Sunday, April 21, 2013

Konstantin's Gifts, by Kathryn Anthony: The Rusalka

Rusalka by Ivan Bilibin, 1934
From Wikipedia (see entry for public domain data)
       I recently reviewed Kathryn Anthony's novel Konstantin's Gifts on Amazon and Goodreads.  I wanted to elaborate a bit here and discuss the entity from Slavic folklore called the rusalka, which Kat Anthony adapted for her story.  We see lots of werewolves and vampires in current popular writing, but the rusalka is much rarer.  Fel Wetzig in a post on her folklore-oriented blog recently mentioned the rusalka: "In Slavic folklore, the rusalka dwells in waterways–part fish, and part women. At night the left the water to dance in the meadows, seducing handsome, young men and luring them to the river to die." 
       Wikipedia describes the rusalka thus:
       "In most versions, the rusalka is an unquiet dead being, associated with the 'unclean force.' According to Zelenin, people who die violently and before their time, such as young women who commit suicide because they have been jilted by their lovers, or unmarried women who are pregnant, must live out their designated time on earth as a spirit.
       "The ghostly version is the soul of a young woman who had died in or near a river or a lake and came back to haunt that waterway. This undead rusalka is not invariably malevolent, and will be allowed to die in peace if her death is avenged.  ...  While her primary dwelling place was the body of water in which she died, the rusalka could come out of the water at night, climb a tree, and sit there singing songs, sit on a dock and comb her hair, or join other rusalki in circle dances (Polish: korowody) in the field.  ...  Rusalki like to have men and children join in their games. They can do so by enticing men with their singing and then drowning them, while the children were often lured with baskets of fruit. Men seduced by a rusalka could die in her arms, and in some versions hearing her laugh could also cause death. Alternatively, they would attract men, mainly bachelors, and tickle them to death."  (Rather amusing!)
        Wikipedia goes on to list a number of literary adaptations of the rusalka legend:  novels by C. J. Cherryh and Poul Anderson, operas by Dvorak and Dargomyzhsky, short pieces by Gogol, Turgenev, and Pushkin, and several others.
       Kat Anthony's novel concerns a fire rusalka, which is not mentioned in Wikipedia.  When I Googled "fire rusalka," I came up with a post by the author herself in which she discusses what title to give her novel:
       "So what about: “Fire Rusalka“? This is closer. Vasilisa, my main character, is a unique hybrid–she has the strength of the lycanthrope, without any of its negative side effects. And, she has the charisma of the rusalka–a kind of nymph in Russian mythology whose voice and face create a kind of compulsive fascination that they use to draw unwitting mortals to their watery graves. I made up the idea of a rusalka associated with the element of fire, so this is a different take that might intrigue those who are familiar with the mythology. So, for the tiny subset of the population who are fond of the rusalka myth, this might be an intriguing title."
       So we see that the fire rusalka is an invention or adaptation of the author's.  It makes some sense to do this; since the rusalka is an elemental spirit, it could easily take different forms.  As for the title, I'm glad Anthony settled on Konstantin's Gifts, since I think it captures the irony of the book -- what the mad scientist inflicts on his victims are hardly gifts in the positive sense, and yet they are gifts in that they enable the victims to rise about their victimhood, both as serfs/slaves and as powerful deviants.
       The novel could be stronger; see my review.  I would have preferred to see more done with uncommon concept of the rusalka and perhaps even to have omitted the vampires and werewolves altogether.  It might have been possible to emphasize the relationship between Konstantin and Vasya and develop the Prince's character, making him more complex.   I had originally intended to discuss here a few more aspects of the book that could be improved, but I think I'll leave the topic alone.  As readers of this blog know (see my post "Analysis: Katabasis, by Kathryn Anthony"), I think Kat is a very good writer with lots of potential to write ever improving fiction.  You can try Konstantin's Gifts for yourself, and I would recommend that you do so.  It's available at Amazon.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Bird Myths, Pt. 4: Greece and the Middle East

Added on 5/6/13: I discovered a Young Adult book called Faizah's Destiny by Marva Dasef in which you can read about the Simurgh, which is one of the mythical birds mentioned below.  See it at Amazon.

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       The Man Who Found Birds among the Stars, (see the Prologue and first eight chapters here), I made Capt. Robbin Nikalishin a birder. What better qualification for the man who will head up the mission that encountered the first intelligent lifeform known to humanity -- and who happened to be big birds? During the mission out, there was a lot of boring downtime and one way the crew entertained itself was by telling bird myths, each crewmember telling tales from his or her own culture. Now, this section will be cut or drastically emended if I ever get that monster ready for publication, but I did too much research and had too much fun writing it to let it all disappear, so what better place to display it than on a blog devoted partially to myth in literature?
       The following passage is narrated by the very attractive Griek Prf. Linna Katsopolos, a veteran of the original interstellar program who later became a temporal quantum physicist and helped to build the Ariana's engine.  She is taking part in the voyage as a Mission Specialist to run an assessment of the engine's functioning.  She also happens to be the Captain's current love interest.

The Bennu Bird
(source of image not given)
“Robbie, I wish you could have warned us before the voyage that you were planning something like this.  It seems like you take birding stuff with you even when there’s no chance of seeing a bird, but unfortunately I didn’t bring any of my own resources.  I took some classes in myth and ancient culture at university because I’d always been interested in the subject and it was a nice change of pace from physics, but I haven’t thought about it for a while and I had to dredge down pretty deep to come up with something to say.
“I can’t think of any big Garuda-like bird who ranks high among the Griek gods.  There is the tale of Ikarus, but it’s not about a real bird or even gods – it’s about a man who builds wings for himself out of wax and feathers.  He then proceeds to fly too close to the sun so that his wings melt and he falls into the sea and is drowned.  It’s viewed more as a parable of humanity overreaching itself.  It seems that the ancients’ imaginations were better than their technology!
“Griek bird-figures are mostly hybrid monsters.  The harpies, who chase and harass people, have the faces of hideous women and the bodies of birds.  Then the Sirens … they were supposed to live on some of the Griek islands and lure sailors to their deaths with their beautiful songs.  They are often depicted as birds but sometimes as beautiful women in their upper halves with bird bodies below. 
“But there are also the Stimfalian birds, which were probably modeled on real marsh birds.  The Sixth Labor of Herakles… oh, dear, probably some of you don’t know who Herakles was – let’s just say he was the consummate Griek mythical hero.  One of his twelve great feats consisted of confronting these enormous, man-eating birds who lived in the Stimfalian Marshes.  They were pets of the God of War, and they had brass claws and metallic feathers that they would pluck out and hurl like darts, and they would also squirt toxic excrement at their victims.  Obviously, they made pretty formidable adversaries.  Herakles could get no foothold in the marshy ground, so he defeated them by making a racket with bronze clappers and scaring them into flight.  Once they were in the air, he was able to shoot them down with his arrows.
“Then there are other birdlike hybrids that didn’t originate in Griece but came mostly from the Middle East, the area where Avi’s people used to live.  There’s the griffon, which was four-legged, with the body of a lion and head of an eagle; it could kill a cow and carry it away, just like Avi’s Ziz.  They were supposed to have claws the size of an ox’s horns and feathers strong enough to use for lances, like our Stimfalian friends.  You can see how these myths often merge.  There was also the hippogriff, which had the head, wings, and front legs of a griffon and the back parts of a horse.  And then Pegassus, which was a winged horse – more horse than bird – a really beautiful flying horse.
“And all these creatures get called by different names in different places.  In Parsia, the Ziz-like or griffon-like creature was called the Simurg or the Chamrosh; it was as big as thirty normal birds and usually considered benevolent.  It was said to be able to speak; in fact I remember something about how some of holy literature of that region is supposed to be uttered in the language of birds.  Isn’t that a lovely notion?  Really flash!”
“I know about something like that!” piped up Moosie Jaballa.  “There’s a story about God teaching King Solomon the language of birds!  And I remember reading somewhere that ancient Ejipt had a bird-god whose cry created the world.”
“We Jues believe that God created the world out of words – out of Hebru letters, that is,” said Avi, keeping his tone whimsical, “but I’ve never heard a bird speaking Hebru.”
Linna grinned and said, “Maybe they think in Hebru.  The verbs are strange enough to have come from another species.”
Avi made a wry face at her and said, “The Kristen scriptures have a saying, ‘In the beginning was the Word.’  Maybe it should have been ‘In the beginning was the Bird.’”
Amid titters, Linna said, “Anyway, Moosie, now I remember that Ejiptian myth you were talking about.  The bird was called the Bennu.  It’s the Ejiptian version of the Phenix.  As for the Phenix itself, some of you may have already researched it, but I’ll give you a capsule version of its story.  The Phenix was gorgeous, with gold and crimson plumage, and even though it resembled an eagle, it had a beautiful song.  It didn’t eat normal bird food but only aromatic gums like frankincense … ”
“Oh!” exclaimed Robbie.  The word rang a bell, but he couldn’t place it.
Linna cocked a questioning eyebrow at the Captain and he said again, “Oh!”  He had just remembered; frankincense was one of the gifts that the Wise Men of the kraytch brought to the newborn Haysus in Romisher beliefs.  He beamed on an uncomprehending Linna, pleased with himself for making the connection, and added, “Never mind me.  Go on.”
She blinked and continued.  “The Phenix was identified with the sun and with a sun-temple in ancient Egypt – there’s your Bennu-bird connection.  ”Only one of them could be alive at a time and it was extremely long-lived, with various stories giving it a lifespan of 500 all the way up to 13,000 years.  But inevitably the time would come for it to die, and then it would build itself a nest of spices and aromatic gums and set itself ablaze.  In three days a new bird would begin to regenerate from the ashes, destined to begin the cycle all over again.  So you can see that the Phenix is quite an apt metaphor for our interstellar program.” 
Lt.  Du spoke up.  “In Chiness culture we have a big bird called the Fung-Huang.  It’s said to have three legs and live in the sun, and sometimes it’s depicted as beautiful, but at other times it becomes one of those hybrid monsters, with a rooster’s beak, a snake’s neck, the  back end of a stag, and a fishtail.”
“Holy cry!” said Robbie.  “Astonishing what the human imagination can cook up!”
“And then finally there is the Rook, or Rukh, if you prefer,” said Linna, “which is closer to Avi’s Ziz than to the Phenix.  It was supposed to be big enough to carry away and eat elephants.  Some think it was inspired by the three-meter tall elephant bird that was native to the island of Magascar.  It went extinct about the middle of the 2nd millennium.”
“Yeah, Aepyornis,” said Robbie.  “But it was a ratite, like an ostrich.  It didn’t fly.” 
“Well, folk memories don’t exactly reflect scientific facts, you know,” said Linna.  And then she said, “Have any of you people ever heard of Sinbad?”
Coming next ...
Sinbad and the Rukh