The favourable reception given to my volume of Russian Fairy Tales has encouraged me to follow it up with a sister volume of stories selected from another Slavonic dialect extraordinarily rich in folk-tales––I mean Ruthenian, the language of the Cossacks.
Ruthenian is a language intermediate between Russian and Polish, but quite independent of both. Its territory embraces, roughly speaking, that vast plain which lies between the Carpathians, the watershed of the Dnieper, and the Sea of Azov, with Lemberg and Kiev for its chief intellectual centres. Though it has been rigorously repressed by the Russian Government, it is still spoken by more than twenty millions of people. It possesses a noble literature, numerous folk-songs, not inferior even to those of Serbia, and, what chiefly concerns us now, a copious collection of justly admired folk-tales, many of them of great antiquity, which are regarded, both in Russia and Poland, as quite unique of their kind. Mr Ralston, I fancy, was the first to call the attention of the West to these curious stories, though the want at that time of a good Ruthenian dictionary (a want since supplied by the excellent lexicon of Zhelekhovsky and Nidilsky) prevented him from utilizing them. Another Slavonic scholar, Mr Morfill, has also frequently alluded to them in terms of enthusiastic but by no means extravagant praise.
The three chief collections of Ruthenian folk-lore are those of Kulish, Rudchenko, and Dragomanov, which represent, at least approximately, the three dialects into which Ruthenian is generally divided. It is from these three collections that the present selection has been made. Kulish, who has the merit of priority, was little more than a pioneer, his contribution merely consisting of some dozen kazki (Märchen) and kazochiki (Märchenlein), incorporated in the second volume of his Zapiski o yuzhnoi Rusi (“Descriptions of South Russia,” Petrograd, 1856-7). Twelve years later Rudchenko published at Kiev what is still, on the whole, the best collection of Ruthenian folk-tales, under the title of Narodnuiya Yuzhnorusskiya Skazki (“Popular South Russian Folk-tales”). Like Lïnnröt among the Finns, Rudchenko took down the greater part of these tales direct from the lips of the people. In a second volume, published in the following year, he added other stories gleaned from various minor manuscript collections of great rarity. In 1876 the Imperial Russian Geographical Society published at Kiev, under the title of Malorusskiya Narodnuiya Predonyia i Razkazui (“Little-Russian Popular Traditions and Tales”), an edition of as many manuscript collections of Ruthenian folk-lore (including poems, proverbs, riddles, and rites) as it could lay its hands upon. This collection, though far less rich in variants than Rudchenko’s, contained many original tales which had escaped him, and was ably edited by Michael Dragomanov, by whose name, indeed, it is generally known.
The present attempt to popularize these Cossack stories is, I believe, the first translation ever made from Ruthenian into English. The selection, though naturally restricted, is fairly representative; every variety of folk-tale has a place in it, and it should never be forgotten that the Ruthenian kazka (Märchen), owing to favourable circumstances, has managed to preserve far more of the fresh spontaneity and naïve simplicity of the primitive folk-tale than her more sophisticated sister, the Russian skazka. It is maintained, moreover, by Slavonic scholars that there are peculiar and original elements in these stories not to be found in the folk-lore of other European peoples; such data, for instance, as the magic handkerchiefs (generally beneficial, but sometimes, as in the story of Ivan Golik, terribly baleful), the demon-expelling hemp-and-tar whips, and the magic cattle-teeming egg, so mischievous a possession to the unwary. It may be so, but, after all that Mr Andrew Lang has taught us on the subject, it would be rash for any mere philologist to assert positively that there can be anything really new in folk-lore under the sun. On the other hand, the comparative isolation and primitiveness of the Cossacks, and their remoteness from the great theatres of historical events, would seem to be favourable conditions both for the safe preservation of old myths and the easy development of new ones. It is for professional students of folk-lore to study the original documents for themselves.
R. N. B.
Notes: Contains 27 Ukrainian folktales.
Translator: R. Nisbet Bain
Publisher: George G. Harrap & Co.