Was Baba Yaga Really So Bad, Anyway?

Before I jump into the meat of this post, I have a request! One that should be pretty simple and easy to fulfill.

The official release date of The Dreaming Land isn’t until September 22, AKA the equinox, but I’ve already published the paperback of Book 1 so that people can start posting reviews. So if you got an ARC and you feel moved to leave a review, the link is here. Reviews don’t have to be long–short and sweet is fine 🙂

And if you haven’t gotten an ARC yet, they will still be available for a couple more days here. I’ll be pulling them down probably sometime next week in preparation for the release, so this is your last chance to be an advance reviewer!

I am of course super-excited about the upcoming release of The Dreaming Land, and there will certainly be much more about the sources and inspirations behind it in the coming weeks, but for my blog post today I thought I’d concentrate a bit more on the Russian fairy tales that inspired sections of the previous mini-series, The Breathing Sea (grab a free preview of it in the Folklore and Fables Giveaway, or read the whole thing for free on KU here).

Featured Image -- 1961

The lovely cover for Book 1 of The Breathing Sea mini-series. Which–oh boy–just won the Bronze Medal for Epic Fantasy in the 2018 Readers’ Favorite Books Awards!

As I discussed last time, all the books in The Zemnian Series, especially The Breathing Sea, are full of allusions to Russian literature. Expect more posts on this topic in the future! But along with authors such as Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, I also took inspiration from Russian fairy tales, and for one section in particular, the story of Baba Yaga.

Baba Yaga Bilibin

Baba Yaga in Ivan Bilibin’s iconic illustration.

In Russian fairy tales, Baba Yaga is an ambiguous figure, sometimes helping out the hero(ine) and sometimes threatening to eat her/him. In Vasilisa the Beautiful, for example, a sort of Russian Cinderella story, Baba Yaga appears to be a threat–but it is the skull-lantern she provides that burns the wicked stepmother and stepsister to ashes, freeing Vasilisa from their tyranny.

Vasilisa the Beautiful

Another beautiful Bilibin illustration, of Vasilisa on her way home with the skull-lantern. Vasilisa has always been one of my favorite heroines.

Like any self-respecting witch in a patriarchal society, Baba Yaga is terrifying. But is she secretly a feminist? Here’s Baba Yaga’s Guide to Feminism, courtesy of the good folks at Ravishly.

In any case, in The Breathing Sea (another place to grab a free preview is in the Next Generation YA Fantasy/Scifi Giveaway), I wanted my heroine Dasha to encounter a Baba Yaga figure, just like Vasilisa does, while also subverting the story, ’cause you know I can’t write about another story about without subverting it. So Baba Sofroniya, the elderly witch living in the woods whom Dasha encounters, is a wholly positive figure–at least to Dasha. In fact, Dasha likes her so much she asks to stay with her, and wishes that Baba Sofroniya could become her grandmother.

But Baba Sofroniya is still linked with multiple images or symbols of death, just like Baba Yaga–and just like Dasha. Skulls decorate the gate to her garden, just as they do for Baba Yaga, and she lives in a hut raised on “chicken legs”: stumps with the roots still attached. Her hut, as she explains to Dasha, is in fact a house for dead bodies, and faces West (the direction that Dasha can always sense), the direction of death. It is possible that Baba Yaga’s hut on chicken legs is in fact inspired by just such huts that the ancient Slavs used for their dead.

Once in the hut Dasha and her father Oleg encounter multiple symbols of both birth and death. Dasha sees a mortar big enough for her climb inside, in a nod to Baba Yaga’s mortar that she rides around in, and also to Lloyd Alexander’s The Black Cauldron and the Black Cauldron that must be destroyed by a willing human sacrifice. Or one could see the giant mortar as a symbolic womb that Dasha contemplates crawling back inside, as she struggles with her separation from her mother and her desire for a “proper” grandmother. Meanwhile, Oleg, like Vasilisa in the fairy tale, must sort through seeds (semen/life) and is told to sleep on the table, like a corpse being laid out. And, in another little extra-textual allusion, this time to Terry Pratchett’s Equal Rites, Baba Sofroniya takes Dasha out to her goat barn and tries to teach her about raising goats and the brutal business of life and death that is involved.

Equal Rites

My copy of Equal Rites is now very battered.

In the end–spoiler alert!–Baba Sofroniya refuses to take on Dasha as a pupil, and Dasha refuses to learn the lessons Baba Sofroniya wants to teach her. But they still part on good terms, and Dasha makes good use of the life lessons and the medicinal herbs that Baba Sofroniya gives her as a parting gift. Baba Sofroniya, like many of my female characters, is dangerous. But she mainly uses her powers for good.

Those links again:

The Dreaming Land I paperback (again, reviews are super-appreciated 🙂 )

E-ARC of The Dreaming Land I (only available for a couple more days)

The Breathing Sea I on KU

Next Generation YA Fantasy/Sci Fi Giveaway

Folklore and Fables Giveaway

4 thoughts on “Was Baba Yaga Really So Bad, Anyway?

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