Lately I have been reading Catherine Merridale’s Red Fortress (2013), an excellent and well researched book on the history of the Kremlin and of Russia at large. So far I am only half way through the book but I am thoroughly enjoying it. I’ve written briefly before about reading Russian literature (specifically Gogol, Platonov, Sholokhov, Solzhenitsyn and Tolstoy), but I realised recently my small bedside pile of books has become a small mountain, swelling as it has with a glorious mixture of archaeology, osteology and fictional offerings. Never being able to resist a bookshop I also added Applebaum’s Iron Curtain (2013) to it, thinking that it would make a particularly good companion piece to Merridale.
On a separate trip to the library I happened to come across Chandler’s 2012 collection of Russian magic tales (which are often termed as Skazka in Russian). Taken from a variety of Russian authors who span across three centuries, the book represents the authors who had collated and collected the tales and then wrote them down in their own hand. I have never particularly been into magic tales or folk stories, but upon delving into this collection I found I couldn’t really resist not borrowing the volume. It also makes a beautiful companion piece to the above two history books, grounding me as it does in the oral cultural tradition of folk tales that have been told for centuries, and in some cases for millennia, in Slavic populations. The tales are also the perfect length to digest and read through on train journeys, and provided a welcome relief from my somewhat heavier archaeological readings.
I have really come to enjoy reading Chandler’s collection of skazka, particularly in the arrangement of the book itself which forms a readable narrative of the historical documenting of the skazka and of the re-working of some of the skazka by selected Russian authors themselves. This approach not only highlights the interesting form and content of the tale itself but also briefly documents the historical and cultural context that the author worked in to produce or collate the tale. Generally the skazka can be viewed as one of three general presentations: scenes from real life, magically tales or tales involving talking animals. Often they can be mixed but they often include characters (such as Baba Yaga and her three knights) that are used repeatedly in a wide variety of circumstances.
In general folk tales are a valuable cultural resource in a few senses of the term. Firstly, they are essential in helping to understand cultural modes of oral transmission. This can be identified in two ways, by either understanding differences at regional or national levels between tales and in parsing, or understanding, the developing identities by solidifying through oral repetition a unifying myth or theme (Chandler 2013: x). Secondly, they can of course also imbue moral and ethical lessons to the listeners or participants, particularly in the role of individuals in societies (Forrester 2012: 427). Thirdly, it must be noted that some of the tales are pretty vivid in their detail of the character traits and actions, but this is the fun of reading and hearing the tales. (I recommend reading them out to get a sense of what the oral tradition was like). These are real and deeply developed characters that although may change their actions in some aspects from tale to tale, they still largely retain their purpose and description or function.
All in all I am glad I stopped to read through a few of the tales in Chandler’s book at the library, as I feel it has made me appreciate the work of some of my favourite authors a whole deal more. By making me familiar with several important folk characters in the Slavic folk world, the deeper meaning of some of the recurring characters and folk myths that pervade through Russia’s literature becomes evidently clear. This is especially the case when I originally read Platonov’s The Foundation Pit (2010), a novel that he wrote during the early Soviet period which includes many allegorical and frank representations of the oral folk body of work.
To my mind folk tales in general are a pivotal part of the rubric of culture, a one that sadly is often missing in the archaeological record. So if you find yourself on an excavation this summer in the middle of nowhere, why not make a fire, grab a few drinks and tell tales to keep an oral tradition alive?
Applebaum, A. 2013. Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe. London: Penguin Books.
Chandler, R. (ed.). 2012. Russian Magic Tales from Puskin to Platonov. London: Penguin Classics.
Forrester, S. 2012. ‘Baba Yaga: The Wild Witch of the East’. In Chandler, R. (ed.) Russian Magic Tales from Puskin to Platonov. London: Penguin Classics.
Merridale, C. 2013. Red Fortress: The Secret Heart of Russia’s History. London: Allen Lane.
Platonov, A. 2010. The Foundation Pit. London: Vintage.