Katherine Arden conjures the spirit—and spirits—of medieval Russia in The Bear and the Nightingale, her enchanting fantasy debut. Motherless Vasya Petrovna grows up unfettered on her father’s rural estate, but once she reaches womanhood, she discovers that she has inherited the magical abilities that run through her mother’s line. As the uneasy balance between traditional pagan beliefs and the newly embraced Christianity wavers, Vasya finds herself on the front lines of a struggle to ensure the survival of her village.
Arden, who studied Russian language and literature, talked to us about the inspiration for her remarkable first novel, the harsh beauty of Russia’s winters and why she prefers the fairy tales of Pushkin to those of Perrault.
When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
I read nonstop as a child, as most writers probably did, and my favorite part of the day was bedtime, because I would lie awake in the dark and make up stories. When I was in high school I wrote a fantasy novel with shapeshifting dragons and a sort-of-like-Iceland world of snow and volcanoes.
But I never seriously thought I am a writer or even I want to be a writer. Not the kind who writes books you find in a bookstore. I hadn’t made the connection between what I did in my own head for fun and the work of others that I read.
In college I didn’t do any creative writing at all. I studied foreign languages, wrote earnest essays and wanted to be a diplomat. But after I got my degree, I realized I was burnt out and I didn’t want to race into a career right away. So I moved to Hawaii to work on a farm. It was supposed to just be for a few months while I gathered steam and figured my life out. But I got bored on the farm, and as a remedy against boredom I decided to write a book.
I discovered that really enjoyed the writing process. I started thinking, well, I could do this with my life. Might as well try. So I promised myself that I would finish my novel and at least try to get it published. Getting a book published is hard, and it took a lot of work to get there and there were setbacks along the way. But I just found myself getting more and more determined as the process went on.
I would say there was no moment that definitively told me I wanted to be a writer, rather a series of decisions and outcomes and realizations that cumulatively made me realize that was what I wanted to do with my life.
You weave in so many creatures from Russian folklore—a few of which are unique to the culture (I’d never heard of a domovoi!). How did you research these legends?
I took a course in college as part of my Russian degree, ambitiously titled “The Russian Mind.” This class started us off in Slavic prehistory and took us through more than a thousand years’ worth of events, ideas, and pieces of literature that shaped the thinking and the culture of the Russia we know today.
Early in the class, we studied Slavic folklore, including household spirits like the domovoi. We also examined the notion that Slavic paganism never really disappeared from the Russian countryside after the arrival of Christianity; rather they coexisted, with some friction, for centuries. I was fascinated by the tensions inherent in such a system, as well as the notion of a complicated magical world interacting so subtly with the real one. I decided that I wanted to explore these notions in the context of a novel. I did my research, as one does, in libraries and online. I have also amassed a small library of obscure academic texts on such topics as medieval Russian sexual mores, magical practices and farming implements.
"Slavic paganism never really disappeared from the Russian countryside after the arrival of Christianity; rather they coexisted, with some friction, for centuries. I was fascinated by the tensions inherent in such a system."
Were there any creatures you wish you had been able to include?
Wow, there are so many characters from folklore that I wanted to include but couldn’t! Some of them will make an appearance in future novels. There is a guardian spirit for everything in Russian folklore. The domovoi guards the house; the dvorovoi guards the dooryard. The bannik guards the bathhouse, the Ovinnik, the threshing-house. Their areas of influence are almost absurdly specific. And each creature has a certain appearance and personality, and people must do certain things to placate them.
Do you see big differences between Russian folklore and that of Western Europe?
Yes, there are marked differences between Western European and Russian fairy tales. To me the most interesting difference is between the recurring main characters of these two fairy-tale traditions. For example, the classic hero of Russian fairy tales is Ivan the Fool. He is not a muscular and martial figure like the heroic kings, princes and woodcutters that feature in Western European fairy tales. Rather, he is usually of ordinary birth, lazy and good-natured, and he gets by on his wits and native innocence.
For me, the heroines in Russian fairy tales absolutely outshine their Western counterparts, in terms of initiative, courage and interesting storylines. Vasilisa the Beautiful, for example, defeats the Baba Yaga with her cleverness and the help of her mother’s blessing. Marya Morevna is a warrior queen. Even Baba Yaga, the prototypical villain, is a powerful woman, who is sometimes wicked but always wise. For that reason, especially, I prefer the fairy tales of Pushkin or Afanasyev to those of say, Perrault, which value passivity in girls (Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, etc).
"The heroines in Russian fairy tales absolutely outshine their Western counterparts, in terms of initiative, courage and interesting storylines."
Vasya is a truly compelling heroine. She is strong enough to embrace her differences, but she still reads as a woman of her time. How did you maintain that balance?
How does any writer maintain balance? Scene by scene and moment by moment. I brought my own modern biases, and understandings to this historical period that I was trying to write about, but also allowed my ideas and beliefs to be shaped by my best guesses about the attitudes of the time. There was a constant friction between what I wanted my main character to do, and what I believed she would be able to do, given the era, and I hope some of the tension made its way into the storytelling.
As is often the case in fairy tales, the introduction of a stepmother brings conflict to the Petrovich family. Yet the reader ends up having a great amount of sympathy for Anna. How do you feel about this character?
Anna was one of the first characters that really came into focus for me, and it is often really interesting to get readers’ reactions on her. Some people feel sympathy for her, some hate her wholeheartedly. I personally fall into the former category. I think she is a person wholly trapped in a world that allows her no choices, and she is not a strong enough person to carve out happiness for herself in those circumstances.
“What makes the evil stepmother evil?” is perhaps an old or cliched question, but it was one I felt was important to ask and to answer, to give the story depth.
The Russian wilderness—and the Russian winters in particular—are vividly described in your novel. Can you talk a bit about that and how it affects your characters?
People living in the middle ages, in an environment as harsh as Northern Russia, were intimately acquainted with the weather. Their lives literally depended on it. In The Bear and the Nightingale, the weather is pretty much a character in and of itself, personified, in a way, by the various spirits that populate the novel. Every action and event in the book is some way tied to the land: heat, bitter cold, snowstorms, fires.
Also, I think my personal experiences of Russia (I lived in Moscow for a gap year after high school, and again my junior year of college) come through most in my descriptions of weather. The Russian weather has a quick and capricious quality that really captivated me, and the sky seems HUGE. If the natural world has a powerful presence even in modern Moscow, can you imagine what it was like for people living in the wilderness in the 14th century?
"If the natural world has a powerful presence even in modern Moscow, can you imagine what it was like for people living in the wilderness in the 14th century?"
Even though her family sometimes has a hard time understanding Vasya, there is so much love and loyalty in their relationships. What was your favorite relationship in the novel?
I really love the relationship Vasya has with her older brother Sasha and her younger brother Alyosha. I have a brother, and so those relationships were the easiest for me to write. I wanted their mutual affection to be a powerful driving force, even though they don’t always understand, or agree with, each other. I think that is how families function in the best sense, where love and loyalty wins out, even though no one is perfect.
The conflict between Christianity and the old traditions is a big part of this book. What do readers need to know about this period in Russian history?
I think it’s important to realize that this period of Russian history doesn’t have a lot of primary sources. Literacy was extremely low, and the few literate people lived in cities and were mostly clergy, concerned with copying Greek religious texts. Everything was built of wood, so architectural evidence is limited as well. It gives lovely scope to a writer, because you can do your research, align all your facts, step back and say, well, how do we know this didn’t happen?
But what we do know: at this time period (mid 14th century) Muscovy was rising rapidly, buoyed by a long collaboration with the Golden Horde, which had taken power in Russia about 200 years prior. At the time, the Horde was preoccupied by succession problems (Genghis Khan had a really absurd number of descendants), and the Grand Princes of Moscow were quietly expanding their territory and bringing lesser princes into the fold.
During this period, much of Muscovy’s conflict was with other Russian city-states (notably Tver), but Dmitrii Ivanovich (who is still a boy in The Bear and the Nightingale) is the first prince who will successfully oppose the Golden Horde and Mongol dominance in Russia.
You’ve lived in so many places! Where are you now, and how long do you plan to stay there?
I’m live in Vermont just at present, where I promised myself I would stay and not budge until I’d finished my second novel! I’ve done that now, and so I am eyeing the horizon a bit. You never know. Norway next, maybe? Bali? My absolute favorite thing about being a writer is that you can live wherever you want.
We hear this is the first in a series. What can you tell us about Vasya’s next adventure?
Her next adventure, The Girl in the Tower, is written already. It covers a much shorter time frame than The Bear and the Nightingale (two months instead of 16 years) and it takes place largely in the medieval city of Moscow. It features Vasya and also her two older siblings, Sasha and Olga, who were only briefly in the first book, along with new characters from Russian history and Slavic mythology. Some you may recognize, some you probably won’t.
RELATED CONTENT: Read our review of The Bear and the Nightingale.
Author photo © Deverie Crystal Photography.