Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Tales From Russian Folklore - Alexander Afanasyev translated by Stephen Pimenoff

This book was on my Christmas wish list because it sounded interesting - I'd already read some of Alexander Afanasyev's collected tales in 'Russian Magic Tales From Pushkin to Platnov', but this - which still isn't a complete collection is worth having, both for it's range and for the Pimenoff's translation which makes the stories sing.

Afanasyev, following the example of the Bothers Grimm collected around 600 stories altogether, which were held to be the best from written and oral sources. Over a hundred of them have made the cut for this selection which is probably enough to be going on with, and it does at least cut out a lot of potential overlap. However great a story is, by the third or fourth version of it, it's harder to appreciate the nuanced differences. 

I've been dipping in and out of this collection since I got it, reading a few stories every day, and really enjoying it - even if all the princes are called Ivan (confusing). There are stories when the hero (Ivan) does nothing but sit and cry whilst women and animals do all the heavy lifting, stories when Ivan's behavior falls short of heroic or chivalrous, and stories where I'm cheering Ivan on. 

There are war like princesses and completely decorative ones, Baba Yaga in all sorts of moods, and Koshie the immortal, who is never even slightly sympathetic (as Baba Yaga can be), but the story that really made this collection for me is The Goat.

Mum and I have a running joke about how her dog is singing old German Shorthaired Pointer folk songs to us when she incessantly whines until she gets the toast crusts, or grumbles when other dogs walk past the window (she mumbles under her breath exactly the way my grandmother used to), and for a dozen other reasons - she's a very vocal dog. As a snapshot of family life during Covid we've sometimes put words to the dogs songs. They went very like 'The Goat' which impressed me and my mother a lot (the wider family just looked pityingly at us).

It's about a goat that sends it's wife to buy nuts but she doesn't come back so he tries to send a wolf after her, but the wolf won't go. It carries on like that for a while until something finally works and everything falls into place, but it's periodically punctuated by the refrain 'No goat with nuts, no goat with roasted nuts'. If Tally (the dog) isn't singing no dog with toast, no dog with buttered toast of a morning it's something very like, it was a profound moment of recognition. 

I don't want to over stress this, but there's something special about that - an instance of universally recognised behaviour, both annoying and somehow comfortingly familiar, that is something of a joke here, and also ties generations of readers and listeners together. Not that it's just a joke, the lament of the goat, and our dog, is the same from any hungry and bitterly disenfranchised group, as are the terms used to describe them, be they animal or human. At the moment I'd rather focus on the joke side though.

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