Russian Fairy Tales and Science Fiction
It sounds, at first, almost paradoxical to claim fairy tale antecedents for the Russian tradition of science fiction — but in the context of Russian literary theory, and particularly in light of the work of Vladimir Propp, it was in fact a fairly natural progression. Propp published his famous Morphology of the Folktale in 1928, which provided a new analytic tool for examining the folktales of Russia and other cultures. Instead of following the nineteenth century model of external classification, Propp's system was based upon the internal functions (the "small component parts”) of the tales. He presented a careful narratology for folk stories, categorizing the thirty-one stages he saw as typical of the genre.
Propp classified the components of the tales scientifically, as "constants" and "variables." These elements consisted of functions (the actions or events which produced the plot), dramatis personae (the characters or figures who enact or react to the functions), and spheres of action (the interaction of the two, which shifted relative to one another from tale to tale). Propp observed that “the number of functions is extremely small, whereas the number of personages is extremely large. This explains the two-fold quality of a tale: its amazing multiformity, picturesqueness, and color, and on the other hand, its no less striking uniformity, its repetition.” This, in turn, led Propp to the conclusion which would be the source of his influence on (and notoriety within) the field of folklore: he concluded that “all fairy tales are of one type in regard to their structure.”
There are, however, problems with the methodology that led Propp to this startling conclusion. The primary problem is this: he had not proven the similarity of all folktales across the board, but rather the similarity of a small cross-section of tales originating from a single culture. He'd limited himself to a sample group consisting of one hundred of Alexander Afanasyev's tales, which seems insufficient for such a sweeping generalization, even within Russian culture. For this reason, while subsequent thinkers have admitted Propp's influence, and admired his groundbreaking approach, they have at times found his theory inapplicable to folklore across the board. At the inception of the field of Russian science fiction, however, Propp's work was still widely accepted — which helps modern readers understand why Russian authors utilized fairy tales in the ways that they did. In the early half of the twentieth century, Russian authors of speculative fiction embraced Propp's theories wholeheartedly, along with earlier ideas about the "true" nature and utopian aspects of Russian folktales.
Utopianism, in the context of speculative fiction, has been defined by critic Gary K. Wolfe (in Critical Terms for Science Fiction and Fantasy) as “a fictional narrative whose central theme is an imaginary state or community, sometimes with the corollary that it should be idealized or that it should contain an implied critique of an existing society or societies.” Is science fiction, however, the correct genre to address that question, in and of itself? Carl Freedman (in the same volume) addressed this question eloquently, pointing out that “the perfected knowledge of utopia required to compose a purely science-fictional text could only be obtained by the kind of residence in utopia that would leave one without a nonutopian actuality to be estranged.” Just so. As the writers of early and mid-twentieth century Russia did not have the experience of such an environment, they instead fell back on what experience they did have: that of fairy tales.
In The Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales, Amelia A. Rutledge writes that “science fiction and the fairy tale both deal with situations that are contrary to fact, a quality that Samuel R. Delany calls ‘subjunctivity’." Rutledge acknowledges the connection between science fiction and folktales, expressing the belief that the “obvious utopianism of traditional folk tales which advocates the destabilizing of social hierarchies” is conducive to the goals of science fiction. The fairy tale, she says, “has two primary functions in SF: it offers a structural formula, following to a greater or lesser degree the motif patterns of quest and initiation (departure-test-return) described by Vladimir Propp, and it provides the reader with appealing compensatory fantasy.” Rutledge futher notes that “problems in disentangling SF from fairy tale arise ... when a futuristic device is employed as a substitute for a magic wand, as it tends to be in the variety of SF known as ‘space opera’.”
The renowned science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke once stated that sufficiently complex technology was indistinguishable from magic. The inverse is equally true. It matters little which device is used when the purpose — social criticism — is the same. The key difference between Eastern and Western fantasy lies not so much in the trappings used to accomplish the goals of the story, but in the mentality behind them. Where Eastern tales combine traditional folkloric structures with futuristic technological paraphernalia, Western tales more frequently combine innovative narrative strategies with established fairy tale tropes and characters. The goals of the former tend more towards overt social criticism, coupled with the tale-teller's inherent desire to entertain, while the goals of the latter reverse the order of importance, but share the same basic purpose. It is important to note that, despite their intrinsic differences, both still use the genre of the fairy tale as their foundational resource.
Fairy tales address common human themes; they offer etiologies and solutions, potential paths to be taken and happy endings to be won. They are often described as universal. Modern scholars of fairy tales, however, have challenged this idea, noting that no one version of a fairy tale can be considered the normative or "original" rendition. Each variant of a tale is unique to its circumstances: its geographic locale, its chronological period, its cultural norms, and the idiosyncrasies of its teller. As Elizabeth Wanning Harries has noted (in Twice Upon a Tale), though fairy tales "may have roots in oral narratives, all the stories that we now call fairy tales have been written and rewritten, printed and reprinted over centuries. Some versions of the tales are simpler ... than others, and therefore may seem more authentic, but we have no access to any original versions or ur-texts.”
She goes on to acknowledge that “folklorists have recently become acutely aware of the ‘politics of folklore,’ articulating the conceptual problems inherent in our representations of authentic, traditional, folk culture.” An examination of the respective attitudes towards fairy tales in the Eastern and Western traditions underscores this truth. Similarly, this logic is applicable to the genre of speculative fiction.
Regardless of what we term we use for these stories — contes des fées, marchen, skazki, or fairy tales — it is important to acknowledge their lasting influence upon the modern literary fantastic, both East and West. It is equally important to remember the differences between the regional sub-species of tales, and to take those differences into account when looking at ways they have influenced writers today. In the next article, we will look more closely at specific stories from the Russian fairy tale tradition, and examine the ways these tales have been used by three writers of modern fantasy literature.
Nonfiction and Folklore Collections:
- "The Critical Dynamic: Science Fiction and Utopia" by Carl Freedman (Critical Theory and Russian Science Fiction)
- Russian Fairy Tales by Alexander Afanasye, ed. Norman Guterma
- An Introduction to the Russian Folktale by Jack Haney
- Russian Wondertales II: Tales of Magic and the Supernatural by Jack Haney
- Twice Upon a Tale: Women Writers and the History of the Fairy Tale by Elizabeth Harries
- Russian Folk Belief by Linda J. Ivanits
- Baba Yaga: The Ambiguous Mother and Witch of the Russian Folktale by Andreas John
- "Afanasyev, Alexander" by Maria Nikolajeva (The Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales, ed. Jack Zipes)
- Morphology of the Folktale by Vladamir Propp, translated by Laurence Scott
- "Science Fiction and Fairy Tales" by Amelia A. Rutledge (The Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales, ed. Jack Zipes)
- The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales by Maria Tatar
- "Storytelling and Survival: Bedtime Stories from Scheherezade to Peter Pan" by Maria Tatar (James A. Hoffman Memorial Lecture in Comparative Literature, delivered November 15th, 2001)
- Russian Myths by Elizabeth Warner
- From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and their Tellers by Marina Warner
- The Brothers Grimm: From Enchanted Forests to the Modern World by Jack Zipes
- "Cross-Cultural Connections and the Contamination of the Classical Fairy Tale" by Jack Zipes (The Great Fairy Tale Tradition: From Straparola and Basile to the Brothers Grimm)
- Enchantment by Orson Scott Card
- The Rusalka Sequence: Rusalka, Chernevog, and Yvgenia by C.J. Cherry
- Books of Magic: The Land of Summer's Twilight by Neil Gaiman
- In The Forests of Serre by Patricia A. KcKillip
- Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente
- "The Death of Koshchei the Deathless (a tale of old Russia)" by Gene Wolfe (Ruby Slippers, Golden Tears, eds. Datlow & Windling)
About the Author: Helen Pilinovsky writes on fairy tales, feminism, and the fantastic. She received her Ph.D. from Columbia University, where her topic was the birth of the genre of fantasy in the 19th century. She has guest-edited issues of The Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts and Extrapolation, and is co-editor of the fairy tale journal Cabinet des Fées. She lives in New York City, where she teaches at Barnard College.
Copyright © 2004 by Helen Pilinovsky. This longer version of this article first appeared in Realms of Fantasy magazine, April 2004. This material may not be reproduced in any form without the author's permission.
Art: Ivan Bilibin (1846-1942) Russian fairy tale illustrator and stage designer.