Heroine’s Journey: Vasilisa the Beautiful

In my last post, I included the article I had written for Faerie Magazine on the Fairy Tale Heroine’s Journey. That article described the full journey, as I had finally worked it out in my head, with its twelve steps:

1. The heroine receives gifts.
2. The heroine leaves or loses her home.
3. The heroine enters the dark forest.
4. The heroine finds a temporary home.
5. The heroine meets friends and helpers.
6. The heroine learns to work.
7. The heroine endures temptations and trials.
8. The heroine dies or is in disguise.
9. The heroine is revived or recognized.
10. The heroine finds her true partner.
11. The heroine enters her permanent home.
12. The heroine’s tormentors are punished.

Now what I’m going to do is write about specific stories that fit the “fairy tale heroine’s journey” pattern. Remember, I’m not saying this occurs in all fairy tales: far from it! It actually occurs in only a small number, but it’s nevertheless important to pay attention to, for two reasons. First, because it’s the underlying pattern of a disproportionate number of the fairy tales we still read or watch (“Snow White,” “Cinderella,” “Sleeping Beauty,” “Beauty and the Beast” — you can immediately visualize the Disney versions, can’t you?). And second, this pattern is about women’s lives — even though our lives have changed, it still applies to us, hundreds of years after these tales came into being.  Today, I’m going to write about a Russian fairy tale called “Vasilisa the Beautiful.”

vasilisa-the-beautiful-by-ivan-bilibin

(The image is an illustration for “Vasilisa the Beautiful” by Ivan Bilbin.)

So, what am I going to write about this fairy tale? First, I’m looking at the tale in Russian Fairy Tales, collected by Aleksandr Afanas’ev, which actually contains three versions. The one we usually hear about (to the extent we hear about this tale — it’s a wonderful tale, but often fairy tale scholars have heard of it, and readers haven’t), is the version called “Vasilisa the Beautiful.” Here’s what happens:

Vasilisa is the daughter of a merchant. Her mother dies when she is eight years old. As she is dying, she gives Vasilisa a doll and says to Vasilisa, “Always keep it with you and do not show it to anyone; if you get into trouble, give the doll food, and ask its advice. When it has eaten, it will tell you what to do in your trouble.” The mother kisses her child and dies (literally — this being a fairy tale, that happens in one sentence). Of course the merchant marries again. Vasilisa’s stepmother has two daughters, and she and her daughters torment Vasilisa, making her do all the work. Already you can see a pattern developing that we associate with “Cinderella,” right?

What has happened so far?

1. The heroine receives gifts.
2. The heroine leaves or loses her home.

The doll is the gift. Losing her mother and then being treated like a servant is losing her home — Vasilisa no longer has the home she was a child in, even though she’s still in the same physical location. Her relationship to it has changed. This loss of home is literalized when her father leaves on a journey and her stepmother moves them all into a new home, next to a . . . dark forest, of course! The dark forest is always there, isn’t it? Just around the corner, in this case. And in this forest lives Baba Yaga.

Who is Baba Yaga? She’s a terrible witch with iron teeth! Except of course it’s more complicated than that, because in some stories there are three Baba Yagas, sisters — which reminds us of the Fates. Three of her servants are the White Horseman, Red Horseman, and Black Horseman — dawn, the sun, and the night. In other words, Baba Yaga looks very much like an ancient pagan figure of some sort, who became a witch in the Christian tradition. She lives in the dark forest in her hut on chicken legs, surrounded by human skulls.

Once Vasilisa’s family moves near the dark forest, her stepmother keeps sending her into the dark forest, but her doll keeps her safe. Then one night, the candles go out so that the three girls can’t finish some tasks the stepmother has set for them, and the stepsisters tell Vasilisa that she must go into the forest to get light from Baba Yaga. So Vasilisa goes into the dark forest.

3. The heroine enters the dark forest.

Finally, she comes to Baba Yaga’s hut: the fence is made of human bones, and on the spikes are human skulls. She sees Baba Yaga’s three horsemen pass by. Then Baba Yaga arrives, riding in her mortar, which she moves with a pestle, sweeping behind her with a broom to eradicate the traces of her passing. She sees Vasilisa, who asks for a light, and tells her that to get the light, she must first work — or Baba Yaga will eat her up!

4. The heroine finds a temporary home.
5. The heroine meets friends and helpers.
6. The heroine learns to work.

Vasilisa’s had two temporary homes at this point: the house her stepmother moved them into, and Baba Yaga’s hut. (This happened to Beauty as well: the house her merchant father moved the family into after they lost all their money, and the Beast’s house.) Her friend and helper is the doll, who was also the gift. The doll does most of the housework Baba Yaga assigned to Vasilisa — but not all. She still cooks the dinner. Unlike some of our other fairy tale heroines, Vasilisa is actually a worker from the beginning. It’s clear from the fairy tale that she knows how to cook and spin.

Baba Yaga asks Vasilisa how she managed to do everything, and Vasilisa says with her mother’s blessing. Well! That won’t do — Baba Yaga doesn’t want anyone blessed in her house, so she kicks Vasilisa out, but she gives her a skull with burning eyes to take back with her. That is the light she will return with to her stepmother’s house.

7. The heroine endures temptations and trials.
8. The heroine dies or is in disguise.
9. The heroine is revived or recognized.

Vasilisa endures trials, not temptations — her trial is that she must do an impossible amount of work in Baba Yaga’s house. And how does she die? Well, I’m going to argue that Baba Yaga’s house is itself the house of death. That’s why her stepsisters sent her there in the first place. It’s the equivalent of the Wicked Queen in Snow White trying to kill her daughter/stepdaughter. The bones and skulls should clue us into its character. Vasilisa is sent there to die. Of course she escapes death, but when she brings the skull light back to her stepmother’s house, its light burns her stepmother and stepsisters. In other words,

12. The heroine’s tormentors are punished.

Now that her stepmother is dead, Vasilisa moves in with another old woman in town — we are not told whom. That’s her third temporary home. There, she gets bored and asks for some flax. Out of the flax she spins the most beautiful linen thread, weaves it, and bleaches the resulting cloth. She tells the old woman to sell the cloth and keep the money for herself. The woman says it is only good enough for the tsar, so rather than selling it, she gives it as a gift to the tsar himself. The tsar wants some shirts made of it, but cannot find a seamstress to sew such find cloth, so he brings it back to the old woman and says if she knows how to spin it, she must know how to sew it. Of course she says it was all Vasilisa’s doing, and Vasilisa is given the task of sewing a dozen shirts. And here we are back at the sixth step:

6. The heroine learns to work.

It’s almost as though, since Vasilisa had the help of her doll in Baba Yaga’s hut, the storyteller wants to make sure we know Vasilisa can work — that she deserves the happy ending she’s about to get. Remember that these tales originated among the peasantry, where a girl had to prove herself by how well she could do the work of a household, including cooking, cleaning, and making clothes.

Vasilisa brings the shirts to the tsar herself, and of course he falls in love with her. He marries her, she moves into his palace, and she brings the old woman with her. When her father finally returns, he moves in too, and of course she still has the doll (who did not help make the shirts, notice!) in her pocket. In other words,

10. The heroine finds her true partner.
11. The heroine enters her permanent home

Here we find the complete journey of the fairy tale heroine, from childhood to marriage. And this is what the “fairy tale heroine’s journey” tales tend to look like: this is the common pattern. Notice that it’s also the pattern of Jane Eyre! Many tales of young girls growing up and finally getting married fit this pattern — not intentionally, I think, but because it’s been so deeply woven into our consciousness by reading fairy tales. It’s become a deep narrative pattern, both in literature and in our lives. We tend to live out this pattern in various ways because it’s the pattern the culture has given us for women. When we rebel against it, this is the narrative we’re rebelling against.

What about the other two Vasilisa stories in Afanas’ev? Interestingly, they’re both called “Baba Yaga.” In the first one, the father is a peasant, not a merchant. Because his second wife dislikes his daughter (who is not named), he brings her to Baba Yaga and offers her as a servant. She does well, with the help of some mice she has fed — here the mice replace the doll. The stepmother finds out that Baba Yaga is rewarding the girl for her hard work, so she sends her own daughter instead. She does not help the mice, so they don’t help her, and she is unable to complete Baba Yaga’s tasks. So Baba Yaga breaks her in pieces and sends her bones back to her stepmother, end of story. Here we see some of the same elements, but also a different pattern, which appears in a number of fairy tales: the good sister versus bad sister. That story pattern is almost an instruction manual in how to be a fairy tale heroine . . . Rule #1 is “be kind to animals.”

In the third story, the girl is again not named. The stepmother sends her to Baba Yaga, who is actually the stepmother’s sister. But the girl goes to her own aunt first, and her own aunt tells her how to defeat Baba Yaga. At Baba Yaga’s hut, she is helped by a birch tree, a gate, the dog, and the cat, all of whom she has benefited in some way. She runs away from Baba Yaga, first flinging down a towel that turns into a river, then flinging down a comb that grows into a forest. Finally she makes it home and tells her father what happened. He shoots the stepmother (I know, but fairy tales are violent — remember the Wicked Queen in Snow White . . .), and he and his daughter live happily ever after. This is also another pattern: the magical pursuit, with the heroine throwing items behind her that change into barriers for the pursuer.

So what have we learned today? That oral storytellers combined narrative elements, which are like small chunks of story: kindness to animals, the magical pursuit, the meeting with the tsar, etc. That’s how oral storytelling works. And some of those elements add up to the fairy tale heroine’s journey. It’s not the only journey: there are others. But this particular one has become deeply enmeshed in our cultural narratives.

baba-yaga-by-ivan-bilibin

(The image is an illustration for “Vasilisa the Beautiful” by Ivan Bilbin.)

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Heroine’s Journey: Vasilisa the Beautiful

  1. moomstex says:

    Have to love that it’s a 12 step program…..

  2. helen says:

    Lovely and fascinating article! There’s another version I’ve come across, called ‘Baba Yaga’s Daughter’; it’s similar but has a few variations. It’s in Joan Aiken’s collection ‘The Kingdom Under the Sea’ – which doesn’t give any sources so it might be her original riff on the story rather than a more widely told one.

  3. Growing up in Eastern Europe my grandmother brought me a copy of fairy tales from Moscow. I remember all the Ivan Biblin art and how terrifying it was. There’s a piece with Vasyillia carrying the lit skull that terrified me.

  4. How coincidentally timely. I have a letter from a certain girl that I want to respond to. She has been in therapy with a friend and she wrote a story that she shared with me and some other bloggers that have meant something to her. Baba Yaga figures into her story but not the one in this tale–hers is a helpful Baba Yaga who saves the girl from the ‘Death Mother’, a Kali like woman who wants to defeat her – It’s so interesting to connect back into this Baba Yaga and illuminating to consider the shape of fairy tales as pattern. The girl I speak of has appropriated symbols that mean something to her specific journey and when I respond to her I will be thinking of the twelve steps you posted and elaborated on, but I will be using the girls understanding to form the story I’ll send her.

  5. Phyllis Holliday says:

    Reading this is like composing along with all those ancient tales, and summoning their twelve steps,
    again and again….with beauty….

  6. jgousseva says:

    I love this fairy-tale! You did a great analysis of it. Very interesting!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s