Yesterday, looking for new stories, I was browsing in Ralston’s Russian Fairy Tales and came across a story about the rivalry between the prophet Elijah [venerated under the name of Ilya in Russia] and Saint Nicholas. I learnt from Ralston’s own notes that Elijah had responsibility for what came down from the skies: thunder, lightning, hail, weather in general – indeed, in Old Novgorod there were two churches dedicated to Elijah, and you prayed in one to ask for rain to start and in the other for it to stop – they were known as Wet Elijah and Dry Elijah.
However, I needed Google to tell me that Elijah was the patron saint of Russian paratroopers, whose national day therefore falls on August 2nd, which corresponds to July 20th of the Orthodox calendar, Elijah’s day, around harvest-time.
These only apparently random facts make a good introduction to the story, but what I found interesting was the way in which the story grew under my hands. The peasant in it worships Nicholas, rather than Elijah, and when Nicholas, chatting with Elijah, hears that the prophet plans to ruin the peasant’s crop with hail, the saint advises the peasant to sell his crop in advance to the priest of Elijah’s church. Selling your crop in the field is, of course, a recipe for financial disaster and establishes the dominance of financiers over farmers. Here, however, it is a piece of insider dealing, prudence masquerading as profligacy.
When Ilya and Nikolai wander that way again, and Ilya smirks at the destruction his hail has wrought, Nikolai wipes the smile off his face by telling him that the ruined crop is now owned by the prophet’s priest, which moves the prophet to declare that he will sort matters, which moves Nikolai to urge the peasant to go to the priest and buy back the ruined crop.
This is where my habit of tidying up motivation produced a mischievously creative addition. Nikolai suggests that the peasant should tell the priest that he feels guilty about the loss the priest has sustained, and offer him half the purchase-price to buy back the field, so that they share the loss between them. It was then that the imp in my brain made the peasant say, ‘Will he believe me?’ and made Nikolai say, ‘He’s a priest – they believe anything.’
Elijah can’t have been listening, because I wasn’t immediately struck down by lightning.
That first little addition came to me after the first time of telling, which was an impromptu ‘bare-bones’ job at an under-attended poetry-group yesterday morning, and it went into the first proper telling last night, at Southampton Story Club. But on the drive home another little twist occurred to me. After the first couple of incidents, and even more after the threshing, which I’ll let you read about for yourself, Ilya strongly suspects that Nikolai is in collusion with the peasant, which Nikolai naturally denies. Ralston’s version simply has Nikolai appear to the peasant, but it felt much more natural to me to have the saint appear in a dream. But a peasant, who has been working hard all day, will not necessarily want to have his sleep disturbed, so, when he complains about this, Nikolai can explain that it’s simply so that Elijah won’t find out, but he is suspicious, which leads neatly into the final encounter, which again I’ll let you read for yourself.
This is another of the things that make me love storytelling: the stories are alive, and grow.
This is the link to the Earthouse, an amazing turf-roofed building where stories are told. Ring the East Dorset Heritage Trust, 01202 888992, for tickets and further information.
Poetika is a poetry open mic evening, 3rd Wednesday in the month 7.30pm-9.30pm in The Cloisters, 83 Catherine Street, Salisbury SP1 2DH
The theme was The Devil in the Detail, so I thought I would tell the Grimm story Bärenhäuter (Bearskin), but I also wanted to make it mine. It seemed to me that having to stay dirty for seven years would be more of a challenge for a man who liked to be neat and clean, so the ordinary soldier became an officer, who put on his last dash of perfume and stripped off his fine clothes because he knew their value, and they would settle the last of his debts, together with five of his six remaining bullets, before he shot himself on the deserted heath. The bear, which the Devil summons up to test the officer’s courage, is not a real bear, but a bearskin animated by magic, though scary enough to make the officer use his last remaining bullet, which, in a sense, forces him to abandon suicide and take the Devil’s challenge (and avoids the messiness of having to skin a bear on the spot, and the need to harm a protected species in the telling of a story).
Having lodged Bearskin in an annex to the stables, with poorly-built walls, it was a simple matter to send the distressed businessman to a store-room next door, where Bearskin could hear, through a handy knot-hole, his lamentations as he prepared to hang himself. After he has restored the merchant’s fortunes, Bearskin accepts his invitation to visit his home, not out of any desire for marriage, but because he is lonely for human society. The two elder daughters (do they have a different mother from the youngest? I don’t know) refuse even to meet him. In a piece of prefiguring (which occurred to me too late, but which I will use next time I tell it) one of them says she would sooner hang herself, the other that she would sooner jump down a well than meet him. The youngest, who really loves her father, makes the offer of marriage to Bearskin, since she is the only thing she truly possesses that she can give him in gratitude, and they do the stuff with the ring that is already in the story.
After which, everything unfolds as it does in the text… though I will leave it to the Devil to tell Bearskin about the suicides of his sisters-in-law, and let him decide when to tell his wife… we’ll simply have them stomp off in high dudgeon before the wedding.
These are my methods: to preserve what I see as the point of the story, but to reinforce motivations and remove what I feel to be unnecessarily offensive, especially if I can do it cleverly.
People will know the story about the man who sees Death in the marketplace, and sees Death looking at him in a meaningful way. Thinking to avoid Death, the man flees, takes horse, rides furiously to a distant city – the distance and the city vary in different versions – where, the day after his arrival, the man again encounters Death. Since it is, as they say, a fair cop, the man goes quietly, but he asks Death why he looked at him meaningfully. Death says that he looked at him in surprise and puzzlement, seeing him in that city, because he had it down on his list that he was supposed to collect him in this city, the one in which they are now.
If you google this, you will come across John O’Hara’s Appointment in Samarra in the first place, and Somerset Maugham in the second place, who has Death tell it to eponymous hero of his play Sheppey. Idries Shah claims it as a Sufi story in his Tales of the Dervishes. There is a good account of various possible sources here. Even Saki has a version.
All in all, the earliest written version is in the Babylonian Talmud, compiled around 500 CE, and if you’re picky enough to want to go to the source, it’s here, in Tractate Succah section 53a [this is the easiest to consult – there are other Talmuds on the web, but they don’t always print the section designations in a clear way].
And this is what I made out of it, in my own story, which sets the events in France and Gloucestershire during WW1 and later, and also includes a mummers’ play. Only long after writing it did I learn that there were other Thankful Villages – though probably not for the reason advanced in my story.
So – is it poverty of imagination? Or the ability to see the fairytale world in reality? Sleeping Beauty, too, has a real-life, semi-overgrown castle as her model in Ubbelohde’s world. But then the Grimm stories DO take place in sleepy old Germany… and the interiors in Schmidhammer are just as real…
Lustschlößchen in Amönau (Hesse, Germany) – template for Rapunzel tower – this, in some ways, is what storytellers do: when they describe some fantastic scene or other they usually have something real in their head. Or do you disagree?
which is a Frog-King in German and Slav languages…
Ubbelohde also chooses real buildings as the models for his fairytale settings.