Lady Augusta Gregory
Katharine M. Briggs
Anthony Grafton, ...
Tsars and maidens, witches and wizards, enchanted castles and vampire lairs, orphans and fools, sorceresses and talking animals: these are the stuff of Russian legend. Woe betide the treacherous wife, the greedy merchant or the jealous stepmother – for, like the best fairy tales, these are merciless fables of revenge and regret. But there is also love, honesty and beauty in plenty. Rich and glorious, these tales take us to the very heart of Russian culture.
In the 6th century, migrants set out from Central Asia to settle on the western shores of the Black Sea and thence spread into Poland, the Baltic, Russia and the Ukraine. With them they took their gods, heroes, spirits and monsters, which became the uniquely Russian characters we know today. Here is the Firebird with its feathers of glowing embers (the inspiration for Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite), the Snow Maiden and the ghoulish Baba Yaga – the perennial terror of Russian children, with her chicken-legged house and garden full of bones.
Aleksandr Afanas’ev collected and published over 600 Russian fairy tales and folktales, of which some 170 are gathered here in Norbert Guterman’s lively translation, effortlessly demonstrating Afanas’ev’s claim to be one of the greatest Russian folklorist of all time. As Roman Jakobson remarked:
‘Without these tales a Russian child’s bookshelf is incomplete.’
Will Ryan, vice president of The Folklore Society, unearths the roots of Russia’s rich folkloric traditions, and its most prolific collector of tales, Aleksandr Afanas’ev.
Arthur Ransome wrote in the preface to his own selection of Russian tales: ‘I think there must be more fairy stories told in Russia than anywhere else in the world.’ This could well be true; each time a folktale is told it changes slightly and becomes to some extent a new tale, and certainly Aleksandr Afanas’ev’s collection, large though it is, did not exhaust the stock of Russian folktales of his time. Nevertheless, the substantial collection now to be published by The Folio Society is enough to reveal the character of the Russian folktale in all its variety and exuberance, and at 480 pages should satisfy the most voracious reader.
Russian folktales in translation have a longer history than might be expected – in fact the translations predate the earliest recorded Russian versions. In 1525 the Italian Paolo Giovio wrote down in Latin a tale told by a Russian ambassador to the Vatican, and in the seventeenth century, before the publication of Charles Perrault’s French fairy tales, Dr Samuel Collins, the English physician to Tsar Aleksei Mikhailovich, recorded several Russian folktales as anecdotes in his account of Russia published as The Present State of Russia (1671). At a less verifiable level, the story of the Russian bride who complained bitterly that her husband did not love her because he did not beat her, which may well have its origin in a Russian tale, became an international anecdote in various elaborations across Europe from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century, and a literary joke in pseudo-epistolary works such as Letters Writ by a Turkish Spy (1690s) or Montesquieu’s Lettres persanes (1721). It last appeared, I believe, in Goldsmith’s Citizen of the World (1762).
In the nineteenth century folktales and folklore in general became a subject of serious study in Europe, especially after the pioneering work of the brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm in Germany. Partly under the influence of the Grimms, Russian scholars assiduously collected and published Russian oral literature, in particular in the period 1850–70. Their work was not at first widely known outside Russia but fairly quickly found a champion in England in the person of William Ralston, a rather eccentric book cataloguer at the British Museum library, a popular public reciter of folktales of all kinds and a founder member of the Folklore Society, who had reportedly learned Russian by memorising a Russian dictionary. This he had done to such good effect that he became an accomplished translator of Russian literature, and a friend of the novelist Turgenev, whose estate in Russia he visited in 1868. This visit seems to have triggered Ralston’s interest in Russian folklore and thereafter he met or corresponded with a considerable number of Russian scholars, including, crucially, the preeminent student of Russian folk belief and collector of Russian folktales, Aleksandr Afanas’ev.
In 1871 Ralston published an obituary and reminiscences of Afanas’ev in the journal The Academy, and thereafter, in two erudite studies, The Songs of the Russian People (1872) and Russian Folk-Tales (1873), Ralston paid tribute to Afanas’ev and drew attention to the vast store of live folklore in Russia, its affinities with the folklore of other parts of the world and the high standards of Russian scholarly research devoted to its collection and publication. This did much to establish Afanas’ev’s reputation outside Russia. In the preface to his own book on Russian folktales, which was dedicated to Afanas’ev and contains accurate annotated translations of some fifty Russian folktales, Ralston pointed out that Afanas’ev’s published collection contained 332 distinct stories, some with many variants, and amounted to nearly three thousand printed pages, that he had also published separately thirty-three legends, and that a large number of other stories were scattered among the two thousand or so pages of his other great work The Poetic Outlook on Nature of the Ancient Slavs (1865–9). In all Afanas’ev is credited with recording more than six hundred folktales, some in multiple versions, more than comparable with the output of the Grimms.
Afanas’ev, perhaps the best-known scholar of the Russian ‘mythological school’, was in fact an admirer of Jacob Grimm, and has been called variously the Russian Grimm and, rather anachronistically, the Russian Frazer. He collected folktales in the 1850s and published them in instalments from 1855 to 1867. This was a massive contribution to Russian understanding of their own heritage of popular culture, although it must be said that Afanas’ev’s method left much to be desired by modern standards – time, place and circumstance are not often recorded, and a good deal of his material came second-hand from the records of the Russian Geographical Society or the notes of another important folklore collector, the great Russian lexicographer Vladimir Dal’.
Afanas’ev was not the first to publish folktales in Russia – a few are known from the eighteenth century, and several appeared in basic form in popular prints and chapbooks. Folktales heard directly from storytellers also provided material for several of the Russian writers of the early nineteenth century, in particular Pushkin, Russia’s greatest poet. There were, of course, other good folklorists who were collecting tales at the same time as Afanas’ev, but none equalled him for the sheer number of published specimens.
Like many another Russian intellectual of the period, Afanas’ev had liberal leanings and suffered for them – he was dismissed from government posts, his book Russian Folk Legends (1860) was banned as blasphemous, and he died in poverty aged only forty-five. But despite his relatively short working life his published output was extensive, his work is still regularly reprinted in Russia and his collection of folktales is a classic and a recognised contribution to world culture.
Afanas’ev’s tales are a record of orally transmitted stories, in what more recent scholars would describe as several different genres (myths, legends, fabulates, memorates, etc.). Afanas’ev called his tales Russkie narodnye skazki, of which the second word means ‘of the people’ and the third means, etymologically, ‘something spoken’. This has been translated into English both as ‘folktale’ and as ‘fairy tale’, but without going into the nuances employed by specialists, one has to prefer the first term if only because nothing much resembling a fairy, as understood in English, can be found in Russian folklore, and very many of Afanas’ev’s tales contain no supernatural or magical element at all. Certainly his collection includes tales with magic and fantastic elements such as magic rings or flying carpets, tales about animals, stories of wizards and witches (some just village magicians, others, such as the well-known Baba Yaga, essentially demons), and the various minor demons and monsters of Russian popular belief. But there are just as many accounts of simple lads performing improbable deeds or outwitting enemies to win the hand of princesses, humorous anecdotes, pseudo-historical stories about figures from the past, and stories about fools, the comeuppance of important persons, and marital relations and deceptions. Some have a moral, some are cynical or cruel, some reflect simple everyday life. A few tales have imported heroes and motifs from the byliny, an oral tradition of folk epic which was just beginning to be collected seriously by other scholars at the time of Afanas’ev’s death. The folktales are mostly non-religious, although encounters with the devil and occasional references to saints may be found, and priests are usually the butt of jokes.
After Ralston’s translations of some of Afanas’ev’s tales, a small but steady stream of translations into English appeared, mostly in the United States. The American folklorist Jeremiah Curtin published nineteen in 1890, and another American scholar Leonard Magnus published seventy-three in 1916. In the same year the popular English writer of novels for children Arthur Ransome, who was living in Russia at the time of the October Revolution and married Trotsky’s secretary, published his Old Peter’s Russian Tales (1916). Most of these, as he said in his preface, were a re-working from memory of Russian tales from various sources, including Afanas’ev. Ransome’s book, like many of the short selections from Afanas’ev regularly published in Russia, was designed for children.
By far the biggest selection in English of tales from Afanas’ev was published in 1945 in the translation of Norbert Guterman. This contains some 175 tales. Guterman was a Jewish émigré scholar from Poland who eventually settled in New York and produced fine translations of French, Polish, Yiddish and Latin books on a wide variety of topics from politics to folklore. His selection from Afanas’ev has been the standard version in English for many years and is now to be published in an elegant new edition by The Folio Society.