“A girl rode a bay horse through a forest late at night.”First line in The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden
It is time for my second post about the Winternight Trilogy by Katherine Arden where I discuss and analyze the books based on the questions in the Reader’s Guides at the back of my American editions. This one is obviously about The Girl in the Tower but if you missed the first one for The Bear and the Nightingale it’s right here. As with the first one, this post includes HUGE SPOILERS for the book in question, but I also recommend that you’ve read the last book before reading more of this post.
Finally, I need to say that I haven’t included every single question because there were a lot and not all were that interesting.
Again and again, the concept of freedom versus confinement pervades the story: Vasya must choose between freedom alone, life in a convent, or a future tied to marriage; Sasha reflects on his inability to find peace as a secluded monk and his need for adventure; and Olga comments repeatedly on the strict obligations of noblewoman confined to their towers. Discuss this dynamic. What does freedom mean to each of these characters? How much of their freedom should each be expected to sacrifice to their responsibilities?
For Vasya, the freedom element is about the freedom to be herself. She doesn’t want to have other people dictate what she can and can’t do and that is the essence of her problems. It’s just the thing that when you have people you love and they love you back, they will also make demands of you and ask you to think of someone besides yourself. That’s what Vasya also experiences; she has responsibilities to her family members and even to Morozko to some degree. She can’t just ignore them because being herself also means being caring, so in that sense, the freedom she sacrifices for her family is also the freedom she is expected to sacrifice. She can’t avoid it and we see her struggle with this dilemma a lot.
For Sasha, I think his idea of freedom isn’t that different from Vasya’s. He was very adamant about becoming a monk when he was young and since I don’t think he dreamed of becoming this famous figure he ended up as, I think his motivations went more along the lines of just getting out of the village. He didn’t want to be stuck there as a lord’s second son, but rather, he wanted to be free to go out into the world and make a difference. I think this need became stronger as he grew older which is why we see him struggle with the role of being a monk who can only sit in a monastery and pray. Being in the thick of things alongside the Grand Prince satisfies that ambitious side of him, but his responsibility lies in his more “normal” duties as a monk. He can’t just stop being a monk because it’s still a huge part of who he is. He’s not just a soldier and I think the freedom he is asked to sacrifice for his faith is what set him apart from Konstantin. Sasha’s faith prevents him from following that ambitious line of thinking too closely, so he sees himself only as a help to the Grand Prince rather than seeking fame and riches for himself like Konstantin whose faith is so warped he can barely call himself a Christian anymore.
What freedom means to Olga is more difficult to say, I think. She doesn’t actually want to go out in the world like the other two and also wanted to get married. Maybe her wish for freedom is more about freedom to be a part of Moscow society; to attend parties, to talk to people who aren’t her servants, to allow her children playmates that aren’t their siblings. I might be projecting because it’s not like we get her vocalizing these dreams and she also doesn’t seem troubled by the life she leads. She has always known she was going to lead this life so the only dream she allowed herself was one of a fairy tale prince, which I guess she didn’t get but her husband doesn’t seem cruel.
Vasya assumes the role of Sasha’s brother, Vasilii, when she becomes entangled with the Moscow noblemen. Is pretending to be a man a smart move on Vasya’s part? How would the events that unfold have been different, upon her first encounter with Sasha and the Grand Prince at the walled monastery, she was truthful about her identity?
I think ‘necessary’ is a more appropriate word than smart when describing that decision. She didn’t really have another choice if she wanted them to listen to her because they barely believe her story when they think she’s a boy. Pretending to be a boy gave her a voice that we’ve learned so far that women don’t have. Without this charade, they would never have found those bandits. It would have been all about the impropriety of Vasya’s actions rather than the bravery in them, perfectly exemplifying what you get by excluding half your population in everything. There was then no absolute need for her to continue the charade right under the Grand Prince’s nose in Moscow so that one was less of a smart move.
The theme of coming-of-age is prevalent throughout the book, as Vasya reflects on her decision to pursue an adulthood of her own making in contrast to Masha’s very confined choices as a princess. Why do you think that with coming-of-age there seems to be a narrowing of choices?
Coming of age also brings more responsibilities, ones you don’t have as a child. That’s what Vasya learns too. She can’t just dash off into the woods whenever she wants to or when something bothers her anymore. She learns that she has responsibilities and that her choices affect other people around her and that feels constricting for her. In contrast, you have Masha who never had the option of dashing into the woods. Responsibility has been put on her from an early age because she’s a princess, so she hasn’t had the carefree childhood Vasya experienced. Meeting Vasya who takes her on a ride through the city gives her just a little bit of that and shows us that children have all these choices open to them. Adulthood and responsibilities can always come later when you’re more aware of the world and other people.
Vasya interferes when Morozko arrives to take Olga away, and as a result, he leaves with the life of the newborn child instead. What do you think of Vasya’s decision to intervene?
There are so many ethical questions involved here because it’s based on the very real scenario where you can’t save both mom and child during childbirth. I might be cynical, but I would choose the mom’s life which is why I can’t completely fault Vasya here. She’s obviously doing it for selfish reasons because she doesn’t want to lose her sister, and there’s also a point to be made about her taking away Olga’s choice. It’s her life and her child, but then again, would we expect Olga to make the best choice in that situation? She’s willing to die for her child, but that would leave three of her children without a mother which is very much not good. Yes, I’m a cold and heartless person for thinking that the best choice is the child dying because that would bring the least amount of suffering. Not that Vasya is thinking these things, so yeah, I’m conflicted.
Was Morozko in the right to use Vasya to sustain himself? Is Vasya right to turn away from him when she learns the truth and rejects his jewel?
Well, there had to be some bumps in that relationship. It’s the classic trope of “I wanted to trick you but then I got feelings for you”, which is always handled in the way that I think it should: the person who is tricked punishes the person doing the tricking but then they make up later because they love each other. Of course, Morozko was not right in using Vasya that way, but when we meet him, he’s not exactly this fairytale prince. He doesn’t pay attention to individual humans or sees their lives as being worth much, and he definitely wasn’t meant to develop feelings for Vasya, so I don’t see the sense of talking about right or wrong here. Vasya, on the other hand, was right to turn away from him because she needed to assert herself. It wouldn’t have been very Vasya-like to say “oh never mind, I still love you”. That would have removed a lot of the mutual respect there is between them. She didn’t have to break the jewel, but I guess she didn’t know about the consequences of that act.
The Girl in the Tower is my favorite book in the trilogy, and I don’t love it any less after analyzing it like this! What are your thoughts on some of these questions? Do you think Vasya was right in saving Olga?