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The Tale of the Drunkard


The closest to the “simple forms” is The Tale of the Drunkard, the oldest copies of which date back to around the middle of the seventeenth century.28 It is a string of anecdotes all constructed on the same model. A drunkard who praises God “with every cup” knocks at the Heavenly Gates after his death. The Old Testament kings David and Solomon, the Apostles (Peter, Paul and John the Theologian) and a saint (Nicholas the Wonder-Worker) all announce in turn: “Paradise is closed to drunkards.” (One of the main theses of the religious teaching condemning drunkenness says: “Drunkards shall not inherit the Kingdom of Heaven.”) Revealing an excellent knowl­edge of church history, the drunkard discovers sinful acts in the earthly life of each of those who refuse to let him in and “puts them to shame”. He reminds Peter that he denied Christ thrice, Paul that he took part in the stoning of Stephen the Martyr, Solomon that he worshipped idols, David that he sent Uriah to his death in order to take Uriah’s wife Bathsheba into his bed. Even in the life of Nicholas the Wonder-Worker, the most popular saint in Russia, the drunkard finds something with which to vilify him, recalling that Nicholas gave the heretic Arius a slap in the face. “Do you remember…” the drunkard says, “that you once raised your hand to the mad Arius. It is not fitting for prelates to raise their hands. In the Scriptures it is written: thou shalt not kill, but you smote the thrice-accursed Arius with your hand!”

In the dialogue with John the Theologian, who declared that for drunkards “there is prepared torment with fornicators and with idolaters and with robbers”, the hero behaves somewhat differently. He knows of no sin committed by his saintly interlocutor, and therefore points to a moral contradiction between John’s words and behaviour. “In the New Testament you have written: if we love each other, God will preserve the two of us. Why then, Mr John the Theologian and Evangelist, do you love yourself and refuse to let me into Paradise? Either remove your words from the New Testament, or deny that these words are yours.” After this St John opens the Gates of Heaven to the drunkard, saying: “Come join us in Heaven, dear brother.”

A novella only becomes a novella when it ends with some unexpected development in the plot. In the final scene of the oldest copies of The Tale of the Drunkard the reader found maxims reminiscent of the denunciations of drunkenness widespread in mediaeval literature: “And you, my brothers, sons of Russia … do not drink yourselves silly, do not take leave of your sense and you shall inherit the Kingdom of Heaven.” This maxim openly contradicted the artistic meaning of the text, and for this reason it was omitted and replaced by the unexpected denouement typical of the novella. “And the drunkard went into Heaven and sat down in the best seat. The Holy Fathers began to say: ‘Why have you, a drunkard, come into Heaven and taken the best seat? We did not dare approach it.’ And the drunkard replied: ‘Holy Fathers! You know not how to talk to a drunkard, nor to a sober man!’ And all the Holy Fathers said: ‘May you be blessed with this seat for now and ever more, drunkard. Amen.’ ” Thus the drunkard and the Holy Fathers have changed places, as it were. At first the rascal makes them open the Gates of Heaven to him. Then, after being disgraced, they acknowledge his superiority.