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The Tale of the Page Monastery of Tver

 

Another specimen of historical fiction is The Tale of the Page Monastery of Tver, one of the finest tales of the seventeenth century.39 It is the legendary story of the founding of the Page Monastery under the first Grand Prince of Tver, Yaroslav (died 1271), son of Yaroslav and grandson of Vsevolod the Big Nest. The attitude to history here is different from that in the Moscow cycle.40 The author does not approve of free treatment of the facts. If he makes a mistake, it is not because he is aiming at a fictional treatment of the material, but because of ignorance: for the simple reason that he transposes the topography and architecture of his own day to the thirteenth century. Hence the anachronisms in which the tale abounds. Incidentaly, it is thanks to these anachronisms that we can confidently date the work to the middle or second half of the seventeenth century.

The author had very little documentary information at his disposal, however. Perhaps only the fact of Prince Yaroslav’s marriage to a woman by the name of Xenia can be regarded as authentic. We know from the chronicle that she was the prince’s second wife and that he married her in 1266, inNovgorod, when he reigned there. Apart from this the rest of the tale cannot be historically verified. All the circumstances that accompany the marriage, including the bride’s humble origins, are probably invented, a literary adaptation of an old Tver legend. The world of folklore is strongly reflected in the plot and the poetics of the work. It is not surprising that history plays a secondary role in it.

The Tale of the Page Monastery of Tver is a love story. Its three main characters form the classic triangle. The daughter of a village sexton, Xenia, whom the prince’s page Gregory wants to marry, suddenly rejects him on their wedding day and marries the prince instead. The broken-hearted Gregory runs away and becomes a hermit, founds the Page Monastery, takes monastic vows and dies there.

It is interesting that this drama is not presented to the reader as a typical conflict between good and evil.41 There are no “evil” characters in it at all. Its action takes place in an ideal principality, where the subjects live in peaceful harmony with their sovereign. The main characters are young and handsome. Even after the tragic denouement the happy couple and the rejected “page” Gregory do not cease to love one another. The tale has an aura of majestic beauty and solemnity that reminds one of the work of the great Old Russian painter Andrei Rublev: “peace on earth and goodwill to men.” Why in this land of love, peace and harmony is happiness the lot of some and suffering the fate of others?

The author (for the first time in Old Russian literature) seeks the answer to this question in the sphere of sentiment. It is no one’s fault that two fine young men are in love with the same beautiful maiden. Nor is Xenia, who has to choose between them, to blame. Love is a source of both happiness and suffering. True, the author realises that there is a dubious element in the tale: for it is the master, not the servant, who emerges victorious, as one might expect. Was it perhaps not only love, but some other, less exalted consideration that led the bride to make that particular choice?

In order to dispel any possible doubts on the part of the reader, the author introduces the idea of fate. Like the “wise maidens” of folklore, Xenia knows in advance that she is “fated” to marry the prince, and not the page. So she does not act. She simply waits for the time to come. This inactivity of the heroine stems not from passivity, but from submission to fate. The prince suspects nothing before his meeting with Xenia. He is a laything of fortune. But his fate too is sealed.

After giving his consent to Gregory’s marriage to the sexton’s daughter and promising to come to the wedding, the prince has a prophetic dream: he goes out falcon-hunting and lets loose “his favourite falcon on a flock of birds; the falcon drives away the flock, catches a dove whose beauty is more radiant than gold, and brings it to him”. The whole of this dream is based on Russian matchmaking ritual. For example, when the bride is promised in marriage they sing this song:

Many bright falcons flew up,

And the falcons sat down at oaken tables,

At oaken tables with damask table-cloths,

And the falcons did eat and drink,

They ate, drank and made merry,

One falcon only did not eat or drink,

He ate not and drank not, but sat sadly…42

The reader is sure that the dove must be Xenia and the falcon Gregory. Incidentally, Xenia’s almost total silence is probably also an echo of a ritual: at the matchmaking ceremony the bride-to-be is supposed to remain silent. But the favourite falcon brings the dove to his master. This is the first hint at the unexpected denouement. The prophetic dream goes on to repeat itself, and then comes true, as it were, in the scenes of the real falcon hunt in which Prince Yaroslav engages on his way to his dear page’s wedding. “The same falcon of the grand prince, tired of sporting, flew off to the village. The grand prince galloped after it and quickly came to the village, forgetting about the wedding; the falcon alighted on the church… At that time a crowd of people gathered to watch the bride and bridegroom go to the wedding. Hearing about this from the villagers, the prince ordered his servants to lure down the falcon. The falcon would not fly down to them, but sat preening its feathers. The grand prince went into the courtyard where his page was… Such was the will of God.”

At this moment the action reaches its climax. As soon as the prince sets foot on the threshold, Xenia says to Gregory: “Go you from me and make way for your prince, for he is greater than you, he is my bridegroom, and you were my matchmaker.” In other words, Gregory is being sent away, as a false bridegroom. So it transpires that the reader was mistaken and interpreted the wedding symbols wrongly. The falcon is not the bridegroom, but the matchmaker (wedding ritual poetry allows both interpreta­tions). The true bridegroom is the prince (in wedding songs the bridegroom is called a prince, and the bride a princess). Seeing the beautiful Xenia, the prince’s “heart was inflamed with passion and his mind confused” and he led her to the altar. When the young couple came out of the church, “then his beloved falcon … sitting on the church, began to tremble, as if for joy and kept looking at the prince… And the prince called to it. The falcon flew down straightway to the grand prince and settled on his right hand, looking at the two of them, the prince and the princess.”

It would be wrong to suppose that the idea of predestination detracts from the idea of love, that if feelings are predestined, they are somehow tarnished and depreciated. The author is saying quite the reverse. The prince’s love is so great and splendid, that it becomes his fate. The fate of the prince and Xenia is a splendid, blessed one, because their fate is their love. The tale does not have two separate themes, the theme of love and the theme of fate. It has one theme only, namely, love-fate or fate-love.

After losing earthly love, the page Gregory gains heavenly love instead. He is rejected by the “wise maiden” Xenia, but accepted by the Virgin, who appears to him in a dream, orders him to found a monastery and promises to put an end to his sad days on earth: “When you have done all and built that monastery, you will live there for a little while, then leave this abode for the Lord.” After losing Xenia, Gregory “was consumed by great sorrow, and did not eat or drink”. The sorrow turned him into a hermit and then a monk who renounces all earthly pleasures. The prince and Xenia are happy, but he is unhappy. Thus the heavenly love acquired by the “page” does not compensate for the loss of earthly love. This conclusion evidently followed in spite of the Christian author’s intentions. But that is characteristic of “free narrative”: a subject transferred to the sphere of feeling develops according to its own laws and sometimes leads to an unexpected artistic conclusion.

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