“Russian Folk Belief: A Fairytale” by Nayantara Nelson

In a certain province, in a certain village on the eastern rise of a sizeable plain sat a wood far enough from the activities of the populous as to not upset the threshold. Grigori’s house lay most detrimental in the circumstance, settled on the down slope of a green and muddy hill leading to the liminal boundary just across where the land flattens out. The house was made of damp wood, darkened and warped, a stain on the green sheet it sat on. It was crooked, either from the angle of the base or the age of its material. Soon after night, the morphed front door thrust open with a heavy, leathered kick. Grigori set out to tend his land and finish the work of the warmer season. The light of the early hours was still sheathed in the morning mist. This was how fall is.

Lonely work for a young man but expected of him, as it had been expected of his father and  father’s father before him. Less isolated for men with wives working nearer the home to trade glances and few, only necessary, words. A young wife had been endowed to Grigori but only for a time. Zoya; she was quiet and thin, her dejected presence hid the extent of her beauty and developed dark lines under her eyes. He did not love her but she did not love anything. Her body was a vacant shell of pale flesh and bone supports. Their wedding was overshadowed with anxiety and anticipation that lingered through the short year of their marriage. Life seemed stale but people got by, they worked and they survived and Grigori and Zoya did the same. Any moment spent between working hours, Zoya would sit on her chair out on the side of the house and stare blankly out towards the woods. In the evening she would be silent, inside, eyes out the window, glued to the still black between the brown barked shafts. She never spoke to him, only responded. The last clear memory of his wife was of the morning she took a moment away from the forest to look at her husband. Her eyes were inexpressive, one iris paralleled the mossy stones she was leaning against, the other hidden behind a lock of dark hair that had slipped from her tight braid. Their marriage stayed like this, consistent for a year, after which she left. Zoya’s body followed in the direction she was always looking and she disappeared into those in between black spaces. She hadn’t been seen since and the atmosphere was left sick with her impression. Warm days kept coming, again and again, and heavy work stayed steady, as it always had. This was during early summer.

Fall was encroaching on west Russia, the tree leaves were wilting and the air burned Grigori’s throat and lungs. His fingertips became more sensitive to the gashes received from the work he did, and the splinters transmitted from his tools. His skin felt thinner, wrapped tight around scarred knuckles. Zoya’s hands were once covered in calluses and the field dirt was permanent in her nails and the crevices of her palms. Her hands contradicted her fragility but revealed her many and strenuous years tending to field work. Grigory’s skin had always been sensitive, but he never complained and he hid his wounds, also hiding the contradiction to his masculinity. The sun had almost set behind the steeper hills in the southwest of the plain, his body cast a shadow over the only light hitting the latch he was ripping from the rusted gate. Its jagged edge cut a centimeter deep into the weak skin between thumb and pointer finger. Grigori shook off the blood and some of the pain, looking over to the trees that were growing darker. He took to staring at the woods now, manning the guard in his wife’s absence.

Upon hearing his sister’s call, he turned to see Eva walking the path to his home, as she usually checked on him once in awhile and cooked some of his dinners. Grigori wiped off his hands with a sweaty handkerchief and went inside, first filling a small washtub at the well pump near his porch. Eva came in and set down the basket she was carrying with her. She picked up a pot heavy with broth that was sitting on the table from the day before and hooked it over the stove. From her basket, she dropped in various cut vegetables and meat and sprinkled the mix with ground pepper. After a few minutes of stirring she knelt down at Grigori’s feet and began washing his hands and cuts with a wet cloth. Drops of watered down blood made ripples in the tub at Grigori’s side, the dirt sank but flecks of dust stayed swimming around at the top as he watched. The fire from the stove burned, warming the room, embers fluttered out and cracked, filling the silence.

Eva took the the tub and poured it out the window near the stove. “It’s quiet, the domovoi must be sleeping, but I’ll leave him some porridge.” She grabbed a covered bowl from her parcel, looked at her brother and smiled. Grigori said nothing.

“I’ll leave the stove to simmer and if you’re hungry later you can reheat the lapsha.” Eva sat on the chair across from Grigori and waited for a response.

When Eva came to visit, Grigori felt as though he was being treated like a child, it made him angry but he could never be angry at her. With a sigh he told her, “Go to your husband, cook his dinner, I’m sleeping” and then threw his cotton shirt to the floor and fell to his bed.

Eva laughed whole heartedly, “Aleksei will be fine, he’s a better cook than I am you know?” She sat at the edge of the mattress, “At least take off your boots. You’ll dirty the sheets and I don’t have the time to clean them again.” Grigori looked at her but said nothing, just thinking and keeping those thoughts to himself. Eva was a bright but modest-looking girl. However, between her constant smile and big brown eyes she could fool anyone into thinking she was beautiful.

She went on trying to make conversation, “You wouldn’t think that Aleksei would find joy in that sort of thing, he always looks serious and tries to act so tough,” she said giggling. Eva was kind, which separated her from the other women her age, the bored and bitter barely twenty-year olds that looked thirty and drained from their loveless marriages. Eva was only slightly younger than Zoya was but they looked to be a generation apart.

Grigori kicked his boots to the floor and shut his eyes, sighing again, “I’m sleeping.”

“Alright. I won’t be coming tomorrow or the day after, I’m seeing Aleksei’s mother up north.” Her voice was soft, “Don’t forget to cover the stew. Lapsha thickens if left out too long.” Grigori listened to her carrying herself on light steps to the door and she left without waiting for his response.

The next morning, Grigori could feel his heartbeat in his hand as it pulsed with the dull throbbing of his half-heeled gash. Morning passed, then midday, no work was done, the day was lazy. Later, after a slight headache, Grigori went and walked over the edges of his field barefoot, stepping on saturated blades of grass, the evening dew seeping up between his toes. Another step forward and the texture of the field changed, the ground seemed to reclaim the moisture, the dew was sucked back down leaving his feet dry and the earth too. He looked up and found himself only meters away from the edge of the woods, the liminal space. Grigori looked down and everything was still and the patch of grass he stood on was yellow. A slight breeze lifted up his chin and brought from behind a tree a few wispy locks of auburn hair. Four pink fingers curled over the rough bark, fingernails buried in a dirt coating. A dark eyebrow came into view, then a plump shoulder leaned out, exposing her chest. Grigori heard an airy titter and she was gone.

With heavy breath and wide eyes, Grigori found himself on the floor resting against the damp door inside his house, shut tight, trying to absorb the experience. He started to forget if it was real or not. He thought: a strange woman alone in such a dangerous place? He shook his head in disbelief and tried to convince himself of the “hallucination” and crawled back to bed. No work was done the next day, or the next. That naked shoulder visited him in every dream. When Eva returned on the third day, she mentioned the weeds that had started to grow again, the stalks that were still untrimmed, and the gate latch that hung crooked by a single nail.

“For months the crop has been dry, but now it seems you aren’t doing much to try to save it. It will come back twice as healthy if you finish pruning the stalks before snow fall and next season will be better.” Eva was attempting to be reassuring.

Grigori didn’t want to talk about his work, his mind was engaged with the only disturbance in his routine since Zoya. “I’ve seen a woman.”

“A woman?” Eva sounded intrigued, assuming he had meant a natural encounter with a young woman of his interest.

At the sound of her excitement his face tensed and his eyes darted back to her twice before starring at the floor. To clarify the situation, Grigory became serious and his voice got deeper. “She has kept me from my work,” He looked quickly to see Eva’s reaction, only to notice her confusion. He blew a puff of air, “I think she’s killing my crop.”

His sister was now worried. “Where! Where did you see her? Was she familiar? A foreigner?

“No,” Grigori paused. “In the woods.”

Eva firmly cupped his face, she looked scared. “You stay away! You hear me? Are you listening?” she said, exasperated. “She’s a bad omen and so are those woods, don’t let your grief blind you from that!”

Grigori shed off her hands. “Calm down! Don’t let those old stories scare you, they are meant to scare children. to keep them from running off.”

“They aren’t just stories, Grigori, they are a warning for those who dare take lightly the matters beyond that of peasants and field hands,” she cried.

Grigori felt like a child again, like having his hand slapped by their grandmother for cursing. “You don’t need to tell me, Eva! What would you know, you’re still a child yourself, so go on, I don’t need your help today. Go!”

He stood on the porch propping open the door with an extended arm and she walked toward him while using the edge of her skirt to dry her face. Before she left she laid her hand just above his elbow. “Please just try and be careful, don’t get too close to what we can’t understand.” Eva stepped down and Grigori shut the door behind her.

Over the next few days Grigori slowly worked, accomplishing next to nothing each day. The seconds between working on each stalk turned to minutes of him looking to the woods for a sign of the woman he saw. Every bird that flew from the trees made his heart beat a little faster. One night he thought he had a dream of her so vivid that he woke up in the dark and felt her holding him. Her skin was wet and he was able to feel her breath in his ear, Grigori himself was dripping in a cold sweat. Petrified that the slightest movement would disturb her, he stayed still and awake for hours trying to discern her presence from an illusion. He must have dozed back off for when he awoke again he was alone. There was a damp imprint of a body on the sheets next to him. Grigori changed out of his wet clothes and washed himself of his sticky sweat, while assuring himself that she was only a dream and the imprint was his own.

The nights after that he lost sleep and stayed up waiting for her to come back. Grigori sat at his window as the day went dark and was still sitting there as the black sky turned a dark blue again before dawn. He was expecting to see both Eva and her husband the next morning and with the thought of them, realized the condition that he had left his house and crop in. Not wanting to hear her insistent pleas and concerns, Grigori readied himself to finish the work that needed to get done, putting on his coat and setting out to do so before even the mist had come to meet the early day. For hours he worked tirelessly, work made easier by the weather that seemed out of season. The sky was cloudy and all day the air was warm and thick, in a fog that should have dispersed hours before. The usual cool current of air that would rustle the dry leaves on the ground was absent, making his surroundings eerily noiseless.

Grigori was finishing his last chore, putting in place a new latch on his gate, the old one lying in the soil between his feet. He hammered in a single nail before drifting off to stare at the woods that were mostly covered by the fog. For a moment he thought he could see a woman’s curves shadowed behind the screen but after focusing in his sight, he saw nothing. Grigori grabbed another nail from the tin that was sitting on the gatepost and as soon as he lined it up with the latch a gust of wind came in from south, blowing over the tin and away the misty veil that was shielding her image. A woman, clear as spring water and naked, was resting her cheek against the trunk of a tree, grinning playfully and looking back at Grigori who, after pausing in his shock, took off at a swift sprint in her direction. Before he made half the distance between them, she slowly turned and started off at a trot into the woods. Losing sight of her did not slow Grigori’s pace. He hurdled over the dead trees and broke through sharp branch curtains, collecting scratches on his face and arms. He followed glimpses of her in the direction of the breeze that carried her singing.

When the singing ceased, Grigori turned in confused circles, desperately searching for her. The echo of bird songs grew so loud in his head that he covered his ears with both hands and tripped over a tree root, falling onto his chest a chin. With his fall returned that eerie noiselessness. Grigori saw her, facing away from him, crouching down hugging her knees with her head lowered, her wet wavy hair clinging in strands to her back. Slowly Grigori got to his feet, now hearing only his pulse racing in his ears. He reached out his hand and walked until his fingertips were centimeters from gracing her shoulder blade. Instead of touching her he retracted his hand and walked around to where she was facing him, she did not lift her head or move. After a moment like this she stood up and met his gaze, she stood so calmly and openly, like she was unaware of her being naked and almost immediately she turned sharp and started off again with skip in her step. She kept a shorter distance between them and peered over her shoulder as if she were beckoning Grigori to follow with the turn of her heels.

He walked behind her, feeling drawn to her. Grigori’s pace kept slow and regular until he lost her behind an arm of green leaves that had yet to succumb to the effects of fall. Not seeing her for those few seconds sent a pang of anxiety into his gut and he sprinted through the leafy branch that led him to the small, familiar lake he knew lay less than a mile from his home. Grigori and Eva spent summers playing there as children, guarded over by their parents or grandmother who would watch them wade in shallow pools, splashing each other. The memory and the nostalgia that followed made him feel bitterly alone, but upon seeing the woman again he abandoned all feeling. She was combing through her hair with her fingers and humming to the tune of a well-known lullaby.

A tear slipped from Grigori’s eye and he was unsure if it was a result of the beauty of her voice or the fear that did not stop him from approaching her on trembling legs. Trying to find his own voice, Grigori coughed out the words, “I-I know who you are.”

She was sitting on a large stone with one foot dipping into the water, looking into her wavering reflection. In reply to Grigori’s utterance she rotated her face sideways and shot her eyes up to look at him with a blink that wrinkled her nose and squeezed closed her eyelids for a part of a second. She closed them again, fixing the angle of her head straight before responding, “Hmmm?” in a feminine, sing-songy voice.

Grigory tried to regain some stability to his speaking but only managed to mutter, “you are a Ru-rusalka, a-a-a being of the liminal spaces, beyond the threshold.” She looked back at him, fluttering her eyelashes and grinning as she placed her chin to rest in her hand. She slightly widened her moss-green eyes staring up at him and nodded. Grigori started shaking less as he sat down beside her, rubbing his thighs, also staring at her reflection that reflected her staring at him. “You are said to live beneath the ice of the lake in the winter months, only to come out in springtime and live throughout the rest of the year in the dew and the drops of water that come through the holes in a peasant’s roof. You are the sinner left on earth that steals the moisture in the soil, killing the crops, and pulling girls’ hair when they bend to plant seeds. The rusalki are not to be underestimated.” Grigori was merely reciting legends at this point, without processing the meaning behind the words that were compiled into the stories which he grew up hearing. “You are the trickster that drowns those you draw to the water. You are the result of women who die bad deaths, before their allotted time here on earth.”

Grigori would have continued on with his empty words if the rusalka had not kicked up the water that splashed him in the face. She was laughing as she leaped from the stone to another a few feet away, crouching to hug her legs and peering at Grigori from behind her knees. She was like a child playing a game with him and it was his turn and she was waiting to see what he would do. Grigori quickly wiped his face with his sleeve and looked at her stunned. She lifted her head to reveal her wide and honest smile and Grigori broke into a fit of laughter with her, interrupted by the sound of thunder from the cloudy sky. The rusalka stood up, her head held back as rain started to hit her face, and she laughed again, sincerely. Grigoro smiled too, tearing up now from the utter relief, he felt a mountain of anger and sadness lifted from him. The rain hit his face and made his tears look like rain and was himself, happy.

He jumped to the rock that the rusalka was standing on and stood close to her. She did not try to run off and did not flinch when Grigori put his coat over her shoulders. They looked to the sky and then back at each other. Grigori grabbed her hand and pulled her off of the stone onto the wet sand and started leading her back into the woods. She ran behind him through the trees clutching his coat around her chest, her feet and flesh impervious to the sharp rocks she ran over and branches they were running through.

When they made it to the open land of his grassy field he turned to her, out of breath. “A rusalka probably isn’t used to being the one following another.” The rusalka just grinned at him sweetly.

They made their way through the puddles in the field and ran under his roof for shelter from the rain. Gusts of wind and water followed behind through his open door extinguishing the fire. The domovoi hid in fear, peering from the flickering embers in the stove, his porridge untouched. Grigori was laughing and spun around to see her. The rusalka’s teasing smile fell serious with the rest of her expression and Grigori’s coat, as if on it’s own, slid from her shoulders, falling around her icy feet. She laid a fragile hand on the nape of his neck, the other on his chest gaining momentum as she pushed him back, both falling onto the bed. The rusalka’s hair fell forward over her shoulders, releasing small drops of rain onto his face and bedding. She pressed her open lips to his mouth. She smelled like soil. The rusalka’s face relaxed and from her core let out a heavy stream of water. The stream filled his lungs, surging through his veins, leaving pools in his chest and skull. Grigori’s last vision of her was of her mossy, vacant eyes staring back, he drowned in them, and again she was gone. Grigori was left alone.

 

*  *  *

Eva’s hands were bloody and the blood froze to her skin. She couldn’t break through to the lake and kept banging on the solid blanket of ice, screaming,  “Come out you witch, you unclean thing! You are the Devil who stole him!” Aleksei stood on the bank with his muscled arms crossed, giving her space. His face brooding, his eyebrows were furrowed, stern and observant. Eva’s whaling was animalistic until she fell silent, other than her muffled choking. Her eyes were closed, afraid to open, she was kneeling on numb legs, her cuts frozen shut. Flakes fell and gathered in Aleksei’s blond hair and melted onto his wool shoulders. He lifted his heavy boot out of the deep snow placing it on the ice, testing it to be sure it could hold the weight of his huge stature. He said nothing as he walked toward his wife, kneeling down, wrapping gentle arms around Eva. She cried harder, “she stole my brother! how could this have happened?” Aleksei’s brow softened and Eva looked like a child in his embrace with her tiny frame weeping against his broad chest. The ice held them both. This winter came early.

“Eva of the Elements” by Nayantara Nelson

In a certain province, in a certain village, there lived an old peasant with his three daughters. Eva, the youngest daughter, loved nothing more than to be amidst nature and its elements. Eva left for the fields, as that was where she spent her time day in and day out, weaving a crown out of three blades of grass and singing old tales.

f4f9039758136b57659d427c4d4b5554Back in the village, came a whirlwind tornado sent by Koschei the Deathless. It tore through the village, capturing and carrying off all the women that resided there, except for Eva who was playing off in the fields.

When Eva came back, she found her sisters missing! “They have been stolen!” cried her father, “you must go and bring them home, little daughter.” Her father had shed his tears and off she went and left their hut.

She passed through the village where the men were weeping, “Our wives and mothers and daughters have been stolen!” The men wept and wept. “You must go and bring them home, little Eva,” so off she went and left their village.

Eva followed the direction in which the wind was pulling her. She suspected it was Koschei the Deathless’ wind that was carrying off the women.

She walked on and on for a long time or a short time and came upon a sea maiden, sitting on her reef a little ways out into the sea, and by her side stood a mangy horse.

“Oh little Eva, fetch some fresh water for my horse, for the only water I can offer is filled with salt.”tumblr_n83xokEtA51t9ypv8o1_500

Eva did as she was asked and ran off until she came across a well. She took a bucket and some rope and cast it down; she filled the bucket with water, ran back over and poured it out into the sea.

The sea maiden took a small drop of that fresh water and let it fall onto the shore. The small drop then turned into the same horse, which was then stronger than all the horses in the land. “Take him; he will carry you far and fast.”

Eva rode on for a long time or a short time and came upon a crooked tree.

“Oh Eva, strip the bark from my back, for it is throwing me off balance and it is the only place I cannot reach.”

Eva did as she was asked and stripped the bark from the back of the crooked tree. He then stripped a piece of bark from his highest branch and let it fall to the ground, where it turned into a suit of armor, equipped with a sword. “Though this is only made of my bark, it can crush even the mightiest of stones.”

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The wind which was guiding Eva began to die down. Eva rode on for a long time or a short time and eventually came upon a firebird, locked away in a golden cage.

“Oh sweet Eva, set me free from this cage, use your sword to cut through the lock.”

Eva did as she was asked and cut through the golden lock. The firebird flew up into the sky and Eva asked if he noticed any wind. The firebird felt the wind on his wings and pointed Eva in the direction it was pulling. He then took a burning ember from his feathers and let it fall onto Eva’s hand. From there the firebird flew off.

Eva rode on in the direction she was pointed and she then came upon Koschei the Deathless, guarding his cave where he kept all the women from the village. Eva was ready and well equipped for the fight.

“I’ll return your women if you can answer my riddle, no need to bother with a battle,” said Koschei the Deathless. “Here it is. What is Koschei the Deathless most afraid of?”

Eva thought for many moments or just a few. “Koschei the Deathless must be most afraid of death!”

“Death by what exactly?” he asked, she did not know. While Eva answered correctly, she failed to answer completely so Koschei the Deathless lifted her up in his whirlwind, dropped her in the cave along with the other women, and sealed it off with a mighty boulder.

With a running start, she plunged into the boulder, which then turned to dust at the touch of her armor. Eva helped her sisters up on the horse and then the rest of the women too, before getting up herself and riding off.

Koschei the Deathless returned to find his captives gone and flew after them. hesperides_rackham_small

The horse ran and ran, carrying all the women on its back, until they came upon the crooked tree, who now stood straight as an arrow.

“Please crooked tree, hide us!” they cried. With his bark he made a shield around them to protect and hide them. Koschei flew by in his search.

The horse ran a long time more, with all of the women, until they came upon the sea maiden.

“Please sea maiden, help us!” they cried. The horse jumped into the sea, along with the women. With her waves, the sea maiden opened up around them to protect and hide them. Koschei the Deathless flew right over.

The horse ran only a short time or so after, with all of the women on his back, until they came to the edge of the village with Koschei the Deathless still close behind. With nothing left to defend or hide them, Eva just then remembered the burning ember. As she held it in her hand, the wind that was carrying Koschei the Deathless blew it into an uncontrollable fire that set him ablaze as he turned and flew away terrified.

The women all returned home to their husbands and sons and fathers, as did Eva and her sisters to their father and all was right again.

Arthur Rackham - ''The Dance in Cupid's Alley'' (600)

Eva left for the fields where she weaved a crown out of three blades of grass and sang, “Koschei the Deathless is most afraid of death. Koschei’s afraid he may expire. Koschei the Deathless is most afraid of death, especial death by fire.”

Comments

            In my fairy tale, “Eva of the Elements,” I made a few decisions in the way I present certain details, which would not classically fit with the tales we have read in class. I modeled only the structure of my piece on the tale “The Magic Swan Geese,” but in order to bring across my own themes, I included a few differences which I thought were necessary.

The title, “Eva of the Elements,” refers to the elements of nature; wind, water, earth, and fire. I got the idea for the title from tales like “Ivan the Peasant’s Son” and “Vasilisa the Fair,” but while these examples refer to attributes of the characters themselves, my title refers to my character’s connection with nature and the element-theme I present throughout the tale. I wanted to subtly connect each of the elements to specific characters; Koschei as the wind, the sea maiden as water, the crooked tree as earth, the firebird as fire, and Eva as nature itself. In the tale the heroine is only known as Eva, rather than her full title. I chose to do this since I wanted Eva to discover these elements along her journey, instead of initially being seen as “of the elements.” Her journey is a growing process and each of the elements adds to Eva as a representation of nature; as she encounters the villain and each of the donors she encounters a piece of herself, in this sense. Where I have strayed from Luthi’s functions of a fairy tale, is where I describe Eva’s connection to nature. This connection gives her character depth, and while I don’t bluntly display it throughout my tale, it is still a major theme in itself and acts to separate Eva from all the other women in her village.

Another, more modernized, feature I included for my hero was to have her as a women, capable of going into battle. The village asks her to save the women, rather than asking a man, because I wanted to place my tale in a world where a woman would be just as capable as the traditional hero, while maintaining the same skills as a traditional heroine. The horse, armor, and fire are given to Eva by the donors to help her in her battle just as they would be given to a man in the tales we’ve read in class, but, instead of putting her completely in a hero’s role, I kept the tests similar to that which would be seen in a heroine’s quest (stripping the crooked tree’s bark was based on the little girl picking the apples off the tree in “The Magic Swan Geese”). Also, while Eva intends to use the magical agents in a battle, she uses most of them in everything but that. Instead of a battle, I incorporated a riddle to be used in her encounter with the villain; I did this to give the opportunity for Eva to show that she could also use her head to face her foe, even though in the end she ultimately defeats Koschei the Deathless with the fire. I wrote it in this way to prove her every bit as capable as both the hero and heroine in traditional Russian fairy tales. I chose Koschei the Deathless as the villain in my tale because of his traditional role as a womanizer and my untraditional description of the heroine being a strong warrior-type; I thought this presented a nice contrast between the villain and the hero. Also, in my research on Koschei the Deathless, I found that he is sometimes seen using a whirlwind tornado in his villainy, thus fitting in with the nature-element theme. Despite the classic illustration of the needle in the egg being his soul and source of immortality, I chose to leave that part out and instead substitute fire as a means of killing him to also better fit my theme.

The last line in my tale is not a final formula in the perspective of the narrator, but it is a rhyme that I included to tie up the story. The rhyme that Eva sings is the complete answer to the riddle that she was given when confronting Koschei the Deathless. I wanted to end my tale with this line as a final detail, evident of the heroine’s capabilities. In the end, Eva not only physically defeats her enemy, but is also able to outwit him by discovering on her own, the answer to his riddle. Having Eva be the one who sings this rhyme, it acts as the self-realization of her own potential, which I thought had a stronger impact than it would if the narrator had sang it. Through her journey I wanted to show, Eva, as nature, gaining the pieces (elements) that make up the whole of nature and thus gaining the stepping stones to her own maturity.

Exploring the Nature of Baba Yaga

An accumulative understanding of Baba Yaga and her attributes, based on the analyses of fairy tales featuring her, illustrates her to represent multiple forms and functions. Baba Yaga is thought of as an ambivalent being, neither fully good nor fully evil, she is also recognized as a Goddess of Nature who provides tasks to test the main actor, or hero, as well as assistance, usually in the form of a physical gift or piece of advice, to help the hero reach his goal (Forrester 2010, 427). Death, also being an aspect of nature, is often strongly affiliated with Baba Yaga, as she is seen living in a hut surrounded by human skulls and a fence made of bones, she is can be referred to as a Goddess of death (Von Franz 1974, 197). Very different from these divine qualities that function to help or hold back the hero, Baba Yaga is sometimes depicted as solely malevolent, whose only function is to harm the hero. The two fairy tales, “Vasilisa the Fair” and “Burenushka the Little Red Cow,” provide a stark contrast between the understanding of Baba Yaga as a divine being who acts as tester and donor to the hero and the understanding of her as an ordinary witch, who acts only as the villain of the story.

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In the tale “Vasilisa the Fair,” both Baba Yaga’s affiliation with nature and her function as a tester and donor is emphasized. The Baba Yaga in this tale, lives in a glade in the forest (a threshold), adding a naturalistic backdrop for her illustration as a Goddess of nature. She is also shown to have ownership of three horsemen who are said to be the day, the night, and the sun, all of which are natural parts of the world. Baba Yaga’s claimed ownership of these elements constitute her recognition as a divine being since she holds power over that which affects the earth. (Von Franz 1974, 197). Vasilisa, the heroine, is sent by her stepmother to fetch a light from Baba Yaga and when she arrives, she is immediately set to finish a list of chores, in an impossibly small amount of time, and is threatened to be eaten if she fails. Baba Yaga serves her function here as a tester by assigning horrible and tedious tasks for Vasilisa, in order for her to get what she came for. The idea that Baba Yaga also acts as a donor, is shown when she rewards Vasilisa for completing everything that was asked of her, thus passing her test (Osterman lecture 2/23). Baba Yaga gives her the light that she requests, along with the ability to incinerate her evil stepmother and stepsisters, in the form of a fiery skull (Chandler 2012, 38). On top of depicting her characteristics as a donor, this imagery also supports Baba Yaga’s relationship with death.

bilibinbaba6   vaswhite

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In many fairy tales Baba Yaga is depicted alongside evidence that supports her divine image. However, in the tale “Burenushka the Little Red Cow” Baba Yaga, who is referred to as Yagishna, merely exhibits the characteristics of an ordinary witch and story villain in her interactions with the main actor, or heroine, Maria. Unlike how a Baba Yaga that has the qualities of a tester and donor is illustrated, Yagishna is depicted only as malevolent and does neither of these things for Maria. Much like most, common story villains, Yagishna is merely out to harm Maria and when she fails to do so, she turns her into a goose (Afanas’ev 1976, 146). This ability of Yagishna’s, to change people into things such as animals, is a major characteristic of the ordinary witch and supports her image as such, rather than a Goddess of any kind. In some illustrations of her, Baba Yaga has this ability along with characteristics that paint a more complex picture than that of just a villain, but in this tale, it was the only focus of her power as an otherworldly being and nothing else was mentioned that would be evident in supporting the notions of divinity and fairness (fairness to a certain extent) that Baba Yaga is often related to.

Soviet Adaptations of Russian Fairy Tales

The Soviet film adaptations of fairy tales from Russian folk belief, do an excellent job of stripping away the authenticity and the initial themes of the original narratives. For the purpose of fulfilling the Soviet agenda, these plots are altered and simplified to correlate with the ideologies of the party. I chose two narratives from Afanas’ev’s collection, “The Foolish Wolf” and “The Bear, the Dog, and the Cat”, so to compare them to the film adaptation, “There Once was a Dog,” which reflects plot features from both written texts. The aspects of the film that are similar to “The Foolish Wolf” are few, but I did notice that the moment where the wolf says “remember how you were chasing me?” and the fact that the character is a wolf instead of a bear, are, I think, very telling features in this narrative (Afanas’ev 1976, 450) . Though the film’s plot mainly follows “The Bear, the Dog, and the Cat,” including these aspects, reflects an important relationship. A wolf and a dog are closely related genetically, but they have been enemies since in is the dog’s job to drive them away from their master’s home and livestock. Dogs and bears don’t have any sort of relationship, not even as enemies, but wolves go hand-in-hand with of history’s function for the domesticated dog in rural areas. The idea that the dog receives help from a wolf when he is starving and then vice versa, reflects their “contradicting” relationships, but creates a theme of friendship despite their roles as natural enemies, thus expressing the Soviet cliché, “friendship of the peoples” (Kononenko). In order to gain public trust, the soviet union attempted to appear accepting of all people, as the wolf was of his previous “enemy.”

"There Once was a Dog"

“There Once was a Dog”                                                             tvtropes.org

One key aspect of the film that differs from the “The Bear, the Dog, and the Cat,” is at the beginning when it states “his masters were kind people who put up with him anyway.” Jil Byl Pes (Eduard Nazarov, 1982) In the text, when it mentioned the dog was old and basically useless, the master immediately drove him away and the dog says to the bear “… this is human justice nowadays” and goes on to describe how humans will keep something around as long as they have use for it but throw it away when there is no use (Afanas’ev 1976, 453). Tossing aside something like dog who served them when he could, depicts human qualities of cruelty and selfishness that I think is relevant to the nature of the folktale and the theme regarding mutual support (or lack there of). The lack of this in the film, doesn’t necessarily depict the peasants as kind and perfect beings, showing how they threw an old boot at him, but it does lessen the extent of their cruelty by excusing their actions with the idea that the old dog’s presence was detrimental to them and their work. Only after the dog is shown getting in the way, tripping his masters, he is driven out.

The humans in the film, instead, function to portray a Ukrainian-nationality stereotype that goes along the lines of the soviet agenda. The beginning of the film specifically mentions the tale as being Ukrainian. The nationality stereotypes are seen through the peasants who are depicted wearing Ukrainian dress, working on the farm, and always being either “jolly” (with the love struck couple and the singing and festivities), or they were shown being clumsy or frightened. This is opposed to how soviet films tend to portray Russians, who are usually depicted as “capable and brave” (Kononenko). The humans’ home in the film is even shown to be infested with flies. This paints the Ukrainian peasants as the sort of “backward” people, doing “backward” things, like living in filth.

Soviet gender stereotypes are also depicted very clearly in the film; through the women who were always working, singing, or quiet, that is until the infant is taken and they are shown standing there screaming and not doing anything that would be helpful in the situation, while the man is the one that goes out running to save the baby. The Soviets view on how women should be is best stated by Natalie Kononenko, “the reigning ideal…was to be passive, submissive, hard-­working, and self-­‐sacrificing. The dog and the wolf in the film don’t seem to express any of these stereotypes, but the humans, like the animals, emphasize the notions of friendship and citizenry, like when they took the dog back in and cared for him again after he “rescues” their baby.

It is the same with the bear in the folktale as it is with the wolf in the film. The wolf allows the dog to defeat him in a fight for the infant as a plan to get the dog back in the masters good graces, making him look like a hero. In the story, however, there is another plot feature supporting the notion of human cruelty, when the dog is caught giving food to the cat he is beaten by the peasant’s wife. This happens despite the dog’s heroic moment of saving her baby. This also shows the humans refusing to treat the dog worth his services to them, contrasting them to the mutual give and take between the dog and the bear. The animals in the folktale were the ones exhibiting selflessness, unlike the humans. The film muted this contrast by keeping out this scene, showing the humans to be similar to the animals in their good deeds and bad deed being equal to that of the dogs. The film keeps everything fair and equal; the dog gets old, the peasants keep him, he gets in the way, they throw him out, he rescues their child, and he is allowed back home. This is just like the wolf and the dog; the wolf befriends the dog, the dog gets him food in the winter, the wolf helps the dog look like a hero, and the dog saves him from the peasants when he is caught in the home. These Soviet films censor any violence or death that the folktale included (the dog being beaten and the dog dying at the end). The purpose being, as Kononenko puts it “to encourage the the development of citizenry that was docile and dependant on the state.”

Fairy_Tales_From_The_Brothers_Grimm_Old_Sultan_1_By_Walter_Crane

Clever Plan to get the dog back in his master’s good graces.                                                       whisperingbooks.com

The original text would have been intended for people of all ages, whereas the film seems aimed at children. The voices of the narrator, the dog, and the wolf are all deep and have a slow pace, giving it a lullaby effect, emphasizing the notion of docility. This is also reflected in the film’s classic 2D animation. The innocent sense you get watching these cartoons distract from any subconscious messages, or ideologies, transmitted through the storyline of the film. The point of the film seems to completely strip away the folk belief from the original narrative, replacing it with the Soviet ideologies mentioned. All the scenes that were left out or altered were done so purposely so that the film depicted the stale Soviet notions of equality, giving, and friendship. Cutting away the ideas from the original narratives, makes the film’s theme more focused and allows the Soviet message to be fed through indirectly and absorbed by the audience.