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The Bear and the Nightingale: Anna Ivanovna & those who were “Not Strong Enough”

I finished reading The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden a couple weeks ago, and as someone who has been (lightly) researching Medieval Russia for my personal projects, it was neat to read a story drawing inspiration both from classic Russian fairy tales and folk stories as well as from the historical and political setting.

The first part of the story is mostly building up the feeling of world and settings and introducing all the characters, which is kind of slow but honestly I wasn’t going into it expecting anything super fast paced so it wasn’t really an issue for me, and I personally found the slow “growing sense of dread” and small-town paranoia feeling pretty enjoyable on its own. Because of that, I do feel a little disappointed that a major climatic part of the story was basically a battle between the fantastical and folklore creatures, since while it was a good callback to the times they made their appearances earlier in the story it felt weirdly out of place.

Vasya fits right into my taste of angry wild girl protagonists that I dearly love, and it was very satisfying to have her main story be one of protecting her family and home and having supernatural encounters without necessarily having romance or marriage be a main part of her story.

Enter Anna Ivanovna, one of the minor antagonists, but to me one of the most interesting characters in the book. Anna is the typical fairytale “wicked stepmother” figure in Vasya’s story, and a lot of the abuse she hurls at Vasya seems to stem from a sort of self-hatred and lack of control in her own life. Anna shares Vasya’s gift of being able to see mythical creatures, but unlike the forest-born Vasya, who befriends and tries to learn from them, Anna views the creatures as devils and manifestations of her own madness that must be avoided and purged at all costs. As a princess quickly married off to an unknown lord in the wilderness for her father’s political alliances, Anna takes out her anger on the disobedient Vasya and turns to religious piety as her sole source of comfort. As far as characters go, Anna was the one who “did everything right” as much as she could–she married a much older man her father picked out for her, despite her wishes to join a convent, raised a “good” child, supported the church and trusted the leaders there for support and guidance, and rejected everything “bad” as much as she could–but eventually, her self-hatred and fears allow her to be led to her own tragic downfall.

Anna certainly allows extreme harm to come to her community and family, and basically almost drives Vasya to her death, but I having her die at the end of the book felt like… kind of a cop-out. It’s an ending that makes thematic sense, yes–she was cruel, she was fearful, she is ironically manipulated to her death by the priest she had put all her trust in, who delivers her into the jaws of the demons she had feared for so long–but it would have been a richer ending and a richer character arc, I feel, if she had lived, either by her own volition or from being rescued by Vasya. If Anna had lived, she would have had to either find an uneasy way to coexist with the land and setting and stepdaughter she found so frightening, or else double down even harder on her hatred and cruelty and close herself off even more. Either way, it would have been compelling, and I’m a bit sad that she seems to have died to make a more convenient and clean ending for Vasya.

In the author interview in the back of my book, Arden talks about Anna as someone who is  sympathetic, but a character that she ultimately did not think was “strong enough” to survive, unlike Vasya, who was unapologetically herself even until the end. However, if Anna and Vasya are both extreme ends of the character spectrum, with Vasya representing the nature-born, unfettered, witchy free-spirit while Anna is the city-born conventional pious wife and mother, most of the other women mentioned seem to meet somewhere in the middle, and leaning more towards the side of Anna. Most of the adult women mentioned who are not Vasya are married with either children or grown children, with no particularly special magical abilities, and most will not live as wildly as Vasya does. We see her older sister Olga married off to a prince early on to the story as part of a long game of establishing alliances, and her old nurse Dunya, a self-described dutiful Christian woman who nonetheless takes great care to preserve the old stories and traditions. Vasya’s own mother, despite having a mother with connection to the supernatural seemed to have lived a fairly ordinary life as well. While there is some exploration of the personal thoughts and feelings of these ordinary women, it would have been nice to have a bit more of it, to balance out the extremes of Anna’s strictness and Vasya’s freespiritedness, and show the strength of the women leading “ordinary” lives as well. it would have made Anna’s “weakness” stand out more, I feel, without necessarily painting the existence of ordinary women living under historical sexist restrictions as inherently without agency.

I’m excited to get ahold of the next book, The Girl in the Tower, which continues Vasya’s adventures but in the city, where we’ll get to see more of her married sister Olga, and her brother Sasha, who in the first book gave up his lordly life to be a monk. Hopefully there will be more interesting female characters to meet, and it won’t just be like… a “mean city girls vs. country girl” sort of thing, but I guess I’ll have to wait and see.

Author: maiden theory

I'm just a Bird whose intentions are good

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