"What is this babbler trying to say?" Acts 17:18

Monday, August 10, 2009

Tolstoy's Rehabilitation

I've had a change of heart about Leo Tolstoy. The change has come with the reading of a little book of Tolstoy's short stories with the innovative title of Twenty-Three Tales. A few years ago I tried reading The Death of Ivan Ilych and Other Stories and made up my mind that I did not like Tolstoy. For some reason, when this old book moved in with the rest of my Grandma's stuff I decided to give it a second chance. It turns out I'm glad I did.

I don't know whether these stories are still in print under the title of Twenty-Three Tales. My edition is part of the Oxford World's Classics series from the 1940s. Most of the stories have a supernatural element, many are fanciful, a great number have the theme of forgiveness, and all have a clear moral. In fact, they can be downright preachy at times."> But—whether I just like didactic stories and parables or Tolstoy handles them well—I never felt like wincing when a story was wrapped up with a tidy little lesson. The story Two Old Men from my last post is characteristic of most of the tales in the volume.

One of my favorites was a fairytale: Ivan the Fool. Like all the stories it too has an overt moral. Ivan has two brothers: a soldier and a merchant. Both of these fall into the traps of their profession. The soldier conquers a kingdom and becomes a dictator; The merchant greedily buys up a kingdom and enslaves the people to his gold. Ivan also gets a kingdom by marrying a princess, but because he is a fool all the “wise” men and merchants and soldiers leave his land till only farmers are left. Finally, the Devil comes and fights the kingdom of the soldier brother, conquering him. He then buys up all the food in the kingdom of the merchant brother, leaving him starving among treasuries of gold. When the Devil comes to ruin Ivan's kingdom, however, he meets a snag. Armies tire of invading because the people freely give them what little food they have till they make friends with the invaders. The people also refuse to sell their goods and food for money because they do not see what is so special about gold. Rather they feel sorry for the rich Devil and offer him charity “in Christ's name” (which of course, he can't take) and work (which he is unwilling to do). Hungry and humiliated, the Devil finally gives up and leaves the kingdom of fools.

Altogether it was an enjoyable book of short stories. Lest you get the wrong impression about Tolstoy, however, (and before you rush out and indiscriminately buy his works) I will call up from the past something I wrote on the novella The Death of Ivan Ilych in my next post. Since I have no desire to reread The Death of Ivan Ilych, I will assume that I still agree with what I wrote about it a few years ago.

1 comment:

Aaron Telian said...

I've enjoyed some of Tolstoy's short stories as well, though I wasn't too impressed with The Kingdom Of God Is Within You. I have yet to read any of his longer novels.