“The storm is coming, and the frost will be as nothing beside it. Courage will save you. If your people are afraid, then they are lost.” –The Bear and the Nightingale, pp. 128
When an ancient evil threatens her village, it’s up to Vasilia, a young woman gifted with magic, to protect her people from the oncoming storm. Only Vasilia can see the household spirits who are fading quickly as those around her abandon old traditions. Only she senses the danger in the teachings of the new priest. And only she realizes that the fear settling over the community will lead to their destruction.
The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden is a wonderful fantasy steeped in Russian folklore. Her narrative expands the legend of the winter king and uses it to create a mysterious, entrancing tale. As the story unfolds, Arden masterfully presents fear as a destructive force, devouring all in its path. Her main antagonist thrives on the fear of the people, growing stronger in the shadows of their walls.
As in many classic fairy tales, fear is the weapon of the villain, while the heroine is defined by courage.
Fantasies often recognize courage as a necessary attribute for the heroes of their stories. They likewise present fear as a tool villains manipulate to their advantage. What I think often goes unsaid, though, is how fear is a self-destructive force, binding and blinding those who fall into its grasp. The villain is usually the primary focus, while fear subtly works in the background.
The Bear and the Nightingale brings this self-destructive force to the forefront. As the people fall into fear, their circumstances worsen. As circumstances worsen, the people become even more frightened, and the cycle deepens. While the villain hides in the background shrouded in shadows, the reader watches fear itself act as the antagonist for most of the story. By the end, it’s clear that the villain has been gaining strength from the dismay of the people and was spreading fear’s reach, but the audience sees fear at work first.
Before hearing of any ancient evil, Vasilia is warned of danger by the dread working its way into her community. She holds one person responsible for the fear: Father Konstantin. The first sermon the new priest delivers after his arrival strikes terror into the hearts of those who listen. His coming marks the beginning of turmoil in the community. The people, entranced by the priest’s words, neglect their household spirits, opening the door for much darker forces to come into play. Terrified of damnation and in awe of the priest, the villagers are slowly overcome with an oppressive sense of dread. And Vasilia refuses to succumb.
She confronts Konstantin and says, “‘It is a cruel task, to frighten people in God’s name. I leave it to you.’ She hesitated and added, very softly, ‘However, Batyushka, I am not afraid.'”-pp. 167
Konstantin for all his talk of saving the community, is mistaken. Well-intentioned or not, Father Konstantin wrongly believes the household spirits are evil demons, and he wrongly believes the voice he hears wishes for the good of the community. Convinced he can save the villagers by teaching them to fear, Konstantin instead leads them to the brink of their doom.
Only after the village fills with dread does the ancient evil of the wood begin to work. He is strengthened by their worry, and the guards who prevent his coming are weakened by the villagers’ neglect. Vasilia’s courage holds the storm at bay; she continues to bring the spirits gifts, and she listens to the advice they give in return. Even so, she alone cannot counteract the fears of the whole community, and so darkness creeps in. Fires burn, famine strikes, and beasts roam in the forest. And though they try their best to persevere, dismay fills the villagers.
Fear cannot save, in life or in death.
Arden in presenting fear as the fatal flaw in The Bear and the Nightingale reminds her readers of an important truth. When people live in fear, fear has the power to destroy.
While fear is natural, and at times useful and even wise, to live in fear harms us and those around us. It harms our relationships with others, hinders our judgement, and allows us to believe lies. By creating a villain who is invited by fear, Arden shows us the shadows lurking on our own walls. We allow worry to displace hope; we let despair destroy peace; and we let fear prevent love. We invite storms of destruction when we allow fear a foothold in our hearts.
At the end of the day, a life defined by fear tosses aside the blessings we’re given and succumbs instead to uncertainties and darkness. Such a life clouds our minds, and the only way to clear it again is to let go of fear. We need to cling to instead to truth. Truth tells us that love casts out fear, that hope emboldens us, and that joy is a light dispelling darkness.
“Whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so also are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” –1 John 4:16-18 (ESV)
We live in a world filled with reasons to fear. Yet, while the storms come rushing in, a power far greater than fear whispers to us daily, “Do not be afraid.”
The God of love has overcome this world, and fear with it. He gives us reasons daily to find courage through His Word and through the blessings He provides.
What is one blessing today that inspires courage in you?