‘I am translating fairy stories which in the time of Armageddon I suppose nobody will even read.’ – A pessimistic forecast by the author of… Old Peter’s Russian Tales
A (muted) toast please
to the first Mrs Ransome. She may not have been an ideal helpmeet for a struggling young author, but were it not for her tantrums and chucking around of tableware he is unlikely to have fixed upon the idea of escape. Escape? But whither? Anywhere so long as it be as far from Wiltshire and as inaccessible as possible. How about Tsarist Russia?
Not exactly a random choice, as it happens.
For although making a modest living as journalist and unspectacular littérateur, Ransome knew himself to be essentially a storyteller, but by 1913, at the age of twenty-nine, he had yet to find his voice. Around this time though, he had borrowed from the London Library a copy of W R S Ralston’s Russian Folk Tales of 1873 (why! – I’ve borrowed the selfsame book myself). It was a pioneering study and he saw in it a narrative substance that greatly appealed to him, but one which he felt deserved a more natural and fluent presentation. And that was something he did know about – he had even written a rather good essay on the subject and had also delighted in the wholesale absorption of a run of Anansi tales from the Caribbean, told in authentic dialect by one of the friends from his bygone vie de bohème. We are told that he too mastered her version of the patois and enjoyed telling the stories aloud.
To St Petersburg then he fled
where, with great diligence, he taught himself Russian (with the aid of children’s primers) and immersed himself in the great hoard of peasant tales brought to light by Alexander Afanas’ev (to whom Ralston’s book had been dedicated). There were, of course, some minor distractions apart from his fractious wife, such as the start of a European war and the boiling up of a local revolution – of which event he was to become a notable witness (along with Trotsky’s secretary who would eventually become the second Mrs Ransome). But the manuscript was satisfactorily completed and shipped off to its publishers, T C & E C Jack in Edinburgh, with the illustrations in monochrome and watercolour by Dmitri Mitrokhin following in the diplomatic bag. The book was published in 1916.
From such improbable circumstances
one of the great re-embodiments of folktale emerged. For Ralston’s assessment of ‘the genuine talent for narrative’ of the Russian people and of ‘the tag of genuine comedy’ in many of their tales was just, and Ransome’s perception of how they might be conveyed to English storytellers or to child readers was as accurate as it was sensitive. The book turned out to be a model for anyone bent on overcoming the twin problems in folktale translation: acclimatizing the audience to the atmosphere and language of the original without being stilted or (worse) betraying your sources.
‘Old Peter’ as interlocutor
is without doubt a stroke of genius. Many and many are the devices adopted by the purveyors of folktales or like fictional inventions to give a frame to a succession of disparate tales, and Old Peter, telling the stories to his orphaned grandchildren in their forest hut, perfectly fulfils the role. He is at once Master of Ceremonies, whose arrival home each evening is the signal for tea-making, romping, pipe-lighting, and storytelling, and he is also a guarantor of authenticity. He ensures a consistent register for the stories, but by allowing himself, now and then to be interrupted, or by injecting comments into the stories about the children themselves (his ‘little pigeons’), or their dog, or their cat, he sustains in the text a sense of the familial comforts of the scene. Indeed, the final chapter of the book leaves folktale almost entirely behind and takes us on a trip by horse and cart to a village where Peter is to be godfather at a Russian christening. (There is something almost Andersenian in Peter’s remark that he now has a great-nephew: ‘Think of that! Already it’s a son, and a cousin, and a nephew, and a great-nephew, and he’s only been alive twelve hours. He lost no time in taking a position for himself. He’ll be a great man one of these days if he goes on as fast as that.’)
Variations in the setting,
whether of scene or season, are cunningly matched to variations in the themes and the character of the tales themselves. Some are Russian variants of types found elsewhere in Europe: ‘The Fool of the World’ and his magic helpers, or the greedy wife in ‘The Golden Fish’. (The marked incidence of wicked or unpleasant wives in the book is perhaps forgivable, given the circumstances of its composition.) Many of the tales though are distinctively Russian, some little more than anecdotes, others dramatic or even tragic, but all shot through with Old Peter’s geniality and (via his translator) colloquial zest. When, for instance, in a story called ‘Woe’, Ralston – who favoured a literal reading – has a character set upon by a minor devil cry out ‘Only hear me, Woe!… it wasn’t I at all who put you under that stone’, Ransome, who re-titles the story ‘Little Master Misery’, more fully stages the event, putting in exclamations which are really an ad libitum sign for the oral storyteller: ‘Listen, Misery!… Ai, ai! stop pulling my hair. You are choking me. Ai! Listen. It was not I who shut you in under that stone…’
greeted the publication of Old Peter in 1916 while Ransome was ‘gallivanting around [Russia] at the expense of the Daily News’, and the collection has never been out of print since, although in 1971 Mitrokhin’s pictures were replaced by pen and ink drawings by Faith Jaques. The stories however were not the only ones that Ransome had translated. In 1920, The Soldier and Death, one of the greatest of his stories, was published, almost like a chapbook – later to be graced with fine illustrations by Charles Stewart in a hardback edition (1962) – and after Ransome’s death it was incorporated into a volume of hitherto uncollected tales, also illustrated by Jaques: The War of the Birds and the Beasts (1984).
was the centenary of Ransome’s birth when Hugh Brogan, who edited Birds and Beasts, also published his full-dress, authorized biography of the author. ‘In the end,’ he says there of Old Peter, ‘it may outlast Swallows and Amazons ’.
And who’s to say that he won’t be right?
The illustrations by Faith Jaques are taken from the 2003 edition published by Jane Nissen Books (1 903252 16 4, £7.99 pbk).
Brian Alderson is founder of the Children’s Books History Society and children’s book consultant for The Times.