"A library book, I imagine, is a happy book." Cornelia Funke

"Everything puts me in mind of a story." Ben Franklin

Monday, March 14, 2011

Russian Gypsy Tales

Russian Gypsy Tales (International Folk Tales Series) collected by Yefim Druts and Alexei Gessler, translated by James Riordan, Harry Horse, Illus. 1992. 36 tales.

I had a good time reading these very short stories. Gypsy tales are new to me, and I learned as I read. In his introduction, Riordan explains that the people self identified as Rom or Romaly, called Tsygan by the Russians, originated in Northern India and came to Russia in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. He describes the importance of family, tribe and clan in their folklore. This is clear in the tales. Usually, in our American stories, we root for young people in love and forgive when they defy their families and culture to be together. Different values are emphasized in these stories. In “Broken Beads,” when a girl’s father forbids her to marry the man that she loves, the couple runs away together, only to realize that they are now penniless and friendless. Things become nightmarish when the husband is shot and killed while stealing a horse and returns to his wife as an evil spirit. “The Outcast” is about a man in love with a gypsy girl from another tribe. When he breaks the gypsy law and roundly curses all, including the woman he once loved, he meets an ill fate. Obeying your parents and gypsy law is foremost.

Another interesting feature of these stories is that they often contain tricksters with amoral viewpoints. This is explained in “Saint George and the Gypsies” when God tells the Saint that gypsies may live by their own laws and that what they take without leave is their own affair. Accordingly, these gypsies take pride in robbing and tricking others. Riordan also says that Satan often appears in the gypsy stories,” …as the evil genius or hero, it may be that Russian Roms saw themselves more as the persecuted devil than the god of their oppressors.” (Page XV). “The Gypsy Who Almost Swapped Places with a Devil” meets the demon in the village bath-house, and becomes enslaved when the devil pulls the old gypsy’s tooth in a fight. It takes some trickery to regain his freedom. In several tales, beating the devil requires mental agility as well as physical strength.

Riordan says that these stories present a “male ordered society.” This is absolutely true, and I had to keep in mind time period and situation as I read. Gypsy girls in the tales are married off to whomever they are “fated”, and even if their husbands are non-human, they are to obey. The only way around this, apparently, is to take drastic but self defeating measures. In “Sarina” a young wife turns to stone rather than be touched by her husband. Wives and daughter are also freely whipped, and mothers are not necessarily respected. In “Adventures of the Gypsy Fool” the gypsy leaves his wife and children and marries another woman. When she ceases to please him, he returns to his first wife, calls her a good for nothing hussy and “Despite the blows, she was glad to see him back…” p. 86. In “Three Nincompoops” an old mother is cheated out of food and clothing by a soldier, purportedly for her son’s sake. When her boy finds out, he is not happy that she provided for him, and instead becomes angry and leaves the house, announcing that he will only return when he finds someone stupider than she.

My favorite tale is “The Enchanted Hinny,” maybe because it has familiar elements to it. A son with an unkind stepmother is protected by his talking hinny (the offspring of a stallion and a donkey). The two escape to a distant realm, and the boy, now known as Know Not How becomes a kitchen boy for the czar. Of course, he is called upon to defeat three hideous sea monsters and has an opportunity to win the czar’s youngest daughter for his wife. And the pair and the hinny live… happily ever after!

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