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Original Tales. The Tale of Babylon


Original Tales. Alongside the translated tale, which was fully mastered by Russian literature in the fifteenth century, the same period saw the creation of original tales in Russia. These tales were extremely varied in content and character. They included stories about real and comparatively recent historical events (similar to The Tale of the Battle Against Mamai already mentioned), historical legends and works which can be regarded as the first specimens of Russian secular fictional narrative.

The Tale of Babylon. The tale of the town of Babylon, which appeared in Russian literature in the fifteenth century, became extremely widespread in the following centuries together with a number of publicistic works extolling the greatness of the Russian state. In its original form, however, the Tale was a narrative, rather than a publicistic work. It told the story of how the Orthodox Emperor Basil resolves to bring from Babylon the “signs” belonging to the three holy youths (mentioned in the Old Testament Book of Daniel)—Hananiah, Azariah and Mishael. He sends three youths, the Greek Gugry, the Georgian Yakov and the Russian Lavr. This choice is not an accidental one, as we see later. The envoys reach the ruins of Babylon overgrown with weeds and are confronted by an enormous sleeping dragon. Above the dragon is a notice written in three languages, Greek, Georgian and Russian, which can be read only by envoys who know these languages. From the notice they find out how to get past the dragon and reach the treasure. In the deserted royal palace they find the crowns of King Nebuchadnezzar, precious stones and goblets, drink from the goblets and become intoxicated. On the way back one of them, Yakov, touches the dragon “and the dragon’s scales did rise up like waves on the sea”. The envoys manage to reach their horses and put their booty on them. Meanwhile the dragon awakes and gives a terrible whistle which makes them fall to the ground as if dead. The action moves to the place where the Greek Emperor Basil is awaiting his envoys. The dragon’s whistle reaches Basil’s camp, which is fifteen days’ march away, and makes him and his men collapse lifeless. The emperor thinks his envoys have perished, but decides to wait a few days longer for them. On the sixteenth day, when all the periods of waiting are up, the three envoys, who have come to their senses “as if from a dream”, appear before the emperor and present him with crowns and “signs from Babylon”.

In its character The Tale of Babylon is a rather complex and heterogeneous work. It is both a legend about the winning of the emperor’s “signs”, linked with the Old Testament story of the three youths, and an intriguing tale about the exciting adventures of its heroes whose names (Gugry, Yakov and Lavr) had no historical associations for the reader and sounded like the names of heroes from folk tales (or fictional works of the modern period). The style is also mixed: sometimes it reminds the official style of ambassadorial reports (“they travelled three weeks to Ba­bylon”, “they were fifteen days’ journey from Babylon”), some­times a lively narrative. The narrative is written in the third person except for one point, when the narrator changes to the first per­son: “but we did drink from the goblet and grow merry”.26

Thus, The Tale of Babylon is an interesting work of a transitional genre—from the legend to the fictional narrative. In the subsequent fate of the work its legendary character played an important part—it was included in the hagiographical collection of The Great Menology and joined the political legends of the sixteenth century.