I think many of you will agree with me when I say that one of the great joys in life is making up stories for your two-year-old right before sleep. Naturally, most of my made up stories are mash-ups of various Russian fairy tales. But I didn’t realize just how much these Russian fairytales have stayed with me over the years. Honestly, I haven’t read many of them for a long time. So when I found this Russian article about typical obstacles any hero encounters in Russian fairy tales, I was surprised to find out that all of them had made their way into the stories that I tell my baby boy.
Knowing that, you’ll not be surprised that some of them are also in my novels. In particular, numbers two, three, and five play active parts in both my first and second novel. Here’s my translation of this fascinating Russian article. You can find the original here.
The fairytale begins with a picture of universal prosperity, a static image of perfection. But every fairytale hero must always face a terrible calamity. From this moment, the story begins its forward momentum. The hero goes on his journey, where he will have unusual encounters, hindrances, and trials. These obstacles, and the magical means that he uses to overcome them, are the essence of the Russian fairytale, giving it richness and a unique flavor.
After leaving his home, the hero of the story, whether he is Ivan the Prince or the girl kicked out by her evil stepmother, goes “wherever her eyes can see.” She always ends up in the dark, dangerous forest. The forest is an enemy of men, an unknown power, a hidden threat. The forest is an obstacle for the hero on his way to the mythical “thrice – ninth kingdom,” the kingdom of the dead.
Therefore, the forest is impenetrable, and the hero can only get through with magical help. The only positive about the forest is that it’s also an effective way of losing enemies. So, we have the famous fairytale trope of Ivan the Prince throwing a magical comb behind him, and that comb becoming an impenetrable forest. Problem solved!
Whether it takes a long time or short, the Prince always ends up in front of the hut on two chicken legs. No magical forest is possible without this famous hut. In order to get into the hut, the hero must utter the magical words: “Oh little hut, stand with your back to the forest, with your front to me.” Only after he has turned the hut can he enter it.
Inside, he always finds Baba Yaga, reclining on the Russian stove. The first thing the hero always hears is Baba Yaga’s angry words: “Oh how those Russian bones stink!” Baba Yaga (as I’ve written before) is the gatekeeper to the underworld. It’s not the smell of Russians she can’t stand. It’s the smell of the living. Therefore, only after passing Baba Yaga’s tests can the hero enter the land of the dead, the mythical “thrice – ninth kingdom.”
The open field
In some stories, the first hindrance is not a forest, but an open field. In this open field stands a waystone with an inscription: “Whoever goes straight will be cold and hungry. Whoever goes to the right will remain alive, but his horse will die. Whoever goes to the left will die, but his horse will remain alive.”
The hero is at the parting of the ways. He must choose the right way. In fact, the open field is itself an obstacle. It is an unknown foreign space, open and unprotected from mystical powers. It is here that the hero will always die on his way home. His enemies (often his jealous brothers) will kill him and chop him into little pieces. However, this death is always a precursor to his resurrection by Living Water. In the end, good and justice always prevail.
The ocean, the open sea, or a river of fire
On his journey, the hero may find a river-spirit, a river of fire, or even a river of milk, beer, honey, or wine. Finally, he might even find the ocean. These are all symbols of chaos. However, the hero overcomes even these obstacles thanks to the magical help he acquires on the way.
Part of the reason for this is that the hero’s journey is a symbol of man’s mastery over nature. In one story, a wise woman gives the hero a skein of wool that rolls by itself, all the way into the water. After it enters the water, the waters part, and even Ivan the Idiot can pass through unharmed.
The insurmountable mountain
Dimitri the Prince rides and rides, and suddenly he sees before him a mountain so large that his eye cannot see the summit. Of course, this is not a mountain you can simply ride around. After all, this mountain is the center of the universe, the axis of the world. Is an image of creation in its entirety.
The mountain has three parts. The top of the mountain is the residence of the divine, the bottom of the mountain is the world of the dead, the center is the world of the living. Only he who has received the blessing of the Heights can dare to begin scaling this mountain.
Whenever someone give our hero a command: “Go there, I know not where, bring that, I know not what,” it means me must seek this mountain, which is nothing other than the entrance into the underground kingdom, the kingdom of death.
By the way, the insurmountable mountain theme is central to my second novel, The Garden in the Heart of the World.
The wall that cannot be climbed over
Whether the hero has to acquire magic apples or Living Water or whether he has to enter into the tower of the beautiful Princess, he has to first scale a wall that cannot be climbed over. In the tales of Ivan the Idiot, the hero always has an unfair advantage: his horse can jump higher than the wall. This is more than simply a convenient exit from a difficult situation. By jumping over this wall, the hero demonstrates his prowess, his worthiness to win the bride by any means necessary.
The flowering garden
Behind this insurmountable wall, the hero often finds a garden. Even though the garden is a cultivated place, not the wilderness, it still plays the role of an obstacle for the hero. In many different fairytales, the garden is the domain of the princess whom the hero has to win.
He can reach her unreachable tower in different ways. Either he flies in on a falcon, or he transforms into a falcon, or he rides a horse with four wings. Sometimes he doesn’t even have to do that. In the tale of Ivan the Prince and Elena the beautiful, gray wolf does the hard work. He carries her from her magical garden to the waiting prince.
However it is, he always marries the Princess in the end. Even though the garden is the proper domain of the Princess, it is a hindrance for the hero, a foreign place. But after marriage, it becomes their shared space.
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