The basic pattern of the animal tale is simple:
- There is a meeting between animals (or between an animal and a person).
- There is a repetition, not necessarily three-fold
- Of a situation
- Of a speech
- Of an event
- The tales are heavy in dialogue
- Which can be either all prose
- Or rhymed, song-like:
- Petushok, petushok, zolotoi grebeshok
- Kolobok: quote
- Today they are treated mostly as children’s tales (see books)
- Many of them have a cumulative structure (See the Castle of the Fly or The Turnip; tell Kolobok; compare)
- There is a lot of play with names, with sounds.
- Animal characters are strictly typecast:
- Wolves are greedy rather stupid, and male (the Russian word for wolf is “volk,” a masculine noun).
- Foxes are sly, calculating, and tricksters. They are also female (the Russian word for fox is “lisa,” a feminine noun).
- Cats are opportunistic and lazy. They are male (the Russian word for cat is “kot,” a masculine noun).
- Bears are big and lumbering (naturally), rather clumsy, and not very bright. They are male (the Russian word for bear is “medved’,” a masculine noun). The Russian word that is the equivalent of “teddy bear,” “misha,” is also the diminutive for the name Mikhail, which is the standard “first name” of folk-tale bears.
- Hares are quick and cowardly, and male (“hare,” in Russian, is “zaiats,” a masculine noun).
- The goat is cunning, and female (Russian — “koza,” a feminine noun).
- The rooster is cocky and boastful, and male (Russian — “petukh,” a masculine noun).
Goats (obstinate) and bulls (bullish, of course) also appear in Russian tales, as well as a number of birds. Insects, however, do not seem to have made an impression on the ethnic Russian imagination.
Some animal tales tell of the “beginning” of things. Others are merely amusing. Others yet have a moral, but by no means all. And not all tales, by far, qualify as “good children’s stories.”
The animals in the tales behave in many ways just as real animals do: carnivorous animals eat meat, even when the “meat” in question can talk. Wild animals are dangerous, and the fact that they can interact with people does not mean that they are tame or “civilized.” A bear or a wolf who is negotiating one minute with a man may attack or even eat (or attempt to eat) a that same person the next moment.
There is usually no rationalization for the behavior of the animal characters, other than their nature (the same is true of all folk tale characters: they act because they are, not because of who they are). Of course, personal gain is a clear motivation for their actions, but not for the form these actions take. The wolf is bad because he is the bad wolf, not because he had a difficult childhood; the hare is cowardly because it is a hare, not because of some trauma suffered at an earlier time. Animals, like other folk-tale characters, behave accordingly to their roles.
This category makes up 60% of the folk tales.
The main subjects are:
- The marriage of the hero
- The taming of the shrew
- Wise advice (that leads to success)
- Wise youth or maiden
- Fate and good fortune (or misfortune)
- Highwaymen and robbers
Some of the tales are similar in subject to the magic tales, but they are realistic in content, and the structure differs, as well as the characters (no Baba Yaga).
The narrative is based on sharp social contrast:
- Social position
- Nationality, etc.
For instance, the opposition between master and servant, soldier and officer, king and subject, etc.
The main character is a trickster type. The plot is usually based on tricking oneself out of trouble or solving a riddle or riddle-like situation.
The tale is low comedy, not unlike the commoners in Shakespearean plays.