Russian Magic Tales: A mix of folk stories and Soviet bureaucracy

'The Tale of Tsar Saltan' by Alexander Pushkin, a screenshot from the famous cartoon (1984). Source: Press Photo.

'The Tale of Tsar Saltan' by Alexander Pushkin, a screenshot from the famous cartoon (1984). Source: Press Photo.

Robert Chandler’s compendium of folk tales and short stories makes a valuable addition to any bookshelf.

One young prince called Ivan marries a frog; another rides a grey wolf to find the firebird who is stealing his father’s golden apples; a young girl called Vasilisa gets advice from a magic doll, while Marya Morevna keeps Koshchey the Deathless locked up in a storeroom.

Strange beasts and talking animals, impossible tasks and enchantments, long quests and sudden ends are commonplace in “Russian Magic Tales from Pushkin to Platonov” (Penguin, December 2012).

Source: Press Photo

Seven years ago, translator Robert Chandler edited the Penguin Classics anthology of “Russian Short Stories from Pushkin to Buida.” Chandler is known for his award-winning translations of Pushkin, Platonov and the epic novels of Vasily Grossman.

The new volume of “Russian Magic Tales,” produced with a team of fellow-translators, is a companion to the earlier collection and includes transcriptions of oral tales alongside variations by Russian authors.

This mixture is both strength and weakness, producing an enjoyable, but uneven book, the real gems of which are the incongruous sections by Nadezhda Teffi and Pavel Bazhov. 

Chandler has included biographical essays, bibliographies and textual notes; this is an authoritative, scholarly reference tome as well as a playful treasury.

An appendix on the witch, Baba Yaga, complements Teffi’s 1947 article about this incarnation of the feminine principle in Russian folklore.A lonely old woman with her cat and chicken-legged hut, she is also the boundary-keeper between life and death, with her fence of skulls and her powers of resurrection.

As Caryl Emerson points out, in the “Cambridge Introduction to Russian Literature,” the traditional folk tale or skazka “is a dual-faith narrative, mixing pagan and Christian motifs … linked to incantations, spells, and nature worship.”

Chandler starts his interesting introduction with an epigraph from Emerson, describing the narrow, linear nature of the folktale plot, as well as its peculiar emotionlessness: “The hero expresses no astonishment, curiosity, longing, or fear … He never reassesses his goal or reward.”

This is part of what makes “Russian Magic Tales” a difficult book to read from beginning to end, probably better suited to dipping into or consulting as a vital cultural resource. Those of us who persevere find ourselves lost, like the unquestioning hero, in a nightmarish world of repetitive quests and humorless cruelty.

The oral tales are fascinating slices of anthropology, but as stories they are confusing: brief but endless, abrupt yet inevitable, their child-like magic mixed with sex, violence, and scatological references.

The interpretative notes make sense of this world in different ways, for instance by suggesting that the hero succeeds because “instead of continuing to fight evil on its own terms, he gives himself over the Feminine.”

The ritual meanings are complex and the morals are obscure: be nice to small animals, talking stoves and birch trees? Watch out for big brothers, especially if your name is Ivan Tsarevich?

Fountain at VDNKh (All-Russia Exhibition Centre) based on Pavel Bazhov's Stone Flower Story. Source: Phoebe Taplin

The contrasting feel of Teffi’s stories half way through is remarkable. Suddenly characterization, descriptive settings and satisfying narrative gush out like water in a desert.

She works folk elements into her brilliant ghost or horror stories or mixes them with Soviet bureaucracy for comic effect: Baba Yaga laments in “A Little Fairy Tale” that Tom Thumb’s gone into counter-espionage and “Sleeping Beauty’s on the staff of the Council of People’s Commissars; she’s manning the telephone.”

Meanwhile, Bazhov mines for malachite and lapis lazuli in his native Urals, introducing his readers to the “mistress of the copper mountain” and the orphaned craftsman who becomes obsessed with creating the perfect “stone flower.”

Interesting though oral tales are as part of a rich culture, a reader in search of entertainment might conclude that these two authors deserve translated volumes of their own, not just a too-small share in another anthology.

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