The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden: A Discussion

“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.

Image by Jaria Rambaran

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!

7 thoughts on “The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden: A Discussion

  1. OMG, THIS IS EVEN BETTER THAN I EXPECTED!!! 😍😍😍 I’m literally so excited that you made an entire post about The Bear and the Nightingale that I am unable to have any coherent thoughts about it (and also, I still have lessons to plan for next week because I spent Friday morning binge-watching Heartstopper instead of working πŸ™ˆ), so I’m only going to comment on a few of these things πŸ˜‰ You know me – if I start going into too much detail about anything Winternight related, I am never going to stop! 😁

    1) I also remember being so freaking annoyed that Dunya didn’t just give Vasya the talisman, particularly on my reread 🀣 But if I had been in her place, I probably also would’ve been a bit suspicious and tried to protect Vasya from weird potentially magic items while she was young… And then I would have forgotten where I put the talisman and never found it again πŸ˜… (I know what I’m talking about. I managed to misplace my entire jewelry casket about five years ago, which means I haven’t worn any jewelry since because I don’t see the point in buying more of it when I theoretically have everything I need. Somewhere.)
    2. I’m not sure if I agree that Konstantin’s passionate faith partially excuses his actions. It does make it understandable why he acts the way he does, but I don’t think it absolves him of any responsibility. You can’t hide behind religious fanaticism to excuse your choices, especially if blindly following God causes pain to others. At some point, I expect the guy to realize he has a brain of his own and question whether what he is doing is actually moral – particularly when he seems to have no problem laying out “God’s will” to his advantage in other situations. Religious or otherwise, I don’t think it is ever okay to thoughtlessly apply an ideology without ever questioning whether you agree with it or not. You have to get away from blind servitude at some point and not hide behind codes and rules to justify actions that, deep down, you know are wrong! In a way, that makes what you did even worse, because you should have known better!
    3. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I think I’d have married some horrible man in Vasya’s place πŸ™ˆ I don’t think I could’ve faked my religiousness convincingly enough to make it at the convent, when eight years of religion at school already drove me insane… And I would’ve died immediately as an outcast because I have no survival skills whatsoever. So I guess I’d have taken the husband and hoped he eventually came around to being nice? Or died? πŸ˜…
    4. I also love when books subtly (!) examine how appearance shapes how we perceive other people 😊 And I think it’s really interesting how you think people might see you as nicer than you actually are – I’m kind of hoping my students see it that way, too, because in reality, I’m probably judging them way harder than you are recipients’ mail boxes πŸ˜πŸ™ˆ However, I’ve never really thought too much about being considered nicer than I actually am – what has always really weighed on me instead is that I think people think I am smarter than I actually am. I feel like once they figure out what sorts of grades I had in the past and the kinds of mathy stuff I was involved in, they think everything must come really easily to me, that I know everything anyway, and that I have my whole life perfectly under control. Which has always put this insane amount of pressure on me to meet people’s expectations and added another hurdle to actually opening up to people about things that weren’t going great in my life… Which has actually been one of the best things about moving to a new place, where people don’t already have preconceived notions about who I am!
    5. I pretty much agree with everything else in this post, so fine, I will shup up now 🀐😜

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You had a lot of good guesses about the topic of this post the other day but still missed one of the obvious ones (which was very entertaining for me) 😁

      1. I have a suspicion Morozko would have been able to locate it for you if you misplaced the talisman, but the sentence “theoretically I have everything I need. Somewhere.” just cracked me up! πŸ˜‚πŸ˜‚ That’s some questionable logic πŸ˜‚
      2. I agree with you if we’re talking about him in book 3 but this is about book 1, and he hasn’t reached that point yet. And realizing you’re being manipulated is practically impossible so I really do not expect him to realize he isn’t talking to god. And him “causing pain to others” can be quite subjective in this book. Yes, he installs fear in the villagers but that’s only to bring about something good (saving the village), and that’s what Christianity was at that point. That’s what he’s been taught. So I’m holding on to his intentions being good, and that still matters at this point in the story. Yes, he later reaches a point of no return where he becomes more selfish and realizes what he’s doing is wrong but does it anyway.
      3. Really?!? That was my last option, I think, because then I’d probably rather die πŸ˜… I mean, I imagine being at a convent would involve a lot of solitude as well (sounds amazing) and maybe some praying in silence (they can’t check what I’m thinking about), so I really don’t think it would be that hard πŸ˜… Also, if they, as a rule, send misbehaving girls to a convent, I doubt I’ll be the only one faking it.
      4. I’m glad you agree with me on the subtly in this! The example I’m talking about not liking recently is actually that guy in Elantris that Sarene hates (the name is obviously gone from my memory) because he was pretty but literally had no other positive traits so I hated that one-sidedness. There was no reason to write him as pretty other than laughing at beautiful people.
      But I would not have guessed that you judge your student that hard. It’s kind of funny πŸ˜„ And I relate to people thinking I’m smarter than I actually am, but that’s probably just because I’m so quiet. People don’t often hear me say something stupid πŸ˜… Doesn’t mean I’m not thinking something stupid. But I get that moving to a new place can help! I just never worked for me because I’m permanently quiet πŸ˜…

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      1. In retrospect, it WAS kind of obvious – I mean, I even knew what you’d been reading!!! I can’t believe my brain didn’t make the connection πŸ™ˆπŸ˜‚ (See, I’m right there with you in sometimes thinking stupid stuff 😜)

        1. The logic makes perfect sense! As long as there is a chance I’ll find that jewlery again, I’m not risking spending money on something I already own. Not when that money could also be spent on, say, books… πŸ˜‡
        2. Hmm, maybe… I suppose my book 3 Konstantin hatred might be overshadowing what he did in book 1 – after all, I did initially ship him with Vasya, so part of me must’ve found him redeemable at some point πŸ™ˆ I guess I’m due for another reread soon so I can pay closer attention to him in book-1-isolation πŸ˜‚
        3. When you put it that way, maybe the convent actually wouldn’t be too bad after all πŸ€” Come to think of it, they might even have a choir and be one of the few places that had libraries back then! πŸ₯° So as long as I don’t have to read/memorize/copy the Bible and attend church services 24-7 and have at least a few other non-pious people there with me, I might actually be able to get on board with this!
        4. Huh, what guy? πŸ˜… All guys except for Raoden and Hrathen and Galladon have already faded from my mind because they had absolutely no personality at all πŸ™ˆ Or do you mean Dilaf? Everybody hated him, after all 🀣 But I don’t remember whether he was ever described as pretty…

        Liked by 1 person

      2. 1. Sooo if you never find it, you’ll just never wear jewelry again? πŸ˜‚
        2. Oh right, your Konstantin/Vasya-ship πŸ™„ I don’t think I ever found him that redeemable πŸ˜‚
        3. Right? I feel like it’s only presented as a bad option because it’s Vasya who can’t sit still but like, we don’t have that problem 😁
        4. You don’t remember?? He might have been some kind of priest from Sarene’s homeland so she knew him when he arrived. In the end, she was very adamant about him not being the one to marry her and Raoden. Come to think of it, I don’t think he did all that much and now I’m wondering why he was even there πŸ€”

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      3. 1. Sounds about right 🀣 (I mean, for really important events, I can always steal some of my sister’s; she has way more than I ever did anyway… 😁)
        2. Trust me, I have seen the error of my ways πŸ™ˆ
        3. Yeah, not sitting still has definitely never been a problem of mine πŸ˜†
        4. Ohhhhhh, that guy! Now that you mention him, I do vaguely remember him being there, but I still remember absolutely nothing else about him or how beautiful he was… So you’re probably right in saying that there wasn’t much of a point in him being there πŸ˜‚

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