Ivan the Fool

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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.

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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reality of peasant Russia. While acknowledging the arbitrary nature of the dispensation of justice in these tales, he fails to see how this absence of what might be termed moral causality differs so markedly from standard Western fare. That is, in most fairy tales one comes to expect that good characters will be rewarded and that evil ones will be punished. One expects Cinderella to find happiness at the end of the story not simply because she is in need of it but also because as a good person who has suffered she deserves itan allusion to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Not so in Russian fables, where one often encounters a starving hunter of no particular merit who suddenly finds himself sated and wealthynot by virtue of goodness rewarded but solely through the power of magic.

In one tale, a hunter braves a chasm to reach a small voice pleading for help and unwittingly unleashes an invisible entity emitting from a small box. Sinyavsky properly associates the chasm with the otherworld, but he fails to identify this characteristic as being a remnant of Russia’s pagan past. This blindness is apparent when he attempts to summarize the chief characteristics of the folk hero. He seems to insinuate that the common path of the peasant hero rising from penury to luxury reflects a kind of challenge by the poor to the wealthy. However, if one puts this same plot feature in a wider cultural context, one can see that the peasant hero bears some resemblance to the trickster figure from mythology. Both undergo a series of adventures that are unrelated to their moral stature. This is evident in his discussion of the fool, the most common hero of the Russian folktale. In addition to being witless, the fool finds happiness and wealth despite the fact that he is often lazy and physically repulsive. Like a trickster, his eventual success seems to defy fate. What Sinyavsky does capture is this idea of a role reversal as being a necessary transformation, one that can empower the lowest of the destitute.

Ivan the Fool is notable for the fact that Sinyavsky employs his skills as a writer and critic when assessing the literary worth of the Russian fairy tale. In his view, fairy tales rarely strive for innovation in terms of plot and character. In this sense, they are as hackneyed as anything to emerge from the Hollywood dream factory or television situation comedies. They are meant to entertain. He contends that what makes these stories spring to life is the effective use of language in the telling. When the parents in one tale unknowingly apprentice their son to a thief instead of a tailor, the story cleverly plays upon the boy’s new occupation as “he threads his way” through the streets at night. Sinyavsky correctly emphasizes the fact that this close attention to language is typical of an oral tradition. Rather than simply reprise an oft-told tale, the teller had the freedom to adapt the story to his audience, much as one might make cuts in a play for a particular performance. Although the tale could be ancient and familiar, the storyteller was free to insert names that were more relevant to the audience.

Ivan the Fool is also useful in that it provides a rigorous analysis of the structure of the Russian fairy tale. Rather than simply launching directly into a story, the teller would employ a framing device that would introduce the tale and provide a few closing comments for the audience. The introductory portion (priskazka) tends to be a brief comic preamble that sets the mood for the ensuing fantasy and draws the listeners’ attention. As one might expect, if the opening section signals to the audience that one is about to enter Never-Never Land, the closing remarks (kontsovka) are intended to dispel the very magical mood created by the taleoften by openly dismissing the story entirely. Sinyavsky speculates that the reason for this often humorous framing device was so that a professional storyteller could draw attention for refreshments as a reward for his performance. That may be so, but Sinyavsky again fails to fully contextualize these valuable insights. One can easily associate the Russian storyteller in the tavern with such literary forbears as the mead hall bard regaling an audience with a rendition of Beowulf or even a chorus in a William Shakespeare play. There is a basic human need for such framing devices in a story. Such a structure provides a beginning, a middle, and an end; or to express it in more fundamental terms, the endless cycle of birth, life, and death. These would have been matters of keen importance to the peasants of Old Russia.

Sinyavsky follows his analysis of the structure of the fairy tale with a synopsis of the pagan elements that permeate the Russian psyche. Sinyavsky might have better served his subject if he had simply restricted the range of his inquiry and focused on the fairy tale, a subject that even in a broad treatment could probably constitute a book in itself. He indicates in his introduction that Ivan the Fool began as a college course he taught at the Sorbonne, and this probably explains why Sinyavsky’s book covers so much territory: Cutting a wide swath in a university course offers more opportunities for discussion than in a book, which favors a more in-depth treatment.

Nevertheless, Ivan the Fool is a survey not just of fairy tales but of Russia’s folk beliefs in general, so the section on paganism is justified. As one might expect, there was a thunder god named Perun, who was the Russian equivalent of the Nordic god Thor, a fertility god known as Yarila, as well as a house spirit (Domovoi) and a forest spirit (Leshii). What is surprising are the ways in which the Russian peasant’s belief system combined elements of paganism and Christianity, something that emerges in Sinyavsky’s discussion of Holy Russia. As one would expect in a peasant culture, the notion of a Mother Damp Earth was revered as a symbol of life. However, in the peasant mind the Virgin Mary functions as a kind of connecting link between the Mother Damp Earth and Christ, who reigns above. Of course, all of this ran contrary to Christian dogma, and Sinyavsky handles the subject well. However, once again, he could have strengthened his discussion by linking it with the ancient pagan concept of the Mother Earth goddess.

The final section of the book, which deals with the splintering of the Russian Orthodox Church beginning in the seventeenth century, demonstrates once again the difficulty with the survey approach. While one can justify its inclusion because of the fact that numerous religious sects were driven by peasant folk beliefs, it seems somewhat out of place in a book that devotes so much productive space to the Russian fairy tale. One could only wish that, if Sinyavsky had lived a longer life, he might have produced an annotated anthology of selected fairy tales as a companion volume. Still, Ivan the Fool is a wonderful contribution to the field of folk studies.


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Russian Life 50, no. 5 (September/October, 2007): 61.

The Times Literary Supplement, October 26, 2007, pp. 24-25.