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Russian Fairy Tales

W. R. S. Ralston


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Russian Fairy Tales by W. R. S. Ralston, has stories about legends, demons, ghosts, mythology, magic, and witchcraft. Chapter subjects include: Norka the Beast, Lord of the Lower World; Legends about Rivers; The Water King or Subaqueous Demon; Relation of Russian Popular Tales to Russian Life; Female Embodiments of Evil; The Waters of Life and Death, and of Strength and Weakness; On Heaven and Hell; Slavonic Ideas about the Dead; Stories about Vampires; Legends connected with the Dog; Various Legends about Devils, and many more.

This book has 376 pages in the PDF version.

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Excerpt from 'Russian Fairy Tales'

There are but few among those inhabitants of Fairy-land of whom “Popular Tales” tell, who are better known to the outer world than Cinderella—the despised and flouted younger sister, who long sits unnoticed beside the hearth, then furtively visits the glittering halls of the great and gay, and at last is transferred from her obscure nook to the place of honor justly due to her tardily acknowledged merits. Somewhat like the fortunes of Cinderella have been those of the popular tale itself. Long did it dwell beside the hearths of the common people, utterly ignored by their superiors in social rank. Then came a period during which the cultured world recognized its existence, but accorded to it no higher rank than that allotted to “nursery stories” and “old wives’ tales”—except, indeed, on those rare occasions when the charity of a condescending scholar had invested it with such a garb as was supposed to enable it to make a respectable appearance in polite society. At length there arrived the season of its final change, when, transferred from the dusk of the peasant’s hut into the full light of the outer day, and freed from the unbecoming garments by which it had been disfigured, it was recognized as the scion of a family so truly royal that some of its members deduce their origin from the olden gods themselves.

In our days the folk-tale, instead of being left to the careless guardianship of youth and ignorance, is sedulously tended and held in high honor by the ripest of scholars. Their views with regard to its origin may differ widely. But whether it be considered in one of its phases as a distorted “nature-myth,” or in another as a demoralized apologue or parable—whether it be regarded at one time as a relic of primeval wisdom, or at another as a blurred transcript of a page of mediæval history—its critics agree in declaring it to be no mere creation of the popular fancy, no chance expression of the uncultured thought of the rude tiller of this or that soil. Rather is it believed of most folk-tales that they, in their original forms, were framed centuries upon centuries ago; while of some of them it is supposed that they may be traced back through successive ages to those myths in which, during a prehistoric period, the oldest of philosophers expressed their ideas relative to the material or the spiritual world.

But it is not every popular tale which can boast of so noble a lineage, and one of the great difficulties which beset the mythologist who attempts to discover the original meaning of folk-tales in general is to decide which of them are really antique, and worthy, therefore, of being submitted to critical analysis. Nor is it less difficult, when dealing with the stories of any one country in particular, to settle which may be looked upon as its own property, and which ought to be considered as borrowed and adapted. Everyone knows that the existence of the greater part of the stories current among the various European peoples is accounted for on two different hypotheses—the one supposing that most of them “were common in germ at least to the Aryan tribes before their migration,” and that, therefore, “these traditions are as much a portion of the common inheritance of our ancestors as their language unquestionably is:” the other regarding at least a great part of them as foreign importations, Oriental fancies which were originally introduced into Europe, through a series of translations, by the pilgrims and merchants who were always linking the East and the West together, or by the emissaries of some of the heretical sects, or in the train of such warlike transferrers as the Crusaders, or the Arabs who ruled in Spain, or the Tartars who so long held the Russia of old times in their grasp. According to the former supposition, “these very stories, these Mährchen, which nurses still tell, with almost the same words, in the Thuringian forest and in the Norwegian villages, and to which crowds of children listen under the pippal trees of India,” belong “to the common heirloom of the Indo-European race;” according to the latter, the majority of European popular tales are merely naturalized aliens in Europe, being as little the inheritance of its present inhabitants as were the stories and fables which, by a circuitous route, were transmitted from India to Boccaccio or La Fontaine.

On the questions to which these two conflicting hypotheses give rise we will not now dwell. For the present, we will deal with the Russian folk-tale as we find it, attempting to become acquainted with its principal characteristics to see in what respects it chiefly differs from the stories of the same class which are current among ourselves, or in those foreign lands with which we are more familiar than we are with Russia, rather than to explore its birthplace or to divine its original meaning.

We often hear it said, that from the songs and stories of a country we may learn much about the inner life of its people, inasmuch as popular utterances of this kind always bear the stamp of the national character, offer a reflex of the national mind. So far as folk-songs are concerned, this statement appears to be well founded, but it can be applied to the folk-tales of Europe only within very narrow limits. Each country possesses certain stories which have special reference to its own manners and customs, and by collecting such tales as these, something approximating to a picture of its national life may be laboriously pieced together. But the stories of this class are often nothing more than comparatively modern adaptations of old and foreign themes; nor are they sufficiently numerous, so far as we can judge from existing collections, to render by any means complete the national portrait for which they are expected to supply the materials. In order to fill up the gaps they leave, it is necessary to bring together a number of fragments taken from stories which evidently refer to another clime—fragments which may be looked upon as excrescences or developments due to the novel influences to which the foreign slip, or seedling, or even full-grown plant, has been subjected since its transportation.

The great bulk of the Russian folk-tales, and, indeed, of those of all the Indo-European nations, is devoted to the adventures of such fairy princes and princesses, such snakes and giants and demons, as are quite out of keeping with ordinary men and women—at all events with the inhabitants of modern Europe since the termination of those internecine struggles between aboriginals and invaders, which some commentators see typified in the combats between the heroes of our popular tales and the whole race of giants, trolls, ogres, snakes, dragons, and other monsters. The air we breathe in them is that of Fairy-land; the conditions of existence, the relations between the human race and the spiritual world on the one hand, the material world on the other, are totally inconsistent with those to which we are now restricted. There is boundless freedom of intercourse between mortals and immortals, between mankind and the brute creation, and, although there are certain conventional rules which must always be observed, they are not those which are enforced by any people known to anthropologists. The stories which are common to all Europe differ, no doubt, in different countries, but their variations, so far as their matter is concerned, seem to be due less to the moral character than to the geographical distribution of their reciters. The manner in which these tales are told, however, may often be taken as a test of the intellectual capacity of their tellers. For in style the folk-tale changes greatly as it travels. A story which we find narrated in one country with terseness and precision may be rendered almost unintelligible in another by vagueness or verbiage; by one race it may be elevated into poetic life, by another it may be degraded into the most prosaic dulness.

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