Sick of me writing about books you don’t have access to? Well, this week’s reading, “Sixty Folk-tales from Exclusively Slavonic Sources”, is online and free! You lucky dog. (It’s even in several places.)
There were many things that struck me about the selections I read from this book, but one of the most immediate was the complexity of the stories. Not only is there a quest, but the quest has three parts. And then there’s a secondary quest, and that one is usually even more challenging.1 I’m not sure why it is that the fairy tales we’re used to aren’t set up this way. Perhaps they’ve been simplified, or there may be a basic difference between the oral traditions of Eastern and Western Europe that affected the development of their folktales. The first story I read, “Goldenhair”2, had several unique sections, and seemed almost like a blend of three distinct narratives.
- A king hears of a snake that–when eaten–will give a person the power to understand any animal. He orders his servant, George3, to cook it for him, but warns George not to taste any of it.
- George tastes the snake anyway. He serves it to the king.
- The king finds out that George tasted the snake, and tests him by making him pour a glass of wine exactly full. If it runs over or is slightly under, George will be killed.
- George screws that up because he’s distracted by birds flying through the room chattering about three golden hairs they’re carrying.
- Instead of executing George, the king (who overheard the birds) sends him to bring back the beautiful golden-haired woman.
- George rescues some ants along the way.
- George kills his own horse so that two young ravens won’t starve.4
- George buys a golden fish from two quarreling fishermen and sets it free.
- He arrives at the castle and asks Goldenhair’s father for her, so he can bring her back as a bride for his king. The answer is yes, on the condition that he can complete three tasks.
- Task #1: Find scattered pearls in a meadow and string them back onto a necklace. The ants help George with this.
- Task #2: Find a gold ring lost in the ocean. The fish does it for him.
- Task #3: Find the waters of life and death. The ravens bring them back, and on the way to deliver them, George kills a spider wit hthe water of death and revives the fly it was about to eat with the water of life.
- There’s one more catch, it turns out. George has to pick, from the twelve princesses, which one is Goldenhair. They’re all wearing scarves on their heads, and the fly tells him which one is the correct choice.
- George brings Goldenhair back to his king. The king is thrilled, but executes George anyway.
- Goldenhair uses the waters of life and death to bring George back to life, the king dies, and George becomes the new king with Goldenhair as his bride.
This is an unusually complex story. The three parts, as I see them, are these:
- The magical snake (George is warned not to taste it, but does anyway out of curiosity. Classic cautionary pattern.)5
- The wine test (‘If you manage this impossible task, you will be rewarded’ pattern.)
- The quest for Goldenhair (‘Save the animals, they help you later on’ pattern.)
I’m not sure if I’d classify the conclusion (George’s death, resurrection, and ascension to the throne) as an individual narrative, as it’s closely linked to the rewards he gained from helping the animals in section three. You’ll almost certainly recognize these patterns in all sorts of other folktales and myths. What makes this tale unique, I think, is the fact that all three of these narrative patterns are in one story. There are several other stories in this collection that do the same sort of thing structurally, and, reading them, I wondered whether they started out as individual stories and were later combined, or if perhaps the original was this long and had been split for other versions, or in other cultures.
One interesting sidenote: the Bulgarian version of Cinderella in this collection has a very different beginning:
ONCE upon a time, a number of girls were assembled spinning round a deep rift or chasm in the ground. As they spun they chattered together and told stories to each other. Up came a white-bearded old man, who said to them: ‘Girls! as you spin and chatter, be circumspect round this rift; or, if any of you drops her spindle into it, her mother will be turned into a cow.’ Thus saying he departed. The girls were astonished at his words, and crowded round the rift to look into it. Unfortunately, one of them, the most beautiful of all, dropped her spindle into it. Towards evening, when she went home, she espied a cow–her mother–in front of the gate, and drove her out with the other cattle to pasture. After some time the father of the girl married a widow, who brought a daughter with her into the house.
From there, it follows the usual pattern of Cinderella being persecuted, and seeking out her mother (in one form or another) for help. In this version, the ball is simply church on Sunday, the prince is an emperor, and the shoe/foot quest remains the same. I was intrigued by this particular story because it explains the missing mother element in a unique way. In fact, Cinderella herself is responsible for her mother’s absence, and–indirectly–for her own later misfortunes. What a twist!
Finally, be sure to check out “The White Snake” (unrelated to the Grimm story), which is a strange Illyrian version of the Pied Piper story, where the community is plagued by snakes rather than rats. You’ll be surprised by the ending.
- This has been pretty consistently true of the Russian folklore I’ve read as well, especially the Vasilisa, Matreshka, and Baba Yaga stories. [↩]
- A variation on the Grimm brothers’ “The White Snake“, though much more complex. [↩]
- Is that really a Slavic name? [↩]
- I couldn’t help but wonder about that– he can understand the horse too. Killing it would be pretty horrific. [↩]
- If this were a story on its own, George would probably just be put to death as a result of his disobedience and that would be the end. [↩]