Book Review: The Bear and the Nightingale

Title: The Bear and The Nightingale
Author: Katherine Arden
Genre: Fiction, Eastern European Folklore

What it’s about: In the dead and cold night of the winter, in the northern parts of Russia, an old woman sits down in front of the hot stove surround by four children-nicknamed Kolya, Sasha, Olga and Alyosha-ready to tell them a story, when a woman enters from the outdoors, where she had been helping her husband with a lamb giving birth. The woman, Marina Ivanova, requests that the old woman known as Dunya tell the story of Morozoko-Frost, the winter demon, who is also known by the name of Karachun, the death-god. Dunya obliges and tells the story, in which a farmer loses his wife and decides that his daughter needs a mother figure. He marries again, and the stepmother comes with her own daughter to live with them. Seeing the girl’s beauty, she puts her to work, hoping to break her spirits. As time goes on, many winters hence, the girl has grown and continues to be as beautiful and as cheerful as ever. It is then that the stepmother decides that it’s time to marry her off, and convinces the father to marry the girl off to Morozko. The father takes her off in a sled to a tree, leaving her there in the cold. Morozko finds her, and asks her if she is cold, several times. Each time, the girl is courageous and states that she is not cold, and as a result of her courageousness, he takes her home and leaves her with jewels that will become part of her dowry. Enraged, the stepmother is sure that her own daughter will bring more jewels than the girl, so she tells the father to take the girl out to the same place and leave her. Morozko shows up and keeps asking her if she’s cold, but she is rude and mean to him, so she freezes to death and is found by the family the next morning.

Once the story is over, Dunya and the kids go to sleep. Of course, Dunya has been a nurse maid for many years and notices that Marina looks sickly and thin, promising herself that she will feed her milk and other items to strengthen her. That night, Marina’s husband, Pyotr, returns from the barn after helping the lamb be born, and upon entering their bedchambers, Marina announces that she is with child who will be as special as her mother was. It was long rumored that Marina’s mother was a beautiful woman who showed up at Ivan the Terrible’s court on horseback, from the wilds of Russia. No one knew where she was from, but many who saw her, spoke of her being able to speak to animals. At first, Pyotr asks her if she is sure that she can handle the birth, because Alyosha’s birth almost killed her. But Marina is steadfast that she will see the birth of this child, for it will be as special as her mother. The next morning Dunya also questions her keeping the baby, and tells her to get rid of it, but Marina makes her promise that she will watch over the child.

Several months later, in the cold days of November, Marina gives birth to a baby girl, whom she calls Vasilisa–Vasya–and implores Pyotr to look after her, before passing away. Vasya continues to scream after the death of Marina, but about a month or so later, calms down. Over time, she grows up to be a mischievous child–running faster than her siblings, stealing food off the table, and disappearing into the woods. On this particular day, she disappears into the woods and gets lost, finding a huge oak tree, and stumbling upon a body of a man who has only one eye, who tries to come after her but then a man on a white horse shows up and puts him back to sleep. As Vasya flees, the man on the white horse comments that the power is weakening and soon the one-eyed man will waken. Vasya is found by Sasha on horseback and brought home to warm up by the fire. In talks with his father, Sasha mentions that Olga is soon to be married, Dunya is old and that would leave Vasya without a mother figure if something were to happen to either of them. This makes Pyotr consider marriage again, after having abstained for seven years.

When the waters freeze over the river that winter, Pyotr, Sasha, Kolya and a small contingent of their people head to Moscow, where the meet with Ivan Ivanovich, Marina’s half brother, who is the Grand Prince. Pyotr makes his rounds, pays off people, and tries to figure out a husband for Olga and a wife for himself. Sasha heads off to a monastery where he meets a monk and decides that he would like to become one. When Sasha tells this plan to Pyotr, Pyotr agrees with the conditions that Sasha help one more year on the farm to give him time to think about this choice and to go with open eyes, and that all of his inheritance would go to his brothers-Kolya and Alyosha. Sasha agrees. While Pyotr makes these plans, he encounters a stranger in the markets, and he cannot help but watch him. No one knows where this stranger comes from. At the same time, Ivan worries over what would happen to his son, Dmitrii, should he die. At the behest of Aleksei, the Metropolitan of Moscow, he makes the decision that against her own wishes to go to a convent, Anna Ivanova, his daughter, will marry Pyotr so that Olga can marry Vladimir Andreevich, the Prince of Serpukhov, who would contest the crown if Ivan were to die. That night, at the feast, Pyotr sees the stranger–the man had come south searching for something but could not find it until he saw Pyotr walk in and felt the northern breeze on him and his two sons. Ivan calls Pyotr and tells him of the plan to marry Olga off to Vladimir while Pyotr takes Anna as his wife, and after some consideration, Pyotr agrees.

Six weeks later, Pyotr is married to Anna, and they are about to take off, when the stranger shows up petting Pyotr’s horse, Buran. Kolya takes offense to the stranger doing that because the woman that Kolya was chasing had been talking to the man at the feast that first night. He lunges at the stranger, who in turn presses a knife against his neck. Time freezes and the stranger talks to Pyotr that he will let Kolya live, so long as Pyotr gives a pendant to his youngest daughter. Pyotr agrees, and when they return, he gives the pendant instead to Dunya, who immediately recognizes it as a talisman. She does not give it to Vasya, and that night is visited by the stranger, who she quickly identifies as Morozko. He demands to know why she has the talisman, and she explains that Vasya is too young and that she will give it to her when the girl grows older.

In the meantime, Anna hates the house because she is seeing demons everywhere–in Moscow there were a few that she saw, which is why she wanted to go to a convent, because that is the only place where they did not exist. She tries to fight the old ways, giving thanks to these ‘demons’, but the villagers defy her by hiding the offerings to these spirits in corners that she cannot find, believing that they help them in their daily lives. Vasya does not like Anna at all, for the screeching and screaming that she does, but time goes on, Olga gets married, Sasha heads off to his monastery, leaving Kolya, Alyosha and herself to deal with Anna and the farm. Kolya eventually gets married too and settles down nearby the farm.

As Vasya grows, she befriends these spirits–the domovoy, the rusalka, the vasivoy, and the many other spirits–and as a result, learns to speak with horses, learns to ride horses, and a lot of other things. She reveals her powers twice–once while talking to the domovoy when Anna walks in and starts screaming at her, and the other time when the river spirits steals Kolya’s fish-basket while they are fishing. After the incident with Anna, she realizes that it’s better to keep quiet about her abilities, and hides them from everyone while still going around doing her business and talking to all of the spirits.

When the local priest dies, Aleksei decides to send Konstantin as a replacement in order to get the priest out of the way as he’s charming the masses and could cause a potential revolution now that Ivan is dying. Konstantin is not too happy about being moved to this less-populated location, but when Anna visits him and speaks with him about the demons that the people pray to, he takes her seriously and starts a campaign against the spirits of old. The people are charmed by Konstantin’s singing and payers, falling prey to fears of the old spirits. As a result, they do not provide as many offerings as before to the old spirits, and they are slowly withering away.

Vasya does what she can to save them, and Konstantin tries to fight for her soul, telling her that she is going the way of the devils. She is not a particularly pretty girl–feet and hands too large for her body, face not perfect–but there’s something about her that catches Konstantin’s eye and fancy. Eventually she tells him off, and that he will never have her attention the way that he gets the attention and admiration from the rest of the congregation. Further, she saves him from the Rusalka at the lake, who would have drowned him, but he believes that Vasya put a spell on him. As time goes on, crops wither away, and wood burns faster, leading to less food for the winter and colder nights. One day, Anna goes to Pyotr and tells her that Vasya needs to be married off. At first, he’s upset, but then he realizes that Vasya is indeed a woman. He makes plans to marry her off to a nearby Boyar, but that plan goes awry during a hunt when Kolya’s son gets up on Mysh–the mare that taught Vasya how to ride–and she bolts out of fear of another spirit. To save Kolya’s son, Vasya gets on her suitor’s horse and chases Mysh, saving the boy just before Mysh falls over the ditch. She then leads the horse out of the ditch after getting an explanation that one of the wood spirits scared her. The suitor is outraged that she stole his horse and refuses to marry her after that. As a result, Anna then tells Pyotr that Vasya needs to go to a convent, but she doesn’t tell him that she’s convinced that Vasya is the reason why the demons are around. Pyotr agrees because there is no one else that would marry Vasya because of her wild ways and further, the town is turning on her, calling her a witch.

Vasya had been warned by the spirits that she should not leave the forest during that winter as she will be needed. Different warnings come, telling her that the crops will wither, and then the dead will walk before the winter is over. She had not wanted to get married in the first place, and the way the suitor treated the horse told her that while he was appear to be kind, there is a lot more cruelty hidden, striking fear into her. When she gets told by her father that she will be going to a convent, she does not want to go and manages to persuade him to stay a while longer. The first dead shows up, and Vasya puts a stake through the head with Alyosha’s help. Then Dunya has a dream where Morozko visits her again–he tells her that she needs to give Vasya the talisman, as it’s the only way for him to save them all, but that he will come for her soon. Shortly thereafter, Dunya calls for Vasya, and gives her the talisman, telling her to always wear it. Vasya watches Dunya into the night, when both Morozko and the one-eyed man show up for Dunya, who in turn dies in severe fear. After they bury her, Dunya is reanimated and shows up knocking on doors.

Soon after, Pyotr leaves for Moscow to do his yearly visit, and while he is gone, Anna with Konstantin’s assistance, makes the decision to send Vasya to the convent the following morning without consulting Pyotr. Konstantin takes a step further, and has Vasya almost tied up and dragged into the church to then be taken to the convent, but Vasya manages to escape and runs into the forest, where no one will follow her for fear of the wolves and other beings in the forest. She runs until she comes upon the oak tree, and is heading towards the one-eyed man, when a man on the white horse shows up and saves her from the one-eyed man. He takes her to his home, and there reveals that he is indeed Morozko–he lets her rest, eat and recover from her ordeal, ultimately telling her the story of him and his brother–the one-eyed man who really is a bear. Vasya recovers, and gets Solodzey–a horse named Nightingale. She rides him and takes care of him, until it is time for her to return home.

In the meantime, Konstantin prays to God that Vasya be returned. The shadows of the church speak to him, as they have been for quite a while, and he realizes that first time, it’s not God but a spirit. The spirit tells him that he needs to have a witch–someone who sees spirits, in order to return Vasya to him. At first Konstantin says that he doesn’t know anyone, until he realizes that Anna also sees spirits. So in the morning, he takes Anna to the Oak tree, and hands her over to the one-eyed man. Vasya returns home, only to find Anna gone, and realizes what is going on. She takes Alyosha, and they rush with Solodzey to the oak tree, where a fight ensues. Morozko shows up even though he is not at his strongest to put his brother to sleep. The spirits of the natural world show up and take sides, but Vasya calls onto all the spirits of the home. At first, they don’t show up, and the one-eyed man laughs, saying that she is his prey, but then suddenly the show up and the fight continues with the one-eyed man turning into a big bear. It is Pyotr who shows up at the fight, just as the bear is heading for Vasya, and sacrifices himself so that Vasya may live. As a result of his sacrifice, the bear is once again chained and put to sleep–the magic that holds him, was fortified with the love that Pyotr had for his daughter.

Anna and Pyotr get buried near Marina’s resting place. As a result of his death, Pyotr’s estate goes to Alyosha, the remaining brother of the family. Vasya makes the decision to leave–she wants her freedom, not to follow societal’s norms–and when she shares that with Alyosha and Irina, their half-sister, they both protest; however, Alyosha is soon convinced when Vasya mentions that the town has turned against her and wants to cast her out. For safety–both hers and theirs-she is leaving but will visit when she can. Vasya makes one last visit, with Morozko’s help–Konstantin. Konstantin is happy to see her, feeling that his prayers were answered, but she tells him that he needs to leave. He protests saying that his work isn’t finished, but Vasya commands him to leave telling him that his work is finished, and with Morozko’s help in scaring him, makes it clear that she does not want him near this village.

After that, she leaves the village behind, heading to the hidden home that belongs to Morozko.

My Verdict: HOLY MACARONI! This book is sooo good. I’ve grown up with some of these folktales–hearing my grandmother’s cousins telling stories of Baba Yaga (who is mentioned by name in this book), and the propaganda used by USSR surround Father Frost instead of Saint Nick for Christmas time, from my parents. But I’ve never really read these stories–not the way that you do with Hans Christen’s Little Mermaid or the Grimm Brother’s Cinderella or Little Red Riding Hood-and they’re not really incorporated into the Disney line-up either, so it’s not something that is familiar to many people who don’t have the Eastern European background.

When I first heard of this book, I honestly thought it sounded boring. It wasn’t until I was in a McNally Jackson Bookstore in Seaport, NYC that I saw the cover again, and also the remaining two books of the trilogy. They caught my eye, and I read the back cover, at which point my interest was piqued.

And boy, oh boy, has this book been a sort of awakening for me. It’s a retelling of different Eastern European folklores–some common across the region, others less so. So we have a story of Vasilisa the Beautiful (which is the main character) with a twist–instead of visiting Baba Yaga, she visits the home of Morozko. More than anything, it’s made me curious about the original stories because of how rich they are in their language, imagination and culture–and more than anything, it feels like I’ve finally come home to a place I’ve long known but never really been in. It’s weird to describe the familiarity that I have with these stories that I barely know of.

Overall, I’ve fallen in love with this story, and I think I will love the series. I think the author has done a phenomenal job retelling these folklores, though I was honestly surprised that an American author would write these because they’re such an obscure source of inspiration as not many people are familiar with them and she writes it so masterfully, as if it’s something that she’d grown up with.

So if you’re interested in a bit of Eastern European folklore and magic, this is a phenomenal book to read. Can’t wait to read the next book in the series!

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