or axe, till the day is done and their rude carts come creaking back. We hear the songs and laughter of the girls beside the stream or pool which ripples pleasantly against its banks in the summer time, but in the winter shows no sign of life, except at the spot, much frequented by the wives and daughters of the village, where an "ice-hole" has been cut in its massive pall. And at night we see the homely dwellings of the villagers assume a picturesque aspect to which they are strangers by the tell-tale light of day, their rough lines softened by the mellow splendor of a summer moon, or their unshapely forms looming forth mysteriously against the starlit snow of winter. Above all we become familiar with those cottage interiors to which the stories contain so many references. Sometimes we see the better class of homestead, surrounded by its fence through which we pass between the often-mentioned gates. After a glance at the barns and cattle-sheds, and at the garden which supplies the family with fruits and vegetables (on flowers, alas! but little store is set in the northern provinces), we cross the threshold, a spot hallowed by many traditions, and pass, through what in more pretentious houses may be called the vestibule, into the "living room." We become well acquainted with its arrangements, with the cellar beneath its wooden floor, with the "corner of honor" in which are placed the "holy pictures," and with the stove which occupies so large a share of space, within which daily beats, as it were the heart of the house, above which is nightly taken the repose of the family. Sometimes we visit the hut of the poverty-stricken peasant, more like a shed for cattle than a human habitation, with a mud-floor and a tattered roof, through which the smoke makes its devious way. In these poorer dwellings we witness much suffering; but we learn to respect the patience and resignation with which it is generally borne, and in the greater part of the humble homes we visit we become aware of the existence of many domestic virtues, we see numerous tokens of family affection, of filial reverence, of parental love. And when, as we pass along the village street at night, we see gleaming through the utter darkness the faint rays which tell that even in many a poverty-stricken home a lamp is burning before the "holy pictures," we feel that these poor tillers of the soil, ignorant and uncouth though they too often are, may be raised at times by lofty thoughts and noble aspirations far above the low level of the dull and hard lives which they are forced to lead.

               From among the stories which contain the most graphic descriptions of Russian village life, or which may be regarded as specially illustrative of Russian sentiment and humor those which the present chapter contains have been selected. Any information they may convey will necessarily be of a most fragmentary nature, but for all that it may be capable of producing a correct impression. A painter's rough notes and jottings are often more true to nature than the most finished picture into which they may be developed.

               The word skazka, or folk-tale, does not very often occur in the Russian popular tales themselves. Still there are occasions on which it appears. The allusions to it are for the most part indirect, as when a princess is said to be more beautiful than anybody ever was, except in a skazka; but sometimes it obtains direct notice. In a story, for instance, of a boy who had been carried off by a Baba Yaga (a species of witch), we are told that when his sister came to his rescue she found him "sitting in an arm-chair, while the cat Jeremiah told him skazkas and sang him songs." [5] In another story, a Durak,--a "ninny" or "gowk"--is sent to take care of the children of a village during the absence of their parents. "Go and get all the children together in one of the cottages and tell them skazkas," are his instructions. He collects the children, but as they are "all ever so dirty" he puts them into boiling water by way of cleansing them, and so washes them to death. [6]

               There is a good deal of social life in the Russian villages during the long winter evenings, and at some of the gatherings which then take place skazkas are told, though at those in which only the young people participate, songs, games, and dances are more popular. The following skazka has been selected on account of the descriptions of a vechernitsa, or village soirée, [7] and of a rustic courtship, which its opening scene contains. The rest of the story is not remarkable for its fidelity to modern life, but it will serve as a good illustration of the class to which it belongs--that of stories about evil spirits, traceable, for the most part, to Eastern sources.



[1] Dasent's "Popular Tales from the Norse," p. xl.

[2] Max Müller, "Chips," vol. ii. p. 226.

[3] Take as an illustration of these remarks the close of the story of "Helena the Fair" (No. 34, Chap. IV.). See how light and bright it is (or at least was, before it was translated).

[4] I speak only of what I have seen. In some districts of Russia, if one may judge from pictures, the peasants occupy ornamented and ornamental dwellings.

[5] Khudyakof, vol. ii. p. 65.

[6] Khudyakof, vol. ii. p. 115.

[7] For a description of such social gatherings see the "Songs of the Russian People," pp. 32-38.

Bibliographic Information

Tale Title: Introductory
Tale Author/Editor: Ralston, William Ralston Shedden
Book Title: Russian Fairy Tales
Book Author/Editor: Ralston, William Ralston Shedden
Publisher: Hurst & Co.
Publication City: New York
Year of Publication: 1873
Country of Origin: Russia
Classification: Introduction

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