Posts Tagged 'fairy tales'

Where the moon lives

“This here is a churn in which our Siberian forebears used to make butter…”

Thus the guide in one of the traditional Russian houses preserved in Shushenskoe museum in central Siberia. The chattering Russian tourists pose for photos beside the tall wooden churn, holding the paddle, just as they’ve posed pretending to carry the yoked milk pails, pull the plough, work the lathe.

I’ve just come from western Tuva, about 400 kilometers south of Shushenskoye, on the edge of Siberia. It’s a place few Russian tourists visit. There every winter wooden hut and summer aal (yurt) contains a tall wooden churn in which each day the whey (from yak and cows’ milk) is separated from the curds, and the curds dried and then pressed into hard, sour kurut, while the whey is heated over the stove and fermented into araki, milk vodka.

There three silent women in an aal place before us fresh bread baked in a flat round wok on the stove, topped with a dollop of butter-thick sour cream and sprinkled with sugar. The children watch us with wide eyes. We drink endless bowls of salty milky tea poured from the kettle.

We have scarcely a word in common – if the women can speak Russian they mostly choose not to. They are the most courteously taciturn people in the world, the inhabitants of Mongun-Taiga. We tell them who we are, where we are from and where we’re going (S. offering the local names of mountain passes and rivers like talismans to win favour or recognition), but they don’t ask. I can’t imagine what they really think of us, two strangers from Europe (where is it, this Europe?) with our rucksacks and hiking boots, asking for shelter.

With the toddler I play peep-o and tag round the aal; he takes refuge in his fortress (an upturned wooden crate) and shoots me with his gun (a scrap of asbestos roofing) as I attack him with the cavalry (the front half of a tricycle – one wheel and the handlebars). Back in the aal he shows me his one book, of illustrated Russian fairytales, and I learn the Tuvinian words for wolf and fox, bear and goat and sheep and rabbit. When we get to the stories about tsars and yellow-haired bogatyrs, he points to the horses (“aat, aat”) but he has no word for the golden-domed churches and white-walled kremlins, they mean nothing to him.

We sleep lying on the floor all in a row, the children sandwiched between the women under fat quilts of cheap Chinese satin with the stuffing coming out. All night we bake gently in the heat from the stove.

In the morning the air is like ice, and snowy Mongun-Taiga mountain trails swathes of blue and pink mist. Mongun-Taiga  is where the moon lives, in Tuvan folktales. These people wake up to this glorious view each morning; the vast shining golden plain, this loneliness, floating in crystalline air. Why would they comment on it when they are yaks to be milked, sheep to let loose from their pen, home and livelihood to inspect for the night-time depredations of wolves and cattle-thieves?

They say nothing, but when we leave, his mother brings the little boy to the door of the aal to wave goodbye.

Photo by Stanislav Krupar

I can be found elsewhere

today, on Katherine Langrish’s wonderful blog, Seven Miles of Steel Thistles, doing pretty much my favourite thing – rambling about fairy tales.

Anyone with the smallest interest in folk tales, myths, fantasy and children’s literature, or just beautiful, thoughtful writing, should check out this blog (and of course Katherine’s books too, the well-travelled Troll Fell and its sequels).

Not only does Katherine herself write so well, she has also invited a humblingly stellar list of guests to contribute to her Fairytale Reflections series. It’s a real honour for me to be included there. Thank you, Katherine!

More travel rambling coming soon…

Living in a fairytale part II

is what (we joke) we’ve been doing for twelve days, wandering the wilds of western Tuva. It’s so beautiful, so untouched, so free. Tuva is really like a fairytale, the original kind, violent and magical and strange, full of unexpected encounters and generosities.

It seems like a land time has almost forgotten; tucked away between Russia and Mongolia and Kazakhstan and China, not on the way to anywhere, as far as it is possible to go from the sea.

Antonina, a philologist who has studied Mongolian language and culture, tells us that the main difference between Tuvans and Mongolians is that Tuvans are insular, rarely travelling far from their home villages or herding grounds, let alone outside Tuva, while Mongolians are inveterate roamers.

Mongush Borakhovich Kenin-Lopsan, historian, living treasure of Shamanism and man of the century, says Tuva is one of the few places in the world to have preserved its original culture almost untouched, thanks to this remoteness, this stay-at-home mentality.

I’ve been reading a collection of Tuvan folktales and legends. The first one I read is about the son of a bear and a human woman. The details are Tuvan: yurts and larch trees, horses and grazing grounds – everything we’ve seen on our fairytale travel. But the shape, the essence of the story, is identical to a Scandinavian folk tale called the Three Princesses of Blue Mountain.

How has it come about that these people, whose language is Turkic, culture Mongolian and Siberian, geography Central Asian, mentality insular, have the same folk tale as the seafarers of the far north?

Living in a fairytale

Is what the citizens of City of the Sun say they want to do. Convinced of the power of optimism and positive thinking, like Voltaire’s doctor Pangloss they want to believe that everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.

But since they are not fools and cannot deny that in fact this world is not the best one possible, they have fled their misfortunes and retired to their little corner of Siberia to make the best of it, like Candide, by cultivating their gardens.

photo by Stanislav Krupar

They bring up their children like the flowers of the field, theoretically innocent of greedy capitalism, war and conflict, suspicion and fear. No one tells the children never to accept sweets from strangers, because in the single family there are no strangers. At school they study the history of art and culture, not battles and revolutions. Reading Tolstoy’s War and Peace they [pan]gloss over Pierre’s descriptions of legs being blown off, and focus instead on Natasha’s feelings of love, explains Volodya, the Mountain’s de facto PR manager.

Well, wouldn’t we all like our children to experience only peace and harmony? But I don’t think PEACE (and a Tiny Bit of War), by Lev Tolstoy, would be a masterpiece of world literature. And when believers say they want to live in a fairy tale, I can only assume they mean the sanitised, Disney version.

The children of City of the Sun are a joy; open and friendly, interested and interesting. But they are not, in the surrounding villages at least, believers in Vissarion. They seem to be well-rounded, healthy human beings, undamaged by the decline and fall of communism that brought most of their parents here seeking to fill a spiritual void, or by the relentless positivism of the single family.

The first generation has already gone away to study in the nearest towns and cities. Their parents hope and expect they will return to the land of fairy tale.  I think they’re more likely to return (if they return at all) to pleasant, orderly, clean-ish villages, cultured enough, well-off enough (and maybe that’s enough of a miracle in Russia), but no longer isolated from the world’s harmful influences, definitely not the best of all possible worlds.

Meeting Aslan

I adored CS Lewis’ books as a child. It was my dream to live in Narnia like Lucy Pevensey, so much in harmony with nature that I could talk to the animals; I wanted a wise, benign, lovable if occasionally terrifying lion to answer all my questions, to be my inspiration and my final word.

Then I grew up.

And then, a few days ago, I met Aslan.

I was in Obitel Rassveta, Abode of Dawn, more commonly known as City of the Sun, or, to believers living in surrounding villages, The Mountain. This remote community in the deepest taiga is inspired by Vissarion, a former Russian policeman turned spiritual leader who attracted a large following after the Soviet Union’s collapse, and took the most dedicated with him to central Siberia to build a new world.

Vissarion teaches that his followers should never have a negative thought. They should live in absolute harmony with nature and with each other as part of a single family, rejecting any state system or government and relying instead on perfect spiritual understanding and his own absolute authority. Fifteen years on, his united family still lives on The Mountain with their Teacher, still building, still positive, still dreaming.

It’s quite a journey to The Mountain, along the roughest of roads, and then an hour-long climb on foot through thick forest to a plateau ringed by mountains. The entrance to the settlement is a huge wooden gateway hung with new-agey stained-glass lanterns and bearing the legend ‘Take hope, all ye who enter here’.

When Vissarion’s new world settlers arrived, there was nothing but forest. They have replaced the moss-draped Siberian pines and birches with dinky wooden houses, with lawns and marigolds, with a stone bridge that wouldn’t look out of place in a suburban garden and fountains and lanterns straight out of a garden centre. For people who have turned their backs on society as we know it, their taste is surprisingly bourgeois.

Or perhaps it’s not surprising. The members of the single family are former teachers and lawyers, army colonels and dentists. They are, almost exclusively, people who fifteen years ago knew nothing first hand about living off the land.

The names of the streets – a grand name for what are really little more than paths – are a good indicator of their reading matter: Milky Way, Crystal Gate, Eternal Search (the children living on this last one can see the joke when they’re looking for socks and pencil cases in the morning before school). Aesthetically as well as philosophically, Abode of Dawn’s inspiration seems to be not the fairy tales believers tend to go on about, but the lands of early 20th century children’s fantasy literature: Middle Earth, Mooninvalley, Narnia.

“You’re going to meet Aslan,” Adrian said, when my request for a personal meeting with Vissarion was granted. He was so respectfully pleased for me. I’d chatted about children’s literature with Adrian and Anya, the couple I stayed with. They talk about their Teacher with a sort of matter-of-fact awe. According to his followers (I didn’t quite have the courage to ask Vissarion if he also holds this view) Vissarion is the second coming of Christ.

It must be extraordinary to be living alongside your God, to help build his house, to have his telephone number, to teach his children. Terrifying and reassuring at once, I should think. Tanya, my friend who used to live on The Mountain, describes him as a kind of celestial hotline. One that actually answers.

So off I went up the hill. Vissarion lives apart from his followers, half way up the holy mountain (he used to live right at the top but has moved down – for convenience?) in a brick house his followers have built for him. Brick, when there is no road and the only building material for miles and miles around is wood. I was sort of expecting a cave.

I was nervous and excited; the awed delight and faint (but positive!) envy of the believers was catching. I entered the house, I climbed the stairs; I was Lucy Pevensey from Finchley.

Telling the winter away

It’s Russian Orthodox Christmas, and Russian Orthodox winter weather. I love weather this cold. It’s so perfectly clean and sharp and uncompromising. It’s too cold for the snow to melt into slush, only to harden into slick grey rivers of ice. When the sun sets the snowy fields seem to glow pink from the inside. The moon turns them absolute, pure blue.

It’s weather as it should be, as it is on the Christmas cards, in the fairy tales. When there is a warm house to come home to, hot crumpets and ginger tea; when father Frost, cracking his long fingers, wraps abandoned Marfa in furs and sends her home to her wicked stepmother with gifts of silver and gold – then it is more than bearable.

This is what Orthodox Christmas is like now in a tiny Ukrainian village, in temperatures lower than this, in a house pretty much identical to one built a hundred years ago, to a house in a Russian fairytale:

No sign of kolyadki (carols) or Christmas. The only people on the street are waiting for the bus, which trundles through all lit up and steamy-windowed and crammed with passengers in fat padded coats, like a little travelling fragment of civilization that all too soon passes on and leaves behind the introverted houses and empty ice-blown street and silent woods under their weight of snow. A wicked wind blowing, loaded with snow as fine as smoke, and yet there are drifts already piled knee-deep in corners. The cottages are curled in on themselves, doors and windows firmly closed, and I suppose inside them everyone is curled up on their Russian stoves like bears hibernating, waiting out the winter.

Baba Lena falls asleep at 6pm, so she can get up at an unmentionable pitch-black 3am to chop the pumpkin for the goats and feed the chickens who live in the hallway for the winter, fat and roosting in the darkness. She dreamed of piglets three days before we arrived, and guessed from it that she would be getting visitors. A frivolous dream for such a hard place as this. So we are the three little pigs.

The day slips past with excruciating slowness. The light outside the frost-patterned window turns briefly blue. Then night comes and with it the feeling that it’s time for bed – but it’s only five o’ clock. Reading even the best book palls. There’s nothing on the two channels the ancient TV picks up except glossy adverts for things so irrelevant to the village as to be incomprehensible – flights to distant countries, mobile phones, sanitary towels for immaculate young women in airports, bars, sparkling gyms. There is nothing to tidy, nothing to cook. The pack of cards contains only thirty-two cards. There are coloured chalks but no paper. You think of knitting socks, playing at riddles, of knotting rag rugs or stitching the embroidered linen sheets and towels that will one fine day be your dowry.

Outside, up and over the hill the winter and the woods stretch forever, inscribed with the paws of fox and hare, the dainty slots of deer, wide-spaced hoofs of elk, a crowd of cloven prints from galloping wild pigs.

Baba Lena tells us the story of the maddened elk that chased a hunter right into the village street before expiring on the doorstep of the korchma (pub). We are sitting on the stove top, luxuriating like Ilya Muromets in glorious soporific warmth, and this is how to get through the awful hardship of winter, this is what the winter is for: telling tales of devils and witches and wild beasts, bold black-browed girls and brave Cossacks, the unspeakable exploits of the neighbours and the village headman who once upon a time met Catherine the Great on her way to Crimea…

The generous country

What wondrous life is this I lead!
Ripe apples drop about my head;
The luscious clusters of the vine
Upon my mouth do crush their wine;
The nectarine and curious peach
Into my hands themselves do reach;
Stumbling on melons as I pass
Ensnared with flowers, I fall on grass

from The Garden, Andrew Marvell

I don’t think I’ve been to another country so sheerly generous in its municipal gardening. All the countryside roads are lined with walnut, pear, apple, cherry and plum trees, planted for no reason I can see other than to delight wanderers like me. Even Petrin hill in the centre of Prague is covered with orchards where anyone can pick what they like. In such a warm bountiful Autumn as this one the whole Czech Republic feels like Marvell’s garden, where as I pass I stumble, if not on melons, then on more varieties of pear and apple than can be counted on fingers and toes; red and gold and bronze, round and oval and tear-drop shaped; satiny yellow pears tiny as walnuts, fat heavy pale green ones you can hardly hold in two hands. Everywhere a fruity, slightly rotting smell, through which I wander drunk as a wasp on sweetness, wanting to drink it all in before the warmth goes and winter sets in.

This country is equally profligately littered with castles. Conveniently disregarding any historical fact, it seems an enchanted, fairytale land of princesses in high towers and knights traversing beech woods as golden as old icons; where bright village boys gather the apples of paradise and a Czech Cinderella hoards her three magic nuts, in which are three dresses woven of sunbeams, of moonshine, of dreaming starlight.

Sovinec, Moravia

Sovinec, Moravia

Taking the magic out of fairy tales

I’m not one who thinks fairy tales are just for children, or that their princesses and princes are in any way pink and sparkly or noble or – heaven forbid – cuddly. All the classic tales involve betrayal, violence, murder, injustice, and characters who get up to all sorts of outrageous foolishness and are as easily persuaded into bad acts or good as willow trees are swayed in the wind. Fairy tales do not grab our imaginations and never let them go because they are nice, but because they are, at the profound level of dreams and aspirations, true.

But when a psychotherapist says Cinderella is ‘ahead of its time’ because it deals with ‘the contemporary issue of “reconstituted families”’ and ‘people who have what are now euphemistically called “difficult childhoods”’ I do wonder what he means. What is Cinderella’s ‘time’? The essential story is undatable – and unplacable. Versions of Cinderella, under different names, have been found all over the world (there’s an Algonquin version where the heroine dresses herself in birch bark because she has no nice clothes). One of the fascinating things about these stories is the impossibility of tracing whether they all came, long ago, from a single source, or whether they appeared independently in so many different cultures through a process of parallel imagination.

The truth of Cinderella, according to this psychotherapist, is that women are hindered in getting what they really want by the envy of other women – and will even prevent themselves from finding happiness out of fear of such envy. Men meanwhile, are no part of Cinderella’s difficulties.

So much for female solidarity. But, why, I ask myself, are the women envious? Cinderella’s happiness is all about finding a nice rich man who can take care of her and remove her from her horrible family. And this is the future the stepmother also wants for her own daughters. ‘The bad mother says you must never have what you want, and someone else must have it instead’. But as Angela Carter has pointed out, the wicked stepmother is only bad to the heroine – to her own daughters, she’s a good mother who wants the best for them and will do everything she can to make sure they get it. It’s just unfortunate that there aren’t enough handsome princes or rich merchants to go round for all daughters (or that daughters can’t find happiness elsewhere).

I’m not one who thinks fairy tales are just for children – but neither do I think they’re strictly for adults. If I really believed the whole truth of Cinderella was that women are all monstrously envious of each other, or indeed that our only hope of happiness is to marry a prince, I wouldn’t much want impressionable little girls to read it. But I think the truth of all great fairy tales is so much more. They are about our worries about our families, our hopes for the future, our secret dreams. The horrible things people do to each other; the random kindnesses. And that magic can’t be explained by psychoanalysis.

And no, I’m not still waiting for my prince on a white horse – honest…

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