Eastern European Folklore and its Influences on The Tears of Artamon

As a child, I adored the legends of King Arthur. So when I came across a book in Bath Children’s Library (I was one of those children who haunt libraries) that promised a Russian equivalent, Prince Vladimir of Kiev and the Knights of the Golden Table, I was instantly hooked. This retelling by E.M. Almedingen, with darkly dramatic illustrations in pen and ink by Charles Keeping, was an inspiring introduction to the byliny, or hero legends, of Vladimir and his bogatyri, and their fights against dragons, the Robber Nightingale, and the witches and demons on Bald Mountain. These tales made an immediate connection for me with the music of Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov (his opera “Sadko” is based on a Novgorod folk legend about a guslyar) and Reinhold Gliere, whose thrilling and colourful epic Third Symphony is called “Ilya Muromets” and relates the exploits and death of Vladimir’s most famous bogatyr, Ilya of Murom. So much of a connection, in fact, that I wrote my own musical, with a fellow school student, about an encounter between Vladimir’s knights and the evil witch Baba Yaga (best known in Mussorgsky’s musical portrait in “Pictures at an Exhibition”).

But it was not until many years later that I found two books that have proved a fascinating source of information on these legends: “Vladimir, the Russian Viking” by Vladimir Volkoff and “Kitezh: the Russian Grail Legends” by Munin Nederlander. (When I was growing up, the Cold War was still on and material from the Soviet Union was incredibly difficult to get hold of!) The first explores the historical background to the legends and the second delves into the underlying mythologies of the Kiev bogatyri, comparing them with the Arthurian stories and analysing them, searching for mythical archetypes and common threads.

Is there a direct link between these Russian byliny and the world of Azhkendir in “The Tears of Artamon”? Yes, in that I based Lord Volkh’s druzhina on the hierarchical structure of Vladimir’s court. Azhkendir is a country trapped in a feudal structure, held back in the dark ages by a ruinous clan war between the two ruling families of Arkhel and Nagarian. The neighbouring princedoms of Tielen and Muscobar have entered an age of enlightenment and reason, leaving the Azhkendis isolated in their barbaric “land of snow and shadows”. Volkh’s name itself comes from the Kiev legend of Volkh Vseslavyevich, the shape-shifting magician, who (according to Nederlander) was sired by one of “the last and tempestuous descendants of the house of the Ureus Naga”. “Son of the Serpent” is a name frequently given to Lord Volkh in “The Tears of Artamon” and the heraldic badge of the Drakhaons of Azhkendir is a black winged serpent.

Another Russian folk-tradition that I drew on is that of the guslyar, the minstrel who is usually depicted playing the gusly (a plucked stringed instrument not unlike a zither) and singing praise songs at court. (In “The Snow Maiden” Rimsky-Korsakov uses piano and harp arpeggios to evoke the sound). In “The Tears if Artamon” the Clan Arkhel use guslyars who possess magical shamanic powers; they can raise the spirits of dead clan warriors to empower the living in battle. When Volkh Nagarian is a young boy, he witnesses the massacre of his mother and her household at the hands of these possessed Arkhel warriors and vows vengeance on them.

There are still echoes of a common folk tradition in the more “civilized” countries of Tielen and Muscobar; Prince Andrei’s first command, the pride of the Muscobar fleet, is named “Sirin” and her sister ship “Alkonost” after the two mythical creatures, half-woman, half-bird. And even the sophisticated courtiers of Tielen celebrate Dievona’s Day with a masked ball, fireworks and bonfire-leaping, a mid-year custom that was once a fertility ritual celebrating the pagan goddess of the hunt.

However, the question I’m asked most often is, where did the inspiration for the drakhaouls come from? Young Drakhaon Gavril Nagarian,  on the death of his father, is possessed (as every Nagarian heir before him) by the drakhaoul, who eventually reveals to Gavril his secret name, Khezef. Later, Gavril comes to learn through Khezef that the drakhaoul was brought into the mortal world centuries earlier by a cult of priests worshipping a Serpent God with blood sacrifices. The drakhaoul is an aethyrial spirit and cannot survive for long without flesh to clothe it and so it needs a mortal host. It gifts its host with extraordinary powers, the ability to shapeshift into a powerful dragon, but in return, the toll that it takes on its host’s body drives the host to seek out fresh human blood to replenish itself. Gavril, living in a rational age, finds it hard to believe, let alone understand, such a barbaric and horrific necessity. He determines that he must rid himself of the vampiric daemon or die in the attempt. But the relationship between host and daemon is complicated and Gavril finds it increasingly impossible to distinguish his own needs from those of his drakhaoul.

The name “drakhaoul” is my own invention and draws on a number of sources : the Greek word “drakon” meaning “serpent” from which our word “dragon” comes; “Dracul” the name given to the fifteenth century Prince Vlad Tepes “The Impaler” of Walachia which means “dragon” and came also to mean “the Devil” because of Vlad’s barbaric behaviour towards his enemies in war. (“Dracula” signifies “son of the dragon”).

There is also a suggestion of the word “ghoul” embedded in the name, reminiscent of the “ghuls” of Eastern legends, the desert spirits that prey upon the dead). The dragon/devil association occurs frequently in European mythology; Saint Michael defeating the dragon/Satan is the most commonly encountered representation of this eternal conflict between the forces of Light and Dark (the gilded statue on the slender spire of the Merveille at Mont Saint Michel is the most breathtaking interpretation I have seen). So, in creating the drakhaouls, it soon became obvious to me that they shared, as did Satan, the same heritage as the angels. The dragons encountered by Prince Vladimir’s knights in the byliny are often shapeshifters: Tugarin Zmeiovich, eventually defeated by the bogatyr Alyosha, the priest’s son, is described as a magician-dragon (Nederlander interprets Tugarin as symbolizing “the force of the Asiatic heathen gods originally worshipped by the Eastern Slavs.”)

The drakhaoul’s heritage, therefore is not only that of the Eastern European vampire, (like many dragons of legend, it requires its tribute of innocent blood) but that of the fallen angel. It was once a creature of light and Gavril comes to learn that the daemon that possesses him secretly yearns to return to that condition. The tortured, shifting relationship between man and dragon-daemon underpins “The Tears of Artamon” and it is played out in the blizzards of the remote mountainous country of Azhkendir where creatures from myth and nightmare still lurk and the borders between the worlds of the living and the dead are blurred.

Sarah Ash

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