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Friday, June 18, 2010

Women who rescue men (and other Russian folk tales worth reading)

I received a lovely email from a fan of The Velvet Chamber, Anastasia Diatlova  where she writes at length about female heroes/female warriors of Russian fairy-tales heroic epics.  She says:

There is a common fairytale trope where the hero must go on a quest to rescue a fair maiden from captivity. Now, there are several Russian tales, where this trope is inverted. The maiden must rescue the prince who is being held captive.

For instance, The Feather of Finist the Fair Falcon, is a story where the main heroine not only chooses her own bridegroom and spends nights with him, but also must go on a quest to rescue him from a sorceress-queen. This story is, interestingly, very female driven. There are basically only two male characters: Finist and the girl’s father. All the other characters - the evil sisters, the helpful Baba Yagas (in this story there are three of them) and the sorceress-queen - are all women.

Another character is from heroic epics called Vasilisa Mikulishna. Her husband, Stavr, offends Prince Vladimir and is imprisoned. She dresses up as a Tatar envoy and using cunning, dexterity and physical strength rescues her husband and dupes the Prince.

A number of Russian fairytales focus on women who are either extremely powerful sorceresses, Vasilisa the Wise, or warriors, Mar’ia Morevna. I am certain that these stories and female characters are not unique to Russian folklore, but I distinctly remember, as a child, coming across them only in Russian fairytales.

What I find even more interesting is that Vladimir Prop, The Morphology of the Folk Tale, in his classification of narrative seems to have entirely overlooked these tales, even though, supposedly, his classification is based on Russian fairytales.
It is surprising, although, not completely unexpected that Vladimir Prop in this seminal work totally omits these fables.  In the book, he claims a a universal typology of recurring events, themes and characters.  What does it mean that he omitted the Russian fables of heroic women?  For him the functionality of the princess is inextricably tied to her father.  That limits the narrative reach of the princess.  How can you go out and rescue your husband when you are tied to your father's apron strings? 

Image:  Ivan Bilibin

7 comments:

  1. I have this mental image of the princess dangling from a string tied to the tines of the crown. Yes, that would present a challenge when trying to be heroic.

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  2. Though I find this entire post interesting, the one thing that really catches my imagination is that there are some (including myself) who believe that the ancient tales of warrior women (Amazons) were actual women who came from the steppes of what is now Russia. Could the "fairy tales" of heroic women rescuing their men be ancient memories of a race of warrior women?

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  3. Oh, I think that's absolutely possible. It's a gray area of scholarship, nobody seems to agree whether the Amazon women were real or an invention. I remember trying to rsearch them for a NPR series I was producing, and the results were scarce. Its really fascinating.

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  4. I've also done quite a bit of research on the topic, and think Jeannine Davis-Kimball found more than just the graves of women who rode horses

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  5. I'd love to hear more, maybe you'd like to write a guest post on the topic

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  6. I'll get started on it asap. :)

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