I’ve barely started reading Entertaining Tsarist Russia: Tales, Songs, Plays, Movies, Jokes, Ads, and Images from Russian Urban Life 1779-1917 (see the end of this post, and here‘s the webpage for the book, with a link to supplementary materials) and I’ve already hit on a gem, “Guak, or Unbounded Devotion: A Knightly Tale.” This is one of those tales of chivalry that trickled into Russia from the West; its Russian version originated in the eighteenth century but wasn’t published until the nineteenth. It begins: “Prince Zilagon, ruler of the Princedom of Florida, was a great and glorious man who who greatly expanded his territory and struck fear into the hearts of neighboring peoples.” The Princedom of Florida? Zilagon travels through “Greece, Persia, India, China, Japan, and Greater Bukharia,” impressing everyone with his knightly and heroic feats, but when he returns home he discovers his father has died and “Florida, left without a ruler, had fallen to the enemy.” He raises an army, expels the enemy, and becomes ruler. “Canada was the first to feel the weight of his sword and surrendered to his mighty power; thereafter, twelve more realms surrendered to the unconquerable and awe-inspiring Zilagon, and after extending the borders of his domain, he married the daughter of the king of Mexico.” He leaves his realm to his son Gualikh, who “established peace and in his land, and determined to decorate his capital with a magnificent monument. He ordered that a massive amphitheater be built from white and green marble… This amphitheater was built directly across from the royal palace; inside it was so large that it could hold 50,000 spectators. Under an enormous canopy in the amphitheater were twelve places for visiting magnates.”
Gualikh goes on to marry an African princess named Refuda and have a son named Guak, who needless to say becomes a hero in his own right and has many adventures, including winning the heart of an Amazonian princess named Veleuma, but I’m not going to tell you about all that. Instead I’m going to mention the cognitive dissonance induced by seeing exotic names like Zilagon, Gualikh, and Guak associated with the homely (to me) place name Florida (and if anyone has any suggestion about where those names might have come from, by all means share it), and point out that the whole thing is manifestly a prediction of the victory of the Tampa Bay Rays in the playoffs. Of course, it would have been clearer if rather than Canada the Princedom of Florida had conquered the Duchy of Massachusetts (home of the Red Sox), but I submit that the 50,000-seat amphitheater with its “places for visiting magnates” is obviously Tropicana Field with its luxury suites.

Incidentally, the Guak story seems to have been utterly forgotten; in English Google finds only the book I’m quoting from, and in Russian, aside from references to the title, it seems to exist online only in a comedy “Говорят, будет воля!” [‘They say there will be freedom!’] by some guy named “N. Zinoviev” in an 1864 issue of the literary-political journal Sovremennik. A bunch of yokels think a book contains the freedom they’ve been promised, and they insist a literate deacon read it to them; on page 57 he starts reading it to them, and it turns out to be this very story: “Зилагон, владетельный князь американской Флориды, был тот великий и славный муж…” Unfortunately, he doesn’t get very far into it before the yokels grow impatient with the lack of freedom and move on to another plot element.


  1. “Instead I’m going to mention the cognitive dissonance induced by seeing exotic names like Zilagon, Gualikh, and Guak associated with the homely (to me) place name Florida”
    Hah! That was exactly my reaction when I first started reading Pratchett and came across moreporks everywhere. Although, these days, our native morepork is probably almost as fictional as Pratchett’s version.

  2. Actually, Doak Campbell Stadium,where King Bobby Bowden has reigned yea these many years, while not directly across the street, is within walking distance of the state Capitol (15-20 minutes) in Tallahassee, and especially at this time of year, probably ranks higher in the estimation of locals.

  3. John Emerson says:

    In Chateaubriand’s “Atala and Rene” Florida is a mysterious exotic place where crocodiles sing to the setting sun, and so on. I want to reread it cometime, but at the moment it’s at the top of my list of overwritten books, immediately ahead of John Updike.

  4. John Emerson says:

    In Chateaubriand’s “Atala and Rene” Florida is a mysterious exotic place where crocodiles sing to the setting sun, and so on. I want to reread it cometime, but at the moment it’s at the top of my list of overwritten books, immediately ahead of John Updike.

  5. Fee fie foe fum! I smell the blood of a spambotman!

  6. “Fee fie foe fum! I smell the blood of a spambotman!”
    I’m not sure. I’ve been thinking for some time now that learning English might be a good idea. Maybe this revolutionary new tool will mean that it’s not too late for me to learn English after all.

  7. rootlesscosmo says:

    Reading the plot summary made me very eager to see and hear the opera. Zilagon is definitely a bass-baritone rôle, I think, and Veleuma is a contralto.

  8. if your interested its free
    wouldn’t want to learn English from THAT bot

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  10. A.J.P. Crown says:

    “places for visiting magnates” reminds me of the visit I paid to DESY, the particle accelerator in Hamburg. It was on that occasion that I was introduced to my wife.

  11. Those exotic American names obviously exercised a profound draw on European writers. There’s Brecht’s Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny, in which a musical climax occurs with the mezzo apostrophizing Pensacola. It’s also the source of the Alabama and Benares (so not just American) songs; the heroine comes either from Oklahoma or Havana; and the hero spent seven years working as a lumberjack in the snow-white forests of Alaska.
    And a couple of years later, his Seven Deadly Sins ballet opens with the lyric
    Meine Schwester und ich stammen aus Louisiana,
    Wo die Wasser des Mississippi unterm Monde fließen…
    And the two sisters travel from Memphis to Philadelphia, Boston, Baltimore, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, before ending up back in Louisiana.

  12. hjaelmer, please pardon the slight digression, but your mention of Brecht’s use of exotic American name put me in mind of Christian Morgenstern’s Der Lattenzaun. It seems even more apt since it features both an architect (as does this blog) and an “exotic” spelling of “Amerika”. The “punchline” of Der Lattenzaun also always reminds me of Emo Phillips’ “Most States”, but that’s a whole nother club of pudding.

  13. Robert Berger says:

    By chance, the city of Nogales is almost a palindrome of Zilagon (selagon).

  14. A.J.P. Crown says:

    Reg Rebtre bor is a palindrome of Robert Berger. By chance, in Norwegian, it means “Reg Rebtree lives!” (Ok, the exclamation point is poetic license.) Now all we have to do is find Reg Rebtree and hide him…

  15. A.J.P. Crown says:

    I’m so busy today. Look Language, I’ve found you a really good Russian post-Revolution graphics and films site with lots of interesting links, too. Actually I got it off Conrad and his October 5 piece, Wer band dich in Schlummer so bang?.

  16. Crown, A.J.P. says:

    Check out Обломок империи / A Fragment of Empire (1929) at the top of the page.

  17. J. Del Col says:

    There are indeed crocodiles(Crocodylus acutus) in Florida. Perhaps 2,000 of them live in the swamps of extreme southern Florida.
    Chateaubriand would not have known about them. They were not described until 1875.
    They do not sing.

  18. I remember an episode of Space 1999 set on the planet “Luton”. They tried to disguise the joke by having the cast pronounce it in a cod-Chinese way (“Loo Ton”) but it was pretty funny if you came from the UK.

  19. Check out Обломок империи / A Fragment of Empire (1929) at the top of the page.
    As it happens, I have a beloved T-shirt with that image on it. (MOMA once showed a series of early Russian films.)

  20. A.J.P. Crown says:

    T shirts are like pets, you get very attached to them and then they die in the washing machine (microwave, whatever).

  21. John Emerson says:

    J’ai huerte, savez-vous, d’incroyables Florides
    Melant aux fleurs des yeux de pantheres a peaux

    [Plus one circumflex, one acute, and two graves].
    Rimbaud, “Bateau Ivre”

  22. David Marjanović says:

    Well, I knew that there have once been an Iberia and an Albania in the Caucasus, but… 😉
    What’s a morepork? Is that something to eat?

  23. “What is a Morepork?”

  24. A.J.P. Crown says:

    That’s a very nice owl, Stuart.

  25. A.J.P. Crown says:

    Something for us middle-aged men that I heard on the BBC, a quote from a newspaper headline: ‘New Non-Invasive Prostate Test Gets Thumbs Up’.

  26. “That’s a very nice owl”
    Indeed. I was saddened to learn a few years ago that these islands were once home not only to the largest eagle yet knownd, but also to a much larger owl than the morepork.

  27. A.J.P. Crown says:

    largest eagle yet known
    I think you didn’t put in the link, or it vanished. I love owls even though I suspect that one ate our parrot, Kiri (named after a New Zealander).

  28. Yeah, someone should eat Ms Te Kanawa too. Well past her best, if not yet as extinct as the Haast eagle

  29. AJP Crown: It was on that occasion that I was introduced to my wife.
    Up until that point, conversation around the Crown breakfast table had been perforce somewhat stilted.

  30. Crown, A.J.P. says:

    Yes. You see, I’m English.

  31. John Emerson says:

    Young Mencius was such a prig that some other Confucian had to explain to him that it was OK if his wife sometimes comported herself in an undignified and indiscreet manner in his presence.

  32. In the other Confucian’s presence? I think he was a player, and young Mencius was getting played.

  33. Crown, A.J.P. says:

    Not that there’s anything wrong with politeness, but the Taoists were a lot nicer than the Confucians.

  34. Yes. You see, I’m English.
    These passengers, by reason of their clinging to a mast,
    Upon a desert island were eventually cast.
    They hunted for their meals, as ALEXANDER SELKIRK used,
    But they couldn’t chat together — they had not been introduced…

  35. A.J.P. Crown says:

    There’s a joke about two Danes, two Swedes and two Norwegians being cast away on a desert island that ends, ‘and the Swedes were still waiting to be introduced’, but I can’t remember the middle.

  36. There’s a joke about the Norwegian who went on a cruise and found himself on a slave galley ship instead. The guy rowing next to him was a Swede who said something like “and they did the same thing last year too,” but I can’t remember the setup. It seems the Swedes don’t do too well in these jokes.

  37. This Florida reminds me of Wallace Stevens’s, which is mythic even though the poet visited the actual Florida.

    As the immense dew of Florida
    Brings forth
    The big-finned palm
    And green vine angering for life . . .


    Foam and cloud are one,
    Sultry moon-monsters
    Are dissolving.

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