Edge of the Forest
The forest before me is dark, darker than the twilight surrounding me. Really, it is too cold to be out here, but I have on my heavy fur coat and there is the warmth of the pipe I am smoking.
Vasilisa the Beautiful entered this forest, not of her own will, but not without good advice.
Although the daughter of a well-to-do merchant, she became the victim of a stepmother with two preferred daughters. A small wooden doll, given to Vasilisa by her mother, as she lay on her deathbed, protects the girl from harm. Vasilisa, heeding her mother’s instructions, feeds the doll food and drink, reciting, “There, my little doll, take it. Eat a little, and drink a little, and listen to my grief.” The doll’s eyes shine; it comes to life, eats, drinks, then gives Vasilisa advice and aid.
The stepmother’s cruelty finds its greatest expression when Vasilisa is sent to the home of the witch Baba Yaga for light when their own home falls into darkness. On her way to Baba Yaga’s hut, she sees a man all in white on a white horse and a man all in red on a red horse. Standing before Baba Yaga’s home, she sees a man all in black on a black horse. Baba Yaga comes on a great wind, riding a mortar propelled by rowing the pestle.
Baba Yaga takes Vasilisa within the fence of human bones lined with skulls, to her hut, which moves around on chicken legs. Baba Yaga gives the girl impossible tasks to perform the next day—or be eaten for supper. With the aid of the wooden doll, the tasks are accomplished for two days.
The witch then encourages the girl to ask questions. Vasilisa asks about the three riders. Baba Yaga replies they are her servants, the day, the sun, and the night, but had Vasilisa asked about things inside of the hut she would have eaten her.
Baba Yaga then asked a question of her own. How was it that the girl could complete the tasks given her? Afraid to tell the witch about the wooden doll, she replies, “The blessing of my dead mother helps me.”
Not being fond of blessed children, Baba Yaga kicks the girl out, throwing a skull with flaming eyes after her as payment for her work. Carrying the skull at the end of a stick to light her way, she returns home. Upon entering the house the skull’s eyes burn brighter, incinerating the step-relatives.
The story does not end here. Vasilisa moves in with a kindly old woman, and takes to weaving flax into linen with such craft that the fine linen eventually attracts the attention of the tsar, who, upon meeting Vasilisa the Beautiful, marries her.
Vasilisa entered the forest and returned with power and wisdom she did not have before. Baba Yaga’s home is not merely the hut of a witch. Its boney fence, the profusion of skulls, and its resident’s desire to eat children, all speak of a realm of the dead. Yet, from there Baba Yaga flies forth daily with her mortar and pestle, along with the white rider and the red rider. In the evening she returns with the black rider, suggesting there are cosmic forces at work.
To such places we vicariously follow our heroes and heroines. We crept along with the old soldier as he stole behind the twelve dancing princesses into the underworld with groves of silver, gold, and diamond trees. Likewise, we traveled with the rosemary maiden when she sought out the sun, moon, and wind to help her reclaim her husband. Did we not trail after the youngest daughter as she rode on the back of the white bear slouching its way toward a great mountain?
I stand at the edge of the forest as the last of the day’s light fades, and startle the night with my match as I relight my pipe, then turn my back to the wood and my eyes toward home. I will not enter the forest. I might not return. I suspect only children have the courage, born of naivety and lack of cynicism, to enter.
Fairy Tales of the Month: December 2012 Vasilisa the Beautiful – Part Two
Visit With a Friend
When I got to Miss Cox’s garden, my friend Alexander Afanasyev, all bundled up in a coat, scarf, and cap, sat on the wrought iron bench waiting for me. Over time I have come to realize that all of the 19th century folklorists are comfortable in Miss Cox’s garden, despite the weather. They will always agree to meet me here.
I feel sorry for Alexander. He died at age 45 (1871). Tuberculosis, he told me. I knew things had gone badly for him toward the end. He kept himself alive by selling off his library. Tsarist Russia was never kind to commoners, especially those with socialist leanings. Alex fell afoul of its authoritarian censors more than once.
His claim to fame remains his eight volumes of Russian folktales, plus other volumes, one meant for children and another not meant for children that was published anonymously in Switzerland.
“Alex,” I said. “What can you tell me of Baba Yaga?”
“Ah, she is either the witch of all witches or not a witch at all. The ‘Baba’ part of her name means ‘grandmother’ or ‘old woman.’ The ’Yaga’ part, I believe, is connected with the Sanskrit word for ‘snake.’ Another good translation might be the word ‘horror.’ Besides being unusually ugly, she is known for eating children.”
“She appears in a number of stories, not just Vasilisa the Beautiful. Common to these stories is her flying in a steel mortar, navigating with the pestle, and covering her tracks with a broom. A fence of human bones surrounds Baba Yaga’s hut, with skulls on top of the pickets. At night the eye sockets glow, giving off an eerie light. In some stories there is room on the fence for one more skull. The gate has a lock made of jaw bones that opens and closes with a spell.
“The hut stands on chicken legs, the door turned away from visitors. One needs to get it to turn around by saying, ‘Little house, little house, Stand the way thy mother placed thee, Turn thy back to the forest and thy face to me!’ Inside the hut are disembodied hands that do the witch’s bidding. Baba Yaga always eats a supper large enough for a crowd, then falls asleep stretched out over her stove.”
I am listening to Alex, but also distracted by a firebird strutting around the garden like a peacock. It has come over to us and is pecking at Alex’s shoe.
“I did,” he continues, “collect one version in which there are three Baba Yaga sisters, all named Baba Yaga. What do you make of that?” Alex lifts an eyebrow.
I consider for a moment. “Brings to my mind the White Goddess, whom Robert Graves called the threefold muse.”
“Very good,” Alex nods at me. “I concur. The pantheon of nature gods and goddesses are numerous with triads. As I said, Baba Yaga may not be a witch at all, but rather a reflection of an earlier mother goddess or goddesses.”
I return his nod, and reply to his point. “The day, sun, and night are at her service.”
The firebird startles and flaps away, losing a tail feather in its flight. I pick it up to admire it; an exquisite feather. I think I’ll give it to Thalia.
Fairy Tales of the Month: December 2012 Vasilisa the Beautiful – Part Three
Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, lays out the hero’s journey, the various stages the hero or heroine is likely to enter upon. In one stage the protagonist crosses the threshold into adventure after being called to do so. Or the protagonist may refuse the call initially, and later will labor through an ordeal to achieve the reward. Not every story will have every stage Campbell writes about. However, few fairy-tales do not have the meeting with the mentor. In Vladimir Propp’s list of fairy tale character roles the mentor is the magical helper and/or donor (of magical devices).
This mentor/donor/helper appears in many forms. In Snow White the seven dwarves fill this role, in Cinderella the fairy godmother,or in The Golden Bird the fox. The old woman in the wood helps the old soldier in The Twelve Dancing Princesses. The heroine in Sprig of Rosemary is helped by entities no less than the sun, moon, and wind.
In our story, Vasilisa the Beautiful, the helper is a wooden doll given to the heroine by her mother. Vasilisa gives the doll food and drink in exchange for advice and help. The story makes it clear; Vasilisa would not survive without the doll.
Stepping back and taking a look at all of these magical helpers, putting aside that they are an expected part of the fairy-tale genre, let us ask, Why are they there? If we say they function to help the protagonist, then we need ask, Why do our heroes and heroines need help? As story structure goes, are not the magical helpers a cheat, a convenient answer to the way out of trouble? Why do we, the readers/listeners, want there to be magical helpers?
Perhaps the magical helpers are there because they carry a message that bears repeating. In our story, when Vasilisa faces her first hardship, the story does not say, “But Vasilisa had a magic wooden doll to give her advice.” Vasilisa was not born with the wooden doll in her pocket; she acquired it from her mother. The doll served as an extension of the mother’s wish to protect her daughter.
Further, there is an exchange. For the doll’s advice and aid, Vasilisa gives the doll food and drink. Food and drink in exchange for magical help is ever so prominent in these tales. When the heroine in The Three Forest Gnomes shares her meager crust of bread, she finds the strawberries she is seeking and departs with three other boons.
In The White Snake the hero receives help from magical creatures in exchange for having helped them. The old woman in the wood did not walk up to the soldier and tap him on the shoulder, saying, “Here, take this cloak of invisibility; you’re going to need it.” An exchange takes place between them before that happens.
We—living in a society—do not exist in a vacuum. We are constantly in a state of exchange with each other. Sometimes we exchange coins for an apple. Sometimes we exchange greetings over the phone. We might exchange a kiss, but we are always in a state of exchange.
The best exchanges are those that occur when we are helping each other. There is the message that bears repeating. That is the message we need to remember and, perhaps in those helpful moments, there is some magic.
PS. Let me make a personal note. For me, the wooden doll is the creepiest magical helper. Dwarves, fairies, animals, old women—fine. A wooden doll that comes to life, eats, drinks, talks, works, then returns to its dormant state? Sounds like voodoo to me.