Heroes of Russian Folktales: Ivan the Fool

“A very important character in Russian fairytales is the so called ‘Ivan the Fool,’ who is uh in contrast to American fairytales, he’s uh really lazy. A lot of times he doesn’t do anything. There is a variation on him and basically that guy, he just lays on the uh Russian stove? Remember that Vrubel one? So like that beautiful one, the old one…but he lays on the stove and he doesn’t get up and he doesn’t want to do anything. So it’s usually the story of three brothers and the first two brothers are hardworking and pretty much doing everything and the third brother is pretty much just like asleep, I mean he doesn’t do anything. And his mother’s like you gotta work, you gotta get married! And he’s like I don’t wanna do anything. But he is in the end…I mean he gets the gold, the money, everything. Yeah! So I mean if you think about Russian culture and the kinds of fairytales that were brought up? I mean, you have in America, don’t you have your hero I mean, is gonna be hardworking, right? And ours? It’s backwards! And so finally, eventually let’s say he gets off that stove or he finally starts doing something. He’s uh…sent to say, make sure no one steals apples from the garden or something. And he just sits there, he falls asleep. So he’s never really performing what’s he’s supposed to perform, in the beginning at least. So when the basic structure of the fairytale…and then what happens is uh, after that, he encounters certain…so he has to leave home. So this person encounters certain difficulties. He’s either going to get some magic immortal water or immortal apples, or he’s gonna try to save some maiden to get married. So there’s always a task. And so he’s gonna accomplish this task, and on the way to the task there are obstacles.”

According to my informant, these characters come from tales her grandparents told her before she could read. She adds that these tales don’t technically have an author, and were typically passed down from generation to generation. As she points out, the Ivan the Fool character shows a different set of values from what she associates with the typical American märchen, where cunning and intelligence is prized above hard work. I also found her immediate association of the American hero with hard work to be interesting, as it is basically drawn from the whole ‘American Dream/Manifest Destiny’ legend. She also brought up the tale of the three brothers, which is a common theme throughout most European märchen. However, in this one, the first two brothers are hardworking and yet do not achieve the end goal, which isn’t typically the case in other European fairytales. The Ivan character seems to emphasize the value of having quick wits, and prizes street smarts and common sense over conventional book learning.