The Bear and the Nightingale Summary

Katherine Arden

The Bear and the Nightingale

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The Bear and the Nightingale Summary

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In 2017, American author Katherine Arden published the first of her trilogy of young adult fantasy novels featuring elements of Russian folklore. The Bear and the Nightingale tells the coming of age story of a girl whose bond with the supernatural traditions of her village comes into conflict with the spreading influence of Christianity. Writing in the fantasy genre that mixes realism with magic, Arden sets her story in the wintry darkness that backgrounds many Russian fairy tales, while updating the attitudes and gender politics of the time for a modern audience.

In medieval Rus, Lord Pyotr Vladimirovich’s northern estate encompasses several villages at the edge of the wild forest. He and his wife, Marina, are almost completely happy protecting the peasants and raising their four children. But when Marina prays to the old gods for a special child who would inherit her bloodline’s latent magical powers, she gives birth to Vasilisa and dies in childbirth.

Vasilisa, nicknamed Vasya, grows up wild and adventurous, rebelling against the behavior that is supposed to be appropriate for girls. She is raised by Marina’s old nursemaid, Dunya, who spends the evenings telling Vasya scary stories about Ivan and the Gray Wolf, the Firebird, and most terrifying of all, Morozko, the demonic king of winter. According to Dunya, the cold evil that serves Morozko is only kept away from the villages because the peasants honor and feed the spirits of their ancestors.

As she grows older, Vasya’s magical powers start to show themselves. She is able to see and befriend the ancestral spirits that protect those who leave them offerings. But her increasing powers attract the attention of Morozko himself, especially as the winter turns unduly harsh and he fully wakens.

One winter, Pyotr leaves the estate for Moscow to arrange the marriage of Olga, Vasilisa’s older sister. But while he is there, he is forced to enter a politically motivated marriage with Anna, a sophisticated and deeply devout Christian woman. The marriage is completely against her will, and she is described as weeping every time her new husband has sex with her – now we would see this as marital rape, but then, it was a husband’s right to impose on his wife.

Morozko tries his best to meet Vasilisa, and while Pyotr is in Moscow, the demon succeeds in entrapping one of her brothers. To keep his son alive, Pyotr promises to give Morozko Vasilisa’s hand in marriage. To cement the agreement, Morozko gives Pyotr a necklace set with a silver-blue stone for Vasilisa. But when Pyotr returns, he and Dunya decide to keep this agreement a secret and the necklace hidden. Many years pass without Morozko coming to collect; the promise is forgotten.

In the meantime, Anna imposes her beliefs on the estate by empowering a new arrival to the community: the priest Konstantin, an ambitious man deeply commitment to ridding the villages of their traditional superstitions. Konstantin forbids the peasants from keeping up the tradition of leaving offerings for the household spirits; Anna upholds this rule for her new family as well. To ensure compliance, Konstantin prophesies increasing cold, harvest failure, famine, and death for those who refuse to abandon their old beliefs – prophesies that come to him straight from the divine every time he prays to God.

The only person who objects is Vasilisa, who sees the ancestral spirits grow weaker without their offerings. The evil that lurks in the forest comes ever closer, but Vasilisa’s warnings fall on deaf ears. By this time, the villagers reject her as a witch who would be best dealt with either through a forced marriage or by being trapped in a convent – exactly the fate that her stepmother hopes to carry out. As we watch Anna planning for Vasilisa’s future, we learn that Anna, too, has the power to see the supernatural things that others don’t. But instead of accepting her powers, Anna’s fear of what she can do has made her a religious zealot trying to blot what she knows out of her mind.

Soon, there are reports not just of an unheard-of level of cold, but also of the dead rising and attacking their families. After Vasilisa is forced to kill the zombified version of Dunya, her beloved nursemaid, she knows that she must enter the forest to use her powers to put an end to whatever is going on.

Using the jeweled necklace from Morozko as a protective talisman, Vasilisa at last ventures into the wilderness to meet her fate. Soon, she and Morozko come face to face – and she realizes that he is far from the demonically evil being that Dunya’s stories describe. Even though he is the king of winter, this elemental power is necessary for creating balance in nature. Not only that, he is deeply in love with Vasilisa – she starts to return his feelings as well.

Morozko needs Vasilisa’s power to fight the true evil: his own brother, The Bear, a destructive force bent on killing everyone – starting with the peasants and Vasilisa’s family. Part of The Bear’s plan has been to raise the dead to terrify and attack the populace. But the other part of his plan has been to send false prophesies to Konstantin – all of the priest’s warnings about the need to stop honoring the household spirits have actually been coming from The Bear, who needs these spirits to be weakened in order to attack. Helped by Nightingale, a magical horse, Vasilisa and Morozko face off against The Bear; just as all seems lost, Pyotr joins the fight and sacrifices himself so that The Bear is weakened enough to be defeated.

As the book ends, Vasilisa decides to use her dowry to travel the world rather than marry – even though her romance with Morozko has only just begun.

Most reviewers hail Arden as a writer with a lot of future potential, but describe this novel as a disappointment. Although the writing is beautifully lyrical and the descriptions highly evocative of landscape and mood, critics worry that the main character’s rejection of anything “girl-like” is its own form of sexism, and they tend to point out that the novel’s third act “does not quite deliver on this promise,” as Caitlyn Paxson puts it in her review for Tor.com.