As a writer and accidental English major,* I try to be well-rounded, but I have a big knowledge-gap in folklore. Fortunately, I live not far from a university with one of the best folklore programs in the country. Recently, I spent an hour browsing UC Berkeley’s folklore course descriptions online, and the search paid off in a small stack (two three books) about Russian folklore and a long list of other traditions to try.

I began with Russian Folk Belief  by Penn State professor Linda Ivanits. Russian Folk Belief is a small book, but it is dense. Though there is a nice collection of myths and tales at the end, the first half of the book is filled with the sort of detail that is probably meant for a scholar looking at Russian folklore with a magnifying glass (rather than a fiction writer studying tropes and archetypes). Getting anything out of it that was useful for me meant being willing to wade through debates about whether or not a mythological creature is the same as another mythological creature from another region with a slightly different name, but I believe the search was worth it.

Anyone who has listened to me for more than five minutes, knows that the public domain is a big passion of mine, but I’m not sure I’ve ever said why. I believe in the public domain so much because stories have a way of becoming part of us, almost as if these things made of language (when allowed to ripen over time**) become a language of their own. How many Cinderella stories are there out there? How many stories have wizards and magical helpers and goddesses disguised as old women? These archetypes and tropes are our literary inheritance, a gift from our ancestors, so every generation doesn’t have to start from scratch.

I haven’t been studying folklore for long, but I’ve already noticed that it’s a pattern that folklore books are either books of folklore and are often located in the children’s section at the library, or they are impossibly dense academic books. Reading the stories themselves is easy, but I find the patterns most valuable as a writer because I find it much easier to make something really original out of an archetype than a character that already has a name and a face.

For those who are less inclined to dive into something that dense, I’m going to spend the next few posts introducing some archetypal characters from Russian Folk Belief that have inspired me. I hope they inspire you just as much.

* After changing my major four times–which sounds worse than it is because I was an English major twice–I got enough credits to graduate before I had time to switch programs again.

** I believe that in order to write the stories that will become legends, writers need a lifetime to finish speaking and fully develop the places and characters and ideas and phrases they’ve created without competing with others for their own creations, which is why I will never be completely copyleft.  

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