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The Bear and the Nightingale

August 17, 2017

I read about The Bear and the Nightingale, by Katherine Arden, at Rhapsody in Books and thought it sounded like something that would interest Walker, but he wasn’t home long enough to read it between graduation and leaving for Lake Baikal. I picked it up one day to distract me while I was sitting in a chair working on bending my knee and then got absorbed in it.

It’s a Russian fairy tale about Medved, the ferocious bear spirit, and his brother Morozko or Frost, the spirit of winter and death. In this story their power is beginning to increase because a priest has urged the rural people in the heroine’s small village to stop honoring the small household spirits that formerly kept them safe from bigger evils. The heroine is named Vasilisa, and she is the daughter of Pyotr, who lives in a small village in northern Russia.

Vasya, as her family calls her, is different from other children. Her brother Kolya is a little afraid of her when he sees her retrieve a basket of fish he had caught from a local river spirit:
“’It’s not yours!’ she shouted.’Give it back!’ Kolya thought he heard an odd note in the splash of the water, as though it was making a reply. Vasya stamped her foot. ‘Now! Catch your own fish!’ A deep groan came up from the depths, as of rocks grinding together, and then the basket came flying out of nowhere to hit Vasya in the chest and knock her backward….Kolya would have liked to make for the village and leave both his basket and his peculiar sister to themselves. But he was a man and a boyar’s son, and so he stalked forward, stiff-legged, to seize his catch.”

The priest has been sent away from Moscow and ended up in Vasilisa’s village, where he tries to turn the villagers away from their old traditions:
“He knew what evil lay upon this land. It was in the sun-symbols on the nurse’s apron, in that stupid woman’s terror, in the fey, feral eyes of Pyotr’s elder daughter. The place was infested with demons: the chyerti of the old religion. These foolish, wild people worshipped God by day and the old gods in secret; they tried to walk both paths at once and made themselves base in the sight of the Father.”

As the household spirits wither, the struggle between Medved and Frost intensifies until one of the villagers who has died of cold and starvation comes back to life as an “upyr” and Vasya and her brother Alyosha have to take a stake of birch wood and put it through her mouth until “the light went out of the corpse’s open eyes.”

The nightingale turns out to be a horse named Solovey (which means nightingale) who volunteers to help Vasya work against Medved and help Death bind him again. At first it seems like their heroism will be enough. Vasya is passionate in her desire to help Morozko, and it seems like saving her village is going to be her destiny when she gives this speech:

All my life,” she said, “I have been told ‘go’ and ‘come.’ I am told how I will live, and I am told how I must die. I must be a man’s servant and a mare for his pleasure, or I must hide myself behind walls and surrender my flesh to a cold, silent god. I would walk into the jaws of hell itself, if it were a path of my own choosing. I would rather die tomorrow in the forest than live a hundred years of the life appointed me.”

But a sacrifice from someone else is required before Medved is finally bound and Vasya can demand that the priest leave her village. She is successful in helping to save the village, which in the best fairy tale tradition means that she cannot stay there to enjoy it.

It can be difficult to sustain a fairy tale for the length of a 312-page novel, but Arden does this very well, drawing the reader in deeper as the tale goes on.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. August 18, 2017 7:37 am

    I just read the kind of interesting sort of tangential info that Vasylisa is the female variant of the name Vasily which is the Russian version of Basil, from the Greek word Basileus meaning king. As the years went on, the Greek letter shifted from sounding like a B to a V. In any event, this is apparently the reason many heroines in Russian folk tales have this name – because it implies royalty as in princess.

    • August 18, 2017 8:38 am

      Interesting! Thanks for that, and for recommending this book!

  2. August 18, 2017 3:38 pm

    I read this review with such interest, because I checked this book out of the library, but then didn’t read it. I wasn’t sure if I was up to Russian literature, for some reason. But it sounds like something I WOULD be interested in. So, ok. Back on my list!

    • August 18, 2017 8:32 pm

      It’s very Russian, but much more a fairy tale than literature!

      • August 19, 2017 3:31 am

        Yes! that’s a good way to describe it and that’s what intrigues me!

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