The Snow Maiden and other Russian Tales

My fairy tale exploration has officially gone beyond the Grimm realm, with my reading of The Snow Maiden and other Russian Tales, translated and retold by Bonnie C. Marshall (advised by Alla V. Kulagina). I’m going to talk a little bit about the particular edition I read, and then cover some of the fairy tales and stories from the various sections.

The Logistics

This is a Libraries Unlimited edition, which means it was published as a resource with both educators and general readers in mind (learn more about the edition and publisher here). As such, the introduction discusses the different eras in Russia’s history, everyday life and special occasions, and the role and/or influence of Russian folktales (oh, and the introduction even includes a Soviet Union map and physical, geographical map of Russia). For someone (me) who knows very little about Russia apart from minor details of the Cold War, the introduction feels pretty adequate; informative but not overwhelming. It is nicely organized and well written. 

At the back of the book you will find recommended readings – from Russian history and geography to cultural discourse and more folktale texts – and a bibliography. For the curious minds looking for a more hands-on supplement, there are even recipes and craft ideas either lifted from the tales themselves or inspired by them. Talk about a book for everyone. 

The Tales

Apart from the aforementioned sections, this book is divided into four parts: Animal TalesFairy TalesTales of Everyday Life, and Tales of Spirits and the Supernatural. Per Bonnie C. Marshall’s introduction:

Russian folklorists divide folktales into three types—animal tales…fairy or magic tales…and tales of everyday life. This division is convenient and has been used here. As mentioned previously, Stith Thompson in the United States and N.P. Andreev in Russia constructed tale type indexes based upon that of Antii Aarne. In some cases, tales may consist of more than one tale type. In other cases, there is a discrepancy between Thompson’s and Andreev’s descriptions of the same type…”The Bubble, the Straw, and the Lapot” (story Type 295) is categorized by both Andreev and Thompson as an animal tale, apparently because its structure is similar to that of an animal tale. However, since not a single animal appears in the tale, its classification flies in the face of logic. Here, the tale entitled “The Bubble, The Straw, and the Lapot” has been placed under “Tales of Everyday Life” because the character-object are common to peasant daily life. In short, no system is perfect, and I alone am responsible for category placement in this volume.

As with any collection or anthology, there are stand-outs, thinkers, mediocre tales, and those that are quickly forgotten.

Part 1: Animal Tales

Unfortunately, these were my least favorite to read. A handful of them are chain or cumulative tales, which means there’s one or two phrases or lines that repeat over and over again (read an example from page 53 here). I’ve learned that this type of tale just isn’t my thing; I always find myself skimming the parts that repeat or skipping them entirely. They just don’t hold my interest. 

The tales in this section that are not cumulative tales still didn’t capture me. I can’t exactly put my finger on it, but there was just something magical or fantastical missing from these stories (stories about talking animals and one about a runaway bun, mind you). The sentences were all quite short, and I found this to be the downfall of most of these tales. 

Part 2: Fairy Tales

This section starts with the title tale: The Snow Maiden. I found it to be a delightful story, albeit with a sad ending. An old woman and an old man live peacefully, but without any children. One day, they decide to build “a daughter out of snow,” and when they are finished, the Snow Maiden comes to life. When spring comes and the temperature rises, well, you can probably guess what happens to her snowy self. 

Another tale, Father Frost, addresses expectations of females in many (most) fairy tales. In this story, a daughter is cast out into the cold. Father Frost approaches her and repeatedly asks if she is cold. She repeatedly says no, and is basically rewarded with coats and quilts for not complaining. Her stepsister then goes through the same experience, except she complains and complains about the cold. Father Frost grows angry and freezes her to death. A nugget of a lesson…

A figure that frequents these and other Russian tales, and is especially important in The Enchanted Princess, is Baba Yaga, “the old, toothless, bony-legged Russian witch” who lives in “a hut on chicken legs”. There are multiple Baba Yagas in this story – all sisters – and while they are not necessarily revered, they are sought out in times of need. 

Part 3: Everyday Life

These stories were fun to read. The juxtaposition between ridiculousness (or whimsy) and reality made each one – no matter how long or short – quite interesting. And it was really interesting to find a tale I’d seen before (well, a version of it), in my book of Grimm fairy tales: The Bubble, The Straw, and The Lapot is basically the same story of the Grimm tale The Straw, The Coal, and The Bean.

The Bubble, The Straw, and The Lapot is almost as short as Three Fancy Breads and a Pretzel. In this tale, a peasant buys “fancy bread” and eats it, but still finds himself hungry. He does this twice more, but is still hungry, so he turns to a pretzel. After eating that pretzel, “he was full and satisfied. The peasant hit his forehead with the palm of his hand and said, ‘What an idiot I am! Why did I eat so many fancy breads when I had only to eat one pretzel to feel full?'” This is the kind of humor I’m into. 

Part 4: Tales of the Spirits and the Supernatural

The shortest part of the book, with only five full-length tales. Four of which have eerie, frightful beginnings and middles but pleasant endings, and one that is creepy all around: Spirits of the Bathhouse. There are three stories that fall under this header, and a brief introduction to the origin of this particular supernatural tale: 

It was thought that evil spirits (banniki) dwelt in the bathhouse. It was considered dangerous to be alone in the bathhouse, but it was especially dangerous in the bathhouse at midnight. It was at midnight that the spirits of the bathhouse came out of hiding to play their evil tricks. 

Wood goblins and a protective house spirit (domovoi) also make an appearance in this section, which might have been my favorite. I don’t typically hope for a neat, tidy, and happy ending to a story, but these were incredibly satisfying. 

I’m glad I decided to check this book out from the library – I gained much more than just reading experience with non-Grimm fairy tales. I know more about Russian history than I did before reading this book, and more generally, have thought more attentively about cultural influences on folktales. I hope to encounter more Russian tales in the future, and really hope to find Libraries Unlimited editions for tales from other countries and cultures.

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