Tolstoy’s Fables and Fairy Tales

October 23, 2007

I have been interested lately in fables and fairy tales for their simplicity of image and layered beauty. In contrast to Tolstoy’s grander work like War and Peace or Anna Karenina, I am intrigued by the economy and directness of his fables. Most of the writing in Fables and Fairy Tales was originally written as part of primers he created for the school he set up on his estate for neighboring peasants. The fables teach life lessons in a simple format, and although frequently didactic or dogmatic, the clear elegance of the stories shines through. Among other things these stories are peopled with talking animals, kings, hermits, and peasants. With these fables Tolstoy sought to enlighten those around him with his humanitarian dreams and goals of social justice.

Some of the fables are deceptively straightforward showing things aren’t always as they appear. Holes are frequently poked in cleverness. They teach one must do the work if one wants to earn the outcome; one can’t simply jump to the end. In Three Rolls and a Pretzel, the faults are contagiously shown in a peasant’s false clever logic.

“Feeling hungry one day, a peasant bought himself a large roll and ate it. But he was still hungry, so he bought another roll and ate it. Still hungry he bought a third roll and ate it. When the three rolls failed to satisfy his hunger, he bought some pretzels. After eating one pretzel he no longer felt hungry” (37).

In this simple story the reader is shown that one plus one does not necessarily equal two when the peasant comes to his conclusion. “Suddenly he clapped his hand to his head and cried: What a fool I am! Why did I waste all those rolls? I ought to have eaten a pretzel in the first place!” (37). One can’t simply jump to the end of a process and expect the same results.

A number of simple lessons can be found in The Three Questions. The story was originally written for a collection whose proceeds benefited victims of an anti-Jewish pogrom. Tolstoy was asked to contribute to the collection after writing an open letter to the tsar accusing his government of being directly responsible for the pogroms taking place. The fable explores the notion that one cannot rely on the experience of others to know what is right, but must be directly engaged with the world around them.

“It once occurred to a certain king that if he always knew just when to undertake everything he did, and which were the right and which the wrong people to deal with, and, above all, if he always knew what the most important thing to do, he would never fail in anything” (82).

So with these three questions the king sets out on a quest offering a reward to anyone who can answer them, but soon he discovers that the “the answers were all different, therefore the king agreed with none of them and rewarded no one” (84).

In order to find the answers he goes to consult a wise hermit, but when he arrives discovers the old man working in his garden. The king promptly asks the hermit his three questions, but the old man simply goes back to his work. Seeing the old man is tired the king takes over the digging, but eventually the king becomes impatient and asks his question again. At that moment a man approaches. He is wounded and the king tends to his injury. The next morning the king discovered that the wounded man had intended to kill him in return for some injustice. The king’s men had discovered the attacker and assaulted him. The king not knowing any of this had rescued the man and nursed his wounds. The man was now remorseful and asked for the king’s forgiveness and mercy. The king had inadvertently reconciled the injustice.

Again the king asked the hermit the answer to his three questions, but the hermit explains he already has his answer.

“Had you not taken pity on my weakness yesterday and dug these beds for me, instead of turning back alone, that fellow would have assaulted you, and you would’ve regretted not staying with me. Therefore, the most important time was when you were digging those beds; I was the most important man; and the most important pursuit was to do good to me. And later, when the man came running to us, the most important time was when you were taking care of him, for if you had not bound up his wound, he would have died without having made peace with you; therefore he was the most important man, and what you did for him was the most important deed” (87).

The king learns that the most important time is now as it is the only time he has dominion over. One must always seek to be engaged with the present and attentive to those around. The hermit concludes with “the most important pursuit is to do good to him, since it is for that purpose alone that man was sent into this life” (88).

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