Russian folklore is rich with various myths, legends and folk tales that detail the life of various mythical characters. In many of such tales, there is extensive use of magic, witchcraft and the use of extraordinary powers. However, the most common characteristic of Russian folklore is the use of women in storytelling. Historical scholars define Russia’s literature as one that is rich with folk tales involving mystical adventure. However, most of these tales have a heroine instead of a hero at the end. Vasilisa the Brave has its setting at a time when magic and the use of extraordinary power was at its peak.
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A story is told of a young lady named Vasilisa who is sent by her cruel step-mother to collect some light from a witch called Baba Yaga. However, the main essence of the errand is to have Vasilisa be harmed and possibly die in the process of collecting the light. However, it is her humility and generosity that saves Vasilisa from being devoured by the witch Baba Yaga. The condition given by the witch is that Vasilisa completes a few tasks including basic household chores for Baba Yaga. After successfully completing the task, Baba Yaga hands Vasilisa a lantern fashioned from a skull, which ultimately burns the stepmother and the stepsisters to ashes.
The story of Vasilisa is laden with symbolism. The writer uses various representations of the local culture to relate to the actual happenings in contemporary culture. The character of Baba Yaga has also been used on various platforms to bring out not only an evil but also a powerful character. “Vasilisa the Beautiful” characterizes Baba Yaga as a dangerous person who wields massive power of magic. However, her actions towards Vasilisa paint a person who despite being associated with evil does not seem to support evil deeds against the innocent in the society. From the common folklore history, Baba Yaga comes out as the villain who will go to any lengths to harm the protagonist. It is no doubt that Baba Yaga’s character is meant to strike a balance in terms of interpretation and giving the story the intended happy ending.
Representation of Evil in “Vasilisa the Beautiful”
“Vasilisa the Beautiful” is seen as being more of a Russian Cinderella story thus appealing to the Western readers. Despite the fact that the story has been written in so many forms by writers who have different versions of what happens in the story, the basic facts in the story are predominantly similar. The story revolves around a young lady Vasilisa. After the death of her mother, Vasilisa is left with no one to take care of her. However before her death, Vasilisa’s mother leaves her a doll that is supposed to help Vasilisa whenever she needs help. The condition by the mother is that whenever she needs help, Vasilisa should feed the doll and the doll reciprocates by assisting her in her problems. The greatest condition that Vasilisa is given by her mother is never to let anyone know of the doll’s existence (Zheleznova, 1966). Vasilisa’s stepmother is described as a cruel woman who discriminates against Vasilisa making her do most of the chores in the household while her daughters lazy around the house doing nothing. Further cruel treatment directed towards Vasilisa is whereby she is given only a merger portion of all meals. However, Vasilisa does not eat her meals but rather saves the entire meals for the doll which in turn helps her complete her chores.
The doll in the story is a characterization of how Russians and the society in general view super-natural beings. The doll in this case is presented as a mundane object that has extraordinary capabilities while keeping in mind that it can be found anywhere. The author tries to portray Vasilisa’s relationship to the doll as mutually exclusive. It is the treatment towards the doll that dictates whether the doll offers any help to Vasilisa. By feeding the doll, Vasilisa is rewarded by having her chores done by the doll. It is important to note that Vasilisa does not have direct power in her relationship with her doll.
Hartman (1993) is of the view that it is only by using the doll that Vasilisa is able to improve her living condition characterized by cruelty. Vasilisa was able to follow her mother’s instructions who directed that she feeds the doll any time that she needs the dolls’ assistance. In addition, Vasilisa is not supposed to tell anyone regarding the doll’s existence. The application of these in the contemporary society is the need to follow instructions. The author depicts Vasilisa as an obedient lady who always heeds instructions from elders as it is depicted throughout the story. It is this obedience that helps Vasilisa time and time again during difficult situations. By being obedient, Vasilisa is able to escape the wrath of her stepmother and later from Baba Yaga. Towards the end, it is the willingness to listen to advice that eventually sees Vasilisa get married to the tsar.
When her father is away on business, Vasilisa’s cruel stepmother plots to kill Vasilisa and together with her daughters send Vasilisa though the forest to Baba Yaga for some light. Upon arrival Vasilisa is required by the witch Baba Yaga to do menial household duties and also serve her meals. Vasilisa does all the work without questioning and even goes further to enlist the help of her doll when Baba Yaga requires her to do some almost impossible tasks. After completing all her task, Baba Yaga asks Vasilisa why she is so humble and why she does things without questioning. In her response, Vasilisa asks Baba Yaga about three horsemen who she had previously seen entering and leaving the witch’s homestead. Baba Yaga responds by saying that the three horsemen are her “my bright day…my red sun…and my dark night—and all three of them are my faithful servants”(197).
In a critical analysis of fairy tales known as Shadow and Evil In Fairy Tales, the author states that Baba Yaga’s reference to owning the night and day is a literary representation of the pagan culture not only in Russia but the world in general. Franz is of the view that Russian paganisms manifest itself particularly in the Russian society that often has hard-line views on different issues in the society. For some reason, Russia has over the years been viewed as ‘female’ with the reference of ‘rodina’ which means motherland being the best example to support this reference. In relation to “Vasilisa the Beautiful”, the author is seen to hand more power to women based on the fact that from the story, women seem to make decisions and are also the key characters in the story.
In light with all the female characters in the story, Vasilisa’s fate rests with the major characters that are; her mother, the doll, Baba Yaga and her stepmother. Baba Yaga claims to own day and night. This situation replicates most countries and the level of authority exerted to the common citizens. Franz also notes that there are several skulls in Baba Yaga’s hut which is interpreted as the witch’s power over life and death. This can be compared to the power of life and death that the state has over ordinary citizens.
In Indo-European folklore, light is often used to symbolize knowledge. Most Western fairy tales describe the quest for knowledge as progressive growth that is beneficial in the society. From the story, Vasilisa was sent by her stepmother to get some light for Baba Yaga. The representation of light in the contemporary society is knowledge. However, “Vasilisa the Beautiful” introduces a rather unique feature of Russian tale. Instead of the quest for knowledge being represented as a beneficial process, the Russian version suggests that the quest for knowledge is a dangerous process and thus should be avoided unless there are compelling reasons as to why the process must be undertaken.
It is important to note that by being sent to collect some light from Baba Yaga, Vasilisa’s stepmother expects that she will not survive her task. However, Vasilisa’s behavior and conduct enables her to succeed in her quest. In addition to this, Vasilisa is able to acknowledge her subordinate role in the society particularly based on how she treats Baba Yaga. Thus from a wider perspective, the author tries to emphasize the rewards that come with good behavior and humility in the society. Faced with a near-impossible task, Vasilisa is able to tame even Baba Yaga who is a witch. Baba Yaga even goes further to state that she does not comprehend how Vasilisa is willing to take orders without questioning.
As stated by Compora (2010), the metaphor of identifying Baba Yaga with the state is continued further in the story. From the story, it is permissible for Vasilisa to inquire about some of the things that happen at Baba Yaga’s hut. However, Baba Yaga tells Vasilisa that not every question has an appropriate answer. Baba Yaga goes further to tell Vasilisa that too much knowledge will lead to old age. Before answering the question about the three horsemen, Baba Yaga asks Vasilisa how she was able to complete all the tasks given to her. Vasilisa says that the reason why she successfully completed various tasks was because she had her mother’s blessing. From the story, Baba Yaga is seen as both the villain and the protagonist. This assumption is based on the fact that she rewards Vasilisa for her good behavior and exhibiting good morals. On the other hand, Baba Yaga is described as terrible when she is angry.
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All the main characters have certain characteristics that define their personality. Vasilisa is portrayed as humble, obedient and hardworking. Vasilisa’s stepmother and stepsisters are portrayed as cruel, selfish and evil. Baba Yaga on the other hand strikes out as considerate and non-manipulative. The portrayal of Vasilisa as selfless implies that she always considers other people’s opinion in her decisions. This reflects in modern society the importance of selflessness. Perhaps to show just how much generosity is in the society, Vasilisa’s stepmother and stepsisters attempt to use Baba Yaga’s power to destroy Vasilisa. This is evident from the story whereby Vasilisa is sent to fetch some light from Baba Yaga even though the stepmother and stepsister knew that she was likely to be harmed in the process of collecting the light. However, it is the stepmother and stepsisters who pay for their evil deeds with their lives.
According to Schielzo (1983), “Vasilisa the Beautiful” further characterizes the use of stepmothers in mythology. Since time immemorial, there is always a negative connotation that accompanies the word stepmother. Stepmothers have been used in myths to contradict the positive nature of mothers. It is therefore not surprising that throughout the folklore history, stepmothers always seem to carry specific personal traits. The most common attribute that is associated with stepmothers is jealousy. In the case of Vasilisa, she is mistreated by her stepmother simply because the stepmother felt that she was prettier than her own children. The same scenario of a jealous stepmother is replicated in various stories throughout history. Baba Yaga gives Vasilisa a skull with fiery eyes indicating that this was the light that the stepmother and the stepdaughters had requested for. Vasilisa innocently takes the skull with her back to her stepfamily that is immediately burnt to ashes by the fiery eyes. The death of Vasilisa’s stepmother and stepsisters mark the assumption in early mythology and story writing that evil never wins. Vasilisa maintains her humble nature which gives the story one of the rarest features of Russian literature which is a happy ending.
“Vasilisa the Beautiful” is a manifestation of how various phenomena influenced early folklore. Most mythical analogies incorporate the use of a supernatural being, witchcraft and magic. Also a common trait in such analogies is the use of an evil stepmother. This application relates to so many things in the society and is meant to reflect the situation on the ground. From the beginning of the story, the writer is very specific regarding the direction of the story. Perhaps it is the use of magic that has the greatest impact on the story. Critics argue that despite it not being realistic to apply magic in modern literature, the latter was extremely relevant in early literature especially Greek Myths and Legends. More importantly, the major themes analyzed in the story indicate a systemic application of literature to influence behavior and promote good conduct. This is evident from the story where the evil stepmother and the stepsisters are burnt to ashes by the skull. The death of the stepsisters and the stepmother is considered as payback regarding how the same people treated Vasilisa.
Compora, D. P. (2010). Folk and Fairy Tales. Journal of Folklore Research Reviews
Hartman, D. K., & Hartman, J. A. (1993). Reading across texts: Expanding the role of the reader. The reading teacher, 202-211.
Louise, M.F. (1974). Shadow and Evil in Fairy Tales. Boston: Shambhala Publications
Mayer, M. (1994). Baba Yaga and Vasilisa the Brave. Morrow Junior Books.
Sanders, R. Folk & Fairy Tales. (1978)UK: Methuen & Co.Ltd.
Scielzo, C. (1983). AN ANALYSIS OF BBA-YAG IN FOLKLORE AND FAIRY TALES. The American journal of psychoanalysis, 43(2).
Zheleznova, I. L. (Ed.). (1966). Vasilisa the Beautiful: Russian fairy tales. Progress Publishers.
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