“A Dill Pickle” is a 1917 short story by Katherine Mansfield. Over the course of a single café scene, a woman meets up with a former beau. This is a feminist story about how men and women tend to communicate, and illuminates Mansfield’s deep interest in psychology.
I’m in a restaurant in Cambridge and this woman just yelled at a man “economics is part of culture” and he shouted back “that’s YOUR notion” and five minutes later she said, “do you want this” and he said “what is it” and she said “a pickle”
@sarahlovescali 9:41 am – 11 Aug 2019
Here’s your soundtrack: horribly anachronistic but about a dill pickle. (There are no words so we must use our imagination.)
WHAT HAPPENS IN “A DILL PICKLE”
A man and woman meet after six years apart. It is revealed that they used to be prospective lovers/beaus. The entire story is a conversation between them, and the reader sees (hopefully) that this partnership is doomed. A modern reader can probably put names to some of the psychological tricks going down.
Baba Yaga is a legendary Slavic witch, or a hag, who lives in a hut that stands on chicken legs and who flies through the air in a mortar, using the pestle as a rudder. The predatory Baba Yaga, who has a special liking for children, is a subcategory of crone. She’s also known as Old Hag Yaga. Her name is synonymous with ved’ma, which means witch in Russian.
FEATURES OF BABA YAGA?
A BRIEF HISTORY OF BABA YAGA
The first extant mentions of Baba Yaga in text date to the 18th century.
Sometimes ‘Baba’ is translated into English as ‘Granny‘ but the word ‘baba’ contains no respect for age. A closer translation would be something like ‘crone‘, even though ‘baba’ is a shortening of the respectful ‘babushka‘ (grandmother). A minor insult is “Babka”, meaning a grumpy old woman.
She might be a chthonic goddess. (Chthonic means relating to or inhabiting the underworld.) Vladamir Propp proposed that her house on legs might serve as a cultural memory of initiation rituals.
‘Yaga‘ may be related to Slavic words for grudge or brawl, or to the Russian word for eating.
Baba Yaga may be a genius loci (protective spirit). On the other hand, she doesn’t appear to be a protectress of specific social groups. She’s not their enemy, either.
BABA YAGA’S BACK STORY
Femme coded monsters in general have backstories in which they become monsters because of masculine brutality and injustice.
BABA YAGA AND YOUNG PEOPLE
Cannibalism more generally is related to pregnancy, and our collective fear around it. (Before people had a good understanding of human anatomy, a pregnant woman appeared she had eaten someone.)
Baba Yaga is connected to children, first because she eats them, second because in some stories she has daughters (but never sons). Actually, though, in the classic Baba Yaga stories, she never actually eats the children. She threatens to. She also teaches the girls to do housework. She is a tool in a young person’s rite of passage into adulthood. In this way, Baba Yaga fulfils a specific cultural function: She teaches young people traditional values and rules of adult society so that they will grow up to be useful, functioning members of it. How does she select her victims? She preys upon those who deviate in this way.
She’s the slavic folktale equivalent of the Aunt Lydia character invented by Margaret Atwood in The Handmaid’s Tale, upholding the social norms of her own oppressors.
CONNECTION TO OTHER SUPERNATURAL CREATURES
In Russian imagination she is the aunt or mistress of all witches. She is sometimes compared to Hecate, the Greek goddess of magic, witchcraft, the night, moon, ghosts and necromancy.
Like your bog standard witch, Baba Yaga is cunning. She’s in control of natural and supernatural magic and above all of food supplies. She dispenses hospitality capriciously: Sometimes she’s welcoming, other times wants you to leave her the hell alone.
Here’s what Jack Zipes has to say about her:
[She is] not just a dangerous witch but also a maternal benefactress, probably related to a pagan goddess. [She] is inscrutable and so powerful that she does not ow allegiance to the Devil or God or even to her storytellers. In fact, she opposes all Judeo-Christian and Muslim deities and beliefs. She is her own woman, a pathogenetic mother, and she decides on a case-by-case basis whether she will help or kill the people who come to her hut that rotates on chicken legs.
(Pathogenetic: Pertaining to genetic cause of a disease or an abnormal condition.)
Sometimes she is said to be the mother of dragons.
BABA YAGA’S HOUSE
Her house is in the forest. More specifically than that, it’s in the land of the “thrice-nine kingdom“, the land of the living dead. This realm lies between the world of the living and the thrice-ten kingdom, the land of the truly dead.
Baba Yaga is unusually specific for a fairy tale character — she is often individuated. In fact there is something very specific and unusual about her: She lives in a woodland cottage that runs about on chicken legs.
She sets snapping teeth on her door for a lock, with hands to bolt it and human limbs to support it. Tiles are made of pancake, the walls of pies. A big oven blazes in the hearth where she sleeps at night.
Also, she fences her domain in the forest with the skulls and bones of her victims whose eyes glow by moonlight. (The skulls are used to decorate the pickets of the fence.)
HOW DOES SHE GET ABOUT?
Baba Yaga also has an unusual mode of flight. She ferries through the air in a pestle and mortar, sweeping her tracks with besom as she goes. (The pestle is the rudder.) Sometimes she travels in a flying cauldron. In her wake, tempests, hurricanes and tornadoes boil and roil.
This tale is a close cousin of the witch from Hansel and Gretel. Clever children are able to trick her.
Witch can have several meanings and exist on several axes. What’s the gender inverse of witch? Sometimes wizard (magic), sometimes ogre (gruesome).
She has witchy traits. When we say Baba Yaga is the equivalent of a witch, she’s the kind of witch who corresponds to the female ogre.
She can take shape of bird or cat (a sexist trope which predominates throughout all types of modern literature). This shows how very old is the tendency to link femininity to birds and to cats.
Sometimes, occasionally though, Baba Yaga is just a regular old woman, like the queen of Snow White.
THE DUALISTIC WOMAN
Baba Yaga is not always malignant. In fact, she is notoriously ambiguous, giving rise to the archetype of the dualistic woman. Her cottage can be considered a liminal space, functioning as a sort of portal between the light and the dark sides, or the border between life and death. She can swing in either direction.
One of the best-known and strangest characters (from a Western perspective) in Russian [Slavic] folk tales is a witch called Baba Yaga. According to Elizabeth Warner, there are two Baba Yagas, a good one and a bad one. Sometimes within a single narrative, Baba Yaga may display good and evil characteristics. She benignly feeds the hero in “little Ivan The Clever Young Man,” for example, and provides him with a “hot steam-bath,” but threatens to devour Vasilisa the Beautiful. Baba Yaga lives in a dense and dark forest in a cottage built on chicken’s legs that revolves on command. She is an aged, ugly crone and her nose and teeth are long and sharp. Not only is she emaciated like a skeleton, but the fence and gates of her house are built of human bones. According to Warner, “some scholars say” that Baba Yaga’s house guards the frontier between the mortal and spirit worlds.
Carolyn Davis, Voracious Children: Who Eats Whom In Children’s Literature
SIMILARITIES TO HANSEL AND GRETEL
Baba Yaga, like Hansel and Gretel’s adversary, has a penchant for human flesh and kidnaps small children. Vasilisa escapes from Baba Yaga’s clutches because she has her “mother’s blessing” to help her, embodied in a doll which advises her and performs the tasks set her by the witch. When Baba Yaga finds out that Vasilisa has been blessed, she sends her home to her stepmother and stepsisters unharmed and with the light they had sent her to fetch. The light given to Vasilisa by the witch is contained in a skull stuck on a pole. The blazing eyes of the skull stare straight at the stepmother and her daughters. “They tried to hide but everywhere they went the eyes followed them. By morning they were shrivelled to a cinder and only Vasilisa was left”. Vasilisa subsequently takes a room with an old woman and waits for her father to return from his business trip. With the doll’s help, she spins a quantity of fine linen thread, weaves a cloth “so delicate it could be drawn through the eye of a needle” and sews twelve shirts for the Tsar. The Tsar is delighted with her work and invites the seamstress to his palace, falls in love with her and asks her to marry him. When Vasilisa’s father returns he is overjoyed to hear of the good fortune that has befallen his daughter. He and the old woman, with whom Vasilisa has been living, come to live in the palace.
The trajectory of the story of “Vasilisa the Beautiful” is similar to that of Hansel and Gretel in a number of ways. Just as they did, Vasilisa must come to terms with the dualistic nature of the mother figure and develop a meaningful relationship with her father/the symbolic order. Her stepmother expels her from the house and sends her into the forest, just as Hansel’s and Gretel’s did, and her stepmother and the witch figure also epitomize the bad breast/mother figure. For Vasilisa the doll embodies the blessing or loving and nurturing aspects of the mother, while the stepmother/witch again represents the evil, cannibalistic characteristics. Vasilisa is not lured into Baba Yaga’s house as Hansel and Gretel are, however. Instead, she recognizes the threat the house and the witch represent but must still approach and comply with Baba Yaga’s commands, fulfilling the onerous tasks she sets. Thus, Vasilisa must face up to the deal with that which she fears just as Maggie Kilgour suggests the infant must do in relation to the breast. The step/mother is again dealt with through matricide but Vasilisa retains the best parts of the mother figure in the body of the doll, which she carries “in her pocket until the day she dies”. Arguably Vasilisa has reconciled with her ambivalent feelings toward her mother who is then reclaimed in the figure of the old woman. Again in this story, economic wealth is associated with the paternal and provides a happy ever after ending.
The emphasis on the devouring aspects of these wicked witches is significant. Baba Yaga’s sharp teeth and the bones and skulls with which her house is constructed are described in oral sadistic terms as Campbell suggests. Vasilisa must enter the witch’s domain through gates made of human legs, with human hands for bolts and a mouth with sharp teeth for a lock. Freud discussed the significance of the teeth (in dreams) and proposed that they represented the female genitals, the lower part of the body being transposed to the upper so that “it is ost likely that the mouth refers to the vagina and the rows of teeth which open and close to a phantasy about castrating vaginal teeth”. The gateway to Baba Yaga’s house suggests some transposition of the lower body to the upper and certainly emphasizes the incorporative aspects of the maternal mouths. The devouring vagina mouth with teeth — the vagina dentata — is a symbol for the castrating and incorporating aspects of the cannibalistic female.
Carolyn Davis, Voracious Children: Who Eats Whom In Children’s Literature
BABA YAGA IN JAPAN
Being a bit of a Japanophile, I can’t help but notice how popular the tale of Baba Yaga is in Japan. Here in the West, I grew up without ever hearing of such a folktale, but in Japan you might see its influence all over the place.
Some people think that Baba Yaga equals the Yubaba inSpirited Away. I can see how they got there — Yubaba does fly away, after turning into a creepy crow. There is a good and an evil version of her. Interestingly, the proto-Slavic word for grandma ‘baba’ may simply be coincidentally phonetically similar to the Japanese ‘Baba’, which also comes from the native Japanese word for grandmother/old woman (obaasan). It’s important to note that Baba is a derogatory term. I believe it’s derogatory in both the Japanese and in the Slavic. But Baba is not a loanword in Japanese. In fact, it’s listed here, in a list of native Japanese words often thought to be from abroad. It may have been this very phonetic correspondence that spurred Hayao Miyazaki’s imagination when it came to the creation of Yubaba. It’s a false cognate, but in Japanese the word baba also refers to an old hag. The worst thing you could call a woman is a kusobaba — a ‘shit crone’.
Mythological cannibals don’t seem to be all that common in other cultures. I expected the Wikipedia category to be much bigger in fact. Perhaps Russia and Japan are historically more similar than I’d thought?
The True History of a Little Ragamuffin by James Greenwood (written by an English author, for adults, but little known in the UK)
Books by Boris Zakhoder (who translated Alice In Wonderland into Russian very adeptly)
An early Soviet classic, Schwambrania by Lev Kassil is about two provincial Russian brothers growing up prior to and after the revolution of 1917. Bored by dull reality, they invent a land of their own which has everything their real life lacks. Unlike a magical world such as Narnia or Never-Neverland, the imaginary world is always portrayed as simply make-believe. This make believe land is girl-free.When they let a girl in, it turns to crap. Lev (author/storyteller) remains misogynist. At the end of the book, the reader is supposed to believe that the USSR has become so great that the boys no longer need their imaginary world.
For older children there was more variety, for example The Two Captains (1938 and 1944) by Kaverin was popular. Some people adored Krapivin and Anatoly Alexin. Teenagers read the Strugatsky brothers’ science fiction.
The early Soviet period was a miraculously rich time for children’s books and their illustrations.
In the Russian folk tale, the character was not the source of action but the product of plot. (Contrast with folktales in the Leavisite tradition, which emphasises the importance of psychological insight in characterisation a la Britain. The characters themselves are the source of the story.)
Pretty much all classic Russian children’s literature falls into two categories: domestic stories and gang fiction.
In 1920s Russia, children read about sugar beets, hydroelectric plants, and five-year plans.
The tremendous artistic firepower that could be harnessed in the Soviet Union of the 1920s made the difficult, unglamorous work of agriculture or electrification seem heroic and patriotic.
This era marked a shift away from fairytales.
The 1930 book Kak svekla sakharom stala (How the Beet Became Sugar) illustrates and describes the sugar production process: “Work is happening night and day. Night and day, sugar is being made from beets.”
The 1930 title Shimpanze i martyshka (Chimpanzee and Marmoset) provides instructions on how the reader can make a toy monkey.
The readership of these books wasn’t limited to the Soviet Union. Children in Kolkata were reading them too.
There are also books about glorious achievements, such as pilot Georgiĭ Baĭdukov’s nonstop flight over the North Pole in the mid-1930s. But by this time, there had been a political shift that changed the way that children’s books looked. Throughout the 1920s, the aesthetics of the books were diverse, and included the influence of the Russian avant-garde, and the work of well-known writers and artists. In 1934, the All-Union Soviet Congress of Writers declared that socialist realism was the only acceptable artistic style. Over the years, some writers and artists escaped into exile. Others did not.
Vitya Maleev at School and Home (1951) is a typical title from the 1950s.
Only recently acknowledged that the queer community exists
Russian girls not allowed to wear trousers to school
Mothers don’t tend to stay at home with the children, who often arrive home to an empty house
Slang and swear words are absent from kid-lit by tradition
Pseudo-conflicts drive the plots
The deliberate avoidance of any serious aspects of life make Russian literature better for very young readers than for older ones. Russian young adult literature still doesn’t tackle any of the tough issues. Books are full of ‘pseudo-conflicts‘ (events which do not present any moral dilemma for the main characters and do not change the initial situation). This is to underscore the idea that Russian children are perfect human examples in every way. Pseudo conflicts can involve friends and siblings but not adults.
There is a marked absence of conflict between children and their parents. Adult authority can never be questioned. In stories, adults are always right and always know best.
Conservative attitudes in the Soviet Union publishing industry
The aim of Soviet Union children’s fiction is to create a sense of stability and permanence, where life is getting better and better every day.
Contemporary Russian fantasy seems hopelessly outdated due to isolation, with writers not following the same evolution as in other countries
Russian children have little in the way of material possessions, so when they encounter children in books who have cars, jellybeans, tech gear etc. they assume privilege where none was intended in the story.
Fairy tales, fantasy and all imaginative literature were banned for a long time.
The puritan attitude of Soviet pedagogues toward procreation does not allow the author to let the hero wonder things like where babies come from.
The Adventures of Buratino is an adaptation of The Adventures of Pinocchio. The Russian book is less sophisticated in composition and narrative structure, and the main goal of Pinocchio is to become a real boy, whereas the main goal of Buratino is to find the door opened by a golden key which he receives from a beneficial donor. Pinocchio’s quest is spiritual whereas Buratino’s is purely material. While death and resurrection are inevitable parts of a spiritual quest, death is never a threat to Buratino.
But that’s not what the young Russian reader wants at all
Non-USSR books are very popular, like Winnie-the-Pooh, Peter and Wendy, Mary Poppins, C.S. Lewis, Tolkien but Edith Nesbit, E.B. White and Lloyd Alexander are largely unknown.
Astrid Lindgren is very big in Russia because of a cartoon adaptation, but Russians aren’t familiar with her name. Russian children like characters who step outside social hierarchy, same as any young audiences anywhere.
Russians appreciate the creative use of language to outwit censorship.
Russian children love escapist stories which liberate the imagination.
Different cultures view the sun differently. Ask a Western child to draw the sun and they will draw it yellow. Ask a Japanese child to draw the sun and they will draw it red.
Our closest star is ‘actually’ white. I grew up in New Zealand and I drew it yellow. But when I lived as an exchange student in Japan, I noticed the sky really ‘is’ red. It’s fully red. American children also colour the sun yellow.
(The sunflower must have been named by someone who thinks the sun is yellow.)
However, it doesn’t always look bright red in Japan, and it doesn’t always look bright yellow in my Western home countries, either. In photos it appears most often as white. Part of our understanding of ‘an object’s actual colour’ is acculturation. We grow up learning that the sun is a certain colour.
Part of learning to illustrate is learning to really see. Wherever you come from in the world, suns, skies, road surfaces, and of course human skins, come in all different colours.
The sun in A Sound of Taiyoo Organ is very similar to the sun as depicted in this Russian picture book.
Below is another example of the sun as seen from Russia. I doubt it’s a coincidence that Japan and Russia are so geographically proximal. They’re so near to each other, in fact, that Russia and Japan are still in disagreements about which country gets to claim the territory of the Kuril Islands.
When taken to its extreme, a white sun surrounded by a corona of yellow with rays creates a powerful optical illusion for the viewer.
The sun looks quite different from Australia. When I lived in Japan I regularly left the house without sunglasses. Part of the reason is that sunglasses are considered a bit suspect by Japanese people, and a bit scary. But living here in Australia, I can’t leave the house at any time of year without sunglasses. I have a dark, wraparound pair for summer, and a lighter pair of lenses for winter. Australia and New Zealand share this in common; the sun is more glary down here. The archetypal storybook sun is yellow. But down under, the sun itself is white, and the sky around it is yellow. (Not that anyone should be looking directly at the sun.)
Maori language: Ata hāpara and atatū (dawn and just after sunrise). Ata mārie (good morning)
However, even in Australian art, sometimes you do see the archetypal storybook sun. The picture book below is Aboriginal. The sun is often covered in a yellow haze, especially in fire season.
The picture book below is also a picture book mythology, this time from New Zealand. In this case, the sun itself is turned into a character. (The New Zealand sky turns orange when Australian bush fires are at their peak.)
Over the next twenty minutes the eastern cloud lifted a little, rolling up like a slow curtain. A strange, red glow crept out from under it, filling the sky with a clear, furious light against which the hilss with their spiky crowns were plastered flat and balck, having no more dimension than a shadow. The rolled edges of the clouds were touched with gold and rose colour, deepening second by second to an intense brightness.
A description of sunrise in The Tricksters, a 1980s YAL novel by New Zealand author Margaret Mahy
Yellow and orange suns are the default and we see them often in illustration. The children’s book below is about an Indian immigrant girl in New York City.
MADELINE IN LONDON BY LUDWIG BEMELMANS
Bemelmans is an interesting case, having grown up in Europe then emigrating to America as a young man. It’s safe to assume Bemelmans saw the sun through a number of different hazes. Generally, Bemelmans depicts the sun as yellow. For him, yellow is the ‘unmarked’ version. But he does something interesting with the sun in his picture book Madeline In London — after the horse tragically eats all the gardener’s flowers, the flower-loving gardener gets out of bed, opens the door and sees a yellow sun in the shape of a flower greeting him. But once he realises his flowerbed has been destroyed, Bemelmans paints the sun as red. In other words, Bemelmans uses red to signify a downward emotional turn.
Header illustration: by Polish illustrator Zdzisław Witwicki, (1921-2019).
Changing the colour of the sky is a great way to significantly alter the mood of an illustration. A blue sky is cheerful, a stormy sky foreboding, an orange sky indicates evening, or early morning, and a purple sky might convey a fantastical or magic world.
What if you change the colour of the sky after the rest of the artwork has been done? I read a hint lately in a digital art manual which suggested filling a top layer with the colour of your sky, then setting it to multiply blend mode. This will tint the landscape/cityscape or whatever to the appropriate hue, since the colour of the landscape is influenced by the colour of the sky above. I haven’t had a chance to put this to use, but I did try it out anyway on an illustration I’d already done, and I do believe it would be a good way to get the sky matching the landscape, if you end up with a hue which draws attention to itself, or in which the sky looks somehow separate from the land.
Header painting: John Muirhead – The Calm before a Storm 1881