Father Frost and the Step-daughter, illustration by Ivan Bilibin, 1932

“Father Frost”

Today’s story comes from Russia, but it features some familiar characters. We have a the typical beautiful kind young woman, the evil step-mother and a loving father with no backbone.

The story starts in a far-off land somewhere in Russia. The stepmother is kind and loving to her own daughter but, as expected, mean and cruel to her lovely step-daughter. One day, step-mom demands that the father take his daughter away.

“Now, old man, I want thee to take thy daughter away from my eyes, away from my ears. Thou shalt not take her to thy people into a warm izba. Thou shalt take her into the wide, wide fields to the crackling frost.”

The old man shows some remorse weeping, but nevertheless packs the girl off in the sleigh, drives her to the fields, nearly to the edge of the woods and just leaves her there. Really, what is it with fathers in some of these stories? I love strong women, don’t get me wrong, but I need a man to show a little strength of his own. And why do they marry such horrible women?

So, out in the cold, Father Frost comes to greet his guest. No matter how could he makes the weather, she always tell him that she is comfortable. Not accustomed to seeing a human who is so kind and gentle that instead of freezing her to death, he gives her sumptuous warm clothes and a trunk full of gorgeous things.

At the step-mother’s request, father comes back to retrieve his daughter so they can bury her.  A dog in the home tells the woman what to expect, but she ignores him. Father is of course over-joyed to find the young woman alive and well and richly clothed. He brings her back to the house, and the stepmother greedily comes up with a plan to send her own daughter out to the spot so that she can come back a rich woman too.

The stepdaughter, however, is not nearly as nice and sweet as the other.

The Frost kept crackling and asking questions for quite a while, but obtaining no polite answer became angry and froze the girl to death.

The father goes out to collect the second girl and brings back her dead body. The step-mother is devastated but realizes that it was her own meanness and envy that was responsible for the girl’s death.

I am always surprised by how the same plots and characters show up in different tales from different places. In addition to the characters, the plot sounds similar to “Hansel and Grethel,” and we’ve seen talking animals before in fairy tales and fables.

The stories of parents abandoning their kids always bother me. Imagine telling that story to a child. The father left his kid outside in the freezing cold expecting her to die, for no other reason than that his wife told him to. Of course, she’s no better. She ends up getting her daughter killed, too. Evil never wins in these stories, does it?

I like the Father Frost figure here. Winter is harsh, can freeze and kill, but Father Frost is treats the girl because of her great goodness differently than all the others. He gives her treasures and spares her life. But the story points out that this is out of character for him. Usually, winter does not treat people, or animals, kindly. Of course, most humans aren’t as wonderful as she is either. She’s too good, but doesn’t actually do much. She doesn’t try to save herself. All she does is repeat every prayer she knows, probably none of which are directed at Father Frost by the way. She doesn’t really drive the story, just lets events happen to her- not my favorite type of heroine.

The version I read is on-line at SurLaLune, and is from Folk Tales from the Russian by Verra Xenophontovna Kalamatiano de Blumenthal, 1903.

Tif, from Tif Talks Books, is the hostess of this great feature, Fairy Tale Fridays. Head over there to see what she has to say about another wintry Russian tale, “The Snow Maiden,” and to share your own thoughts. I haven’t quite decided what Fairy Tale to focus on next week. Suggestions?