Eleazar Meletinsky

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In this site you will find information about the theoretical and critical work of:
Eleazar Moisevich Meletinsky

Biographical Information

Eleazar Moisevich Meletinsky was born 22 October 1918 in Kharkhov, Ukraine, the son of Moses L. and Raisa I. Meletinsky. After his military service in the Soviet Armed Forces from 1941 to 1943, Meletinsky embarked upon a tremendously successful career in Soviet Academia. Unfortunately for the West, as Anatoly Liberman notes in his introduction to Vladimir Propp’s Theory and History of Folklore, “Soviet literary scholarship, despite all the translations and surveys, is a sealed book to the West.” Meletinsky’s work suffers this fate to an even greater extent than Propp’s, a situation this site hopes to begin to ameliorate. Eleazar Moisevich completed his Bachelor of Science degree in Literature at Tashkent University in 1945, when he had already been teaching as an Assistant Professor for a year. In 1946, Meletinsky left Tashkent for the University of Petrozavodsk and the position of department head, a title he held until 1955. In 1956, Meletinsky moved to the Institute of World Literature of the Academy of Sciences. The next year he married Irina Semenko on 18 August. In 1965, he was given the honor of presenting a paper in honor of the 70th birthday of Vladimir Propp in Moscow. The following year he received his doctorate in Philology from the Institute. In 1971 he received the Pitre prize from a panel of international judges in Palermo. During his career, Meletinsky has published over two hundred articles in professional journals, mostly in the Soviet Union. He has also been a fellow of the International Society of Folk Narrative Research. Following the death of his wife Irina in 1987, he married Helen Cumpan 4 June 1988. After appearing in Who’s Who in the World, 1989, Meletinsky switched his academic affiliation to the Russian State University of the Humanities, on whose staff he now serves. [ACJ]


The following citations comprise only a small portion of the immense output of E.M. Meletinsky’s career:
Geroi volshebnoi skazki : proiskhozhdenie obraza. [The Hero of the Tale of Magic: Origins of the Image]. Moskva : Izd-vo vostochnoi lit-ry, 1958. Proiskhozhdenie geroicheskogo eposa: rannie formy i arkhaicheskie pamiatniki [Origin of the Heroic Epic: Early Forms and Archaic Examples]. Moskva: Vostochnaia literature, 1963. O strukturno-morfologicheskom analyze skazki. [On the structural-morphological analysis of the folktale]. In Tezisy dokladov vo vtoroy letniy shkole po vtorichnim modeliruyushchim sistemam [Theses presented at the Second Summer Course on Secondary Modeling Systems]. Tartu, 1966. "Edda" i rannie formy eposa [Edda and Early Epic Forms]. Moskva: Nauka, 1968. Zur structurell-typologischen Erforschung des Volksmärchens. [Structural-Typological Study of Folktales]. Jahrbuch für Volkskunde, 15 (1), 1-30 (1969). Reprinted in Soviet Structural Folkloristics: Texts by Meletinsky, Nekludov, Novik, and Segal with Tests of the Approach by Jilek and Jilek-Aall, Reid and Layton. Ed. P. Maranda. The Hague: Mouton, 1974. Die Ehe im Zaubermärchen. [Marriage in the Wondertale]. Acta Ethnographica Academiae Scientiarum Hungarica, 19, 281-292 (1970). Reprinted in Soviet Structural Folkloristics: Texts by Meletinsky, Nekludov, Novik, and Segal with Tests of the Approach by Jilek and Jilek-Aall, Reid and Layton. Ed. P. Maranda. The Hague: Mouton, 1974. Problème de la morphologie historique du conte populaire. [ Tipologicheskie issledovaniia po fol'kloru : sbornik statei pamiati V. IA. Proppa, 1895-1970. [Typological Research of Folklore: In Memory of V.I. Propp]. (Co editor with S. IU. Nekliudov.) Moskva: Nauka, 1975. Pamiatniki knizhnogo eposa : stil' i tipologicheskie osobennosti [Artifacts of Literary Epic: Style and Mythological Pecularities]. (Editor in Chief). Moskva : "Nauka", 1978. Paleoaziatskii mifologicheskii epos: TSikl Vorona. [Paleoasiatic Mythological Epic: The Vorona Cycle.] Moskva: Nauka, 1979. Srednevekovyi roman: proiskhozhdenie i klassicheskie formy. [The Novel of the Middle Ages: Origins and Classical Forms]. Moskva: Izd-vo "Nauka," Glav. red. vostochnoi lit-ry, 1983. Vvedenie v istoricheskyiy poetiky eposa i romana. [Introduction to the Historical Poetics of Epic, Romance, and Novel]. Moskva: Nauka, 1986. Istoricheskaia poetika novelly [Historical Poetics of the Novella]. Moskva: "Nauka", Glavnaia redaktsiia vostochnoi lit-ry, 1990. Mifologicheskii slovar'. [Mythological Dictionary]. (Chief Editor). Moskva: Izd-vo "Sovetskaia entsiklopediia", 1990. Ot mifa k literature: sbornik v chesti semidesiatipiatiletiia Eleazara Moiseevicha Meletinskogo. [From Myth to Literature: A Collection in Honor of the 75th Birthday of Eleazar Moisevich Meletinskii]. Compiled by S.IU. Nekliudov and E.S. Novik. Moskva : Izd-vo "Rossiiskii universitet", 1993. O literaturnykh arkhetipakh [On Literary Archetypes]. Moskva: RGGU, 1994. Poetika mifa [The Poetics of Myths]. Moskva: "Vostochnaia literatura" RAN : Shkola "IAzyki Russkoi kul'tury", 1995. Dostoevskii v svete istoricheskoi poetiki: kak sdelany "Brat'ia Karamazovy" [Dostoevsky in terms of Historical Poetics: How The Brothers Karamazov was written]. Moskva: RGGU, 1996. Mifologiia : illiustrirovannyi entsiklopedicheskii slovar'. [Mythology: Illustrated Encyclopedic Dictionary]. (Chief editor). Sankt-Peterburg : Fond Leningradskaia gazeta", AO "Norint", 1996. [ACJ]

Theory and critical ideas: E.M. Meletinsky’s interests have lain in two major areas: Proppian folkloristics and historical poetics. Summaries of each of these areas follow. In Russian circles, Meletinsky has long been associated with the work of Vladimir Propp. Indeed, Meletinsky “did a great deal to popularize Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale.” But for reasons of language and politics, the work of Propp (critiqued by Claude Lévi-Strauss) has found a home in the West, while that of his associate Meletinsky has not. Such is the West’s loss. Amongst Meletinsky’s contributions to folklore are valuable arguments against some of Propp’s excesses: his claim that heroic poetry was concerned with the creation of the monogamous family, hie godmatic treatment of Vladimir as the enemy of the Russian heroes and the Russian, and his improbable sociological explantions of folkloric features (See introduction to Theory and History of Folklore tr. Ariadna Y. Martin and Richard P. Martin. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.). One of his major theoretical accomplishments--according to P. Maranda--is his creation of a “universal principle of tale balance.” This concept attempts to account for--in a formulaic manner--the relationships of the hero and villain [the stronger the villain to be overcome, the greater the glory of the hero] and the makeup of the hero himself [the combination of the hero, a helper, a donor and a magical object]. [ACJ] Proiskhozhdenie geroicheskogo eposa [Origin of Heroic Epic]. Moskva: Isdatelstvo Vostichnoy Literatur'i, 1963.
Summary: I. Modern theories of the origin of epic 1) Historic school - Chronicles were suggested as origin of epic. K.M. Chadwick and M.K. Chadwick. The Growth Of Literature. vol I-III, London, 1932-1940. 2) C. Bowra. Heroic Poetry. London, 1952. The origin of epic is suggested to be sorcerer's poetry, panegyric and lament poetry, and ritual and ceremonial poetry. Three types of transformations are offered: a) unification and exaltation of historic figures and events b) selection of historic facts and establishing new dramatic relations between them c) addition of fantastic events to the historic ones for the purposes of enrichment of the plot 3) J. de Vries. "Das Marchen, besonders in seinem Verhaltnis zu Heldensage Mythos." Folklore Fellows Communications, Helsinki, No. 50 (1954). 4) Psychoanalytical approach Ch. Baudouin. Le triomphe du heros. Etude psychoanalitique sur le mythe du heros et les grandes epopees. Paris, 1952. II. Prehistoric sources of epic III. Archaic heroic epic a) Karel-Finnish epic runes Origins of Kalevala - IV-III millennium BC. is the period of ethnic and linguistic unity of Baltic-Finnish tribes. Main subject is peaceful labor. b) Ancient heroic tales of people of Caucuses Main subject is military courage. I millennium BC. - Skiff-Sarmat archaic tales c) Heroic poems of Turkish-Mongolian peoples of Siberia I millennium BC. - Skiff tribes, III-IV cc. BC. - Mongolian influence d) Shumer-accadian books of epic The most ancient epic of the world - completed in III-II millennium BC Babylonian poem Enuma Elish IV. From archaic epic to classic one. [AP]
Poetika mifa [The Poetics of Myth]. Moskva: Nauka, 1976. Summary:
Meletinsky addresses the issue of myth “in terms of the prehistory of literature.” He traces the history of mythological theories of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, through the “remythologizing” of the twentieth century. He then goes on to assess the questions stimulated by the preceding section: mythology of time, myth and ritual, mythology of personality and social medium. “A special chapter deals with the ethnology of social medium and incest myths connected with it. Further on the matieral of archaic tribal myths is gradually substitued for developed mythological systems of early civilizations....The concluding chapter of the second part deals with myth interrelations with tale and epos and the onset of demythicizing process in folklore. The archaic fairy-tale is structurally equivalent to myth, but the classical European fairy-tale with its complex hierarchic three-stage structure treats myth as a sort of more liberal metastructure....” Finally, Meletinsky argues that the modern novel is overwhelmingly beholden to mythology, both in its literary and psychological manifestations (Frazer and Jung, respectively). [ACJ] "Structurno-tipologicheskii analiz mifov cevero-vostochn'ih paleoasiatov." [Structural and typological analysis of north eastern paleoasiatic myths]. in Tipologicheskie issledovania po folklioru. (Typological Research of Folklore. In the memory of Vladimir Propp) Moskva: Nauka, 1975.
Mythology of the paleoasians, the people of Chukchi-Kamchatka group, represents an extraordinary interest as one of the most archaic mythologies in Asia which is, at the same time, one of the most sparkling with the poetic fantasy. It is a so-called "Crow Cycle" in which any thing, animal, or human organ may have a relatively independent life; most of the animals may have anthropomorphic form as well as most of the human characters may transform themselves into a zoomorphic form. "The process of creation and organization of the world is built on transformations and relocations. For example, whales, seals and other animals appeared from the little pieces of various trees; light and planets and stars were located in the upper part of the universe [the Heaven] and were supposed to be brought from there, for which purpose the Crow drilled a hole in the firm bottom [of the Heaven] as well as he stripped the wraps of the Sun, Moon, and the stars." (95) In the Crow Cycle, the macrocosm of the Universe is an exact mirroring of the microcosm of the human life. The mythology is based on the multiplicity of the worlds, heroes' relocations from one world to another while changing their appearance. It is also based on belief in the anthropomorphic spirits that stand behind each and every little plant, animal or human being thus all the things in the universe become homogenous and subject to transformations. The image of the Crow as a scavenger which also may be found in the mythology of Native Americans, serves as an intermediary image between life and death and as a result of this fact, the Crow acquires its totem importance. "In terms of genre, paleoasian folklore is rather syncretic. The Chukchi have a definite differentiation between "myth of creation", historical records of the temporary conflicts with neighbors, shaman's myths [which are the myths of the sorcerer], heroic-fantastic fairy tales, and animals fairy tales." (96) [AP].
E.M. Meletinsky's Introduction to the Historical Poetics of Epic, Romance, and Novel (Moskva: Nauka, 1986) provides a historic perspective to the poetics of the epic and novel forms. Epic finds itself in the most intimate relation to early man's ritual and myth complex; unlike lyric or drama, it ca, right from the very beginning, be found developing outside ritual as well, though always remaining within myth. Epic appeared in the form of mythological narratives about culture heroes modeling early community as a whole. The nucleus of appropriate cycles was formed by various creation myths to make earth fitter to live on or to get cultural boons, etc., supplemented by certain biographic legendary motives, proto-heroic tales of the slaying of monsters, as well as mythological anecdotes about lame creation acts and the mischief of tricksters which were thought to be either brothers of culture heroes or their second demonic-comic aspect. Quasi-historical legends of later times telling about tribal strife and local legends (in the form of memorata or fabulata) remained outside these major mytho-epic cycles. With desacralization and demythologization on the base of interacting between biographic motives of myth (specifically, divine birth and initiation) and local legends on contacts with spirits, fairy-heroic tale evolved. Mythical time of the world creation gave way to the indefinite time of the fairy tale, etiological finales died out, and rather than on the fate of cosmos, the story centered on the individual fate of the hero. In classical European fairy tale initiation as a plot model, is gradually supplemented or replaced by wedding rituals, and a relatively passive hero is pushed to the background by the miraculous helpers which acted in fact in his stead, and a triadic structure came to appear (preliminary trial when miraculous help appears; main trial, and identification trial - to find who the genuine hero was). Moreover, the nucleus motives of ritual-mythological origin were enriched by implicitly social motives about an orphan, younger brother or Cinderella, who finally escapes a life of drudgery. Side by side with the fairy tale there appears the animal tale having totemic myth about zoomorphic tricksters as its source; later the animal tale, trickster jokes, local legends, exempla, suspended fragments from historical pieces gave birth to the novelistic tale, the forefather of fabliaux, Schwanken and novels proper. Yet much earlier, the heroic myth develops into the heroic tale proper which is not infrequently sung. Primitive epics about culture heroes and heroic tales produce archaic forms of heroic epics which continues to coexist with the historical legend, and typically the latter does not penetrate into the early forms epics. While state consolidation is not finished yet, the epics are based not on the political history, but on the myth and fairy tales. The epic time in archaic epics of the type of the Kalevala, Yakut olonho, the narta of the North Caucasus tales, etc., is described as the time of world creation, the tribal enemies are seen as mythical monsters, and the main character continues to resemble a legendary ancestor, culture hero, shaman, king-priest, and the hero's refractoriness acquires the features of theomachy. The classic forms of epics appear in peoples which have achieved state consolidation - either straight from historical legends (epic time is the time of early statehood) or by way of gradual transformation of early epic forms (as in Odyssey, Ramayana, Gesar, Beowulf, etc.) Later post-classical forms of heroic epics are historical songs and ballads, as well as narratives or stories of the type of Icelandic sagas, Japanese gunki, or Chinese prosaic epopees. such stories make the heroic scale narrower (evading explicit hyperboles), add a reflexive element to the depiction of heroic society and are not afraid of social motives. The Greek romance is fully devoid of the traditions of helper epics and is created as its antithesis at the opposite pole of ancient literature. Medieval romance incorporates heterogeneous sources, but with an eye on the heroic epics in the Far East which knows no true epic heroics (it is modeled after historical legends and historical stories about heroes). The peculiarities of the early forms of romance lie not in adventure (it is present in epics too), but rather in the generic relation to the fairy tale and its universe. Hiweve, a developed medieval romance, unlike semi-folkloric pre-romantic forms (Arabic sirat, Irano-Turkic distans, etc.) and partly unlike the Greek romance, adds true romance to the fairy tale elements. To same degree that is the result of the influence of lyric and medieval conceptions of courtly love (amour courtois or Sufic love). Frequently, the introductory section has the form of a fairy tale-epic action, while the rest of the romance has the romantic air proper. The chivalric romance (romance epic) advocates though in distorted form the “epic” point of view on the social value of hero. Therefore, at an earlier stage (e.g. Tristan et Iseult, Vis and Ramin) a hero’s individual passion as manifesting his personality is depicted as a source of social chaos, whereas at the subsequent stage (e.g. Chretien, Nezami) the authors seek to harmonize the romantic and hero-epic origins through the clarification of the social value of an ordered “private” passion as a source of heroic inspiration. The medieval romance, alongside the historical heroic story, has become the starting point for the transition to the modern novel. The modern novel has two sources of origin - the pre-novelistic semi-folkloric and partially novelistic, and largely “anecdotic” medieval “picaresque”, base-erotic tradition (fabliaux, schwanken, Le Roman de Renard, Middle and Near eastern makamat, Chinese novel of life and times) and especially from the romance of courtly love (from the heroic historical story in China) through transformation, through adding the daily elements shaping the hero himself. The first genre variety of the novel is the picaresque novel (especially in Spain) and a very similar “comic” (especially in France) or erotic picaresque (especially in China and Japan, see Jin Ping Mei, Saikaku, etc., also cf. Satyricon by Petronius and Francion by Sorel). These varieties of the novel reactualize the earliest archetype of trickster (survived into folklore and low literature) having, right from the beginning, two aspects - that of rogue and of debauchee. The first aspect dominates the West, and the second the Far East. The western picaresque novel, unlike its medieval predecessors, shows the formation of :rogue” under the influence of the environment, which is also satirically shown as the “rogue”-environment. The Far Eastern novel does not show the hero-debauchee or rogue-hero in development but rather his functioning in a respective environment. The rogue masque is ambivalent, since, on the one hand, it emphasizes the marginality of the rogue in society, and, on the other, offers a perspective for its typical nature (with the autonomization and emancipation from the standards and dogmas). The autobiographical form is decisively predominant in the west, but it is also found in the East (for example, Saikaku). For the romance to transform into novel the burlesque, parody, comism, satire play the role of a powerful catalyst (though satire as genre is alien to the novel depicting private life). Cervantes who was still not free of the Renaissance humanistic satire traditions, creates Don Quixote a satirical parody on the chivalric romance, and, simultaneously, paradoxically anticipates the outlines of the novel (the crank-hero interacting a hostile humdrum of life). The features of "anti-romance" are rather clearly seen in the Spanish "picaresque" novel and especially in the French "comic" novel full of mockery and parody passages, imitating courtly post-chivalric romance. The first novel by Saikaku contains certain elements of parody on Genji Monogatari, whereas Jin Ping Mei looks like a full-fledged parody on the latter. Later on the novel alienates itself from picaresque genre (which is already seen in the novels by Espinel and Grimmelshausen, and in the French seventeenth century novel, mostly in the books by Furetiere), the rogue is deprived of his "low" origin and is depicted as victim of circumstances, etc. Side by side with rogues we can see "cranks". Further, obviously "mean" naturalistic details start leaving the novel, grotesque and comic imagery is less frequently seen, the features of everyday life are considered vulgar and finally socio-historicism is added. In France, of special importance was the transformation of the "chivalric" romance into the analytic, i.e., psychological novel (from Zayde and La Princesse de Cleves by Mme. de La Fayette), and further interaction between the psychological novel and the picaresque traditions (Prevost, Marivaux) and onwards to the creation of the classic novel of mores (cf. the Richardson - Defoe controversy in Britain), then the transition to the novels by Smollett and Fielding. Very likewise was the process of evolving psychologism in the novels of mores in China which has abandoned the picaresque heritage (Red Chamber Dream by Cao Xue-qin, the satirical canvasses of the type of The Scholars by Wu Jingzi). The adventure-episode principle underlying the composition of the late seventeenth - early eighteenth century novel is complemented by, or transformed under the influence of, drama acquiring a stronger structure (cf. Furietiere's orientation towards comedy, and La Fayette's and Richardson's towards tragedy; cf. the role of Chinese drama). [AP]

Compiled by Alan Jalowitz and Anna Petrov
Department of Comparative Literature
The Pennsylvania State University
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