Most of the fairy tales that we find in the Afanas’ev collection are both strange and familiar at the same time. They are familiar, because many of the Russian fairy tales are in fact renderings of stories we already know e.g. from the Brothers Grimm. Here too, the famous Cinderella theme and stories similar to The Magic Table, The Gold-Donkey, And Cudgel in the Sack or The Golden Bird are very popular. There are indeed, very few plots that are not reminiscent of Western fairy tales. Why exactly this is the case is unknown. It may be that the stories travelled or that they were taken up into the Russian folklore after the Grimms’ had published their stories in Germany.
Yet, the Russian fairy stories are by no means just copies. Russian folklore has a long history and through being narrated within a different culture every story is shaped differently and is adapted to its new surroundings.
Therefore the best way to find out what the distinctive qualities of Russian fairytales are, is to read as many Russian tales as possible and to compare them to the versions we know in order to find out, what it is that is typical and unique to the Russian tales. When we have found this quintessential difference, we shall have found what makes them ‘strange’.
To find out, we need to look at what are perhaps the four most important aspects of any story: its ‘Themes and Content’, how these are illustrated with ‘Motifs’ and how ‘Narrative Structure’ and ‘Language’ are used.
Themes and Afanasiev’s recordings include a large variety of folk narrative. Apart from fairy tales there are fables, poems, songs, moral teachings, anecdotes and jokes, but here I will only look at those stories, which can be easily defined as true fairy tales. By this, I mean those tales, which are relatively long (they fulfil more than just one or two proppian functions) and tell of animals as well as humans.
Themes and Content
Like the Grimm’s tales, which I see as representing the Western tales, the Afanas’ev stories tell of princes and princesses, tradesmen and craftsmen, poverty and great riches, luck and ill-luck, magic and magical objects, animal grooms and evil beasts. Many of the plots are identical to the western tales known to us and it is only the language and the motifs that vary a bit. I already mentioned the ever famous Cinderella story, but there are many more. The Jester or The Precious Hide for example are very similar to Andersen’s Little Claus and Big Claus, and Prince Ivan, the Firebird and the Gray Wolf is like The Golden Bird by the Grimms. Characters (or rather types), too, are identical to those in Grimm tales. We find the simpleton type, the brave, the wicked, the innocent etc. Here, the only difference lies in the frequency with which certain themes and types occur. In the Russian tales food, distance and cold are ubiquitous. Of course food is important in the Grimm tales as well, especially in Hansel and Gretel, but in the Russian tales kingly feasts and hunger are described even more often and in greater detail and this also reflects in the Russian fairy tale language, which I will describe at a later stage.
Still, even though the basic storylines are so similar, there is a great difference in perspective. However fantastic the Russian fairy stories are in their details (flying carpets, witches a.s.o.), they still represent a very down-to-earth realist and rationalist viewpoint. This is particularly apparent in The Magic Shirt. Here, the princess is not the ideal partner just because she is a princess, but she prefers someone of her own rank and is treacherous and evil. It is the cook, who truly belongs to the soldier and who is more helpful to him than any princess. This development reveals how the fairy stories were taken quite literally. In the Grimm tales - which are generally richer in symbolic meaning - ‘marrying the princess and ascending the throne’ simply stands for reaching the summit of personal development. As it is just a symbol we need not think about whether the princess would like to be married to the simpleton.
The Russian fairy stories seem to originate from a more realist and more pious background and although their plots were probably taken on from the Grimm versions, the themes and ideas like love, evil, fear and moral goodness are not as universal as in those I have just named. Instead, they are limited to the daily problems of the peasants who have shaped these tales.
Thus, they often deal with topics like drunkenness and its consequences, lending money or paying debts. But the most common topic is that of the unfaithful or lazy wife. All those tales appear like practical advice with only one solution: a good beating. Many of these stories have endings similar to this one: “ (…) the husband jumped out, snatched the whip, and began to belabor his wife. He cured her in no time.” (Husband and Wife, p.370). One of these tales is very overtly political and tells us a lot about the role of women at that time – The Mayoress tells us how a woman wants more power than she should have but is not able to be a mayor, like men are. She too receives a ‘good thrashing’. Certainly, such themes are uninteresting and sometimes even unsuitable for children. The Dead Body is just one of many examples for a pointless and macabre story. Here, the husband, while climbing a tree that grows into heaven, drops his wife midway so that she is smashed into pieces. A fox, who finally feeds on the corpse, then tricks him. Another cruel story is that of The Bear who eats up an old couple. But the worst of all is the tale of Baldak Borisievich, which has such a weird plot with incomprehensible detail and no message at all, that it is highly frustrating and just absurd: a seven year old boy is sent to defeat the Turkish king. Once there he seduces his three daughters one by one. In the end, he has them all hanged and on his return he does not even marry any daughter of the Russian king or receives any other reward.
 As found in Grimm, Jakob and Wilhelm, Selected Tales, ed./ transl. David Luke, Penguin, 1982
 Andersen, Hans, Christian, Selected Fairy Tales, trans. Kingsland, Oxford University Press, 1959
 A good example is the Afanas’ev story The Speedy Messenger
 Horns is a similar story, here the princess gets bored with the peasant husband.
 Other tales, where the wife is beaten are that of The Old Woman Who Ran Away, The Wondrous Wonder, the Marvellous Marvel, How a Husband Weaned his Wife from Fairy Tales and The Taming of the Shrew
 Danilo the Luckless is equally unfulfilling.
- Quote paper
- MPhil Rebecca Steltner (Author), 2001, The distinctive qualities of Russian fairytales (as reflected in the Afanas’ev collection), Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/16176