The Apples of Youth and the Water of Life
by Jennifer Kemnitz
Last time, I wrote of the non sequiturs that appear in dreams. Similarly, events in a folk or fairy tale don’t follow a logical arc, but can be deeply satisfying in a way that a rational argument is not. For instance, look at the following passage from the Russian folk tale, “The Apples of Youth and the Water of Life,” from Russian Folk Tales: Stories of Adventure and Magic from Twenty-seven Kingdoms, pp. 18-19:
“If you ride to the right, you lose your horse. And how far can I get without my horse?” he thought. “If you ride straight ahead, it is into the marriage bed. But that is not why I have set out on this journey. Ride to the left, you save your horse. And that is the best road for me.”
So he turned down the road where he would save his horse but would himself be lost. He rode all day through the green meadows, over the stony mountains, till nightfall. The crimson sun was setting when he came to a little hut. The hut was standing on a chicken leg, and had one small window. The prince called out in a loud voice:
“Little hut, little hut, turn your back to the forest, your front to me. As I enter you, so may I come out again.”
The little hut turned its back to the forest, its front to Prince Ivan. But first he went into the forest, where he saw a very old witch, Baba Yaga. She was spinning and combing a hank of silk.
Just this short passage presents a number of irresistible elements. The mystical power of three appears in the form of a three-prong choice at the beginning. The hero chooses the most difficult path, showing valiance that renders him sympathetic. The witch spinning in the forest is a compelling image, but the most exciting bit is the chicken house. I find it hard to speak in normal language about its fascination: a telltale sign that we have run into a magical motif.
How does it achieve its effects? A structure that “was standing” is odd, right off, because it makes the house into a being of agency. The reader does not expect a house to have legs, much less only one. Note it has just one small window, as well. So something is going on with one-pointedness. Has our normal world of duality narrowed down to a singularity? It seems to mark primal space, at least. And it is a chicken leg, which may reach back to ideas of witches flying on broomsticks or actual birds and, before that, to the bird goddess figures found in ancient sites in southeastern Europe. The leg might be a mythic element, descended into story, and creating deep echoes, indeed.
Prince Ivan utters an incantation, another magical element that might hark back to old rituals performed upon entering a strange home. Will one be entering upon a wild and savage space, or a home with the marks of courtesy and civilization? The exhortation opens up this possibility before us and, since the hut does turn around at his words, we know that things were really on the line there for a moment. When the prince does not go into the house right away, one might wonder what the point was, as one might of seemingly unrelated sequences in a dream.
This order of events makes it look, however, as if the spell of his incantation had a broader effect than first appeared; it sets the stage in several ways. And yet, why turn the house away from the forest if he is just going to run right into the forest anyway? Is the house, itself, suspect in some way? Does he just not want the house looking at him while he is in the forest? Or perhaps his incantation negotiated the line between wild and tame and made the house a safe space for his later emergence from the forest. Perhaps Prince Ivan came upon Baba Yaga spinning a material of great prize only because he had been thoughtful upon encountering her house – clearly magical, given the chicken leg.
I will burrow further into folk tale structure in my next installment in this series. For now, the best way to enter the headspace of folk tales is, well, to read them. Even if you read fairy tales as a child, seek them out, in their original editions, as an adult:
- Dip into the innumerable volumes of collected fairy and folk tales from all parts of the world, from Lithuania to West Africa to the South Pacific. Dive in wherever you please and spread out from there!
- The number of television series devoted to modern retellings of fairy tales and hybrid forms shows the growing interest in them. New tales are also being written, appearing in journals such as Fairy Tale Review, Conjunctions, Tin House, and Unstuck.
- I highly recommend the modern folk tales of Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, widely considered the greatest living Russian writer. Her stories, once suppressed by Soviet authorities, have been translated into English and published by Penguin just in the last decade. They are a revelation. There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby: Scary Fairy Tales by Petrushevskaya got me to believe in the relevance and power of the modern folk and fairy tale, and inspired me to start writing them.
Myths are different from folk tales; myths have a cosmic scope and first had a religious or ritual function, rather than pure entertainment. Myths tend to describe and embody ritual, with incantatory language producing a trancelike effect that can open onto other worlds. As the source of much folk tale magic, they are well worth study.
- For a wealth of inspiration in mythology, the works of Robert Graves, Sir James Frazier, and Joseph Campbell are a great resource.
- For a modern take on old myths, consult the Canongate Myth Series, an ever-expanding series of novella-length retellings. I especially recommend The Penelopiad, by Margaret Atwood, Ragnarok by A.S. Byatt, Baba Yaga Laid an Egg, by Dubravka Ugresic, and The Helmet of Horror, by Victor Pelevin.
- If you are interested in women’s roles in mythology, check into the Association for the Study of Women and Mythology (ASWM), a body dedicated to supporting and sharing research. When I attended their recent symposium in Portland, I enjoyed hearing talks about mythologies from around the world, including a fascinating one on Northern Italian folk tales.
Next month, we will explore writing your own folk tale.
Jennifer Kemnitz is an herbalist-poet who lives and writes in Portland. She is a great defender of plant life, and can be roused at any moment to an impassioned discussion of its innate intelligence. Jennifer has been published previously in VoiceCatcher and anthologized by Poetry on the Lake and The Poetry Box. Her work is forthcoming from We’Moon and the Kerf.