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Tolstoy Journal, May 31, 2017: Tolstoy the Folklorist

Well, I did not get my reading done yesterday, so now I am behind 50 pages in Volume X and 30 pages behind in Sterne. But I should finish them tonight and onto Volume XI (The Cossacks and Sevastopol sketches) tomorrow!

I did, however, read some of The Gospel in Tolstoy last night during my holy hour: “What Men Live By,” “The Empty Drum: A Folk Tale from the Volga Region,” and “Nikolai Meets the Enemy,” this latter an excerpt from War and Peace. “What Men Live By,” brought back fond memories because I first knew this story via a video tape I got for the kids, a movie version of the story which I believe I first saw late at night on TV during the Christmas season. It was called Michael the Visitor and was narrated by Stockard Channing. It was “A Clay Animation Film,” but it was well done. I remember being moved enough by it to get the video for the kids. It was a bit dark at one point but overall very good. Here is a link to Billy Budd Films, which made it: Michael the Visitor

The second story, “The Empty Drum,” was interesting and funny, kind of surreal but I suppose all fairy tales are surreal. What struck me with this tale was how strong the female character was and how there is no moral added. In most of the “religious” stories thus far, Tolstoy explains, or has a character explain the moral of the tale for you. I kind of like this; they’re a nice summing up. What’s wrong with learning a lesson to help you live better? But “The Empty Drum” is a real fairy tale in that one could take many lessons from it. In general it’s against power and the abuse of power but that’s as far as I would go in extracting a moral from it. Reading it is like dreaming a crazy dream. It has echoes of many fairy tales especially the kind in which the hero is given impossible tasks to do.

The third piece I read was in War and Peace and tells of how Nikolai Rostov attacked the French and was hailed as a hero and how he felt nauseated afterwards. I believe I commented on this in a prior post and quoted the passage. But here is the relevant part from last night’s reading:

“All that day and the next his friends and comrades noticed that Rostov, without being dull or angry, was silent, thoughtful, and preoccupied. He drank reluctantly, tried to remain alone, and kept turning something over in his mind.

“Rostov was always thinking about that brilliant exploit of his, which to his amazement had gained him the Saint George’s Cross and even given him a reputation for bravery, and there was something he could not at all understand. ‘So others are even more afraid than I am!’ he thought. ‘So that’s all there is in what is called heroism? And did I do it for my country’s sake? [When the incident happened, it was mostly a matter of reflexes in which Rostov acted without thinking as when he hunted.] And how was he [the Frenchman he took prisoner and slightly wounded with his saber] to blame, with his dimple and blue eyes? And how frightened he was! He thought that I should kill him. Why should I kill him? My hand trembled. And they have given me a Saint George’s Cross . . . I can’t make it out at all.'”

Apropos of fairy tales, I decided to look Tolstoy up in my Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales and here is the entry on Tolstoy:

“Tolstoy, Lev (1828-1910), Russian writer, most famous for his novels War and Peace and Anna Karenina, but also the author of many fairy tales for children. Tolstoy was an ardent educationalist and used the fairy-tale form for didactic and educational purposes. In the 1860s and 1870s he opened several rural schools and published a number of school primers, which mostly contain retellings of folk and fairy tales from all over the world: fables, animal tales, magical tales, and some local aetiological tales. These collections were addressed to peasant children and are very simple in structure and style. When using well-known plots, such as ‘Little Tom Thumb,’ Tolstoy often followed Russian chapbooks rather than Perrault, and he always described Russian peasant settings in detail. However, he also included in his collections several oriental and Arabian fairy tales, retaining and accentuating their exotic settings. The source of many of his fairy tales are to be found in the collections of the famous Russian folklorists Afanesyev and Khudyakov. Some of the more complicated and original fairy tales, involving criticism of social injustice, such as ‘The Tale of Ivan the Fool” (1885), were banned because of their disrespectful portrayal of Tsars, the state, and the clergy.

“Tolstoy’s most popular fairy tale, ‘The Three Bears,’ (1872), is a version of ‘Goldilocks’, which also appears as a subtext in the novel, Anna Karenina.”

This entry was written by Maria Nikolajeva, and the Companion is edited by Jack Zipes.

I am trying to remember a version of “Goldilocks” in AK. I know Anna wrote some children stories but I don’t remember a specific one. Does this mean the plot of the novel is sort of a retelling of “Goldilocks”? There is an element of Anna being a victim of men and society, but I would not, and she would not, lay claim to total victimhood. She knew she was complicit with her own doom. Yet her love and sincerity and lack of hypocrisy, I feel, redeems her in the end.

Here are a few quotes from Talks With Tolstoy:

p. 90: “Tolstoi began about a couple of months ago to learn Dutch, and now he reads quite easily, at the age of seventy-three!

“He has an original way of learning languages: he gets the New Testament in the language he wants to know, and whilst reading it through he learns the language.”


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