Blog Tour – The House With Chicken Legs

The House with Chicken Legs Blog Tour: Fifteen Russian Fairy Tales and What They Mean to Me

To celebrate the release of her debut novel The House With Chicken Legs, Sophie Anderson has been sharing some of her favourite Russian fairytales on her blog tour. I am both proud and lucky to be have been asked to host her on the final day of her tour. Please also check out my review of the book.

14. Vasilisa the Beautiful (on metaphors)‘In a certain kingdom …’

In this Russian fairy tale, collected and published by Alexander Afanasyev in 1855, Vasilisa is sent by her stepmother to get a light from Baba Yaga – a terrifying witch who lives in a hut on hen’s legs deep in the forest. Baba Yaga threatens to eat Vasilisa unless she completes seemingly impossible tasks, but Vasilisa succeeds with the help of her magic doll and earns a light – a skull w

ith flaming eyes – that burns her stepmother to ashes.

Over on That Boy Can Teach‘s fabulous blog, I talked about how Baba Yaga’s role in this story is ambiguous, as she is both villain and helper; threatening to eat Vasilisa yet giving her a gift that frees her from her evil stepmother. This time, I want to use this story to talk about metaphors.

Fairy tales are filled with metaphors; and folklore experts, psychologists and readers seem to find endless hidden meanings to seemingly ordinary objects (e.g. it has been suggested the hood in Red Riding Hood represents puberty; the cow in Jack and the Beanstalk failing to give milk represents the end of infancy; and Rapunzel’s Tower represents the segregation of women).

In ‘Women Who Run With The Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype’ psychoanalyst Clarissa Pinkola Estés presents a fascinating discussion of Vasilisa the Beautiful. Just a few of the metaphors she suggests include:

• Vasilisa’s magic doll, given to her by her mother on her deathbed, represents a mother’s blessing, or a mother’s intuition.
• The death of Vasilisa’s mother represents the first steps away from being protected, and towards independence.
• The evil step family represent the cruel parts of one’s own psyche. As Vasilisa tries to do all the tasks demanded of her by her step family, it represents trying to fulfil all the demands of various parts of the psyche. This only builds pressure.
• The lights in the house going out represent a turning point; a death of an old way of life. Vasilisa steps into the dark to find light, representing the search for a new way of life.
• Knocking at Baba Yaga’s door represents facing fear of the wild and powerful life force.
• Baba Yaga gives Vasilisa chores to do; cleaning her clothes represents cleansing and purifying the psyche; sweeping the yard represents clearing the mind; and building a fire and cooking represents sparking creative passion and nourishing the wild self.
• Baba Yaga also asks Vasilisa to separate mildewed corn from good corn, and poppy seeds from dirt. This represents learning discrimination and judgement. It is also notable that both mildewed corn and poppy seeds have medicinal uses, so may represent healing the mind.
• After the tasks, Vasilisa asks questions about the three men on horseback she saw while walking through the forest. Baba Yaga explains these are her bright dawn, her red sun, and her dark midnight. This conversation may represent learning about the cycle of life; birth, life, and death.
• When Vasilisa asks more questions, about the magic hands she saw wringing the oil from the corn and poppy seeds, Baba Yaga says “to know too much can make one old too soon”, suggesting there is a right time to learn some things, and perhaps some things must be learned for oneself.
• On discovering Vasilisa has her mother’s blessing, Baba Yaga casts her out. This may suggest the wild part of the psyche (represented by Baba Yaga) is at odds with the sweet side of the psyche (represented by Vasilisa’s mother).
• The gift of the flaming skull represents a gift of power and wisdom; earned through the tasks and time spent with Baba Yaga (the wild part of the psyche). Its light gives Vasilisa a new way of seeing.
• The flaming skull seeks out and destroys the step family, representing how new knowledge and skills can destroy the negative aspects of the psyche that were detrimental to Vasilisa.

I find all these potential metaphors fascinating, and I love the way seemingly simple fairy tales can have much deeper meanings. But I don’t believe there is ever a right or a wrong way to interpret fairy tales, or that any metaphor is definite and set in stone.

One of the things I love most about fairy tales, is how they can mean different things to different people, at different times of their lives.

I love the way individuals can ponder what various aspects of tales mean to them, and I think fairy tales can provide the starting points for fascinating discussions between readers about how they can have very different meanings for each of us.

Women Who Run With The Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype by Clarissa Pinkola Estés is published by Ballantine.

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