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The Tale of Basarga and His Son Quick-Wit


The plot structure of The Tale of Basarga and His Son Quick-Wit is not as complex as that of The Tale of Dracula, It is not a combination of anecdotes, but one long story.30

It tells how the merchant Basarga and his seven-year-old son Quick-Wit set off on a journey from Constantinople; a storm drives their ship to the town of Antioch. The heretical sovereign Nesmeyan, a Catholic, who rules in this town, demands that Basarga give him the answers to three riddles, if not the merchant must become a Catholic or be executed. Returning to his ship after the conversation with Nesmeyan, “weeping and sobbing bitterly” in the expectation of “death for himself from the sovereign”, Basarga finds his son engaged in his “child’s games”: he is galloping round the deck “on a stick, as if on a horse”, “for such is the custom of children engaged in play”. But although he plays “child’s games”, young Quick-Wit turns out to be wise beyond his years: he offers to solve the sovereign’s riddles, Basarga takes Quick-Wit with him, and the boy really does solve them. The first is “How far is it from east to west” (answer—one day by the sun’s path); the second: “What loses one-tenth of itself in the day and regains it at night” (answer—in the day one tenth of the water in the seas, rivers and lakes is dried up by the sun and comes back in the night). In order to solve the third riddle (“What must you do to stop infidels mocking Orthodox Chris­tians?”), the boy asks them to give him a sovereign’s robes and a sword and assemble the people of Antioch. He asks the people of Antioch which faith they wish to espouse. “We want to believe in the Holy Trinity, Sire!” they all “shout in unison”. “Here is the answer to your third riddle! Do not mock us, Orthodox Christians, infidel!” says the “child”. He chops off the wicked sovereign’s head, frees Antioch and becomes the ruler there.

The single subject of The Tale of Basarga is similar to the anecdotal episodes of The Tale of Dracula: it too is based on the answering of riddles: the hero is put to the test and emerges with honour, having outwitted his adversary. The Tale of Basarga is based on a story very widespread in folklore and world literature and usually referred to in folklore studies31 as the story of “the emperor and the abbot”. As in all tales on this subject, the riddles set by a cruel ruler are answered not by the person to whom they are addressed (the merchant Basarga), but by a “simpleton” who takes his place, in this case the seven-year-old Quick-Wit.

Unlike The Tale of Dracula, the attitude towards the characters is clear and unambiguous in The Tale of Basarga: the reader’s sympathy is entirely on the side of the wise youth who outwits the infidel emperor. Here, too, however, the exciting narrative prevails over the didactic element. Quick-Wit who gallops round the deck on a stick is quite unlike the usual hagiographical heroes who renounce children’s games and “empty pastimes”; nor did this hero fit into the framework of the usual historical narrative.

The translated and original tales that became fairly widespread in Russian literature in the latter half of the fifteenth century in many respects broke with the literary traditions of the preceding period. These tales introduced new, unusual themes (subjects from Greek history and mythology, the theme of love treated without the traditional moral condemnation), and new heroes. The deliberate inventing of literary characters was not typical of mediaeval literature. The readers of the fifteenth century did not doubt that the heroes of narrative literature were real historical figures, for example: Alexander the Great, the Emperor Constan­tine and the general Justinian, nor, most likely, did they doubt that Dracula was a real person, but Nesmeyan, the nameless monk in The Tale of the Monk, the three youths from The Tale of Babylon, Basarga and Quick-Wit were more likely to remind them of characters in folk tales, than historical personages. It was even more complicated in the case of tales in which the heroes were clearly legendary creatures, such as Kitovras, or animals behaving as humans, in Stefanit and Ikhnilat. In structure Solomon and Kitovras, and particularly Stefanit and Ikhnilat, may have reminded readers brought up on mediaeval literature of religious fables in which the characters and their actions were of a symbolical nature. They were not fables, however, but stories about animals, and when scribes tried to interpret the fables of Stefanit and Ikhnilat unambiguously and added homilies to them, they were clearly spoiling and distorting the work.

The tales that appeared in Russian literature in the second half of the fifteenth century had one more characteristic feature. They all had a plot: the author’s ideas contained in them were expressed not in the form of direct preaching, but indirectly, through the unfolding of the events that happened to the characters. Thus, the central theme of the Alexandreid, that all men are mortal, unfolded before the reader on its own as the story developed. While sympathising with the hero and admiring his bold feats, the reader nevertheless arrived at the idea that in the end all his brilliant achievements were pointless, for death inexorably claimed Alexan­der in the end. In a number of fifteenth-century tales the characters were psychologically complex and the portrayal of them ambiguous. Kitovras, Ikhnilat and even the “evil-wise” Dracula were not simply heroes or villains. The ending of Solomon and Kitovras, Stefanit and Ikhnilat and The Tale of Dracula was also ambiguous, it was not a triumph of justice.

The plot structure of a number of translated and original tales of the second half of the fifteenth century set them apart from most works of Old Russian literature, in which the main ideas were usually expressed directly and unambiguously by the author in person. But this structure brought these tales closer to the oral narrative, the folk tale, in which the plot—the story of the hero’s adventures—also played an important part and in which the characters were clearly imaginary, sometimes strange beasts. Barely linked with traditional religious literature, many fifteenth- century tales reflected “secular” subjects which became wide­spread in Western literature of the late Middle Ages and Renaissance. The Alexandreid, The Trojan Tales, Solomon and Kitovras, Stefanit and Ikhnilat, The Tale of Dracula and The Tale of Basarga—all these works are similar in many respects to West European works of the fourteenth to sixteenth century. This was not the result of direct borrowing; the similarity is explained by the fact that both in Western and Eastern Europe “itinerant” oral legends began to be copied down on paper and found their way from folklore into literature; translations of Oriental cycles of fables (such as Stefanit and Ikhnilat) also appeared.

In the second half of the fifteenth century literature in Russia developed along a path that in many respects resembled that of literature in the West. In the sixteenth century, as we shall see, these paths diverged sharply.