"Russian Fairy Tales," retold by Gillian Avery

Pros: Wonderful language; unusual; beautiful; enchanting
Cons: None
Rating: 5 out of 5

First published 1/21/2003

I have a deep and abiding love of fairy-tales. Not the whitewashed Disney things, but the real thing (as well as certain modern reinterpretations). “Russian Fairy Tales,” retold by Gillian Avery and illustrated by Ivan Bilibin, amply satisfied this love.

Aesthetics

This book is truly beautiful. It’s a relatively small-sized trade cloth hardcover in olive with gold trim. It even has an olive bookmark sewn into the binding. The paper is soft and of good quality, and the illustrations are simply lovely. They truly set the scene, giving us a look at traditional Russian dress and settings in rich, dark colors. Without this, those of us who are only familiar with Western fairy tales might be tempted to envision a rather Western view of these stories. The illustrations, however, ensure that we truly see what we are meant to see.

“Children’s Classics”

The book cover bears a “Children’s Classics” logo, and I think that these would make wonderful children’s tales. Not everyone is likely to agree, however. As I mentioned, these aren’t the whitewashed Disney tales. People and animals get injured and killed, although of course the descriptions aren’t graphic. Personally I prefer this type of fairy tale, but I know that plenty of parents don’t.

Language and Story

As seems traditional for fairy tales, things happen by way of odd coincidences, unexplained plot devices, impossible events and weird repeating motifs. Anyone who’s familiar with any fairy tales should be used to this; it’s a part of the “genre” so to speak, and taken as such, not seen as plot holes or unbelievable circumstances. If anything it’s part of the charm of the fairy tale! If you’re too familiar with modern fiction as opposed to fairy tales, however, you may have a hard time adjusting to this. These fairy tales haven’t been re-worked for modern sensibilities; they’re every bit as fantastical as they were when they were first written, I imagine.

I loved reading the Russian fairy tales, if just to see the differences between them and the ones I’m used to. Some of the same elements were present, but others were new and unusual. It was fascinating to see which elements repeated (lots of witches and stoves; lots of journeying to far-off lands to recover loved ones; one or two repeating characters, even, which I’m not used to seeing in Western fairy-tales). It was also fascinating to “hear” the different uses of language. There are some truly unusual and beautiful turns of phrase in this book. The tales are even more whimsical than I’m used to. Little things give the book a feel of authenticity, like the use of “Tsarevich” instead of “prince.” (In other words, it hasn’t been overly translated.)

In short, this is a beautiful way to get a whole new look at the by-now familiar fairy-tale. Some of the elements may be the same, but the trappings are wholly different and unusual. You may recognize that some of these stories are, at their essential core, the same as certain Western ones, but the details are so different that at times I had trouble making the connection. And even when I did make the connection, I didn’t feel as though I’d merely read the same story over again. It was, instead, a beautiful new experience.

Stories included in this book:

  • The Tale of Tsar Saltan and of his Son the Tsarevich Guidon
  • Vassilissa the Beautiful and the Witch Baba Yaga
  • Little Bear Cub
  • Marya Morevna
  • Frost
  • The Frog Tsarevna
  • Salt
  • Tsarevich Ivan, the Firebird and the Grey Wolf
  • Sister Alenushka and her Brother Ivanushka
  • The White Duck
  • The Feather of Finist the Falcon

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