Discussions

The Winter of the Witch by Katherine Arden: A Discussion

“Dusk at the end of winter, and two men crossed the dooryard of a palace scarred by fire.”

First line in The Winter of the Witch by Katherine Arden

It’s time for my final post about the Winternight Trilogy by Katherine Arden. I’ve been rereading the entire trilogy, and this post is me answering some of the questions from the Reader’s Guide at the back of my edition of The Winter of the Witch. If you missed the first two posts, remember to check out my discussions of The Bear and the Nightingale and The Girl in the Tower.

As this is an in-depth discussion of the trilogy, there are obviously going to be MASSIVE SPOILERS so make sure you’ve read all three books before proceeding.

Sacrifice plays an important role in The Winter of the Witch. We see Morozko sacrifice himself for Vasya, Vasya sacrifice herself for her family, Solovey sacrifice himself for Vasya, Sasha sacrifice himself for Russia, Konstantin sacrifice himself for spite, and so on. What do you think the author is saying about the significance of sacrifice?

Well, she’s probably saying that sacrifices are necessary and that they aren’t all bad. In a book that revolves around Christianity, there’s also a biblical interpretation to put on all those sacrifices. The whole idea from that is that one person sacrificing himself will save everyone else, which I think is especially relevant in regards to Sasha’s and Konstantin’s sacrifices, also because they’re the only ones who actually die from their sacrifices. Out of the examples, they’re also the ones who represent Christianity, and maybe that’s a point Arden wanted to make? They embody their faith in that way as they fight against evil, showing the religion’s worth. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but it’s possible at least.

Discuss the ways in which Vasya and Morozko’s relationship has changed over the course of the Winternight Trilogy. What are the roles they have held in each other’s lives, and where do they stand now?

Well, from Vasya’s perspective, her relationship with Morozko is at first based on him being this powerful force in fairy tales meant to moralize children. Morozko’s relationship with Vasya, on the other hand, starts with him intending to use her to gain his strength. There was very clearly a power imbalance there, and I think it’s this balance in their relationship we see tip back and forth throughout the trilogy. Like in The Girl in the Tower, where we see Vasya become more at ease around Morozko (enough so that they kiss!) but he still plays the role of rescuer. Whenever Vasya is in trouble, she calls Morozko as if she had him on speed dial. That still places most of the power with Morozko, although Vasya is the one commanding him. She’s only doing so because she can’t solve the problems herself like we see her doing in The Winter of the Witch. That’s not something to build a relationship on, which they also both realize.

In the final book, we finally see them become equals. Vasya starts the book by fending for herself because Morozko is gone, and that was very healthy for her development. The whole book is also just Morozko being weak and having to rely on Vasya so their roles switch. Vasya becomes the rescuer and takes some power for herself that isn’t dependent on Morozko, so they no longer have that power imbalance. Now they are just two individual, magical beings who love each other.

Why do you think Konstantine is so obsessed with eliminating Vasya? Do you think his fixation on her is a result of hatred or passion? Is there a difference?

In Konstantine’s case, there is no difference between hatred and passion when it comes to Vasya. He’s a priest so he isn’t allowed to have such feelings for Vasya, and he knows this! Instead of blaming himself, he turns his frustration and hatred on Vasya because surely, SHE is the one bewitching him. Looking at his feelings as a “fault” of his own would have him questioning himself and his entire belief system, and he hates Vasya for making him doubt. It’s actually a trope I really love, especially when we get the priest’s POV, and as I read it for the first time, I was also constantly thinking of the similar scenario in Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame. I love that movie.

How does the loss of Solovey impact Vasya? Did she need to suffer this loss in order to fulfill her destiny? How do you feel about his return? Did it seem too convenient? Was it necessary?

Yes, Vasya did need to suffer this loss. She needed to stand on her own completely to realize her own power, and I also don’t think she would have gotten through to Pozhar if she already had Solovey. And about his return? It definitely wasn’t “necessary”, and it’s not a thing I would have missed if it didn’t happen. They were at war. Sacrifices are made. But then since Sasha also died, I’m okay with Solovey coming back. I think what I’m trying to say is that I was very indifferent about it (please don’t hate me, Naemi).

At one point it is said, “Medved’s great gift is disorder, and his tools are fear and mistrust… Until he is bound, you cannot trust anyone.” How does Vasya earn the trust of the many chyerti and people she encounters? Is there a key to how she wins them over to her side in spite of the chaotic atmosphere Medved has created?

First of all, I think Vasya appears very humble and respectful when she deals with the chyerti, and that is always a good strategy if you want to make a connection with someone. Second of all, I also think this quote above is very important. We’re told that one of Medved’s tools is mistrust and that Vasya therefore can’t trust anyone, but isn’t that exactly what she should? Her not trusting people would just help Medved, so she meets people and chyerti with trust and fearlessness. We see her trusting Pozhar and Ded Grib (a.k.a. the superior character of this book) to lead her, and while I don’t think she purposefully does that to counteract Medved, I think it’s why she succeeds in the end.

Do you think Konstantin is warped by Medved, or was he already corrupt and therefore an easy target for the Bear’s puppetry? By the end of the trilogy, do you think Konstantin is more of a villain or a victim?

I talked about this quite extensively in my discussion for The Bear and the Nightingale, so it’s a very appropriate question to use as a sort of conclusion to that debate. I don’t think there’s any doubt that Konstantin is warped by Medved and that’s what transformed him into this villain we see especially in this book. However, he also has certain qualities that drew Medved to him, and because of those, I doubt him being considered “a good person” was ever an option, even if Medved hadn’t found him. He’s too proud and too vain, which are undesirable traits, sure, but not traits that make someone worthy of the label of villain.
Then we could also talk about the choices he makes because it’s your choices that make you who you are, right? And that is where you can see a little bit of that victim role because he’s not able to make his own choices free of manipulation. Sure, a person with a stronger psyche could resist Medved but that is not who Konstantin is. He still ends up breaking free in the end and realizes he’s being used, and he makes the choice to do something about it. So I’ll admit that Konstantin was a villain, but I’d much rather just call him weak.

So that was the last of my posts where I discuss the Winternight Trilogy, and I hoped you enjoyed reading them. Writing them definitely only affirmed my love for this trilogy. What do you think of this final book? What are your thoughts on Konstantin: Villain or victim? Let me know all your thoughts about this book in the comments!

9 thoughts on “The Winter of the Witch by Katherine Arden: A Discussion

  1. How could I hate you when you’ve been giving me this much Winternight content? 🥰 Besides, as long as you’re only indifferent about Solovey’s return and not his death, I can live with that! 😂 Because as much as I sobbed over him being gone, I don’t think I necessarily needed him to come back, either. Like you said, sacrifices are a natural part of war, and Solovey dying just made the book hit harder. Of course, that doesn’t mean I wasn’t gleefully happy when we saw him again (🤗), but I’d be lying if I said part of me didn’t also find his return a bit convenient…

    And I love what you said about Vasya and Morozko’s relationship! I think the fact that they can’t truly be together until they are on equal footing is what makes me love it so much, even though I normally detest the trope where a super old, supernatural male being falls for a young human girl. And then, of course, the fact that they’re both so headstrong makes it even better when they are together 🥰

    Regarding Konstantin, I also agree completely – and reading this post has just affirmed how much hatred I have for him 😤 I think people who are too weak to admit to their own faults and blame others for them actually end up being by far the most dangerous villains – because there’s just no reasoning with them and they are easily blinded by people who promise them a path that allows them to uphold that favorable image they have of themselves. Of course, that doesn’t mean I think such people are inherently evil, either – Konstantin is, like you said, also a victim – but I’d argue that no well-written villain is. There’s probably always some type of victimhood that plays into them having become a villain in the first place…

    I do love how Konstantin comes to the realization of just how badly he was manipulated at the end, though. While it doesn’t redeem what he did in my eyes, it does make him a whole lot more human, relatable, and complex. Which is what I generally love about the characters in this series!

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    1. Yeah, the thing with Solovey is also that the book had kind of moved on from his death. Not that readers had forgotten about it completely but Arden could easily have gotten away with not resurrecting him because that’s not where our minds were at. We’d just seen Sasha die and it’s not like I was thinking that the only way Vasya was ever going to be happy again was if she got Solovey back. Leaving it on that melancholy note and trusting Vasya to be okay because she’s Vasya would have been just as good. But I’m glad you don’t hate me for it because I was honestly a little nervous after your reaction to The Girl in the Tower post 🙈😄

      And now I’m quite curious because of you writing that no well-written villain is inherently evil – Do you think Medved is a villain and that he’s inherently evil? (Maybe not by the end of this book but in the first two?) Or are supernatural beings excluded from that because it would be a stretch calling them victims? 😅

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      1. Well, I’m still salty about those questionmakers ignoring Solovey in The Girl in the Tower! 🤣 But since they included him here, I guess it’s okay. There just needs to be acknowledgment of what an amazing character he is, regardless of him being dead or alive – as long as I got that, I’m happy! 😇

        And that’s actually a really good question! I’m not sure whether I’d say Medved is a victim – maybe he is insofar as that he has always been very apart from others through his supernatural status. Like, he had no real opportunities to form any kinds of connections because he has never been part of a bigger community, and his whole life has been defined through antagonism with Morozko. So even if he himself doesn’t know any different, maybe that influenced the person he turned out to be? 🤔 I don’t think he is inherently evil, though – it’s more like because he’s not human, he doesn’t really see the people he’s manipulating as his equals. I suppose when you’re an immortal, supernatural creature, the life and well-being of a human doesn’t really seem all that significant, kind of like most humans wouldn’t care about the well-being of an insect. So I guess what I’m saying is that supernatural beings are socialized with different morality standards, which means that you can’t necessarily use a human perspective to judge their evilness? 😅 But maybe also that that separation from humanity actually makes them very alone from the get go, which could play into the victim thing again… But maybe I’m getting also too abstract and reading too much into this 😅

        And to answer your other question: Yes, I think Medved is a villain. But I think, for me, what being a villain comes down to is being an antagonistic force in a story, not so much what the villain actually does. They’re kind of always defined in juxtaposition to something represented as “good”, and who is a villain depends very much on the perspective you’re perceiving a story from. Like, you probably wouldn’t go around calling real life people villains, unless you were trying to present them in a certain way by framing them within some type of narrative where there is a “good” side and an “evil” side. So me thinking Medved is a villain is more due to how he is presented in this story than that any inherent qualities of his. Sorry if I’ve totally lost you here 🙈😂

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      2. I see where you’re going with the victim argument about him not forming any connections but isn’t that also judging him from a human perspective? Like, who says powerful god-like beings even need connections? And did he even “grow up” in the sense that stuff that happened to him could affect who he turned out to be? That’s probably a hypothetical and unnecessary discussion about the life of gods, though 😅
        But I actually do want to call him inherently evil because I think he’s the closest we’re ever going to get to that. Yes, he sees humans as not being worth much and similar to insects… but if a human is being deliberately cruel to an animal or an insect, I’m thinking we’re close to evil or villain status, aren’t we? And Medved IS being deliberate about it because his favorite things in the world are chaos and mistrust, so he does know he’s causing pain to living beings but doesn’t care. Like, I don’t think it’s all about how he’s framed in this story – I don’t see any way his actions could be presented as “not evil” or justified if that makes sense, so that’s what makes me think of him as inherently evil.

        And yes, the discussion about calling someone a villain is very much about semantics and we put a lot of meaning into that word that isn’t necessarily there. It’s just the more common way of saying antagonist (which is the word I will always prefer).

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      3. Hmm, maybe… But when those god-like beings are generally so similar to humans – and, as is evidenced by Morozko, clearly crave companionship, too – I feel like they do need those connections! 🙃 Although I have no idea if Medved and Morozko grew up or not 😂 I’m kind of having a hard time picturing them just materializing into the world as grown men, so maybe??? Although a child-Morozko is also a weird concept somehow… So yeah, let’s go with “hypothetical and unnecessary discussion” 😂 I do think, though, that we’ve seen both Morozko and Medved change within the course of the book, so I’d argue what happens to them does also affect how their personality develops.

        And I can definitely see where you’re coming from! I guess I AM actually cutting Medved some slack for being supernatural here – because the back and forth between him and Morozko is also portrayed as something natural that keeps the world balanced. Maybe you ultimately need that chaos, and Medved simply sees providing it as more important than the lives of creatures he deems insignificant? And I guess maybe that is a little bit inherently evil, but I don’t think it’s so much evil that that excludes there being good in him, too… 😂 (Like, I wouldn’t necessarily call everyone who is cruel to animals a villain, either – I think we get into very gray areas when talking about whether it’s okay to swat mosquitoes or to eat meat when you know what kinds of conditions exist in slaughterhouses… Isn’t that kind of deliberately cruel, too?
        But we normally exuse it in the grand scheme of things because those are things that humans “just do”.)

        However, I’ve been thinking about how close we can actually get to inherent evil, and I think the villain that encapsulates that most, for me, might be Voldemort. I mean, yes, he also didn’t have the most rosy childhood, but it’s always hinted at that he can’t feel love because of the potiony way in which he was concieved. And if you’re born without the ability to love, that makes it sort of hard to develop any kind of ethical morality – you kind of need to care about stuff and show empathy to do that. So maybe Voldemort is inherently evil, more so even than Medved? Although I’d still say he’s a victim, too – of the circumstances under which his parents met and the disastrous magical consequences…

        (Anyway, what do we learn from this? I really shouldn’t answer comments this late at night; there’s way too much danger of me thinking too much and things getting confusingly philosophical 🤣 Sorry!)

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      4. But wouldn’t that also imply that Morozko was craving companionship before he met Vasya? And then why didn’t he turn out like Medved? I mean, sure, Morozko was on the problematic side when was met him but I still don’t think he was anything like Medved.

        I do also think it’s difficult to talk about them in these human terms when they’re basically meant to be natural forces that keep the world balanced like you say. So Medved is evil but because it’s necessary for him to be so? I don’t think he himself sees his role in the system as more important than the lives of humans. I do think that creating chaos and causing pain is just stuff that he really likes doing and that’s where I think the evilness comes in. From his perspective, there are no other motives for doing what he’s doing other than he really enjoys it. Which is also why your examples of being cruel to animals weren’t really what I was thinking when I wrote that. It was more about those people who are cruel for the sake of being cruel because they get joy out of it. That’s what I think Medved does.

        And it’s interesting that you mention Voldemort because I’ve been thinking about whether we actually only see “real” villains in YA and children’s books. Especially children’s books tend to have very identifiable villains so some of that must rub off on YA. So maybe the complexity of characters in adult books means it’s difficult to truly categorize someone as evil. Not that YA can’t have complex characters, but it kinda goes with the definition that they should be easier to understand. And based on the length of this conversation, adult evilness is clearly not easy to understand 😅 But I do think you’re right about Voldemort. Should we add Umbridge to that as well? If anyone is inherently evil, it’s gotta be her 😂

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      5. Actually, I agree that Morozko wasn’t craving companionship at first – at least not actively! But once he met and got to know Vasya, I think he realized his life was much less empty with her in it, so I’d still say there’s part of these supernatural beings that yearns for those connections… 🤔

        Although, yeah, I don’t think that’s an excuse to let Medved off the hook, either 😅 You saying he is evil because it is necessary for him to be that way actually makes a whole lot of sense to me, and I also see him as way more problematic than Morozko precisely because of the way he exercises his cruelty. Still, the way I see it, bringing that chaos IS his role in the system, so in some way, I think it blinds him to the fact that humans are beings who could be treated as equals in the first place. So because of his godly evil role, I am, oddly enough, more willing to forgive him for his cruely than I would a human in the same position 🙈

        And something else I’ve been thinking about – we do see Medved show that he is capable of insight and changing in some ways. Which might be why I’m hesitant to call his evil “inherent”. That implies there is no possibility of Medved ever growing beyond what he initially was, and, at least in my opinion, he generally doesn’t come across as a static character. (In fact, now that I’ve thought about this a little, even if he is now stuck in the role of an evil, godlike creature, I’d still like to believe he has some sort of origin story – maybe he became supernatural at somepoint, like Vasya does, and just lost touch with humanity eventually, so that it only amplified his worst qualities? 🤔)

        But anyway – speculation aside, I think the fact that Medved is somewhat dynamic makes him very different from Voldemort, who was basically the same kind of evil with no development throughout the whole series. So in Voldemort’s case, I am more on bord with the “inherence” of things, if that makes any sense. Maybe it’s precisely that difference between Middle Grade/YA and adult that you described that it comes down to for me? With complex villains who show change, I just immediately start shifting some of the blame for their evilness to outside circumstances, I guess 😅🙈

        Weirdly enough, though, I actually don’t see Umbrige as inherently evil, either. Evil, sure. I actually find her even more despicable than Voldemort and have never hated a villain more. But since she feels so complexly human (unfortunately, I very much believe people like her exist 🙄), I still feel like something about her history and surroundings made her into the prejudiced, cruel person she turned into. I don’t think that was a quality she was simply born with, but something that was nurtured over time – so it’s not inherent. But I think that’s also part of the reason why I hate her more than Voldemort! Without the capacity to love, Voldemort never had a chance. But Umbride turned into a twisted psychopath inspite of her humanity and takes real pleasure in inflicting pain and lording it over others in a way that Voldemort just can’t compete with…

        So what I guess I’m trying to say here is that it’s the word “inherent” that bothers me, because it implies that evil people just ARE evil and never had a choice in the matter. In Voldemort’s case, I kind of see it that way. But in Medved and Umbridge’s case, it’s not so much that they don’t have a choice but that they refuse to see that they have one, maybe?

        (Let it be noted that, at this point, I am so confused by my opinion on adult evilness that I am not even sure I’m managing to explain it – so yeah, “not easy to understand” just about sums it up 🤣)

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      6. Well, if we can agree that all three are evil, I’m willing to drop the “inherently” 😅

        (I’m sorry to leave such a short reply to such a long comment but I feel like we’ve covered every little detail there could possibly be in this debate 😄 Also, there are new episodes of The Umbrella Academy so I’m busy 😆)

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      7. Sounds good to me 😂

        (And thank God for Umbrella Academy because I don’t have any additional thoughts or time to write them in, either 🤣 Just don’t spoil me because I doubt I’ll be watching any of it before August… 😭)

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