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The Tale of Bova, the King’s Son


Legends about the deeds of the knight Bovo d’Anton, which grew up in mediaeval France, spread throughout Europe. This tale reached Russia in the following fashion: in the middle of the sixteenth century in Dubrovnik, a Slav republic on the shores of the Adriatic, the publications of neighbouring Venice circulated widely, including books with the Italian version of the romance of Bovo d’Anton. The Serbo-Croat translation made here was retold in Byelorussian, also in the sixteenth century. All the Russian manuscripts can be traced back to the Byelorussian version.

The Tale of Bova is first mentioned in a Russian source of the second quarter of the seventeenth century. The manuscripts of the work belong to an even later period. However, the evidence suggests that it became popular long before the Time of Troubles. It may have been transmitted to Russia orally, first as an epic tale, and written down later. An indication that it was popular in the sixteenth century can be found in the so-called secular names (by which people were called in addition to their Christian names). In the middle of the century in Ryazan there lived a certain Bova Vorobin (the Vorobins were a branch of the old Moscow boyar family of Shevlyagins, related to the Romanovs and Sheremetevs).2 In the 1590 an official by the name of Bova Gavrilov arrived with documents from the Terek to Moscow. Ten years later a nobleman Bova Ivanov, related to the Skriptsyns, made a donation to the Trinity Monastery of St Sergius. In 1604 a certain Lukoper Ozerov (Lukoper is one of the characters in the tale, a knight and Bova’s rival) delivered an official communication from Moscow to Nizhny Novgorod. How early and how firmly the tale became established in Russian culture can be seen from the manuscript English-Russian dictionary of the physician Mark Ridley who served at the Moscow court at the end of the sixteenth century. For “a knight” he gives as the Russian equivalent “licharda”, and Licharda is the name of one of the characters in the Tale.

Bova lived a long life on Russian soil. No less than seventy copies of the work have survived. For two hundred years, from the time of Peter the Great right up to the beginning of the twentieth century, it circulated in numerous chap-books. There was an intensive reworking and russification of the text.

The Byelorussian version was a courtly romance with a complex plot. The hero’s jousting in tournaments and ceremony of knighting are described. Bova’s love is portrayed as the love of a knight for his lady. But on Russian soil the features of the courtly romance were gradually erased, and the tale grew closer to the Russian epic. Most indicative in this respect is the third redaction of the tale (as classified by Vera Kuzmina).3

The main features of the plot are retained. At the beginning of the tale we are told about Bova’s wicked mother, Queen Militrice, who kills her husband an marries King Dodon. Militrice also tries to kill her son, but he manages to escape and enter the service of King Zenzevey. Then we are introduced to the love theme that runs throughout the tale: Bova falls in love with Zenzevey’s daughter Druzhnevna. She is wooed by various suitors, and all Bova’s numerous subsequent adventures are struggles against his rivals. The reader learns of Bova’s duels with other knights and battles in which he overcomes large hosts single- handed, about the treachery of his rivals, Bova’s capture and imprisonment, etc. Eventually Bova is united with Druzhnevna who bears him two sons, but then fate parts them again. The adventures continue up to the happy ending when Druzhnevna and Bova are reunited and he avenges his father by killing Dodon and his wicked mother.

“In a certain kingdom, in a mighty realm…” begins this redaction of the tale. This is a traditional fairy-tale opening, and the rest of the narrative is in the same key, that of the Russian epic tale. Here Lukoper resembles Idolishche in the heroic epos: “His head is like a beer cauldron, his eyes are a good span apart, a bow’s length separates his ears, and he measures seven feet from shoulder to shoulder.” The heroes live in towns with gold-roofed chambers, hunt with falcons, make obeisances to one another and, in general, observe Russian customs. At a feast Druzhnevna “carves a swan”, and her father, King Zenzevey, greets one of her suitors as follows: “He took him by his lily-white hands and kissed his sugar-sweet lips and called him his beloved son-in-law.” The main hero has turned from a European knight into a bogatyr, a defender of the true faith, who does not forget to stress that he is a Christian. This is how Bova, concealing his name and rank, presents himself to seafarers whom he happens to meet: “I am not of Tartar stock, but of Christian stock, the son of a sexton, and my mother was a poor woman who washed clothes for fine ladies in order to feed herself.”

The tale had come so close to the folk tale, that it became folklore. As we know, the romance “is a product of the folk tale. Here the development follows the stages: folk tale—romance— folk tale.”4 Bova traversed the whole of this path, and by the end of the seventeenth century it had gone the full circle. The tale with illustrations was one of the books given to Peter the Great’s son, Tsarevich Alexis. His tutors evidently regarded it as a children’s story. On 3 December 1693 the Secretary Kirill Tikhonov took out of the tsarevich’s rooms “an entertaining book with illustrations in folio about Bova the king’s son, many pages of which were torn out and spoiled, and ordered the book to be repaired”.5

The characters in the tale are forever in motion, but this motion is chaotic, weakly motivated and basically aimless. The characters are as static internally as they are active externally. Their reactions to their surroundings can be reduced to a primitive selection of the simplest emotions. They remain in the power of literary convention, mediaeval or folk-tale, and it is significant that the seven-year-old Bova, “a little childe” behaves like an adult, falling in love and fighting battles, something which did not disconcert the Russian translators and redactors in the slightest. There is no character in Bova, for character is sacrificed to adventurous action. This is the rule in the courtly romance where character was replaced by general declarations; it was considered perfectly sufficient to speak of the hero’s irreproach­able bravery and loyalty to duty. Very few characters are an exception to this rule.

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