Thursday, March 10, 2022

Ivan Franko, Fox Mykyta (1905)

Franko was a Ukrainian poet, the author of a poem about Moses that I recently saw an opera based on.  Well, there's also an opera based on THIS, and I found that there's an English translation/retelling of it, so I decided to check that out.  I haven't seen the opera yet, but I have read this, so I thought I would note it here.

This is--I gather--based on Ukrainian folk tales, gathered together with a loose overarching plot.  My parents read me a lot of trickster-animal stories when I was small, and I've always enjoyed the genre, so I was looking forward to it.  Unfortunately...my hope were dashed.  I pretty much totally hated it.  I hope the opera is better.  I get the impression that it means a lot to a lot of Ukrainian people, but dammit, I just can't sugarcoat my feelings.

So the story, such as it is, is that everyone is sick of Mykyta playing tricks on them, and King Lion is going to have him executed, but due to trickery, he is able to avoid this fate.  Okay, fine, I guess.  But the problem is, everyone here is just really, really mean.  We have a lot of scenes of Mykyta just playing cruel, sadistic tricks on the other animals and then relentlessly taunting them while they're suffering.  Not that the other animals are all that nice either--they play or try to play tricks of their own--but the back-cover copy is really, really pushing a point when it claims that they're being paid back for their moral failings (many of which are just barely asserted by the narrator rather than demonstrated in any way).

And here's the thing: for whatever faults the other animals may have, Mykyta is a serial killer.  I know that may seem hyperbolic, but dude, especially for a children's book, there is some fucked-up shit here, most notably this: Fox is going to be executed, but he wriggles out of his punishment by pretending to know where there's a great treasure, arousing the king's avarice.  But before he leads the king to it--he says--he's promised to go on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.  So he goes, accompanied by "Billy Goat Basyliy, the Honorable Secretary of State, and Jack Yats the Rabbit, Chief of the Royal Guards."  He's going to tell his family that he's leaving, allegedly, so he convinces the rabbit to accompany him to his burrow, and then slaughters him and eats him, but not before he beheads the corpse and puts it in a bag and tricks the goat into bringing the head back to the king (who is subsequently murdered himself, but don't worry--the narrator explains how he deserved it: "He had wheedled those in power and found a place for himself in the palace through the Queen," so...that's okay, I guess?).  I am not making this up!  I don't know what you were like as a kid, but I know that if I had been exposed to this I would have found it incredibly upsetting.  If you want your animal characters to be sympathetic, don't anthropomorphize their prey!  Jeez!  The Lion King understood this; why don't you?  

And, of course, Fox himself receives no comeuppance for being horrible.  I am genuinely baffled that by the idea that we're supposed to find him in any way likable.  And for the record, none of his tricks are interesting or clever enough to make you sort of appreciate him as an antihero.

I mean, I know a lot of these folk stories are darker than we're necessarily prepared for, but I simply cannot accept this as delightful fare for children.  Maybe it lost or gained something in translation, but damn, man.

7 Comments:

Blogger Thomas pontificated to the effect that...

What you have there is a retelling of Reynard the Fox, which is Medieval satire, right up to the point that the rabbit's head is delivered at the royal court. The king's death is a later addition, perhaps invented by Franko. Children were never its intended audience! Yes, the Fox plays cruel tricks. The point is indeed that his victims more or less deserve the violence exacted on them, by being extremely vain, gullible, gluttonous, cowardly or hypocritical. You have to imagine how a Medieval audience reacted to this. Gleeful, I suppose! Certainly not with the modern sensibility towards stuffed animals and suchlike.

- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reynard_the_Fox

12:33 PM  
Blogger Thomas pontificated to the effect that...

I have watched the opera and enjoyed it! The Fox comes out on top for two reasons: a) His duel with the Wolf is essentially a trial by combat. We have to factor in the Medieval reality of the source material! b) He doesn't win by being virtuous, but by cunningly exploiting various weaknesses of the others. If we can accept this kind of morality in a show like Game of Thrones, why would it be hard to swallow in a Medieval animal parable? See also Animal Farm.

I must add that the trial by combat is a later addition. The Dutch version ends with Reynard having to flee his home with his family and an attempt at reconciliation between the humiliated King and Reynard's enemies. So Reynard is banned from court, but escapes with his life, triumphant only in the sense that he avoided death on the gallows.

9:49 PM  
Blogger Thomas pontificated to the effect that...

The issues I have with the inside-cover copy of "Fox Mykyta" are twofold: I don't think Franko can take credit for molding "more than 25 tales into one brilliantly constructed whole", since, judging by the opera, Franko largely follows the version of the tale that was already established during the Middle Ages. Also, judging by two pages detailing the attack on the Bear, if he has "sharpened the humor", it had become severely blunted in the meantime, since the Middle-Dutch version is wittier by far.

12:01 PM  
Blogger GeoX, who is here to stay, like it or not. pontificated to the effect that...

Children were never its intended audience!

Well, but children are explicitly Franko's intended audience.

Yes, the Fox plays cruel tricks. The point is indeed that his victims more or less deserve the violence exacted on them, by being extremely vain, gullible, gluttonous, cowardly or hypocritical.

I get that that's the idea, but, at least as told here, none of the animals' sins seem egregious enough to deserve what they get. And I don't see that Mykyta deserves and less than any of them.

If we can accept this kind of morality in a show like Game of Thrones, why would it be hard to swallow in a Medieval animal parable? See also Animal Farm.

Never seen Game of Thrones; never will. Also, I question the relevance of Animal Farm. I don't think we're meant to be rooting for the Stalinist pigs.

Still, there is a point, which is that sometimes others sensibilities are very alien to me. I remember I read The Dying Earth by Jack Vance and found it rather evocative and cool. But then I unfortunately read the sequel, Eyes of the Overworld, and the main character was an utterly loathsome piece of shit--rapist and murderer, among other things--such that the book was completely ruined for me. But judging by reviews, there are are indeed people who take this "he may be bad, but you have to admire his cleverness" attitude. To which I say: no. No, I really don't, and it kinda creeps me out that you do. I mean, it's not that the concept of the antihero is alien to me, but it's a fine line to walk, and I think Vance came down firmly on the wrong side.

Then again, it may well be that comparing medieval texts to modern ones is misleading, even if they seem to have similarities.

Anyway, I appreciate your insights.

4:13 PM  
Blogger Thomas pontificated to the effect that...

Also, we're in the realm of Aesop's Fables, which are probably the earliest precursor to Reynard's exploits. It's an established rule that the Fox always gets away with it! Not so easy to shake off, that one. You have to wait for Brer Rabbit to eventually turn the tables on Brer Fox.

11:27 AM  
Blogger Thomas pontificated to the effect that...

I think an earlier comment of mine got swallowed:

I mention Game of Thrones and Animal Farm as examples of works in which bad things happen to good people without vindication. I find that upsetting, but must acknowledge that's what happens in real life! You and I may not agree on whether children should be coddled, but at least the fact that some children's literature is unwilling to coddle should not come as a surprise.

The question of Reynard-Mykyta as a hero is somewhat muddled. In the Middle Ages, the story made fun of the clergy and could only do that safely by making Reynard a villain, depriving him of a real triumph. Later emendations viewed Reynard as a hero and decided that he deserved a happy ending. From the 19th century onwards, Reynard was seen as a folk hero who stood up against the ones in power. No doubt this is what Ivan Franko had in mind. In a Socialist reading, the killings are permissible, since that's what might be necessary in revolution.

This is rich material! I could go on and on about it.

3:27 PM  
Blogger GeoX, who is here to stay, like it or not. pontificated to the effect that...

It's an established rule that the Fox always gets away with it!

Is
it? What comes to mind when I--and probably most people--think of Aesop's fables is, the fox fails to get the grapes. It's a simple message. I really, really don't think Aesop was responsible for establishing any kind of vulpine folklore.

I mention Game of Thrones and Animal Farm as examples of works in which bad things happen to good people without vindication. I find that upsetting, but must acknowledge that's what happens in real life! You and I may not agree on whether children should be coddled, but at least the fact that some children's literature is unwilling to coddle should not come as a surprise.

I have to say, I disagree with everything in this paragraph. Animal Farm is just a straight-up allegory about Stalinism. Characterizing it as being about "bad things happening to good people" is reductive in the extreme, and in my view really misses the point of the novel. Also, did I say anything about coddling or not coddling children? Watership Down is one of the best (putative) children's novels ever, and it has a few traumatic-as-hell moments. The question is whether avoiding gratuitous cruelty equals "coddling." Granted, reading the original stories as any sort of children's literature is wrong, but this book is certainly meant to be.

4:35 PM  

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