Thrown to the Wolves: Writing Russian Fairy Tales into Contemporary Fantasy

Last time I talked about how I incorporated the character of Baba Yaga into my novels. But she is hardly the only Russian fairy tale character I have repurposed for my own ends. The one who appears in all three of the mini-series that comprise The Zemnian Series, and who was one of my favorite as a child, is Gray Wolf.

Gray Wolf battlefield

Gray Wolf in Ivan Bilibin’s illustration

In The Tale of Ivan Tsarevich, Gray Wolf, and the Firebird, Gray Wolf occupies a similar role to Baba Yaga: he is alternately threatening and benevolent, killing Ivan Tsarevich’s horse but then helping him complete his tasks and even saving his life when Ivan’s brothers kill him.

I’m not sure why I found that particular tale so captivating, other than it also contains a heroine called Elena in it. However, the character of Elena the Beautiful is unusually insipid for a woman in a Russian fairy tale. Rather than leading armies, outwitting and destroying her enemies, or going on quests to rescue her beloved, she is mostly a two-dimensional pawn in the competition between Ivan and his brothers. Ivan Tsarevich and Elena the Beautiful

Princess Elena the Beautiful clinging to the neck of the Horse with the Golden Mane, while Ivan rides Gray Wolf. My heroines are all better riders than that.

Well, that’s no good! But while I never really warmed to Elena the Beautiful herself, I always strongly identified with Gray Wolf when he transformed himself into Elena the Beautiful.

Gray Wolf as Elena the Beautiful

Maybe my favorite of Bilibin’s illustrations, because of the sly side-eye Elena/Wolf is giving Ivan and the reader, and her pointed wolf-like ears.

In fact, on the last Halloween before I became really sick (the Fatal Day was the following Monday–you can read about it here if you’re morbidly curious), I was suddenly faced with the need to create a costume to wear to class, and wore a picture of a wolf pinned to my shirt, to show that I was both Elena and the Wolf. Only I thought it was funny. These days I dress up as someone with Lyme disease for Halloween by wearing my lime-green blazer and a surgical mask, which is what I wear most other days too. Maybe that’s why, once again, I’m the only one who thinks it’s funny.

Anyhooooo, I worked the character of Gray Wolf into all three of my story arcs. He first appears in The Midnight Landand like the fox who graces the covers of both books in that mini-series, represents both the joy and the brutality of the natural world.

The Midnight Land II Front Cover 3:9:18

This is actually a picture of a fox on the front of TMLII, but it could just as easily be Gray Wolf, I suppose.

Gray Wolf makes a brief appearance in TMLI and then a longer one in TMLIIin both cases in conjunction with, or in lieu of, Oleg Svetoslavovich, one of the love interests in the books. Gray Wolf is a symbol of Oleg’s links to masculinity, divinity, and the dark side of the natural/divine world, the one that kills in order to survive. Like the original Gray Wolf of the fairy tale, my Gray Wolf is an ambiguous, unpredictable creature, one who is undeniably a threat, but who ends up helping the heroine when she really needs it. Throughout both the TML books, Slava, the heroine, repeatedly laments that the humans  around her are wolves in rotting lamb skins, and that the people who are supposed to help her, like her sister and her mother, keep throwing her to the wolves, figuratively speaking, instead. But when Gray Wolf steps out of the trees when she is at her most lost, he is her salvation. A symbol of someone turning to her dark side, her Inferior Function to use the Jungian term, when the ordinary way of doing things no longer suffices? Or just some fantasy drama?

Gray Wolf plays an even more important part in The Breathing Sea (if you’re curious and you’d like to pick up a free preview of Book 1, you can do so here in the Folklore and Fables Giveaway), especially in Book 2, when Dasha, the heroine of the TBS books, leaves her father and runs off with him.

Unlike the heroines of the other mini-series, who are grown women, even if they still have a little maturing left to do (don’t we all!), Dasha is a teenage girl, and an idealistic, sensitive, sheltered one at that. In fact, I deliberately modeled her character in part off that of the Buddha, in that she has to leave her palace behind and go out into the world to see and experience suffering for herself. Like many teenage girls, she has strong feelings about lots of things, but little experience with the “real,” or at least adult, world, and everyone around her is always all too happy to put her down and keep her trapped in obedience, helplessness, and childhood–for her own and their good, of course. So she has to run away repeatedly from all her well-meaning caretakers.

Dasha would like to reject the brutal cycle of life and death, and particularly the brutal cycle of eating others to live, that Gray Wolf represents. And she does make attempts to do so, some of them successful, but she keeps encountering creatures who remind her that that brutality is part of her nature, too. She is linked with vipers, like Aksinya in “In the Ravine,” with bears, and with wolves. And while she doesn’t want to hear what they have to tell her, Gray Wolf finally takes her away and forces her to listen to him:

“They can’t both be true!  There’s only one truth!  That’s why it’s the truth!”

Ah, little Tsarinovna, how young you are!

Dasha glared at him.

Perhaps there is only one big truth, but if so, it is made up of a million tiny truths, each one different than its sister.  You humans worry so much about ‘the truth,’ that big truth, but you spend so little time looking around and seeing all the little truths that form it.  You try to make it into something more difficult than it is, something that is separate from you and everything else, as if there is some ‘truth’ somewhere up in the sky, with the sun and the moon and the stars.  So you go searching for that Truth, but you keep stumbling over all the little truths at your feet, and before you know it, you’ve fallen into that abyss, the one that haunts you, and you have to climb back out all over again.  All because you couldn’t look down at your feet, look down and really see what was there.  You are so busy trying to turn what you see into something that—what is it that humans like to say?  Something that ‘makes sense,’ except that what humans so often think ‘makes sense’ seems to have so little to do with the senses.  You are afraid that you cannot tell the difference between a warning of the abyss, and the abyss itself, little Tsarinovna?  A common problem for humans.  You spend so much time looking inside your heads that you fail to look out and notice what is right in front of you, you fail to look down and say, ‘Oh, there it is below me, the abyss, see how dark it is, how cold rises up from it, how when I drop a stone off the edge I can hear it falling and falling.’  No, you turn your backs to it, because it doesn’t look the way you think an abyss should look, and while you’re busy shouting to each other that this is not the abyss you have been searching for, see how it does not resemble the pictures of abysses that you drew on birch bark and paper, it does not resemble the descriptions of abysses in your dusty scrolls in your dusty libraries, you all tumble down into it.  When all you had to do was turn around and drop a stone off the edge, and listen to it fall.

Perhaps the truth that Dasha has to accept is that she, too, has that killing wolf essence in her, and she must be always on her guard against it. Or maybe I just really like wolves. To be honest, I always enjoy writing the character of Gray Wolf, who, like all the canines in my books, has a joyous attitude towards life and a goofy sense of humor.

Gray Wolf makes one last appearance in the final mini-series of the overall Zemnian Series, in a cameo in The Dreaming Land (and for those of you who got ARCs, reviews are as always much appreciated–the link to the Amazon page is here). There once again he is a truth-teller, but in contrast to his interactions with Dasha, the truth he tries to tell Valya is that she is not just a creature of blood and steel and war, but something else as well. Valya is in tune with her dark side; it’s her bright side that she needs to learn to heed, and that’s what Gray Wolf shows up to tell her.

Wolves, at the end of the day, are just wolves. But like all other beings we encounter, especially those who aren’t human, they’re also a window into our own souls. Vicious predators who also experience strong pack bonds and are capable of acting altruistically–it’s no wonder we keep their descendants in our homes as our most faithful companions.

What do you think? How do you relate to canines, wild or domestic?

Here are those links again:

The Dreaming Land Iif you got an ARC and you’re moved to leave a review.

The Midnight Land I & II (free on KU)

The Breathing Sea I & II (free on KU)

Folklore and Fables Giveaway

3 thoughts on “Thrown to the Wolves: Writing Russian Fairy Tales into Contemporary Fantasy

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