In his novel Enchantment, Orson Scott Card works with some similar aspects of the archetype of Baba Yaga, taking them, however, in a direction entirely different from Wolfe's. Enchantment is a time-travel fantasy that centers around the etiology of fairy tales — the story of a Russian Jewish émigré, Ivan Petrovitch Smetski, who returns to his homeland to conduct doctoral research involving Vladimir Propp's theories on fairy tales. Ivan is the child of a linguistic scholar and a witch, and he has, in fact, a second reason for the trip, for he's haunted by the childhood memory of a beautiful woman he once found sleeping an enchanted sleep in a Russian forest. That woman, as it turns out, is Katerina, the princess of a 9th century Slavic kingdom, cast into a cataplectic trance by Baba Yaga so that Yaga can steal her kingdom.
Like Wolfe, Card transmutes Baba Yaga's magical abilities into social power by making her a member of the Russian nobility. The secularization of her power in modern literature (as opposed to her divinely based, natural power in early folklore) indicates an interesting societal restructuring, a new means of perceiving and portraying Baba Yaga's strength and resources. Card's Baba Yaga derives a great deal of her magic from the immortal being who is her unwilling husband (Bear, the anthropomorphic protector of Russia), but it is made clear that this source of strength is acquired through coercion. She possesses enough magic to manipulate natural forces, but not to control them; her main ability appears to be the beguiling of unwary minds — to "turn" them — though her power is limited by the fact that she "can only use the desires already in a man's heart."
Card provides his Baba Yaga with a background that serves to explain her traditional malice. Married off at the age of twelve to a brutish king, this Baba Yaga was once an innocent. With each act of self-defense, the girl's identity as Yaga built slowly over time, until acts of self-protection altered into acts of vengefulness and sadism. We read, "How she hated that nickname! And yet the name had stuck, until now it was the name she used for herself. Her late husband King Brat had given her the name when he brought her to Kiev as his twelve-year-old bride. That was the pet name he murmured to her tenderly as he raped her immature body, and again as she pretended to weep over the grave of the first baby he sired on her. His dear Yaga, his sweet pet Yaga, Yaga the loving mother who pressed the face of his greedy slurping spawn into her breast long after it stopped struggling for breath and then, wailing, laid his first-born son in the very lap that had forced it on her. It was a message, though Brat never understood it, dense heavy-armed warrior that he was, a message that people understood now, with him deposed from his throne and then dead of a withering disease, and his widow married to a husband who at last looked like what every human husband was, a hairy stinking drooling beast. A simple message: If you make Yaga do what she doesn't want to do, you won't like the result."
Card makes it clear that Yaga was originally "Olga, a hopeful young princess in a lovely kingdom on the south shore of the Baltic Sea." It is the metamorphosis from innocent to victim to self-protector that Yaga remembers with bitter resentment, and it was that same progression that, over time, changed the form of her message. Card writes, "Maybe the message had changed over the years, and now it was more along the lines of: If you try to stop Yaga from doing what she wants to do, you and everyone you ever liked will be destroyed. But in spirit, in origin, it was really the same message. If she had to leave the gloriously beautiful coastland of her childhood and then the bustling traders town of Kiev to live in this crude woodland, at least she would control all of the kingdoms around her and run things her way."
Baba Yaga's way includes a great deal of petty cruelty — casting curses, tormenting unfortunate visitors and then dismembering them, both for the "magical" properties of their various body parts and for the sheer pleasure of the activity. She is not a cannibal, though she does occasionally feed her victims to Bear, her husband; her atrocities stem from hunger for power rather than Baba Yaga's traditional hunger for flesh. Her desire to win Katrina's kingdom of Taina stems from her huger for domination. However, though she resents the fact that the "only drawback was that she would always have to have some husband with the title of king or no one would take her seriously," she inadvertently sets the same condition onto the princess Katerina.
Baba Yaga places a fatal curse on Katerina — but the curse is allayed by the princess's three aunts, Tetka Retiva, Tetka Moika, and Tetka Tila, who transform it into one of eternal sleep unless the princess is rescued by the strongest knight, the wisest man, and the purest love. Instead of being devoured by Bear, as Baba Yaga had hoped, Katerina is chased to an inaccessible woodland grove, and condemned to enchanted sleep unless her true love should find her.
Card plays with the details of Pushkin's Eugene Onegin here, consciously drawing also upon the many stories of Bear as god and as an anthropomorphic figure in Russian myth. He also, obviously, utilizes the classic motifs of the fairy tale Sleeping Beauty. Interestingly enough, Sleeping Beauty is not a tale-type native to Russia (as Katerina's father-in-law, Ivan's role-model, folklorist Piotr Smetski points out, saying "Sleeping Beauty, I thought that it was a French fairy tale….") Though the French version of the story by Charles Perrault is the one most widely known today, the earliest extant version is actually from 15th century Italy. At some point in history, the tale was transmitted to Russia, though it was modified along the way. The most commonly known variant in Russia more closely resembles the tale that we know as Snow White, and served as the basis for Disney's cinematic adaptation.
Unlike modern versions of Sleeping Beauty, the Italian tale (and Perrault's version) continues on after the princess awakes, depicting the dangers she and her offspring face from a cannibalistic mother-in-law. In Card's story, too, the union of Ivan and Katerina does not secure a happy ending; there must be an heir for the kingdom in order to protect it fully from Baba Yaga, and this, specifically, provides one of Card's most interesting additions to the Baba Yaga oeuvre. After spending time together in Taina, Katerina and Ivan realize that they are not yet safe from the witch, and so they travel to the 20th century, to Ivan's home in America. There, they learn magic from Ivan's mother, Esther (Esther having learned it from the tantalizingly named Baba Tila, double of Katerina's Tetka Tila, and old enemy of Baba Yaga, now Granny rather than Aunt) and conceive a child. When strategizing the impending confrontation with Baba Yaga, Katerina says to Ivan, "if we've made a baby, if I have a child inside me when I face her, then I have a power she's never had. Well, she's conceived babies, the people say, but the children were always born monsters who died at once...if we've made a child...there will be magic in it. Power."
Katerina's pregnancy does in fact allow her additional energies to direct against their enemy. Card is careful to point out that the child's conception is more than a ploy against Baba Yaga; it is an act of love, and a manifestation of all that Ivan and Katrina struggle to protect. Though Baba Yaga has born a child successfully (as we've been informed earlier in the text), she was also quite willing to sacrifice him for her own gains. It is not the physical inability to give birth, but Baba Yaga's lack of empathy and of altruism that deprives her gaining additional power through motherhood — a factor that Baba Yaga is incapable of comprehending, or fighting against.
In this tale, Card highlights Baba Yaga's antagonism towards children (the weakest members of society) and women (her potential competitors), while also removing the challenge that she traditionally poses for young men moving through the process of maturation. This bleak and rather one-dimensional picture of Baba Yaga is rectified by the individualization of the character, the humor of Card's language, and the wonderfully inventive explanations he provides to account for the development of Baba Yaga's characteristics in Russian folklore from the 9th century onward, subsequent to her battle with Ivan and Katrina. (For example, her hut on chicken legs is attributed to a form of transportation that she encounters in the future, a 747, which she manages to hijack.)
Baba Yaga ends the story defeated, but not conquered. She says, "let [Katerina] have the kingdom. What good was a kingdom anyway? Whining people to govern, rents and taxes to collect, which everyone tried to steal from her at every step in the process. What good had it done her? She'd played at it, but the game wasn't worth the cost. She was still Baba Yaga, though, wasn't she? Her books might be buried and soon burned, her spells might have been broken, but she could still do magic. The house that flies, for instance. She could make another one like it...with legs on it, like those chicken legs, which would pick up and move where she wanted it to go. That was no one would ever be certain where she was … Inside her, the flame of malice burned as bright as ever. As bright, but smaller. Her reach was smaller, too. But so were her needs. She was retiring from public life...."
As we know, that is not to be the case, for Baba Yaga always returns...but it is the end of Card's contribution to her story. Enchantment concludes with the martial, and marital, triumph of Ivan and Katerina — the continuation of their lineage in a brood of children to rule in Taina or succeed in the modern world. The story also ends with the contribution of new insights into fairy tales from the time-traveling folklorist — both in the form of uncontaminated, original tales gathered in the 9th century, and in the form of Ivan and Katrina's own story, which has now become folk history. At one point in the tale, Ivan thinks "I have already changed the future....There will be different folktales now."
That process of alteration is one that is visible in every folktale, every retelling, and every new patch of information added onto the fabric of pre-existing stories or characters. Every fairy tale figure, Baba Yaga being a prime example, becomes a conglomerate entity: While it is impossible for a single tale to contain every element of her identity, each use of her persona alludes to, and adds to, a rich history and established tradition. Baba Yaga brings together many of the dominant themes of Russian myth and legend; fitting all these themes into a single tale would be difficult, and might result in a somewhat schizophrenic character. (Some traditional tales addressed this issue by making her into a triune entity of sorts, with characters visiting three walking huts for advice from three witches, all named Baba Yaga.) Thus, as each of the older folktales tends to emphasize certain elements of her personality, so too do new ones, whether they be those of observing social norms, of assistance, or of malevolence. The character of Baba Yaga remains today, as she has always been, confusing, mesmerizing, and terrifying, regardless of whether she manifests as a witch in the forest, a noblewoman on her estate, or a terrorist in the modern world. Our continuing fascination with her indicates that her position in society — as threat, as probationer, as helper — is as vital as it has ever been, in Russia and in the rest of the world.
Orson Scott Card notes in Enchantment, "Russian fairy tales were the only ones he'd read that were so grim, even the princess sometimes died." This ties in neatly to one of the traditional Russian fairy tale endings, used in lieu of the more optimistic, "...and they all lived happily after..." In Russia, tales conclude with the sentiment that "they all lived as happily as they could, until they died." In a world with Baba Yaga in it, it seems an apt enough attitude to take.
Nonfiction and Folklore Collections:
- Traditional Slovak Folktales by David Cooper
- Russian Fairy Tales collected by Alexander Afanasye, edited by Norman Guterman
- An Introduction to the Russian Folktale by Jack Haney
- Russian Folk Belief by Linda J. Ivanits
- Baba Yaga: The Ambiguous Mother and Witch of the Russian Folktale by Andreas John
- Morphology of the Folktale, by Vladamir Propp, translated by Laurence Scott
- The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales by Maria Tatar
- Russian Myths by Elizabeth Warner
- From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and their Tellers by Marina Warner
- Enchantment by Orson Scott Card
- The Rusalka Sequence: Rusalka, Chernevog, and Yvgenia by C.J. Cherryh
- Books of Magic: The Land of Summer's Twilight by Neil Gaiman
- In the Forests of Serre by Patricia A. McKillip
- Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente
- "The Tale of Koshchei the Deathless (a tale of Old Russia) by Gene Wolfe (Ruby Slippers, Golden Tears, Datlow & Windling, eds.)
About the Author: Helen Pilinovsky writes on fairy tales, feminism, and the fantastic. She received her Ph.D. from Columbia University, where her topic was the birth of the genre of fantasy in the 19th century. She has guest-edited issues of The Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts and Extrapolation, and is co-editor of the fairy tale journal Cabinet des Fées. She lives in New York City, where she teaches at Barnard College.
Copyright © 2004 by Helen Pilinovsky. A shorter version of this article first appeared in Realms of Fantasy magazine, April 2004. The article may not be reproduced in any form without the author's permission.
Art by Kinuko Y. Craft, from her book Baba Yaga and Vasilisa the Brave