Only a Myth
The Snow Maiden, daughter of Grandfather Frost and Spring Beauty, is clearly one of the progeny of myth. Although know best as a literary tale, the Snow Maiden shows mythological origins. In Russia she accompanies Grandfather Frost on his rounds during Christmas to deliver gift to good children.
What is myth? I won’t attempt to answer that.
What scares me off from the attempt are questions like: Where does myth leave off and legend begin? Are myths only other culture’s creation stories? Is Superman truly a myth? I am not smart enough or foolish enough to proffer an answer. There are plenty of smart and silly definitions already out there. Go google them.
However, I am incautious enough to expose my thoughts on the role of myth.
The role of myth was best explained to me by storyteller Dan Keding. I am going to tell you what I recall him telling me; it was years ago, but the essence has stuck with me. I hope my memory has not mangled too badly what he said.
Imagine story as a series of concentric circles. The inner circle is labeled family stories: all those wonderful family-centric (not important to anyone else) stories told around the table at Thanksgiving. These are delicate, true stories, too quickly lost as generations pass away.
In the next circle are the community stories: anecdotes, jokes, gossip, and urban legends. We may hear these stories over beer at the bar. They pop up in our emails. They possess an annoying durability.
The next circle encompasses the fairy tales and folk tales: the traditional province of the storyteller, a circle dear to my heart. These are the tales most people relate to when the word “story” comes up. These may be stories of our culture or the culture of others. From this point on our circle of stories come from the past.
Beyond that is the circle of legend: historical tales that have been aided and improved by the imagination. Here lay the romances of King Arthur, the Irish tales of the Fianna, and the German hero Siegfried.
Far on the outer edge is the circle of myth: the creation tales, stories of the gods and their misdeeds, and trickster tales. Pantheons of gods, grist for the mills of poets and composers. From this circle the Snow Maiden was kidnapped and turned into an opera.
Now imagine a bowl filled with the liquid of myth. On its surface floats the thin oil slick of concentric circles I described with myth peeping up around the edges.
This final image that Dan created for me is the point. Myth under lays all story. Without myth we would not know how to construct a story. Even family stories create a sort of mythology. Storytellers like to say our brains are hard-wired for story. The mythic structure is the hard-wire.
Did the events in these myths really happen? Yes, over and over again. Are they happening? Yes. Will they happen in the future? For our sakes, I certainly hope so.
Fairy Tale of the Month: April 2011 The Snow Maiden – Part Two
The power of the Snow Maiden story lies in Snegurochka’s destructive love. The Snow Maiden is the daughter of Grandfather Frost and Spring Beauty, manifested in this world when an old couple forms her out of snow.
The Snow Maiden’s desire is for human contact. She is at first satisfied by being a daughter to the old couple who wished her into this world. The Snow Maiden, whom the old couple calls Snegurochka, is soon propelled out into the great world. Snegurochka is embraced in friendship by Kupava, a friendship that leads to Kupava’s self-destruction when her lover, Mizgir, falls for the cold hearted Snegurochka. Snegurochka’s destruction comes when the shepherd boy Lel’s music softens her heart and she vanishes into mist.
Encounters like this, liaisons between lovers from either side of the veil, never end well. My thoughts leap to the story of the love between Oisin, son of Fionn mac Cumhaill and Niamh of the Golden Hair. Oisin follows Niamh to Tir na Nog, the fairy world. Oisin lives there in bliss for three years until seized by a desire to visit his homeland. Niamh warns him not to dismount from his stead and touch the ground. Oisin does not realize that three hundred years have passed in our worlds. When he accidentally falls from his horse he turns to dust, as he should, being three hundred years old.
Well, what could we expect, he was a poet.
There are many tales, legends, and myths about romances between our world and the other worlds. Visit the Greek and Roman mythology—Zeus and his many mortal liaisons. Why do we and the ‘other’ fair so badly if we chance to fall in love?
I’ve toyed with the notion that the Snow Maiden, and similar tales, tell us to ‘stick to our own kind’, but that sounds too prosaic and cautionary. I prefer to think the Snow Maiden reflects the difference between our world and the others. The others are fragile. We are brutal.
Snegurochka, declared guiltless by Tsar Berendei, survives only as long as her heart does not warm to affection in this world. Oisin returns to this world, carrying affection from beyond the veil, and turns to dust because of his love for both.
Places like Tir na Nog are our fantasy lands. Youths like the Snow Maiden are our imaginary people. These other worlds and other beings are made from the fragile fabric of our illusions, formed from our wishful thinking. Ever so delicate, they are crumbled by the harsh light of reality. Keep them in the half light of dream land. Don’t let them slip off seeking love in the real world. Like the Snow Maiden, they may turn to mist.
Fairy Tale of the Month: April 2011 The Snow Maiden – Part Three
All in a name
Russia culture provides us a fine example of a literary tale in the Snow Maiden. Although it has traditional, even mythological, origins, when I google this title the opera by Rimsky-Korsakov is at the top of my screen (thank you Wikipedia). After a few more clicks I came up with a story version attributed to Aleksandr Ostrovsky, who wrote the play that Rimsky-Korsakov based his opera upon. A “folk” version is no where to be found.
The Snow Maiden has the two common markers of a literary tale, markers not shared with fairy tales:
- Everyone has a name.
- It ends in tragedy.
Seldom are there more than two given names in the fairy tales. Hansel and Gretel have a father, identified as a woodcutter, and a step-mother, identified as evil. They meet a witch, who bears the moniker “the witch”.
In Ostrosky’s version the weight of names tilt to the other side of the scale, Snegurochka, Kupava, Mizgir, Lel, and Tsar Berendei, all of whom I struggle to vocalize. Only the old woodsman and his wife do not have names. (Old woodsmen and their wives never have names, right up there with the old women gathering sticks.)
To the same degree that fairy tales lack names, they lack the element of tragedy. Grimm’s “The Companionship of the Cat and the Mouse” ends sadly, and predictable. The “Death of the Hen”, which ends with all members of the funeral party drowning, does not rise to the level tragedy. (Could none of them swim?) Neither of these inspires heart-felt sympathy nor evokes romantic longing. Fairy Tales’ usual fare is “happily ever after”.
But what, at the emotional level, is the difference between the fairy tale and the literary tale?
When the fairy tale uses position as the identifier (the king, the witch, and the woodcutter) the characters becomes emblematic of their station in the world. They are there in the story to instruct us. We become students, observers, and view the characters from a distance to see what practical and moral lessons the story intends to pass on to us. That mice should not take up abode with cats can have broader implications. Concerning the death of a chicken, although the tale is darkly humorous, it is instructive to us to see a moment of greed leading to unintended consequences. (Also, we should all learn to swim.)
However, when we know the character’s names, as we do in the literary tale, we get pulled in to their conflicts and stand with them. We are no longer objective. Names are subjective. Names are powerful. In some cultures to know someone’s true name is to have power over them. We will never know the true name of God, nor should we; God is there to instruct us.
Knowing their names, even one as unpronounceable as Snegurochka, demands that we feel with them, that we absorb their tale, and that we become alive in their story, in their tragedy.