- Long, Long Tales from the Russian North ed. by Jack V. Haney
Fans of Russian fairy tales will want to add Long, Long Tales from the Russian North to their shelves, as it contains material that has been translated into English for the first time. It is light on critical content but hefty on tale material, with the shortest of the seventeen tales extending eleven pages. Although the collection is undoubtedly complete in the sense that it contains enough tales to satisfy the hungriest narrative scholar, it felt unbalanced in a handful of other ways that I noticed.
The introduction contains useful material, such as notes on cultural context (the tales being collected in Russian Karelia), biographical information on the narrators (all men), and distinctions between typical Russian wonder tales [End Page 117] (skazki) and these dolgie skazki, which Jack V. Haney translates as “serial tales.” Of note to scholars rather than laypeople, Haney includes some ruminations on how these tales adhere to Vladimir Propp’s structure. Specifically, many of the tales include Propp’s functions in their usual order, sometimes with replication or tripling. For instance, in “Elena the Beautiful,” the hero Ivan violates an interdiction and loses his wife. He goes on a quest to find her, receiving aid from multiple donor figures. When he finds Father Eagle and enlists his help, Ivan must throw a sword and make it stay aloft for at least six hours. After Ivan works for Father Eagle for (of course) three consecutive years, trying the sword tossing test at the end of each year, he manages this feat, and goes on to defeat Koshchei and win back his wife. Haney also notes some of the intertextual connections with other Russian tales (such as the prominence of Koshchei as a villain and the perplexing absence of Baba Yaga).
The tales themselves are entertaining and, as promised, lengthy: the longest, “The Airplane (How an Airplane in a Room Carried Off the Tsar’s Son),” clocks in at 28 pages. Many elements of epic folk narrative appear in these tales, such as tripling and the intensification of each enemy or quest. Other established folk narrative themes include unfaithful servants or brothers, the youngest son always being the strongest and/or the best, and miraculous resurrections from death. The tale types appearing here include well-known international types, such as animal bride tales (ATU 402) and dragon slayer tales (ATU 300 and 301), populated by Russian characters (e.g., firebirds, tsars, villains with hearts stored in eggs, and talking horses). These are all familiar motifs to those who have read Alexander Afanasyev’s canonical Russian tales, and a handful of tropes from Afanasyev’s bawdy tales also appear here, though they are not highlighted (such as nonmonogamy, with some heroes spending their nights “sleeping” with multiple women in a row). Colorful conventions of folk narrative appear in the characters’ speech patterns too, such as when this donor figure advises the hero:
Listen, Ivan Tsarevich, I’m going to give you my very own horse, one that neither a bullet can touch nor fire burn. This horse won’t drown in water and won’t burn in fire. And he will get you to Koshchei the Deathless himself. And in addition, I’m giving you my sword. And when you gallop up to Koshchei the Deathless, he will become furious with you and say, “Who are you, young man?” And you answer him, “Do you remember how once you sealed me up in a nutshell and threw me into the open steppe?”(“Elena the Beautiful,” 31)
With their formulaic language, their feats of superhuman strength, and their comfortably recognizable plots, it is no wonder that these tales were popular entertainment. [End Page 118]
However, as a feminist scholar, I have some concerns about this book. All the narrators are men, and so I was not surprised to see that all the tale protagonists are male, but I felt that Haney could have done a better job of accounting for the gender...