Andrei Sinyavsky: IVAN THE FOOL

Chapter 4

The Fool is the folktale’s favorite hero. I would even go so far as to say that he is the most popular and most colorful folktale character, its favorite, and deserving of special attention. In a broad sense, the Fool is a variant of the most worthless and worse person on earth. Only a more compressed, concrete, and tangible variant. The Fool occupies the lowest rung on the social ladder and the human ladder in general. No wonder the word “fool” in Russian (durak) is an oath – both very insulting and very common. No one wants to be a fool. But in the folktale, this oath is the hero’s name, or, in any case, his nickname, a stock epithet that sticks to him. Even the hero sometimes calls himself Ivan the Fool. Everyone despises the Fool, everyone laughs at him, everyone curses him, even thrashes him. In his own family, he is an outcast. Which is why many of these tales begin something like this: “There once lived an old man. He had three sons: two of them were clever, but the third, Ivan the Fool, did nothing; he just sat on the stove bench in the corner and blew his nose.” Or: “he just sat on the stove bench all day catching flies.” Or: “There was once an old man and his old wife. They had three sons: two of them were sensible, but the third was a simpleton. The old woman loved the first two and dressed them in clean clothes; but the last was always ill clad – in a filthy shirt.”

The Fool is further humiliated by his own vices, which, though common and fairly harmless, are nevertheless despised. The Fool doesn’t like to work and doesn’t know how. Lazy by nature, he tries to spend most of his time on the stove bench sleeping. Sometimes the Fool is a drunkard as well. Or he’s a dirty little pig: he refuses to wash or to comb his hair and is forever blowing his nose. Or, worse, rubbing snivel all over his face. In one story (a later version), a beautiful princess consents to marry the Fool: “There was nothing to be done. ‘So this is my lot,’ she said, and they went off to be married. At the wedding feast, Ivan made a complete fool of himself and the princess soiled three handkerchiefs just wiping his nose.”

But, of course, the Fool’s principal distinction is that he is a fool and does everything in his own idiotic way. His actions are out of place, embarrassing, impractical, and senseless. This was especially apparent to the shrewd and practical peasant and is therefore played up in the folktale, making the Fool a figure of fun.

“One day the old parents sent Ivanushko the Little Fool to town to buy provisions for the holidays. Ivanushko bought many things – a table and spoons and cups and salt. He loaded a whole cart with objects of every description. He started to drive home, but his horse, it seems, was not quite strong enough for this heavy load and walked rather slowly. Ivanushko thought to himself: ‘After all, the table has four legs, just like the horse; why shouldn’t it run home by itself?’ So he put the table out on the road. He drove on, a long distance or a short distance, and the ravens circled over him cawing and cawing. ‘The little sisters must be hungry, else why would they cry like that?’ thought the fool, and put out dishes with victuals to treat the ravens. ‘Eat, little sisters, you’re welcome,’ he said. And he rattled on slowly.

“Ivanushko drove through a wood of young trees; along the road was a row of burned-down trunks. ‘Ah,’ he thought, ‘the poor boys have no caps, they’ll catch a cold that way.’ So he put his earthen pots and crocks on them.”

As a result, Ivanushko arrives home empty-handed and is again thrashed, cursed, and called a fool. To be sure, the Fool causes harm to his family, and sometimes to all of society. But he does so out of stupidity, not malice. Which is why we, listeners and witnesses to his outrages, are on his side and gladly forgive him everything. We even begin to sympathize with the Fool because he is so simple, truthful and ingenuous. He is the victim of his own openheartedness – an openheartedness that is measured by his stupidity, by his ignorance of the most basic concepts.

This is why, somewhere in mid-story, the Fool’s luck suddenly turns and he becomes an extraordinarily successful person. His luck changes not because he gets wiser, but because he is still doing the most idiotic things. ...

Translated by Joanne Turnbull in Glas


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