Russian Magic Tales from Pushkin to Platanov

Edited by Robert Chandler. 2012. London: Penguin. ISBN: 978-0-141-44223-5 (soft cover).

Reviewed by Jeana Jorgensen, Butler University

[Review length: 1152 words • Review posted on November 7, 2013]

Scholars of folk narrative, Russian folklore, and fairy tales will enjoy reading Chandler’s Russian Magic Tales from Pushkin to Platonov and Propp’s The Russian Folktale alongside one another. The two works complement each other, with Chandler’s book providing mostly folktale and literary texts with some cultural context, and Propp’s book providing mostly folktale theory and history sometimes illuminated by close readings of individual tales.

Chandler’s orientation is literary, and thus his introduction is attuned to the intersections of folkloric and written versions of fairy tales (or magic tales, as he calls them). He nods toward some folkloristic innovations, such as tale types, and mentions ritual, psychological, and structuralist interpretations of the tales. I found Chandler’s section introductions to be particularly helpful and interesting, as he gave fascinating historical and contextual information about the individuals who collected and authored the tales. The first section contains two of Pushkin’s tales; the second section, devoted to the first Russian folktale collections, includes well-known tales from Afanasyev and a handful from Khudyakov; the third section contains tales from early twentieth-century tale collections; the fourth section contains tales authored by Nadezhda Teffi; the fifth section contains tales authored by Pavel Bazhov; the sixth section contains tales from Soviet-era folktale collections; and the seventh section contains tales by Andrey Platonov, a twentieth-century writer. Additionally, there is an appendix with an essay on Baba Yaga by Sibelan Forrester and notes with corresponding tale type numbers for each of the tales.

Ranging from oral folkloric tales to literary adaptations, all of the tales are enjoyable to read in their own right. Familiar Russian magic tales such as “Vasilisa the Fair” (ATU 480, from Afanasyev’s collection) and “Ivan Tsarevich, the Grey Wolf, and the Firebird” (ATU 550, from Bilbin’s collection) appear alongside tales that have no folkloric analog but clearly are based on folkloric themes. Pavel Bazhov’s tales are an excellent example of these. Bazhov drew on his upbringing among Urals ironworkers to compose tales about the Mistress of the Copper Mountain, a mysterious donor figure who appears to miners in need and the pure of heart. Tales like Bazhov’s (and Teffi’s, which are also highly evocative of their times) deserve greater recognition alongside their folkloric counterparts.

While Chandler’s book has general appeal, I would think that Propp’s book holds more interest for the folk narrative specialist, or at least the student of folklore, fairy tales, or Russian culture. As Zipes points out in the foreword, “The Russian Folktale is a book that brings together [Propp’s] structuralist leanings with his profound interest in the evolutionary process that brought about the genre of the wonder tale. But it is also more than just a summary of his own work and interests, for it was intended to provide a general history about the rise of folklore studies in Russia and Europe” (xi). And Propp does precisely that, specifically in the introduction (devoted to defining and discussing the folktale in Europe and Russia), in chapter 1 (which recounts the history of folktale collection in Russia), and chapter 2 (which gives a history of the study of the folktale and prominent theories). The following chapters each cover a subgenre of folktale: chapter 3 covers the wonder tale/fairy tale, chapter 4 covers everyday or realistic folktales (or novellas/novelistic tales), chapter 5 covers cumulative tales, and chapter 6 covers animal tales (as distinct from fables and fabliaux). The seventh and final chapter discusses the performance of folktales, with an emphasis on proper collection techniques and how to best incorporate life history and personality information about the taletellers.

To the scholar with a disciplinary background in narrative folklore, Propp’s book reads like a list of old friends: Benfey, Tylor, Frazer, the Grimms, Olrik, Aarne, and many others are mentioned. The addition of so many Russian folklorists to the familiar names of (European) narrative folklore history is one of the book’s many strong points. I had been unaware that, for instance, the mythological school of scholarship had been so influential in Russia (101-105). Propp’s scathing critique of the Finnish school (124-128) is worthy of consideration. I’ve read parts of Historical Roots of the Wonder Tale in the original Russian, and I found it intellectually stimulating to see both it and Morphology of the Folktale weaving in and out of Propp’s analysis of folktales as a whole. At times, Propp seems uniquely prescient, as when he writes: “Ideas are born because they meet the demands of the era” (131). Based on the reception of Morphology, there was definitely demand for Propp’s ideas. Now it remains to be seen how The Russian Folktale will be received.

As much as I enjoyed reading both books, they do have some shortcomings. Chandler’s narrow focus on Russian tales means that he missed opportunities to make some valuable connections with international tale types. And it is unclear why Chandler used AT numbers instead of ATU numbers, seeing as the ATU index has been available since 2004. Propp makes some outright errors, as when he states: “It is true that Wilhelm Grimm subjected the texts to light editing, leveling them to a somewhat conditional folk style, but he did so with great tact and taste, not touching the plot” (91), which we know to be false thanks to contemporary scholarship on the Grimms. Some of Propp’s points are understandably dated (as the book is based on lectures he gave late in life, before he died in 1984), and his writing on the whole seems very past-oriented (he subscribes, for instance, to the myth-ritual explanation of how myths and rituals preceded folktales in a given civilization). Forrester in her preface does a good job of accounting for these inadequacies and Zipes also touches on them, specifically addressing the misconception that Propp was forced to censor himself in the repressive Soviet intellectual atmosphere. Zipes notes that Propp “neither idealizes the common people nor interprets the history of folktales from a Marxist or a historical materialist viewpoint” (xii). This is correct, to a degree (and for a truly Marxist interpretation of fairy tales, we must look no farther than some of Zipes’s own work, such as his essays in Breaking the Magic Spell). Propp does, however, quote from Engels and Lenin a fair bit, more than one would expect to see in a work on folk narrative, so I would urge the reader to judge for herself just how much Propp seems to buy into the whole ideology. On the whole, however, The Russian Folktale is vibrant and engaging, and, paired with the entertaining and varied tales in Russian Magic Tales, it encourages us to let tales of magic ensnare us, whether as scholars or as audience members, as they always have. To end with a quote from Propp: “We will examine the magic tale from the point of view laid out here. The whole variegated, brilliant world of folktale images will open up before us along the way” (151).

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2010. Last revised June 21, 2010.