#FolkloreThursday: The Crystal Mountain (Russia)

51-kw7IomJLHi, all.

I’ve not explored a new story for a while, so we’re doing that for Folklore Thursday this week. This one is a wild ride from start to finish. I selected the story from another of the Pantheon Fairy Tale & Folklore Library titles, this time Russian Fairy Tales collected by Aleksandr Afanas’ev and translated by Norbert Guterman.

I chose a story called The Crystal Mountain because it sounded right up my alley, and it was for all of about two seconds. It started really well, with the common opening ‘In a certain kingdom in a certain land […]’ which brings to mind all things whimsical and honestly got me quite excited about what was to follow. I maybe should not have gotten so excited.

This story is … random, and perhaps the very definition of ‘Well, that escalated quickly.’

So, the tale begins, as they often do, with a king and his three sons. The sons ask his permission to go hunting, a request which he grants. They each go in different directions and we follow the youngest of them. The prince gets lost and finds himself in front of a gathering of animals. Why is there a gathering of animals, you ask? Well, they’re all fighting over a dead horse. A DEAD HORSE.


We’ll go with it.

Not only is it dead but it has been dead for thirty years and they’ve been arguing about how to share it between them for the entire time. The prince, being the gem that he is, divides the horse up and ends their three-decade-long struggle (naturally his name is Ivan, as it often is, and the animals just so happen to know this). As a thank you, they give him the power to turn into a falcon, which he does.

With his new falcon powers Prince Ivan flies to the thrice tenth kingdom which has mostly been enveloped by a crystal mountain. The prince, who for some reason wants to hide his identity at every turn, transforms into a ‘goodly youth’ (okay… how?) and asks the guards if the king might hire him, which, of course, he does. The prince lives there for many weeks and eventually the king’s daughter asks her father if she can go for a ride with him. She addresses Prince Ivan by name, so I am guessing he gave up on the disguise thing but who really knows?

Off they trot towards the crystal mountain, when they get close to it, out jumps a golden goat! Prince Ivan, having left his own kingdom to go hunting, naturally makes chase, leaving the princess to fend for herself. He fails to catch the goat and, who’d of thought it, when he gets back to wherever he left the princess, she is gone.


Naturally, Ivan can’t possibly go back to the king without his daughter so he disguises himself as a very old man and gets the king to hire him again, only this time as an elderly herdsman. The king agrees and shows Ivan the ropes. The ropes, it turns out, include not one but three dragons, each with an alarming number of heads.


When each dragon comes, Ivan is told to give them the same amount of cows as heads they have. When the first dragon comes, it asks for three cows (and somehow knows exactly who Prince Ivan is and tells him he should be off fighting). Ivan, at this point choosing to be a sod, tells the dragon it doesn’t need three cows, because he gets by just fine on one duck a day, and refuses to hand them over. The dragon is understandably enraged by this and takes six cows instead. Ivan, who is downright rude at this point, utilises his falcon powers, turns into a bird and slices the dragon’s heads off. How big is that bird?

The king, still thinking that Ivan is a lowly old man, asks if the dragon came and took the cows and Ivan proudly tells him that he didn’t let the dragon have them.

The next day, a six-headed dragon comes along, also knowing exactly who Prince Ivan is, and asks for six cows. Ivan again goes into his spiel about the duck, angers the dragon, turns into a falcon and cuts its heads off. #justice4dragons

Again, the king asks him if the dragon came, still not knowing that the old man is Ivan. Ivan brags again about not giving up any cows.

During the night Ivan turns into an ant. (How? How does he turn into an ant?)


As an ant, he crawls into a tiny crack in the mountain and, imagine that, finds the princess! The princess informs him that she was taken by the twelve-headed dragon and the only way to get out of the mountain is for Prince Ivan to slay the dragon, recover the coffer from inside his right side, in which there is a hare, in which there is a duck, in which there is an egg, in which there is a seed and the seed will allow Ivan to destroy the mountain. Firstly, how does a duck get inside a hare? Secondly, what?

What I am about to tell you all takes place in the one paragraph, are you ready for this? So, Prince Ivan turns into oldman-herdsman again and the twelve-headed dragon comes along to claim his cows (with the customary recognising of Ivan and telling him he should be out in battle or some such and not looking after cows – THEY JUST WANT WHAT’S BEST FOR YOU, IVAN). Prince Ivan goes on about the duck again and tells the dragon that he can’t have the cows. and so they begin to fight. The story says, here, ‘after a long struggle or a short struggle’ – um, one is not like the other, which is it? – Prince Ivan defeats the dragon, slashes him open, gets the coffer and the seed inside the egg inside the duck inside the hare. He takes the seed, sets fire to it, and takes it to the crystal mountain. The mountain melts and out trots the princess. Prince Ivan takes her back to her father, who is overjoyed. I ask myself, at this point, why? Her father didn’t even notice she was missing and if he did he probably presumed she’d ran off with Ivan, since he was masquerading as an old man the entire time. Her father, in a moment that can only be explained by madness, exclaims ‘be my son-in-law!’ and so Prince Ivan marries the princess instantly.


All this is rounded off by the narrator suddenly informing us that he was at the wedding and the beer and mead flowed down his beard but did not go in his mouth. At this point, I am willing to accept anything.

When I opened the book to a story called The Crystal Mountain, I was definitely not expecting any of that. Despite my snarkiness, I did actually enjoy it but I now have no idea what to say about it other than what? I imagine there is some deeper meaning that I am missing, or perhaps it really is just an incredibly random little tale.

Have you read any super strange fairy tales? What were they? What happened? Feed me weirdness.

Happy Thursday!

Review: The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

25493853At the edge of the Russian wilderness, winter lasts most of the year and the snowdrifts grow taller than houses. But Vasilisa doesn’t mind—she spends the winter nights huddled around the embers of a fire with her beloved siblings, listening to her nurse’s fairy tales. Above all, she loves the chilling story of Frost, the blue-eyed winter demon, who appears in the frigid night to claim unwary souls. Wise Russians fear him, her nurse says, and honor the spirits of house and yard and forest that protect their homes from evil.

After Vasilisa’s mother dies, her father goes to Moscow and brings home a new wife. Fiercely devout, city-bred, Vasilisa’s new stepmother forbids her family from honoring the household spirits. The family acquiesces, but Vasilisa is frightened, sensing that more hinges upon their rituals than anyone knows.

And indeed, crops begin to fail, evil creatures of the forest creep nearer, and misfortune stalks the village. All the while, Vasilisa’s stepmother grows ever harsher in her determination to groom her rebellious stepdaughter for either marriage or confinement in a convent.

As danger circles, Vasilisa must defy even the people she loves and call on dangerous gifts she has long concealed—this, in order to protect her family from a threat that seems to have stepped from her nurse’s most frightening tales.

I cannot even begin to tell you how hopelessly I have fallen in love with this book. I mean, I am going to try but it might just sound like loving nonsense. I am okay with this, as long as you know that I love it. I’ve already mentioned this book on here before, and I am almost certain that I will be mentioning it again.

Just thinking about it makes me feel warm.

So, as written in the blurb above, The Bear and the Nightingale tells the story of Vasilisa (or Vasya as she is commonly referred to), an impish Russian girl who lives and breathes the old stories in more ways than one. I love Vasya. I love that she is not pretty. I love that she is gangly and frog-like and her eyes are large and that she likes to climb trees. I have taken Vasya into my heart and I am going to cling to her for the rest of my days.

I love a compelling main character, and Vasya is that. She has a set of beliefs which she values over all but she also has respect for her family, even when they are cruel to her.

Speaking of cruel, I love it when a book gets me to react and, boy, did I react. I wanted to strangle Anna, Vasya’s stepmother, and Konstantin, a priest. Every time they were horrible, every time they were being ridiculous, I found myself shouting a little at the pages (luckily I read this book from the comfort of my own sofa and not on public transport). But I wanted to strangle them for all of the right reasons, I wasn’t supposed to like them. It is a powerful and talented author who can get you to react visibly and audibly, and I bow down.

I find Konstantin particularly apt in the current political climate – he wants people to be afraid. I couldn’t help but compare what Konstantin was doing with what is happening in the real world. Even though The Bear and the Nightingale is steeped in fantasy, I couldn’t help but relate it to my current view of the world.

One of the central themes in the book is the clashing of the old and the new, the old stories, the chyerti with Christianity. The old gods and spirits with the new, and how village life can fit into that. It looks at the roots of its people and pulls them from the ground, only to tentatively put them back again. We learn about all of the various spirits that keep the world turning, the grass growing, the houses protected, and we learn about them both from the perspective of someone who wholeheartedly puts their faith in them, and someone who fears them. It’s so interesting to see both sides, even if one side makes you want to throw something.

It’s a slow burn. The Bear and the Nightingale takes its time and revels in the storytelling. It is in no rush to end but everything feels essential. It’s not heavy-heavy action but it’s not dormant either. It grows into itself as Vasya grows into herself, it is a journey in and of itself.

I just love it so much. I want to shout out to the world, I want to command the world to read this book and love it and take it into their hearts.