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Friday, April 17, 2015
This Friday, April 17, would have been the 120th birthday of Soviet folklorist Vladimir Propp, creator of a classification system for fairy tale plot lines. In his honor, today we present the recurring characters of Russian fairy tales.
Possibly the most familiar of the Russian characters, Baba Yaga is clearly a witch. Like the familiar witches of the Western tradition, she is typically an old hag who lives in isolation from the rest of society and is able to fly on a common household implement (in this case, a giant mortar and pestle). She lives in the forest, in a house on chicken legs (or just one leg), often described as being without doors or windows. In fairy tales she is often the villain, but being a magical old woman, sometimes she appears as a benevolent figure, offering the hero some helpful magical object.
Koschey and Other Villains
Koschey the Immortal, the ruler of the underworld, unlike Baba Yaga, is more unambiguously a villain. He has a bad habit of stealing the hero’s bride, and the fairy tale usually isn’t over until he dies. But here’s the catch: Koschey’s death is a physical object that the hero must find. Usually Koschey puts it on the end of a needle, then puts that needle in an egg, the egg in a duck, the duck in a rabbit… The list goes on.
Other villains and obstacles include Zmey Gorynych, a multi-headed fire-breathing dragon, also with a bad habit of stealing young women; Chudo-Yudo, a sea-based creature of massive proportions; and the Cat Bayun, a giant man-eating cat that purrs you to sleep. Gotta stay on your toes!
Dangers of the Forest
The ancient Slavic world was filled with spirits. Sometimes they could be helpful, and sometimes, if angered, they could be a more immediate danger than some of the big-league villains. The forest as a whole was tended by the leshy, a shapeshifter who would lead travelers astray if they were mean, or help them find their way out of the forest if they helped him. Bodies of water held the double danger of the vodyanoy, the water spirit, and rusalki, siren-like mermaids. And, of course, the besy, minor evil spirits, were ubiquitous, causing small-scale mayhem and requiring effort to tame.
Heroes and Positive Characters
Most male heroes go by Ivan – either Ivan-tsarevitch (Prince Ivan) or Ivan-durak (Ivan the idiot). The name is about as descriptive as naming the character John Doe – Ivan is the Russian everyman. His female counterpart is often Vasilisa, nicknamed “the wise” or “the beautiful.” Another positive character, familiar to Western audiences from Stravinsky’s ballet, is the Firebird, whose golden feathers gleam like a thousand candles and which is often the object of a hero’s quest.