Russian Folk Tales Review - Part 1

I have often wondered what a story at is its bare essentials. There are elements such as humor, subtext, character exploration, bringing physical scenes to life, creating moods etc. Often these elements acquire greater importance than the story itself. But still the skeleton needs to be there. Whatever fancy building one tries to build, there still needs to be beams and pillars to hold the building together. When one reads folklore and fairy tales, one can easily see the core story without the additional trappings due to their simplicity. I was introduced to Russian folk stories early in my childhood and really enjoyed these tales. After many years, I am rediscovering these stories and find I still enjoy these stories. As I read them I began to reflect what is the core of the story.

Some of the stories are parables in the tradition of Panchatantra, Aesop’s fairy tales etc. They are a different class. But let us first explore the tales of heroism - a tale where a hero is faced with a challenge and he overcomes it and emerges victorious. There are three to four key types of challenges and there are three to four key ways in which the hero overcomes the challenges. I thought I would explore each of the challenge types and the ways to resolve the challenges.

The first challenge type is a princess or a near and dear one kidnapped by an antagonist and the hero has to rescue them. In the Russian folklore, the usual antagonists are dragons, witches like Ugyr and Baba Yaga, Koschei the deathless etc. The next one is an escape challenge. The hero is held a prisoner often along with the heroine and both have to effect an escape. Then there are quests. Quests can be of multiple varieties – performance of a seemingly impossible tasks, vanquishing of a ferocious monster, capture of elusive beasts, recovery of something that is closely guarded – animals, princesses, magical or other precious objects.

In rescues, mostly physical prowess often helps, either part of the protagonist’s natural physique or enhanced by magical objects. Usually the stories take the form of smiting off of dragons’ heads, one to one melee etc. Modern fantasy describes the fights in visual details making the entire fight itself an entertaining experience. The other way of overcoming the challenge is through the use of intelligence. These are like solving a puzzle and they are difficult for a writer as they have to really think through a series of challenges and solutions to make them interesting to the reader. A third way is the intervention of benefactor – an old man or a powerful being or animals. This intervention would usually be the result of an act of kindness by the protagonist early on in the story. Sometimes the protagonists are also just lucky – a powerful being intercedes on their behalf with no inducements. Most stories fits into this framework.

It would be interesting to go story by story and analyze using this framework and see if the story fits and what other elements are there.

Let me start with the book ‘Folk Tales from the Soviet Union – The Russian Federation’.

The first story is titled ‘Marya the Fair – Plait of Golden Hair’. Here Marya is kidnapped by three dragons – one with three heads, one with six heads and one with nine heads. The hero has to indulge in three arm to arm combats – acts of pure physical prowess. The heroine Marya helps a bit by lashing the dragon with her plaits when the hero is down. The shirt of nettles knitted by his grandmother helps when the dragon attempts to bite him. At the end of the story there is a second challenge with a water carrier claiming credit for Ivan’s feats of bravery. This is overcome by the hero’s intelligence and foresight.

The second story is titled – ‘Marya Morevna’ Here again we have a Marya and Ivan. There is an initial buildup of protagonist getting his sisters married to a falcon, a raven and an eagle and Ivan’s meeting with Morevna. There is also the element of letting an evil loose into the world through one’s curiosity ala a Pandora’s box. Here the one released is Koschei the Deathless, who kidnaps Morevna. From here on the story is one of escape – Ivan tries to steal Marya from Koschei. He fails thrice and is killed the third time. Here he is aided by his bird brothers-in-law who bring him back to life. Then he goes to witch Baba Yaga to seek a powerful horse and now the story turns into a quest. She sets impossible tasks for him to accomplish in which he is aided by animals he has helped earlier. Then the escape from Baba Yaga and the final escape from Koscehi the Deathless where his powerful horse aids him.

The third story is titled – ‘Sister Alyonushka and Brother Ivanushka’ – this one doesn’t fit into the framework. It is the story of bad luck when a girl’s brother is turned into a lamb through magic. Then good luck comes in the form of a rich merchant who marries the girl. Again, bad luck strikes when a witch throws her into a river and takes her place. Her brother is the only one who know the fate of his sister but is not able to communicate to anyone. Seeing his attempts, the witch attempts to kill him. But luck favors him, and everything turns out well in the end. This story probably needs a different framework of changes in fortune – the ebbs and the waves in the drama of life.

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