‘Russian Magic Tales: From Pushkin to Platonov’

Russian Magic Tales from Pushkin to Platonov, which presents ‘a unique collection of Russian folktales from the last 200 years’, is edited by Robert Chandler. Chandler informs us that in Russia, ‘where the oral tradition remained much stronger for a longer period, these magic tales retained their cultural importance’.

The informative introduction embraces not just Russian fairytales, but those from around the world. Chandler sets out the cultural differences between them and marvels at how the stories differ from one country to the next, as well as spanning the history and progress of such tales. A useful appendix has been included which gives explanations of all of the Russian words which find themselves within the text, and in this way the cultural understanding of the reader is broadened. An essay by Sibelan Forrester regarding the Baba Yaga interpretations in Russian folklore and literature has also been included, and this provides a lovely addition to the volume.

The volume’s blurb alone is inviting and intriguing in equal measure: ‘young women go on long and difficult quests, wicked stepmothers turn children into geese and tsars ask dangerous riddles, with help or hindrance from magical dolls, cannibal witches, talking skulls, stolen wives, and brothers disguised as wise birds’. Half of the stories presented here have been collected by folklorists over the past two centuries, whilst the others are reworkings of oral tales by famous Russian authors, who include Alexander Pushkin, Nadezhda Teffi, Pavel Bazhov and Andrey Platonov.

The collection has been split into seven different sections, all of which pertain to tales written by a single author, or which come under the categories of ‘The First Folktale Collections’, ‘Early Twentieth-Century Collections’ and ‘Folktale Collections from the Soviet Period’. A biography has been included for each separate author before the story or stories of theirs which are featured in Russian Magic Tales, and the majority of these talk, in some detail, about the fascinations with folklore and fairytales which have been present since many of the authors’ childhoods.

The tales themselves range from the well-known – ‘Jack Frost’ and the portrayal of the witch ‘Baba Yaga’ – to those which are firmly set within the realms of Russian culture and geography and are not so well known outside it – ‘The Tsarevna Who Would Not Laugh’, ‘The Pike’s Command’ and ‘The Stone Flower’. In this way, the sense of place created is strong from the start. Each provides a variety of different styles, from the narrative and prose techniques used to the information which they include. Pushkin’s stories are told in verse, Onchukov’s in a traditional ‘once upon a time’ format, Ozarovskaya’s in rather a matter-of-fact style and Zelenin’s sole story in the collection takes the format of a numerical list.

Magical elements of many different kinds are woven throughout the collection. From the first page we meet talking fish and birds, witches and wizards, and magical spells. All of the classic fairytale elements can be found within the book’s pages – poverty and wealth, unfairness, cruelty, death, orphans, royalty and commonfolk, the discrepancies between the young and the elderly, incest, and the eventual triumph of good over evil. There are retellings of ‘The Frog Prince’ and ‘Cinderella’, and although we in the English-speaking world know some of the tales relatively well, the stories are incredibly clever and provide many unexpected twists and turns.

In a story entitled ‘Vasilisa the Fair’, the darker elements of magical tales are ever present: ‘Late in the evening she came to baba yaga’s hut. Round the hut was a fence made of bones. Skulls with empty eyeholes looked down from the stakes. The gate was made from the bones of people’s legs, the bolts were thumbs and fingers, and the lock was a mouth with sharp teeth’.

Russian Magic Tales from Pushkin to Platonov is a wonderful read for anyone interested in fairytales and folklore, or who merely wants to broaden their horizons with regard to Russian authors. A great introduction to a wealth of Russian authors is provided here, and there is sure to be a tale which will delight everyone in this collection. The stories have been ordered incredibly well, and the collection is easy to dip in and out of. Reading the volume feels both nostalgic and fresh at the same time, and Chandler has achieved just the right balance of both.

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