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Research Project: Management of Plant Genetic Resources and Associated Information

Location: Plant Germplasm Introduction and Testing Research

Title: The war of the mushrooms: A Russian folktale revisited

item Dugan, Frank

Submitted to: Fungi
Publication Type: Popular Publication
Publication Acceptance Date: 2/8/2016
Publication Date: 3/23/2016
Citation: Dugan, F.M. 2016. The war of the mushrooms: A Russian folktale revisited. Fungi. 8(5):35-36.

Interpretive Summary: War of the Mushrooms is a Russian folktale. King Bolete orders his subjects to mobilize for war, but the Fly Agarics refuse on grounds that they are too noble, the Honey Mushrooms and Inky Caps refuse on grounds they are physically incapable, the Morels because they are too old, and other kinds of mushrooms on the excuse that they are old ladies, mere peasants, etc. But the brave Peppery Milk Caps volunteer to go to war. The tale (usually presented in verse) has been much analyzed from perspectives of ethnomycology (identification of the various mushrooms, i.e., matching common names in Russian with scientific equivalents) and social commentary (roles of social classes under the czarist regeme). The verses were a vehicle for teaching children not just about mushrooms, but various words and letters. It became the subject of illustration in Russian books of folktales, was transformed for propaganda purposes in revolutionary Russia, and was set to music by Igor Stravinsky. It is catalogued in standard folkloristic indices of tale types as type 297B.

Technical Abstract: There are numerous versions of a Russian folktale, War of the Mushrooms. The tale is indexed in standard folkloristic references as tale type 297B. Unfortunately, it is not included in the best known collection of Russian folktales translated into English, that of Alexander Afanesiev. It was first recorded in folkloristic context in a multivolume work (in Russian) by Afanesiev, and cited in various folkloristic works. Tale types are categorized in standard folkloristic indices as animal tales and other categories, but only the animal tales correspond roughly to biological classification. Nonetheless, folk taxonomy of plants (in the old sense, including fungi) has long been demonstrated to approximate scientific classification. Depending on the culture, folk classification of mushrooms may have them with vascular plants, with other cryptogams (mosses, lichens, etc.), or (as food) with meat. Plants and mushrooms are largely ignored in folkloristic classification of tale types, but not in folk taxonomy, nor in tales themselves. Folklorists have wrestled with this intersection of ethnobiology and the traditional tale type, and War of the Mushrooms has traditionally been indexed under animal tales. But when Afanesiev's multivolume work was posthumously indexed in 1873, The Mushrooms Go to War was arranged with tales about plants. The story captured the imagination of illustrators, the most famous of whom were Heorhiy Narbut and Yelena Polenova, and was set to music by Igor Stravinsky.