I’ve been waiting all my life for a truly satisfying retelling of my all-time favorite fairy tale, “Vasilisa the Wise,” and Katherine Arden has delivered it in a novel that combines history, fantasy, and folk magic. The Bear and the Nightingale brings Vasilisa, here called Vasya, into contact with Morozko, Russian folklore’s brutal Winter King. The result is a surprisingly modern heroine who transcends genre.
Vasilisa is a recurring character in Russian fairy tales. The best-known tale features her as a motherless young woman tormented by her stepmother while her father is away. She is sent to get fire from the dreadful, flesh-craving Baba Yaga but emerges triumphant with the help of a magic doll her mother gave her, and in most versions she marries the tsar himself. Arden’s Vasya lives in a northern village in medieval Russia under Ivan II. Her mother, Marina, dies shortly after giving birth and leaves her to the care of a trusted servant. Vasya’s noble family lives far enough from Moscow to stay clear of most court intrigue and closer to the old ways, particularly the spirit world of pagan times. And those old beliefs, to which Vasya dedicates her life, are at the heart of this novel.
Vasya does not merely believe in the Russian spirit world, she is an active participant. She is friends with a water sprite (rusalka); she works with her household spirit (domovoi) to protect her family from evil; and as an accomplished equestrienne she has a devoted relationship with the spirit who inhabits the stable (vazila). Her stepmother, the pious Anna Ivanovna, also believes in spirits but is tormented by them and feels safe only in churches. The arrival of a certain Father Konstantin to their village pits the Russian Orthodox Church against the pagan spirit world, and the central conflict of the novel is thus established.
Regardless of her spiritual beliefs and practices, Vasya is a social misfit and a threat to patriarchal order. In a world where girls must marry or join a convent, Vasya does not conform: “All my life . . . 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.” No self-sacrificing female, she is constantly snatching food and running off to take care of herself or to commune with nature. She freely admits to being “bad” and failing to fulfill the requirements for femininity in her patriarchal culture, and, as we are reminded by so many male characters, she’s not even pretty.
Vasya needs all her strength to battle certain shadowy figures who have been tracking her movements since childhood. Village tensions mount throughout the novel, and Vasya finds herself in increasing danger as men like Father Konstantin deem her gifts and “wild” temperament as evil. Arden even adds vampires to this charged folklore blend, and there is a battle scene at the novel’s end that can hold its own alongside any other in epic fantasy. It’s what Arden does with the figure of Morozko that takes this novel to new places and imagines an interesting destiny for Vasya. Arden keeps us guessing to the very end: will the Winter King be the death of Vasya or will he save her? Is he the evil entity that has been plaguing her since girlhood? I won’t reveal Arden’s solution, but I am happy to announce that Vasya does not get married. She mounts the fabulous horse Morozko has given her and sets off with the intention of traveling the world.
Arden’s particular strength results from blending history with fairy tales, and this becomes the key that allows us to enter into the mentality of the past. She takes us to a time when spirits were real and lived alongside us. It is easy to imagine that certain people, like Vasya, communicated directly with them. One could be in dialogue with the other side, and it was possible to be a pagan and a Christian at the same time. At the end of this novel we are left with an important question: does evil rise up when we fail to strike a balance between old and new gods, between one set of fairy tales and another?