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Translated Tales of Chivalry and Adventure

 

Among the translations of the seventeenth century the tales of chivalry occupied an important place and interest in them grew constantly. Whereas in the first half of the century the reader knew only The Tale of В ova, the King’s Son and Eruslan Lazarevich, by the end of the century there were no less than ten works of this genre in circulation. The tale of chivalry satisfied the readers’ demand for “unofficial” private reading. It did not exhort, but entertained. It is no accident that the epithets “amazing” and “worthy of amazement” are found regularly in the titles of the Russian versions. As a rule, tales of chivalry were translated from polish. Exceptions to this rule are rare: for example, the plot of Eruslan Lazarevich is Turkic in origin, and Bruncvik is borrowed from Czech literature.

Many of the motifs found in translated tales of chivalry were well known to the Russian reader. The fight with the dragon, the husband at his wife’s wedding, recognition by a ring, prophetic dreams and supernatural helpers of the hero, the man sewn into the skin of an animal and the bird who carries him away, the love potion and the self-cutting sword—all these things were familiar partly from written works, but mainly from the oral epos, in particular, the fairy tale. However, the artistic meaning of translated tales of chivalry cannot be understood by dividing them up under these headings. Motifs are only the bricks of the building. Its architecture is determined by the plot, and the plot is not simply the sum total of the motifs. The plot depends upon the conception of reality. What conception of life did the tale of chivalry bring to Russia in the seventeenth century? What was new about it and how did it attract the reader?

The classical writers of the mediaeval tales of chivalry, Chretien de Troyes, Hartmann von Aue and Wolfram von Eschenbach who wrote in the second half of the twelfth and the early thirteenth century, and later authors also basically created two types of narrative, two branches of this genre. One tells of a knight’s love for a lady, and the other of the search for the Holy Grail, the platter used by Christ at the Last Supper in which Joseph of Arimathea later collected drops of the crucified Christ’s blood (according to early legends Joseph of Arimathea brought Christianity to Britain, and it was in Britain that the cycle of tales of chivalry arose connected with the court of King Arthur). The first type depicted earthly love, the second ideal, mystical love, the aim of which is to find the source of wondrous grace. Common to both types was a code of chivalry, a set of rules that governed the behaviour of a noble knight, and also the description of numerous adventures and battles.

Russia of the seventeenth century became acquainted with romances that were far removed from their classical mediaeval prototypes. The so-called chap-books, cheap pamphlets published in large editions all over Europe and sold to the common people at fairs or by pedlars, were translated into Russian. The heroes of chap-books are pale shadows of the knights of the classical type. They pursue entirely earthly aims. They are less active. Often it is not they who command fate, but fate that commands them. They are victims of fatal twists of fate. Whereas in the classical courtly romance there is a balance between the noble hero who strictly observes the code of chivalry and the adventurous plot, in the chap-book the centre of gravity moves to the action, the adventures. It is the action, not the hero, the plot and not character, that attracted the seventeenth-century Russian readers. In the chap-book they found great exploits, exotic journeys and amorous intrigues. The apotheosis of the great exploit is The Tale of Bova, the King’s Son.1

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