Review: Folk Tales from Russian Lands by Irina Zheleznova, and the film Morozko/Jack Frost

Folk Tales from Russian Lands - Selected and translated by Irina Zheleznova

Another childhood read - apparently I'm still on a roll with those. This is a Dover paperback from 1969, and I've lost track of how many times I read as a child. It wasn't until this reread that I really thought about how I've never known how to pronounce any of these names - and still have no clue. Names like Pokati-Goroshek, Pilipka, Hiysi, and Altyn-Saka. Even my favorite - Basil Fet-Frumos - I'd remembered as Fret-Frumos.


I'd also never thought to look up Irina Zheleznova, who selected and translated the stories in this book. She doesn't seem to have a website (in English, that I could find that is), but if you check her name on any book site you'll find lots of material. I think there are a lot of children that have her to thank for introducing us to these fairy tales.


It's thanks to her that I know what a yurt is! But since there were no web images to look up back then I only had a sketchy idea of what they looked like. And I'm only now looking up how you play the game of knucklebones (which is mentioned in a lot of folktales around the world). But then I bet there are a lot of kids now who've never heard of the game of jacks (I was not good at it, I preferred to spin them).


The witch Baba Yaga always confused me. In some stories she's - well, not nice exactly - but you can go ask her for advice and she won't immediately try to kill you. While in other stories she will indeed immediately try to kill you. It's actually thanks to Baba Yaga that I remembered this book, come to think of it.


A few days ago I was randomly looking at things on youtube (the ol' one vid leads to another game) and found myself remembering the 1964 film Jack Frost - a Soviet film originally called Morózko. I'd seen it in the 1970s when a midwestern tv channel would schedule dubbed foreign films for their weekly Children's Theatre show. Which resulted in me watching some really bad and weird foreign children's films. For some reason I fell in love with this particular film - I'm betting it has something to do with Father Mushroom, and also that Baba Yaga's house really walks (a little) on chicken legs. Anyway, I found a youtube version of the film which is much longer than the dubbed version - probably because it has singing.


Morozko, with English Subtitles (1 hr 18 min)

You'll be able to tell from the editing that this is not an entirely professional film. But the quality and color in this print is insanely better than the one I saw as a child. I also learned thanks to the subtitles that I missed out on a lot of rhyming dialog. Because of the over-the-top characters, Baba Yaga played by a male actor, slapstick - it reminded me of the UK's panto. (Am wondering if there's the same tradition in Russian children's theater?)


If you decide to actually watch some of this - Father Mushroom first appears around 14 minutes in. Maybe someone can tell me what's up with those little bell things he's always ringing. Also speaking of fashion - because Father M's hat is stylin' - check out the embroidery on everyone's outfits. Father Frost/Jack Frost's is especially fab. I envy his coat.


How good a movie is this? Um, well, MST3K used it, which I think says it all. (I don't think it's one of their better episodes though.) So yes, cheese factor is high.


Randomly - because in the movie Ivan (of the blonde Prince Valiant hair) is always wandering around wearing red boots, I started to wonder whether this had always been part of Russian costume. Apparently the specifically red color (along with other bright colors) is thanks to 1900s fashion: Russian boot. And it sounds like we have that fashion trend to thank for a lot of the styles we still wear.


Now back to the book (oh right, I was reviewing a book), and some quotes.


Introduction, p vii:

From the Translator

Dear readers!


I am sure you all know that the Soviet Union is a huge country, the largest in the world. Its neighbors are Alaska in the East and Scandinavia in the West. In the south it stretches as far as the Caucasus and Pamir mountain ranges, and in the North reaches out into the Arctic Ocean. And the heart, the pulsating heart of this great country, is Moscow.


When the rays of the dawn light up the sky of Khabarovsk in the Far East, the sun is only just beginning to set in Minsk, Kiev, and other cities in the west; and while icy winds blow in Yakutia, roses bloom in Tashkent and vacationers enjoy the sun on the pebbly beaches of the Black Sea.


Many people live in this huge country, each with its own habits and traditions, its own language. The Uzbek language, for instance, bears as little resemblance to the Russian, or say, the Moldavian as the Arabic does to the English or the Chinese.


And each of the peoples of the Soviet Union has its own fairytales.


The Chukchi and Nenets tales as well as the tales of other peoples of Russia's North transport us into the snowy tundra, a realm of fierce frosts and howling blizzards, where the dog and the reindeer are man's best friends. In the tales of the peoples of Central Asia caravans of camels plod slowly over the scorching sands, and the ceaseless murmur of water comes from the numerous canals that feed the ever thirsty fields. Other scenes and images rise up before us when we read Russian fairy-tales. The stout-hearted young heroes of these tales gallop on horseback over hills and dales which are green in summer and carpeted with snow in winter, while their lovely tsarevnas sit patiently waiting for them in their log towers with windows of mica. ...


Story: Tsarkin Kahn and the Archer, p. 199

"...he sat down cross-legged on the felt mat and said:
"Come Murza, I am hungry!"
At once a yellow flowered cloth unfolded before him, laden with the choicest foods and the finest drinks, everything to please the palate and cheer the heart.
The Archer ate and drank and then said:
"Where are you, Murza? Come, sit down and eat and drink your fill."
At this Murza appeared and at once sat down and began to eat, and when he had finished, he said:
"For thirty whole years have I served food and drink to the giant who was here a while ago, and not once did he invite me to eat or drink with him. Not so you. I served you only once, and you thought of me and invited me to parktake of your repast. I shall be better off with you. Take me with you." "


This isn't the last time that yellow flowered fabric comes up in this story. I've always wondered if that had more significance.


Story: Which is Biggest, p 240:

Now here is something we wish to ask you: which, do you think, was biggest -

Was it the bull?
Don't forget it took a man on horseback a whole day to ride from its tail to its head.

Was it the eagle?
Don't forget that it carried the bull with it to the sky.

Was it the goat?
Don't forget that it was on its horns that the eagle perched and pecked the bull.
Was it the goatherd?
Don't forget that in his eye forty doctors sailed in forty boats.
Was it the fox?
Dont' forget that it started an earthquake by gnawing at the bull's blade bone.
Was it the baby?
Don't forget that it was as much as could be done to make it a cap from the whole of the fox's skin.
Or was it the woman who had such a giant for a baby?
Think now, think hard, and, perhaps, you will be able to tell us.


Those are the questions asked at the end of the tale, and you can figure out the jist of the story from them. This was my least favorite because it always sounded like a math story problem, which kid-me lived in fear of.


Contents, with area that the story was collected from:


The Frog Tsarevna (Russian)
Axe Porridge (Russian)
Chestnut-Grey (Russian)
Ivan the Peasant's Son and the Three Chudo-Yudos (Russian)
A Trial Like No Other (Russian)
Pokati-Goroshek (Ukrainian)
Good and Evil (Ukrainian)
The Wolf, The Dog and The Cat (Ukrainian)
How a Muzhik Dined with the Haughty Lord (Ukrainian)
The Magic Fiddle (Byelorussian)
Why the Badger and the Fox Live in Holes (Byelorussian)
How Vasil Vanquished the Dragon (Byelorussian)
Pilipka (Byelorussian)
Old Frost and Young Frost (Lithuanian)
How a Lord Was Turned into a Horse (Latvian)
To Each His Deserts (spelled that way) (Estonian)
Hiysi's Millstone (Karelian)
How Three Brothers Found Their Father's Treasure (Moldavian)
Basil Fet-Frumos and Ilana Cosinzana, Sister of the Sun (Moldavian)
The Story of Zarniyar Who Had All Her Wits About Her (Azerbaijan)
Sheidullah the Loafer (Azerbaijan)
Anait (Armenian)
The Tsar and the Weaver (Armenian)
Deer-Child and Yelena the Beautiful (Georgian)
The Lion and the Hare (Georgian)
A Lesson in Wisdom (Georgian)
Altyn-Saka The Golden Knucklebone (Bashkir)
Tsarkin Kahn and the Archer (Kalmyk)
A Mountain of Gems (Turkmen)
The Clever Brothers (Uzbek)
The Greedy Kazi (Tajik)
Boroldoi-Mergen and his Brave Son (Altai)
Which is the Biggest? (Kirghiz)
Aldar-Kose and Shigai-Bai (Kazakh)
The Fern Girl (Yakut)
The Golden Cup (Buryat)
Kotura, Lord of the Winds (Nenets)
The Girl and the Moon Man (Chukchi)