Ivan the Fool

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1800

To the modern imagination, the term “fairy tale” has little meaning beyond certain imaginary charactershuman or otherwisewhose functions range from mere entertainment to the inculcation of specific moral precepts. They are generally regarded as children’s bedtime stories, with some notable exceptions. Early German Romantic writers such as Novalis wrote serious literature in this genre, and most Americans are familiar with such Washington Irving stories as “Rip Van Winkle” (1819), which also derives in part from German folktales. What makes folk wisdom worthy of study is what it reveals about the character of a nation. While many Americans may associate fairy tales only with the Brothers Grimm, they certainly recognize the stilt-legged figure of Uncle Sam, the ridiculously clad folk character who serves as the unofficial national symbol. The national banner may wave over official buildings and ceremonies, but the popular imagination prefers the man who wraps himself in the flag.

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It is this notion of a national character being defined by its folk wisdom that permeates Ivan the Fool: Russian Folk BeliefA Cultural History, Andrei Sinyavsky’s splendid search for the Russian soul through its folk tradition. Given his background as a literary critic and novelist, Sinyavsky was especially qualified for this assessment of the Russian folk idiom, a genre that spans all of Russian history, from its roots in pagan beliefs through the political upheavals of the twentieth century. One of the reasons Ivan the Fool succeeds is the fact that Sinyavsky begins the discussion by clearly indicating what folk belief is and what it is nota crucial first step when dealing with such a broad subject. Some critics, such as the late Joseph Campbell, tend to be somewhat dismissive of the folk tradition (the “unofficial” culture) in favor of myths (the “official” culture). Significantly, Sinyavsky takes a different view. Without question, the Russian Orthodox Church expressed the official mythology of czarist Russia. It was the arbiter of Christian morality, and its clerics were a highly educated group in an overwhelmingly illiterate nation; however, as Sinyavsky correctly points out, the rarefied atmosphere of this official literate culture was quite distant from the illiterate masses. For the peasant, cultural continuity was determined less by Orthodox rites than by the oral tradition. Paganism, which preceded the conversion to the Orthodox faith, was never entirely supplanted by the new religion. Rather, the more ossified structure of the official church coexisted with the more flexible brand of Christianity fashioned by the Russian peasant. The Russia of today may be a world power wielding nuclear weapons, but Sinyavsky makes it abundantly clear that it is a nation largely constituted by its folk past, a past mostly shaped by peasant beliefs.

In the most charming of the book’s four main segments, “The Folktale,” Sinyavsky understands precisely why Russian fairy tales endure to this day: “Evidently, the folktale, even understood as lies or invention, expresses vital aspects of the folk worldview. The popular memory would not have retained fairy-tale images for thousands of years if they did not contain enduring, undying values common to all mankind.” If fiction means lying in a literal sense in order to tell a deeper truth, then the fairy tale would seem to be fiction in its purest form. This is precisely why a novelist such as Sinyavsky would become enthralled by the folk genre.

What is peculiarly Russian about these folktales is the almost complete dissociation between the hero’s moral constitution and his eventual happy fate. Sinyavsky points out that the heroes of Russian tales usually follow a path from rags to riches, a role reversal almost unthinkable in the...

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