Baba Yaga's role as a "witch," in the stereotypical sense, is clear in her accoutrements, in her personal habits, and in her participation in the Russian variant of "Hansel and Gretel." However, despite the literal translation of ved'ma (witch), her behavior is far more benevolent, if not entirely benign, in other stories. In modern retellings, Baba Yaga's semi-schizophrenic presentation in the original folklore has caused some difficulties for contemporary authors: it is difficult to write of her without emphasizing one aspect over another. The choices that are made, and the stories that they are set in, provide for fascinating comparisons that indicate as much about today's culture as the older versions did of theirs. Let's look at three treatments of Baba Yaga which correspond to the three aspects from traditional lore that we have already examined: Baba Yaga as cannibal, Baba Yaga as helper, and Baba Yaga as figure of malevolence — in Neil Gaiman's graphic story "The Land of Summer's Twilight" (from Books of Magic), Gene Wolfe's short story "The Death of Koshchei the Deathless (a tale of old Russia)" (from Ruby Slippers, Golden Tears), and Orson Scott Card's novel Enchantment.
Neil Gaiman sets his version of Baba Yaga and her realm deep within the forests of Fairyland, and we encounter them along the course of a quest undertaken by his hero,Timothy Hunter. Prior to embarking upon his journey, Timothy is acquainted with the basic rules of Fairy: to abandon Cold Iron, to ask no questions or favors and accept no gifts, to mind his manners, and, most importantly of all, to never stray from the path. The first stop on the journey, fittingly enough, is the Goblin Market. From its inception in fantastic literature with Christina Rossetti's Victorian-era poem "Goblin Market" (a place where mortals could interact freely with the denizens of Fairy), the Goblin Market has been a liminal space where rules and boundaries must be more strictly enforced, rather than less, so as to maintain the balance required for the market's very existence. It is thus the perfect setting for our hero to learn that actions in Fairy have consequences, as he discovers when a goblin named Snout attempts to plant an article of jewelry upon him, hoping to procure the boy's services as a personal servant as a penalty for "theft." In restitution, Timothy and his companions — his guide, Dr. Occult of comics fame in our dimension, known as Rose in Fairy, and his owl — are entitled to choose one item apiece from Snout's possessions. They pick an enameled pocket-mirror, a bejeweled chain, and an oblong sphere of crystal (named to Timothy by the Warden of the Market, Glory, with some appreciation, as a Mundane Egg) before continuing on their journey.
Along the way, Rose further acquaints Timothy with some of the rules of Fairy: to avoid the ingestion of Fairy's substances, for example, and thus, their unpredictable side-effect; and reminds Timothy of the most basic rule: to stay on the path. Eventually, however, the companions are separated...in a wood containing a hut just off the path, a hut surrounded by posts surmounted with skulls whose eyes glare flame....
Following a fine long tradition of heroes incapable of following directions, Timothy steps off the path, in the mistaken belief that his companions have done so also...only to encounter Baba Yaga. As he reaches up to touch the shoulder of the figure he believes to be his guide, Timothy plaintively asks, "What is it? What's wrong?" That question is answered soon enough, both in the leering visage of Baba Yaga (beautifully depicted by the eloquent pen of artist Charles Vess), and in her mocking words: "What's wrong? Why, you've stepped off the path, boychik … That's what's wrong. Hee hee hee." By leaving the path, regardless of the provocation, Timothy Hunter has made himself fair prey for Yaga by the rules of etiquette.
Gaiman's approach to Baba Yaga utilizes the same basic tenets of her personality made manifest in many traditional Russian stories: her hunger, her cunning, and her malevolence. When confronted with Tim's assurance that his protector will find them, Baba Yaga's reply is simply that "Baba Yaga's little house is in the heart of the wild forest. And it will not be found in the same place two days running...." Her emphasis upon "heart" serves will to underscore the ravenous nature of the running monologue concerning what it is that she's found — "What's Baba Yaga found for herself? Is it a stew? Is it a roast? Is it blood pudding? Oh yes. All of them. Juicy and meaty and tender and sweet." When she speaks, in the traditional manner, of her anticipated feast, saying "Ohh. Such feasting I will make. The grease will run down my chin, and I will crack your bones with my iron teeth to suck the marrow from within...," the combined effect of text and illustration flawlessly demonstrates the distinctive appeal of the genre, culminating in a presentation of Baba Yaga that manages to convey her threat as few other works have done.
When Baba Yaga leaves her home to obtain the correct spices, ordering her house to wander to a safer location in her absence, Timothy makes the acquaintance of the rest of her larder: a long-eared hare and a hedge-hog (well, hedge-piggie, to use the preferred term). These animals are Tim's natural allies for two reasons. The first? Tradition. Animal helpers frequently appear in Baba Yaga stories. The second reason is that of nationality...for while Baba Yaga's Russian origins comes through quite clearly in her colloquialisms, so too do theirs, and these are not the anthropomorphic beasts of Russia, but rather closer kin to the characters of The Wind in the Willows, and to Timothy himself. One of Gaiman's gifts in world-building is his ability to effortlessly find points of Otherworldly commonality (a gift exploited to good use here, as well as in Stardust and American Gods, two other works which occasionally make use of Russian lore). Through a blend of cooperation (and the realization that Timothy's owl's bejeweled chain from the Market is actually Empusa's Infinitely Extendable), the group manages to entangle the legs of the hut and crash it, both allowing for a fortuitous escape, and, less fortunately, rousing the wrath of Baba Yaga.
Interestingly enough, Gaiman does not choose to have Timothy Hunter himself defeat Baba Yaga, pointing either to a remnant of the Comics Code (as most means of dispensing with Baba Yaga are, of necessity, rather brutal) or, more likely, to an ongoing immaturity in the character, requiring a longer story arc to rectify properly (a supposition supported by Tim's ongoing adventures, which include the unwise acceptance of a present from Titania, the Queen of Fairy, of all people). The method that he does choose to force her to surrender her claim bears interesting repercussions, however: his Rose threatens Baba Yaga with the vocalization of her true name, a technique efficacious in other cultures, but not one used with any frequency in Russian lore. It implies a cross-cultural set of rules at play within this Otherworldly melting pot which is well worth considering. That inference is supported by the precise wording of the threat: Rose asks Baba Yaga, "Do you wish me to shout it now, so that all of the animals of the forest, all of the birds of the air, every passing nixie and boggart will know it?" Despite the fact that the nixes and boggarts come from entirely different mythic systems, it is apparent that Baba Yaga does not: she surrenders her claim.
Despite the complexity of characterization, this is the most straight-forward of the modern retellings to be examined here, in its faithfulness to the preceding lore attached to Baba Yaga. By comparison, Gene Wolfe and Orson Scott Card both adapt the character considerably, focusing specifically upon Baba Yaga's affinity with women, and the fact of her woman-hood itself, while achieving entirely different results.