The phrase ‘Once upon a time’ is one that is ingrained in my childhood as firmly as ‘You’re going to miss the cartoons!’ and ‘No throwing balls in the house!’. From the very moment I discovered the world of the fae, I have been captivated by not only magic but the historical background from which it derives. Far from being the sweet and innocent tales we all know and love, often, our favourite bedtime stories are seeped in 14th century superstition and a horror that contextually captures the concerns of the time. With all this in mind, I was particularly excited to read the fairytale fantasy that is The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden. Based on the Russian fairytale of Morozko- ‘Father Frost’, my global folk lore knowledge was set to be expanded and my book shelf to be adorned with, yet, another fantastical novel. The fact that I got to enjoy this book in the breathtaking setting of Brugges was just an added bonus.
The tale of Morozko starts much like any other. An innocent girl gains a step-mother and is soon left in the snow sodden woods to die. Although Morozko (the personification of winter) at first intends to kill her, her kindness warms his heart and he instead gifts her with furs and bounties. Upon seeing her step-daughter’s riches, the wicked step-mother sends her own daughter off into the forest to retrieve the same fortune. Morozko, however, finds this girl rude and obnoxious and heartlessly freezes her in his anger. It is with this captivating story of both a cruel and generous winter that ‘The Bear and the Nightingale’ starts. Sitting by the glow of an oven fire, an old servant maid beguiles a brood of boyar’s children with the tale of Morozko in order to pass the winter’s night. This fable, however, is far more than a mere legend for the boyar’s youngest child Vasilisa. Born during the harshest of winters, Vasilisa enters the world in a rather messianic fashion; her life for her mother’s. Destined to be “special”, Vasilisa can see things that others cannot. She grows up speaking with the household spirits of the domovoi and the vazila. Unbeknownst to the village, it is she that maintains the harmony between the spirits and the frost-eyed man that lives in the forest. However, much like the tale predicts, her father’s new bride soon brings chaos. Fearing those same spirits as sinful demons, she calls upon a priest to prey upon fear and cast Vasilisa out with all those that practice the old ways. It isn’t long before the crops begin to fail, the wolves draw close and the ill-fated jack frost stakes his claim on the young. If legend is to be believed, however, winter can be both cruel and kind. Of course, it is all down to Vasilisa to figure it out.
So, what did I like about this book? Strangely, I liked that this book felt both fictitious and factual in equal parts. On one hand, the prose is whimsical in its replication of tales gone by, yet, on the other hand, the very prominent historical aspects of the book add real-life weight to the mise-en-scene. Much like a relic in a museum this book transports you back in time to the snowy confides of 14th century Russia. It is a Russia, however, that is experiencing times of great uncertainty. Although, old Rus’ had been Christian for five hundred years, the Russian people continued to honour both sides of their beliefs; praying at church during the day but paying tribute to the pagan spirits at night. By believably capturing life in a feudal Russia, I found that there was a lot of historical depth to this book. In particular, it interweaves the friction between Christianity and pagan traditions quite skilfully into the fabrics of the fairytale, whilst also maintaining a certain degree of intrigue. There is a tentative exploration of gender roles. Vasilisa, despite being neither a femme fatale nor a particularly inspiring female lead, is a representation of independence from the norm of child-bearing Russian maids of the time. In a number of ways, she embodies the resentment felt by females for being assigned far less significant roles. Consequently this makes her heroic role a teensy bit deeper…and, by that, I do mean teensy.
Now, what did I not like about this book? What I didn’t like about this book was that, oh my gosh it dragged! I’m not afraid to say that I skipped entire pages because there was just too much description (for me) – it really slowed the plot down. In particular, the talisman is a gift that is given to Vasilisa’s father by Morozko. The condition of this gift is that it be passed on to Vasilisa because it holds a mystical power that she will need to save them all. Morozko, even, goes to the lengths of threatening to kill one of her brothers if this condition is not met. So what does her father do? He doesn’t give it to Vasilisa and instead gives it to their old servant maid. Dunya keeps the talisman until her death and the plot doesn’t move along at all until that happens. My apologies to those that loved this book but, to me, it talked the talk of “ooo bad omens”, “magic”, “mystery” but didn’t walk the walk in terms of clear plot developments the way that I would expect from a fairytale novel. Theoretically, I know I’m meant to like Vasilisa for her steadfastness, valour and unconventional ugliness but I just couldn’t connect with her. She doesn’t seem to grow or intellectually progress from page to page. She just remains this innocent slightly boyish child that seeks little resolve. Therefore I feel there is no resolve, things just are and that is very frustrating.
In terms of creative license, there is no doubt that Arden hits the nail on the head. Morozko, the Russian winter demon, was traditionally seen as sometimes a force of good and sometimes of evil. Therefore, Arden solving this mystery by personifying these winters as two different people – brothers in fact. By interweaving the story of Morozko and Medved, the great Russian bear from another tale, Arden exerts her knowledge with palpability and creates a plausible narrative. Sadly though, although the tone and the atmosphere constructed throughout this book are undoubtedly reminiscent of fairytales gone by, the execution of the storyline itself is remiss. Like an old grandfather clock this book is beautifully ornate but half empty (and struggling) inside. It was a nice book to read in a winter comfort meets childhood nostalgia kind of way but there is a reason this is a good book to read at bedtime…
…it’ll slowly lull you to sleep.