APRIL 26, 2020
THE RUSSIAN NOVELIST Leo Tolstoy, also a gentleman farmer, operated an ancestral estate called Yasnaya Polyana that included a small school for the children of the peasants who labored there. Tolstoy was known to drop by from time to time and share stories that he wrote himself, which, in his typical modesty, he predicted would be read by “thousands, even millions.”
In 1988, the children’s novelist and Russia expert James Riordan translated several of these for a collection called The Lion and the Puppy: And Other Stories for Children, published first by Henry Holt and Company. The cover has a nice picture of a lion and a puppy; the illustrations by Claus Sievert are lovely throughout. My children fell in love with that picture, and they wanted me to read them the book. My first thought was: Children’s stories by the author of the inspirational The Death of Ivan Ilyich? But pestilence has closed the schools and home reading was important. Tolstoy wrote them; they couldn’t be that bad. Now I sincerely wish I had never touched them.
The first story turned out to be the only one we endured together. It’s about a hungry lion in the zoo, whose keepers comb the streets for stray cats and dogs to feed him. Tolstoy recounts the lion coming for a puppy that got lost by its master: “Poor little dog. Tail between its legs, it squeezed itself into the corner of the cage as the lion came closer and closer.”
The lion decides not to eat this puppy, and they become friends. Until we get to page two, when the puppy, now a year old, suddenly sickens and dies. So what does the lion do? “[H]e put his paws about his cold little friend and lay grieving for a full five days. And on the sixth day the lion died.” The end.
“Daddy,” my stunned four-year-old son asked, “why did the lion die?”
“Daddy Daddy,” my daughter asked, still wondering about the now-dead lion’s lifestyle, “why did the people feed the lion puppies?”
So I took the book away and hid it from the children. Later I read it through. If you do this, be sure to read something lighter afterward, like perhaps Anna Karenina’s suicide scene, or a biography of Sylvia Plath. The rest of the stories are just as dark as the first one. So we have:
“Escape of a Dancing Bear.” The bear runs away after the master gets drunk. He’s too strong to capture directly, so they play his dancing music and he dances again. This allows the keepers to grab onto his chain. “The bear saw the ruse too late, roared helplessly, and tried to escape. But the master clung on tightly.” The end.
“Death of a Bird-Cherry Tree.” A property owner orders a tree cut down, then reconsiders. “It seemed a shame to kill such a beautiful thing.” But the woodcutter has already started, so he takes up an axe and lends a hand. “And then an unnerving sound came from inside the very soul of that tree. It was as if someone was screaming in unbearable pain, a tearing, wrenching, long, drawn-out scream.” The woodcutter says, “Whew, she don’t die easy, Sir!” Then the tree falls. The end.
“The King and the Shirt.” A king falls sick and is told that the only thing that can cure him is the shirt of a happy man. They can’t find anyone in the kingdom who is happy. Then by chance, the king’s counselor is passing through the woods and hears a man in a hut talking about how happy he is. The counselor steps into the hut and asks the man for his shirt, but the man is so poor he does not own a single shirt. The end. Presumably, the king dies.
“The Old Poplar.” Remember “Death of a Bird-Cherry Tree”? Well, this time it’s an old poplar. The owner wants to clear out the young poplar sprouts beneath a beautiful tree so that the old tree has less competition. The shoots had, in fact, been supporting the old tree; without them it withers and dies. “In wanting to make life easier for it I had killed all its children.” The end.
“The Little Bird.” A boy catches a bird in a cage. His mother says he shouldn’t do that. He leaves the door of the cage open. The bird flies out, straight into a glass window, knocking itself out. It suffers for a few days, then dies. The end.
The collection also contains such inspiring content as “The ‘Dead’ Man and the Bear,” “Better to be Lean and Free than Plump and Chained,” and “A Young Boy’s Story of How He Did Not Go to Town,” which are just as uplifting as they sound.
That many traditional children’s stories are grim or even grisly is well known. The folk tales collected by the Brothers Grimm, particularly in the original 1812 edition, are notoriously violent and terrifying. But frequently those stories are redeemed by a depth which feels archetypal: when Rapunzel’s prince falls from her tower and blinds himself in the rose bushes below, his blindness appears to have a meaning — it’s not just gratuitous bloodshed.
This is not always true, of course. Grimms’ Children’s and Household Tales contained the story “How Some Children Played at Slaughtering,” which features a child slitting the throat of his younger brother and being murdered in turn by his mother (and things actually get worse from there). But even the Grimm brothers found this tale unsuitable for the uses their book was being put to, and cut it from the second edition of the book. Tolstoy’s tales are unusual in that they lack the depth of relationships — and even hatred — that the old folk tales have. There are no stories of wicked stepparents or lurking dangers in the woods. Instead, there is a kind of dead-end romanticism: bad thing happens; a person is sad; end of story. There isn’t even that much to talk to your children about: trees are nice, don’t cut them down so much? People are not all that happy?
I’m all for showing your kids reality, and bringing them to the hospital or the wake or the funeral. But Tolstoy’s tales read more like an undigested rage at the world, unfortunately misdirected at children.
The publicists of the most recent edition issued by Simon & Schuster, who seemingly did not read it, write of this book, “children will be able to take away important lessons, as well as laugh at silly mishaps and characters, from this timeless collection.” They even trot out the surefire line, “sure to captivate and delight children of all ages.” School Library Journal says the stories are “warm, earthy, and filled with the wisdom of everyday life.” Forty-one apparent sadomasochists at Goodreads have given this book an average 4.2 rating. Do not believe them. Do not give this book to children. Anything is better than this. Jude the Obscure. Maybe some Elie Wiesel. Spengler. And for God’s sake, children’s librarians, spare our youngest, most vulnerable readers from the timeless Russian master.