Elements Borrowed: On Charles Ricketts’ Reimagining of Russian Folk Tale

November 16th, 2020

The Dial’s co-editors Charles Ricketts and Charles Shannon searched for ideas, inspiration, and material across time periods and cultures. As Lorraine said in today’s seminar, such was the search for “the living breath in art, wherever it may be.” In her presentation, Christina familiarized the class with The Dial’s editorial statement, “The Unwritten Book,” which states The Dial’s intention in this search: “elements borrowed, not copied,” as Christina put it.

I see this borrowing in the three tales we looked at briefly: The Bridal, Ella and The Bear, and Snow in Spring. They are a trio, I think, for a reason. They seem, to me, a retelling of three different components of the same story: “Marya Morevna” or “The Death of Koschei the Deathless.” The bride at the center of “The Bridal,” Anna Mitrevna seems a play on Marya Morevna. Her groom, Ivan Timofeievich could be a play on Ivan Tsarevich, who is one of the main characters of Russian folklore, appearing in a variety of stories. By process of elimination (though I wish had something more precise on which to base these guesses), that leaves Vladimir Kamazarin as Koschei. If so, then “The Bridal” is a subversion of the original folk tale, in which Ivan Tsarevich and Marya Morevna fall in love and marry. In the original tale, Marya Morevna leaves for battle, for she is a warrior, and tells Ivan not to look in her dungeon, which he, of course, promptly does. There, he finds a chained, emaciated old man (Koschei). Ivan gives him water. This revives the old wizard, who breaks free. Koschei then steals away Marya Morevna, and Ivan Tsarevich must get her back.

But what if Ivan Tsarevich is not Marya Morevna’s true love? What if it is Tsarevich, and not Koschei, who is the monster? That may be the subversion Ricketts makes here. (A compelling contemporary retelling of this story is Catherynne M. Valente’s Deathless).

The bear is ever-present in Russian folk tale, but what ties “Ella The She-Bear” to “Koschei The Deathless” is that Ella takes the form of a dragon. Of Koschei’s many powers is shape-shifting, and a common shape he takes is that of a three-headed dragon. There is a link, too, in the ending of the story. When poor Elka is mistaken for Ella the White Enchantress, “the brave young fellows beat her into a thousand pieces.” When Ivan Tsarevich first battles Koschei in “Koschei the Deathless,” he loses. Koschei then chops up Ivan’s body into pieces, puts those pieces in a barrel, and sets that barrel out to sea. Ivan is later revived with magic. Elka does not get such a revival; her death is a finality, though magic exists in her world, too (Perhaps all is not lost for her?)

“Snow in Spring” is perhaps most difficult to place, but the clue lies in an old Slavic ritual: the spreading of ashes over winter land to bring a good harvest in spring. At the end of “Koschei the Deathless,” after Ivan is revived, he finally kills Koschei (often a difficult feat considering his heart is hidden, always, in a multitude of places e.g. a hare inside a chest, and a bird inside the hare, and an egg inside the bird, and a needle inside the egg). When Koschei is killed, he is burned. Thus the bloom in “Snow in Spring” is “flecked with blood” — perhaps a nod to Koschei’s death, who, if reimagined as Marya Morevna’s true love, is killed ruthlessly, without just cause.

Thus Charles Ricketts borrows these elements from Russian folklore, then shuffles them as if lotto pieces in a bag. In pulling them out again, he gives these elements new shapes, new meanings.

Alevtina Lapiy

Works Cited

In supplementing my own memory of “The Death of Koschei the Deathless” and other Russian folk tales, the following sources were useful:

Kotar, Nicholas. “Villains of Slavic Mythology: Koschei the Deathless,” 6 Apr. 2017,  https://nicholaskotar.com/2017/04/06/koshchei-deathless/ Accessed 16 Nov. 2020.

Lang, Andrew, editor. “The Death of Koschei the Deathless, ” The Red Fairy Book, E-book, Project Gutenberg, 2009. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/540/540-h/540-h.htm#link2H_4_0005 Accessed 16 Nov. 2020.


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