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19 November 2018

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Russian Magic Tales from Pushkin to Platonov

Robert Chandler, editor (Penguin, $18)

As we were in the final stages of editing our forthcoming issue of Chtenia, themed “Dark and Scary” (comprised of tales of vampires, witches and other nefarious characters), I noted that all the tales, in addition to being strashilki (scary stories), were tales of transformation. It turns out my observation was neither new or profound. As Robert Chandler begins his introduction to this fine new collection of tales:

The magic tale... is remarkably adaptable. Transformation is its central theme, and the tales themselves seem capable of almost infinite transformation.

Now, to some degree, one could say that all fiction is about transformation, if not of the protagonist and his world, then of the reader. Yet this is a useful hook to hang this collection upon, and it does help in getting at what these stories are about, what their role was in Russian culture more widely.

Tales of this sort were usually told for the lessons they taught and, as Chandler notes, magic tales were not told lightly, for the spirits were felt to be listening.

Today we are of course far more enlightened. We can just sit back and enjoy the magic tales in this volume without the baggage of culture and superstition. And enjoy them we should. Magic tales are by definition quests, journeys, initiations, and thus filled with adventure, unlikely turns of luck and fate, and surprising endings. In a word, enjoyable diversions. Truly, who cannot be tempted to finish a story that starts “Once there was a tsar, a tsar who always did as he pleased and who lived in a country as flat as a tablecloth.”

Finally, it should be noted that these translations are new, fresh, and of the highest quality. Not as that should surprise us when Chandler is behind the translator’s keyboard. But it is always worth mentioning.

— Paul E. Richardson

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Reviewed in Russian Life: Jan/Feb 2013