Thursday, 26 April 2018

Guest Post: Vasilisa the Beautiful (on ambiguous villains) by Sophie Anderson

In which Sophie Anderson, author of the wonderful 'The House With Chicken Legs' (read my review here), writes about how in some stories, particularly where villains and heroes are concerned, things might not always be as they seem. In children's books I think it is particularly important that the concept of 3-dimensional characters and events are explored in this way, especially as it is more true to life. I'll let Sophie explain it better, with the help of a Russian fairy tale:

‘In a certain kingdom there lived a merchant …’

In this Russian fairy tale, collected and published by Alexander Afanasyev in 1855, a merchant has one daughter, Vasilisa the Beautiful.

When she is eight-years-old Vasilisa’s mother gives her a magic doll and says,

‘Remember and heed my words. I am dying, and together with my maternal blessing I leave you this doll. Always keep it with you and do not show it to anyone; if you get into trouble, give the doll food, and ask its advice.’

Then Vasilisa’s mother kisses her and dies. After some time, Vasilisa’s father remarries – a widow with two daughters of her own. Vasilisa’s stepmother and stepsisters are jealous of her beauty. They torment her and give her endless work to do. But, Vasilisa’s magic doll comforts her and helps her do the work.

Then one day, the merchant leaves on business and Vasilisa’s stepmother and stepsisters plot to get rid of Vasilisa. They snuff out all the candles in the house and send Vasilisa to Baba Yaga’s hut to ask for a light.

Vasilisa is scared that Baba Yaga will eat her, but the magic doll says it will keep her safe. So, Vasilisa travels through the forest to Baba Yaga’s hut, which is surrounded by a fence of skulls and bones.

Baba Yaga agrees to give Vasilisa a light on the condition she stays and works for her – and threatens to eat her if she does not. Then Baba Yaga makes Vasilisa serve her an enormous meal, and goes to bed, leaving Vasilisa with a seemingly impossible number of chores to do; including sorting a bushel of wheat.

Vasilisa feeds her doll a few crumbs and explains her troubles. The doll replies,

‘Fear not, Vasilisa the Beautiful! Eat your supper, say your prayers, and go to sleep; the morning is wiser than the evening.’

And in the morning, all the work is done. The next day, Baba Yaga gives Vasilisa another seemingly impossible number of chores to do; including sorting poppy seeds from dust. Once again, Vasilisa’s doll does the work for her.

Baba Yaga asks Vasilisa how she managed to do all this work, and Vasilisa replies, ‘I am helped by the blessing of my mother.’

‘So that is what it is,’ shrieks Baba Yaga. ‘Get you gone, blessed daughter! I want no blessed ones in my house!’ And Baba Yaga send Vasilisa on her way – but before she leaves she gives her a skull with burning eyes from her fence, saying, ‘Here is the light for your stepsisters.’

Vasilisa returns home, and is about to throw away the skull, thinking her stepfamily will not need it anymore, but a voice from the skull says, ‘Do not throw me away, take me to your stepmother.’ Inside the house, the skull stares at the stepmother and stepdaughters and burns them. They try to hide but the eyes follow them, and by morning they are burned to ashes.

The tale continues with Vasilisa moving to town, completing more difficult tasks with the help of her doll, and eventually marrying the tsar, but Baba Yaga does not feature again.

I love the Baba Yaga in this tale, as it is one of the first times I glimpsed the wise woman behind the evil old crone archetype. Baba Yaga’s role in this story is ambiguous, as she could be considered a villain, or a helper.

Although Baba Yaga gives Vasilisa seemingly impossible tasks to do and threatens to eat her if she does not complete them, ultimately Baba Yaga gives Vasilisa the burning skull that frees her from her evil stepfamily – the real villains in the tale.

In ‘Women Who Run With The Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype’ by Clarissa Pinkola Estés there is a thorough and fascinating analysis of this tale, which Estés believes is rich in symbolism and metaphor.

Estés writes Vasilisa is ‘about the realization that most things are not as they seem’ and that ‘Vasilisa is a story of handing down the blessing on women’s power of intuition from mother to daughter.’

Estés describes how Vasilisa’s journey takes her from subservience to strength and independence, through facing fear and by learning from Baba Yaga, who represents the wild feminine nature.

This tale was the start of a long journey for me, which began with the realisation that Baba Yaga is not just the cannibalistic villain she is so often depicted as. She is a fascinating, complex character; a wild woman of folklore, fierce and formidable, watchful and wise. She can be a maternal benefactress or a dangerous witch and decides on a case by case basis how she will treat the visitors to her hut.

Her origins are ancient; linked to Pagan Goddesses associated with life, death, the forest and Earth itself; and the history of her portrayal reflects societies’ attitudes to woman and paganism. I am still fascinated by Baba Yaga and have found no matter how much I read, there is always more to learn about her, and from her.


Vasilisa the Beautiful and Baba Yaga, written by Alexander Afanasyev, is available in a gorgeous edition with Ivan Bilibin’s iconic illustrations from 1899, published by The Planet.

There is also a beautiful picture book of this tale, Vasilisa the Beautiful, written by Anthea Bell and illustrated by Anna Morgunova, published by Minedition.

The House with Chicken Legs by Sophie Anderson publishes in paperback, 3 May, £6.99 from Usborne. Cover art by Melissa Castrillón and inside black and white illustrations by Elisa Paganelli.

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