preload preload preload preload

Once Upon a Time: On the Nature of Fairy Tales Indiana University Press Max Luthi


1st January 2013 Literature & Fiction 19 Comments

This first paperback edition of the seminal work by the Swiss scholar Max Lthi will be welcomed by folklorists for its informative survey of the various ways in which fairytales and related genres (local legends and saints’ lives) may be read.

“Lthi’s lucid and intelligent book is refreshingly welcome.” — Sewanee Review

Text: English (translation)

Once Upon a Time: On the Nature of Fairy Tales










  • 19 responses to "Once Upon a Time: On the Nature of Fairy Tales Indiana University Press Max Luthi"

  • EqOrbir
    5:10 on January 1st, 2013
    Reply to comment

    What the Grimm Brothers did for fairy tales in Germany, Afanas’ev did for Russia. Over the course of his lifetime(1826-1871), he collected countless of these wonderful little stories from common folk, just as the Grimms did. This collection contains stories of adventure and enchantment, animal fables and more. Included are stories of Vasilissa and Baba Yaga, the witch whose house was built on chicken feet, and the famous story of the giant turnip. There’s even some stories about vampires. But be prepared, this book is huge! And every bit of it distinctly Russian.

  • Kristel Streat
    6:04 on January 1st, 2013
    Reply to comment

    This is a joy to read, concise and short, full of insight and authority yet never hard going. Luthi is a distinguished scholar, but keen to communicate his enthusiasm rather than any dry analysis. Scholars have analysed fairy tales according to many models, but this book becomes a primer for folklore theories too, as Luthi takes a tale or two in each chapter and examines them according to a different one of those approaches each time.

    For anyone fascinated in adulthood by fairy tales, this really teases out the essence of the tales, their nature and appeal, and the various ways they resonate with us. ‘It is quite likely that behind many features in our fairy tales there are old customs and beliefs; but in the context of the tale they have lost their original character. Fairy tales are experienced by their hearers and readers, not as realistic, but as symbolic poetry.’ (chapter 4)

    Here are the chapters: 1. Sleeping Beauty – the meaning and form of fairy tales 2. The Seven Sleepers – Saint’s legend, local legend, fairy tale 3. The Dragon Slayer – the style of the fairy tale 4. The Uses of Fairy Tales – Cinderella, Hansel & Gretel, The White Snake. 5. The Little Earth-Cow – symbolism in the fairy tale 6. The Living Doll – local legend and fairy tale 7. Animal Stories – a glimpse of the tales of primitive peoples 8. Rapunzel – the fairy tale as representation of a maturation process 9. The Riddle Princess – cunning, jest, and sagacity 10. The Fairy-Tale Hero – the image of man in the fairy tale 11. The Miracle in Literature

  • Cassara
    9:24 on January 1st, 2013
    Reply to comment

    Fairy tales get us into the psyche of a culture. Americans see themselves as Paul Bunyan and Johnny Appelseed, conquoring the frontier. This book introduces us to the Russian psyche. It shows us how they look at things–the world, society, life, family, and government.

    Some of the stroies are charming, such as the fabel of the Turnip and the Honey-pot. Other stories made absolutley no sense. But I had fun trying to crack these weird nuts.

    I enjoyed the translation. It is not as energetic as Seamus Heaney, or J. B. Phillipws, but it is readable, athough you realize that you are reading a translation.

    C. S. Lewis, in his preface to “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,” mentions that as children we read fairy tales, then we outgow them. Then, as adults, we come back to these stories and read them with different eyes. I had that experince with this book.

  • Spayman
    11:42 on January 1st, 2013
    Reply to comment

    I am a relatively serious student of fairy tales and folk tales. I was fascinated to find this book, and it did not disappoint at all.

    I knew that Fairy Tales and folk myths in original (non-Disney) form offer a frightening glimpse into the medieval world, with death, violence, starvation, hunger, privations the norm.

    This is a glimpse into the history of the world and one very well worth remembering.

    Some themes are similar to those one might find elsewhere, such as in Grimm’s. This does not detract from the value of this book, as many themes in world literature recur, as they are part of our collective unconscious.

    A fascinating read.

  • John Weissman
    15:30 on January 1st, 2013
    Reply to comment

    These stories are great. I wouldn’t read some of them to small children as they are much more scary than what we are used to with say Hans christian Anderson. I love the exotic adventures and the mystery of these tales. They take you to places so enchanting. I got it for myself as an adult and am in no way disappointed.

  • HarlanSanders
    19:26 on January 1st, 2013
    Reply to comment

    What can I say? Although I am getting into “advanced years”, I am still a child at heart who is delighted and entranced with fairy tales of all kinds. This is a recent purchase, so for the most part will be held for winter reading by the fire side. I became interested in Russian fairy tales from admiring beautiful hand painted, lacquered Russian boxes on a web site which included snippets of the fairy tales which the decorations portrayed. How fortunate that I could find this large book of Russian fairy tales translated into English for my reading enjoyment!

  • BioNerd
    21:16 on January 1st, 2013
    Reply to comment

    I really enjoyed reading these Russian Fairy Tales collected by Alexander Afanasev. These stories are (at least in the Western world) very surreal, but they don’t lack a good flow and a good sense of imagination at all. I especially enjoyed the tales that involved talking animals and mythological creatures (such as the Firebird and Baba-Yaga). Much of these are short and very simplistic (partyl because of the English translation), but sometimes less is more.

    The only problem I’ve had with these tales is that they’re sometimes repetitive. Some stories have the same structure: third time being the charm, boy gets girl in the end, boy is resurrected from the dead, the bronze and silver and golden kingdoms appear, etc. It’s this repetitive structure that makes later stories seem predictable.

    That one problem aside, this book is a must-own for those who are fascinated with Russian mythology, or Russian culture, or Russian fantasy, or just Russian in general.

  • Khawar Nehal
    2:28 on January 2nd, 2013
    Reply to comment

    I find the stories in here comparable to Grimms and Hans Christian Anderson. They are magical and a fantastic read and a source of discovery of tales from another culture. It is part of my fairy tale collection which I will savour to pass on to my grandchildren for their enjoyment.

    I love that its set in a more adult format; which I feel adds to the longevity of the collection remaining in the home as it can be enjoyed by young and old, no matter your age.

    Keep the child in you ‘alive’ I say. Remain in awe of the wonders of the world.

  • Carmo Gomes
    4:36 on January 2nd, 2013
    Reply to comment

    I have owned since 1975 a copy of an earlier, hardcover, Pantheon reprint edition of this superb collection, which was originally published in 1945. I have used it for both light reading and for serious study (while in courses on Baltic and Slavic Folklore and Folktale Studies). The selection and translation of stories both seem first-rate. (For the latter, I have had to rely on the opinions of those who actually read Russian, instead of just having studied it in school.) The accompanying illustrations are properly enchanting — and only occasionally are placed where they give away the point of the story.

    The only real drawback is that it is still merely a selection from about three volumes (depending on the edition you prefer) of “skazki.” This is the Russian term for oral tales of marvels, adventures, and misadventures, equivalent to the German “Maerchen.” In both cases, the English term “Fairy Tale” is the conventional, but not really adequate, translation. (As usual in large collections, only a handful of tales concern anything like fairies.) One of the requirements for the selection seems to have been that the tales chosen should be acceptable to American parents in the 1940s, but otherwise the considerable variety of the original seems to have been largely preserved. The suggested reader age of “9 to 12″ conceals the pleasure that adult readers with interests in folklore or Russian culture will derive from the volume. Fortunately, they may be lead to it by the fine supplementary material at the end, although this is now half a century old.

    Afanas’ev (various transliterations) was one of the many nineteenth-century collectors inspired by the Grimms,. By most accounts he was one of the most responsible, even though his practices of recording and documenting texts are hardly up to modern standards. (Neither were those of the Grimms, for that matter.) The main collection from which this was excerpted was the sourcebook for Vladimir Propp’s “Morphology of the Folktale,” a key work in modern folktale studies, but as Roman Jakobson (yes, the Structural Linguist) points out in his commentary to this collection, the book had already established itself as a gem of Russian literature, an inspiration and resource for poets.

  • Clayjar
    5:17 on January 2nd, 2013
    Reply to comment

    5 – As a collection of Russian Fairy Tales (not all that easy to find) this is a nice repository of a wide variety of tales. I’m learning a lot.

    3 – The illustrations were disappointing to me, given my personal preferences. A bit too primative and not very whimsical. Others may like them.

    If you want to study Russian Fairy Tales, this will be a useful book. If you want a “stories with wonderfully inspiring images to go along” type book … keep looking. My girlfriend from Russia says there are better books to be found.

  • kofmoto
    8:36 on January 2nd, 2013
    Reply to comment

    A simple, concise and enjoyable resource for Russian folktales. Any reader could easily flip to a page and find an interesting story from the tales of Ivan and Baba Yaga to any one of many interesting folktales. highly recomended for any lover of myth and folklore, a great addition to any library.!!
    Recomended. All Pantheon Folklore books.

  • econbizgripes
    9:12 on January 2nd, 2013
    Reply to comment

    Working towards (at times) my independent Masters in Folklore, I find Luthi the BEST of all the world-views about Folk Studies generally. The Nature of Fairy Tales changes every Fairy Tale I’ve ever read and studied into a new way of thinking and experiencing this entire genre…Read Luthi: all other Folklorists are vital in their own rights, but they are Not Luthi….

  • Thomas Kearns
    9:24 on January 2nd, 2013
    Reply to comment

    I got this book to read to my 4 1/2 year old daughter. I have been reading her a few a night and she loves them. There are tons of short fairy tales which are both magical and fun. I can easily read two a night for months! Many stories involve Baba Yaga who is one of our favorite characters. I like the fact that “witches” and other magical beings represent complex characters capable of both good and evil. This is in stark contrast to many more well known fairy tales where the witch, is portrayed to be just evil. The stories are also less dark and frightening and frequently funnier. The book uses a rich vocabulary which is proving a valuable tool in teaching my daughter as well as myself. In short, I like it and strongly recommend it.

  • ninnino
    13:32 on January 2nd, 2013
    Reply to comment

    This is a joy to read, concise and short, full of insight and authority yet never hard going. Luthi is a distinguished scholar, but keen to communicate his enthusiasm rather than any dry analysis. Scholars have analysed fairy tales according to many models, but this book becomes a primer for folklore theories too, as Luthi takes a tale or two in each chapter and examines them according to a different one of those approaches each time.

    For anyone fascinated in adulthood by fairy tales, this really teases out the essence of the tales, their nature and appeal, and the various ways they resonate with us. ‘It is quite likely that behind many features in our fairy tales there are old customs and beliefs; but in the context of the tale they have lost their original character. Fairy tales are experienced by their hearers and readers, not as realistic, but as symbolic poetry.’ (chapter 4)

    Here are the chapters: 1. Sleeping Beauty – the meaning and form of fairy tales 2. The Seven Sleepers – Saint’s legend, local legend, fairy tale 3. The Dragon Slayer – the style of the fairy tale 4. The Uses of Fairy Tales – Cinderella, Hansel & Gretel, The White Snake. 5. The Little Earth-Cow – symbolism in the fairy tale 6. The Living Doll – local legend and fairy tale 7. Animal Stories – a glimpse of the tales of primitive peoples 8. Rapunzel – the fairy tale as representation of a maturation process 9. The Riddle Princess – cunning, jest, and sagacity 10. The Fairy-Tale Hero – the image of man in the fairy tale 11. The Miracle in Literature

  • ItGotQuiet...
    19:24 on January 2nd, 2013
    Reply to comment

    I haven’t yet finished reading it but am thoroughly enjoying it so far! Fairy tales have always given a unique insight to culture other methods cannot deliver.

  • Gatlin
    22:17 on January 2nd, 2013
    Reply to comment

    Bought this book for a class, and it did its job. I must say though, Russian Folktales are very obscure. Much like Italian folktales they have very little plot ant there sure isn’t a life lesson to be learned. Just an overall wired book. But pretty cool all the same.

  • T to the A
    3:38 on January 3rd, 2013
    Reply to comment

    Luthi’s study of fairy tales focuses on simplistic and straightforward analysis of plot, structure, style and meaning. He generally refrains from manipulating the process or projecting any apparent bias onto the study, but he also fails to delve deeply into any complex themes that would be useful for sholarly research of fairy tales. Tales are analyzed independently without much consideration for thematic patterns (gender roles, class issues, social structures, etc.).

    Luthi devotes a full chapter to “The Image of Man in the Fairy Tale,” a study of “the hero” without balancing that study with any discussion of the heroine. He also does not discuss villains as a category. Luthi’s text is a useful introduction to the study of fairy tales but does not supply any truly relevant information for a higher level of study and analysis. Better choices are Maria Tatar and Jack Zipes.

  • golfdoc
    7:07 on January 3rd, 2013
    Reply to comment

    Fairy tales, or fictional stories related to local folklore, have long been an important part in the Russian cultural tradition. Very popular throughout Russian history, these rich and diverse tales were typically passed from generation to generation orally due to the fact that the vast majority of Russians were illiterate. However, these stories were not just for the Russian serfs and poor. Rich and poor alike enjoyed these stories, including the Czars. For example, Czar Ivan IV (the Terrible) was said to have “three old blind men [following] each other at his bedside, relating fairy tales before he slumbered”. The book Russian Fairy Tales, collected by Aleksandr Afanas’ev and translated by Norbert Guterman, gathers and translates many of these fairy tale stories into one source.

    The book itself consists of a large amount of stories (179 total) followed at the end of the book by a folkloristic commentary. There is no apparent ordering to the stories; they seem randomly dispersed. The vast majority of the stories are very short, averaging only a few pages each. In fact, many of the stories are less than a page long. I would have preferred less and longer stories, which are more complicated and detailed. Fortunately, there were a few such stories in the book, which I found to be the most enjoyable ones. The book is handsomely illustrated throughout by Alexander Alexeieff in a style resembling wood carvings, matching the feel and style of the stories perfectly. The commentary at the end of the book, written by Russian linguist Roman Jokobson, goes into depth about the history of folklore in Russia and how these stories were passed on. It is well written and very informative and enjoyable, offering an insight into the process and cultural basis of these stories.

    The stories themselves are very diverse yet simple. There are a few common themes throughout, including regular appearances by Baba Yaga (a witch-like character), anthropomorphic animals, and peasant empowerment. Many of the stories also have dark themes, characters, and events that would seem inappropriate in today’s children stories. For example, there are many instances of death and limbs or heads being hacked off. Like most fairy tales, most of the stories end with a positive lesson or moral; the overly greedy get punished and the heroic and respectful get rewarded. However, there are a few odd stories that seem to have no moral and end abruptly, such as one below:
    The bear entered the room. From fear the old man groaned [...] and the old woman coughed [...]. The bear found them and ate them.
    Maybe this is just a facet of Russian humor, but it seems quirky and out of place. However, the stories are for the most part entertaining, albeit a bit repetitive after the first hundred or so.

    Altogether, Russian Fairy Tales delivers exactly what its title describes. Unfortunately, the author decided to go with quantity over quality. There are just too many extremely short stories and not enough long stories. That does not mean the works are not enjoyable, the reader just has to sift through a lot of less enjoyable or odd stories to get to the gems. However, the book does offer a good insight into the Russian folklore tradition, and the commentary at the end of the book was excellent. Also, the pictures throughout the book got me into the mood of the material, which added to the overall experience. I would recommend reading the book if you have any interest in Russian fairy tales.

  • OneOnOne
    8:04 on January 3rd, 2013
    Reply to comment

    These stories are wonderful stories in a hard-to-find area. I’ve read other anthologies of Russian folk and fairy tales but this was the best. The reason it is the best is because of the sheer number and authenticity of the stories. There is no effort to “pretty up” the tales by taking out elements that no longer are acceptable because of issues (like feminism) which although important should be remarked on in criticism and not simply left out to make us feel better about the culture we’re studying. The fact is that Russian life in the nineteenth century (when these tales were put down) had its harsh elements and this is accurately reflected in these tales. However, they also reflect what was beautiful about Russia, too. Although I think if anything these stories are even more enchanting than Grimms, how you feel about Grimms will probably determine how you feel about these tales. (The original Grimms tales include a great deal of violence, too.)

  • Leave a Reply

    * Required
    ** Your Email is never shared