The Learned Cat, or: A Russian Fairy Tale
У лукоморья дуб зеленый,
Златая цепь на дубе том:
И днем и ночью кот ученый
Всё ходит по цепи кругом;
Идет направо – песнь заводит,
Налево – сказку говорит.
Beside the sea stands a green oak tree,
And on the tree a golden chain:
And on the chain a learned cat
Walks round and round and round again;
When he goes left he tells a tale,
And when he goes right he sings a refrain.
I love fairy tales. Whether it’s the short originals collected by Charles Perrault, the Grimm brothers, Hans Christian Andersen, Peter Christen Asbjørnsen, and Alexander Afanasyev, or novel-length retellings stocking my bookshelves, they are tales of magic and imagination. None, however, are so distinctive as the Russian tales–there is something so wildly Slavic about them that they can be mistaken for nothing else.
Alexander Pushkin’s poem Ruslan and Ludmila begins with a prologue in which he (the author) sits beneath an oak tree, where a learned cat on a golden chain tells him a fantastic tale. And so he, the learned cat, serves as our storyteller today. Which tale would you like to hear?
This is a more general smattering of popular Slavic characters and stories, borrowing specifically from Vasilisa the Fair, Ivan Tsarevich and the Grey Wolf, The Frog Tsarevna, Rusalka, The Scarlet Flower, and Masha and the Bear. Some of the quintessential characters are found in multiple tales, like the firebird (the object of many a quest) and Baba Yaga, a crone who flies about in her mortar with pestle and broom to keep it going. Baba Yaga’s house on chicken legs is practically a character in its own right, wandering the forest, turning its back to any who would try to enter, and crouching down only for Baba Yaga to reach its door.
Which is your favorite Russian fairy tale? Or your favorite retelling?