Stefanit and Ikhnilat
The absence of a clearly expressed moral and an appropriate ending is characteristic of another work that entered Russia from South Slav literature in the latter half of the fifteenth century, the book of fables entitled Stefanit and IkhnilatP The structure of the plot was rather complex. Deriving from the Arabic book of fables entitled Kalilah and Dimnah (and through it to the Indian Panchatantra), this work, like the collection Arabian Nights, was a cycle of stories or, rather, a group of cycles, in which the text of the main stories includes shorter stories. Already in the Greek, and later in the South Slav translation, pride of place was given to the story of two animals, in the Arabic version Kalilah and Dimnah and in the Graeco-Slavonic Stefanit and Ikhnilat (in the Arabic text they were jackals and in the Graeco-Slavonic texts unspecified “beasts”). This story took up the first two chapters of the cycle; the subsequent chapters, which contained other stories, were gradually abridged and sometimes simply omitted altogether. The main plot of the chapters about Stefanit and Ikhnilat, after whom the whole cycle is called, is as follows. One day a cart drawn by bullocks is driving through the forest. One of the bullocks gets stuck in a quagmire. The owner of the cart does not try to get it out, but drives on leaving the Bullock to its fate. The Bullock does not perish, however. It climbs out of the quagmire, begins to eat the lush grass and grows big and strong. Its powerful bellow deafens the whole forest in which the Lion reigns, but this king does not show the courage, bravery and virtue characteristic of the kings in the Alexandreid and The Trojan History. On the contrary, he is “arrogant and proud and lacking in wisdom”. This king is surrounded by flattering courtiers, and the two wise beasts, Stefanit and Ikhnilat, live far from the king’s palace, in disfavour. The bellowing of the mysterious “loud-voiced beast” frightens the Lion; contrary to his custom, he even refrains from “violence”. The wily Ikhnilat comes to the Lion and promises to find out the source of the terrible bellowing.
For all his slow-wittedness the Lion is not over-confident about the loyalty of his subjects. After sending Ikhnilat to find out who is bellowing, the Lion immediately regrets having done so: recalling that Ikhnilat was the wisest of the king’s counsellors before he fell into disfavour, and concluding that if he were to find out that the “loud-voiced beast” was stronger than the Lion “he would worm his way into his favour and tell him of my weaknesses”. Even when Ikhnilat returns to him and says that the mysterious beast is a Bullock and can cause no harm, the Lion continues to be afraid—the unknown beast did not touch the lowly Ikhnilat, but who knew how he would behave towards King Lion.
The Bullock comes to the court, and for a while the king forgets his suspicions. He makes the Bullock his head counsellor; the wily Ikhnilat is again dismissed from court. So he decides to take advantage of his ruler’s suspicious nature and slander the Bullock. He makes the Lion suspicious of the Bullock, and the
Bullock of the Lion. The king and his favourite meet, each suspecting the other, and both detect hostile intentions. The Lion kills the Bullock.
Then urged by his closest courtiers the repentant Lion takes Ikhnilat to court. Here, too, Ikhnilat shows resourcefulness and quick-wittedness. He agrees that “as the Lion’s friend” he told him his suspicions about the Bullock. But who can prove that Ikhnilat deliberately slandered the Bullock? Perhaps he really did suspect him of treachery? Ikhnilat rightly compares his accusers to unskilful physicians: none of them can make any definite accusation against him. A “certain nobleman” demands that Ikhnilat shall confess all with a pure heart; the Lion’s mother says the wily beast is “cunning and brutal”; the king’s head cook points out that Ikhnilat’s “left eye is too small and screwed up” and that he “hangs his head” when he is walking, which, he insists, are sure signs of a slanderer. Ikhnilat brushes aside these accusations with no difficulty at all, even proving that the cook himself looks no better than him. He is covered with “foul-smelling scabs” and dares to come before the king and touch the king’s food with his hands. “If I do not defend myself,” Ikhnilat says, “who will defend me?” He defends himself so well, that he makes fools of all his accusers. The outcome of the trial is by no means a triumph of justice. The Lion, who killed the Bullock because of his ill-founded suspicions, shows himself to be not a fair judge, but a spineless weak-willed despot easily influenced by others. “Conceding to his mother’s demands, the Lion ordered Ikhnilat to be executed.” This is how the story of the trial of Ikhnilat ends.
The other fables and tales that the characters in the book tell one another are very reminiscent of the story of Stefanit and Ikhnilat. Thus, there is one about an old lion who can no longer catch beasts and demands that they should bring one of their number to him each day to be eaten. It is now the lot of the hare, who suggests to the other beasts a way of getting rid of the lion. He comes to the hungry lion late and unaccompanied. Then he explains to the lion, who is furious at being kept waiting, that he was bringing “his friend, the hare”, to him to be eaten, when another lion fell upon them on the way and took the hare, although he had been told for whom it was intended. The king demands to be shown the guilty Hon. Then the hare takes him to a deep well and shows him their reflection in it. The enraged lion jumps into the well and is drowned.
A sick lion no longer able to hunt is found in another subsidiary fable. Among his subjects are a wolf, a fox, a raven and a camel “from other lands” that has lost its way and wandered into this kingdom. Unable to persuade the lion to make short work of the camel, the wolf, fox and raven devise a cunning ruse: each in turn offers himself to be eaten by the lion, while the others say that he is not edible. Expecting the same response, the camel also boasts about how “sweet” his flesh is and offers himself as a victim. “Truly said, oh, camel!” cry the others and tear him to pieces.
It is easy to detect the common feature in these tales—the strong triumph over the weak, and it is the wily, not the righteous, who can get the better of them. Unlike most works of Old Russian literature there are no completely positive (or negative) characters in Stefanit and Ikhnilat. In the main story of the cycle Stefanit does not take part in Ikhnilat’s cunning ruses and tries to dissuade him from them, but nevertheless he values his friend’s wisdom and is truly devoted to him. In the Graeco-Slavonic version of the tale (unlike the Arabic one) Stefanit comes to a tragic end: deeply grieved to hear of Ikhnilat’s imprisonment he kills himself even before his friend’s execution. “He went and took poison and died.” Learning of Stefanit’s death, Ikhnilat weeps bitterly: “It is not fitting that I should live having lost such a loyal and beloved friend!” This feature makes the character of Ikhnilat even more complex: he turns out to be capable of noble feelings as well.
The structure of the main story of the Stefanit and Ikhnilat cycle, like that of most of the inserted fables, was thus different from the stories where all the characters were divided into heroes and villains. In many respects the “small Ikhnilat book” (as it was called in Russia) was similar to another cycle about a crafty animal, not known in Russian literature but popular in Western Europe in the Middle Ages, the stories about Reynard the Fox, or Reineke Fuchs.
The unusual nature of Stefanit and Ikhnilat compared with most works of Old Russian literature produced different attitudes towards it on the part of readers.
The text of Stefanit and Ikhnilat first appeared in Russia in the fifteenth century and already at this time an attempt was made to give the fables a religious, ascetic moral which was by no means in keeping with them. Thus, one of the fables was about a crane who found it difficult to catch fish. “Through much grief doth it befit us to enter the kingdom of heaven,” the commentator “explains” (although there is nothing in the story about the crane’s “grief” or the salvation of his soul, only about how he outwitted the fish). Other explanations were of a similar nature. But there were also other Russian readers and scribes who removed the moral interpretations by their predecessors from the manuscript (together with some of the moral reflections that were in the Greek and Arabic texts). Thus the tale had an active life in literature—it had demanding readers who sought to “improve” the text and others who regarded these “improvements” as unnecessary.