Tolstoy Retold: a book review

The great Russian Novelist, Leo Tolstoy, wrote long complicated novels like War & Peace and Anna Karenina. But Tolstoy was also known for his ideals, and his spirituality, and for preserving and retelling Russian folktales. In a short volume, three of Tolstoy’s tales are retold with notes and an introduction by Jon Sweeney (independent scholar, and author of more than twenty books).  Sweeney’s prose combines with Anna Mitchell’s illustrations to produce Three SImple Men & Other Holy Folktales. 

The stories that Sweeney retells are some favorites. The title story retells the story of the three hermits, who are visited by priests who judge them simple and shallow in their prayer life and try to instruct them. The priests somce to see that these simple monks are deep in communion with God when they see them walking towards their boat on the waves. Next Sweeney retells the Godson (rechristened The Godson Learns to Fight Evil) and   A Spark Neglected Burns the House ( new title: One Neglected Spark May Burn Down a House).

Sweeney’s retellings have some creative license. Tolstoy’s Three Hermits have no individual characteristics (they are simply, three hermits). Sweeney describes them individually as basket maker, a forager for food, and the thinker (3-4). Conversely The Godson learns to Fight Evil simplifies Tolstoy’s account, removing some of its preachiness and its magical elements (57).In One Negelected Spark, Sweeney adds a Tolstoy-esque element, the aging, ailing father streched out on the stove recovering from athsma (59). Despite some poetic license Sweeney is faithful to the plot of Tolstoy’s tales.

I don’t prefer these adaptations to the originals, but I enjoyed them. Moreover, the prose is simple enough that my eight-year-old daughter read them happily. I liked Sweeney’s introduction and his brief notes on each story where we reflects on what Tolstoy was trying to do as a storyteller. I i give this book four stars

Note: I received this book from Paraclete Press in exchange for my honest review.

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