Fairy tales never die. They just get retold. I suspect it’s because fairy tales have a little piece of truth at their core that keeps them ever-relevant. Last year, I had the pleasure of reading Angela Carter’s short story collection, The Bloody Chamber, which retold a number of European fairy tales like Bluebeard and Beauty and the Beast. Catherynne Valente’s Deathless does something similar for Russian fairy tales by retelling the story of Marya Morevna and Koschei the Deathless against the background of the Russian Revolution, Civil War, the Purges, and the Siege of Leningrad.
In the fairy tales, Koschei is a villain who kidnaps a girl or some hero’s wife. The hero pursues his lost love and, in order to escape, figures out how to find Koschei’s death and kill him. In Deathless, Valente gives us another side to the chilling immortal. Here, Koschei isn’t a sinister, power hungry monster. He’s just as much a victim of circumstance as everyone else, in a manner of speaking. Baba Yaga explains thusly:
Chyerti—that’s us, demons and devils, small and big—are compulsive. We obsess. It’s our nature. We turn on a track, around and around; we march in step; we act out the same tales, over and over…while time piles up like yarn under a wheel. We like patterns. They’re comforting. Sometimes little things change—a car instead of a house, a girl not named Yelena. But it’s no different, not really…That’s how you get deathless. Walk the same tale over and over, until you wear a groove in the world, until even if you vanished, the tale would keep turning, keep playing…and you’d have to get up again, even with a bullet through your eye, to play your part and say your lines. (110*)
Marya Morevna, in this iteration of her story, is draw into Koschei’s tale at age six, when she sees birds drop out of trees to become husbands for her sisters. Nothing is ever ordinary after that day.
When she’s older, Marya is whisked away to Buyan by Koschei to be his bride. She learns about his magical world and the war he’s fighting with his brother, the Tsar of Death. The language of Deathless changes from the simplicity of a fairy tale, in which everything happens in threes and motivations are never discussed, to richly described passages about hunting in Buyan or starving in Leningrad. At each stage of the story, Marya has to rediscover what she wants and how to get it within the boundaries of whatever story she’s in.
Deathless is more complicated than a fairy tale. Marya’s story is the foreground of the novel. In the background, we have Koschei’s war and Russia’s various wars. While Marya is fighting for her happiness and her two loves, the magical Russia is losing a war to secular Russia and communism. I’ve seen this metaphor before, of a magical pre-Industrial society losing out to modernity. The metaphor is even more poignant than usual in Deathless. This is something Valente does particularly well. She did something similar for the Old West in Six-Gun Snow White. In Deathless, it’s startling to hear a dragon talk about show trials and domoviye have committee meetings. But it all works the way Valente writes it.
There’s so much meaning and depth to explore in Deathless that I feel I’m not doing justice to the story. On the other hand, if I talk about it too much here, anyone reading this might not be tempted to go check it out for themselves. Plus, I’m not an expert in Russian folklore and mythology. I’m sure there was a lot in Deathless that I wasn’t picking up on. I know I’m going to have to come back and re-read this book—after spending several hours on Wikipedia swotting up, no doubt.
* Page number is approximate. I read the kindle edition of Deathless.