Russian Tales

arrow frog princess

Here, as promised, is Bilibin’s version of the moment when the Prince discovers that his arrow obliges him to marry a frog. The body-language, as well as the face, clearly expresses consternation.

But never fear, all will turn out well, owing, not least, to the Helpful Animals, who will get a page all of their own in due course.

The other important element in this story is the External Soul – but let us not anticipate!

Instead, let us mention other Russian Tales, for which I do not have such evocative images – at least, only in my head.

There is Master Misery, with the estranged brothers, and the vodka shop, and that strange creature that will not let go of its victim.

Then there is The Sun’s Little Sister, which often has an addition to its title, but if I add that, I will be giving away one of the story’s major twists!wave

This is the barrel in Tsar Saltan that contains the hapless Tsarina who is taken by the waves to… where? why? For the answers to these and other questions, you will have to listen to the story! Which will be just predictable enough to be comforting, and unexpected enough to still have an element of surprise – or at least to provoke you to a cry of “Oh no!” as you witness the arrival of the foreseen disaster.

These three images are figures who puzzle Beautiful Vasilissa: the Red, White and Black Riders… when she asks Baba Yaga, she discovers that they are the old witch’s sons: the Rising Sun, the Clear Day, and Night.

red rider

white riderblack rider













The Snow Stories All kinds of things can happen in the forests in winter. Figures made from snow can come alive and young men can fall in love with them – until the Spring, and then… Childless couples can make a snow-model of the daughter they wish they had had… Or a stepmother can try to marry her daughter to Father Frost…



And then there’s the story of The Apple on the Silver Tray – the silver tray shows images of the whole wide world, and the story is so well-known in Russia that this cartoon refers to it:11215512_Valentin_Dubinin_Katis_yablochko

Byliny are short epic poems telling the stories of bogatyri, or knights-errant, usually associated with Vladimir, the ruler of Kiev. The most famous of these is Ilya Muromets, Ilya of Murom, who has not only a 1956 film about him, using 11,000 horses, but also a symphony. Ilya_Muromets_vhsilia4

Episodes worth telling include the arrival of three strangers who urge the 33-year-old Ilya [who has never yet been able to walk, and has spent his life hitherto sitting on the stove] to arise, open the door to them and drink the water they bring, which will give him the strength he needs to defend the Russians against the Tugars [an amalgam of various enemies, especially the Tatars].


Also worth telling is his encounter with Nightingale the Robber [here is another picture by Bilibin] whose whistle disables strong men, and finally his arrival at a cross-roads with three signs: This Way to Wealth, This Way to Marriage, This Way to Death. Ilya takes each road in turn, and comes back a-knight-at-the-crossroads-1878not wealthy, not married, and alive.

Sources: I used Russian Tales and Legends by Charles Downing [OUP], as well as The Project Gutenberg e-Book of Russian Fairytales by W.R.S. Ralston . Afanasyev is the man who made the big collection 1855-1867. Definitely worth reading is Arthur Ransome’s Old Peter’s Russian Tales. Here’s another collection of illustrated folktales.

:I have just stumbled on The Little Humpbacked Horse, by Pyotr Pavlovich Yershov – I found it by chance as I was browsing through the life of Marius Petipa, the French-born choreographer from the great age of traditional Russian ballet. And I have also found some splendid illustrations accompanying the Russian text – The double-page spreads are very impressive.



I must read it and tell it!




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