Not long ago, in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, I was transfixed by a vast oil painting; Viktor Vasnetsov’s Bogatyrs (Men of Power) – astride their horses, one brown, one black, one white. I felt a thrill of recognition. Here were the three brothers, born to a poor widow in a single night and named Evening, Midnight and Sunrise, ‘all three as strong as any of the strong men and mighty bogatyrs who have shaken this land of Russia with their tread’.
The words come from one of the Russian folk tales retold by Arthur Ransome. My mother read Old Peter’s Russian Tales aloud when I was very young, and they have resonated in my mind ever since. On this, my first, visit to Russia, I realized how much my idea of the country had been shaped and coloured by these stories.
Ransome’s most famous contribution to children’s literature is, of course, the Swallows and Amazons series, but Old Peter predates Swallows and Amazons by fourteen years. It was his first real success and has never been out of print. Published in 1916, with charmingly appropriate illustrations by Dmitri Mitrokhin, it was the fruit of three years’ immersion in Russian folklore. Escaping a turbulent marriage and a stuttering literary career, Ransome arrived in St Petersburg in 1913. ‘I had made up my mind to learn Russian to be able to read Russian folklore in the original and to tell those stories in the simple language they seemed to need,’ wrote Ransome, and indeed the strength of the Tales lies in their simplicity.
Old Peter is a peasant who lives in a hut in the forest with his two orphan grandchildren, Vanya and Maroosia, his ‘little pigeons’. This is the framing device; Peter tells the stories to the children, and their comments and reactions, and the glimpses Ransome gives us of their way of life, embed the fantasy in satisfyingly solid reality. Talking fish, a cloud castle built of red roses, a mountain made
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