Faith Jaques, Charlotte Moore on Arthur Ransome, Old Peter's Russian Tales

A Lost Enchanted World

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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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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 of salt, magic tablecloths, giant witch-babies with iron teeth, become tangible components of a rich and strange culture, all the more vivid thanks to historical hindsight; a year after publication, revolution decreed that the certainties of Old Peter’s Russia, ruled by an all-seeing ‘little father Tzar’, must be obliterated. In childhood I wasn’t aware of the historic value of Ransome’s collection, one of the last outsider narratives of pre-Revolution peasant life. But I was acutely aware of the scalp-prickling contrast between the snug hut made of pine logs (‘You could see the marks of the axe’) and warmed by the stove on which the children slept ‘warm as little baking cakes’ with, outside, the endless wolf-haunted forest, the silence of deep snow broken by the crashing sounds ‘as the tired branches flung down their loads of snow’. In comes Old Peter, stamping the snow off his boots. He hangs up his gun, holds the children close inside his sheepskin coat until they squeal; he makes tea in the samovar, they eat soup with their wooden spoons. Old Peter lights his pipe (Ransome was himself a heroic pipe-smoker); it’s full of ‘very strong tobacco, called Mahorka, which has a smell like hot tin’. The evening ritual leads to the magic moment when the storytelling begins, the stories filling the hut like the curls of pipe-smoke and the steam from the samovar.

The titles tell you how marvellous the tales will be. ‘The Silver Saucer and the Transparent Apple’; ‘The Fool of the World and the Flying Ship’; ‘Prince Ivan, the Witch Baby, and the Little Sister of the Sun’; ‘The Fire-Bird, the Horse of Power, and the Princess Vasilissa’ – all irresistible to an imaginative child. The narratives follow the patterns of folk tales the world over. Stepmothers are wicked, youngest sons prove braver and more resourceful than their greedy older brothers, people and events come in threes, you can (usually) trust a talking animal. There’s a universal folk-morality; doing a good turn will save you in the end, black deeds come to light through beneficent Nature, pride comes before a fall. ‘“This”, said Old Peter, “is a story about wanting more than enough.”’ And everywhere there are enchanted realms and beings – both bad and good – in the air, under the water, deep in the earth, in the heart of the forest, just out of reach. But only just.

Fairy stories have happy endings. Of course they do. They raise fears and problems, and resolve them – that’s what they’re for. Arthur Ransome’s versions are no exception. But he’s quite tough, and he doesn’t smooth away everything that’s uncomfortable. ‘Little Master Misery’ is about alcoholism, that dark danger at the heart of Russian peasant life. Baba Yaga, the cannibal witch, is outwitted by the ‘little girl with the kind heart’, but not killed; she returns to her hut on hen’s legs, ‘gnashing her teeth and screaming with rage and disappointment’, but we know she’ll re-emerge some day. The sad childless couple who made themselves a snow girl cannot keep her –

Good-bye, ancient ones, good-bye,
Back I go across the sky;
To my motherkin I go –
Little daughter of the snow

sings the snow girl as she disappears, leaving behind her only a pool of water in front of the stove, ‘and a fur hat, and a little coat, and little red boots were lying in it’. This is too much for Vanya and Maroosia. Old Peter has to console them with a hint that the snow girl might one day return. Even as an adult, I find I can’t type these words without emotion.

Writing fairy tales is the only (literary) subject ‘that it is possible to excel in without a degree’, the non-graduate Ransome told his mother. He learned his Russian from children’s primers, and from travelling by train, sledge and on foot, listening to how ordinary people talked. The Tales have an incantatory rhythm; for almost two years Ransome repeated them to himself as he walked, before he wrote them down. Open the book at any page and the rhythm swells to the surface: ‘The sea piled itself into waves with crests of foam, and the fire-bird came flying from the other side of the world’; ‘Wake me, dear father, from a bitter dream, by fetching water from the well of the Tzar’; ‘Eaten the father, eaten the mother, and now to eat the little brother’. There’s colour, too – pure strong red and green and blue, and the feel of fur and frost and wood and metal. And, as with any good book for children, there’s fascinating food, black bread and kasha and red kisel jelly. Ransome makes sure that all the senses of his young readers are involved.

Brilliantly, he ends the collection not with magic but with a real event, the christening of Vanya and Maroosia’s baby cousin. This gives Ransome an opportunity to describe Old Peter’s cart with its larch-pole springs, the gun which is his present for baby Nikolai (‘he shall be a forester, and a good shot, and you cannot begin too early’), the carved timbers of the village huts, the church with its bright green cupolas and icons. The baby ‘goes right into the water, not once, but three times’, and is anointed with sacred ointment; the priest ‘cut a little pinch of fluff from the baby’s head, and rolled it into a pellet with the ointment, and threw the pellet in the holy water. And after that baby was carried solemnly three times round the holy water. The priest blessed it and prayed for it; and there it was, a true little Russian.’ Magic and religion are shown to be intim-ately intertwined.

Baby Nikolai ‘knew all the world belonged to him because he was so very young’. How could he, or his real-life counterpart, or indeed Ransome, his creator, have foreseen how much that world would change? The gulf between his infancy and his Stalinist future was unimaginable and unbridgeable. But though Ransome describes peasant customs with affection and respect, he was no apologist for the Romanov regime that was so soon to collapse. On the contrary, he knew Lenin well, was in love with Trotsky’s secretary (she became his second wife) and was the principal British eyewitness of the events of 1917. Was he a double agent? Probably yes, up to a point. Bruce Lockhart, the British diplomat and secret agent whose attempt to stymie the revolution failed partly because some of his co-conspirators were in the pay of the Bolsheviks, wrote that ‘Ransome was a Don Quixote with a walrus moustache, a sentimentalist who could always be relied on to champion the underdog, and a visionary whose imagination had been fired by the revolution. He was on excellent terms with the Bolsheviks and frequently brought us information of
the greatest value.’

When Ransome tramped through the forests gathering material for Old Peter, perhaps he had a sense that, as the Horse of Power tells his rider the brave young archer, ‘the trouble is not yet; the trouble is to come’. Eventually he would hole up in the Lake District and entertain a generation with boats and campfires and treasure maps. Thank goodness Old Peter’s Russian Tales survives, a shining doorway into a lost world.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 68 © Marianne Fisher 2020


About the contributor

Charlotte Moore is an author of fiction and non-fiction. She lives in East Sussex and runs workshops on life writing and poetry reading. Her poetry anthology, The Magic Hour, has just been published by Short Books.

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