Epic Russia

THE new interest which has begun to manifest itself in Russian things could have no more significant illustration than that which is supplied by Miss Hapgood’s felicitous experiment in the translation of Russian epic song.1 Ten years ago it would have been impossible to issue a volume like this, such was the wide-spread incredulity, even among educated readers, concerning native Russian literature ; during the greater part of the subsequent decade the rewards for successful investigation in this field have been discouragingly scanty. Nor is it at all doubtful that the thanks for the revived attention to Russia are due much more to the political pamphleteer, with his war sensationalism and jingo spirit, than to the Slav scholar and ethnologist, whose aim is the union of races by knowledge, as the purpose of others is the separation of men by prejudice. Yet it is the change itself, and not the means which have determined it, that is here of importance. The nations are evidently to know Russia in spite of themselves. A great Aryan people, with half of Europe already in its grip; a race to which prophetic statisticians award a population of one hundred million for the next half century; a new and original intellect, saturated with the learning of the West, yet full of the freshness of Eastern life, — these are objects of study which the world cannot much longer afford to ignore, even in the interest of politics and politicians.

To say that there is ample room for The Epic Songs of Russia would he severely inadequate and misleading. Even the broadest aspects of that branch of Russian literature represented in Miss Hapgood’s version have not yet been presented to readers of English. The surveys of Russian poetry accessible to most of us appear in German or in French. A few isolated poems by Pushkin, some fragments representing the poetical work of other Slav writers, together with a number of scattered magazine articles, are all that the cosmopolitan taste of the last twenty years has culled from the great store-house of Russian song. So far as facilities of knowledge are concerned, most of us are more familiar with the Magyar than with the Russian Parnassus ; those speakers of English who read French are nearer to the realm of the Basque lyric than to the wide plains through which the Great Russian peasant minstrel wanders, with his mouth full of singing birds.

The book before us is thus a happy first installment of a debt long owing to Russian literature by the Englishspeaking nations of the West. In one sense the work is severely literary in its character, work of translation though it be; yet it has an interest for even the general reader that belongs to none of such issues, for example, as those of the Early English Text Society. The byliny chosen for reproduction here are by far the finest of a series of stories that have the double charm of an absorbing narrative and a serious meaning, while the clear-cut precision of language and the fidelity to the meaning of the original, which are preëminently Miss Hapgood’s contribution to the book, must prove the best help of all to the reader who is now awakened for the first time to the genuineness of the Russian popular poetry, and to the large claim which it has upon his attention.

So far as the explanatory notes are concerned, the conscientiousness of the translator is conspicuous and praiseworthy. There was, in reality, no other course open to Miss Hapgood than that of presenting, in addition to many thoughtful suggestions of her own, the main conclusions of comparative mythologists regarding the origin and significance of the Russian epic song. It is not her fault that the temper of scholarship towards the comparative method has grown of late years somewhat incredulous. Men have learned to fear, not the science, but the exaggerations, of comparative mythology. The attempt to explain popular beliefs in various countries of Europe by giving them an Aryan origin, and so making them branches of a single tree, has led, it must be admitted, to certain fruitful results, but has also involved mythology in a mass of inconsistencies and absurdities. The search after a principle of interpretation that should apply to every case deserved to end in failure.

In the comparison of popular myths, we have attached too much importance to science, and too little to common sense. Ingenuity has been allowed to take the place of insight. The philological method of interpretation, which seeks the origin of a story in the proper names which it contains, has tried men’s patience most of all. We have forgotten, many of us, that myths, however many versions they may possess, have only a single method of evolution. When the myth is new it is as intelligible in all its meanings as is the simplest description of events told to children. It cannot rise above the understanding of those amongst whom it has had birth. It has not one significance as a story, and another meaning as a nature myth. It is story or nothing, nature myth or nothing. But whatever the form may be, its actors are recognizable : it is the sun, or the sun as a divinity in human or animal shape, or a giant, or a military hero, who performs exploits. All is clear. But when the myth is old, there are two views of it: one is the remembrance of the modifications through which it has passed; the other is the attitude towards it of the generation to whom it has descended. The first is for scholars, who can recall its history ; the second is for simple people, who believe a story as it is told, like their ancestors.

Hence the Russian peasant who today hears sung the adventures of various legendary and mythical personages, treats the events narrated and the beings introduced as real, not as mere corporeal masks for natural changes, such as the return of light, the triumph of the sun over darkness, or the phenomena of thunder and lightning. Probably a century of education will be needed to teach Russian agriculturists that Svyatogor is the cloud-mountain ; that Mikailo’s roaring in the grave is the thunder, and that his candles are the lightning, which he forges, by the way, with rod and pincers ; that Nightingale the Robber represents “ the rude and boisterous gales,” while Nightingale Budimirovich is “ the breeze, gentle and seductive as a minstrel; ” that Vladimir is “the passive, inactive principle of the sun, and pursues his way tranquilly through the sky ; ” but that Dobrynya “ wages incessant war with darkness, triumphing over it every morning, and with winter, whose fetters he strikes asunder every spring with the sword of his rays.” How habitually a Russian peasant may employ an apparently solar epithet without attaching to it a solar meaning is shown in the use of krasnoe solnyshko, signifying red or beautiful sun. This is used throughout Russia by a mother to her child, by a girl to her sweetheart; it is also the epithet given to Vladimir, of historic fame; yet in no single case is there any thought of the sun associated with the words. The epithet is one of honorable distinction ; it is the highest thing that can be said of any one; it conveys the idea of beauty in a preëminent degree. There is thus a true analogy between the vicissitudes of myths and those of words. Both begin with a single, simple significance, intelligible to everybody; both end with two meanings, one of which, exclusively for scholars, escapes altogether the attention of the unlearned.

At the foundation of these Russian songs, moreover, lies a human element that cannot be attributed to any purely racial influence. However national an epic may be, we shall find in it evidences that the intellectual development of man has been much the same in all parts of the world. Looking far enough back, we reach a time in which human beings, as yet ignorant of the environment, sought to explain it by investing things with the vitality they saw in themselves. At a later period, when men had learned to draw a distinction between objects animate and inanimate, they still confounded the life of the brute with the life of the human being: hence that wide-spread belief in the human nature of animals, which in so many countries has given rise to a belief in their power of reasoning and speech. It is one of the most interesting studies to note how full of this theriomorphic faith are the Russian epic songs. Horses frequently warn the hero of his danger, making set speeches to suit the occasion. Volga Vseslavich, who had a serpent for his father, undergoes transformation into a wolf, on another occasion into a hermine. One of the bogatyrs addresses a short oration to his arrow, before launching it at a foe. In one of the songs Dobrynya assumes the shape of an aurochs. Serpents and other animals are frequently represented as in negotiation with men.

There has been much discussion concerning the sources of the Russian epic. The problem has been complicated by a process of growth remarkably involved. Popular legends in poetic form do not increase, like the crystal, by successive layers, each one of which may be removed for examination by an easy and natural cleavage: they grow by a sort of literary intussusception, massing together elements the most diverse. They show us the mind of the people acting not analytically, but synthetically, and far more intent on presenting the whole of the memories, fancies, and impressions, out of which such collections always arise, than of preserving any particular method of narration, or of handing down any myth or legend intact. In the formative period both matter and form are fluent, as befits the life hours of both myth and word; it is when a story has grown old, has hardened into a symbol, that the conservative spirit provides it with a shield.

The best scholarship of recent years has found a far more rational method of dealing with the Russian epic than that followed by M. Stassov in his well-known attempt to trace it wholly to Eastern sources. The researches of Jagic and Wesselofsky show the heterogeneousness of the songs to be greater than any claimed for them by previous interpreters. They yield, in addition to well-established resemblances with Hindoo myths, traces of the profane literature of the Middle Ages, of the Byzantine stories, the Tale of Troy, the legends of Baarlam and Josaphat, the story of Prester John, the myth of the Fair Melusine; of the apocryphal legends and the Bible stories. The influence of Christianity and of Christian beliefs, especially of the Biblical narratives, is now shown to have played a very large and important part in determining the present form of the songs. The allegation of a Tatar or Mongol element seems to raise the question whether the Russian epic has not some point of contact with Finnish mythology which scholarship has not yet been able to reach. That Russian folk-lore must have borrowed plentifully from Finnish tradition cannot well be doubted. There is a touch of something other than purely Aryan myth in such divinities as Dazh-Bog, Perun, Stribog, and Did Lado.

Two questions finally arise: Have the Russians genuine epic poetry, and to what extent does it bear the impress of the national temper and genius ? It is true that the adventures of fairy princes and princesses, and combats with snakes, giants, and demons, do not constitute an epos in the true meaning of that word; they represent, whatever their environment may be, no more than the skazka, the Volksmährchen. The historic background of the songs is occasionally disappointing. Yet that they are truly epic must, we think, be universally acknowledged. The nature of the events narrated, the exploits performed and their heroic actors, the cyclical character of the stories, the frequent reappearance in them of the bogatyr under new circumstances, the sharpness of the narrative, the use of Homeric epithets and their frequent repetition, as well as the beauty of the coloring, all bring the byliny within the category of epic song.

Purely native traits, on the other hand, abound in all the songs. Especially characteristic is the apotheosis of the peasant. The frequent exchange of crosses, the marriage around the cystus bush, the wearing of the virginal plait, the drinking habits of the heroes, are all customs intensely Russian. It may, indeed, be said that the Russian character and the methods of the Russian genius have never had better exemplification than that which they receive in these byliny. No race that did not possess a large receptivity for the foreign could have assimilated so many and such diverse elements ; none less richly endowed with the poetic instinct and with the qualities of imagination and feeling could have dealt with those elements in so masterly a way. The highest triumph of all won by the Russian people over the raw material of their epic was, perhaps, not that of redacting it into poetic form, but that of imparting to the whole the distinct stamp of the national customs and character. So that, we may say, the victory gained by Russia in quite modern times, as the founder of her own prose literature in the face of a foreign menace perhaps more dangerous to her true interests than that of a disastrous war, was by a victory not less brilliant, won centuries before in the field of epic song.

Thanks are finally due to Miss Hapgood for the excellent quality of her Russian scholarship. To be able to add one more to that small but growing band of writers on Russian subjects, who believe that there is an English as well as a French and a German method of spelling Russian names, is, to say the least, a pleasant experience. The additional merit of correct accentuation is by no means trivial. Of the translation itself, it may be said, after an examination of some of the originals, that Miss Hapgood has adhered with remarkable closeness to the meaning of the text. Only in a very small number of cases can there be any need of that revision which authors almost always insist on making in the phraseology of a first edition. The word “ damp,” for example, has a frequent occurrence in such phrases as “ damp oak ” and " damp earth,” where it is quite misleading, if not altogether meaningless, for English readers. A literal translation of the Russian word which Miss Hapgood has reproduced as “damp” conveys no idea whatever of its significance in the combinations cited. The Russian peasant, with a scientific accuracy into which close observation of nature, not reading or education, has led him, associates the idea of lifelessness or death with the conception of dryness, and the idea of life with the notion of damp or moisture. All through the epic songs, therefore, the Russian word for “damp” is used in the sense of “ living,” “ live,” or “quick.” Another phrase of frequent occurrence in this translation is “ green wine,” of which the heroes drink large draughts. Here, again, the Russian adjective is used not in its ordinary, but in its special sense. Just as the Russians link with the idea of red the meaning of beauty and of noble qualities, so to the idea of green they attach the conception of that which is “ malignant,” “ wicked,” “ biting,” or “strong” (with a strength that is evil). To call wine “ green ” in Russia is to make an assertion of its great strength, of its power to overcome men by making them intoxicated. Without some such explanation as this to accompany it, the phrase “green wine ” must prove a stumbling-block to not a few readers, especially in view of the existence of such misleading English analogies as “ white wine ” and “ red wine.” The sentence on page 71, “ Wilt thou steam thyself with me ? ” can be intelligible only to those who know that the operation alluded to is simply that of taking a bath ; that, in fact, the Russian original of “ to steam one’s self ” means the act of beating the body with a boughlike whip in an environment of steam. What the “ general reader ” will make of the Russian word “ pope,” used throughout instead of “ priest,” we know not. Yet it is really the key to all the tiny criticisms in which we have been indulging, for it presents Miss Hapgood in the light of a magnanimous scholar, generously attributing the fullness of her own knowledge to those who are not all likely to prove themselves worthy of the confidence which she reposes in them.

  1. The Epic Songs of Russia. Translated by ISABEL FLORENCE HAPGOOD. New York : Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1886.