Fairy Tales 2010

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Rilke's How Treason Came to Russia

In Rilke's short Kunstmarchen, taken from "Stories of God," a greedy Czar demands 12 barrels of gold from neighboring princes who in turn require that he answer 3 riddles in 3 years time. The Czar asks all the wise men and counselors, beheading all those who do not know the answer. The time goes by in such a fashion and he must meet the princes, although he hasn't solved the riddles yet. On his way to the meeting place, the Czar encounters a peasant who knows the solutions to the riddles. The peasant, after some hesitation, requests one barrel of gold in return for the answers, to which the Czar consents. But the Czar is greedy and gives the peasant instead a barrel of sand and a little gold on top. The peasant sees through this, gives a moralizing lesson, and vanishes. The messenger describes this peasant as "God himself."

There are several characteristics that clearly demarcate this tale as a Kunstmarchen rather than a fairy tale. For one, the Czar is named - Czar Ivan Vassilievitch. As we know little about his character, it is interesting that Rilke would name him so specifically. This serves in contrast to the unspecified timelessness generally featured in fairy tales. Moreover, the violent repetition and pure selfishness of the Czar's persona inhabits something not typical to the fairy tale. He is merciless and greedy, similar to King Mark from the Philosopher's Stone, situating this tale with the later literary fairy tales that emerged. The character of God, as well, stems from a more contemporary Christian influence. As the Grimms 1857 versions compared to the 1812 version of their fairy tales indicates, Christianity started to be written into the original tales over the course of the 1800s. It is reasonable to understand, then, the importance of the God character in "How Treason Came to Russia" which was written at the turn of the 20th century.

In terms of the literary fairy tale having similar conventions and characteristics to the fairy tale, the title - "How Treason Came to Russia" resonates with the folk tradition of making the purpose of certain tales be to describe how a cultural belief, value, or tendency came into practice. The tale also parallels the common fairy tale motif of a riddle or series of riddles that need to be solved in order to receive a reward. Yet in this tale there is neither competition between brothers nor an obstacle keeping the Czar from solving the riddles. The peasant/God simply tells him. Thus, while literary fairy tales have some resemblance to fairy tales in shared motifs, similar titles, contrast between courtly life and peasant life, it is too parabolic and too attentive to literary stylistic devices and themes to be a true fairy tale. There is, in short, not enough magic (other then the vanishing act of God) happening to locate this text within the fairy tale genre.

1 comment:

  1. Nicole,

    I have read Rilke's poetry but did not know he wrote literary fairy tales!
    I enjoyed reading your post, and I have to agree that while everything seems like a fairy tale, the fact that the Czar is not punished (or maybe he is--perhaps that is what you meant by moralizing lesson) is not in accordance with the fairy tale genre. I find it interesting that the Czar has obstacles, but not really because he finds someone to answer them for him. Maybe you didn't tell all of the story, but it seems to me that the greedy Czar doesn't really get punished as he more than likely would in a traditional fairy tale like the king of The Devil and the 3 Golden Hairs.