Reading Reflections 1 (31 Dec 2017)

I finally found one of the old Russian fairy tales I had read as a child. I have so far read 3 of them in the book - The Fire Bird, The Frog Tsarevna and  Chesnut Grey. All these 3 were part of my first Russian fairy tales book - a nice fat one. I hope I am able to find all of them from that book.

In all the 3 stories, the hero has limited agency. The hero is Tsarevich Ivan in the first 2 stories and Ivan the fool in the third. I remember noting back then that invariably the heroes in Russian stories are called Ivan. Later I came to know Ivan is the Russian form of John. I was quite fascinated by words such as Tsar I used to use them in creative writing class at school in place of king. Again later I discovered the origin of the word Tsar - apparently it is a condensation of the word 'Caesar' - I guess German Kaiser also derives from the same route. Julius Caesar who was killed so that he does not become emperor ended up with his surname becoming word for king in so many countries.

Anyways coming back to the story, these  hero almost does nothing in any of the 3 stories. In the first, he manages to keep awake when his brothers sleep off and discovers that the fire bird steals his father's golden apples. Then he has luck to have his horse eaten by the grey wolf. The grey wolf is a benevolent character that I have noticed in more than one Russian tale. The grey wolf then offers to help him in return for eating his wolf. It manages to tell him how to steal the bird. But he is told not to touch its cage. He gets tempted and ends up doing the very thing. The Tsar to who the bird belongs asks him to bring the horse with golden mane in exchange for which he will be forgiven for trying to steal as well the bird with the cage. Again the wolf helps him and while stealing he disobeys the wolf's instruction not to try and grab the golden bridle. The Tsar to whom this belongs again offers him a condition in exchange for release and horse. He wants a princess to be stolen. The princess - the wolf shape shifts and steals for him and rides him back. But prince wants to keep princess. So wold shape shifts and fools the Tsar. Then price wants to keep the horse. The wolf shape shifts and fools this Tsar as well so the prince manages to get all the 3 due to no effort of his own. And even these 3 he does not manage to successfully take back. His brothers run into him at a tavern and kill him. Again the wolf emerges and summons a raven to get dead water and live water. Dead water puts the pieces of his body together and live water brings him to life again. He goes and claims his princess, horse and bird. They are restored and he lives happily ever after. The thing is the prince does nothing. It is the wolf through and through. And as far as the wolf goes, it seems almost invincible. So I wonder what is the interest in the story?

The second story is that of a princes having to shoot arrows and marry the woman whoever finds his arrow. The youngest prince here finds a frog and has to marry her - kind of gender reversal of Frog and Princess story. He is not willing but has to. Again, see - no agency. And his father sets the wives of the princes various tasks - make a garment, make bread, come and dance at dinner. The frog transforms into Vasilisa the wise and accomplishes each of these. One memorable scene - she pour mead into left sleeve and swan bone into right sleeve. Then while dancing, by stretching left hand she is able to create illusion of lake and through the right hand swans floating in the lake. So far she is invincible. But the price burns off her frog skin and immediately she falls into the clutches of Koschei the Deathless, again a character who reappears in lot of Russian fairy tales. Here Ivan gets to do stuff. He meets Baba Yaga the witch and seeks advice on how to find her. Baba Yaga, living in a house that stands on chicken legs, is another recurring feature - sometimes she is benign, sometimes malign. Here she is benign. She gives him a ball of wool to follow to find Koschei's place. And Koshei's life apparently is within a needle which is inside an egg which is inside a duck, which is inside a hare and that is inside huge trunk on top of an oak tree. Very similar to how Indian Rakshasha's lives are hidden. So the information just comes to him without any effort. As far as getting the needle goes, here we have some agency. His kindness helps him here. He helps a bear, a hare, a drake and a pike. Each one helps him get past one layer of protection of Koschei's life. All Ivan has to do is break the needle. He gets his princess and lives happily ever after. Fun, isn't it?

The third Ivan is a fool, not a prince.  This is a again a gender reversed Cinderella tale of sorts. His father dies and asks his 3 children to visit his grave. The other two sons don't and this Ivan ends up visiting all 3 days. So his father gives him magic to summon a horse called Chesnut Grey. The king calls for suitors to marry his daughter. His brothers go to try their luck. He is made fun of for being too plain and stupid. However he calls Chesnut Grey and then goes into one of its ears and emerges handsome form its other ear. He is able to make his horse jump highest to win the contest for the princess and receives a kiss on his eye brow. The kiss serves same purpose as glass slipper. It remains a permanent glowing mark on the prince's eye brow. The mystery prince disappears. The princess looks for him and finally discovers him thanks to the kiss and the live happily ever after. 

For whom the bell tolls

A book of faces