Go I Know Not Whither, Bring Back I Know Not What – Part 1

The title of this post comes from a Russian fairytale that has intrigued me for many years.  Like much Russian folklore, it’s complex and winds through many episodes, but the title summarizes the story.  Fairytale protagonists routinely draw difficult assignments – find the name of the little man spinning straw – but the task in this story seems impossible.  Life periodically sends us riddles like this.  At times we find ourselves on a quest for something, but we don’t know what it is or where to look.  This is a story for moments like that.

Illustration for Go I Know Not Whither by Ivan Bilibin (1876-1942)

Most folktales deal with the problems of youth – finding a place in the world, or a spouse, while avoiding giants and trolls.  Go I know not whither belongs to another class of tales that deal with the problems maturity brings.

Fedot, our hero, is an accomplished soldier, marksman, and hunter.  The king “favored him above all other soldiers.”  He’s at the top of his game – in other words, at the point in life where a mid-life crisis can hit.  But crises of disorientation don’t just visit at mid-life.  Fedot’s story relates to any time when the wheel turns, when life’s old answers no longer work, and the way forward is dark.

Ivan Bilibin illustration

Fairytale humans always need helpers – always.  These helpers are usually creatures that others despise, like wrinkled old women, dwarves, and frogs.  To succeed, a hero must see beyond appearances.  Courtesy is also a must to win the help of these beings who prove essential.

When Fedot wounds a dove in the forest and hears the little bird beg for its life, he listens.  The bird gives him special instructions.  When he obeys, the dove becomes a beautiful woman.  “You have won me,” she says.  “I shall be your wife.”

Fedot’s wife, lovely, clever, and skilled in the arts, soon draws the unwelcome attention of the king, who schemes to get rid of Fedot by sending him on a series of impossible quests.  Fedot’s wife is skilled in magic and helps him succeed in all but the final challenge, designed by the king with the help of the Baba Yaga, a notorious Russian witch.  On pain of losing his head, Fedot must “Go I know not whither and bring back I know not what.”

Though she cannot advise him, Fedot’s wife sends him to visit her mother, who also is at a loss, but calls the birds of the air, the creatures of land, and those of the sea, asking for guidance for her son-in-law.  By now, those who know Joseph Campbell’s work, will recognize a critical stage of the hero quest that Campbell called, “Meeting the Goddess.”  Fedot has met her in two aspects.  His wife first appeared as a dove, sacred to Aphrodite.  Now his mother-in-law is revealed as the Great Mother, for all creatures do her bidding.  Like her daughter, she doesn’t know the way, but she locates one who does.  A wrinkled old frog, with her deep and primitive wisdom, knows the way to “I know not whither.”

The frog leads Fedot to the end of the world where a river of fire surrounds a great mountain.  She carries him past the flames, then announces that she can go no farther.  Fedot must go on alone.  With all of his helpers inadequate to the quest, where is he going to turn?

Because this is a long story, I am going to break this post into two parts.  If anyone wants to peek at the outcome before then, here is the text of the story on Project Gutenberg:  http://www.gutenberg.org/files/34705/34705-h/34705-h.htm#ch7.  Enjoy!

To Be Continued

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