The Bear & The Nightingale

Everything is going great and life is sweet. I even managed to finish a book and I want to tell you about it here because it was so visual. It was the newly-published The Bear & The Nightingale (2017) by Katherine Arden. It is a re-telling of a Russian fairy tale. It is very Russian and very fairy. It is packed with starry nights, snow, dark forests, horses, wolves, spirits, demons, vampires, painted icons and priests ‘of terrible beauty’. Even rich people are poor. Women wear sarafans and men wear embroidered boots. It is the story of Vasya, a young girl who has second sight. This gets her into a lot of trouble but she is able to do something to save at least some members of her family and village when bad things come crawling out of the woods.

The story has an interesting premise. Vasya’s family believe in guardian spirits that protect against the bad things. There’s a spirit of the lake, the fields, the stable, the courtyard, the oven, the bath house, etc etc. These spirits are morally neutral. If they are cared for, by not abusing them and leaving them bits of food, then they offer a shield against vampires, zombies and demons that might want to come out of the dark night and into your house. But if you abuse them and neglect them, they may turn on you. Then Vasya’s father, a widower who has lots of children, marries a city girl and brings her home to his house in the country. She is a Christian and a religious nutcase. She, like Vasya, can see the spirits, but the sight sends her into a panic. She turns on the spirits and does her best to banish them, with the help of Father Konstantin, but her efforts leave the entire household vulnerable to destruction. By the end of the book, Vasya, who is perilously close to being lynched as a witch, takes a lover and goes to live among the fairies, where she probably should have been from the beginning.

The story is told in the past tense, from a third-person perspective, in the manner of a traditional folk tale. Also following tradition, it does not show off with complicated sentences and long words. The language is simple and graphic and everything has a colour, it reminded me a little bit of Madame Bovary in that respect; Flaubert always tells you what colour everything is. Here, we find the following:

  • black bread, black midwinter
  • the dreary grey of March, the grey hour just before dawn
  • kaftans of ochre and rust, a crimson sarafan
  • the midsummer-gold insides of a freshly-baked cake, a golden-haired priest
  • a sparkling green beryl ring, the green-skinned nakedness of the rusalka
  • a single jewel of a brilliant silver-blue, a blue midsummer night
  • violet eventide
  • a robe of white wool, as white as a frost-maiden, white gems sparkle at the hilt of a knife

And now for some pictures. I would have bought an illustrated copy of this book, had one been available, and it needs to be made into a film. I didn’t know anything about Slavic mythology prior to reading this book and now I’m excited. Here are some of the many characters that make an appearance.

A polevik. A field spirit.


A vodyanoy. A river spirit.


A bolotnik. A spirit that lives in swamps.


A rusalka. Spirit of the lake. May appear beautiful and seductive to lure people to their deaths.

Morozko, The Winter King. Jack Frost.

A leshy. A spirit of the woods.


An upyr. A cross between a vampire and a zombie.


A bannik. A spirit of the bath-house.


A vazila. A spirit of horses.


A domovoi. A house-spirit that will help with the housework if you meet him half way. I could do with one of these.


And a little more, for context.

Religious icons.

A sarafan. An embroidered pinafore-dress.


A kokoshnik. An elaborate headdress, worn by the nobility.



Russian dragons with three heads. This makes me want to go to Russia to see the statues.

A bukavac. A monster that lives in water.


I am loving all of this and want more of it. As you know,  here on TLYW, 2017 is The Year of the Console Game and the game I have planned for April is going to include elements of this, as far as I know, because we are moving into the early Middle Ages.

And that’s all the Slavic mythology news.

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