Fairy tales are a rich source of story ideas. A writer could retell a fairy tale straight, or with a fair amount of creative license to make the story a contemporary one. Some aspects of a fairy tale could be taken individually or in combination as inspiration for a story, or pieces of various fairy tales could be mixed and matched to create a completely new and magical story.
Because fairy tales are so versatile, I’ll only focus on one in this column: Baba Yaga.
The clearest example of a modern retelling is Deborah Blake’s urban fantasy Baba Yaga series. Baba Yaga is a title, not an individual, and the protagonists of each of her novels are powerful witches charged with the protection of the balance of nature.
There are other books that draw from this fairy tale; the following list is not exhaustive. E.D. Baker’s A Question of Magic, Orson Scott Card’s Enchantment, Lee Hogan’s Belarus, Gregory McGuire’s The Dream Stealer, Patricia McKillip’s In the Forests of Serre, Peter Morwood’s Tales of Old Russia series, Joy Preble’s Anastasia series, Dubrovka Ugresic’s Baba Yaga Laid an Egg, Sarah Porter’s Vassa in the Night, Catherynne Valente’s Deathless, Nalo Hopkinson’s The Chaos, and Theodora Goss’s Red as Blood and White as Bone, all feature Baba Yaga as a character.
Why have so many writers dipped their quills into the ink of this Russian fairy tale? For one, it’s not just one fairy tale, but several. And all of them have lovely, tasty details. I’ll let you peruse the actual tales yourselves. What I’m here to do is tease out the golden threads in the weave.
Who is Baba Yaga?
Many of the tales feature Baba Yaga as a hag and an antagonist, but in some tales, she is a helpful force, and in others, she merely appears wicked, but is, in fact, teaching the hero of the tales of independence and resourcefulness. Baba Yaga is the trial through which protagonists take possession of their own power.
Baba Yaga is mentioned in a list of the Slavic gods but is assigned her own category. Is she a force of nature? An elemental? She displays power over the elements in many tales.
Baba Yaga is said to have iron teeth—how’s that for a tasty detail? Though she eats enough to feed four men, she is thin, and is also called bony legs. When she sleeps, she lies upon her stone oven, her limbs touching the walls of her hut. Her nose is so long it rattles against the ceiling when she snores. She is depicted as a giant in several artists’ renderings.
In some tales, she has two sisters, also called Baba Yaga. There is also mention of a daughter, Marishka. The tales of Vasilissa the Beautiful and Koshchey the Deathless also feature Baba Yaga.
She lives in a hut that stands on chicken legs and travels at her whim, spinning and screeching as it does so. If a magic phrase is spoken, the hut will crouch down and allow the speaker entry. The hut is fenced with bones that are capped with skulls that have burning eyes.
Baba Yaga rides around in a magical mortar, propelling herself with the pestle and dragging a birch broom behind her to erase her tracks. Some tales say she abducts children, others that she eats them, but in the tales that I’ve read, she only threatens to eat her captives as an inducement to labor. She never actually does it.
She has three horsemen, Bright Dawn, Red Sun, and Dark Midnight. She also has disembodied hands she calls the friends of her soul that do her bidding.
Drawing Inspiration from the Baba Yaga Fairy Tale
When I started researching Baba Yaga, all kinds of ideas began zipping around in my head. Any of the above-listed details could spawn a story. Her iron teeth made me think of the character of Jaws from The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker. The spinning, screeching hut? That could be a TARDIS! The three Baba Yagas could be related to any of the triple goddesses across multiple mythologies.
Let your imagination run wild and see where it takes you. The well of Baba Yaga’s fairy tales is deep enough that it won’t run dry for some time.
I’d love to know where the Russian crone leads you.
Melanie Marttila creates worlds from whole cloth. She’s a dreamsinger, an ink alchemist, and an unabashed learning mutt. Her speculative short fiction has appeared in Bastion Science Fiction Magazine, On Spec Magazine, and Sudbury Ink. She lives and writes in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada, where she spends her days working as a corporate trainer. She blogs at https://www.melaniemarttila.ca and you can find her on Facebook and Twitter.