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  • The Sources of Pushkin’s Fairy Tales
  • Mark Azadovsky
    Translated by James McGavran


The question of a literary work’s sources is always extremely important. Its significance is not limited to philology, but invariably, if the question is posed properly, it takes on social dimensions. An analysis of sources not only makes it possible to discern a literary work’s history and determine how its constituent elements are arranged, but also helps to explain the author’s creative origins and points of departure. The more significant the work, the more important and essential the problem of identifying its sources. And in some cases, the problem takes on a paramount significance, for the very fact of an author having turned to a specific source reveals the ways in which he intended to address and did address the creative challenges before him. Seen from this perspective, the question of an author’s sources is in fact a question of his social positions.

The problem of source identification has precisely this sort of paramount importance for an analysis of Pushkin’s fairy tales. This cycle of tales—written from 1831 to 1834, beginning with “The Tale of Tsar Saltan” and ending with “The Tale of the Golden Cockerel”—occupies a distinguished and special place in Pushkin’s oeuvre, as it marks an important turning point in his career. We know from Pushkin’s biography that he showed a keen interest in folk poetry, and particularly in fairy tales, during his period of exile in Mikhailovskoe, from 1824 to 1826. A letter from this period to his brother Lev has been preserved, in which he writes: “Do you know how I am spending my days? For most of the day I write notes, then I have a late lunch; after that I go riding, and in the evening I listen to fairy tales—and in this way I am compensating for the shortcomings of my accursed upbringing. What a delight these fairy tales are! Each one is an epic poem.” Arina Rodionovna is usually considered the immediate source of the tales, but in addition Pushkin sought out and listened to singers and storytellers at markets and fairs, and among his papers numerous summaries of the tales he heard have been preserved. The immediate reverberations of this material in his work, however, were not particularly vivid at this time. As examples of such a direct reflection of Pushkin’s excursion [End Page 5] into the oral tradition, the only things that can be mentioned are the prologue to Ruslan and Liudmila, the first draft of which was written in 1824, and perhaps the ballad “The Bridegroom.” The latter claim is only provisional, given that its source has not been fully identified: its plotline is not among those Pushkin wrote down. Beyond these, one might also note a few stray bits of folklore in various other works of this period.

A new period of work inspired by folklore begins in 1831. This time we are dealing not with a random episode or isolated resonances, but with an entire branch, a distinct segment of his oeuvre. In 1831 Pushkin writes “The Tale of Tsar Saltan” and “The Tale of the Priest and His Workman Balda”; in 1833, “The Tale of the Fisherman and the Fish” and “The Tale of the Dead Princess”; in 1834, “The Tale of the Golden Cockerel”; an unfinished tale about a she-bear also dates to the 1830s.

This time Pushkin’s ideological motivations and concrete sources were different. The early 1830s as a whole were marked by a profound interest in folklore. The beginning of Pushkin’s work on his fairy tales coincided with his well-known competition with Vasily Zhukovsky in 1831, but this was neither an isolated nor a solitary event: in the same year, Nikolai Gogol’s Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka, a collection imbued with folk legends, appeared; the next year, Vladimir Dal’s tales followed, and in 1834, Pyotr Ershov’s “The Little Humpbacked Horse.” In the early 1830s many people were at work collecting and cataloguing Russian folk songs. Push-kin himself proposed publishing a collection of Russian songs, and Sergei Sobolevsky intensified his...


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