Comparability

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September 19, 2004 by AK

Here’s what Prof. Hugh Ragsdale wrote in The National Interest in the fall of 1993:

The tales of the brothers Grimm were characterized by W. H. Auden as something like morality plays in a different genre. He calls the tales of Hans Christian Andersen “parables.” Very different are Russian fairy tales. Two standard characters are Ivan Czarevich (Ivan the Heir) and Ivanushka Durachok (Little Ivan the Little Fool).

Well, sort of, but there’s a little bit of difference here. H.C. Andersen’s tales for children are in no ways folk lore. Leo Tolstoy wrote parabolic tales for kids, too–they just aren’t nearly as good as Andersen’s. But take Sergei T. Aksakov’s The Little Red Flower (published 1858)–a retelling of the archetypal Beauty and the Beast–and here’s something on par with H.C.

The Grimm Brothers, nationalist romantics as they were, most likely selected those tales that fit their agenda. Early collectors of Russian lore, the most prominent being Dahl and Afanassief, wrote down what they heard and avoided excessive editing, weeding and pruning. Many of old Russian tales seem absurd or way too dark–which can be convincingly attributed to their origin being ancient pagan beliefs, practices and rituals of the Slavs, or Indo-Europeans in general. Compare Rumpelstilzchen from the Grimms.

As for the Ivan Czarevich and Ivan Durak tales, they form a subset of Russian tales that may be more important to the Russian folk tradition that its equivalent to the German one, yet does not cancel out other important plots. (Again, compare Ivan Durak to the Grimms’ Hans the Fool.)

Ragsdale goes on:

But in the world of Russian fantasy, as in the philosophy of the Slavophiles, the last shall be first, and foolishness is the invariable elixir of victory for Ivanushka Durachok. The moral of these stories would seem to be that there is none.

I thought that weird idea, that the last shall be first, first appeared not in a Slavophile journal but in a far earlier source. I suppose plenty of good folk in the state of Alabama, where Ragsdale was then teaching, would have obligingly identified that source to the good professor.

All in all, Russian folk lore as we know it is rather rich and is not limited to fairy tales (I’ve just read Fedotov’s brief review of Russian folk “spiritual poems”). Most Russian kids don’t grow up on dark heathen tales: they read (those who do read anything) carefully selected, time-tested stuff: innocent folk tales, Andersen, Perrault, Pushkin, etc., etc.


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