July 01, 2011

The Tale Collector



The Tale Collector

FOR RUSSIANS, it is impossible to imagine life without the countless characters from our fairy tales. We first encounter them in childhood. Even before we can read, we are given picture books by doting relatives showing sly Kolobok, who “got away from his Grandpa, got away from his Grandma,” but could not get away from Fox. By now, many generations have been well acquainted with Kurochka Ryaba (the Little Speckled Hen), who “laid a little egg, no ordinary egg, a golden egg.” And nobody, of course, could break that egg. Little fingers are guided from picture to picture by solicitous grandmothers and mothers repeating the words, “Grandpa hit it, hit it, but did not break it… Grandma hit it, hit it, but did not break it… The Little Mouse ran by and flicked its tail and broke it.” And then there is the Turnip that nobody could pull out of the ground. They tried pulling with “Grandpa holding the Turnip, Grandma holding Grandpa…” and when a long chain formed with the Little Mouse at the end, they finally managed to pull out the Turnip.

Then children grow up a bit and the books become more sophisticated. The Sly Fox, the Clumsy Bear, the little girl Masha (who wanders into the house of the Three Bears), and the fish who grants all of Yemelya’s wishes “by the will of the Pike,” come onto the scene, followed by Vasilisa the Beautiful, Prince Ivan, Finist the Bright Falcon, and many, many others.

The years pass and children move on to other sorts of books, but all the characters that inhabited their childhood stay with them. They become the protagonists of countless cartoons; they turn up in jokes. Like the one based on the fact that the verbs “to plant” and to “put in prison” are both variations of the verb “to sit” — “Grandpa sat [planted/put in prison] Turnip, and Turnip did his time, got out, and cut up Grandpa.” Or the one where Kolobok jeers at Connor MacLeod, “By the end of the day, only one of us will have a head” (MacLeod, immortal character from the Highlander series, can only be killed by decapitation, and Kolobok of course has no neck to chop).


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