Thursday, September 07, 2017

the head of the brother of Chernomor

Anyone familiar with the story of Ruslan and Ludmila will recall the Learned Cat, who appears briefly at the beginning of the Pushkin's poem, and then mysteriously disappears.

But I have long been fascinated by another character in the saga: a disembodied head (this time it is a human one, not a feline one resembling the Cheshire Cat.)

Let's pretend that, instead of wearing Ruslan's battle boots, we slip ourselves into the silken tufli of Ludmila, who has become a bit bored (and let's admit it, she might have, shockingly, gained a few extra pounds from munching on Turkish delight and sipping cordials) of life in the castle of the wicked wizard Chernomor. Let's face it, even the beards in this story are given a more active role than that of the female protagonist. 

So Ludmila steals the wizard's hat (she has already discovered its magical properties because she has been snooping in his library, ha!), and puts it on backwards, which renders her invisible. Then she marches off the hills, where her tufli are naturally encrusted by mud. Off in the distance looms the Head, intriguingly.

Bilibin's version

Even if you don't understand Russian, this video clip of Ruslan meeting the Head may be rather diverting. The Head seems to threaten the hero at first, until Ruslan gives it a smack, then the Head tells him he has actually been waiting for him to revenge himself on his brother ("I will live until I am avenged," he says), and out pops an enchanted sword, a handy tool for Ruslan to prove himself against Chernomor, who turns out to be a midget who had utilized the blade to remove his big brother's head, but the sword had somehow kept the Head alive until the arrival of the squeaky-clean hero.

The Head is just begging to be asked more questions, I think. 

What if Ludmila came upon the gigantic Head and spoke to it, and then decided that she was a bit sleepy, and so she nodded off while leaning against him. Then, while they both were snoring (as in the clip above), what if she had a dream. In her dream, it was revealed to her that both she and Ruslan, and the Duke of Kiev, and even the serving ladies tasked with taming her hair and pinning the kokoshnik on her head on a daily basis -- were all playing the parts of characters in a play inside the Head's dream, and that she was parading about as one of his embodied thoughts. What then? Would she be so quick to run back to her place in the story, or might she choose an alternative script? 

The images of the Learned Cat and the Head (let's not even go there with the midget wizard who is all-powerful but possibly impotent - we are never quite sure) lend Pushkin's tale certain quality of ambiguity that Alan Watts liked to call the yetzer hara, or the Element of Irreducible Rascality. Their appearance is a signal designed to stir up the archetypes in the psyche.

Above is a portion of a lecture by Alan Watts, who surely must have possessed the virtue of Irreducible Rascality. Can't you just see it in his eyes?

An unfinished sculpture at Peterhof which may have inspired Pushkin.

I am still curious about the Head of the brother of Chernomor, a mysterious giant who seems to speak to us from far before the 19th century. I think that perhaps I, too, shall pay him a visit, but only on my way to talk to the Learned Cat. 

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