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History, fairy tales, and Anastasia - The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
History, fairy tales, and Anastasia
calixa just did a meme naming Anastasia as one of her favorite movies. A commentor mentioned the (to put it mildly) historical innaccuracies, and I was thrown right back into considering the reasons this particular movie makes me clap my hands and jump up and down with glee. Which is a bad idea at the moment, but hey.

For those of you who haven't seen Anastasia, you may be surprised to learn that the Russian Revolution was caused by Rasputin, who sold his soul to the devil in order to raise up demons who would stir the populace to revolt against the idyllic Romanov dynasty. He used a kind of magical glowstick to accomplish this. He missed Anastasia, so he lived after death to chase her down and complete his vengeance on the Romanovs, who had dismissed him after figuring out that he was a fraud. She finally showed up in Paris--having grown up amnesiac in an orphanage, with only a pendant saying "Together in Paris" as a clue--and duelled him in a re-created St. Petersburg, banishing him in the name of her family and her love (the low-born kitchen boy/con man, Dmitri). After this, she and Dmitri run off into obscurity again, as the kindly Dowager Empress happily pronounces it a "perfect beginning."

I'll grant that this doesn't quite mesh with little stuff like, oh, facts. The Romanovs weren't exactly kindly and gracious to all their citizens up until demons mysteriously roused the populace. They do seem to have found Anastasia's remains. No magic glowstick appears to have been involved.

Is there some truth to the metaphor? The royal family had been under thrall to Rasputin, and bizarre things had happened around him. And to the vast majority of people who were uninvolved in the great political movements, it must have seemed very sudden and inexplicable--everything they'd always known was suddenly gone, and traded for what? Boring gray business suits, red flags, all the graces and curlicues of life in the monarchy suddenly wiped away, leaving things drab and anonymous (or at least I'm guessing that was the case; never having lived in a monarchy, all I really see is the pretty stuff and the scandals, and the latter wouldn't have been a factor in Imperial Russia). Somewhere, they might have thought, the soul of Russia still wandered, perhaps amnesiac, but trying to find its way home.

So, yeah, the metaphor kind of works, which is why I suspect the story took off so quickly. Folklorically, a tale that's taken root and mutated within a hundred years--especially one based on known and prominent events--has got to be something of an oddity.

But there was something about little lost Anastasia that really caught people's attention, and this is where I think both the story and the movie are worthy of fascination.

See, most people rationally believe that the Anna Anderson story--she stepped up claiming to be Anastasia--isn't true. Most people can look at what happened in the Russian Revolution and its follow-up in a reasonably detached and factual way. And certainly, most people are aware that life under the Tsars wasn't exactly the Garden of Eden.

But still, the story of Anastasia holds us.

For me, that's the point where it becomes interesting. I'm not an historian, after all. I'm a comparative religion major with a strong interest in folklore, and I think we have witnessed the birth of a new fairy tale/myth, and one that's uniquely suited to its times. Right now, Anastasia is still associated with the youngest daughter of the last Tsar. In a hundred years, I'm not entirely certain she will be--the setting of Anastasia in Russia will be no more significant than the setting of Beauty and the Beast in France--it's Once Upon a Time in a Faraway Land.

Bluth's movie is the first--but I doubt the last--to simply remove it from any pretense at being a biopic. Other movies had been made (one starring Amy Irving; the others, I don't remember), and books had been written. But Bluth jettisoned history in favor of the story, and that, to me, is significant... and not in a negative, how-dare-he way. Most of the biopics/biographies/whatever were trying to make an historical case of one sort or another, and of course would be shot down by the basic fact that in all likelihood, Anastasia Romanova died with the rest of her family. They found remains. And history can turn on a dime... anything could be true of a real person, and if it turned out she did live and a child or grandchild of hers restored the dynasty, you'd still have to deal with the ugly reality of politics and real people.

But Bluth took Anastasia as the symbol she actually is in the popular mind--the idealized princess, alone and cold, wandering without memory through her realm. And the Russian Revolution became not a matter of historical research, but a metaphor for the onset of modernity and the industrial revolution, with its baffling, rapid changes and ugly accoutrements. It's not accidental that the St. Petersburg to which Anya/Anastasia returns is smoky, polluted, and overshadowed by construction cranes. Not to mention drab... the opening song goes on about this last at length--people living for whispered rumors of the family because life is so boring and monotonous. Anya, like any good heroine, is discontent with this, longing to take the road that will "bring her home at last," and unwilling to rest until she has found it.

At the start of the movie, Bluth basically has a mythic figure set up--the spirit of the past, alive but homeless, hungry and lonely in the jaws of modernity. He also has the hero's quest set up--will Anastasia be able to heal and restore her world? But then he throws a curve with the romance with Dmitri, someone who is inappropriate for her "station" (as he points out, "Princesses don't marry kitchen boys"). Unlike Cinderella, it's not the story of the low-ranking person stepping up; the interest is as much in whether or not Anastasia can win love with Dmitri as much as whether or not he can find love with her. She's reunited with her dear grandmother and ready to claim the throne when she faces off one last time with Rasputin, and banishes him, but by then, the audience has a sneaking suspicion that this isn't quite the right thing for her to do. In the end, instead of doing so, she elopes with her commoner love--a self-made, modern man who nevertheless has loved her since childhood and has a chivalric edge to him--and the two of them head out into the world together.

What's the metaphor here? The past and the present together going off to take what's best in one another to create a better future. A beginning, as the Dowager puts it.

I don't think this is the last version of this story that we're going to see, and while Dmitri himself may be copyrighted (blech, copyright law... it's going to mess up folklore) I think there is always going to be a commoner who rescues her, and with whom she disappears in the end. I think we'll see it sliding even further from anything resembling history, though I suspect the name "Anastasia" will stick around, as it conveniently means "who is resurrected." She, like Arthur, has become part of the "soup" Tolkien talks about in fairy tales... something that goes in with a lot of other powerful ingredients, and comes out of it transfigured into a creature of faerie.

So, yeah... I'm more than happy to say Feh to the historical problems. It's way too interesting to watch the birth of a new fairy tale to worry about such things. Don't tell kids, "This isn't true," as if it says nothing of value. Say, "That's not quite how the Russian Revolution happened," and maybe teach a bit, but don't try to denigrate what the mythic Anastasia is and does by declaring her "false," per se. She's true... just not factual. Like quite a few of Arthur's exploits. Does it really matter that Merlin didn't kill two dragons? Or that Arthur is not alive on the island of Avalon, waiting to return to Britain in its hour of need? (Oh, can't he be, though? Somewhere?)

Anyway, so, yes. I like Anastasia quite a lot.
16 comments or Leave a comment
anaid_rabbit From: anaid_rabbit Date: August 27th, 2004 02:05 pm (UTC) (Link)
Very insightful. But wouldn`t Anastasia be a mythic figure like, say, Odysseus, with some linking to history, instead of a complete fairy tale heroine like Cinderella?
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: August 27th, 2004 03:10 pm (UTC) (Link)
True, although the historical Odysseus is more or less irrelevant to the story Odysseus. Every "known" aspect of his life could be disproven, and he'd still be out there on the Mediterranean, doing his thing.
greyathena From: greyathena Date: August 27th, 2004 02:06 pm (UTC) (Link)
I love that movie. I own that movie. Years ago I watched it three times in a row while up half the night studying for the AP Lit exam (mysteriously, when I got to the essay I couldn't think of anything to write about but Crime and Punishment. And I totally agree - it was made as a fairy-tale movie, and there's no reason it shouldn't be. All the other fairy tales have changed considerably from Grimm to Disney, and the fact that this one was sort-of based in truth shouldn't make it much different in the kids' movie realm.
From: lizbee Date: August 27th, 2004 02:11 pm (UTC) (Link)
I hadn't thought of it this way -- I was too busy wondering why my history books had excluded the talking fruitbat. *grin*

But I think you might be right. Rasputin has already been adopted as a fictional villain elsewhere -- Hellboy is the most recent example -- and Anastasia is his most natural adversary. (Note to self: the world does not need another comic book.) She deserves a narrative existence, dammit!
sonetka From: sonetka Date: August 27th, 2004 02:26 pm (UTC) (Link)
Very, very good essay - I like :). Robertson Davies wrote an essay about this phenomenon about fifteen years, I think, though he wasn't talking about Anastasia; rather he was just talking in general about how people tend to fit pieces of real stories into folkloric "slots." I can try to dig up a copy for you if you like, it was pretty interesting.

I have a feeling that "Anastasia" will, in a few hundred years or so, become the feminine of "Lazarus." Who knows, in a few hundred years or so, maybe she won't have just avoided certain death, she'll have been actually raised from the dead miraculously. Too bad we won't be around to see what it's turned into by then :).
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: August 27th, 2004 03:12 pm (UTC) (Link)
I so want a hyperlengthened life. Surely, they'll be able to do that medically sometime before I die, right? :sniff: I really want to know how it all comes out.
sonetka From: sonetka Date: August 27th, 2004 04:26 pm (UTC) (Link)
Sigh. I've wanted one for quite a while as well - maybe that's why most of my stories are set 200 or 300 years from now: "Well, if I can't be there, I can at least *pretend*." But barring developments comparatively soon, it looks like my best bet is the afterlife. (Surely we're allowed to visit earth spectrally once in a while, right? Like a day trip or something, to see how the family is doing?)
cheshyre From: cheshyre Date: August 29th, 2004 06:43 am (UTC) (Link)
If you can turn up the essay (or a link or reference to it), I'd be interested.
sonetka From: sonetka Date: September 2nd, 2004 04:35 pm (UTC) (Link)
Hi! Sorry it took me so long to get back to you, I've been hunting high and low for the book. (Essay doesn't seem to be online, unfortunately). It's in the collection Happy Alchemy, and the essay is called "Folk-Song: A Lost World Of Archetypes." It's not very long, but it is good. The library probably has it, and if not them, you could probably get through it pretty quickly while in the bookstore :).
may_child From: may_child Date: August 27th, 2004 04:37 pm (UTC) (Link)
Fern -- just a quick question:

Did they find Anastasia's remains? Because last I heard, they found the remains of Nicholas, Alexandra, and their three oldest daughters, but not of Anastasia or the only son Alexei.

(That, in part, was what fueled the Anna Anderson story, and there have been a couple of Alexei pretenders as well, though none that really caught the public attention like Anna Anderson -- probably because Alexei, being a hemophiliac, was incredibly unlikely to have survived the execution.)

I'm not asking because I believe Anastasia survived, I'm just honestly curious.
kizmet_42 From: kizmet_42 Date: August 27th, 2004 05:26 pm (UTC) (Link)

Yes, they have found them... but

The remains in question have always been recognized as Anastasia and Alexei becuase the location was given to an Orthodox priest (or was eventually heard by a priest) and the remains where exhumed and taken to an Orthodox church, where they were placed and the Church has not allowed physical tests (DNA) because the relics of a human are considered holy.

In 2001, the royal family was glorified as "passion-bearer" saints (often mistakenly called canonization, which is a Roman Catholic term) by the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (ROCOR) for the manner in which they faced their deaths.

I tried tracking this down on the net, but couldn't find more details, but it's commonly known in Orthodox churchs, in particular those affiliated with the Russians.
buongiornodaisy From: buongiornodaisy Date: August 27th, 2004 09:08 pm (UTC) (Link)
Interesting! I've always been interested in the story of Anastasia ever since I studied in in the eighth grade. Beacuse I knew the actual story I did avoid seeing the cartoon, although the enthusiasm it generates from online fans makes me reconsider. Your take on the situation is intriguing and I'm inclined to agree with your statement about copyright laws. Of course, not to show disrespect to the creators of the source but, yeah. Stories like this are meant to be told by those who can tell it well.

Sorry if this makes no sense. I'm kinda sleepy.
scionofgrace From: scionofgrace Date: August 28th, 2004 10:42 am (UTC) (Link)
Does it really matter that Merlin didn't kill two dragons? Or that Arthur is not alive on the island of Avalon, waiting to return to Britain in its hour of need? (Oh, can't he be, though? Somewhere?)

We're all looking for a savior, aren't we?

I think that's one fundamental thing that shows up in so many myths and fairy-tales. We know we need saving (from evil family, bad rulers, horrible times, or more) and we so desperately want someone to come in and save us. And so Anastasia, who likely didn't live to adulthood, gets raised up in myth as a savior, or maybe someone who was saved herself.
cheshyre From: cheshyre Date: August 29th, 2004 06:41 am (UTC) (Link)
Unlike Cinderella, it's not the story of the low-ranking person stepping up
But that's not what Cinderella is about.
Cinderella is an upperclass girl, unjustly lowered, and then returned to her proper station. She works like a Cinder girl, but has the inner grace of the wellborn.

I find it very interesting that Cinderella is held up as a female-equivalent to Horatio Alger tales of young girl made good. And I somewhat wonder how that interpretation came about, and whether it was a particularly American innovation, given America's very different attitudes towards the flexibility of class as compared to Europe.

BTW, if you've got an interest in folklore, after hearing a lecture on the Renaissance attitude of the Great Chain, I started trying to think of fairy tales in which happily ever after unites a couple from vastly different levels? I just mentioned Cinderella. Rumplestiltskin and Rapunzel involve poor girls marrying up, but in the former she's given a talent that makes her worthy and in the latter the prince suffers mightily for it. I can think of a few cases of poor men marrying up (the glass hill?), but in those, the man often proves his worth through deeds. Can you think of any other pre-modern examples?
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: August 29th, 2004 09:57 am (UTC) (Link)
The weirdest part about that is that I've made exactly that argument (frustrating to me when people reduce Cinderella to "poor girl marries rich boy to get status"), so obviously, I agree with you.

So, mostly I was being unclear about what I meant. The marriage to Dmitri, unlike Cinderella's to the prince, isn't a story about climbing back up to get or resume a place. It's something new for both of them, an equalization of vastly unequal roles in life. None of her royalty rubs off on him, and she doesn't abruptly become a commoner (the Shrek twist).
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: August 29th, 2004 10:09 am (UTC) (Link)
Can you think of any other pre-modern examples?

Well, there's the granddaddy of them all, Cupid and Psyche, in which mortal Psyche loves her husband, a god. She breaks the rules and looks at him, and is cast out, then goes through a series of tasks to win him back, and is ultimately rewarded by being made immortal herself.

I had a book of Chinese fairy tales when I was little, and one I remember was about a common boy who fell madly in love with a princess he saw on a swing. He grabbed her silk kerchief when she dropped it, and wrote her love poetry on it, and ended up being dragged into the palace on charges of spoiling the princess's favorite kerchief, but she intervened before the death penalty was carried out, because she'd fallen in love with his poetry. Alas, I don't remember the name of it.

Biblically, David was certainly lower than Michal at the start, and earned her by collecting 200 Philistine foreskins. (Ick.)

The lower ranking (or seemingly lower-ranking) person does always have to earn his/her place with the higher ranking one. It is always about equalizing, though in the case of Anastasia, it works differently, as Anya and Dmitri don't go through hoops to become equals, but realize ultimate that they always have been.
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