‘How Old Timofei Died With A Song’ by Rainer Maria Rilke

How Old Timofei Died With A Song by Rainer Maria Rilke, 1900

The magic trick:

Making the story about storytelling as much as it is about its central themes

You‘ve gotta love a story built on the idea that the storyteller is the key to the universe, as we find in “How Old Timofei Died With A Song.” It probably tells you more about the author’s ego than anything.

Either way, the storytelling here motif becomes mainly a metaphor. But paired with an introductory section that features our narrator pontificating about the art of storytelling, the motif does become a very interesting meta concept to think about in relation to the story’s other themes of fathers and sons, responsibility and community.

And that’s quite a trick on Rilke’s part.

The selection:

“From early on, old Timofei had taught his only son, Yegor, a few songs, and when a boy of fifteen he was already able to sing more songs more correctly than any of the fully grown lads in the village or in its vicinity. All the same, the old man used to say to the lad, generally on holidays, when he was slightly drunk: ‘Yegorushka, my little dove, I’ve already taught you to sing many songs, many byliny, and also the legends of the saints, one for nearly every day. But, as you know, I’m the most knowledgeable in the whole guberniya, and my father knew every song in Russia, so to speak, and Tatar stories, besides. You’re still very young, and so I have not yet told you the best byliny, in which the words are like icons and can’t be compared with everyday words, and you have not yet learned how to sing those melodies which no one yet, be he a Coassck or a peasant, has ever been able to hear without weeping.’

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