Sunday, 26 December 2010

Urals Federal District - Once upon a time, in a land far, far away . . .

It might seem odd to anyone who doesn't know their culture very well, but Russians love fairy tales!  Or skazki as they're called in Russian.  I've also been interested in fairy tales since my Uni days, when we studied Angela Carter and explored themes such as feminism and contemplated Little Red Riding Hood's revenge!  I find fairy tales fascinating and I think they have a lot to say about culture.  Although this type of storytelling has been around for an incredibly long time, writing them down only really became fashionable in the 18th and early 19th centuries, the Brothers Grimm being two of the most famous fairy tale writers.

What is a Fairy Tale?

Interestingly, Fairy Tales don't need to have fairies in them and our use of this phrase stems from the contes de fées of Madame d'Aulnoy in the late 1690's.  In other languages they are called a variety of things, Skazki in Russian simply means 'Tale' from the verb 'skazat'' (to tell).  In German, they are called Märchen which means 'wonder tale' and is the preferred reference term for those who study folklore.  At Christmas time, fairy tales are all around us - whether it's the school panto, Santa Claus or re-runs of Shrek on the television, Christmas is filled with the magic of fairy tales and far away lands. 

Urals - the Mystical Copper Mountains

One of the Soviet Union's greatest fairy tale writers was Pavel Bazhov, born in a small town in Sverdlovsk Oblast called Sysert.  His most famous collection is called Малахитовая Шкатулка (Malokhitovaya Skatulka) The Malachite Casket - malachite is a semi-precious stone of an amazing Emerald colour and is mined in large quantities in the Urals.  If you have ever been to Moscow, you'll have seen malachite in the cities' markets in the form of jewellery, such as bracelets and earrings.  In the olden days, it was believed to have magical qualities and was worn as a protection against witchcraft and spells! 

Bazhov came from a very modest background and he got involved in revolutionary politics at an early age, eventually becoming a Bolshevik and fighting for the Red Army.  In a time when the Soviet Union was trying to rid itself of all superstitions, it's interesting that Bazhov's work gained such widespread approval, but I imagine that there is something in the Russian soul that yearns for a bit of magic and happily ever after!  There had been other even more famous storytellers, who were popular before the revolution, such as Alexander Afanasyev and Alexander Pushkin.  Many ballets were inspired by Russian fairy tales, Swan Lake being one of the most famous. 

The Tale of the Stone Flower

One of Bazhov's most famous stories, Сказ о каменном цветке (Skaz o kamennom tsvetke) The Tale of the Stone Flower was made into ballet by the Soviet composer, Sergei Prokofiev.  This tells the tale of a skilled artisan Danila (Daniel) who has been tasked with making a beautiful vase featuring a flower motif, the flower being made out of precious stones.  In his quest for perfection, he searches for a precious stone which has a naturally occuring floral pattern and this brings him into contact with the Mistress of the Copper Mountain, a type of witch, who promises to show him the most beautiful stone flower on earth.  When he sees the flower and tries to return to his village, the Mistress captures him, turning him into stone. 

Meanwhile, back in the village, Danila's evil landlord, Severyan (which means 'Northerner'!) who sent him on the quest in the first place, is trying to seduce Danila's fiance, the beautiful Katerina.  Like all good heroines, Katerina remains true to her man and sets off into the mountains to find him.  The Mistress sees Katerina and decides to follow her in the form of a golden lizard until she gets close to where Danila is frozen in stone.  When the Mistress sees Katerina's distress and how humans can truly love each other, she decides to return Danila to his fiance and they all live happily ever after!

I'm posting a YouTube video below, which shows a scene in which the Mistress reveals herself to Katerina.

Propp's Morphology of a Folktale and the Universality of the Fairy Tale

Many scholars and folklorists have recognised the universality of Fairy Tales.  Although the Tale of the Stone Flower will be new to most non-Russians, I'm sure we all recognise the formula.  It even reminds me of the Ramayana which I blogged about back in June.  Propp was a prominent Russian formalist, who created a structured analysis of folkloric texts and came up with a common formula folk tales.  I won't go into too much detail on this, as it is quite detailed, but I want to present the characterisation that Propp outlined, which should cover most fairy tales.

Fairy Tale characters

Propp identified 8 main characters in fairy tales.  A fairy tale doesn't need to have all 8 characters, but I imagine most will at least have a villain, a hero, a donor and a princess!

The Villain - in The Tale of the Stone Flower, Severyan, also Lord Farquaad in Shrek or the Fairy God Mother in Shrek 2 and 3.
The Donor - this is usually a magical character who helps the hero along - this is the fairy god mother in a traditional fairy tale, in the case of The Stone Flower this is the Mistress of the Copper Mountain.
The Magical Helper - for example, the Dragon in Shrek.
The Princess or prize - Princess Fiona in Shrek and Katerina in The Stone Flower.
The Father - who usually helps identify the false hero and is often used as a narrator.
The Dispatcher - a friend, who prepares the hero for his quest, eg. Donkey in Shrek.
The Hero - eg. Shrek or Danila.
The False Hero - eg. Prince Charming in Shrek 2 and 3.

What does 'once upon a time' actually mean?

The phrase sounds a bit strange in English, probably because, like fairy tale, it's a direct translation of the French Il était une fois - again the first contes de fées in English, came from France.  Interestingly, from a linguistic point of view, I've noticed that the translation of 'once upon a time' in a lot of languages has some kind of repetitive/rhyming sound.  In languages across the world that are very different, the opening words of a fairytale are suitably dramatic, to catch the attention of the listeners/readers.  I've put some examples below:

Hajitek ma jitek (Algerian Arabic)
Biri var idi, biri yox idi (Azeri)
Bylo nebylo (Czech)
Fadó, fadó, fadó a bhí ann (Irish)
Mukashi mukashi (Japanese)
Ilgeri-ilgeri (Kyrgyz)
A fost odata, ca niciodata (Romanian)
Bir varmış, bir yokmuş (Turkish)
Ngày xửa ngày xưa (Vietnamese)

The Russian version also rhymes but, in true Russian fashion, the phrase you use depends on the gender and number of characters involved, eg. Жил-был (zhil bil) (male), жила-была (zhila bila) (female), жили-были (zhili bili) (plural). 

The Death of Santa Claus

The Russian version of Santa Claus, Ded Moroz (Grandfather Frost) was branded as bourgeois and an ally of the Church during the intensive post-revolutionary 1920's.  I'm not sure what happened to Ded Moroz's helper Snegurochka (Snow maiden) - she's probably driving a tram somewhere in Moscow!  Much more so than in the West, you can see the direct connection between the Russian Santa Claus and the fairytales in which he appears. 

In modern times, Ded Moroz and Snegurochka have made something of a comeback in Russian culture and in 1998, the village of Veliky Ustyug was designated as the official home of Santa Claus, in much the same way as we deem Lapland to be Santa's home.  Also, the Nenets people of Yamal in the Urals have their own version of Ded Moroz called Yamal Iri (Grandfather of Yamal) who carries a magical drum which he beats with a stick covered in fur, to drive away evil spirits. 

I've just got a taster of fairy tales in Russia and around the world and, hopefully, in future blogposts, I will be able to return to this subject and learn even more!

Image credits:

The flag is the coat of arms of Bazhov's birthplace, Sysert and I've taken this from Wikimedia Commons, where it was added by

The image of the stone flower is by flickruser - Monceau - you can see more of her photos at her flickrstream

The image of Shrek is by flickruser - Rafitorres who is a web designer from Miami.  You can see more at his photostream

The image of Ded Moroz and Snegurochka is by flickruser - 2sirius a.k.a. Peter Vanderheyden who is from Vancouver in Canada.  You can see more at

No comments: