Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0015542, Thu, 4 Oct 2007 10:26:27 -0400

THOUGHTS: Russian King's Daughter
Dear list,
At the risk of becoming tedious, I would like to present one more Cinderella variant which may have some bearing on John & Hazel Shade. Both Otto Rank (The Incest Theme in Literature & Legend) and Marian R. Cox (Cinderella) mention a tale called "The Russian King's Daughter." Here is Cox's summary:

"I have reserved one other version of the ancient romance, this time attaching to the daughter of the King of Russia. Again, as in the folk-tales, this is a case of O matre pulchra filia pulchrior. Her story is said to have been composed by Giovanni Enenkel in the thirteenth century. I have taken it from the Gesammtabenteuer of Friedrich Heinrich von der Hagen (Stuttgart and Tübingen, 1850, ii, 590). It is called " Deu tochter des Küniges von Reuzen''. This king has a beautiful wife, and a still more lovely daughter. When his wife dies he will marry no one who is not as lovely as
his daughter. Messengers scour the land in fruitless quest for a fitting bride, and the king's lords persuade him to purchase the Pope's permission to marry his own daughter. When she understands that the wedding preparations are for her father and herself, she tears off the wedding-gown, cuts off her hair, and scratches her face till it bleeds. Her father is enraged, and has her shut up in a barrel and thrown into the sea. The barrel gets carried to Greece, where the king espies it and has it landed. He marries the heroine. Then follow the incidents of the king's absence at the war, and the calumniated wife and intercepted letters. The heroine is put back into the barrel with her child, and the waves carry her into the Tiber, as far as Rome, where she is rescued by a nobleman. Eventually her husband finds her when he comes to Rome to do penance ; and the Russian king, her father, also coming to expiate his crime, is, in like manner, reunited to the heroine."

Rank (whose book should be required reading for anyone interested in the literary and folkloric history of the incest theme) mentions how all of these stories incorporate some form of doubling--one king exchanged for another, a daughter promoted to the role of queen. In the story above, we may notice a few things:

1. In the tale we have O matre pulchra filia pulchrior, while in PF we get O matre pulchra filia deformior.
2. VN uses the word "fey" in the sense of "otherworldly, elfin"--meaning #4 in Webster's 2nd. Lolita is a "fey child" (AnL 125) and so is Hazel--see Meyer, "Dolores Haze/Hazel Shade". The German title of the tale shows us that the father here is des Kuniges, a king--as are all the fathers in these tales. If applied to Shade, this makes him a king with an elfin child--an (inverted) Erlkonig. But perhaps, as a famous chess composer once said, I am confusing my dreams with reality.
3. The princess scratches her face till it bleeds. Hazel sits on her tumbled bed (sexual connotations?) with swollen feet (Oedipus) scratching her head with psoriatic fingernails.
4. The princess is twice sent across the water in order to remove the problem from the house. This is a common trope in these incest tales, as Rank shows. Often the father is in some way reunited with the daughter after this banishment/flight, sometimes via the doubled form of another king (as in the Catskin tale), or by accident where the daughter is not recognized as such (a version of the Oedipus tale) and the incest is repeated or barely averted (see John Webster's The Thracian Wonder), or through a gesture of reconciliation and repentance (as here). In PF we may see a similar movement. Hazel also takes two journeys over/into the water. Directly after Shade invokes the Cinderella theme (lines 329-35) we learn that "We sent her, though, to a chateau in France" (336). Then of course the second watery crossing occurs in icy Lake Lochan. But this is also the beginning of Hazel's transformation. In time, she will become what her father wanted her to be: the dark vanessa, a copy of her mother. At the hour of her father's greatest need, as Sybil is fading to half a shadow, Hazel returns in full color, finally replacing the woman she could not be in her former life.
5. A separate point. I am genuinely interested in hearing what others think of Shade's alleged relationship with his student, the girl in the black leotard. Kinbote clearly thinks that the dead wife in "ballerina black" (l. 586) is one and the same, and if we trust his account of the dinner gathering, it seems that Sybil was aware of issue. Given that the girl would have been Hazel's age, she could be said to be a kind of replacement for Hazel, just as in many of the folktales the daughter becomes a replacement for the dead wife. We should also wonder who the other wife is in that Elysian scene. She does bear some resemblance to Hazel, as she is seen at the edge "of a remembered pond"--a pond from her former life where something grievous happened--and she died on "a wild / March night." Hazel died on a night in early spring or late winter, a "night of thaw, a night of blow, / With great excitement in the air." We must wonder, however, why Hazel, if it be her, holds a "changeless child" in her arms. And the car crash doesn't seem to fit, though of course Shade wouldn't want to make things too obvious, would he?

Okay, that's more than I meant to say.

Matt Roth

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