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The Tale of Vasily the Golden-Haired, Prince of the Czech Land

 

The Tale of Vasily the Golden-Haired, Prince of the Czech Land.11 This tale belongs to the adventure genre, but the question of its origin is not yet clear. It may derive from a non-extant Czech source,12 which was adapted by a Russian scribe with a good knowledge of Greek. The constant epithet “golden-haired” is a Graecism. The Greeks used the corresponding Greek equivalent both in relation to strong barbaric peoples and to themselves. In the latter case “golden-haired” meant handsome, noble and clever. In the seventeenth century this epithet-cum-symbol was well known to the educated Russian. Some copies of the tale retain the original versions of the hero’s name: Valaomikh, Valamikh and Valamem. These versions derive from Greek words meaning “rejected” or “anyone who so desires”. Both meanings, as we shall see, are fully in keeping with the function of this character. The heroine Polimestra also has a Greek name which means “much- wooed”.

In the tale use is made of the theme of folk tales about the fastidious maid. The proud French princess refuses the match­makers who press the suit of Vasily the Golden-Haired, because she does not want to marry a vassal. So the hero sets off for France incognito. There, with the help of his psaltery playing, he succeeds in seducing the inquisitive Polimestra and the princess is forced to beg this “commoner” to marry her. After refusing twice Vasily agrees. Although the tale reworked considerably its folk tale stereotype (omitting, for example, the father’s driving out of his dishonoured daughter compulsory for the folk tale), in general it is extremely close to Russian folklore. The similarity between its plot and that of the bylina about Solovei Budimirovich and Zabava Putyatishna was pointed out long ago.13 Solovei also sails off to win his bride, seduces her by playing the psaltery and dishonours her. Yet, there is more to the artistic aspect of the tale than the adventure and folklore elements. The real life details are very strong and bring the tale close to the novella. In folklore and early literature a crystal floor was traditionally used for the hero to recognise secret signs from the heroine. But the author of Vasily the Golden-Haired used this motif to make fun of Polimestra and transfers it to the level of daily life: when Vasily gives the fastidious princess a good hiding, she “got badly bruised … because it (the floor) was so smooth and slippery”.

The everyday element is reflected in the style also. In rejecting the matchmakers who come from Vasily the Golden-Haired, Polimestra uses the language of a lively tradeswoman: “It’s not ground, so it can’t be a loaf, it’s not tanned, so it can’t be a strap, it’s the wrong boot on the wrong foot.” In punishing the dishonoured princess, Vasily reminds her of this allegorical reply, continuing it as follows: “…Will a commoner’s son take the king’s daughter for his wife? It will never come to pass, that a commoner’s son takes the king’s daughter for his wife.”

Vasily the Golden-Haired himself resembles the hero of a novella. Although the theme of getting a bride resounds at the beginning and end of the tale, most of the time the hero has a different aim: he wants to punish Polimestra for insulting him, his purpose is “revenge for ridicule”. Vasily is very far removed indeed from the ideal courtly knight. His enterprise and lack of fastidiousness about the means remind one of the characters in a picaresque novella. He resembles his “literary kinsman” Frol Skobeyev. Whereas Ivan the Sexton’s Son was a timid, weak exercise in a new genre borrowed from Western Europe, Vasily the Golden-Haired heralded creative attempt at the adventure story. This work shows that Russian writers were learning remarkably luckily from Europe. The courtly romance brought the theme of love to Russia, no traditional Christian love, but secular, wordly love. It cultivated a taste for adventure and for the “gallant sensitivity” that became so prevalent in Russian culture of the Petrine period.

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