Today’s post is a flashback from last semester, when this book (below) was the source of nearly all my homework assignments. I can’t tell you how many hours we spent reading feverishly on the lawns, trying to cram in as much Afanas’ev as we could in case we had a reading quiz and there was a question on firebirds. Although it was a great class and I have all sorts of wonderful memories from it, I have to say it was liberating to read my copy of Russian Fairy Tales by choice this time. We’d probably read most the stories in it by the time the semester ended, but as far as I can remember, we didn’t read this one, so I thought I’d give it a shot.
In case you were wondering, the randomness of my fairy tale selection process hasn’t changed a whit since last week. I opened the book, thought, “which ones haven’t I read that aren’t really short?” and went with the first write-about-able one I found. But I’m proud to say “Prince Ivan and Princess Martha” turned out to be unceasingly exciting, incredibly weird, and chock full of things to comment on. And so I will proceed to comment.
(Continued after the jump.)
(photo via a Russian site called pravenc.ru)
This is Alexander Afanas’ev, which can be spelled a multitude of ways, so perhaps you should just call him Alex. He currently holds the world record for most fairy tales collected by one person — according to Wikipedia (reliable source that it is), he managed to find and write down over six hundred stories. Unfortunately, his work went unappreciated in his lifetime. The Russian Orthodox Church decided talking wolves and vengeful gremlins were too scandalous to be read about, and so many of his works were banned from publication, though he did manage to get one book published anonymously in Switzerland. Let’s give poor Alex the appreciation he so much deserves and applaud wolves and gremlins for the duration of this blog post.
Even today, he isn’t as well known as last week’s Madame D’Aulnoy, so I couldn’t find an exact copy of “Prince Ivan and Princess Martha” to link to. However, I did find an edition of the story available in this PDF. The translations are different, but the original isn’t, and so we should be able to understand each other just fine.
The first thing I noticed about “Prince Ivan and Princess Martha” was the fact that the characters had names. That’s pretty uncommon in fairy tales, so I always get excited when I see it. I don’t speak Russian, so I can’t confirm this, but I think Ivan might be an extension of the Ivan Tsarevich trope. He’s kickass, clever, and has some magical powers to boot. “Ivan the Fool” is also a tradition in Russian literature — a young boy who is just a little bit dumb from the outset, but always proves he is smarter than he first appears. Since our Ivan has qualities from both of these tropes, I’d say Ivan is a pretty good name for him.
Princess Martha, however, gave me trouble. I spent two summers at Norwegian camp, so it was very hard to read her name on the page without imagining Märtha Louise. Eventually I just shrugged my shoulders and went on with the story.
Both main characters in “Prince Ivan and Princess Martha” are royal by birth, so there’s none of the complicated class stuff you get in “Cinderella” — at least not until Prince Ivan’s father turns out to be a horrible, abusive parent who throws his kindergarten-age son out of the palace to wander just because he accidentally freed a wizard he’d kept locked up. Ivan ends up a stable-boy in Martha’s kingdom, frequently beaten by his employers because he sleeps all day rather than working. (He sleeps an awful lot, in fact — by the end of the story, I was starting to wonder if he had narcolepsy.)
Martha’s a smart girl and soon realizes something’s up with the stable boy. When her dad goes off to war, fighting another king who has demanded Martha for his son, she’s left to rule, and gives him a governorship, believing that he is “not of lowly origin”. Miraculously, he finds the wizard he freed back before his stable days and is rewarded by a massive amount of magical power, giving him the ability to do pretty much whatever he wants, except sit on other people’s chairs (his incredible strength means he weighs too much.)
A few slain dragons and a scary bathtub later, Martha is his bride.
(This kind of dragon.)
– The nobleman in the second half of the story, who turns out to be a dead ringer for Gilderoy Lockhart. The man pretends to slay dragons not once, not twice, but three times — and then, after each battle, demands Princess Martha in marriage despite the fact that she’s just escaped marrying an equally unpleasant-sounding character and probably just wants a break. When the Water King insists he come to his kingdom (not because he wants to honor him), Snotty Nobleman tries everything to worm out of it. And even after all that, he still thinks he has a chance at marrying Princess Martha. If I were Ivan, I’d have had a much harder time convincing myself to spare his life.
– The World’s Scariest Bathtub, which Snotty Nobleman is nearly shoved into. It’s made of “iron or steel”, and the Water King orders that it “be heated red hot and the culprit put into it”. Definitely more frightening than your average fairy tale punishment. And also a wonderfully apt one for the Water King to use.
– The grand finale, which is really quite romantic. After Prince Ivan and Snobby Nobleman return unharmed from the sea, the king finally gives in and begins planning a Big Fat Snobby Noble Wedding. But Martha, being the smart girl that she is, asks for all the soldiers to line up so she can find Ivan, who actually saved her from the progressively more-headed dragons. Ivan’s cheek is slashed during one of the battles; she recognizes him and marks him as her betrothed. Snobby Nobleman is “disgraced and banished”, while Ivan and Martha “live and chew bread together” forevermore.
– Ivan’s narcolepsy. I think I’d better leave this understated. Let’s just say it really is possible to fall asleep just before a nine-headed dragon roasts your girlfriend.