On Fairytales, Folktales, Wondertales, and… Tales

Vladimir Propp makes clear in his Исторические корни волшебной сказки (Istoricheskie korni volshebnoi skazki) that the subject of his study is indeed the волшебная сказка [volshebnaia skazka] announced in its title. However, in his exposition, he often uses the term сказка [skazka] without any attribute. This term happens to be the word used for “folktale,” “fairy tale,” and simply “tale” in English, which led my colleagues and co-translators Miriam Shrager, Sibelan Forrester, and me to a lot of discussion about how best to render the term in our on-going translation of Propp’s book. Alternate translations for the term volshebnaia might be “fairy,” “magical,” “enchanting,” “bewitching,” or “fantastical.” As “wondertale” has gained currency in translations into English, and as the author’s use is primarily technical rather than poetically descriptive, we have been using it as both the title of the translation and in many of the initial instances of the term skazka in the text, where it is clear he is using it as something of a short-hand for the longer, more descriptive term. But this only helps a bit around the margins and does not provide a definitive strategy for rendering the much more frequently and variously encountered skazka (without attribute) throughout the book. 

Propp’s Morfologiia skazki is known as Morphology of the Folktale in English. It is regularly cited and has come to occupy a central place in global folklore studies as such. This title rests upon an interpretive move that is not often remarked upon, an assumption about what the author intended without noting explicitly, namely, that the word skazka was an abbreviated version of narodnaia skazka (folk tale) and therefore equivalent to “folktale” in English. This is a reasonable assumption and a reasonable interpretation, but it is an interpretation all the same, as the word “folk” is not to be found in the Russian title of that book. 

While such an observation might seem on its face inconsequential to the overall translation of the work, it gathers additional weight when we turn to the translation of the continuation of Propp’s earlier begun study, which is in fact this work, with its more explicit title: Istoricheskie korni volshebnoi skazki (Historical Roots of the Wondertale). Here, in his introductory chapter, the author explicitly notes, “By ‘wondertale’ [volshebnaia skazka] I shall intend those tales whose structure I examined in The Morphology of the Folktale [Morfologiia skazki], a book that sets out the genre of the wondertale [volshebnaia skazka] with adequate precision.” 

Now, it could be assumed that the previous book delineated a variety of folktale categories in equal measure, naming the wondertale as one of them but leaving the specifics of analysis for later. This is not the case. Actually, in fact, the entire book known by the English title Morphology of the Folktale was concerned with the wondertale (or, as rendered by earlier translators, the “fairy tale”), and the issue of the title’s ambiguity was not only known to earlier translators but remarked upon, as in Louis A. Wagner’s preface to his revised version of the book for its second edition: 

The expression narodnaja skazka has been rendered as “folktale,” volšebnaja skazka as “fairy tale,” and the words skazka (noun), skazočnyj (adjective) simply as “tale.” The chief departure from this practice is in regard to the title itself (Morfologija skazki), since a change here might have led to undue confusion. The morphology presented by the author is, of course, a morphology of the fairy tale specifically and he is careful to make note of this fact in the Foreword and in Chapter II. Thus the title of the work is, unfortunately, somewhat unclear. It is evident from the text that the unqualified word skazka is used by Propp both in the sense of tale in general and in the sense of fairy tale, depending upon context. The reader must infer the appropriate meaning in each instance. (Propp 2009: ix, emphasis added) 

In other words, Morphology of the Folktale perhaps should have been called Morphology of the Fairy Tale in its first English translation since that was its subject, and indeed the first edition’s introduction, by Svatava Pirkova-Jakobson, opened with the clear declaration, “The subject of this study, the Russian fairy tale…” (Propp 2009: xix). 

What is not clear is why the first edition’s translator, Laurence Scott, or perhaps that volume’s editor or publisher, chose to specify “folktale” in the title when everyone seems to have understood that the book’s subject was actually narrower and more specific. This strategy, moreover, had a long-term impact on the field, as evidenced by one reader of our text, a prominent folklorist who does not happen to work with Russian sources, emphasized in his comments that “skazka equals folktale.” Well, no it doesn’t, even if it might look that way from the English title of Propp’s earlier book.

The opposite tack was taken in the 1984 translation—by Ariadna Y. Martin and Richard P. Martin—of an excerpt from the Historical Roots of the Wondertale published as part of the book Theory and History of Folklore. Here the translators chose to render every instance of skazka in the source as “wondertale” in their translation, despite Propp’s sometimes more expansive use of the term. Actually, Propp uses the same word (skazka) to refer to the tales collected by Russian nineteenth-century ethnographers as well as the “fairy tales” of the Brothers Grimm, Native American stories collected by Boas, Micronesian, African, and Australian tales, and stories from the Rig Veda and the Egyptian Book of the Dead. By contrast, he uses the full “wondertale” [volshebnaia skazka] relatively infrequently in his book—many times in the first chapter, then not at all from chapters two to nine, then again a few more times in chapter ten—and as we asked ourselves upon encountering each successive instance of the much more commonly used skazka whether he had in mind “wondertale,” “folktale,” or a broader and more general “tale” or even “story,” we found ourselves occasionally hesitating. It is clear that it does not always simply refer to “wondertale,” but it is not always clear from context what he might have had in mind for each instance.  

Essentially, we have found ourselves in the hermeneutic dilemma set out by Friedrich Schleiermacher in the early nineteenth century: namely, whether to bring the text closer to readers in the receiving culture, by interpreting for them (the strategy adopted in the Martin and Martin translation), or bring the readers of the receiving culture closer to the original text, by introducing aspects of the source, including its very ambiguity and polysemy, into the English. Faced with this choice, the Scott translation, in effect compromised by translating skazka as “tale” without differentiation and leaving it to readers to decide based on the context of its usage what Propp might have meant in each case. Except for in its title, that is.

Recent translation practice has favored different interpretive and expressive strategies on the part of translators, who, recognizing the implicit cultural power and expressiveness of particular words, phrases, and other linguistic features, often leave them untranslated in the new text. We considered this idea and even partially revised our version leaving skazka or the plural skazki in the English wherever Propp used those terms without an adjective but then pulled back: it’s already a complicated text with lots of terms in it; did we really need to add another? Do we?

Aspersion and Aspersions

While translating Propp’s Historical Roots of the Wondertale, my colleague Miriam Shrager and I wondered a bit over the “sprinkling” (окропление) that comes up occasionally in fairy tales, often in the context of crossing between this world and some other, magical one (“she sprinkled the door with water”). This, so claims Propp, is a remnant of the sorts of ritual sprinkling practiced in hunter-gatherer societies, often in connection with ritual sacrifice, rites of initiation, and, later, ceremonies associated with the dead’s passage to the next world, as in Ancient Egypt. It is the same word, and the same basic concept, as when a priest sprinkles holy water during a mass or other ceremony, where the word employed is “aspersion.” So in terms of our translation, this is the word to use.

But then I wondered why aspersion in this context is obviously a good thing to have done to one, while aspersions in the plural, as in the phrase “to cast aspersions upon,” which is the only way I knew the word until discovering its use in ritual sprinkling, is only ever a bad thing to have done to one. It turns out that the word has been rather productive in a linguistic sense, at least until around the latter half of the nineteenth century, when people stopped using it except in the negative casting and plural sense.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, one of the first attestations in English was, appropriately, a translation, from Latin by the “martyrologist” John Foxe, of Archbishop Courtney’s Actes and Monuments: “By the aspersion of the bloud of Iesus Christ” (1570). Shakespeare uses it in his early seventeenth-century Tempest rather loosely and with a positive inflection: “No sweet aspersion shall the heauens let fall To make this contract grow” (Act IV, i, 18), while Francis Bacon employs it in an (according to the OED) obsolete sense of “the sprinkling of an ingredient” in his Advancement of Learning: “Diuinity Morality and Policy, with great aspersion of all other artes.”

The verb “to asperse” appears even earlier, again in a translation from Latin, albeit via French, this one by William Caxton, of Virgil’s Aeneid (or as his 1490 text has it The boke yf Eneydos), while the place one keeps the holy liquid for aspersing has been Englished as an aspersoir (clearly via French again), an aspergillum, an aspersory, and an aspersorium, depending on who was doing the Englishing and when. The person who asperses is an aspersor, who may or may not be aspersive in his manner, engaging in his work aspersively.

How this relates to character is obviously figurative, but the routes by which it figured are not completely clear. Almost from its beginnings in English, the term had an evil twin, which explains William Barriffe’s quip, in a 1639 article on military discipline regarding the “private & frosty nips from aspersionating tongues.” This is the sense with which we are familiar, namely, “a damaging report; a charge that tarnishes the reputation; a calumny, slander, false insinuation.” But for some time still it could be singular, as Henry Fielding has it in his 1749 Tom Jones: “I defy all the World to cast a just Aspersion on my Character” (note the linkage already here to the verb “to cast,” which will make a stalwart pairing over the next several centuries), and it could be a verb, as George Elliot has it in her 1866 Felix Holt: “Has any one been aspersing your husband’s character?”

I have only suspicions about the routes the figuring took, but it is hinted at in this phrase from Bacon’s already quoted Advancement of Learning: “There is to bee found besides the Theologicall sence, much aspersion of Philosophie,” which is echoed more explicitly in a 1781 article on friendship by William Cowper: “Aspersion is the babbler’s trade, To listen is to lend him aid.” Such pronouncements suggest a shared belief that to asperse is somehow to dabble (like a babbler), to dilute (as in to asperse Philosophie), or simply to avoid engaging in something seriously. Such an idea could have arisen from a sense that is implicit in the baptismal usage, where aspersion substitutes for the real thing, as when William Maskell points out in an 1849 history of Anglican rituals, “St. Peter… baptized five thousand on one day; but this must have been by aspersion.”

I wonder too about notions of impurity associated with speckling or besmirching, where something imagined as pure (e.g., a fox’s red coat) is “aspersed” with dark spots, which by extension might apply to the purity of someone’s character, as, for example, when an innocent character is aspersed with experiences, or, to make all this active, when someone, an aspersor (or, more likely in the context of this particular set of words, an aspersor’s pen — “What shall be done to thee thou aspersing Pen?” H. Hickman, 1673) has flung those little blots or spots at someone else, resulting in a visible stain. I find it intriguing that aspersion in the spiritual sense leaves no visible marks, while the plural figurative is almost invariably about having been defiled in the eyes of others.

I wonder too about the action of casting, which like the spreading of rumor or malicious gossip, can look a lot like the evil of contagion. This thought gives a completely surprising turn to William Thackeray’s 1843 observation (from his Irish sketch book): “The people, as they entered, aspersed themselves with all their might.” I suppose Propp might have agreed with this assertion.

From Non-Space to Landscape

I am struck by the notion of the absence of space in Vladimir Propp’s account of the wondertale. This is similar to Mikhail Bakhtin’s observation about the absence of the effects of time on the hero and heroine of romance, where they have adventure after adventure but, in the end, don’t seem to have aged or been left psychologically changed by any of their experiences. They remain the same couple “of marriageble age” at the end that they were before the kidnapping, the pirates, the crocodiles, the earthquake, and so on. This, in part at least, is what Voltaire makes fun of at the end of Candide when Cunegonde turns out to be old and ugly from having waited so long.

Propp’s suggestion is that wondertales developed from rituals in set places (the forest hut, the boundary between this world and the next, the animal and human realms) and that the “in-between” spatial elements were added only later. He describes this in an eloquent phrase: “The road is present only in the composition, not in the texture.” By this he means that while there are great spaces traversed, the tales skip over the time of movement itself, often by means of a set formula like “He road for a long or a short time, near or far…,” which, as he puts it, “refuses” to describe the journey itself in any detail.

He contrasts this to epic spatial descriptions, especially those of well-known works like The Odyssey, about which he has this to say:

For us there is no doubt that the Odyssey, for example, is a later phenomenon than the wondertale. In it the journey and its space are elaborated in the style of epic. Hence we conclude that the static elements, the stops of the wondertale, are older than its spatial composition. Space has intruded into something that already existed before. The key elements were created prior to the appearance of spatial representations. We shall see this in greater detail below. All the elements of the stops already existed as ritual. Spatial representations separated into long distances things that were actually the phases of ritual.

(Historical Roots of the Wondertale, Chapter Two; tr. by Miriam Shrager, Sibelan Forrester, and Russell Scott Valentino; in ms.)

Describing the “phases of ritual” from which wondertales emerged constitues the heart of the book, it seems to me.

But I am struck by the contrast between this primordial (in the sense of story telling) absence of space and the sense of landscape that encompasses everything for a writer and thinker like Anne Whiston Spirin, whose work I’ve been exploring. She is not alone, of course, though her work might be the most profound on this score, especially her description of the obstacles she faced in approaching landscape as language (in her The Language of Landscape) and the ways she set out to overcome them. Space here is a conceptual tool, the fundamental texture that makes composition possible.

Propp’s Magic

While his prose might not be scintillating (see previous post), Vladimir Propp’s insights and analyses are of the sort that occasionally help just about everything one has ever read in a certain domain fall into place. This happened today when I worked on this passage:

Sometimes the hero is tested through a contest before the wedding. At first glance, these contests have a purely athletic nature. Frazer [he’s referring to Sir James Frazer of The Golden Bough –RSV], studying this topic, sees only athletic rivalry in them; he attributes an ancient origin to the custom and projects it onto “primitive society.” “The personal qualities which recommended a man for a royal alliance and succession to the throne would naturally vary according to the popular ideas of the time and the character of the king or his substitute, but it is reasonable to suppose that among them in early society physical strength and beauty would hold a prominent place.” (Frazer 1911a: 296) “Sometimes apparently the right to the hand of the princess and to the throne has been determined by a race. The Alitemnian Libyans awarded the kingdom to the fleetest runner. Amongst the old Prussians, candidates for nobility raced on horseback to the king, and the one who reached him first was ennobled” (Frazer 1911a: 299). Fraser finds no reason to support this other than “we can assume.” The issue was decided not by an athletic build and certainly not by beauty, but by completely different qualities. M. G. Tikhaia-Tsereteli, who worked on Georgian folktales senses this though she cannot prove it: “The personal qualities of the hero are also typical: beauty, athletic strength, intelligence, and other qualities that reflect his mythological nature. These qualities are what determine his union with the princess, not his origin” (Tikhaia-Tsereteli 1932: 172, emphasis added). The author here saw correctly what Frazer did not: that athletic strength or dexterity reflects the mythological nature of the hero.

Careful study of the wondertale [what we often call “fairy tales” –RSV] shows that it is not the hero’s strength and dexterity but other qualities that are reflected in the contests. Victory is provided by the magical helper. The hero cannot do anything without him, and his personal strength is not the point.

Let us consider the running contest. “The king’s daughter will run to the well for water, and the man who outruns her will get her in marriage. If someone competes and does not outrun her, his head will be chopped off” (Khudiakov 1862: 33). It is not only the speed of running that is important here; the goal towards which they run is also important. At first glance, the well does not represent anything special. However, comparison of different variants shows that when they compete in running, water is the goal of the race. The Afanas’ev tale shows that this water is not simple. There, one must get “the healing and living water” in the shortest time, “before the king finishes his dinner.” The hero is distraught: even a year would not be enough time to get the water. Having heard the task, “his companion untied his foot from his ear, ran, and instantly got the healing and living water.” On the way back, he lies down to rest, but the Seer or the Insightful One discovers him. The Archer wakes him up with a skillful shot, and Swift-Runner arrives with the water on time (Afanas’ev 144). These examples show that it is not enough to run quickly: the important thing is to run quickly beyond thrice nine lands and return. Later, however, this target was lost, the “living water” transformed into a well, and running fast became the goal in itself.   

(from Chapter Nine of Historical Roots of the Wondertale)

If, as Propp argues, these kinds of stories are much older than those of organized agricultural societies (the Egyptians, the Greeks, and so on), then the rights of initiation that he focuses on make them much more like the stories of other hunter-gatherer societies around the world. In other words, when you ask what Russian fairy tales are like, a better answer than “like Greek myths” is “like Native American, African, Micronesian, (and so on) initiation stories,” which means stories rooted in the rites of passage of the 50,000 generations of human hunter-gatherer societies. This is where they have their origin, while the 500 generations of agricultural societies tried to make sense of them in their own ways after their societies had stopped practicing most of the rituals that previous humans had relied upon. In the process, the farmers often engaged in “re-signifying” (this is how we are choosing to translate переосмысление) them in ways that, by today’s standards, often look bizarre or “magical.”

At other times, like this one, they translate these now bizarre practices into the most mundane of traits and skills, like being bigger, stronger, faster, or more beautiful, which, if Propp is right, was never the point at all.

Propp: Brilliant but Boring

I have been translating, with two colleagues, Vladimir Propp’s Historical Roots of the Wondertale (Исторические корни волшебной сказки), a very important book that has for some reason never made it into English. It is a tour de force in many ways and truly a follow-up to his widely known Morphology of the Folktale (Морфология сказки), which has been especially influential for folklorists, historians, anthropologists, and others for decades. This book had its own roots in the final chapter of the author’s dissertation, which was also the source of the Morphology. It helps to fill out the picture of Propp as a scholar and thinker. The previous volume showcased his application of formal categories and structural analysis; the English version was a staple text for budding structuralists of just about any stripe, whether they were interested in folklore or not, in the 1970s and 80s. This book, which is twice the length, allows him to delve into history, particularly the transition from hunter-gatherer societies to agricultural ones, where the wondertale (a.k.a., the fairy tale) finds its deepest roots.

There has been a lot of work on human evolutionary history since Propp’s day, in numerous fields, some of it written for popular audiences, much of it focused on the same transition between what Michael McCarthy in his 2015 The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy refers to as the 50,000 generations (of hunter-gatherers) and the 500 generations (of agriculturalists). But no one to my knowledge has done what Propp does in this book, which is to try to fix the development of specific fairy tale features (e.g., the abducted maiden, the serpent/dragon, the guardian of the underworld) in concrete human social practices, especially those associated with rites of initiation.

It is a fascinating history, and he is extremely good at pulling together research and examples from myth, religion, ethnography, and more, and from regions all across the globe. I have learned a lot by translating his words into English.

What I have not learned by translating his words is anything about effective writing. Translating Propp for me has often taken on strange qualities, where I might feel like rewarding myself for getting through a few sentences by taking a break. This is not usually the way translation works, not for me at least. Generally, I am motivated to start and to continue a translation project by the quality of the writing itself. I am drawn forward by wanting to share the magic of the words — their formal coherence, sound patterns, rhetorical nuances, and more — as much if not more than by any semantic content “in” the words.

This is not just about fiction or poetry either. I feel the same way about the literary nonfiction I have translated, even prose that might be categorized as “scholarly,” such as Carlo Michelstaedter’s Persuasion and Rhetoric, which was a joint project together with Cinzia Sartini Blum and David J. Depew (Yale University Press, 2004). His prose is sometimes turgid, but it is also always quite compelling. Lines like this were what first grabbed me: “Un peso pende ad un gancio, e per pender soffre che non può scendere: non può uscire dal gancio; poiché quant’è peso pende, e quanto pende dipende.” I must have read this sentence aloud a hundred times, and I still love it. The prose made me think, and in fact it was interwoven with the ideas in interpretive and linguistic puzzles that made me want to solve them.

There are almost no puzzles in Propp’s prose. He is clear. He is also somewhat repetitive and rhetorical, as if he were speaking from a lectern, which he probably was (“let me remind you”), and in the royal “we” (“previously we explored…”). He can also be rather lazy, engaging in the sort of sloppy techniques that some graduate students might use in their first couple of years of study before they figure out that, while what they’ve written might be correct, it is not at all enjoyable to read. A colleague of mine once recalled that a favorite professor of his from grad school had given him an A- for exactly this shortcoming. When asked why the grade was not an A, the professor had responded, “You wrote a very thorough paper that no one would ever want to read twice.”

I am capable of translating such prose. But it is also LONG and chock full of references (to the Rigveda, the Egyptian Book of the Dead, collections of folktales, myths, studies from the Americas, Africa, Australia, and more), many of them from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which means they need to be checked for page numbers, existing English translations, etc. Hence the reward of taking a break after every few sentences or so.

I am certainly learning things by focusing in this way on the book, but the process has reinforced in me how much I am motivated as a translator by the compelling aspects of the writing itself. Without that, translating can be quite a slog.