“Daddy,” my stunned four-year-old son asked, “why did the lion die?”
May 3, 2020 2:50 PM   Subscribe

Leo Tolstoy’s Children’s Stories Will Devastate Your Children and Make You Want to Die "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."
posted by betweenthebars (36 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
"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."

Is... is that a Leo Tolstoy "OK Boomer"?
posted by Paragon at 3:00 PM on May 3, 2020 [11 favorites]

His very short story/letter "The Porcelain Doll," written to his wife's 16-17 year old sister, was pretty messed up too.
posted by Wobbuffet at 3:00 PM on May 3, 2020

This nearly sounds like something Shel Silverstein would create as a bit of a joke, only much more darkly and morbidly than Silverstein could ever imagine.

It's a very classic "don't judge a book by its cover" tale.
posted by hippybear at 3:03 PM on May 3, 2020 [2 favorites]

(Also not for children, Uncle Shelby's ABZ Book. [archive.org link])
posted by hippybear at 3:05 PM on May 3, 2020 [6 favorites]

posted by lalochezia at 3:10 PM on May 3, 2020 [16 favorites]

Seems about right. Many of Grimm's fairy tales were pretty Grim
posted by adamvasco at 3:12 PM on May 3, 2020

Be sure to read them "How Much Land Does a Man Require?" next..
posted by Nerd of the North at 3:57 PM on May 3, 2020 [3 favorites]

Before OCR software was reliable I had to key in a number of Hans Christian Andersen stories. In general, the plot of such a story would go thus: An inanimate object develops aspirations, or some measure of self-esteem. It dies horribly. The end.

I began to fear for my psychological well-being.
posted by Grangousier at 4:25 PM on May 3, 2020 [10 favorites]

Well, if you're inanimate, aspirations are not good for you generally.
posted by hippybear at 4:29 PM on May 3, 2020 [4 favorites]

Good to see literary men finally cracking down on children.
posted by thelonius at 4:58 PM on May 3, 2020 [3 favorites]

This is pretty standard-issue 19th-c. writing for children, even the bleaker stuff; in fact, the story about the bird dashing itself against the window reminded me of Mrs. Sherwood's The Fawns. Nineteenth-century children's literature expects kids to face death head-on (usually in an explicitly Christian context, of course).

Speaking of Mrs. Sherwood, there's a chapter from History of the Fairchild Family that is always fun to lecture on: the pater familias teaches his children a lesson about brotherly love by making them listen to a terrible tale of murder while sitting next to a gibbet, from which hangs a gruesomely rotting corpse. Good times! (The students always tend to look a little dazed, though.)
posted by thomas j wise at 6:18 PM on May 3, 2020 [4 favorites]

See also: The Velveteen Rabbit

I remember my mom reading me a story (the first time she had ever read this particular story) about a little tree growing up happily in the forest, and every year a happy family comes and picks out a Christmas tree but this little tree is always a little too short or a little too bendy, so he tries and tries to be stronger, taller, and better until finally he's selected and then OH MY GOD THE SAW HURTS SO MUCH AS IT CUTS MY TRUNK AND OH THE ORNAMENTS ARE SO HEAVY AND NOOOOO THE CANDLE HAS BURNED MY LIMB AND FINALLY I'M TOSSED OUT ON THE BURN PILE AND NOOOO THE LITTLE BOY JUST JUMPED ON ME AND SNAPPED MY BOUGH AND AAAAAAAHHHHHH THE FIRE IT BURRRRRRNS. the end

My mom fished the story and was like "I'll start looking for a therapist tomorrow."
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 6:46 PM on May 3, 2020 [10 favorites]

Curious about why it was so important to impart the value of life and the looming reality of death to children in the 1800's I took a quick and dirty peek at what Google had to offer.

"the global average child mortality rate (weighted population) was 43.3% in 1800"
posted by Wetterschneider at 7:49 PM on May 3, 2020 [12 favorites]

I've read a few Tolstoy stories for adults, too. "Then he stretched out and died" is the blues ending of Tolstoy stories.
posted by aws17576 at 8:01 PM on May 3, 2020 [3 favorites]

"Presumably the King dies."

Hmmm, so not all bad then...
posted by pompomtom at 8:04 PM on May 3, 2020 [2 favorites]

Jesus, I still at age 49 can’t handle The Giving Tree.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 8:14 PM on May 3, 2020 [2 favorites]

As an autistic and deeply depressed child I ATE THESE UP.
posted by a humble nudibranch at 8:57 PM on May 3, 2020 [4 favorites]

I basically skipped fairy tales with my kid
Stories, sure! But gruesome deaths, the unquestioned power of nobility, and child abuse? Nah. We live in a golden age of children's literature; we don't need this junk.
posted by emjaybee at 9:20 PM on May 3, 2020

Incidentally, I think Basile, Perrault, the Brothers Grimm, Andersen, and here Tolstoy get a little too much credit in this genre, which has always been to a notable extent written by women like L'Héritier, D'Aulnoy, De Villeneuve, Leprince de Beaumont, De Ségur, Böhl de Faber, or Villamaria (among dozens of women writing in German that I don't know as well). Their work's not not brutal and strange though--just pretty rich public domain material to view as a kind of weird fiction.
posted by Wobbuffet at 10:21 PM on May 3, 2020 [8 favorites]

christ almighty parents need to stop mollycoddling kids and let them toughen u-OH GOD I JUST REMEMBERED ARTAX WHERE IS THE GIN BOTTLE
posted by um at 10:29 PM on May 3, 2020 [2 favorites]

I think Tolstoy's adult short stories are generally pretty good, and well worth picking up if you're considering reading for instance War and Peace but want to get a taste of Tolstoy before committing. (That being said, W&P is shorter than most fantasy epics and probably has fewer characters than many of them.)
posted by Harald74 at 5:18 AM on May 4, 2020 [3 favorites]

spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints , that's a Hans-Christian Andersen story. So yeah, "inanimate object develops aspirations and dies horribly" is pretty on point!
posted by Skybly at 5:19 AM on May 4, 2020 [4 favorites]

If you are thinking about buying a copy for the neighbor kids, it going for only $499.89 new on Amazon. A used copy is $982.90, not sure of the reason for the discrepancy
posted by rtimmel at 9:03 AM on May 4, 2020

The used copy is presumably stained by children’s tears, which makes it better. Buy now!
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 9:20 AM on May 4, 2020 [4 favorites]

This seems to conform to the stereotype of "The Russian Psyche"
posted by Pembquist at 10:21 AM on May 4, 2020

I may be a sociopath. (A very ethical one, except perhaps when making online forum comments.) But, I think I would have absolutely loved this as a child. My favorite book when I was 7 was about cats taking revenge by brutally killing the owners who tried to drown them in a river. ". . . bad thing happens; a person is sad; end of story" isn't an unreasonable summary of what I actually want in media. I'm convinced to buy it. I'm not sure whether or not buying it for my friend's children would be a good idea.

But, to be clear, the article was fun and I'm happy to have read it. Thanks!

Are any of these stories fundamentally any more brutal than the Giving Tree?
posted by eotvos at 11:33 AM on May 4, 2020 [1 favorite]

A little too early for it to be about stalin
posted by sandking at 11:38 AM on May 4, 2020

Incidentally, I think Basile, Perrault, the Brothers Grimm, Andersen, and here Tolstoy get a little too much credit in this genre, which has always been to a notable extent written by women like L'Héritier, D'Aulnoy, De Villeneuve, Leprince de Beaumont, De Ségur, Böhl de Faber, or Villamaria (among dozensof women writing in German that I don't know as well). Their work's not not brutal and strange though--just pretty rich public domain material to view as a kind of weird fiction.

Whoa, would love to see a proper post about this!
posted by Omnomnom at 12:41 PM on May 4, 2020 [1 favorite]

Classic American reaction. "Senseless suffering followed by death" is a very accurate summary of how life works for most people most of the time. Presumably the author of this review will prepare his children for life in white supremacist, Trump-electing, pandemic-stricken America with... Disney movies, I guess? The answer to "why did the lion die" is FOR NO REASON. Bad things happen FOR NO REASON and there is NO JUSTICE. This is what Russians know. You then have to find meaning in the morass that gets you through. Like, you know, a beautiful friendship between a lion and a dog - as inexplicable as their deaths, as inexplicable as grace. Americans. JFC.
posted by prefpara at 2:56 PM on May 4, 2020 [5 favorites]

I mean, sorry, I'm so incensed. This lazy motherfucker really did not bother to ponder. You have this lion, whose life is absolute shit. He is caged, gawked at by randos, and fed random street animals that are tossed into his cell by his jailer. He has nothing and no one and is at the mercy of bad people who do not see him as having any dignity or value beyond the profits he can help them to realize. (Not resonating with this American citizen of late-stage capitalism, huh?). By chance (not as a reward for being a nice lion, which he is fucking not) he encounters a dog who becomes his true friend. They have a deep connection. They love one another. They still die, because everyone dies for fuck's sake. Find me a Russian story that ends with "they lived happily ever after."

Americans. Forget children. This is a nation of adults who cannot deal with this, not story, but reality. Are people dying of COVID-19 right now because they deserve to? Last I heard, Trump didn't get it, so... And how is life these days for an essential worker? But you know what we cling to? Human connection. Learn it early. Learn it often. Learn it from the long experience of the much enfucked Russian people.
posted by prefpara at 3:20 PM on May 4, 2020 [4 favorites]

These are hilarious and good and would fit right in with the stuff I was raised on that included an unbowdlerized Mother Goose, lots of Arthur Rackham-illustrated goblin-centered stories, and such delightfully freakish efforts of clearly childweary authors as The Goops and Struwwelpeter. My parents packed the kiddie bookshelves with whatever they happened to run up on and were mostly busy with adult things while we grew and learned to read. They frequently went off somewhere leaving us alone in the house with Naked Lunch and Metamorphosis and Soul on Ice in easy reach on the grownup bookshelves. They also let us roam the neighborhood with our friends all day unaccompanied and we went to the library by ourselves, too. That was in the 1970s, and Tolstoy was writing these long before even that long, long ago time. He wrote them back in the day, before children all lived like the princess who feels the pea.
posted by Don Pepino at 6:56 PM on May 4, 2020 [1 favorite]

I grew up poor. My old man was a violent alcoholic. Life sucked. Thanks for the reminder. I have lived it. I don't need to consume it as my entertainment. All of you nice sheltered middle class folks may need it, but thank you no.
posted by evilDoug at 8:36 PM on May 4, 2020 [2 favorites]

Whoa, would love to see a proper post about this!

Sure, enjoy: "Deep in rococo imagery of fairies, princesses, diamonds and pearls."
posted by Wobbuffet at 8:53 PM on May 4, 2020 [1 favorite]

I read these stories as a small child. I liked them and found meaning in them. I still do.
I kinda agree with prefpara in that the author's reaction to these stories seems very first world, and very... american (or rather, maybe, non-immigrant american).
posted by aielen at 12:36 AM on May 5, 2020 [2 favorites]

That was a surprisingly disappointing little essay/review to come out of the LARB, for being such a narrow accounting of the book. The writer is casually dismissive of Tolstoy, basically accusing him of egotism as a starting point to the attack on the works, which mostly comes from assuming the reader will share the disdain for stories that don't fit some undefined need for happy or more conventional resolution, again by standards left implicit as if already agreed upon.

What the author doesn't touch on is what the stories are "saying" regardless of their like or dislike of them and, as importantly, what Tolstoy's perspective might have been. What makes that latter issue so interesting is that Tolstoy himself believed the essence of great art is in providing a set of moral values that can "infect" the reader/viewer/listener with the power of their universal truth. Tolstoy wrote about this in What is Art, where he provides a detailed explanation of his beliefs.

I could quote from it at length, as Tolstoy expresses a strong view of art adhering to nature, of it argue against tyranny, and be understandable by all, as the further man removes himself from working in/with nature the more corrupted his understanding of the world. But lets just go with this quote as one of his summary claims:

The destiny of art in our time is to transmit from the
realm of reason to the realm of feeling the truth that well-
being for men consists in being united together, and to set
up, in place of the existing reign of force, that kingdom of
God, i.e. of love, which we all recognise to be the highest
aim of human life

There's been a lot of criticism around Tolstoy's view on art, but taking it at face value, without going into the strengths and weaknesses of his argument, suggests that he did indeed have a moral purpose in mind in his writing and that purpose isn't radically counter to what it seems the author of the essay somehow expects from stories, but doesn't seem interested in looking at here because the form of the story doesn't fit their want.

What is it that Tolstoy is doing that puts them off, is it just the unhappy ending or is it that the stories don't fit certain tropes over how, say, animals have to be anthropomorphized to be "understood", to speak as if human rather than, as Tolstoy has it, the lion and dog remaining more thoroughly a lion and dog, with only the actions of each described and any emotions an inference on the part of the reader? The human actions define the circumstance to which the lion reacts, with the lion having minimal "say" on events.

In his animal stories, at least those I've read, Tolstoy is generally more relying on a simple sense of metaphorical "likeness" than in having readers see the animals as humans, as the humans in the stories are often the disruptive element. (Sometimes, as in the dancing bear story, there may be a stronger symbolic meaning suggested as bears, in Russian art are roughly the equivalent to a bald eagle in US works, only multiplied many times over as bears are everywhere in Russian art.)

In his stories about people the questions asked seem much more direct, again judging from those I've read, as the choices they make are to have more direct correspondence to choices we might make, though in less fantastic forms. What seems to bother the author of the essay is less that there are moral issues being raised then the way they are raised is uncomfortable. That, I think, points directly towards how the US likes to see morality handled, we want it comfortable and easy, something that in itself can run counter to the actual demands of living a moral life. I'm sure the author would just say they want stories that won't disturb their children, but one has to note that the children's response, as described in the essay, is to ask questions about the events and what it means, which is, one has to suspect, the very goal Tolstoy has in mind for providing his moral lessons.

The criticisms of Tolstoy's perspective and moralism in general in art do have some real strength to them, so I'm not suggesting ignoring those more problematic aspects as much as taking it all more seriously than simply dismissing it all for not being as easy and comfortable as one might expect in our commercially dominated world of children's art.
posted by gusottertrout at 5:03 AM on May 5, 2020 [4 favorites]

I'll echo the others above - this is a surprisingly ridiculous hot take on something the author clearly doesn't get and is unwilling to engage with. Really surprising that something as thin as this essay is on LARB. I was unfamiliar with the stories so I tracked them down (they are public domain) and read them. They are not without their issues, as gusottertrout mentions above, but you know I found them interesting, entertaining and funny but YMMV.
posted by Ashwagandha at 11:22 AM on May 5, 2020 [2 favorites]

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