Thursday, April 26, 2018

A fantastic delve into Russian Folk Tales with Sophie Anderson, author of the stunning "The House With Chicken Legs" (Usborne Publishing) @sophieinspace @usborne #HouseWithChickenLegs #BlogTour

The House with Chicken Legs Blog Tour

"Fifteen Russian Fairy Tales and What They Mean to Me" by Sophie Anderson, Author of "The House with Chicken Legs" (Usborne Publishing)

We're delighted to be joined by Sophie Anderson this morning on our stop on the fabulous "The House with Chicken Legs" blog tour. Sophie has spun a superb version of the classic Baba Yaga folk tale, adding an impressively atmospheric new twist to this well-loved classic.

Sophie has joined us to talk about another Russian folk tale as part of the tour, so take it away Sophie!

4. The Death of Koschei the Deathless (on untold stories)

‘In a certain kingdom in a certain land …’

The Death of Koschei the Deathless or Maria Morevna is a Russian fairy tale,collected and published by Alexander Afanasyev in 1855.

In the story, Prince Ivan’s parents die, and his three sisters marry and leave the kingdom. Prince Ivan becomes lonely and sets off to visit his sisters. On the way he finds an army, slain by the warrior queen Maria Morevna.

Maria takes a liking to Ivan, marries him, and takes him to her kingdom. But after a while, Maria decides to leave Ivan at home while she goes off to make war again.

Before she leaves, she tells Ivan not to look in a particular closet …

Of course, Ivan looks in the closet, and finds Koschei the Deathless chained up. Koschei begs Ivan for a drink and Ivan gives him some water. This restores Koschei’s strength and he breaks his chains, runs off, and takes Maria prisoner.

Ivan sets off to rescue Maria, visiting his three sisters along the way and leaving a piece of silver with each one. He finds Maria and attempts to take her home while Koschei is out hunting. However, Koschei catches him up and steals Maria back.

This happens a second time, and a third, and on the third time Koschei cuts Ivan into tiny pieces, throws the pieces into a barrel, and casts the barrel out to sea. The pieces of silver Ivan gave his sisters blacken, so they know something bad has happened and they send their husbands to find Ivan.

They do find him, piece him back together and revive him with the water of life.

Determined to rescue Maria this time, Ivan steals a super-fast horse from Baba Yaga and whisks Maria away. But once again, Koschei catches him up. However, this time Ivan’s super-horse swings a hoof and smashes Koschei’s head, and Ivan finishes him off with a mace.

‘Thereupon the prince gathered together a pile of wood, made a fire, burned Koschei the Deathless, and scattered his ashes to the wind.’

This story fascinates because of all the untold stories it contains.

Firstly, how did Koschei the Deathless end up chained in Maria Morevna’s closet?

Considering that, at the start of story, Maria is a warrior queen capable of slaying armies, my theory is she captured and imprisoned Koschei herself. This is an untold story I would like to hear!

Secondly, why does Maria Morevna, this amazing warrior queen, turn into a damsel-in-distress half way through the story; allowing herself to be captured by Koschei and waiting at his castle – even when Koschei is out hunting - for Ivan to rescue her?

This has never felt quite right to me, and I can’t help but feel something else is going on. Perhaps Maria willingly went with Koschei … perhaps they had a history together… perhaps she was testing Prince Ivan. Or perhaps this part of the story has been completely altered by a patriarchal storyteller.

I would like to hear this part of the story told again, from Maria’s point of view, and from Koschei’s point of view, as I think they may provide a more realistic and balanced version of events.

And thirdly, how on earth is Koschei the Deathless killed by a blow to the head? Koschei the Deathless is immortal, and according to other fairy tales, can only be killed by finding his death (or his soul) which is hidden far away …

‘in the sea there is an island, on that island stands an oak, under the oak a coffer is buried, in the coffer is a hare, in the hare is a duck, in the duck is an egg, and in the egg is my death.’

I have always been fascinated by the idea of Koschei hiding his soul to become immortal. It is another untold story I would love to hear. Why did Koschei hide his soul?

Untold stories like this are rife in fairy tales, and one of the reasons they provide endless inspiration for writers. Fairy tales beg to be told from different point of views; the hero’s, the villain’s, and the damsel-in- maybe-not- as-much- distress-as- all-that’s.

It is immensely satisfying to pick at the threads that don’t feel right, and to reimagine the story until it makes more sense in your heart and mind.

And there is a lesson that carries over to real life too; about not making judgements on someone, or accepting them as a villain, without hearing their side of the story.

There is an upper YA / adult reimagining of this tale, Deathless, written by Catherynne M. Valente, published by Tor.