Sunday, 29 December 2013

Childhood reading, part 3: Folktales

For previous posts, see 1 and 2

I was known to family, friends and classmates as Masha the storyteller. I wrote my first piece of fiction, a drama, when I was five, in my sketchbook, with red pencil. I wrote all kinds of stories, and I was also appreciated as an oral storyteller because I had zillions of stories on my head, those I had read and those I had invented myself. I could go on for hours.

I read lots of folktales. I had a volume of Russian folktales from Afanasiev's famous collection, apparently retold for children. Folktales all over the world are the same, but in every culture they have a special flavour. Some of the Russian folktales are still my favourites today. For instance, there are no dragons in Russian folktales, but worms. The Firebird. Finist the Falcon. The giant Lullaby Cat. Go there, don't know where, bring that, don't know what.

In my childhood, the pedagogical ban on fairy tales from the '30s was over, and there were collections of folktales, richly illustrated, from all over the world. I read them over and over again. I remember three favourites. Italian folktales. “Three Oranges” (I wasn't familiar with Gozzi or Prokofiev at the time). And one tale that for some reason has stuck: about the youngest princess who disguises herself as a general to leads her father's army, and she meets the young neighbour king. It is a universal motif, but there were lovely details in the tale, and I remember it word by word. I don't associate it with any voice other than my own.

The second was Korean folktales. One is well-known: about a rich and a poor brother. I impressed my hosts when I was in Korea by referring to this tale. But another one that I remembered they didn't recognise. It wasn't strictly speaking a folktale, but a local legend about a clever old man who managed to save his town from Japanese invaders. It's weird how your childhood reading can affect your loyalties: I cannot help being on the Korean side. Sorry, Japanese friends.

The third were folktales from Burma, and they were really exotic, both in plots and in details. One was about two brothers whose great-great-great-grandmother gives them a mortar and pestle just before she dies. The older brother throws away the mortar, but the younger keeps the pestle which appears to have such a strong smell of spices that it can bring the dead back to life, and the man himself never gets older. The Moon becomes envious and sends three animals to get the secret... and so on. And that's how moon eclipses started.

Of course I also read Grimm's tales, but they could never compete with my favourites. I didn't like the gory details that were carefully preserved in Russian editions. I read Andersen's tales, all of them, and was terrified of the Shadow and wept over the daisy and the fir-tree. I still feel this strange love/hate toward Andersen because of course I grew up with them and read them scores of times, but they always made me sad and uncomfortable. With my scholarly self, I know why. It was illuminating to translate a biography of Andersen and see where those weird stories came from.

For some reason I did not read Arabian Nights until I was a grown-up.

I never stopped reading folktales, and I collected them, in academic and children's editions, while I was still in Russia. When I moved to Sweden I could only take a small number of books with me, and I gave my whole collection, about two hundred volumes, to a colleague. Then I started my collection all over again, and by the time we moved to the UK, I had another two hundred volumes which I also left behind.

The most important stories I know by heart. 

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Dear Masha,

I read your confession of a hedgehog and I like your comments.

I study and teach folk-fairy-literary tales but I do not believe in magic. I beleve in knowledge based society but I like Shadow (Hegelian tales by Andersen), I like The Arabian Nights but I mostly like Zipes and your interpretation of folk-fairy-literary tales. I like H. J. Uther, eternal V. Propp (J. Greimas), M. Luthi, M. L. von Franz, C. P. Estes … and new interpretation of tales.

32 and 34 years ago, when I was not scholar I gave names to my daughters due to fairy tales (the first one is Firefly (tales about Midsummer Night and fern seed), the second Wheat (Most beautiful flower in the world).

I wish you Happy New Year and all the best to you and yours family,