Racing like Wolves: Writing Medieval Russian Epics into Contemporary Fantasy

Well, it was a close one this week, with the Carolinas getting hit unexpectedly hard by Hurricane Michael. Luckily for me, I was not one of the hundreds of thousands of people to lose power, which means I have been spending my fall break busily working away to get The Dreaming Land II ready for publication.

TDLII Front Image with Text

I’m still working to make the book’s Amazon page absolutely perfect (the formatting tends to change when you hit “publish”), but in the meantime the paperback is available here in case anyone wants to grab an early copy and/or, if you were an ARC reader, leave a review. Again, have I mentioned how much I appreciate readers who leave reviews? 🙂 You are doing a noble deed!

(That reminds me that I have some reviews I need to write myself. Soon, I promise, soon…)

I’ve mentioned before, and will probably go on at length again, about things like how I incorporated elements of Slavic fairy tales into my novels, and how The Dreaming Land series is also supposed to be a feminist reworking of the story of Eowyn from The Lord of the Rings. Another of the layers of allusions in the text, though, is something that might be a little less familiar to most Western readers: the medieval Russian (Rus’ian) epics Zadonshchina and particularly The Tale of Igor’s Campaign.

Medieval literature is a funny thing. It’s a funny thing because it shows us just how similar we are to people who lived a thousand years or so ago, and yet how different. There’s a fair amount of debate about how much of our current conception of self and experience of reality is culturally specific, and how much it is something we share with humans throughout the ages. Did the proto-humans from whom we arose have a distinct sense of self that is comparable to what modern Americans experience? What about the ancient Greeks? Medieval Europeans? How did they conceive of history, society, and their place in it? Did they really believe in the magic that fills their writings?

The thing about writing is that it sort of answers those questions, but only sort of. Medieval literature is full of miracles that are reported at face value, but were the writers saying what they believed to be factually true, or what they believed to be “true” on some larger, metaphysical/ideal/cosmic/divine sense? When writing itself was a form of magic, was it seen as right to write about magical things, even if they weren’t actual “real,” or did people experience the world as being inherently magical in a way that modern Westerners, at least, no longer do?

Which brings us, by roundabout paths, to The Tale of Igor’s Campaign, the full text of which you can read in English here.

Tale of Igor's Campaign

Ivan Bilibin’s gorgeous illustration. You can see more of Bilibin’s illustrations here.

The Tale is a strange thing. It’s the story of a losing battle from 1185, which is strange in and of itself: bards do not normally commemorate losing battles. But in this case the overall message is not one of the glory and power of Rus’, but of the danger of infighting between the Rus’ian princes when outside enemies are threatening. *Cough cough cough* the more things change, the more they stay the same…

And then there’s the whole authenticity debate. With no extant copies of the original or anything even close to the original, and the clear close relationship between Igor and Zadonshchina, which came first, and which was the copy? Scholarly opinion has settled pretty firmly on Igor being the older of the two texts, but it’s not unequivocal enough for Slavists to talk about it without a quiver in their voices.

In any case, The Tale of Igor’s Campaign is a beautiful and fascinating work. I slogged through it in the original Old Slavic during grad school, which may have been the most painful reading experience I have ever had. Not because it was bad, but because it was so…dang…hard. People kept going on and about how great it was, but all I could think at the time was, “AAAAAAGH! Who is this? What is happening?? What does this word even mean??!!” All the elegant stylization, with the story being told on three different temporal layers (grandfathers, fathers, and sons), can make it rather difficult for the lay reader to follow along. As the entry from The Handbook of Russian Literature tells us: “Only one-tenth of its brief 218 verses…actually describe the attested events of 1185, and even these are presented in such a kaleidoscope of metaphor and metonymy that one must know the real story by heart in order to appreciate the poem. Reality is presented in brief, almost cinematographic flashes, interspersed with lengthy authorial digressions into other times and places. Real time and space are almost entirely ignored in the IT” (425).

Instead of describing the actual events in a linear fashion, The Tale immerses the listener/reader into a deeply interconnected magical and natural world, with nature communicating extensively with itself and with the humans, who may or may not be listening.

So is this how medieval Rus’ians of the time experienced the world? As an interconnected web of signs and symbols, that “spoke” to them if they had the ability to hear? We can’t be sure, but that is certainly how they chose to write about it. And that’s how I chose to create my faux-medieval world for The Dreaming Land mini-series, as well as the entire Zemnian Series of which it forms a part. Valya, the heroine of The Dreaming Land, is particularly close to nature, and is in some ways the most “medieval” of my heroines. Although she has a sense of self that a modern person is likely to recognize, she is closely tied to nature, and has multiple instances of nature speaking to her, either directly in the form of talking animals and spirits, or indirectly in the form of presentiments and omens. Like the characters in the Igor Tale, she often sees animals running in significant ways, or gains information from the sky or the water.

I also, because this is the kind of thing I enjoy, dropped some direct allusions to the Igor Tale into TDL. The most obvious example is this passage from the middle of The Dreaming Land II, when Valya and her former lover Tanya (yes, I have a love story involving two female horse-warriors. Isn’t that something all self-respecting fantasy books should include?), are parting, and use phrases drawn directly from the Igor Tale:

The parting was cheerful, more cheerful than everyone else, who were unfamiliar with the steppe tradition of always saying farewell without tears and lamentations, was expecting; even Tanya and I embraced in apparent high spirits.

“What are you standing around here for?” she demanded, once we had released each other. “Go put your foot in your golden stirrup, sister, and ride off like a falcon, or something.” She punched me lightly in the arm.

“My stirrups aren’t made of gold,” I told her, “and I’m afraid I’m not nearly as fast as a falcon.”

“Well, a wolf, then,” she said. “Race along like a wolf.”

“Only if you’ll do the same,” I told her.

“Oh, very well.” She smiled, half painfully. “What are you waiting for? My horse has long been saddled and waiting.”

“So has mine. Come to the wedding, will you?”

“‘Course,” she said, and, before either of us could think better of it, she vaulted into her saddle and rode off briskly, singing loudly. I tried to imitate her, but Tanya’s singing sounded rather better than mine, as the rest of her warriors joined her, but since no one else of my party knew any steppe songs, my voice sounded very thin and alone, and I was glad when I was able to stop.

The Russian characters in the IT are like falcons, while the Polovetsians they’re fighting race along like wolves; Valya, as a morally ambiguous character in this part of the story, does both or neither. The formula of stepping into your golden stirrup, and of calling others to action because your horse has long been saddled and waiting, is repeated several times throughout the IT, so I borrowed it here.

Of course, I’m hardly the first one to rework The Tale of Igor’s Campaign. If Zadonshchina is indeed the later work, then it took the original wording and refashioned it for a more Christian era. Then there’s Borodin’s 19th-century opera, which turns it into, well, a 19th-century opera, complete with (stunning, although rather disturbing, especially in their treatment of women–sounds like a topic for a later post) ballet divertissements:


Which maybe just goes to show that human nature really is the same all along, or at least that there’s enough continuity for a 21st-century person to see and appreciate this 900-year chain of retelling. Like The Tale of Igor’s Campaign would tell us, we’re all part of an interconnected web of being.


The Tale of Igor’s Campaign in English

The Dreaming Land I

The Dreaming Land II


8 thoughts on “Racing like Wolves: Writing Medieval Russian Epics into Contemporary Fantasy

  1. What a thought-provoking post, Elena, on so many levels! One of the positives of slogging through extremely old literature is getting a sense of how people were both similar and different back then, as you alluded to. (The 1,000-year-old novel “Tale of Genji” comes to mind.) And very glad the devastating Hurricane Michael didn’t affect you too much.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. I think “The Tale of Genji” edition I read a few years ago was abridged, but still long and uneven. Some wonderful sections, and some rather boring ones. Overall, though, it was kind of thrilling to read such an early novel — and written by a woman, too.

        Liked by 2 people

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