Meeting Baba Yaga: Two Russian Folktales (Translated into English)

A Fashion for Folktales

During the latter half of the 1800s, there arose a trend to publish English translations of folktales from various European countries. Those interested in the Grimm Brothers’ German tales could enjoy an 1853 translation (volume 2 is here) or an 1867 one. Granted, these groundbreaking tales had been available in English at least since 1823, but similar collections from other cultures started popping up after mid-century. For example, Popular Tales from the Norse debuted in 1859 and Serbian Folk-lore: Popular Tales in 1874. Those wanting to read Italian Popular Tales in English had to wait until 1885. In the preface to this last volume, translator Thomas Frederick Crane mentions the “growing interest in the popular tales of Europe” among both “the general reader” and “the student of comparative folk-lore.”

Lately, I’ve become a student of folklore about Baba Yaga — sometimes preceded by the or a, and sometimes spelled Baba Jaga — a witchy figure appearing in several Slavic folktales. I’m sad to report that I’m among those whose reading is limited to English, but I managed to find two Russian yarns that were translated and published during the trend mentioned above. Each one is presented as a good introduction for readers not yet afraid of Baba Yaga.

Dimitri Mitrokhin’s illustration of Baba Yaga navigating her pestle-controlled mortar comes from a 1917 American edition of Arthur Ransome’s Old Peter’s Russian Tales. The illustration accompanies a child-friendly adaptation of the tale discussed further below.

“Yvashka with the Bear’s Ear”

The first story is titled “Yvashka with the Bear’s Ear.” This was presented by translator George Borrow in “Russian Popular Tales,” a three-installment series that appeared in the magazine Once a Week in 1862. (It appears between “Emelian the Fool” and “The Story of Tim.”) Borrow was respected enough to have a posthumous, multivolume series of his works released, and you might have an easier time reading “Yvashaka with the Bear’s Ear” in this book.

Borrow introduces the piece by explaining that, despite the title, the “main interest” of the story is Baba Yaga, “the grand mythological demon of the Russians….” I’m especially interested in how Borrow describes Baba Yaga’s cabin: it “has neither door nor window, and stands upon the wildest part of the steppe, upon hen’s feet, and is continually turning around.” This bipedal hut is a sign that we’re dealing with the Baba Yaga, not just some sinister substitute.

The story itself is, in a word, nutty. Yvashka was born with a bear’s ear, an indication that he’s got a wild side. He doesn’t play nicely with other children — tearing off their hands and tearing off their heads — so Yvashka’s father put his son in time-out. Permanent time-out. As in get-out-of-my-house-and-don’t-come-back.

Maybe this is exactly what the bear-eared lad needed. On his subsequent journey, he makes three friends, one being a fellow with a moustache long enough to use for fishing. Next, the four pals come upon a cabin that’s rotating on hen’s feet. They stop the cabin from rotating and enter it, a process left murky if, indeed, Baba Yaga’s cottage has no doors or windows. But why quibble?

Yeah, it’s Baba Yaga’s place, and when she returns, she beats up Yvashka’s friends one by one. Now, just because a guy has a bear’s ear doesn’t mean he’s of very little brain. Yvashka somehow knows how to deal with Baba Yaga, laying a trap that’s just as crazy as the rest of the story. Nonetheless, she escapes. The four friends track her to an abyss where she keeps her three daughters working against their wills. Well, Yvashka descends into the abyss and frees the three daughters, but due to a mix-up, the three friends leave him down there.

When Yvashka finally finds his way out, he hunts down his buddies. Turns out that, shortly after abandoning their bear-eared friend, they married the three daughters. As you do, Yvashka kills the guy with the impressive moustache and takes his wife. The end. You’ll note Baba Yaga ingeniously vanishes from both the abyss and the story, presumably to be available for folktales to follow.

George Borrow (1803-1881), taken from Edward Thomas’s George Borrow: The Man and His Books

“The Baba Yaga”

Compared to “Yvashka with the Bear Ear,” the next tale is almost sensible. It was translated by William Ralston Shedden-Ralston and is included in his 1873 Russian Folk-tales. As Borrow did, Ralston gives a nice introduction to Baba Yaga before the tale, mentioning her rotating hut “on fowl’s legs.” He also mentions a couple of features I’ve come across in my preliminary research: a fence made of human bones surrounding the hut and a witch-sized mortar that Baba Yaga uses to get around in a hurry. This mortar requires a pestle to guide it. I’m still trying to picture how this works. Like a gondola or a canoe? Is the pestle a ski pole or a stick shift? Maybe the propulsion system of this magic vehicle is left up to individual imaginations.

This tale has a familiar opening. A daughter has a step-mother who mistreats her. One day, the step-mother tells the unnamed daughter to fetch a needle and thread from her step-aunt. “Now that aunt was a Baba Yaga,” says the narrator, suggesting a label applicable to any number of unpleasant women rather than one specific character. The daughter, wary of her step-mother, first visits “a real aunt of hers” for advice. This kind aunt provides a series of instructions regarding a tree branch, squeaky doors, dogs, and a bacon-loving cat. How the kind aunt has this knowledge isn’t explained, but it turns out to be very good advice indeed.

The daughter arrives at Baba Yaga’s hut and explains her task. The witch privately tells a servant to prepare a bath for the girl because one likes one’s food to be to washed. Sensing danger, the daughter immediately plans her escape, exchanging gifts for favors from the servant, the cat, the dogs, and likewise ensuring that the doors and the tree branch won’t stop her along the way. When Baba Yaga learns the girl has vamoosed, she asks the dogs, the doors, and the tree for assistance in catching her. However, they remind the witch that she’s never treated them nicely, so she can forget about any reciprocity.

Short story shorter, the daughter escapes and — as with “Yvashaka with the Bear’s Ear” — Baba Yaga shrugs and quietly exits the stage. When the father hears about his daughter’s adventure, as you do, “he became wroth with his wife, and shot her.” Apparently, in Babayagaville, marriages end as abruptly as the folktales in which they appear. Unlike the other tale, though, there’s a lesson here mixed in with the entertainment: be kind and you’re less likely to be eaten.

This illustration accompanies a variation on the tale discussed above found in A Staircase of Stories, a 1920 compilation by Louey Chisholm and Amy Steedman. The tale itself, titled “Baba Yaga and the Little Girl with the Kind Heart,” first appeared in Arthur Ransome’s Old Peter’s Russian Tales. (Compare the illustration above.) Curiously, the advice-giving aunt is replaced by a mouse and, instead of the father shooting the step-mother, he simply gives her the boot.

Ralston includes other tales about Baba Yaga in his collection, and other sources include even more. In the coming weeks, I will read and report on those I can find. To see where I’m at in this project, click on the witch below.

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