Bear and the Nightingale: A Novel, Katherine Arden, author; Kathleen Gati, narrator
On a cold winter night, in a house in a remote place in Russia, the children’s nurse, Dunya, was asked by their mother, Marina Ivanova, wife of Pyotr Vladimirovich, to tell the fable about Frost, a creature of many names; Frost or Morozko, was the demon of winter. He was known also as Karachun, the Death God. He had a demon brother, the bringer of storms, Medved, the Bear. They did not get along. The Bear’s evil brings the fire. The frost king brings the cold and ice.
Marina is unique in a special way since she has the ability to see demons as her mother did, but her mother’s gifts were greater. Her mother was referred to as the swan-maiden. In her village, offerings were made to them and they all lived in happy and mostly peaceful harmony.
The fable told to the children is about Boris Borisovich and his daughter named Marfa. His wife, her step mother, was greedy and resented her. She wanted her to be wed to the creature of many names, the winter demon, in order to get rid of her permanently. Darya Nikolaevna convinced Boris to take her into the woods and to leave her beside a particular tree. She wished her to become the bride of the frost king. She did not expect her to return. It was a cold night, and although she grew colder and colder, when she met the demon, she showed no fear. She was gentle, resilient and respectful, and he was impressed with her courage. Although he kept taunting her, basically by asking her if she was warm enough, she always told him that she was quite warm enough. He kept making it colder and colder. She persisted in telling him she was warm enough. Moved by her lack of resistance and quiet acquiescence, he decided to set her free, and he returned her to her home with gifts and jewels. Her step-mother grew even angrier. She wanted her own daughter to be rewarded, convinced that her rewards would be even greater. She convinced Boris to take Lisa to the tree also. Lisa was not gentle or kind, she was rude and defiant. When Boris went looking for her because she did not return on her own, he found the child frozen. Her death led to another’s. Lisa was not rewarded as her mother had expected, and her mother was broken.
When the story continued and the Dunya had finished telling the tale, the reader learned that although Marina was very fragile, very thin and weary looking, she was happily pregnant, and she wanted to have another child, a child “like her mother was”. With the birth of that child, named Vasilisa, Marina’s life came to an end, and life in the village began to change. Vasilisa was a free spirit. She loved the winter and the trees, the river and the creatures that were living in the house and in the forest. The tongues began to wag. They believed she was a witch. She was fearless, a natural tomboy.
Dunya was now Vasilisa’s nurse too, but she had really taken the place of her mother in all ways. Marina’s gifts were passed onto Vasilisa, and she also had the ability to see visions, to see and speak to the spirits. Her gifts were even greater than her mother’s. She was unafraid, actually engaged and befriended the demons. She talked to rusalka, the water spirit who taught her to swim, to vazila, the spirit of horses, who taught her how to talk to the horses, to the horses who taught her how to ride, to the domovoi who lived in the oven and did chores around the house, to the twig-man who lived in the trees, to the vodianoy in the river. She was kind to them and they were equally kind to her.
After several years alone, when Vasilisa was about 7 years old, Pyotr decided to take another wife, to arrange for the marriage of Olga, his oldest daughter, and to introduce his sons, Kolya and Sasha, at court. Marina’s brother was the Grand Prince in Moscow. He wanted to protect his control over the kingdom and he agreed to the marriage of Olga to Vladimir, a grandson of the Grand Prince, Ivan Kalita. By marrying him to someone who was not of royal birth, he would cease to compete to rules the kingdom. Marina’s brother wanted the kingdom to be delivered to his son Dimitri.
When Pyotr was at the court, there was a strange man there as well. His son Kolya antagonized him and to save his son from the man’s revenge, Pyotr made a bargain with him. Unknown to Pyotr, the man had been seeking to find Vasilisa because of her special gifts. He gave him a necklace, a blue stone on a chain, which was an Amulet and admonished him to give it to his last daughter and to instruct her to keep it with her always. Otherwise, he would return and take the life of Kolya.
The Grand Prince agreed to betroth his sister Anna Ivanova to Pyotr. She also saw demons and had been driven to the brink of madness, weeping often. He wanted her to be gone so her reputation would not taint his. Pyotr returned home to introduce her to his other children. When she realized that Vasilisa saw the demons also, she took an immediate dislike to her and blamed her for bringing them there. She believed Vasilisa was a witch. Pyotr gave the blue stone on the chain to Dunya and instructed her to give it to Vasilisa, but she did not. She kept it until she was old enough to understand what it was.
Soon a priest arrived on Pyotr’s land. He changed the character of the village. He appeared pious; he painted icons; he preached against paganism. Yet he was not pure. The priest taught them to fear G-d, to fear the fire. They needed to fear G-d to be saved. He was the messenger of G-d. The fear bred distrust and suspicion. The demons were starving because there were no offerings. The crops began to fail, the weather became brutal. The people grew unhappy, and soon they were afraid. Fear was dangerous. It strengthened the bear. The winters grew colder, the crops failed, the people were hungry, angry and afraid.
Their accumulated fear aroused the demons. They were no longer docile. Animals died violently and children were discovered dead in the snow. Vasilisa was warned by the demons that after fear came fire and then came famine. They told her that Father Konstantine would bring about the end. He preached the fear of G-d. The bear was awakening. As Vasilisa was told that she should “beware the dead, it will be a hard winter, you must not leave the forest” the evil winter king was working his spells over Father Konstantine. The winter king wanted a witch to torment. That demon thrived on fear.
The world of the spirits was clashing with the world of G-d. There was a clash between paganism and religion, between believers and non believers. What was good and what was evil? Were the devil and G-d, the powerful and the powerless, the superstitious and the realists competing for power? Vasilisa tried to save her family and those citizens protected by her father on his lands, but they did not appreciate her efforts. They called her a witch. Their growing fear brought with it great danger. The people had been content and happy until the priest arrived. Now the demons were starving and fighting back. The dangerous bear was, indeed, awakening. Konstantine insisted that if they didn’t fear G-d, the fire would come. They were afraid of the fire, but the fire would actually come because of the fear he was causing. They began to blame Vasilisa for the things that were going wrong.
What did the bay stallion represent? Who was the nightingale? Who or What was the bear? What was the meaning of the bird pendant that Aloysha’s pendant gave to Vasilisa? Why did the demons listen to Vasilisa? Why did Anna believe the visions were in her mind, that she was mad, but that Vasilisa, without fear, believed they were real and was unashamed? What similarities were there between the life of Vasilisa and the life of Marfa, between Vasilisa’s step mother and Marfa’s, between Marfa’s fate and Vasilisa’s?
This novel was read authentically, without undue emotion, and with just the proper tone and stress to keep the reader engaged and guessing. The retelling of the Russian fable was very engaging.