melmoth.co is an online archive of some of my more substantial articles and reviews.
For daily updates, please follow my blog: melmoth.blog
I’m lucky enough to own the beautiful 1964 edition of this book, illustrated by two Palekh painters B.Parilov and V. Dudorov. It was given to my mother by family friends on her 7th birthday, so it’s something of a prized possession for me.
Ruslan and Lyudmila (Руслан и Людмила) is one of Alexander Pushkin’s most famous works – it is probably the first introduction Russian children have to the poet and his work. I remember having to memorise passages from the book as part of my homework in 2nd grade (fun fact: the passage I had to memorise and recite contained a passionate love scene and I still remember it some 20 years later).
It’s an epic fairy tale, which is loosely based on various folk tales and references real historical figures and events like Prince Vladimir (Vladimir the Red Sun) of Kiev and the ruler of Kievan Rus’ from 980 to 1015, or the siege of Kiev by the Pechenegs in 968.
I adore the illustrations in this book. As a child I would spend hours studying them and getting lost in the details. My favourite illustration is the one accompanying the prologue (above). It depicts Pushkin surrounded by different characters from Russian folk tales: Kashchey the Deathless (or Kashchey the Immortal) and his gold, Baba Yaga in her flying mortar, Chernomor and his thirty-three warriors rising from the sea, the tsarevna and the Gray Wolf, the story-telling cat which dwells by the old oak tree with a golden chain around its trunk and a mermaid in its branches.
The story begins with the wedding of Ruslan, a mighty warrior, and Lyudmila, the daughter of Prince Vladimir of Kiev. Attending the wedding are Rogday, Farlaf and Ratmir – Ruslan’s rivals. I remember my mother pointing to each one and saying: “See how upset they look? They all wanted to marry Lyudmila but she is marrying Ruslan instead. So now they are getting drunk to drown their sorrows.” #russianweddings
Before the newlyweds get a chance to consummate their union, Lyudmila is stolen away by some dark magic, with a lot of accompanying smoke and lightning. Pushkin does describe the foreplay, though. And he is pretty graphic. Prince Vladimir is infuriated by the loss of his daughter and by her husband’s inability to protect her. He annuls the marriage and promises Lyudmila to whoever manages to rescue her. And thus Rogday, Farlaf and Ratmir are back in the game.
Ruslan gets his woman back in the end, but only after a truly epic journey filled with magic, bloodshed and a cast of supporting characters with their own story lines. Like the Finn and Naina, two bitter rival magicians with a twisted love story of their own, and my personal favourite: a giant talking head of a fallen warrior
Lyudmila is revealed to have been stoled by Chernomor, an ugly hunchbacked dwarf magician with an epic beard and a taste for beautiful young maidens. She puts up a fight and manages to outwit Chernomor and his servants a number of times, but is eventually tricked by Chernomor and falls into a deep sleep.