Wednesday, April 1, 2015

"The Fool and the Fish" illustrated by Gennady Spirin

Today, with fools and tricksters on the brain, I thought I'd offer reference of some tales. Here's this years "fools tale".

There are a number of variations, even within Russia, of The Fool and the Fish. Sometimes the 'fool' is Ivan and sometimes he's Yemelya or Emilian or Emelyan but the result is the same: a foolish (and rather lazy) boy catches a pike and, when it speaks to him, he releases it. His good heart and merciful deed is rewarded by wishes. Lots of them! (We don't hear much from him after he gets his princess, er tsarina, but then when something like that happens, you rarely do..)

Russian fool tales tend to have simple demands, simple wishes and this one is no different. All of the wishes have to do with ordinary things: water buckets that walk themselves home, a sledge that moves by itself (no horse - or person - needed), and axe that can chop wood all by itself. They're childlike in many ways, magical though still not really believable and nowhere near the realm of magical three-headed dragons. They're quite domestic. I think that may be one of the appeals of the Russian fool for me personally - they're pretty down to earth. While they're often considered lazy, they can also be seen as people who take life day by day, season by season, not straining under  the need to be 'more' but enjoying whatever life has to offer. This is a quality that seems to make them level headed rulers, too, when any of them reach that status.

I wanted to add a note I found, too, in the book What Every Russian Knows (And You Don't) by Olga Fedina. She writes:
"You cannot talk about the genre of (fool) tales, about "simpletons" with mentioning the role that the yurodivy, the "holy fool" - has played in Russian culture. Holy fools were those who rejected (or fell out of) normal life to live on the street, abasing themselves completely, going around in rags and acquiring a reputation for being clairvoyants and close to God. This figure, present in many traditions and religions, has been very important in Russia. Being mad or simulating madness helped the yurodivy to detach himself from society and the social hierarchy. They were believed to be divinely inspired, and their utterances, usually in the form of riddles were given a lot of attention. Harming a holy fool was considered a terrible sin, and even the tsars listened to what they had to say."

But back to the wishing fish. A little background on just how the pike is considered, helps shed a different light on the tale as well.
Schuka is a pike fish. The Slavs of old assigned terrifying abilities to this fish – people thought it could swallow a man and that the Water Spirit rode it in the watery kingdoms. (FTNH edit: it's easy to see how this then translates to a fish with magical powers.) In Russian fairy tales, the pike assumes more reasonable proportions and a more harmless nature.
(FTNH edit: a little sampling of artist renditions of the pike from various nations below- it's a monster fish!)

I couldn't find artist names to credit for these unfortunately.
The bottom one has a fairly clear name but as I can't read Russian I can't even type it.
See HERE for more info on the legendary size of this fish.
In fact a meeting with a pike fish brings good luck, as the fish can even grant wishes. But you have to catch it first, as Yemelya the Fool (or Ivan in some versions) does in the fairy tale of the same name, and then release it back into the water. There is no limit to the wishes you may ask. Yemelya gets eight wishes in his tale. The tale here is “The Fool and the Fish.” (source)
This version is illustrated by the incredible Russian artist Gennady Spirin, who seems to have an affinity for illustrating fairytales, no matter where they hark from. The text for the 'original' tale can be found (in English) HERE.

In the book Russian Folk Tales by William Ralston Shedden Ralston (not a typo - that is actually his name), there are some notes accompanying the story Emilian the Fool, of which I have taken some pics to include below:
 Did you know that in France, which is thought to be the origin of Aprils Fool's Day, the day is actually called Poisson D'Avril, meaning, literally, April Fish. Children commonly attempt to stealthily stick a paper or cardboard fish on their friend's backs and when it's discovered shout "Poisson d'Avril!" What the connection is between April 1st to fools and fish seems to be unclear. There is a whole history about the need to move the date (as in, change the calendar to start the year on a different date), which was supposed to take effect on April 1st, though some refused to acknowledge this and become the butt of pranks because of it. That makes the fool part clear but not the fish.

There's one theory that changing the date affected changing the end of Lent, in which people weren't/aren't supposed to eat meat. When Lent was over, fish was/is the common meat given and eaten so it's likely fake fish were given to those believing Lent was (finally!) over, only to find they couldn't eat meat at all (yet).

And now I feel foolish that the day is almost over and I haven't had time to post this yet... at least I got it on the right date - even if it was after midday.

Happy April Fish, er, First!
Fairy tale bonuses of the day:

Emelya beer label
Useful Russian expressions based to The Fool and the Fish:
There is a great saying associated with the fairy tale used in every day Russian language.
"By the pike's command" - you can use this phrase when talking about something good that comes out of nowhere, as if by magic.

Or you can use a different version of the same phrase (it sounds different in Russian but translates to be the same in English) to tell someone he is lazy and wants everything to happen by magic."By the pike's command."

Advertising references:

You can see above that there's a beer names after the lazy Emelya but there's a bunch of Russian snack food I found as well. (interesting..)

Fool and the Pike by Lev Ovchinnikov 
You can also find reference to this fairy tale today in a make of Russian car seat heaters called "Yemelya" - the marketing being "it is twenty degrees below zero outside, but you are nice and comfortable in your car, as though it was a magic Russian stove you were driving around."

There is also a special truck line called Yemelya that was used to first reach the North Pole in a motorized vehicle. The trucks were named after the fairy tale character who did not like to leave his stove and preferred to travel with it. In fact in this version of the story the oven is magic and could cut trees for fire.
“The joke is that the vehicle is built so well that it’s good for lazy people,” says Yelagin.
(A discussion on Russia and their relation to stoves and ovens is a whole other fascinating subject!)

No comments:

Post a Comment