Inspired by the lore

Inspired by the lore

Katherine Arden’s The Bear and the Nightingale is a novel that draws on Russian folklore and magic – and it is a deep-winter tale of shadows and starlight and snow. There is an element of fantasy in here, and hope, and beautiful writing.

In northern Rus, Vasya is born different, and that much is evident from the time she learns to walk. She has something of a witch in her, like her mother who died shortly after her birth. Her father, Pyotr, notices this at once. The little girl sees and hears what others do not. Time moves on, Pyotr marries again, a pious, shrill young woman related to the royal family, and brings her home. Vasya, during this time, grows more and more curious, and more and more sensitive to the world around her, particularly when there is a chill in the air and the winter brings with it a fanatical priest by the name of Konstantin.

The clash of the old religion with the new is one of the focal points of The Bear and Nightingale. The priest manages to whip up a frenzy in the area, frightening listeners with tales of hellfire and eternal damnation. Fear drives the people to abandon offerings they had left for nature spirits – who are very real. And Vasya, caught between the old ways and the new, growing up in a tense household and trying to make the most of it, struggles to keep the Old Ones happy – and ward off something far more sinister.

The characters in The Bear and the Nightingale are painstakingly and convincingly portrayed. Vasya is sensitive, and precocious, and has an air about her that distracts those who look at her, for good or for ill. The Old Ones see her and she acknowledges and respects them, a courtesy the newly arrived priest tries to destroy. She learns horse-riding and manages to keep the old ways in secret in spite of the religious fear and frenzy taking control of her household. In that, Vasya is unique, a sharp, spirited soul who sees and hears Konstantin’s radicalism for what it is. It is an attitude that infuriates the priest. The girl asks too many questions, she knows too much, and she is attractive because she is simply herself. Vasya makes no effort to emulate anybody she is not.

Dunya, the cook and second mother to Vasya, means well and tries to keep the girl happy. Pyotr has obtained a mysterious necklace that is cold to the touch from an equally mysterious figure on his trip to Moscow. He entrusts the item to Dunya, who keeps it for Vasya until she is older. A decision that gives her nightmares, for that necklace is for Vasya alone.

As for the priest, Konstantin…he is young and hot-blooded, and his faith drives him to rigidity. His personality is magnetic and he believes he hears the voice of God. The delicate balance of Vasya’s household and neighbourhood is upset with his sermons, and he knows the power of his words. He is impetuous and harsh. But when the voice in the shadows tells him to act, how can he not? Especially since the voice chooses its words carefully, and claims to be God? He is too mired in dogma to question what he sees and hears.

Anna, Vasya’s stepmother, is ill-tempered and temperamental. She sees spirits everywhere (demons, as she calls them) and she believes she is insane. She also does not care for Vasya, believing the girl irreligious. In that, Anna is very much a fairytale stepmother, insensitive, a little deranged, and jealous of the girl not born to her. And Pyotr, Vasya’s father, is something of an enigma. He is distant from his daughter but cares for her. Even so, his wife overrules whatever he has to say about his daughter.

Given the scope and length of the book, The Bear and the Nightingale is complex, far more complex than the blurb suggests. The world is constructed in meticulous detail, Vasya’s exploits are revealed gradually. The author’s use of language is elaborate, sometimes laborious, and oftentimes lyrical. It is, however, very slow. The ‘demons’ of Anna’s hysterics, like the domovoi, for example, are introduced carefully. That this is a winter setting is repeated time and time again, and there is a figurative coat of frost that decorates everything in the story. It does take a little time and effort to get into the novel.

Put together, The Bear and the Nightingale is a deceptively simple story. There are tales within tales, and mysteries within mysteries, and an understanding of Russian folklore. Vasya’s story is layered with mystery, and complex characters, and magic, and a hint of romance.

Overall a slow but remarkable read.



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