“It was late winter in northern Rus’, the air sullen with wet that was neither rain nor snow.”First line in The Bear and the Nightingale by Kathrine Arden
I recently reread the entire Winternight Trilogy by Katherine Arden, and since I love that series so very much, I wanted to write posts about it. At the back of my editions of these books, there are so-called Reader’s Guides with a bunch of discussion questions meant to help you analyze the books even further. And this post is me answering the questions from the first book The Bear and the Nightingale to talk about themes and characters more in-depth. Obviously, this post contains major SPOILERS for that book, but I will also recommend you read the entire trilogy before proceeding any further.
Just a little disclaimer; there were a lot of questions so I’ve picked the ones I found the most interesting and that I had the most to say about. Here we go!
Compare some of the fairy tales and creatures referenced here to your favorite Western fairy tales. What are some commonalities? How are they different?
This is just my kind of question! I could probably write a very long essay comparing The Winternight Trilogy to The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen because there are so many parallels to draw between the two and yet also many cultural differences. I mean, in The Snow Queen there’s a sorceress who has a cottage by a river set in eternal summer, which I know is not relevant to this book, but come on! Also just comparing the Snow Queen to Morozko would give you an insight into what role winter (and even summer) has played in the two cultures in historic times. In both cases, it’s something to be revered (titles of king and queen), but in a Danish context, there is more fear involved because of how the Snow Queen is the villain of the story. Winter is a necessity but also something we just need to survive and get through. In Morozko, you have a figure that represents more of a co-existence with winter, and this difference is one that caught my interest the first time I read these books. It was a different way of thinking about winter that I hadn’t even considered. Also, both stories have summer represented by evil characters so there’s also that overlap.
The question also asked about fairy tale creatures and I feel like it wants me to mention the vampires/upyr. They are very similar to the vampires we know from other stories, although the big difference lies in how they are “created”. I’m not sure if Arden took inspiration from Russian folklore on that or if she just decided that the Bear could make vampires but it’s an interesting twist to a well-known mythological creature.
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?
I’m conflicted here. In my reread, I really wanted Dunya to just give Vasya the freaking talisman so I could get some more Vasya/Morozko interactions. But then I also found some respect for Dunya because she literally had Death giving her an order and she’s like “lol, no”, which is pretty brave if you ask me.
In all seriousness though, I think she was right to keep the talisman from Vasya to a certain point. I’m using my knowledge from book 2 here where Morozko admits that he intended for Vasya to love him because it would make him stronger. I’m kind of glad she didn’t get it at the age of seven when that was the intention. There’s also a selfish part of me that doesn’t believe Vasya’s and Morozko’s relationship would have developed the way that it did had Vasya gotten it as a child, so I’m all for Dunya keeping it. Still, when Dunya and Pyotr are trying to marry Vasya off, she’s clearly old enough and Dunya should have given her the talisman before that.
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?
So philosophical. I’m not that attached to the idea of free will because I always figured that as long as you believe you’re doing something of your own volition then it really doesn’t matter if it’s fate or not. Vasya is being herself. Is that “self” created by fate? Had Vasya been more timid, she wouldn’t reach this destiny that we’re seeing, but she, of course, isn’t that so her choices put her on the path toward that destiny. Does it matter? I really don’t think so.
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?
I think all of those things interconnecting made their fate inevitable. I don’t think it’s necessary to place blame when there isn’t a single event or person behind these bad things that happen. They are all things that developed over a long period of time if you consider Konstantin and Anna products of their environment. It isn’t just one decision that led to this. A gradual decline is much harder to stop because you have to notice that there even is a threat first, which is what everyone was too slow about doing.
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?
First of all, I love this question. Is he sympathetic? Maybe I wouldn’t go so far as to call him that, but at least here in the first book, I’d say he’s redeemable. Because yes, his passionate faith does excuse some of it. He does have some good intentions based on that faith about saving everyone. He’s going about it all wrong, but that doesn’t remove the good intentions he has. And I also want to say that they are buried very deep because they are in conflict with his ambitions. His artistic talent and saint-like manner are how he proves his piety, but at the same time, it’s also clear that they are his vices. He wants to stand out. He wants to be special and upheld, and those aren’t exactly Christian values. These are most likely the aspects of his personality that drew the Bear to him, and not what he claims which is Vasya. And when he then assumes the Bear is God, he’s confirmed in these un-Christian-like values which lead him further and further towards darkness, so that even when the Bear left him, he wasn’t able to return. It’s interesting that he never comes to that conclusion about his misguided values but instead focuses on the feelings he has for Vasya, which are very human feelings that priests aren’t excepted from. Those are the ones he sees as proof of his own wickedness, rather than the fact that he wants everyone in the village to be afraid. So I wouldn’t call him a willing player in his own fall because he IS being manipulated by the Bear but he also cannot shirk responsibility entirely.
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?
I know I’m supposed to pick the last option and do like Vasya, and I probably would if the setting was 2022 Denmark, but to survive on my own in medieval times? In that cold? Nope, not doing that. Maybe because the only option we didn’t really experience in the book was the convent one, it doesn’t sound too bad. I’m not religious but I’m sure I could pretend to be to avoid marrying one of these horrible men Vasya meets or dying in the snow.
Why do you think the villagers are so threatened by Vasya? What does she represent to them?
I think she represents a part of themselves that they want to forget or have successfully repressed. It’s not as simple as saying they envy the freedom that Vasya represents because I do think most of the villagers are happy with the lives they have, and Vasya’s ways are threatening their stability. Some could feel inspired by her spirits and remember things they used to feel and dream about, and that is a danger to all within the village because they survive on tradition.
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?
Vasya fits in right in the middle of these forces as she’s trying to find the middle ground where these forces can exist without being in conflict with each other. This is most obvious with ‘the old traditions vs. Christianity’ because she believes in both. She doesn’t see believing in the chyerti as a reason to not believe in God, and she insists that these forces can co-exist. The same with order vs. chaos; she’s not the best at following rules but she also knows that there needs to be some. Some other examples of opposing forces could be the duty to your family vs. the need for individuality, which we see not only Vaysa struggle with but also Sasha. In this book, Sasha isn’t in the middle like Vasya but has chosen a life based only on his own desires, while you also have Olga who is content to play the role she must for the good of her family. Vasya stays with her family and their village to save them from the upyr, but she manages to do so while being herself, showing that the opposing forces can be united.
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 “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 you have been mislabeled?
Okay, I actually really love this trope when is done right as it is in Winternight. I recently read an example where it was done more as a way to ridicule the attractive person and say “ha ha, see, beauty isn’t everything”, which isn’t a message I think we need. But in these dark fantasy stories where it’s used to do subtle commentary on how we perceive other people, I’m absolutely addicted to it. Attractive people do have an easier time getting want they want, so they also often claim positions of power like we see in Vasya’s world (Kyril, Konstantin).
I can’t think of a concrete example where I’ve seen another person being mislabeled, but I’m sure the entertainment industry is full of them. As for myself, I don’t want to say that I’ve been mislabeled like that, but I sometimes wonder if people think I’m nicer than I actually am. Especially at work when I’m interacting with customers (as a mail carrier) I’m aware that I’m a woman in my twenties who isn’t outright ugly so a smile is often enough for people to find me likable. They don’t know that on the inside I’m judging them so hard for not emptying their mailbox. And I think this as well as the opposite scenario might be a common thing for people who work with customer interaction.
I loved writing this! Please share your own thoughts on these questions because I can never get sick of talking about these books!