Category Archives: Books

Thoughts on “Morphology of the Folktale”, by Vladimir Propp

I.

Морфология сказки is the Russian name of a book written by Vladimir Propp and published in 1928. It was first translated into English in 1958 with the title Morphology of the Folktale, despite the fact that the Russian word сказки means “fairy tale”, and the book is indeed about fairy tales, specifically, not folk tales in general. The second-edition translation I read, which is from 1968, points this out in the introduction but opts to keep the familiar title of the 1958 translation. Really, then, this book’s English name should be Morphology of the Fairy Tale. But I don’t think anybody uses that title, so for lack of a satisfactory English title, I’m going to refer to the book by its Russian name, Морфология сказки.

Anyway… this is a very interesting book, and it’s introduced me to a whole field of study which I never even knew existed, that of the formal analysis of folklore. I was a little surprised to learn that this kind of analysis was even possible, since folk tales are phenomena of human creativity. I thought it would be like trying to analyse something like literary fiction; such analysis is of course possible (if I understand correctly, it’s what literary criticism is all about), but it doesn’t seem to lend itself well to a formal approach. On the other hand, Propp’s analysis of fairy tales in Морфология сказки is unmistakably formalist. It displays one of the hallmarks of a formalist approach: the development of a special system of symbols which are essential for presenting the analysis. As an illustration, I’ve written out the structure of one of the fairy tales analysed by Propp below, using Propp’s formal language. The fairy tale here is from Afanasiev’s Russian Fairy Tales (1855-1863); its Russian title is Гуси-лебеди, and its English title in the edition I have is “The Magic Swan Geese”.

γ1 β1 δ1 A1 C ↑ [D ¬E1 ¬F]3 d7 E7 F9 = G4 K1 ↓ [Pr1 D1 E1 F9 = Rs4]3

Note that I have made some minor adjustments to the symbols used here, for added clarity. (It’s not the prettiest formal language I’ve ever seen, even with these adjustments.) Let me try and give you an idea of what these symbols mean.

Each of the units separated by spaces (γ1, β1, etc.) represents a particular function in the fairy tale. The word function here has a technical meaning: it refers to an action taken by a character which serves to advance the narrative, or, as Propp puts it:

Function is understood as an act of a character, defined from the point of view of its significance for the course of the action.

These functions are the fundamental building blocks of fairy tales under Propp’s analysis. Here is a partial list of them, including only the ones that are present in Гуси-лебеди.

  • γ is interdiction: the hero is told to do or not to do something. In this particular case (that of Гуси-лебеди), the hero, who is a girl, is told by her mother to take care of her little brother and not to leave the courtyard. The superscript 1 indicates that the command is negative, rather than positive (superscript numbers indicate particular ways in which an action can take place in Propp’s formal language).
  • β is absentation: one of the members of the family leaves home. In this case it is the parents who leave (to go to work), and this is indicated by the superscript 1.
  • δ is violation: the hero violates an interdiction. In this case the interdiction is the one explicitly made earlier (γ): the girl goes out to play in the street, leaving her little brother by himself. But the interdiction may also be implicit (in which case the name for this action should probably just be mistake).
  • A is villainy: the villain carries out a villainous act, which can take many different forms. The form taken in Гуси-лебеди is that of abduction of a person (hence the superscript 1): the little brother, without his sister to watch over him, is seized from the air by гуси-лебеди (“geese-swans”). (I don’t know what exactly these “geese-swans” are supposed to be; there is an animal whose English name is swan goose but it only seems to live in a small area of southeastern Siberia, so I’m not sure if it would have featured in Russian fairy tales, and its name in modern Russian appears to be сухонос, anyway, not гусь-лебедь.)
  • C is beginning counteraction: the hero agrees to or decides to take action against the villain. In this case, the girl realises her little brother is missing and sets off in search of him.
  • ↑ is depature: the hero leaves home.
  • The next sub-sequence of three units is enclosed within square brackets, with a subscript 3 after the closing square bracket. This indicates that the whole sub-sequence is repeated three times. That the number is three and not, say, two or four is due to the well-known rule of three.
  • D is the first function of the donor: the hero is tested (explicitly or implicitly) by a character called the donor, with a source of help (often magical) available if they pass the test. As this is part of the triple-repeated segment, there are three instances of such a test in Гуси-лебеди. First, the girl comes across a stove and asks it where the geese went. But the stove asks her to eat one of its rye-cakes first, and she refuses. Second, the girl comes across an apple tree and asks the same, but the apple tree asks her to eat one of its apples first, and she refuses. Third, the daughter comes across a river of milk with banks made of pudding and asks the same, but the river asks her to eat some of its pudding, and she refuses again.
  • E is the hero’s reaction to the donor’s test; in this case, the girl refuses to eat any of the offers made by the three donors. Because the reaction is negative a NOT sign (¬) is written before the E (Propp writes “E neg.” instead, but I changed the notation slightly).
  • F is provision or receipt of a magical agent, or, in this case, a missed opportunity to do so (hence the ¬) because the girl failed the tests.
  • After the three failed tests, another DEF sequence occurs involving a hedgehog donor; this time the girl passes the test, and is pointed in the direction of the geese. Now this is an interesting part of the tale, because it could perhaps be said that Propp is taking some liberties to fit this part of the story into his theory. All that happens is that the girl comes across a hedgehog and feels like nudging him (D), but decides against it because of the hedgehog’s spines (E), then asks the hedgehog where the geese went and receives an answer (F). But maybe this is an example of where Propp’s theory actually has some explanatory power. For there is the question of why the fairy tale has to include this line about the girl wanting to nudge the hedgehog. It doesn’t have any effect on the story; the girl could just ask the hedgehog straight away. Propp’s answer to this question would be that it is a way of making the encounter with the hedgehog conform to the DEF structure.
  • G is guidance: the hero is transferred, delivered or led to the object of their search. In this case, the hedgehog provides the guidance; the guidance and the help provided by the donor are identical, hence the equals sign connecting the F and G functions.
  • K is resolution (Propp does not give it a name, for some reason, but resolution seems appropriate): the initial problem caused by the villainy in A is solved. In this case, the girl comes across a hut standing on chicken legs, in which the hag Baba Yaga is sleeping, while the girl’s little brother is sitting on a bench and playing with golden apples. She takes him away.
  • ↓ is return: the hero starts to make their journey back home.
  • Pr is pursuit: the hero is pursued. In this case, the swan-geese reappear and start chasing after the girl and her brother.
  • During the pursuit, three more tests (DEF sub-sequences) occur, with the same donors (the river, the tree and the stove, in that order) giving the test; this time, the girl passes each test by consuming the substances that the donors tell her to consume, and in return they hide her and her little brother from the swan-geese.
  • Rs is rescue: the hero is rescued from pursuit. In this case rescues occur as the help provided by the donors in the final sequence of three tests, and so we write this unit with an equals sign connecting it to F.

If you want to read the actual fairy tale, the original text can be found here (I checked using a copy of Afanasiev’s book that the texts matched). There is also a lovely Soviet short animated film based on the fairy tale that was made in 1949, although the detail of the story differs in some aspects from Afanasiev’s original recorded version.

II.

Now, this focus on the functions of the actions taken by the characters in fairy tales is one of the key characteristics of Propp’s method of analysis. It contrasts with older methods of analysis such as that used in the Aarne-Thompson classification system. In the Aarne-Thompson system tales are classified in a hierarchical manner based on distinctive features called motifs, which are often to do with what kind of characters, objects or qualities appear in the story, rather than what kind of things happen. That is, motifs are often noun-like rather than verb-like. For example, a distinction is made in the Aarne-Thompson index between tales involving animals only and tales involving humans. But fairy tales tend to involve a great amount of anthropomorphism (consider, for example, the fact that the stove, tree and river in Гуси-лебеди are apparently beings with the power of speech, and nobody in the story at any point remarks upon the oddness of this), so that it is often possible to substitute an anthromorphised animal character in place of a human character in a fairy tale, or vice versa, without making the tale any less effective. And it does seem possible that such substitutions can take place as a tale is transmitted across space or time: Propp points out that there is a tale about the sharing of the harvest in which somebody is deceived, and in Russia the deceived one is a bear (an animal), while in the more westerly European countries the deceived one is the devil (a human—well, a being who is supposed to have the rational capabilities of a human). The things that Propp focuses on—actions that advance the narrative—seem like they would be much less susceptible to this kind of substitution, as changing them would often require the course of the narrative to change in a fundamental way.

Another key characteristic of Propp’s method of analysis is the attention he pays to the sequences of functions that appear. In relation to this, he makes the following rather startling assertion. In his words:

The sequence of functions is always identical.

That is, he proposes that the functions which may occur in a tale exist in a specific order. They can therefore be arranged in a kind of universal sequence, and every fairy tale, even though not every function may occur in it, will have the functions which do occur in it in the usual order, so that the sequence of functions within a given tale is a sub-sequence of the universal sequence. There will never be two functions which occur in one order in one tale and the other order in another tale.

As you read further into the book, you realise that this statement isn’t exactly true to the letter. First of all, Propp admits that in a few of the tales he studied there are functions not included among the 31 well-attested functions which he lists in the book, or functions out of the usual order. But, he says, these often appear to be elements transferred from tales of other classes (such as humorous anecdotes, or legends), and in any case they are rare.

Some of the extra functions can be considered to be “auxiliary” functions. Such functions may occur between any two main functions involving different characters, and serve to notify one character of another’s actions. For example, in one tale, after the hero accomplishes his task, the princess who set the task for him holds a feast, and when the hero turns up at the feast he is granted recognition. The holding of the feast is the auxiliary function here, serving to link the functions N (solution) and Q (recognition). Because these auxiliary functions occur in particular environments, they don’t make Propp’s thesis unfalsifiable, and hence Propp doesn’t consider them problematic. They do, however, allow for a certain degree of freedom in Propp’s method of analysis.

Likewise, there are some well-defined circumstances under which certain functions may appear out of order. For example, the DEF functions (testing of the hero by a donor, followed by potential receipt of help) may appear before A (villainy), and the ↑ function (departure) may precede A. But these, again, are not too problematic for Propp’s thesis because of the well-defined circumstances in which they occur. It is still more useful to talk about the universal sequence, and to explain aberrations from this sequence as a result of certain transpositions, than to talk about a number of completely different sequences.

There are also various complicating factors. Sub-sequences may be repeated, one after another; cf. the fourfold repetition of the DEF sequence in Гуси-лебеди. Quite large sub-sequences can be repeated in this way; when the bulk of the narrative is part of a repeated sub-sequence Propp refers to the repeated units as moves. For example, he mentions a fairy tale in which a girl is abducted by a dragon, and then each of her three brothers sets out, one after another, to rescue her, with only the third, youngest brother’s attempt proving successful. Here, the whole segment from A (villainy) to G (rescue) (not including these endpoints) is repeated in three moves. Propp talks about the repetitions of the first kind (applying to relatively small sub-sequences) as if they are a different kind of phenomenon from the repetition of moves, but as far as I can tell, they are not formally distinct and differ only in scale. There is also a set of functions which appear more than once in the universal sequence, once before ↓ (return) and one after it. D, E and F are members of this set, which is why we see two discontiguous occurences of the DEF sequence in the structure of Гуси-лебеди.

Since I haven’t looked at the data Propp bases his conclusions on, and I haven’t read any of the criticisms of his work that have been made, I can’t really make a fair assessment of the validity of Propp’s conclusions for myself. However, even if the supposed universal sequence might not be quite as universal or invariant as Propp makes it out to be, it might still be a useful framework for analysing the structure of fairy tales. The question is not quite whether Propp is right or not, but rather whether the theoretical framework he has developed is useful or not (which is to some extent a question of degree). The way to assess this question would be to look at analyses of fairy tales that make use of this framework and compare their explanatory power with that of alternative theoretical frameworks.

III.

This idea that every fairy tale has a structure which can be described as a subsequence of a universal sequence of functions is the central idea of Морфология сказки. But Propp does talk about some other, more secondary aspects of the fairy tale in his book, too.

For example, he talks about the different characters in the fairy tale. As a corollary of the existence of a universal sequence of functions, there is also a universal set of characters, or more precisely spheres of action, which are made use of in fairy tales. Spheres of action don’t correspond exactly to characters, because, for example, there can be multiple characters which act in the same sphere of action at different points in the story, and a character may occupy more than one sphere of action. There are precisely seven spheres of action, according to Propp. I would talk more about them, but I don’t want to go into too much detail here. Propp also talks about how the different functions are distributed among these characters, and about how new characters are introduced. One interesting remark he makes here is that the initial situation in a fairy tale always involves the introduction of the members of a family, so no two of the characters that are present in the tale from the start are permitted to be unrelated. A striking consequence of this is in fairy tales where one of the starting characters acts as the villain, the villain is always a member of the family; for example, one tale concerns Prince Ivan and his sister, who is a witch and intends to eat her brother. And there are lots of other little pieces of information in the book about what kinds of things tend to happen and what kind of things tend not to happen in fairy tales which might be interesting in their own right.

One thing that is worth noting is that if you wanted to write your own fairy tales, for whatever reason (conworlding, etc.), in as authentic a style as possible, then the insights about fairy tales found in Морфология сказки could be very useful. The book’s list of the functions that occur in a fairy tale could effectively function as a writing guide; all you’d need to do would be to decide on a sequence of functions to use and fill in the details.

IV.

Propp’s thesis raises some interesting questions. For example:

  1. How far does the thesis apply to non-Russian fairy tales?
  2. How far does the thesis apply to other kinds of folk tales?
  3. Why does the thesis hold? That is, why is there a universal sequence of functions out of which fairy tales are structured? Why don’t fairy tales display a wider range of structures?

No complete attempt is made at answering these questions in the book, but Propp does make some remarks relating to them.

Relating to question 1, he mentions that his analysis can be applied to the fairy tales in the famous collection of the Brothers Grimm, which do present “the same scheme in general”, but it is more difficult; they display “a less pure and stable form of it”, probably because they have not been preserved in a wholly authentic form. Propp says that “uncorrupted tale construction is peculiar only … to a peasantry … little touched by civilization”. So it seems Propp expects his analysis to be applicable to the fairy tales of other European nations, at least, if they are considered in their authentic forms.

As for question 2, Propp says that many “legends, individual tales about animals, and isolated novellas” can be fruitfully analysed in the same way as fairy tales, and so perhaps a new name should be sought for the folk tales which are amenable to Propp’s analysis, because “fairy tales” is too specific. However, he doesn’t propose any new name. Note that it is also conceivable that other classes of tales may be structured according to different universal sequences, a possibility about which Propp doesn’t say anything.

Propp addresses question 3 quite explicitly, although he is careful to state that he is essentially engaging in wild speculation when he tries to answer it. He basically says that the existence of the universal sequence of functions seems to indicate that all fairy tales come from a “single source”, although he is vague as to what that single source might be. To be honest, I don’t really understand his answer. But, as he says, it is only a tentative supposition; further study is needed to answer this question.

So, Морфология сказки has left me feeling like I know a lot more about the structure of fairy tales, and at the same time realising that there is a whole lot more that remains to be known. This is, I guess, what it generally feels like to be introduced to a new field of study. One thing I would be particularly interested in knowing is whether Propp’s framework or something similar is helpful for explaining how folk tales change over time—that is, whether it is helpful in a diachronic perspective as well as a synchronic perspective.

But, moving away the particular topic of folk tales, there is a more general reason I’ve found reading this book very interesting: by successfully applying formal techniques to analyse a phenomenon that I would have thought was not very amenable to formal analysis, Propp has increased my expectations that formal techniques could also be helpful in analysing other kinds of phenomena. That might not sound like the most exciting thing, so let me try and put it in more illustrative terms. Imagine a pitch-dark room in which the entire set of information contained in the universe can be found. A small candle glows in the corner, and the small region of the room that it illuminates contains precisely the information that is knowable to humans. The pleasure of reading a book like Морфология сказки is that after reading it, you take another look at the candle and realise that it is glowing a little brighter than you thought.

(Edited 07/10/15 with some typo fixes and changes of wording.)

Advertisements

A summary of Cannibals and Kings by Marvin Harris, chapter 2

Cannibals and Kings is an anthropology book by Marvin Harris aimed at a popular audience. Since I’m trying to read this for education rather than entertainment, I’m not reviewing it in the usual way, but instead I’m trying to understand what it is arguing for. Hopefully, this will be part of a series of posts where I summarise each chapter; I’m starting with chapter 2 because the first one is a general overview. I wrote a brief introduction to Marvin Harris and Cannibals and Kings in this post on Tumblr.

Somebody not familiar with the topic might be inclined to think of agriculture as an invention, like the steam engine or the light bulb. The question of the origin of agriculture would not seem well-posed to such a person. They would say that until the first farmer societies appeared 12,000 years ago in the Middle East, the idea of agriculture had simply never occured to anybody, and for this reason every society was a forager society. But once the first person had the idea (who happened to be in the Middle East, 12,000 years ago), people saw that the farmer lifestyle would be better for them, and therefore they adopted it. Neighbouring societies came into contact with the first farmer societies, came to the same realisation, and became agricultural themselves. Other societies came up with the idea independently too (but later than those Middle-Eastern pioneers), and passed the idea on to their own neighbours. In this way most of the societies in the world became agricultural, except for a few in places like Siberia where the environment made agriculture impractical, and in places like Australia where the societies were too isolated to be sufficiently exposed to the idea and happened not to come up with it themselves.

There are a lot of problems with this explanation. One of them is the assumption that the idea of agriculture was sufficiently unlikely to occur to people in forager societies that the first farmer societies only appeared 12,000 years ago. Humans are thought to have reached behavioral modernity around 40,000 years ago, so that’s 28,000 years where the idea of agriculture, if it occured to anybody, occured only to people who were unable to get it across to others, or to people in those places like Siberia where agriculture was impractical. Was the idea of agriculture really so inaccessible? Anthropologists have found that people in modern forager societies often have extensive knowledge of the natural world in which they live. Presumably, prehistoric foragers were the same. In particular, the mechanics of plant growth would probably not have been a mystery to them. And if they knew how plants grew, it doesn’t seem like a massive leap for them to have the idea of planting seeds and encouraging their growth in order to eat the plant once it was fully grown.

But the most fundamental problem with this explanation is the idea that the farmer lifestyle would be attractive to foragers. This is far from obvious. In fact, it appears that, at least in its primitive stages, farmer societies were in many respects less conducive to general well-being than forager societies. There are lots of points that could be made here, so let’s just focus on one metric by which forager societies have an advantage over farmer societies (at least the primitive ones): the amount of leisure time available, as opposed to time spent obtaining food. The modern San foragers of the Kalahari desert spend about three hours per adult per day hunting and gathering and have a diet rich in animal and plant protein. Modern Javanese peasants (as of 1977), on the other hand, spend about six hours a day working their farms and get much less protein for their efforts. Even modern workers still spend about four and a half hours a day earning the wages they need to obtain their food (assuming a 40-hour week), although they have access to an enormous range of different kinds of food, so the comparison is less straightforward. And, let’s not forget, the Bushmen live on the edge of the Kalahari desert, not one of the most hospitable environments in the world. Most prehistoric foragers would have lived in environments where food was easier to access.

That’s the empirical side of the argument. It is also possible to explain why it makes sense that the early farmer societies would have had a worse standard of living than forager societies. The reason is that there is a crucial difference in the nature of the means of production in forager and farmer societies. Foragers depend on the amount of resources present in the surrounding environment. It is impossible for them to increase the amount of food produced per unit area, because the more they hunt and gather, the more scarce the animals and plants that they sought become. On the other hand, farmers can increase the amount of food produced per unit area by planting more crops per unit area; there are limits on the amount of crops that can be grown per unit area too, but the limits are sufficiently high that the maximum amount of food that can be produced per unit area in a farmer society is much higher, and the early farmers would not have needed to reach it. Harris refers to increase in the amount of food produced per unit area as “intensification of production” (it’s a concept that re-occurs and is important throughout the book). The difference between forager and farmer societies can therefore be briefly summarised as this: foragers cannot intensify production, but farmers can.

Since foragers cannot intensify production, forager societies are motivated to maintain a constant population density. If the amount of foragers within a given area increases, the foragers in the area have to eat less on average. However, if the amount of farmers within a given area increases, the farmers in the area don’t have to eat less on average, because they have the option of increasing the amount of food produced in the area and thereby cancelling out the effect of the increased population density. As a result, farmers are not motivated to maintain a constant population density, and, in general, the population density in a farmer society tends to increase over time. But the intensification of production that farmers must carry out in order to accomodate the increase in population density necessitates an increase in workload.

One last question remains. How do forager societies maintain their constant population density? In the second chapter of the book, which is called “Murders in Eden”, Harris talks about some of the methods that they probably used. As the name of the chapter suggests, some of these might turn you off from the somewhat idyllic picture of forager life that has been painted so far.

Foragers had no access to effective methods of contraception. They had access to methods of abortion, and some of them were probably quite effective, but they tended to also be very effective at killing or seriously injuring the mother, so abortion was not an attractive option. But there was another way of getting rid of unwanted children which carried zero risk of harm to the mother: infanticide. Infanticide is, of course, morally objectionable to most people in my society, and probably yours as well, if you’re reading this. But other societies, both historical and modern, it is not; in these societies infants are considered to be non-persons, just as many people in my society consider foetuses to be non-persons. I think Harris would agree that a society’s nature generally determines its moral system, not the other way round. The necessity of infanticide in forager societies would cause these societies to define infants as non-persons. There would, therefore, be no reason for foragers to refrain from carrying out infanticide for moral reasons. The only reason infanticide would be disfavoured to some degree would be so that the effort of pregnancy, and, especially, the extra food that the mother would need to eat, would not be wasted. But the benefits of keeping the population constant would have outweighed these costs.

Another, less morally questionable method that was used was late weaning. After birth, women ovulate only after their body has built up enough fat reserves to allow the next baby to get enough food, at least according to Harris (I don’t know if this is an accepted fact or not). If they breastfeed, they expend a significant amount of calories feeding the baby, so that their fat reserves build up more slowly, and ovulation is delayed. (The same mechanics are behind the fact that menarche occurs earlier among more well-nourished populations.) In farmer societies, people usually consume enough carbohydrates that it is impossible to delay ovulation for more than a year or two, even if the baby is not weaned for the whole of this time. But foragers’ diets are much less carbohydrate-rich, so they can delay ovulation for much longer. And as long as ovulation has not occurred, impregnation is impossible. Studies of Bushmen women have found that, by putting off weaning, they often avoid getting pregnant for four years or more. That means that, within in the approximately 26-year-long span in which they are fertile (between the ages of 16 and 42, or close to those ages), there is only time for five or six pregnancies. Accounting for the effects of miscarriage and infant mortality, this might result in only three or four children who survive puberty on average, given no infanticide. In order to maintain constant population this number needs to be cut down to two, and this would have to be done via infanticide, but the average woman would only need to kill one or two babies during her lifetime. It still probably doesn’t sound like an ideal way to live to anybody reading this, but it’s not quite as bad as you might have thought. Again, though, it is important to understand that while this would be a moral cost for us, it would not have been a moral cost for foragers in which infanticide was an accepted practice.

Now that we have established that the naïve description of the origin of agriculture given above is incorrect, the next question to answer is this. In general, farming was not an attractive option for foragers. What were the particular circumstances in the Fertile Crescent 12,000 years ago, and in the other areas where agriculture originated independently, that made farming an attractive option in these particular times and places? This is the subject of the next chapter, “The Origin of Agriculture”, which I’ll write about in the next post.

A review of “The Buried Giant”, by Kazuo Ishiguro

I hadn’t read any of Kazuo Ishiguro’s books, or even heard of the man, before reading “The Buried Giant”. He’s one of the many literary authors who get a lot of attention from critics but not so much from the general public. But “The Buried Giant” may surprise readers used to the conventions of literary fiction, because in terms of its setting and plot it is much more like a fantasy novel. The story of “The Buried Giant” takes place in sub-Roman England, not long after the time of King Arthur. The knight Gawain is one of the central characters. In the story’s universe, magic exists and ogres and pixies are real creatures. One of the other central characters is even on a quest to slay a dragon. When it’s described in these terms it almost seems like Ishiguro was intentionally trying to come up with the most stereotypical sword-and-sorcery fantasy plot. Naturally, some critics have been a bit put off by this. But if you like this kind of thing, it might attract you to the book. It’s probably what made me decide to read the book in the first place.1

There is more to the plot than the especially stereotypical fantasy elements I listed above. In fact, the story’s main plotline is perhaps more the sort of thing that will interest fans of literary function. It follows an elderly couple, Axl and Beatrice, who are on a journey to meet their son who lives in another village. Since this is 1,500 years ago we’re talking about here, this is not quite as routine an occurence as it may sound, and it is made all the more interesting by the fact that they don’t actually remember anything about their son. They have even forgotten his name. In fact, they, along with, it appears, everyone else in the village, are suffering from a collective amnesia. They struggle even to remember events of only a few weeks ago. Memories do come back now and then, but only in fragments, and at unpredictable times. The two don’t remember how they met each other, for example. Indeed, although they still feel a strong bond of love between them, that love now lacks a past, and exists only in the present; how, then, can they be sure that it will last, or if it has any real existence at all? And, worryingly, the occasional fragments of memories of their time spent together that come back do not always seem like happy ones.

The realisation of the existence of this collective amnesia, referred to as “the mist” by the couple, is what compels Axl and Beatrice to set off on their journey, in case their memory of their son disappears entirely. But their journey also has a dual purpose, because they are also interested to know what the cause of “the mist” is, and whether it can be stopped—although they are somewhat apprehensive about whether their newly-recollected memories might put their relationship in danger.

So there’s a kind of personal, perhaps relatable story at the heart of “The Buried Giant”. There’s also another story which intertwines with this one, which is of a very different nature: this one is about people as collectives, rather than individuals; about the destinies of nations and the making of history. The more typical epic fantasy stuff, in other words. Not long after they begin their journey, Axl and Beatrice end up joining up with two Saxons, whose names are Wistan and Edwin. Axl and Beatrice are Celtic-speaking Britons, which are the dominant people in the region in which the events of the book take place; Wistan and Edwin speak Axl and Beatrice’s language with them, not the other way around. Of course, all that is set to change. I won’t go into any more detail than this, because I don’t want to spoil the twists in this story (there are a few of them).

I do think the first, personal story is the more interesting one. This is clear to me, because there are points in the book where the two stories separate, and at these points, when I was reading about what was happening to Wistan and Edwin, I was impatient to read on and find out what was going to happen next to Axl and Beatrice. Perhaps Ishiguro was able to make the first story more interesting since it’s the kind of story he’s more used to writing. I don’t mean to give the impression, however, that the second story was a complete bore; far from it. In fact, the second story definitely had a more satisfying resolution than the first one. The fact that there is a kind of mystery around Wistan and Edwin, which eventually gets resolved, provides the story with a natural endpoint. But the first story couldn’t be resolved so nicely. Of course, the natural way to end the story would be for us to find out more about Axl and Beatrice’s past and to get some answer as to whether their relationship will survive. But, even though “the mist” does disappear in the end (I hope that’s not too much of a spoiler—I mean, it’s predictable) we still don’t get told very much about their past. And with regards to whether they will stay together, the author does the thing where he ends the book just before it seems like there’s about to be some closure on the question, leaving you on a sort of cliffhanger, albeit not one which will ever be resolved (I mean, I don’t think literary authors generally do sequels). Clearly this was intentional, and the ending is supposed to be unsatisfying, but doesn’t stop me feeling a little bit annoyed with it. I don’t think the book would have suffered for having a more conventional, perhaps more uplifting ending.

One thing critics have complained about is the dialogue. For example, James Woods thinks this is self-evidently bad dialogue:

“Your news overwhelms us, Sir Gawain. … But first tell us of this beast you speak of. What is its nature and does it threaten us even as we stand here?”

Personally, I don’t really have a problem with this. I do agree that the dialogue sounds rather odd and un-modern in places, although it is never difficult to understand. But that’s all part of the fantasy aesthetic. I imagine there are lots of fantasy books where the dialogue is a lot more weird than in this book.

That said, the overall impression you get from critics’ reviews is that this is a decent book, but not close to a great one. And I pretty much agree with this overall impression. “The Buried Giant” is enjoyable, perfectly readable, but not outstanding at anything in particular. Its strong points are its plot and the endearing characters of Axl and Beatrice, and those are probably the aspects of the book that will stick with you. You won’t remember the book for, say, its prose quality, or its capability for intellectual stimulation, quite as much. I think it was worth my time to read this book, and I’ll recommend it to anyone who’s looking for something to read. But I won’t tell anybody they have to make room for this one if there are also lots of other books to read. I do think I might read another of Ishiguro’s books at some point.


  1. ^ I don’t think I can really call myself a fantasy fan, though, since I have only read one fantasy author. Admittedly, that author is Terry Pratchett, so I have read a lot of fantasy books, but they’re not very central examples of fantasy books.

Thoughts on “The Master and Margarita” by Mikhail Bulgakov

The Master and Margarita is a book by Mikhail Bulgakov, written from 1928 to 1940, but published only in 1967 due to Soviet censorship, long after the author’s death. It’s considered one of the best works of Soviet literature if not the best. I finished reading it last week, and, although I haven’t read any other works of Soviet literature, I can believe that it’s one of the best.

I’m more familiar with Russian novels of the 19th century: the works of Tolstoy, Dosteyevsky, etc. So it was interesting to see how a 20th-century Russian novel compared, although of course I don’t know how representative The Master and Margarita (let’s call it TMM, because I’m going to have to write it a lot) is of 20th-century Russian literature in general. There are some clear differences between TMM and Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky’s novels. For example, while Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky stuck to realism in their writing (even though the devil made an appearance as a character in The Brothers Karamazov, he could be explained as a hallucination), TMM is not very realistic at all. It’s arguably a fantasy novel. I mean, the premise of the story is that the devil, together with a band of demon sidekicks, has come to Moscow to cause trouble. One of the characters, who you might see on the cover if you buy the book, is a talking cat called Behemoth. At several points he threatens people wielding a Browning handgun. There are some memorably absurd lines involving, like the following:

“I challenge you to a duel!” screamed the cat, sailing over their heads on the swinging chandelier.

If this strikes you as a pretty amusing line, that’s probably intentional. Because another way in which TMM is quite different from your average Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky book is that it’s a comedy. A Russian kind of comedy, mind you; it can be categorised best as farce, although there are elements of black comedy too, to a lesser extent. Basically, if you find it funny when bizarre, horrible things happen to people, but they kinda deserve it, then you’ll probably enjoy the humour in TMM. Oh, and although a lot of it went over my head, since I wasn’t ever a Soviet citizen, there’s political satire in here too. That’s why Stalin wouldn’t allow it to be published, after all. There is at least one point where a more serious political message is conveyed, one more horrifying than amusing: I’m thinking of the chapter called “Nikanor Ivanovich’s Dream”. I’ll confess that I completely missed the point of this chapter when I first read it; I only realised its significance when I was reading about the book online and came across people saying that it was an ‘obvious’ allusion to the secret police’s interrogation methods. But, even if you take the chapter just as what it is on the surface, a description of a strange dream, it’s an unsettling read. In fact, I believe that this is one of the chapters that was still heavily censored for a time even after the book was published.

It was never my impression, though, that the political aspect of TMM was central to it. I’ve seen a lot of descriptions of the book along the lines of ‘satire of Soviet life’, and I guess you can interpret it that way, but that isn’t how I interpreted it. It seemed to me that the book was mostly about something else; it was more than just a comedy, and more than just a political satire or exposé along the lines of Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago. That said, I can’t really tell you what this extra something is. Like most good works of art, I don’t think it has or is supposed to have a straightforward message. So I won’t say anything more about what the deeper meaning of TMM is; that’s up to you to reckon for yourself if you read the book. But I can give you a brief overview of the plot (which I guess can be thought of as the meaning at the surface level).

The book has two parts. In Part 1 the reader is treated to a number of descriptions of the disastrous encounters various residents of Moscow have with Satan (going by the alias of “Professor Woland”) and his gang of demons. This is fairly entertaining, and it includes “Nikanor Ivanovich’s Dream” and no doubt other politically meaningful excerpts. But if this was all there was to the book, I’d be disappointed. Part 2 is the meat of the book, in my opinion. That’s where we are introduced to the titular character, Margarita. There are two titular characters, actually, since there’s the Master as well, who is Margarita’s boyfriend. But it’s Margarita who the narrative follows. We are briefly introduced to the Master in part 1, when he is living in an insane asylum (where a lot of the people who have had the misfortune to meet Professor Woland have ended up). He was a writer (he refuses to tell his name), who wrote a magnum opus about Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea in Jesus’s time, but the censors refused to publish it, he got into political trouble, and he ended up being sent to the madhouse (but not before he decided to burn his book’s entire manuscript). By the way, a writer, who wrote a great book that was censored—does that sound familiar? Yes, it’s not too hard to see that the Master is, at least on one level, a stand-in for Bulgakov himself. You might say that the book he was writing represents TMM itself, in which case I guess you could say that Bulgakov wrote a book about himself writing it1. The manuscript-burning episode even has a parallel in Bulgakov’s life: apparently, he set an early manuscript of TMM alight as well.

I forgot to mention, by the way, that there are actually some chapters in Part 1 which do not progress the main story, but instead give us a chapter of the Master’s lost manuscript. So there are actually two stories in parallel: the main story set in Moscow in the 1930s, and the Master’s story about Pontius Pilate, set in Jerusalem in 1 AD. The Master’s story is, as far as I know, a pretty faithful retelling of the same one readers of the gospels will be familiar with; although I couldn’t really say since I haven’t read the gospels myself. But it’s an interesting side-narrative. In my experience books that try this dual narrative technique often suffer from one of the narratives being less interesting than the other. I’m thinking of Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed here; that’s a great book, but I was always more interested in what was happening on Urras than Annares. But TMM is not one of the books that suffers from this; I often found the Biblical sub-narrative more interesting than the main one. This sub-narrative continues into Part 2, as well.

Anyway, the Master had a girlfriend, Margarita, and he didn’t get a chance to tell her that he was being taken away from his home, nor did he opt to disappoint her with the news once he was free to tell her, so when Part 2 begins she has no idea where he is and fears that he has died. Then she encounters a mysterious man in a park, who is actually Azazello, one of Professor Woland’s goons. He’s been entrusted with the task of getting Margarita to carry out a certain errand, which Woland anticipates she will do in return for being reunited with her love, the Master. Azazello isn’t a very good salesman—his pitch isn’t very clear, and I don’t think calling someone a “stupid bitch” ever helps—but when he recite a passage from the Master’s lost book, Margarita realises what he has to offer, and agrees to do whatever he wants.

What follows is the most wonderful section of the book, in my opinion. Azazello gives Margarita a special cream which, when she rubs it on her body, restores her youthful beauty and grants her the powers of a witch. Then she hops on a broomstick (while still completely naked—witches don’t need clothes) and goes flying out of Moscow and far to the east (although not before stopping at the apartment of one of the critics who negatively reviewed the Master’s book and gleefully smashing everything in it). It’s the kind of section that you want to read as slowly as possible, savouring every new sentence since the prose is just such a pleasure to read. In the end she lands somewhere deep in Siberia, where there is no trace of human habitation, and bathes in a river. When she steps onto the bank she is greeted by a band of pipe-playing frogs, dancing water-sprites, curtsying fellow witches and a goat-legged man brings her champagne. Then after a short stay, she is returned to Moscow in a flying car driven by a crow.

In Moscow, Margarita is taken to Woland’s apartment and meets his demon crew. There, she learns what the errand is that she has agreed to doing. It turns out not to be anything especially terrible: all she has to do is host a ball on Walpurgisnacht for the denizens of Hell: murderers and poisoners, free-thinkers and adultresses, pimps and brothel-keepers, and the composer Johann Strauss. Although she finds it somewhat exhausting, she carries it out without trouble and Woland is satisfied. Again we are treated to some wonderful writing as Bulgakov tells us about the fantastic things at the ball, including a swimming pool filled with brandy and a troupe of accordion-playing polar bears. After this point, I probably shouldn’t go into too much detail about what happens, in case you don’t want the ending spoiled. But I will tell you that there is a sort of happy ending. Indeed, one of the interesting things about the book is that Satan is not portrayed as the ruthless trickster you might expect to him; he sticks to his word and gives Margarita what she wants. Even the various people who suffer as a result of his crew’s actions tend to have done something to deserve it first. And as for the heavenly counterparts of these demons, they are nowhere to be seen; well, Jesus appears in the Master’s story but he doesn’t really have much presence in the main narrative.

So, overall, what’s my opinion on the book? Well, it’s an entertaining, enjoyable story, for sure. Russians and Russia enthusiasts, especially, will find a lot that will appeal to them in the book, and perhaps will gain insight from reading it. The book can be appreciated in many different ways: at one time it’s comic, another time tragic, and other times intellectually stimulating. I’m not surprised that TMM is often considered the greatest Russian novel of the 20th century.

But would anyone consider it the greatest Russian novel ever? I don’t think so. You see, while I think TMM is a good book, perhaps even great, I do also feel that it is in a league below Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky’s best works. It may compare to Dostoyevsky’s lesser novels—Devils and The Idiot—but I remember War and Peace, Anna Karenina, Crime and Punishment, and The Brothers Karamazov having a much greater impact on me. Those four books got into my head; they stayed with me; and I feel like I learned something from reading them. But TMM was just a story to me. It was good to read; it entertained me for a while; but it didn’t give me anything substantive to keep with me. Now that it’s ended, I can forget about it. I may be exaggerating a little here—I mean, writing this review is probably going to prevent me from forgetting it for too long. And this is just my own personal reaction to TMM; you may react differently, because you value different things in your reading; and who knows, maybe I myself will have a different reaction to it if I re-read at at some later point in my life, when the things that I value have changed. I think one of the things I missed in TMM was the 19th-century practice of being fully open about what was going on in characters’ heads. They hadn’t invented that rule about showing, rather than telling, back then. In War and Peace, Tolstoy regularly outright declares what his characters are thinking and feeling (although he also backs it up as with the actions that the characters take—I think a failure to do this properly is the real sin being warned against in “show, don’t tell”, rather than telling per se). By doing this Tolstoy is able to express certain nuances and subtleties of thought and feeling which are hard to express in any other way, and it makes the work a lot richer. TMM is not at all like this; things happen to the protagonists and we are left to ourselves to deduce what they are thinking or feeling. I don’t think we are really supposed to know the characters’ feelings and thoughts very well in TMM. It’s not a character-driven story; it’s driven by the spectacle of the story itself. So I guess I would make a little amendment to my statement that TMM is in a league below the great 19th-century novels. It’s not inferior in a simple sense, but it’s a story of a different nature; a kind of story that, perhaps, is less capable of having a great impact on its readers than a character-driven story.

But making these comparisons is kind of like complaining about getting a £4,000,000 salary rather than £5,000,000. It would be better, indeed, quite significantly better to have a £5,000,000 salary, but the £4,000,000 salary is nothing to complain about. In the same way, I would have liked to read a 20th-century rival to War and Peace, but even so, TMM is better than 99% of the books that are out there. If you haven’t read it, I would definitely recommend it. It’s worth reading.

  1. ^ As a student of linguistics, I feel compelled to point out that something interesting is going on with this sentence, grammatically, to do with the limits of the power of reflexive pronouns. To put it in terms that my mathematically-inclined readers will understand, I mean that Bulgakov wrote a book B about the process of Bulgakov writing B. I couldn’t think of any better way to write it.