Russian folktales that were often adapted for animated films and for many Russians cartoons are the first introduction to folklore. The folklore characters went through several stages, from comparatively straightforward transformations in some early films, to didactic Socialist Realist versions in the late Stalin era to artistic, to masterpieces of the 1960-1970s, when folklore-based cartoons fused modernity and tradition and obtained “doublespeak” allusions. The trickster is one of the most appealing characters for animation. The trickster creates comic situations, brings innovation, and is often associated with satirizing norms and customs. The Russian trickster is the fool (durak). The fool in Russian medieval culture was a clever revealer of truth, eccentric in clothing, speech, and behavior. In Russian culture, the trickster figure blends several characters that were historically connected: the Holy fool (iurodivyi), the Harlequin/Wandering Minstrel (skomorokh), and the Outlaw (e.g. the thief, Cossack, or the peddler). Apart from the fool, the soldier and the fox, are common tricksters.
Emelya and the pike
The story about Emelya the fool and the magic pike is among the most well-known. Emelya is depicted in figurines, paintings, illustrations, and sometimes is seen as a symbol of Russia, slow to saddle up, but rides fast. In the folktale, Emelya is the third son, unmarried, untidy, lazy, and his only motivation to do something is the promise of a red kaftan (overcoat). In the folktale, Emelya catches the magic pike and who gives him a magic ability to fulfill of his wishes. Most famously, lazy Emelya who spends most of his time on a massive warm Russian stove, wishes for the stove to give him a ride. In the folktale-based animated film In a Certain Kingdom (V nekotorom tzarstve), 1957 (directed by Ivan Ivanov-Vano, screenplay by Nikolai Erdman) Emelya is significantly different. He is not a lazy lad, but he is shown quite capable of working. Emelya is also kinder: he lets the pike go without asking anything and the pike rewards him. He is quite peaceful until his motherland is threatened by foreigners.
Emelya on his self-propelled stove. The Tsar is hiding from invading foreigners
Figures of pretentious westerners are among the main contemporary features of the film. The generic foreign prince who courts the Russian princess is shown in 18th-19th century European dress. Presumably, he is a French prince who barely speaks Russian and wants to marry Maria, the daughter of the tsar. The foreign prince is shown as a tall figure with unnaturally sharp features reminiscent of a rooster (possibly another hint at his French origin). He is extremely effeminate, constantly powdering his face, looking at a pocket mirror. Princesses Maria does not mind his courtship (approved by her father) until Emelya sees her portrait and wishes her to fall in love with him. When the foreign prince is rejected by Maria, he launches an invasion. The image of foreign grenadiers marching in the snow reminds us not only of Napoleon, but also of the recent German invasion. The tsar’s troops are defeated despite their general’s comic appeal: “They [foreigners] gave our tsar the fig, let’s all die for him!” , and only the trickster, becoming patriotic when he sees the destruction the invaders are causing, is able to save his native land by making a magic broom to wipe out the enemy.
Emelya is depicted in a humane fashion, with normal physical appearances. In contrast, the Russian court is shown in a somewhat comical way: the tsar is short, bearded, and single toothed; his worthless general is shown with cartoonish whiskers. As a result of Emelya’s victory, the tsar loses his crown and flees abroad, while Emelya marries princess Maria and rides the stove home with her. Thus, in sharp contrast with the folktale, Emelya in this cartoon embodies the ideal of the Russian nation: he is witty and kind, able to work and play, he is not aggressive, but he can defend himself if bothered by foreigners or the tsar and his government. Foreign enemies are always ready to invade Russia, but they cannot defeat her people. The parts of the folktale that shows Emelya’s weakness and passivity are completely omitted. In the film Emelya is a smart peasant, salt of the earth, and he does not need the pike’s magic to become a handsome and clever prince.
Clumsy and effeminate European prince
In a Certain Kingdom (V nekotorom tzarstve), 1957
Russian with English subtitles