The Tale of Woe-Misfortune
The Tale of Woe and Misfortune, and How Woe-Misfortune Led a Youth to Monkhood19 in verse has survived in one copy only. Its fate resembles that of many fine Old Russian works: only one manuscript has survived of The Lay of Igor’s Host, Vladimir Monomachos’ Instruction and The Tale of Sukhan, and only two of The Lay of the Ruin of the Russian Land. Like these works, The Tale of Woe-Misfortune stands outside the traditional genre system. It arose at the meeting-point of the folklore and written traditions. It was nourished by folk songs about Woe and verse of repentance.20 Some of its motifs are taken from apocryphal tales. Like the bylinas, The Tale of Woe-Misfortune is composed in accentual verse without rhyme.21 On the basis of all these sources the unknown author has created a splendid work, a fitting crown for seven centuries of Old Russian literary development.
The tale links two themes, human destiny in general and the fate of a Russian of the “age of revolt”, a nameless youth. In accordance with mediaeval custom the author of The Tale of Woe-Misfortune places every individual event in the perspective of world history, beginning his narrative with an account of the fall from grace of Adam and Eve, who eat of the forbidden fruit from the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil”. Yet this account is not the canonical story, but an apocryphal version which differs somewhat from the Bible story:
The human heart is wild and foolish
Adam and Eve were tempted,
They forgot the Lord’s command,
And ate of the grape
From the wondrous great tree.
From the Old Testament it is not clear what the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil” in the Garden of Eden was like. It is usually thought to be an apple tree. But in apocryphal tales it is sometimes a grape vine. “Adam’s transgression was from the vine,” maintains the Bogomil tradition.22 Linking together the Old and New Testament, they compared this with the well-known story of the wedding feast at Cana in Galilee. At this feast Christ turned the water into wine, removing the eternal curse from it, as it were. However, the apocryphas maintain, the wine “still retained something of its original evil, for he who drinks of it without measure … falls into much sin”.23
In The Tale of Woe-Misfortune these apocryphal motifs form, as it were, the foundation of the plot. Every seventeenth-century reader knew the story of the fall from grace. He was aware of the parallels between it and the tale, including those that were only inferred. God forbade Adam “to eat of the fruit of the vine”, Adam disobeyed and was cast out of the Garden of Eden. The story of the nameless Russian youth seems to echo these remote events. His parents give their son the same instructions as God, the “parent” of the first man, gave Adam. The parents tell the young man:
Dear child of ours,
Heed your parents’ teaching.
Heed their sayings
Good, and clever, and wise.
And you will never know great need.
And you will never know great poverty.
Go not to feasts and revelries, child.
Sit not above your station,
And drink not two cups at a time, child!
In the Garden of Eden Adam and Eve were tempted by the serpent, which, according to the Bible, was “more subtile than any beast of the field”. The Russian youth was also tempted by a “serpent” that finally destroyed him:
And that youth did have a friend most dear—
Who called himself a sworn brother
And tempted him with fine words,
Lured him into a tavern yard,
Led him into a tavern house,
Brought him a cup of hard liquor
And a mug of strong beer.
Adam and Eve, having learnt the meaning of shame, are made to leave the Garden of Eden. The youth also becomes a voluntary exile and flees in disgrace “to a distant, unknown, foreign land”. Up to this point the author creates two parallel and similar series of events—from the Old Testament, on the one hand, and from Russian life of his day, on the other. The idea of the parallel, as we shall see, is also reflected later in the plot of The Tale of Woe-Misfortune.
But what the youth endures now is no longer directly linked artistically with the events of the Bible. The youth chooses his fate himself.
In the Middle Ages the individual was dominated by lineage, the corporation and the estate. Although the Orthodox religion taught that a man’s life was determined not only by “Divine intent”, but also by the “free will” of the person himself, in literature the idea of an individual destiny was not developed. The behaviour of characters in mediaeval literature is determined totally by convention, and their fate depends on either the behests of lineage, or on a corporative (princely, monastic, etc.) code of morality and behaviour. Not until the seventeenth century, the age of the decline of mediaeval culture, did the idea of the individual fate, the idea that a person chooses his life’s path himself, become established. The Tale of Woe-Misfortune was an important step in this direction.24 The youth chooses a “bad lot”, an evil fate.
This evil, luckless fate is personified in the figure of Woe.
Woe appears to the hero at the moment when he decides to do away with himself after being degraded yet again.
And at that moment by the swift river
Woe jumped out from behind a rock:
Barefoot and without a stitch of clothing,
With a rope in place of a belt,
And he cried out in a loud voice:
“Stop, youth; you cannot escape from me, Woe!”
Woe-Misfortune is the evil spirit, the youth’s tempter and double. This fatal companion is not to be avoided. The hero cannot escape from his power, because he himself has chosen his “bad lot”.
The youth flew off as a grey dove,
And Woe pursued him as a grey hawk.
The youth raced across the plain as a grey wolf,
And Woe pursued him with swift hounds.
The youth turned into feather-grass in the plain,
And Woe came with a sharp scythe.
Then Misfortune mocked the youth saying:
“’Tis your fate to be mown down, little grass,
*Tis your fate to lie mown down, little grass,
And to be blown away by the wind’s blasts. ”
Why is Woe-Misfortune so inescapable? For what terrible sins of the hero has Woe been granted such power over him, power that is truly demonic if the only way that he can escape from it is by going into a monastery. At the end of the story the hero retires into a monastery, “and Woe is left by the Holy Gates and will trouble the youth no more!”
When the youth leaves home, he goes to a foreign land, grows rich and finds himself a bride. The “transgression with the wine” does not lead to total destruction. So it is some other sin that decides his fate. In order to find out precisely what, let us return to the historiosophical introduction to The Tale of Woe-Misfortune.
The author portrays original sin with Olympian calm. We can understand the author both as a Christian (for the Bible says that Christ redeemed Adam’s sinning), and as a thinker: if it were not for sin, there would be no human race. After casting Adam and Eve out of the Garden,
God created a lawful commandment:
He ordered that there should be marriages
For human birth and for beloved children.
The youth is guilty of violating this commandment! As long as he was true to his bride, as long as he was thinking of “human birth” and “beloved children”, Woe was helpless. But then it played a cunning trick, appearing to the youth in a dream as the Archangel Gabriel and persuading him to abandon his bride. This was the hero’s final undoing. He received an individual fate, because he had rejected his kith and kin. He became an outcast, a renegade, a homeless vagabond. It is no accident that we find reflected in the Tale the reckless philosophy of the hero of “satirical literature”, for whom the tavern is home, and drinking his only joy. This philosophy of the dissolute is set out in one of Woe-Misfortune’s monologues:
Or do you know nothing of nakedness
And barefootedness without measure, youth,
Of great levity and recklessness?
All you buy gets sold for drink!
But you, bold fellow, can live as you are.
The naked and barefooted are not beaten or persecuted,
They are not driven out of paradise,
Nor are they sent back from the next world.
No one bothers with the man who is naked and barefoot,
And brigandage doth entice him.
Yet in the noisy throng of “merry-makers” the young man seems out of place, a chance guest. He is now merry, now sad. He is no stranger to the moral recklessness of the tavern. But the hero of the Tale is a penitent sinner who often suffers from his own debasement.
The Tale of Woe-Misfortune is dramatic. One of its finest features is sympathy for the fallen hero. Although the author condemns the youth’s sins and preaches fidelity to one’s kith and kin, loyalty to the ideals of the Household Management, he is nevertheless not satisfied with the role of denouncer. He believes that a man is worthy of sympathy for the simple reason that he is a man, albeit a sinner. Such is the humanistic conception of The Tale of Woe-Misfortune. It is a new conception, for up till now literature did not so much commiserate with a sinful person, as denounce him.