Friday, May 11, 2018

Russian Magic Tales from Pushkin to Platnov - edited by Robert Chandler

Reading 'The Bear and the Nightingale' showed me how unfamiliar I was with Russian folklore; with the exception of some Baba Yaga tales it was all pretty much a closed book. It also gave me a strong desire to know more. Happily I had a copy of 'Russian Magic Tales from Pushkin to Platnov' that had been waiting for just such a moment.

I think something specific prompted me to buy this book a couple of years ago and it's annoying me that I can't remember what it was (odds are that I'm going to wake up at 3am with the answer and not be able to get back to sleep). Regardless, I'm very pleased I do have a copy because it turned out to be an absolute peach of a book.

The introduction is fascinating, especially on the taboos around story telling. The American scholar Jack Haney says that as late as the 1930's in North Russia tales could be told only by men, to male audiences, after dark, and not during Orthodox feasts. This was apparently because spirits of all sorts enjoyed listening to tales and bought dangers with them. It certainly explains why some of these stories are 'violent, scatological, and sexually explicit'. Quite a few of these stories feel like the sort men tell men, rather than the kind women might tell, and that's not something I've particularly encountered before.

The book itself is divided into 7 sections. Part one is a pair of stories in poem form collected by Pushkin. Part 2 covers the first folktale collections of Aleksandr Afanasyev and Ivan Khudykov from the nineteenth century, part 3 has early twentieth century collections. Part 4 is a handful of stories by Teffi, including a 1947 article about Baba Yaga which is worth the cover price alone. Part 5 is Pavel Bazhow who was writing his own stories in a folk style during the soviet era. Part 6 is folktale collections from the Soviet period, and part 7 is specific to Andrew Platnov.

Each seaction and writer has its own introduction to give them context which is really helpful, and I'm inclined to think having a number of translators (5) is a good thing too. I think (or am I imagining it because it's an appealing idea) that more than one translator helps vary the tone of the stories more, which in turn make this book more of a page turner, and less something that you dip in and out of at odd intervals.

It's a well chosen collection too with plenty of variety, so I feel I've got a fairly reasonable overview of the main elements and developments in Russian folk tales from a rural peasant society through the upsets of the soviet era.

It has certainly helped familiarise me with some of the tales that Katherine Arden references, reassess how I see Baba Yaga, and made me want to read much more. It really is a treasury of stories - there are some brilliant things in here. 'Misery', and 'The Wise Girl' are 2 particular favourites - both from the Alrksandr Afanasyev section, all of which are really good anyway. Apparently Angela Carter really liked 'The Wise Girl' too (it definitely feels like a woman's story rather than a mans).

I sometimes wonder about my book collecting habit, if I should stop it, or be more stringent about clearing out things if I don't read them quickly enough, or how healthy it is to simply accumulate so much stuff. Then I find something like this waiting for me just when I want it and it's so damn exciting I'm reminded all over again about everything I love about my books and having them.


  1. I'll have to get this book. You may be interested in Arthur Ransome's collection Old Peter's Russian Tales, which although written for children, was lovely to read.

  2. I am interested and will look out for it. I think he had an affair with Lenin's secretary or something equally unlikely. I know he was very interested in communism at one point. This collection is an excellent overview that gives plenty of information whilst also being enjoyable to read - which isn't always the case. Really recommend it.

  3. This looks fabulous! And yes yes to hanging onto books, as far as health and safety allows of course, no one wants to be crushed to death in a terrible book-toppling incident, not even by Virago Modern Classics much as we all love them.

    If you haven't read Old Peter's Russian Tales you are in for a treat. There's also a novel called Baba Yaga Laid an Egg which I can't remember masses about except that it was very good and unexpected. You will notice I haven't typed the author's name here, I can't remember how to spell it. :(

  4. I have Baba Yaga Laid an Egg somewhere and also really enjoyed it (Canongate? Another excellent publisher). I definitely need to search out a copy of Old Peter's Russian Tales after 2 such glowing recommendations.