There are four main types of Russian folk tales, and each has its own characteristics:
1. The magic tales with a female hero.
2. The magic tales with a male hero.
3. Animal tales (with animals as main characters, with or without the participation of human characters).
4. Magic tales about everyday life
The first two categories are related. Both male and female heroes will embark on some kind of a quest. It may be a trip to the forest to gather firewood, mushrooms, or berries; or it may be a journey into a far-away kingdom. Similar characters appear in both types of tales, and they usually end with a marriage, and maybe fortune as well.
The third category of tales is not magical per se, unless you count the animals’ ability to speak in “people’s voices” (human speech). These tales may involve the participation of humans, or not, but usually the presence of humans somewhere is aknowledged or taken for granted.
The fourth category of tales includes tales about soldiers returning home who meet (and defeat) Death, or who encounter a witch, or some other kind of magical being, and who gain fortune in the end (or maybe just a bowl of soup, as in “Axe Soup,” the Russian variant of “Stone Soup.”
At this time, we only have tales from the first, second, and third groups on the site. More might be added some day.
The magic tales in which the hero is female (usually a girl) center around her ability to perform certain tasks. These tasks are usually practical and test the heroine’s household skills: cleaning, cooking, spinning, weaving, and of course her knowlegde of proper behavior. These tales also test her ethics: she must not lie, although telling less than the truth is allowed; she must not steal, but taking something from an evil character, after she was allowed to do so by someone from that household, is also allowed.
What distinguishes the female hero from the male hero in Russian folk tales, is that the female hero is always expected to act (be proactive) and to perform some tasks (in which she is already proficient). These tasks may be a vehicle that allows her to reach the magical place where the crucial events take place, or they may be part of what she must do withinthe magical place. The result of her actions is that she finds a husband, or acquires a dowry, which will ensure that she will find a good husband eventually.
Tales with a male hero follow a slightly different pattern. For one thing, the male hero ALWAYS leaves his home on a QUEST (the female hero may live all her adventures in her own back yard). The male hero is not expected to perform tasks, at least not by himself: he encounters magical helpers that will do his work for him, or else fix the mistakes he makes when he attempts to perform the task.
In other words, the female hero knows how to behave herself AND how to do things. The male hero knows how to behave properly and how to secure the assistant of magic helpers, but he needs those helpers when it comes down to actions. He must know when to follow instructions (rules) and when to receive knowledge.
Of course, there are exceptions, and there are tales in which female heroes are less active, and where male heroes take action in their own hands. There are also tales that cross over to other narrative genres, such as epics, whose heroes are dramatically different from magic-tale heroes.
For an example of a Russian folk tale with a male hero, please follow this link to the “Tale About the Apples of Youth and the Living Water.”
For an example of a Russian folk tale with a female hero, follow this link to “Baba Yaga.”
Animal tales are entirely different. As noted above, they are not magical, and neither are they cute stories about nice furry creatures. Animal characters are strictly typecast:
- Wolves are greedy rather stupid, and male (the Russian word for wolf is “volk,” a masculine noun).
- Foxes are sly, calculating, and tricksters. They are also female (the Russian word for fox is “lisa,” a feminine noun).
- Cats are opportunistic and lazy. They are male (the Russian word for cat is “kot,” a masculine noun).
- Bears are big and lumbering (naturally), rather clumsy, and not very bright. They are male (the Russian word for bear is “medved’,” a masculine noun). The Russian word that is the equivalent of “teddy bear,” “misha,” is also the diminutive for the name Mikhail, which is the standard “first name” of folk-tale bears.
- Hares are quick and cowardly, and male (“hare,” in Russian, is “zaiats,” a masculine noun).
- The goat is cunning, and female (Russian — “koza,” a feminine noun).
The rooster is cocky and boastful, and male (Russian — “petukh,” a masculine noun).
Bulls (bullish, of course) also appear in Russian tales, as well as a number of birds. Insects, however, do not seem to have made much an impression on the ethnic Russian imagination.
Some animal tales tell of the “beginning” of things, such as the first tale on the Animal Tales page — the beginning of the enmity between man and bear. Others are merely amusing. Others yet have a moral, but by no means all. And not all tales, by far, qualify as “good children’s stories.”
The animals in the tales behave in many ways just as real animals do: carnivorous animals eat meat, even when the “meat” in question can talk. Wild animals are dangerous, and the fact that they can interact with people does not mean that they are tame or “civilized.” A bear or a wolf who is negotiating one minute with a man may attack or even eat (or attempt to eat) a that same person the next moment.
There is usually no rationalization for the behavior of the animal characters, other than their nature (the same is true of all folk tale characters: they act because they are, not because of who they are). Of course, personal gain is a clear motivation for their actions, but not for the form these actions take. The wolf is bad because he is the bad wolf, not because he had a difficult childhood; the hare is cowardly because it is a hare, not because of some trauma suffered at an earlier time. Animals, like other folk-tale characters, behave accordingly to their roles.
Many of the images on this site are from tales illustrated by Ivan Bilibin, or inspired by his style, or else derived from his works.