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The Bear and the Nightingale Reader’s Guide

By Katherine Arden

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden


Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. Throughout the novel, Vasya meets many strange creatures from Dunya’s fairy tales—­from the domovoi to the rusalka to upyry. Which of the demons that Vasya encounters is your favorite? Which ones would you never want to meet?

2. Compare some of the fairy tales and creatures referenced here to your favorite Western fairy tales. What are some commonalties? How are they different?

3. What are some tropes or stock characters of the traditional Western fairy tale that you can spot in The Bear and the Nightingale? Were there any parts of the traditional Western fairy tale that were used in a way that surprised you?

4. Dunya is tasked by both Pyotr and the winter-­king to give the talisman to Vasya, yet Dunya is conflicted. She fears for Vasya’s safety if she were to possess the talisman, but the winter-­king insists that Vasya must have it in order to protect them all. Was Dunya right to keep the talisman from Vasya for so long?

5. Do you trust the winter-­king? What do you think he is still hiding from Vasya?

6. The various demons and spirits begin to prophesize Vasya’s fate to her in mysterious riddles, and we learn bit by bit that the winter-­king also seems to possess knowledge of what’s to come and the role Vasya is destined to play. What role do you think fate plays in the novel? How much of what happens is the result of choices made by the characters versus an inevitable destiny?

7. Who do you think is to blame for the suffering Vasya’s village of Lesnaya Zemlya faces: Konstantin? The villagers for neglecting their offerings to the demons? Anna for rejecting her second sight and punishing Vasya for hers? Metropolitan Aleksei for sending Anna and Konstantin to the village? Pyotr for allowing such misery to befall his village? Is the blame shared? Was the fate of the village inevitable?

8. To what degree is the character of Konstantin sympathetic? Does his passionate faith excuse his actions? Is he an unwitting dupe or a willing player in his own fall? Do his charisma and artistic talent conflict with or complement his vocation as a priest? Why?

9. What are some parallels between Vasya and her stepmother? What are some key differences between them? Why does Anna hate Vasya so much?

10. Vasya is faced with the choice of marriage, a convent, or a life in which she’s considered an outsider by her village and her family. What would you have done in her place?

11. Why do you think the villagers are so threatened by Vasya? What does she represent to them?

12. The Bear and the Nightingale is not a clear-­cut story of good vs. evil, though there are many other opposing forces, including the Bear vs. Morozko, order vs. chaos, the old traditions vs. Christianity, and, of course, the Bear vs. the Nightingale. What are some other examples? How do these opposing forces overlap, and where do you think Vasya fits in?

13. Over the course of the book, we see multiple instances of characters correlating someone’s goodness with physical appearance. For instance, Vasya’s almost-­husband, Kyril, is called handsome and is ­consequently revered despite his cruel personality. Vasya, meanwhile, is repeatedly called a “frog” and is quickly labeled a witch. What are some instances in your life where you have seen others being mis­labeled based on their appearance? Are there times when you have felt like you have been mislabeled?

14. The Bear and the Nightingale is bracketed by sacrifice—­first Vasya’s mother, then at the end her father. How is sacrifice an important theme in the book? How many characters are called upon to give up something important, even vital? Not just Vasya herself, but Anna and Konstantin, for example. How do the sacrifices of others shape the narrative?

About this Author

An Interview with
Katherine Arden
BookPage: When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
Katherine Arden: I read nonstop as a child, as most writers probably did, and my favorite part of the day was bedtime, because I would lie awake in the dark and make up stories. When I was in high school I wrote a fantasy novel with shapeshifting dragons and a sort-­of-­like-­Iceland world of snow and volcanoes.
But I never seriously thought I am a writer or even I want to be a writer. Not the kind who writes books you find in a bookstore. I hadn’t made the connection between what I did in my own head for fun and the work of others that I read.
In college I didn’t do any creative writing at all. I studied foreign languages, wrote earnest essays and wanted to be a diplomat. But after I got my degree, I realized I was burnt out and I didn’t want to race into a career right away. So I moved to Hawaii to work on a farm. It was supposed to be for just a few months while I gathered steam and figured my life out. But I got bored on the farm, and as a remedy against boredom I decided to write a book.
I discovered that I really enjoyed the writing process. I started thinking, well, I could do this with my life. Might as well try. So I promised myself that I would finish my novel and at least try to get it published. Getting a book published is hard, and it took a lot of work to get there, and there were setbacks along the way. But I just found myself getting more and more determined as the process went on.
I would say there was no moment that definitively told me I wanted to be a writer, rather a series of decisions and outcomes and realizations that cumulatively made me realize that was what I wanted to do with my life.
BP: You weave in so many creatures from Russian folklore—­a few of which are unique to the culture (I’d never heard of a domovoi!). How did you research these legends?
KA: I took a course in college as part of my Russian degree, ambitiously titled “The Russian Mind.” This class started us off in Slavic prehistory and took us through more than a thousand years’ worth of events, ideas, and pieces of literature that shaped the thinking and the culture of the Russia we know today.
Early in the class, we studied Slavic folklore, including household spirits like the domovoi. We also examined the notion that Slavic paganism never really disappeared from the Russian countryside after the arrival of Christianity; rather they coexisted, with some friction, for centuries. I was fascinated by the tensions inherent in such a system, as well as the notion of a complicated magical world interacting so subtly with the real one. I decided that I wanted to explore these notions in the context of a novel. I did my research, as one does, in libraries and online. I have also amassed a small library of obscure academic texts on such topics as medieval Russian sexual mores, magical practices, and farming implements.
BP: Were there any creatures you wish you had been able to in­-clude?
KA: Wow, there are so many characters from folklore that I wanted to include but couldn’t! Some of them will make an appearance in future novels. There is a guardian spirit for everything in Russian folklore. The domovoi guards the house; the dvorovoi guards the dooryard. The bannik guards the bathhouse, the ovinnik, the threshing-­house. Their areas of influence are almost absurdly specific. And each creature has a certain appearance and personality, and people must do certain things to placate them.
BP: Do you see big differences between Russian folklore and that of Western Europe?
KA: Yes, there are marked differences between Western European and Russian fairy tales. To me the most interesting difference is between the recurring main characters of these two fairy-­tale traditions. For example, the classic hero of Russian fairy tales is Ivan the Fool. He is not a muscular and martial figure like the heroic kings, princes, and woodcutters that feature in Western European fairy tales. Rather, he is usually of ordinary birth, lazy and good-­natured, and he gets by on his wits and native innocence.
For me, the heroines in Russian fairy tales absolutely outshine their Western counterparts in terms of initiative, courage, and interesting storylines. Vasilisa the Beautiful, for example, defeats the Baba Yaga with her cleverness and the help of her mother’s blessing. Marya ­Morevna is a warrior queen. Even Baba Yaga, the prototypical villain, is a powerful woman, who is sometimes wicked but always wise. For that reason, especially, I prefer the fairy tales of Pushkin or Afanasyev to those of say, Perrault, which value passivity in girls (Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, etc).
BP: Vasya is a truly compelling heroine. She is strong enough to embrace her differences, but she still reads as a woman of her time. How did you maintain that balance?
KA: How does any writer maintain balance? Scene by scene and moment by moment. I brought my own modern biases and understandings to this historical period that I was trying to write about, but also allowed my ideas and beliefs to be shaped by my best guesses about the attitudes of the time. There was a constant friction between what I wanted my main character to do and what I believed she would be able to do, given the era, and I hope some of the tension made its way into the storytelling.
BP: As is often the case in fairy tales, the introduction of a stepmother brings conflict to the Petrovich family. Yet the reader ends up having a great amount of sympathy for Anna. How do you feel about this character?
KA: Anna was one of the first characters that really came into focus for me, and it is often really interesting to get readers’ reactions on her. Some people feel sympathy for her, some hate her wholeheartedly. I personally fall into the former category. I think she is a person wholly trapped in a world that allows her no choices, and she is not a strong enough person to carve out happiness for herself in those circumstances.
“What makes the evil stepmother evil?” is perhaps an old or clichéd question, but it was one I felt was important to ask and to answer, to give the story depth.
BP: The Russian wilderness—­and the Russian winters in particular—­are vividly described in your novel. Can you talk a bit about that and how it affects your characters?
KA: People living in the Middle Ages, in an environment as harsh as Northern Russia, were intimately acquainted with the weather. Their lives literally depended on it. In The Bear and the Nightingale, the weather is pretty much a character in and of itself, personified, in a way, by the various spirits that populate the novel. Every action and event in the book is some way tied to the land: heat, bitter cold, snowstorms, fires.
Also, I think my personal experiences of Russia (I lived in Moscow for a gap year after high school, and again my junior year of college) come through most in my descriptions of weather. The Russian weather has a quick and capricious quality that really captivated me, and the sky seems HUGE. If the natural world has a powerful presence even in modern Moscow, can you imagine what it was like for people living in the wilderness in the fourteenth century?
BP: Even though her family sometimes has a hard time understanding Vasya, there is so much love and loyalty in their relationships. What was your favorite relationship in the novel?
KA: I really love the relationship Vasya has with her older brother Sasha and her younger brother Alyosha. I have a brother, and so those relationships were the easiest for me to write. I wanted their mutual affection to be a powerful driving force, even though they don’t always understand, or agree with, each other. I think that is how families function in the best sense, where love and loyalty wins out, even though no one is perfect.
BP: The conflict between Christianity and the old traditions is a big part of this book. What do readers need to know about this period in Russian history?
KA: I think it’s important to realize that this period of Russian history doesn’t have a lot of primary sources. Literacy was extremely low, and the few literate people lived in cities and were mostly clergy, concerned with copying Greek religious texts. Everything was built of wood, so architectural evidence is limited as well. It gives lovely scope to a writer, because you can do your research, align all your facts, step back and say, well, how do we know this didn’t happen?
But what we do know: at this time period (mid fourteenth century) Muscovy was rising rapidly, buoyed by a long collaboration with the Golden Horde, which had taken power in Russia about two hundred years prior. At the time, the Horde was preoccupied by succession problems (Genghis Khan had a really absurd number of descendants), and the Grand Princes of Moscow were quietly expanding their territory and bringing lesser princes into the fold.
During this period, much of Muscovy’s conflict was with other Russian city-­states (notably Tver), but Dmitrii Ivanovich (who is still a boy in The Bear and the Nightingale) is the first prince who will successfully oppose the Golden Horde and Mongol dominance in Russia.
BP: You’ve lived in so many places! Where are you now, and how long do you plan to stay there?
KA: I live in Vermont just at present, where I promised myself I would stay and not budge until I’d finished my second novel! I’ve done that now, and so I am eyeing the horizon a bit. You never know. Norway next, maybe? Bali? My absolute favorite thing about being a writer is that you can live wherever you want.
BP: We hear this is the first in a series. What can you tell us about Vasya’s next adventure?
KA: Her next adventure, The Girl in the Tower, is written already. It covers a much shorter time frame than The Bear and the Nightingale (two months instead of sixteen years) and it takes place largely in the medieval city of Moscow. It features Vasya and also her two older siblings, Sasha and Olga, who were only briefly in the first book, along with new characters from Russian history and Slavic mythology. Some you may recognize, some you probably won’t.
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