Today on the blog we have the lovely Sophie Anderson talking about one of fifteen Russian Fairy Tales and what they mean to her. You see the other fourteen tales as part of this blog tour. I’ll be tweeting a tour banner with details of who is hosting posts and do follow Sophie on twitter for news on her fantastic book, The House with Chicken Legs. I did a brief review for it here, but let’s just say you’re gonna want a copy of this one. Stunning in all the right ways.
7. Ruslan and Ludmila (on layered stories)
An oak tree greening by the ocean;
A golden chain about it wound:
Whereon a learned cat, in motion
Both day and night, will walk around;
On walking right, he sings a ditty;
On walking left, he tells a lay.
A magic place: there winds his way
Ruslan and Ludmila is an epic fairy tale written in verse by Alexander Pushkin between 1817 and 1820. It begins by describing a magical place full of characters from Russian folklore; wood sprites, mermaids, Baba Yaga’s hut on chicken feet, warlocks, warriors, and Koshei the Deathless. The narrator says he stayed in this place and heard many tales from the learned cat, and that one of those tales was of Ruslan and Ludmila.
In the story that follows, Ludmila, the daughter of Prince Vladimir of Kiev, is about to marry the brave knight Ruslan. However, she is abducted by the evil wizard Chernomor on her wedding night.
Ruslan, and three rival knights, set out on horseback to find and rescue her.
The verses of the poem contain many tales within tales. We hear stories from an old man who Ruslan meets in a cavern; stories from Ruslan’s rivals Rodgay, Farlaf and Ratmir; stories from Ludmila, held captive by Chernomor; and stories from a giant disembodied head Ruslan finds on a battlefield.
Towards the finale, the tales link together, and all the threads resolve. Ruslan learns Chernomor’s magic power is held in his beard and defeats him by grasping his beard as he flies away, and holding on for three days, snipping away at it until the wizard surrenders. Then Ruslan revives an entranced Ludmila with a magic ring …
And lo! The petals drew asunder.
The flower-eyes opened, shining bright;
She sighed, as if in musing wonder
About so lingering a night.
It was as if she felt the trace
Of some dim nightmare – then she knew him,
And gave a gasp, cried out, and drew him
Into the bliss of her embrace.
Prince Vladimir gives the couple his blessing, and they live happily ever after.
I love Ruslan and Ludmila; for the beautiful poetry, the variety of Russian fairy tale characters that make an appearance, and the fantastic and imaginative elements of the story. It is a deeply layered narrative, with tales from different characters and plenty of subplots.
Many fairy tales only focus on the main character, and secondary characters are never developed to any great extent. But in Ruslan and Ludmila all the characters have a tale to tell and have their own hopes, dreams, and eventual outcomes that relate to these. I think for this reason I always found Ruslan and Ludmila immensely satisfying, either to read in its entirely, or simply to dip into. It mirrors life, in that everyone is the main character in their own story, and everyone has a tale to tell.
When Pushkin wrote Ruslan and Ludmila he was playing with different writing styles, breaking writing ‘rules’, and mixing up genres. He wove together elements of folk tale, fantasy, history, and the everyday; and alternated peaceful scenes with conflicts, and comic scenes with dark, scary ones. Again, I feel this mirrors life – which also refuses to fit neatly into one genre – and it certainly kept me, as a reader, interested in the tale.
Pushkin is immense fun to read, and his work contains many lessons for living and writing: the importance of being aware of all the subplots in your life or in your story; and being sensitive to the hopes and dreams of the characters’ that surround you; and the benefits of being brave, breaking rules, and mixing things up in new ways.
My favourite translation of Ruslan and Ludmila is by Walter Arndt, and can be found in ‘Collected Narrative and Lyrical Poetry’ by Aleksandr Pushkin, translated by Walter Arndt, and published by Ardis.
The House with Chicken Legs by Sophie Anderson publishes in paperback, 3 May, £6.99 from Usborne.
Cover art by Melissa Castrillón and inside black and white illustrations by Elisa Paganelli.