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The Tale of Peter of the Golden Keys


This tale belongs to the genre of the courtly romance9 (the hero conceals his identity for a long time, believing that he can only reveal it when he has performed some noble deeds; “and they called him the Knight of the Golden Keys, because he had two gold keys attached to his helmet”). This work is thought to have originated in the fifteenth century at the magnificent Burgundian court. Its theme is a knight’s love for his lady and their fidelity throughout a long parting. This theme remains the main one in the Russian version, which is separated from the original by several intermediary links: the Russian translation was made in 1662 from a Polish edition.

The Russian version preserved the chivalrous spirit of the original in many respects. It introduced the reader for the first time to Sir Launcelot, the most famous of King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table: Peter gets the better of Launcelot at a tournament, “He did knock Launcelot and his steed to the ground, and put his arm out of joint.” Peter of the Golden Keys is a most courtly hero. He observes the rules of chivalry. At tournaments he is noble and courteous to his adversary. He chooses his lady (his future bride Magilena), swears to serve her until death—and keeps his word. He never sits in the presence of a woman. He is devout and attends Mass, where Magilena sends her confidante to him. All these are courtly features. But there is also a gallant sensitivity in Peter’s character. This is found in many European romances of the seventeenth century. In Russia it is characteristic of the cavaliers of Peter’s day; this gallant sensitivity ensured the popularity of the Tale in the Petrine period.

So after many ordeals, captivity and serving the sultan, Peter of the Golden Keys is on his way home. He sails over the sea and is “sick from the sea crossing”. “And, stepping onto the shore, he did stroll along the bank and found a fine meadow, and in that meadow were many sweet-smelling flowers. And Prince Peter lay down in that meadow among the flowers. And the fresh breeze revived him after the sea journey, and he began to look at the flowers, and saw among them one small flower fairer and more fragrant than all the others, and he did pluck it. And looking at the small flower he recalled the beauty of Queen Magilena, the fairest of the fair. And … he began to weep bitterly…”

Magilena is a match for Peter of the Golden Keys in this respect too: she frequently swoons and weeps, curses her bitter fate, sighs and laments. These are not so much real feelings, as gallant sensitivity. But they conceal a true and noble love.

The mainspring of the action is the clash of courtly love and carnal passion. Describing the secret meetings of the hero and heroine and conveying their impassioned outpourings, the author stresses constantly that Peter and Magilena retain their chastity. They decide to elope and “trusty steeds” are ready, when Peter makes a solemn vow to his beloved: “I vow before the Lord God … to protect thy maidenly honour until the wedding night.” It is the breaking of this vow that leads to their parting. One day when resting Peter “forgot himself and began to conceive a different, evil plan”. But the heavenly protector was not asleep, and intervened immediately. A ravan suddenly appeared and carried away three precious rings, Peter’s gift to Magilena. Peter set off in pursuit and was parted from his beloved for many years to come.

Peter sinned, but Magilena atoned for his sin. She made a pilgrimage to Rome, “visited the relics of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul, and prayed for three months that the Lord God would unite her safely with her dear friend”. Then she founded the convent of St Peter and St Magilena with an almshouse. And it was here that the hero and heroine were reunited and held a splendid wedding feast. In all these episodes of the tale the Catholic influence is most evident: everyone knew that in Rome there was the Pope, the sworn enemy of Orthodoxy, and that there was no St Magilena among Orthodox saints. But this did not worry the Russian translators and readers unduly. They were not looking for “edification” in fiction and were not afraid of obvious digressions from it. The emancipation of literature from the Church had come a long way, and the translated courtly romance did much to assist this process.

In spite of the tremendous popularity of Western romances of love and adventure in Russia, we find only a small number of these works in original Russian literature of the seventeenth century. Evidently the paucity of original works in this genre was still not felt to be a deficiency. Readers’ needs were met by the oral tradition—the folk tale and heroic epos. These began to be written down and reworked for the first time in the seventeenth century. One such reworking is The Tale of Sukhan in verse, which has survived in a single manuscript of the last quarter of the seventeenth century.10