Vasilisa’s Venture

Those of you who know me might be aware of how I tend to be in the middle of several books at a time. I recently finished Diane Wynne Jones’s House of Many Ways (the review should be coming soon), and I’ve started on Robert Rankin’s The Witches of Chiswick. I’m also reading Les Miserables, one of Beth’s favorite books, but that one will almost certainly take me a while to get through. In addition to these, you can add The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales. My original plan was to read one fairy tale every night before bed, but I’ve been staying up so late on the computer recently that I haven’t had the time. Still, I managed to work in “Vasilisa the Fair” a few days ago, and I thought it was worth a few comments.

The story, which is Russian, starts out a lot like “Cinderella,” with the title character being abused and forced into servitude by her nasty stepmother and wicked stepsisters. Fortunately for her, she has a magic doll she inherited from her mother, which does most of the work for her. In an attempt to get rid of her entirely, her stepsisters send her off to get fire from the witch Baba Yaga. I’ve written a bit about her before, but it’s hard to get enough Baba Yaga. I mean, a witch who lives in a house on duck feet and rides around on a mortar and pestle?

Those Russians sure had some crazy ideas! She’s a frightening figure, but will sometimes deign to help visitors if they stand up to her. As I noted in the earlier post, she has three horsemen as servants, one dressed all in white and riding a white horse, and the others in red and black.

I’m sure there’s an intended resemblance here to the Horsemen of the Apocalypse, but the three are officially said to represent the bright dawn, the red sun, and the dark night. This actually made me think of the Nellie McKay song “Ding Dong,” in which the first verse mentions a “man in white,” then goes on to men in red and black. Perhaps it’s a stretch, but I have to wonder if there’s something in the men appearing in that particular order.

Getting back to the story, Vasilisa eventually obtains the fire, which burns up her stepmother and stepsisters. I’ve always been interested in how some fairy tales allow the villains to reform, while others mete out incredibly harsh punishments. It’s like how Charles Perrault had Cinderella arrange to have her stepsisters married to prominent lords, while the Brothers Grimm had their eyes pecked out by birds. The redemption endings fit better with my own personal philosophy, but I have to admire how creatively gruesome the punishments can be. I know modern retellings tend to edit out the gory resolutions, but I have to suspect kids like them. As for Vasilisa herself, she marries a tsar and is reunited with her father, who seems to be surprisingly accepting of his new wife going up in flames.

The illustrations I included in this post are by Ivan Bilibin. More fairy tale posts will probably be coming soon, if you want them. Maybe even if you don’t, because I like to write about them.

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9 Responses to Vasilisa’s Venture

  1. Just putting in a thumbs up to the promise of more fairy tale posts. Yes, please do! You have at least one reader.

  2. vilajunkie says:

    I *love* Baba Yaga! And this fairy tale/folk tale. And Ivan Bilibin–which, btw, notice the resemblance to Bilbil, a.k.a Prince Bobo of Boboland? :P

    Anyway, the use of red, white, and black is also repeated in Snow White (as the description of her even in the original tales, with “hair black as night, skin white as snow, and lips red as the blood from her mother’s finger”); in the descriptions of many beautiful women from Celtic fairy tales and myths; and in alchemy, as the three base ingredients for the Philosopher’s Stone (mercury for sure, but I forget the last two) symbolized as three birds flying in a circle among other things.

    • Nathan says:

      Yes, I also noticed the similarity of Bilibin to Bilbil. Did Bilibin draw any goats?

      I remember one fairy tale (I think it was one of the Grimms’) in which the black/white/red combination was used for a baby BOY.

  3. First, what gorgeous illustrations!

    I find the different means of punishing villains, or them punishing themselves, to be constantly fascinating. Eyes pecked out, chopping off toes and heels, dancing in red hot shoes, grabbing your hair and splitting yourself in two… good times for all. I agree, I suspect children rather enjoy those gory bits, even if they do get toned down in modern versions.

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