Friday, August 22, 2008

Slavic Folklore for Kids: The Little Einsteins

My daughter loves to watch Disney's "The Little Einsteins." She's probably seen every episode at least a dozen times, which means I've seen them about that many times, as well.

This particular episode, "Rocket's Firebird Rescue," features music from Igor Stravinsky's ballet, "The Firebird." The story involves a magical Firebird who spreads its special music power around the world. The Firebird is hated by an evil ogre named Kashchei, who captures and imprisons the Firebird. The Little Einsteins find one of the Firebird's feathers and set out on an adventure to free her and return music to the world.

Who knew that the cartoon my daughter was enjoying is loaded with icons of her Slavic heritage?

The story of "Rocket's Firebird Rescue" is loosely based on a well-known Russian folk tale, "The Firebird":

The story of the firebird comes in many different forms. Some folk tales say that the firebird is a mystical bird that flies around a king’s castle and at night swoops down and eats all the king's golden apples. Others say that the firebird is just a bird that flies around giving hope to those who need it. Some additions to that legend say that when the firebird flies around his eyes sparkle and pearls fall from his beak. The pearls would then fall to the peasants, giving them something to trade for goods or services.

In the most common version of the legend, a Tsar commands his three sons to capture the firebird that keeps flying down from above and eating his apples. The golden apples are in the Tsar’s orchard and give youth and strength to all who eat them. The sons end up barely missing the bird, but they catch one of his feathers that glows in the night. (Wikipedia)
Almost all of the versions of the Firebird tale seem to have one main theme: a Firebird's feather is found, spurring the feather-finder on a difficult quest. Although the finder thinks the feather will bring him/her happiness, the quest typically involves increasingly difficult tasks, frequently bringing great sadness and grief.

Thankfully, the Little Einsteins don't encounter sadness and grief, but they do run into some complications, courtesy of the evil ogre, Kashchei. Also part of Russian/Slavic folklore, Kashchei (spelled a variety of ways) is typically an evil person with an ugly appearance who is extremely difficult to kill:
His soul is hidden separate from his body inside a needle, which is in an egg, which is in a duck, which is in a hare, which is in an iron chest, which is buried under a green oak tree, which is on the island of Buyan, in the ocean. As long as his soul is safe, he cannot die. If the chest is dug up and opened, the hare will bolt away. If it is killed, the duck will emerge and try to fly off. Anyone possessing the egg has Koschei in their power. He begins to weaken, becomes sick and immediately loses the use of his magic. If the egg is tossed about, he likewise is flung around against his will. If the egg is broken (in some tales this must be done by specifically breaking it against Koschei's forehead), Koschei will die. (Wikipedia)
A tad creepy for a children's show. In the Disney version, Kashchei is cleverly portrayed by a series of Matryoshka dolls, or Russian nesting dolls, which apparently represent the various incarnations of Kashchei's soul.

Kashchei attempts to thwart the Einsteins' efforts to free the Firebird by sending a variety of enchanted creatures their way - mosquitoes, bears, bats, spiders - all of which are nesting dolls emerging from inside the main Kashchei doll. Using music, the Einsteins are able to defeat the creatures and continue on their quest.

The Little Einsteins follow the feather to a variety of well-known Russian locales. In Moscow, they whiz past the famous spires of St. Basil's Cathedral. In Siberia, they meet a baby Baikal seal, or Nerpa, the only freshwater seal in the world (to which my daughter always says, "Awwwwww, cute!"). At one point, the Einsteins wind up in a painting by Russian Expressionist, Wassily Kandinsky, where they must perform ballet moves with geometric shapes in order to proceed.

I won't spoil the ending, but I will say that in typical Disney fashion, everyone lives happily ever after.

"Mission completion!"


Illustration of the "Firebird" by Ivan Bilibin (1899).

Copyright © 2008 by Elizabeth O'Neal

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