Fairy Tales as a Matter of Life and Death

By Anna Tarasenko

I do not think that any country can be seen or studied in isolation from the countries that neighbor it. Romania shares a long portion of its border with Ukraine, and this undoubtedly influenced both cultures, in terms of everything; from shared food and words to something as unique and abstract as fairy tales. Moreover, it is not only about having similar mythological creatures (like Înecaţii (the Drowned, lit.) which are analogous to Ukrainian “мавкa” or Baubau which is “бабай” in Ukraine) or their traits, but about sharing the same fairy tales. In 1998 Petre Ispirescu, a Romanian folklorist, collected and published a fairy tale “The Youth without Age and Life without Death”. It is a story about a prince who was looking for the land without Death. After the course of fights with evil forces, he found it and lived there happily until he accidentally wandered into the Crying Valley, which brought back the grief for home. He decided to come back and visit his family, even though was warned that everyone was dead by now. The story ends with the idea that the normal course of life nevertheless always comes back and Death finds him in his hometown. Moreover, there are different variations of this story in tales like “Bee as a Bride or the Passions of Cinderella Theodor” (Marian 1986) or “The Evening Star and the Day Star” (Botezatu 1998). The reasons of protagonists to find immortality are different to the first fairy tale. However, the narratives and their endings are somewhat parallel. Their common and, in my experience, quite unusual feature is that the story does not end once the hero reached the desired place. Instead, it faces even more challenges that in the end bring about a conclusion that is not necessarily the happy one, but one that is logical and realistic.

Similarly, in 2005, Mykola Zinchuk collected and published Ukrainian Fairy-tales Book 12: Pokuttia. Pokuttia is one of the regions of Ukraine that is neighbouring Romania. Amongst the stories included in this volume, there was one called “Where there is no Death”. The plot of the story goes in line with that of Romanian and its idea of the search for immortality is exactly the same. Nevertheless, the Ukrainian fairy tale ends happily: the man comes back to his wife and even though Death follows him, she manages to trick it and take him back home. There was also one detail which I though was added by Ukrainians, but after some further reading, I realised that was not the case. In the second part of Ukrainian version, when a man is coming back to his wife, death catches him near the bridge to his house, however, the wife proposes her a challenge, she turns her husband into the ball and says that whoever catches it will get him. In one of the Romanian version of this fairy tale, in and “Evening Star and Daystar” there is exactly the same detail, but with the golden apple instead of the ball. Overall, it appears to me that in Romanian folklore, the motif of finding the place where the normal course of life and death is changed is quite common.

Romanian fairy tales seem to mostly concentrate on relationships between people, within families, friendships and beloved ones, in contrast to Ukraine, where most of the stories are centred around interactions between people and nature, which is personified in different magical creatures and spirits. Moreover, Ukrainian fairy tales are used to entertain small children, therefore often have happy endings, in which the evil is always punished. In contrast, it appears to me that Romanian fairy tales serve as a tool for education, preparation for the real life, they seem to be more realistic and because of that – scarier. In both cultures the protagonists are often young man, this can be explained in terms of the roles of woman in the societies at that time, which were a headstone of the family and stayed at home, either with their parents or after the marriage, with their own children.

In, Ukraine, in turn, from my knowledge of fairy tales it seems that the idea of finding the particular place free of death is not too popular, however, there are a lot of stories in which the protagonist is trying to trick the death in some way or another and most of the time succeeds to do so. Having read a lot of fairy tales from both countries, I came to the conclusion that our cultures are much more intertwined and shared than it appears at first sight. There are a lot of things that are in common that can also lead to these similarities, both countries were rural, agricultural and quite traditional; people originally were living in small communities in villages, had very close relationship with nature that was a determining power in their lives; their lifestyles and values were shared. There is no surprise that people have personifications of similar phenomena, such as spirits of forests, rivers and forces of nature, this can be found in folklore of almost all the countries. Moreover, Ukraine and Romania share similar landscape in some regions, in particular, Carpathian mountains that span across both countries and are the habitat of a lot of mythological creatures.

All in all, I think that the role of fairy tales in the exploration of the ties and connections between various cultures is greatly underestimated. They serve as markers that can be transported only through people: through traders that were going around bringing with them exotic vibes of foreign smells, words, and fantasies; through adventurous people who moved away, searching for the better life, and unavoidably through armies which were sent to conquer new lands. Via means of tracking the origins of these fairy tales, their movement and transformations under the influence of other cultures, one can make estimations and predictions about the movement of people, diffusion and intermixing of cultures across territories.