Unknown source of a familiar story

Victor Yakovlev

Unknown source of a familiar story

(53rd Annual Meeting of the PIAC, St. Petersburg 2010)

The plot, exposed by Pushkin in his “Black Shawl” (“Moldavian Song”) is well known. There were grounds for the title, but the story does not seem to be Moldavian one. The heart of it is the character, happy in love. Accidentally he gets irrevocably bereft of his beloved. Possibly, he is willing to die him too. There are other stories, where the subject of devotion is lost in consequence of an act of infidelity, and the hero is ready to revenge, killing both — her and his rival. Essential for the plot is that the heroine is drowned.

Little doubt that Pushkin borrowed the plot from Byron. He guessed it to be there, for an essential part of what happened remained beyond the scope of an impartial eye-witness — the narrator in Byron’s “Giaour”. We do not know, how the fugitive was captured, though it is important for the culmination of the story. It seems, that Pushkin red the plot, readjusted by Byron, in a true way.

The source of Byron’s tale is a special topic. The thing is, that though Pushkin’s poem became “Moldavian song”, the story is much more Turkish than Moldavian. First, concerning names, absent in a clean copy. But in a rough copy for the verse: «Я верного позвал слугу своего» (“I called my faithful servant then”) we meet: «Я позвал Хасана, слугу своего» (“I called then Hassan, [faithful] servant of mine”). Evidently, a servant of the character, Romanian by origin, could hardly bear a name of Hassan, but the character, being a Muslim, could have such a name. The “Black Shawl” actually became a Moldavian folk-song as a result of its translation into Romanian by C. Negruzzi, and a Turkic colouring here is even more apparent, than in the original text of Pushkin. There are lines there (quotations in English are in our translation):

“Then wrathfully trampling the two bodies down
I looked at the face of the girl, so nice,
And wishing to kiss her half-open mouth
At this very time.”

The stroke was absent in the ballad of Pushkin. It would seem unexplainable, why Negruzzi put it, had not an elegy with a rather similar plot (“Khas-Bulat, You are brave”) appeared later. The elegy was introduced by N. Amosov, an officer on the service during Russian-Turkish war of 1853 — 1856. Usually is mentioned, that the poem was “evoked by Caucasian war of 1817 — 1864”, which is the judgment too broad for identification of the source. The elegy looks like a translation of some native song though, or an exposition of a legend of recent origin at the time, judging from such realities as a dagger “Bazalai”, for instance. The name of the hero and of the river (Yaman-su) are suggestive of the scene of action — Checheno-Daghestan imamate. And there are following verses in the poem:

“Now go and look at Your bride, effendi!
In my house she sleeps, dagger stuck in her breast.
Shedding tears, I closed her beautiful eyes.
And my farewell kiss is impressed on her lips”.

Is not it probable for the story to have come from Turkey or to be inspired by Turkish folk-singers? The river here was not the place, the traitress had been buried at, but where adultery was committed.

For the most part of the stories of the lost love, however, the crucial event is burial of a beloved one in waters of a river. Sometimes in poetry somebody’s falling down into the water is an act of heavenly revenge and is an important event for the poem. For that reason a ballad by Wieland was considered as a source of Pushkin’s “Black Shawl”. In the said ballad a steed of a knight, killed by his servant, fell, with the latter astride, down from the bridge into the river.

Yet there exists a more relevant Turkish story of a bride falling down into the river, together with her numerous suit. The song is one of Kızılırmak türküsü, and is called “A Bride drowned in the River” (“Suda Boğulan Gelin”). Resembling story is in a Russian folk-song “Along the Don-river a Young Cossack Strolls”, where a prediction, that the bride will drown on her wedding-day, comes true. The maiden falls down into the river from a bridge made of boards.

Were the source of this song entirely unknown, we could think of an exclusively Turkish influence. But it was also suggested likely to be made up from the translation of a Swedish ballad — “Harpanskraft” (“The Power of the Harp”). The latter is even nearer in the description of the event to the “Drowned Bride” of the Kızılırmak türküsü than to the Russian song. In the translation we read:

«Поедешь к венцу ты — я конников дам,
Вперед будет двадцать и сто по бокам».
(“For wedding procession the horsemen I give,
In front there will be twenty and a hundred on sides”.)

In the Turkish song:
“Köprüye varınca köprü yıkıldı
Üç yüz atlı birden suya döküldü…”.
(“When they on the bridge were, the bridge crashed down,
And three hundred horsemen fell down at once ….”)

Nearby the “River Don Ballad” there exists a different local Seven Rivers’ version in a genre of epic (bylina) with the following beginning:

«Ой камень тяжелый,
Не могу поднять,
Ой милый далеко,
Не могу узнать».
«Oh stone is heavy,
I can’t lift it up,
Oh darling is far away,
I can’t find out, where».

That the “River Don Ballad” originated from D. Oznobishin translation of “Harpanskraft” is not entirely convincing. It would take much time for the translation to become a song so beautiful and with several important changes of the plot. In a relatively short time the story could not have spread so wide as to travel to the Jetisuu area and acquire a different form.

As to the “River Don Ballad”, some stories possibly could have traveled along the way, called once upon a time the Road from Varangians to Greeks.

Anyway, D. Oznobishin was not only a prodigious poet, an acquaintance of V. Zhukovsky and A. Griboyedov. He studied diligently Arabic and Persian languages and was among the first students of Chuvash folklore. This merit of his can impart an Altaic flavour to his translation of a Northern ballad.