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The Simpleton in the Russian Fairy Tale
Within the world of Russian Fairy tales few characters seem so well loved as that of the simpleton. Indeed for many fairy tales the character who is the fool and often the third child will end every journey with wealth and happiness, in the dark world of fairy tales few characters can make this claim. There are likely a number of reasons for this one is that while it is often humorous to have a simpleton in a story, such as in the story of the “Simpleton and the Birch Tree,” in which the protagonist believes that a tree asks him to buy his donkey. The scenes that follow involve the man trying to negotiate and get its money out of a birch tree. In such comedies as this the story tellers and the listeners are unlikely to want a disaster to occur to the person who made them laugh throughout the story.
It’s also possible that the simpleton stories are attempting to carry a message, in The Norka a foolish third brother saves his fathers garden from a horrible monster by taking action when his oldest brothers failed too. Everyone mocked him saying he could not succeed but, then the fact that he actually tried to succeed when no one else would gave him a better chance then his “smatter” brothers. We see this same theme played out in Ivan Popyalof, Ivan in this story saves the whole kingdom from a family of snakes that is blotting out the sun. However in the end he gets real help from his brothers, as they come to rescue him from a snake he cannot defeat himself. This is an interesting addition to the theme as in many of the other stories the older brothers offer nothing but mocking words to the young simpleton.
There is of course another idea within social psychology which may help explain this event. That is that we like people who succeed even though they are on a closer level to us. We all expect geniuses to be successful but in truth most of us are not truly smart, and we want the fairy godmother to come along and help us out, because many time we can’t see a way out. This must have been truly the case in a place and time when most of the people where bound to a peasant or worse a serf/slave class. Even now however we are anxious to find out we are special somehow, in a way which has nothing to do with who we are internally. One more recent story “Harry Potter” follows the exploits of a boy who finds out that he was born with powers, a boy who gains a lot of outside intervention, but is also willing to do what needs to be done. This story has much the same motif as many of the simpleton stories of old, more complex as its longer plot will allow for, however in general it is the story of the person no one thought would amount to anything succeeding against all obstacles with magical help.
We also like to see someone succeed at doing what no one said they could, not simply to see our selves in them but because we have empathy for those who are trying to achieve what no one thinks they can. This after all is what makes us sentient, to be able to care, and that is the power of folktales, to play off the emotions we naturally have.