The Sun Maiden and the Crescent Moon: Siberian Folk Tales – ed. James Riordan
How exactly do you set about reviewing a book of folk tales? You can’t exactly pass comment on the stories themselves, because, well, they’re folk tales. You don’t expect the same things of them that you would expect from fiction, and nor do they attempt to present that. You could talk about the verisimilitude of the stories that are featured, but that only works if you actually know the stories before their codification, or in the original language. Neither of which I do.
The concept of recording folk tales is always a mildly controversial one. From an anthropological point of view, it’s important because if they’re not recorded, there is the possibility that in this changing world, the stories may disappear. On the other hand, there is the argument that these sorts of stories are the product of an oral culture, ever changing and that the power comes not from the words but from the telling. In putting these stories down onto paper, not only are you fixing them in this form, but you’re also taking away their very essence.
That’s how you go from a story in which the Prince rapes & impregnates Sleeping Beauty, who only wakes when her newborn child sucks the poison from her finger, to, well, dancing once upon a dream. Not that I’m saying the original is necessarily better, but the point is that once you write a story down, it is going to be sanitised, particularly when being translated from one language to another, because almost invariably the translator brings their own cultural biases to the table. (This might be behind a wall, but JSTOR is quick and easy to sign up to, and it has instructions on how to read for free)
That said, I don’t think that in this instance there has been too much of that in this edition. I can’t say that with complete authority but some of the more starkly dissonant morality (patricide, fratricide, and infanticide predominantly) does suggest that there hasn’t been too much editing. Then again, there’s rarely anything ‘worse’ than murder, in terms of questionable content anyway: There’s no sex or sexual violence (or at least none stated outright. One story has it implied). I can see three possibilities for this: 1) They were edited out, 2) Such concepts don’t exist in Siberian folklore, or 3) Riordan chose his stories/versions of stories very carefully, choosing not to translate any of stories containing such themes. I don’t know which of these I think is true, (though I know which I’d like to be true), but the translator and editor’s motivations is definitely something worth thinking about when reading collections such as this.
One thing that did bother me about the collection was that it seemed quite disparate. ‘Siberian’ is quite a broad label, and I’d have liked some indication of where the stories were taken from and where they were about. Particularly because there were a number of distinct stories dealing with similar themes, such as the reason the moon only comes out at night, for example. I’m assuming that these stories didn’t come from the same oral tradition, but Riordan doesn’t give much indication of what separates the two, something I think the collections suffers for.