The introduction to Wolfe's story "The Death of Koshchei the Deathless" states that "in reading the original [fairy tale], Wolfe was struck by the things left out or implied, presumably to protect young ears … and decided to fill in the blanks for adults." Wolfe fills in quite a number of things, including historical etiology and a clear reason for his hero's maturation — the direct guidance of Baba Yaga. The story is narrated to an unseen audience of one, whose identity is revealed late in the text.
In the original fairy tale of the same title, a prince named Ivan (a name as ubiquitous in Russian tales as Jack is in English ones) is bid by his dying parents to make good marriages for his sisters. He weds them to three sorcerous birds — a falcon, an eagle, and a raven — before realizing that in their absence, his life is devoid of meaning. Going forth on a pilgrimage to find them, he instead encounters a mighty warrior queen, Marya Morevna, at the site of her most recent victory, and the two are swiftly wed. (It is worth noting here that Marya is also the name of one of Ivan's sisters.) All goes well until the queen sets out on her next military campaign, enjoining Ivan to avoid a certain closet in her chambers. Ivan (reprising the role of Bluebeard's wife) is unable to resist such a temptation, and unwittingly frees one of the great figures of notoriety in Russian myth, the sorcerer Koshchei the Deathless. Koshchei promptly kidnaps Marya for his own, leaving Ivan to try to reclaim her. After three failed rescue attempts, with the sorcerer catching up each time, Koshchei loses patience and dismembers Ivan, flinging his remains into the Baltic Sea.
Ivan is recovered by his avian in-laws, resurrected by his clever sisters, and sets off after Marya once more. This time she informs him that the reason they cannot flee fast enough to escape Koshchei is because he rides a stallion that was a gift from Baba Yaga, and Ivan resolves to acquire a stallion from Baba Yaga himself. He travels to Baba Yaga's realm and offers to watch her herds for three days. If he he manages to keep her herds intact, he will then then be gifted with a steed. Baba Yaga attempts to circumvent the terms of their agreement through trickery, but in the end a colt from her stable (along with skills of cunning that Ivan has learned through her unwitting tutelage) allows the prince to finally rescue Marya and defeat Koshchei the Deathless.
Prince Ivan the Bold, in Gene Wolfe's story, like his predecessor in the fairy tale, experiences the loss of his parents and the ensuing responsibility for his siblings. He, too, must marry them off, though in this tongue-in-cheek retelling, the falcon, eagle, and raven of the original story are transfigured into the Graf von Falkonstein, the King of Poland (with an eagle for his crest), and a "raven" who is only identified as being from Hungary, all of whom come armed to the teeth to demand their respective brides. Afterwards, left on his own, Ivan pines for his sisters' company and eventually decides that he must go forth to seek them out. When he comes across a battlefield and the fierce warrior responsible for it, it is not Marya Morevna whom he meets, but rather Marya, the newly widowed Countess Von Falkonstein … his sister. Unfortunately, this fact does not come to light until the morning after Ivan spends the night in Marya's tent.
Wolfe's adjustments to the traditional fairy tale highlight some of the confusing and contradictory elements of the story. The addition of incest, while discomfiting, serves to poke gentle fun at the potential misunderstandings in a tale possessing two characters bearing the same name. It serves, as well, to reference a longstanding element of such behavior in Russian tales, and to explain the otherwise incomprehensible reasoning behind the original Ivan's encounter with Marya Morevna, their brief sojourn and their hasty marriage. In Wolfe's story, it quickly becomes clear that the marriage stems from convenience as much as anything else: neither party is willing to reveal the occurrence of the taboo to world, and the resulting birth of a child (also named Ivan, soon to be known as the Ivan the Simple) negates the possibility of ignoring it entirely.
In this story, too, Ivan the Bold frees Koshchei from captivity, but in a far less fancifully embroidered manner than found in the fairy tale. Ivan comes across a certain door in the dungeons of his sister's castle and opens it entirely out of idle curiosity. There he discovers Koshchei, condemned to starvation by the Countess. The prince frees him, feeds him, and then the two negotiate a treaty of peace to resolve the issues that had been the source of conflict between Koshchei and Marya. But when they set out to inform her of this happy news, Koshchei falls helplessly in love with her, and stages a revolt in order to carry Marya away with him. Her absence disturbs Prince Ivan not at all — his brotherly fondness having faded under the pressures of their new relationship — until he learns that the familial estate will revert back to the Holy Roman Empire unless he can furnish proof of Marya's continued existence. Valuing his comfort, Ivan attempts to verify his sister's residence among the living, in the course of which Marya convinces him to help her escape from Koshchei. They escape and flee, they're caught again, and the cycle repeats the requisite three times before Koshchei decides that "even the most deeply felt gratitude has limits." He kills Ivan in the prescribed manner and throws his remains into the Baltic Sea.
The story goes on. Ivan, son of Ivan, grows to maturity in peace, his life disturbed only by the issue which had so troubled his father: the threatened loss of the familial homestead unless the Countess Von Falkonstein appears at court to verify his parentage. Ivan sets out alone to find her, earning his reputation as "the Simple." Attempting to reach Koshchei's court, Ivan (hereditary tendencies intact) loses his way, and finds himself in the realm of Baba Yaga. "Not the witch they talk of to frighten children, " explains Ivan the younger, revealed as the narrator of Wolfe's story. "All that is purest superstition, though we call it now by the polite name of folklore. By 'Baba Yaga' I intend the Grand Duchess, that terrible old woman."
Baba Yaga is presented here as a mundane noblewoman, an interesting re-interpretation of the power wielded by that worthy character, which has traditionally been natural in origin rather than societal. But like the fairy tale Baba Yaga, the Grand Duchess possesses a special aptitude for understanding of the hearts of men — or, rather more specifically in this tale, the hearts of women. The Grand Duchess welcomes Ivan to her estates "with old-fashioned boyar courtesy — turning out her serfs to cheer, and all the rest of it," before marking his resemblance to his father. This point leads Ivan to the matter of his quest, to which the duchess suggests a solution: that he feign Ivan the Bold's resurrection, thus using the element of surprise to achieve his goal of defeating Koshchei and retrieving his mother. Ivan the Simple stays on the Grand Duchess's estates for a period of some months, receiving tattoos that will allow him the pretense of actually being his father in the flesh — the tattoos placed at the joins of each limb to mark the spots of his dismemberment. Wolfe's Baba Yaga also provides assistance in another form that falls within the figure's traditional purview: she gives Ivan the skills and cunning to understand human motivations. As Wolfe tells us, in Ivan's voice, "She lectured me about women, too. I think that was really much more important; and so must she have, because she kept me there for months, getting tattooed and getting sick from it and recovering, while she recounted long stories from her past and asked, when she had finished each of them, how the woman at the center would act."
Ivan notes that "No one, I think, has ever looked deeper into the human heart — into women's hearts, particularly, for men's hearts are simple things, by comparison — than old Baba Yaga." This understanding extends to other feminine beings as well, for in this version of the story it is Baba Yaga who convinces the hero to spare the lives of wild things of the forest (a ryabchik and her nestlings, wild bees, and a wolf, all of them female), and his "reward" is a deepening understanding of the natural world around him. Eventually, Ivan and Baba Yaga are admitted to Koshchei's palace on the strength of his impersonation of his father and the puzzlement it causes. Ivan succeeds against Koshchei and liberates his mother not through force of arms, but by fomenting revolt amongst the women of Koshchei's kingdom, whose hearts Ivan has come to comprehend through Yaga's tutelage.
In the end, Wolfe's tale remains ambiguous. As Ivan says about the Grand Duchess, "We never call her Baba Yaga to her face, to be sure. And yet… " That last note of doubt encapsulates the mood of Wolfe's story as a whole. Everything appears to be entirely aboveboard, non-magical, clearly explicable. And yet …Those two words mark a space left waiting, to be filled with a clever amalgamation of folklore and fictional elements. Only in the addition of nobility does the author depart from Baba Yaga's traditional characteristics. Her potential for generosity and assistance, and her insights into human nature, were not invented by Wolfe, but rather, redirected. His character's instinctive desire to help the hero, without set tasks or tests to accomplish first, and her special comprehension of human nature (specifically of the female mind), make controversial use of Russian folk material, but still arguably fall within the Baba Yaga folk tradition.
Art by Ivan Bilibin (1876-1942), "Prince Ivan and Marya Morvena," "Koshchei the Deathless," and "Baba Yaga"