Unravelling wonder tales: the representation of the initiation rite in Russian and Japanese wonder tales

A fairy tale is one of the main types of oral folk art. Artistic story of a fantastic, adventure or domestic character. According to Marina Warner, ‘another alternative term for ‘fairy tale’ is ‘wonder tale’, from the German Wundermärchen’, which recognizes the ubiquitousness of magic in the stories.’[1] For this reason, in this article the latter term is used for its wider meaning. Heroes of wonder tales fight not for life, but for death, defeat enemies, save friends and face evil spirits. Most of these texts are related to the search for a bride or a stolen wife.

The approach Vladimir Propp proposed to the interpretation of wonder-tale motifs was based on the premise that the wonder tale retained traces of disappeared forms of social and ritual life. The study of these tracks helps to discover and explain the sources of many motifs of the wonder tale. Believing that wonder tales absorbed many elements of early social and cultural life, Propp, set the way for their understanding to understand the wonder tale. He attached great importance to explaining the connection of the wonder tale with the ritual practices of archaic society:

The wonder tale has preserved the traces of so many rites and customs: many motifs only through a comparison with the rituals receive their genetic explanation. So, for example, in a wonder tale it is told that the girl digs in cow’s bones and water them (Af. 100). There was indeed such a custom or rite. For some reason, the animals were not eaten or destroyed but buried.[2] If we could show which motifs go back to such rites, then the origin of these motifs to some extent would have been explained. It is necessary to systematically study this connection of a wonder tale with rituals’[3]

The founder of ritualism in science, James George Frazer, compared certain mythological motifs with traditional rituals and advanced the theory about the origin of most myths from rituals. The ritual occupies a pivotal position in the life of archaic societies. The main annual ritual in almost any archaic society is the ritual of ‘renewal’ of the world,[4] associated with cosmogonic myths, which constitute the ‘backbone’ of mythological representations. Frazer considered the mythological motif of the ‘dying-and-rising deity’ in connection with the agrarian calendar cults and the more archaic initiation rituals. The main content of archaic rituals is the scheme for generating a system of categories that defines mythological representations and relations with reality.

However, the most ancient basis of most wonder tales in different peoples, according to Propp, was defined by cosmogonic rituals and initiation rites, as the most typical for archaic society. Moreover, Propp singled out wonder-tale motifs related to initiation rites: ‘chopping and revitalization’, ‘swallowing and expectoration’, ‘acquiring a magic tool or a magical assistant’ etc.[5] According to Propp, the cycle of death is closely related to the cycle of initiation; ‘the whole initiation rite was tested as a visit to the country of death, and vice versa, the deceased experienced all that the initiate experienced’.[6]

The rite of initiation, which is the most indicative for revealing the problems of this article, have been adopted and preserved by the wonder tale in the most distinctive form. From the earliest stages of culture, the initiation of adolescents who reached puberty included a series of rituals, the symbolism of which is obvious: it was assumed that the initiate, experiencing temporary death, returns to the state of the embryo and is reborn. According to Propp, this revival of the spiritual order made it possible to enter into a qualitatively new form of existence, including admission to the tribal community as a full member, participation in cult and sacred activities, sexual maturity (that is, the possibility of marrying).Temporary death and resurrection were caused by such actions as symbolic burning, dismemberment, overcoming of some severe, sometimes cruelty tests (scourging, tearing out teeth, cutting fingers, starving, sleep deprivation). [7]

The article focuses on the representation of the initiation rite in Russian and Japanese wonder tales about a supernatural helper (according to Aarne-Thompson-Uther Classification). For this reason, The Fire Boy, The Crane’s Return of Favour, Picking Nara Pears, Sivka-Burka, Ivan Tsarevich, the Firebird and the Gray Wolf and The Milk of Wild Beasts were selected. The helpers in these wonder tales whether animals or humans, play a vital role in hero’s initiation. It often happens that the hero of the wonder tales cannot fulfil the task assigned to him (save the princess, get the treasure, free the country from Zmey Gorynych, etc.) and some magical powers come to his aid, taking on the appearance of either mysterious, strange people, or objects, that is, next to the main characters in a wonder tale, there are always supernatural assistants. The helper is the expression of the hero’s strength and ability. All the helpers are one group of characters. This article will consider individual helpers as they are given by a wonder tale and their connection with the initiation rite. After considering each helper individually, the whole category will be examined and only then the reader will get a general judgement about the helpers and their role in the initiation of the neophyte.

The sources are primarily Russian and Japanese wonder tales. Russian wonder tales that are used in this article are from Alexander Afanas’ev’s collection. Despite the fact that Afanas’ev himself practically did not write down the wonder tales, he used the archive of the Russian Geographical Society, as well as the records of other famous collectors, including Vladimir Ivanivich Dal. Dal did not set himself the goal of making the stories for children audience, and Afanas’ev, in whose hands the wonder tales recorded by Dal fell, stood on the point of view of the inviolability of the text, and only occasionally introduced some editorial amendments to the text of the manuscripts he published.  

Proceeding from all of the above, the choice of the collection of Afanas’ev’s wonder tales as a source for this research is justified by the fact that it contains a collection of folklore, which for many centuries, according to tradition, was orally transmitted from generation to generation, and recorded directly from the people themselves. In the middle of the nineteenth century, folklore entered a crisis time, when the creative thought of the people, alarmed by social novelty, rushed to new subjects – and the full-fledged art of storytelling began to occur less and less often. Therefore, the main value of this source, from the point of view of realizing the research objectives, is that the collection of Afanas’ev contains the earliest, from all accessible to date, versions of wonder tales. The wonder tales of this collection were not subjected to processing, which would adapt them for children’s reading, and in the least distorted form they convey the content of those legends that from time immemorial existed in the people’s environment, and therefore preserved the deepest layer of popular consciousness.

As for Japanese wonder tales, as a source in this work is the collection of wonder tales presented on the Japanese site hukumusume.com. This site contains wonder tales in Japanese, collected from all over Japan. Moreover, Seki Keigo’s Compilation of Japanese Folktales and Types of Japanese Fairy Tales are used in this article. His work, dedicated to the Japanese wonder tales, their origin and classification, allowed to significantly expand the theoretical base of research. It is wonder tales in the original language that can contain the earliest versions of records, and are abler to convey the full depth of the meaning inherent in them by generations of the Japanese people.

Since the wonder tale is inextricably linked with the myth, the myths of the Slav and Japanese peoples are no less important source in the context of this study. The myth is closely connected with the entire structure of the tribal life: it expresses and codifies beliefs, imposes moral principles, guarantees the effectiveness of ritual ceremonies, offers rules for practical life. Thus, myth can be used as a source, which contains the realities of life of people in early society.


The initiation rite in wonder tales about a supernatural helper

The essence of the wonder tales of this category is events related to a supernatural helper. With all its diversity, wonder tales of this type are united by a functional unity – an assistant is an expression of the strength and abilities of the hero.

Among the Japanese wonder tales of this type were chosen wonder tales: The Fire Boy, The Crane’s Return of Favour and Picking Nara Pears. Among Russian wonder tales were chosen: Sivka-Burka, Ivan Tsarevich, the Firebird and the Gray Wolf and The Milk of Wild Beasts.

Part I

[1] Warner, M. (2018). Fairy Tale. Oxford:
Oxford University Press. p. 27.

[2] Propp, V. (2013). Istoricheskie Korni
Volshebnoĭ Skazki
. Moskva: Ripol Classic. p. 10. (own translation)

[3] Ibid., p. 87.

[4] Allen, D. (2002). Myth and Religion in
Mircea Eliade
. New York: Routledge. p. 204.

[5] Propp (2013), p. 308.

[6] Ibid., p. 308.

[7] Ibid, p. 308.

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