How to Become a Russian Epic Storyteller

Russian epic poetry (which is sung, not read) has produced some of the most memorable characters in world literature. Many of the scenes, episodes, and characters from these epic poems inspire my own writing. If you happen to notice something familiar in the characters or events of my novel The Song of the Sirin, that’s probably because you’ve read a Russian fairy tale or epic poem (called bylini in Russian).

But maybe you’re ambitious. Maybe you don’t just want to read Russian epic poems, but you want to learn to sing them yourself. No problem. Here’s everything you need to know to become a Russian epic storyteller. The following is a somewhat cheeky translation of a Russian article from Arzamas Academy, which you can read in the original Russian here.

Be Born in the Right Place

epic storyteller
Solovki Monastery in the White Sea

First of all, dear future storyteller, you have to listen to as many existing bylini in as many different versions as you can. Since it’s an orally-transmitted form of art, you have no choice but to memorize the expansive list of heroes and villains and episodes (that list is a subject of a future post, so fret not).

In the Russian North, bylini were often told (i.e. sung) during times of common work—fishing in bulk for the winter or hunting, for example. If you’re especially lucky, you will have been born in the 19th century not far from Lake Ona. Or you live, perhaps, on the banks of the White Sea. When it’s bad weather, no one goes outside in the Russian North. Perfect time for the fishermen and hunters to hear all the labors and adventures of the Russian bogatyrs (warriors from epic poetry). Interestingly, even in the second half of the 20th century, when the art of epic poetry had died out, fishermen took a librarian with them as an alternative.

epic storyteller
Photo by Nikolai Shabulin in 1906, from his collection “Travels in the North”

Be Born in a Dynasty of Storytellers

Epic poetry was sometimes performed as entertainment for children. In the memoirs of the professional storyteller Maria Dmitrievna Krivopolenova, she describes this scene:

The kids annoyed grandfather in the evening, asking him to sing of the old days. At first, grandfather sang a short one, but then he sang one of the long ones.”

epic storyteller

Be Able to Orient Yourself in the World of the Epic

Without understanding the reality of the world of epic poetry—who rode where, who battled whom—you will never become a good storyteller. You will mix up names, places, and you will never be accepted by the extremely choosy zealots of the tradition. You have to know that even geography is specifically connected to character. For example, Prince Vladimir is in Kiev, while Sadko is in Novgorod.

epic storyteller
From the “Ballad of Vasilisa Mikulishna”

You also have to understand the movements of common epic journeys. For example, Vasili Buslaevich travels to Jerusalem, while Ilya Muromets always rides from Murom, through Chernigov, into Kiev.

The names in the bylini are strictly determined by this dichotomy—“one of ours” (good) vs. “one of theirs” (very bad). In other words, every hero has his own very specific antagonist. Ilya Muromets, for example, can never battle Tugarin Zmei (that’s Alyosha Popovich’s job). Neither can Dobrynia Nikitich battle the dog Kalin-Tsar. You must never allow such mistakes. People don’t like a bad storyteller. There have even been cases when a bad storyteller was literally beaten out of a village.

Learn to Improvise

Albert Lord, a folklorist who studied the epic traditions of the South Slavs, determined that there are three stages of studying to be a storyteller:

  1. Passive listening
  2. Active repetition
  3. Intentional improvisation

How can a storyteller learn hundreds upon hundreds of lines of text? Why are there different versions of the same bylina? What elements needed to be kept the same, but what could be changed?

epic storyteller
from Andrei Shishkin’s painting “Bylina”

It’s important to understand that an epic poem doesn’t exist in a kind of ossified “final form.” Every performance was literally a new creation. Folklorists have determined that the tropes of epic poetry and the specific lexicon that is used to create the poems are not memorized. Rather, they are constructed anew every time, just as phrases in everyday conversation are. This means that the storyteller invents a story in the process of singing. It’s like he’s weaving pearls into a tapestry.

So. How do you do this? Find the best storytellers in your area. Begin by copying their mannerisms and repertoire. Later, once you’ve become familiar with it all, you can begin to improvise. But make sure your improvisation is fully within the existing geography and episodic structure. Don’t invent. Improvise.

Sometimes, You Are Allowed to Read

If you can only find one or two professional storytellers in your area, and you still want to become a real storyteller, you’ll have to read. There are many good collections of epic poetry out there. They first became popular in the 19th century, when cheap editions were printed by the thousands. Then, many so-called storytellers tried to pass themselves off as professionals in folkloric circles. In actual fact, all they did was memorize the poems from the popular editions.

One positive aspect of this was that epic poetry was once again performed as it should be—sung aloud. And many real storytellers found this to be a gold mine of new possible interpretations of characters and events. Yuri Novikov, a folklorist of the time, found more than 320 new versions of sung epic poems that had elements borrowed from the printed editions.

Otherwise…

epic storytelling
from a vesti.ru article about Altai storytellers

If you can’t follow all of the steps above, you’re out of luck for Russian epic poetry. It never found any other method of transmission. However, you can still learn other traditions. For example, European epic poets, Yakut Olonkho singers, the Kazakh akyn, and the Khakaz khaidja all receive their gift either in their sleep (like the Anglo-Saxon poet Caedmon), or after meeting a man in white robes (as the Khakaz khaidja Stepan Yegorovich Burnakov), or by drinking the water in a sacred well (as the Uzbek bakshas). So, as long as you’re not Russian, you can always hope for a divine gift…

If you enjoyed this post, and would like to learn more about Russian history and traditions, be sure to sign up for my Readers’ Group. You’ll be the first to know about my novels’ release dates, giveaways, and contest. As a special thank you, I’ll send you a preview of my new novel as well as a few other free gifts. Just tell me where to send them:

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About Nicholas Kotar

Hi! I’m Nicholas Kotar, and I write epic fantasy inspired by Russian fairy tales. As I’ve been doing research for my novels, I’ve found a lot of edifying and interesting articles in Russian about Russian history, culture, fairy tales, and traditions. None of them are available in English. What astounded me was how applicable so much of it was to our own day. The stories I found illuminate a lost past where Orthodoxy, history, and culture were all one and the same. In our own time of inner and outer fracturing, these people, events, and stories inspire us to think, act, and live differently–more in tune with our age-old faith, and less pandering to the demands of the fickle world. Plus, a lot of the stories I find are just plain fun and entertaining.

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