Why I Love Tale of Tales
I recently featured Yuri Norstein’s animation Tale of Tales for Soviet Film Wednesday, and this week I would like to take some time to delve into my thoughts on this epic film, which has been voted the “Greatest Animation Film of All Time” by an international jury. It is a gratifying and beautiful film on its own, with each frame is a soft sketch in vibrant yet also muted colors, however, I find that as a whole, it is also full of symbolism.
In my last post on the film, I touched on how Tale of Tales is a theme on memories, and the way that one memory can lead to another, in what appears to be a loosely strung series of scenes. This is a common attribution to the film, however after re-watching the film several times, I have found connections that shape it differently each time I watch it. Here I will take a look at the connections that strike me: the mythological and religious parallels, historical references, and personal connections between the film and Norstein himself. In an attempt to organize my thoughts on the film, I will trace it with the zodiac of constellations. In a way, this is a personal writing exercise for me, in the spirit of Norstein loosely connecting one memory to another. I will start where Norstein starts, at the beginning, with the pear-green apple.
Let me also preface this post with the statement that I am using the zodiac constellations as part of my interpretation because I find that they can be an interesting representation of the circle of life, and bring added depth and meaning into the story on a symbolic scale. And they give me benchmarks for the film progression. Likewise, I use mythological, artistic, and religious comparisons here for much of the same reasons; because they are deeply embedded in the human psyche and exploring them adds a richness of meaning for me. This meditation is comprised of my loose connections and understanding, and not based on anything that I have ever heard expressed by the film creators.
The Pear-Green Apple
In the opening scene, we are presented with a beautiful green-golden apple lying in a dark forest, and soft rain is falling on the apple. Nevermind for a moment everything you know about the symbolism of apples, and only observe the striking beauty of this scene, the colors and the rain falling softly over the round apple. Norstein once said that the film is “about simple concepts that give you the strength to live,” so if you have not seen the animation, please skip to the end of this post and take the time to watch it first, without any other preconceived notions, and then decide if you want all of my impressions floating around your head.
I would like to compare each stage of the film to a constellation in the zodiac, and for me, the introduction represents not the baby of the zodiac, but Aquarius, the water bearer or the cup bearer. Here we have a presentation of one symbol, an apple in the rain in a dark wood.
Why did Norstein open with this? Clearly this is an important image in the film, and one that we see repeated on multiple occasions. We can only speculate, and most artists prefer to leave interpretations to the audience anyway, but apples often represent knowledge, as well as a downfall (think Garden of Eden and the fall of man), a prized possession (as in the “apple of my eye,” and the golden apples that Heracles was sent to gather from the Tree of Life in the Garden of the Hesperides), and they represent hope (as depicted in artistic representations of Christ holding an apple, thought to represent the “Second Adam” bringing life).
One very interesting and rare simile of the apple is to romance in the love poem in Song of Solomon 2:3, also called Song of Songs (which I cannot help but think that the title Tale of Tales was a nod to):
"As the apple tree among the trees of the wood,
so is my beloved among the sons.
I sat down under his shadow with great delight,
and his fruit was sweet to my taste."
Naturally, the water-bearer introduces the water sign, the Pisces, or fish. Water represents life, birth, and purity, as well as the unconscious and sometimes danger. Here, we are taken from the apple scene to an image of a mother nursing a baby, another symbol of new life. While the baby is nursing, a cautionary song is heard:
Hush little baby, don't you cry
Or the little grey wolf will hear
The wolf is always near,
Sleep tight baby, and be good.
Or he'll take you to
the dark and scary woods.
Here, the first moments between mother and child are shadowed by a fearful lullaby. We soon find out that the wolf that the mother warns of is sitting right under her kitchen table, and furthermore, from an observer’s point of view, he doesn’t appear to be very scary. On a side note, isn’t this true of new beginnings in general? They are full of hope, but there is also darkness and fear of the unknown involved in change. As the song ends, we see the apple again, and then the opening title, Tale of Tales, orСказка сказок (Skazka skazok), as if this opener was only a foreshadowing of the film ahead.
Norstein’s first choice for a title of the film was named after the wolf in the lullaby, The Little Grey Wolf Will Come, however Soviet censors did not approve of it, so the film was titled Tale of Tales. However, the grey wolf is a key character in the film, and the closest thing there is to a main character. He has soft, gentle features, and oddly, the wolf’s eyes were modeled after a half-drowned kitten, according to Yuri Norstein and Tale of Tales: An Animator’s Journey. The book also mentions that Norstein grew up in and around some of the homes depicted in this animation, so we know he added very personal touches to the film.
Interestingly, we hear a warning to keep away from the wolf in the lullaby at the beginning, however the wolf is the star of the story, and we find that he is not a threat. This is in keeping with Slavic mythology and religion, where the wolf is an important totem, or a sacred being. And in Serbian epic poetry, the wolf is a symbol of fearlessness.
After the opening title, we see a tree with autumn leaves falling, and then the focus shifts to the door of a house opening, full of very bright light for the first time in the film, as if this were the beginning of something new in the film. Before this scene, every frame was in soft, shadowy sketches. In following my parallel, this is the part where the creators of the film “let there be light.” The door opens to a scene outdoors by what looks like a large body of water, with a child jumping rope with a bull. It is a bizarre opening, and the real point of the film where one realizes that symbolism may play a bigger part than originally thought. The bull in this scene was my first connection to the heavens, or constellations, in this film.
If an opening door to a genesis of light in the story parallels the first sign of the zodiac (Aries, the ram), then the bull, or Taurus, represents the second. In astrology, the Taurus represents home life, playfulness, and earthiness. Also, Taurus resides in the planet Venus, the planet of love. The whimsical, fantastical childhood scene shown here is the perfect representation of this.
As I mentioned in my previous post, this scene has a leisurely pace, all set to Bach’s slow-moving and elegant “Prelude and Fugue No. 8 in E-flat minor,” as if to say, take time to enjoy life, just like childhood itself, which is timeless at best. While the young girl is having fun, a man at a nearby table is trying to write near a cat napping; he is frustrated and suffering from writer’s block, and then takes a cue from the child to drop his work and have some playtime as well, so he puts on a toga and picks up the lyre to play.
Still panning, we go past a tree; a mother on the other side of the tree washes clothes and rocks her baby’s cradle, and then we go back to the right side of the tree, where the cat picks up the man’s papers and starts a discussion. The girl eventually leaves the Taurus, who appears to be tiring of holding the jump rope, to help mom with the baby, and another man walks up with a fish that he has caught.
In the next segment, it is night again and we items on a set table blowing in the wind, and it looks as if it were the setting of a party or wedding at some time, but there are no people around. The table settings are blown away and a train passes loudly, and then we see a decrepit house being boarded shut. In the yard, day breaks and we see that the yard is filled with cars. This is clearly nothing like the childhood scene in the previous segment, but if it follows the zodiac, then we are in the stage of Gemini, the twins (known for its two bright stars, Castor and Pollux), ruled under Mercury, the planet of communication, and thought to characterize strong emotional intelligence in astrology.
The wolf re-appears in this scene, walking among the cars, and he is looking at his reflection in one of the hubcaps when a fire starts in some old boxes and furniture in the yard. The fire quickly dies, the cars drive away, the wolf starts humming the tune of the lullaby while walking around the yard’s autumn leaves. In the next frame, the wolf is standing outside of a house on a snowy winter day, and peers inside to watch a woman stoke the fire in the fireplace.
As a whole, from the banquet table to the wintry house, it is a dark segment that starts with unsettling imagery and slowly lightens in mood as the scene progresses; if this does represent the planet of communication, this scene might signify an initial pondering of an introduction of confusing signs, as one first learning a new language, or an adolescent experiencing feelings of romance for the first time. A significant moment in this scene is where the wolf sees his reflection, since mirrors represent a time of pondering, literally reflecting, like a ‘twin’ seeing his or her double.
Speaking of romance, in this complex scene, we are introduced to romance for the first time in the film, although it is quickly disrupted by war. This seems like a fitting part for our sign of crab, living in the underwater world, both intriguing and foreign to human understanding in a number of ways.
Let us walk through the scene from the start. While the wolf is peering into the house, a voice hums that eerie lullaby that we heard at the beginning, and then segueways into the “Weary Sun” tango, which is a WWII era song about the meeting of lovers before a break up, and it is perfectly fitting for the next segment. From the start of the tango, we are transported to an evening of music and dancing. People dance harmoniously under a street lamp until there’s a slight glitch in the dance when the record scratches. They quickly pick up the dance, but now, we can see that when the record scratches again and again, one partner of each couple disappears. Then the taken dancers then ascend into the night sky while the snow gently falls under the streetlamp in this apocryphal scene. The wind blows across the banquet table and a train passes by as the remaining ones stand in the street, following this still moment, we hear jarring taps, as the music takes a dramatic turn. War notifications are displayed: “your husband… courage… wounded.”
There is definitely a rapture theme going on here, but at this point we realize that the taken ones have probably been sent off to war. If the tango is an indication of the time period, then we can assume that they are fighting in WWII. So let’s step back and have a look at the history of the time and place. In August of 1939, the Soviet Union agreed to the non-aggression Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact with Germany, which fell through in June of 1941 (the same year that Norstein was born) when Germany invaded the Soviet Union. This played a part in leading to the Eastern Front conflicts, which was the bloodiest battle scene in history.
Back to the film, after all of this turmoil takes place, a solitary leaf falls on a body of water, and we see a fish below the surface. This could be a another sign that we have transitioned into Cancer, the crab, both a water and moon sign.
On a related side note, in mythology, the crab is known for its role in the tale of the Twelve Labours of Heracles, which is also a tale of battle. In the story, the crab was a threat to Hercules, sent to distract him while he was fighting the serpentine, Hydra. When the crab tried to kill Hercules, he kicked the crab into the skies.
We see the wolf peering into the house where the woman is stoking the fire, again. The animation pans up into a snowy tree, which is an introduction to a winter segment. A couple sits on a park bench while a boy eats an apple. The man is drinking from a bottle and the woman looks beleaguered. If this is post-war, then it is not hard to discern that the couple (and on a higher level, the entire country) is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
This is also a new representation of the apple, here it is not in darkness and shadowed by the eerie lullaby, but is simply being enjoyed by a young boy in the park. Oddly, the boy looks up into a tree and sees himself between two blackbirds, sharing the apple with the bird to the boy’s right! This is highly unusual for a story! This rings of the “Second Adam” depiction of Christ holding an apple, as I mentioned at the beginning, where the apple is now a bright and positive sign. This parallels with a transit into Leo, the lion and shining star of the zodiac, a representation of the sun.
Similarly, it is possible that the director of the film, Yuri Norstein, is offering some sort of portrayal of his young self, a boy growing up in the war-torn Soviet Union. If so, the author surrogate scene could be considered a deus ex machina moment, where an unlikely or fantastical source steps into a story and offers a resolution for dealing with a dark past. The term was coined in ancient Greece, when heroes would descend from mechanisms onto the stage to provide a resolution. Here it is possible that the character takes a different view of himself, to gain a better understanding of his life.
Incidentally, after the boy sees himself in the tree, his parents in the story start to argue. The woman is talking and the man gets increasingly angry, and then the man throws his bottle, stands up to walk away, and his bowler suddenly turns into an absurd Napoleon hat. The woman grabs the son, and in doing so, he drops his apple and cries for it as his mom pulls him away. The boy suddenly pulls himself together, stops crying, and then a larger hat, though not a bicorne like his father’s, appears on his head too.
The apple lies in the snow, only partially eaten.
A lonely wanderer passes by the empty park bench, and then we return to the wolf, the actual star of this film, who is now inside the home, sitting by the fire. A train whistle blows, we see the image of the furniture pile burning again, and hear the car engines revving and fading. Then we see inside the door of the home with the wolf inside, and on the outside of the door, there are lovely spring flowers blooming. We see the wolf in an idyllic home setting, gathering potatoes in a bowl, which he then prepares outside by a campfire; it is a peaceful scene until it is interrupted by sudden explosions in the sky, which look and sound like a combination of fireworks and bombs.
Back under the streetlight, a few of the dancing couples are once again reunited with their partners, one by one, then we see new messages: “courage… wounded… died from his… your son… your brother.”
The scene shifts to an endearing scene of the wolf again, who is now eating his hot potato in the night. A door opens with a bright light inside, and the wolf walks towards it.
As it was towards the beginning of the film, the bright light leads to the idyllic scene of the young girl jumping rope with the bull and the adults are now enjoying a cheery picnic, all set to the Bach prelude, again. Have we entered into the sign of Virgo here, the symbol of the maiden, which represents seeking purpose and new beginnings? Have the adults conceded to remember how to enjoy life? It is definitely a more relaxed and enjoyable day outdoors this time around: everyone appears to be having a pleasant time, a passerby taking a stroll is invited to the picnic, and the bull gets a turn to jump rope. Afterwards, the passerby continues on his way down a long path.
From here, we go back to the house to the scene at the very beginning with the wolf in the house where the mother is nursing her baby. Now we know that the wolf is inside surveying the contents on the table, and then he sees the mother nursing her baby.
Back at the picnic, the sun is setting and it is time to go home. Everyone packs up, the bull starts to fall asleep on a stool outside, and a man gathers his things and rows away on the water.
The scene shifts again to the wolf, who finds an unusually bright, shining piece of paper on the table or desk, likely the poetry that the man was working on outside. Also, we now see that the writer is also sitting at the table. The wolf reaches for the paper and the man barely tries to hold the paper down as the wolf slowly pulls it from under the man’s hand and runs off with it, through frenetic night traffic until he reaches the woods. Once in the woods, though, he is surprised to find that now the baby is in the rolled-up paper!
This segment may be indicative of the Libra, a sign of balance and harmony, represented by a pair of scales, indicating justice and the weighing of decisions. The constellation is ruled by Venus, the planet of love and feminine energy. The wolf has discovered an enigmatic document, however when he finds that the baby is rolled up in the document, he is forced to make a decision on whether or not to care for the baby.
The baby starts crying, and the wolf sticks the rolled up baby under a bush, but cannot manage to leave the crying baby. So he carries the baby through the woods until he finds a cradle, where he rocks the baby, humming the familiar lullaby, over and over again until the baby is appeased. The expressions on the wolf’s face are quite humorous, especially for anyone who has ever watched a colicky baby. The baby quiets and the wolf hums more and more softly, and the scene shifts back to the dark apple in the rainy woods. The picture of the apple from the beginning could represent a reminder of the fearfulness of the mother at the beginning. But now the wolf is the caretaker of the baby, and as in that first scene, we are reminded again of the apple in the darkness.
Following our constellation analogy, this is the time of the mysterious Scorpio, and the scene itself is the unfolding of a mystery: the discovery of the baby inside of the paper. What was so intriguing about the paper, and how did the baby get wrapped in it? We do not know. But however shadowy the scene may be, it is a touching scene between the wolf and the baby, and the soft sketch of the beautiful pear-green apple with raindrops softly falling on it is remarkable.
In the next scene, we are in the wintry park again, and green apples are falling from the trees in the snow. This time, when we see the boy standing next to the apples, in comparison we realize that the apples are much larger than before, and if apples are a symbol of knowledge, this could indicate a time of revelation, or even an information age. They are so large that the boy can lean on one as he bites into a normal sized apple, as he gazes upon his other self in a tree again.
Another unusual thing about the scene is that now the wolf also appears in it, and he too is watching the boy in the tree, who is, again, sharing the apples with the birds. Also, the parents do not appear this time. If the first depiction of this scene could be paralleled with the coming of Christ, then this scene may represent a second coming.
Following the constellations, this would be the time of Sagittarius, the centaur whose arrow is aimed at the Scorpio. At this point in the film we are reminded of the war again, with a shift to the ascent scene. The music is still playing, like a slow meditation, then we see the apples falling in the snow, again, and then the ascent, again, all repeated as if we are meant to slow down and look back into the enigmatic past, with our mental arrows fixed to ponder the these images.
Finally we come to the end of the film, correlating to Capricorn, a sign which marks the winter solstice, the shortest day and longest night of the year, and a time to rest and retreat to the warmth indoors. At the end of our journey, we revisit the park by the water again, where everyone, including the bull, are looking very weary. It is time to rest. Snow falls on a cozy house in the next, which has a warm light emanating from the inside. In the next frame we see another house in the rain at night, and then a train passes under a bridge in the final scene, lit by a streetlight. Our journey has come full circle.
Here is the animation, Tales of Tales: