by Kryssa Burakowski
A phrase often used at the beginning of fairy tales in Russian is ‘в тридевятом царстве’. The closest marker used in English tales is probably ‘in a land far, far away’. This conveys the meaning, but understanding the Russian phrase literally is a little more problematic. Google seems to have been watching a lot of Shrek recently because it suggested using ‘in the kingdom of Far Far Away’ as a translation. Царство does mean kingdom, but the adjective is made from the Russian words for ‘three’ and ‘ninth’. So maybe 3 x 9 = 27 kingdoms away? (Wiktionary’s suggestion.) I don’t know the answer, but the point is that it’s really, really, far away – incomprehensibly so.
And so it needs to be. The fact that fairy tales in general are set so far away encourages readers/listeners to suspend disbelief and forget the laws of nature they know to be true in their own kingdoms in order to believe the fantastical happenings of the stories, while offering a glimmer of hope and magic that such things might just be possible. But this idea is a little bittersweet, since so many fairy tale motifs are associated with reaching goals, finding true love, ending suffering, gaining riches beyond our wildest dreams…
Phrases like a ‘knight in shining armour’ (in the Russian idiom, the knight rides a white horse) and ‘they lived happily ever after’ spring to mind. Or, taking the wealth example, the goose that lays golden eggs which Jack finds atop the beanstalk. Such tales can inspire and create hope that somewhere – even if it is very far away – or somehow dreams do come true and problems do get solved.
But on the other hand, taking a more skeptical view, these stories being set so far from reality in both time and space could be interpreted as an implication that achieving dreams and finding happiness is a largely unattainable myth. That it is something that can only happen in the 27th kingdom, to a special hero or heroine, with the help of a fairy godmother.
This leads me to another idiom: ‘счастье не за горами’. This phrase is very much in my mind since it is written in giant letters by the banks of the river Kama here in Perm. I suppose our equivalent would be: ‘happiness is just around the corner’.
Word for word, it means: ‘happiness isn’t beyond the hills’. I like that idea a lot better.