“Masha and the Bear”
The first bear may be uncouth, but not necessarily unkind, despite appearances. He isn’t good at human languages and he lives alone in a cottage in the forest, but no one can say he doesn’t try. If he didn’t try, if the idea of trying, and thus of restraint, were alien to him, the first bear wouldn’t live in a cottage at all. He’d live in the deep forest and all anyone would see of him, before the end, would be hard eyes and the dark barrel of his muzzle. The third bear would be so much in him that no first bear would be left.
The first bear is a man’s man, or, rather, a bear’s bear: “golden brown, with enormous claws on his padded feet and sharp, pure-white fangs bigger than a person’s hands, and eyes a startling blue.” This bear smells like mint and blueberries, and his name is Bear.
One day, a girl named Masha gets lost in the woods. Bear finds her and takes her back to his cottage. He refuses to show her the way home, for his cottage is a mess and, as I may have mentioned, so is his speech. Masha can help him with both disasters, although she isn’t happy about the situation. She thinks Bear is the creature her parents warned her about when they told her not to go into the forest. But Bear is the first bear, not the third bear. In an odd way, Bear has saved her from the third bear.
Of course, Masha doesn’t see it that way—and why should she? It’s largely a matter of degree, and not just because she can’t imagine what worse might happen to her. Bear is gruff with Masha, makes her work long hours, and ignores her pleas to be shown the way back to her village. As far as Masha’s concerned, this is as bad as it gets.
This dynamic continues for awhile, with Masha afraid to run off blindly while Bear’s not looking. But then an odd thing begins to happen to Bear: the longer he talks to Masha and grows fond of her company, his reading and speaking improving every week, he begins to feel bad for her. He begins to understand how lost, alone, and cut off she feels—in part because he feels the same way. Still, Bear enjoys the captive audience so much he does not allow his concern for her well-being to override his need for companionship. He cannot bring himself to show Masha the way home, for surely that means he will lose her forever?
One day, Masha finds a huge bear-sized basket under a pile of Bear’s dirty clothes and she has an idea.
She bakes some pies and tells Bear, “You need to let me go back to my village. I want to take my parents some pies to eat. I promise I’ll come back. Just show me the way.”
Bear just laughs and says, “Naw. That not happening. Who would clean all day? This place is mess.”
Masha begins to cry and this is more than the Bear can, well, bear.
There’s no real reason for him to do as Masha requests except that he cares for her. She’s given him a way to help her without having to take the initiative, to be seen, somehow, as weak or vulnerable. Sometimes, that’s all any of us need.
“Okay,” Bear says. “I take pies to parents. But you stay here.”
Masha smiles through her tears and says, “I will, Bear. I will! But I’m going to climb that tall tree outside of your cottage to keep an eye on you. I don’t want you eating any of those pies along the way!”
Fine, says Bear, and when he lurches off for a few minutes to scratch his back against a pine tree, Masha hides herself in the picnic basket. Bear picks it up and off he goes, in his plodding, head-swaying bear way.
Every so often, Bear stops and, tempted, begins to open the picnic basket. Each time, Masha, supposedly seeing him from the top of a pine tree, shouts, “Remember, bear—those pies are for my parents! Don’t eat them!” Each time, Bear, caught, sighs and continues on without opening the basket.
Or, rather, that’s the traditional version. In the original version, too, Bear’s ability with human language is fine from the beginning of the story. And not much of anything is revealed about Bear’s internal reaction to Masha’s pie delivery request.
But I didn’t like the traditional version very much when I read it. I mean, I loved the description of Bear and the dynamic between Bear and Masha, but the picnic basket didn’t make any sense. How dumb does Bear have to be to not know that Masha is in the basket?
No, Bear had to be in the know for any of that to work. In real life, in my version, Bear knows very well that Masha is in the basket. He’s still a real bear, even if he’s been anthropomorphized a bit. He can smell that Masha’s in the basket. As for a bear’s hearing and Masha’s pathetic attempts to throw her voice, the less said the better—except that her attempts probably endear her to him all the more.
“I see you!” Masha says. “I see you from my tree! Don’t eat any of those pies!”
Bear grins a toothy grin. “Uh oh,” he says loudly. “Masha must see me from the tall tree. I guess not eat pie.”
In the original version, when Bear gets to the village, Masha’s parents mistake Bear for the third bear they’re always warning their daughter about and chase him away with a shotgun. Bear drops the basket and out jumps Masha, safe and found. Although the folktale doesn’t tell us any more about what happens to Bear, I guess he must go back to his messy cottage, sad and lonely and embittered. Maybe one day, lacklorn, he wanders into the deep forest, encounters the third bear, and that’s that.
I like Masha better than Bear in this folktale, even though I feel affection for the Bear. Folktales have an odd way of stylizing violence and horrible actions by stripping them of their three-dimensional detail. In a sense, they sometimes function like those cartoons where the mouse hits the cat with a hammer. If it happened in real-life you’d recoil in horror. Bear is perfectly cute in his role as shambling, inconsiderate ursine. Despite this, at base, Bear is a kidnapper who makes Masha into his work slave, no matter what his motivations. Although she’s not quite his wife, thank god, it is very nearly the stereotype of the unequal marriage or the unequal relationship in our culture.
But there are some other nuances too. Most men have played other aspects of the role of that bear at some time or another—the guy who doesn’t want to appear weak, who needs a civilizing influence, who, at heart, is actually somewhat vulnerable and just needs someone to care about for that to come to the fore.
Now, do you want to know what really happens to Bear? And what really happened at the end of the folktale?
In the true version that no one wants to talk about, Bear reaches the village at dusk, when he’s able to walk down the streets without fear of discovery.
Soon, he came to Masha’s parents’ house. He set the basket down and knocked on the door.
Slowly, Masha’s father opened the door and stared up at the great bear.
“Who are you?” Masha’s father asked. He didn’t sound frightened, probably because Masha’s mother was hidden behind the door holding a loaded shotgun.
“I’m Bear,” said Bear. “And I bring your daughter home, and pies. She’s in basket right there. All in return is you help me more with language.”
The parents accept Bear’s proposal, once they see their daughter is unharmed. Bear becomes civilized, regrets kidnapping Masha, and never returns to the forest. He even runs for mayor. Masha, meanwhile, grows up to become a smart, talented woman who forgives Bear and even becomes his friend—and definitely never gets lost in the forest again.
Bear never gets lost in the woods again, either. That third bear frightens him so much that sometimes his nightmares make it hard for him to breathe.
“The Farmer’s Cat”
The second bear isn’t any tidier than the first. It’s not that he’s messy—it’s that he carries his mess in his context. For many years, the second bear, whose name is Bear, doesn’t realize he’s a bear. He doesn’t even think he’s a cat. He thinks he’s a human being. So there’s the mess in his context, peeking out.
What am I talking about?
The second bear—Bear—inhabits a trickster tale involving a farmer and trolls. Every winter, the trolls smash down the door to the farmer’s house and make themselves at home for a month. They eat all of his food, drink all of the water from his well, guzzle down all of his milk, broke his furniture, and fart whenever they feel like it. Their leader, Mobhead, is a monstrous troll with an enormous head. It is so large that it has to be propped up with a head crutch.
The farmer has no choice but to let them trash his farm every year. Until one autumn, a traveling merchant comes by selling orphaned bear cubs. An idea forms in the farmer’s head.
The next year, when the trolls come barreling through, they find the new cat.
One of the other trolls—a deformed troll, with a third eye protruding like a tube from its forehead—prodded the ball of fur with one of its big clawed toes. “It’s a cat, I think. Just like the last one. Another juicy, lovely cat.”
A third troll said, “Save it for later. We’ve got plenty of time.”
The farmer, who had been watching all of this, said to the trolls, “Yes, this is our new cat. But I’d ask that you not eat him. I need him around to catch mice in the summer or when you come back next time, I won’t have any grain, and no grain means no beer.”
The misshapen troll sneered. “A pretty speech, farmer. But don’t worry about the mice. We’ll eat them all before we leave.”
But the farmer gets Mobhead to swear to leave the cat alone. And Mobhead agrees, smug and secure in the omniscience of his enormous skull.
Now, in the original version of this tale the leader of the trolls doesn’t have an enormous head—this is pure extrapolation on my part because I like the idea of head crutches—but the trolls are all such knuckleheads that the idea of them mistaking a bear cub for a kitten isn’t that outlandish. The idea of their leader acquiescing to the farmer’s request seemed slightly more outlandish. In my version of the tale, Mobhead grants the request, but says:
Hmmm. I must admit I’ve grown fond of you, farmer, in the way a wolf is fond of a lamb. And I do want our winter resort to be in good order next time we come charging down out of the frozen north. Therefore, although I have this nagging feeling I might regret this, I will let you keep the cat. But everything else we’re going to eat, drink, ruin, or fart on. I just want to make that clear.
Some characters in folktales just have a set role to play, regardless of logic or giant heads. A few of these characters, over time, develop a self-awareness about that role. However, that doesn’t mean they can ever escape it.
At this point in the folktale, I stopped reading for awhile and I started thinking about that ball of fur curled up in the basket, the second bear, known as Bear. Here is an orphan that has never known its mother. Here is a bear sold to be a cat. Does the farmer raise Bear as a cat? Does the farmer raise Bear as a bear and just present him to the trolls as a cat? Exactly what sense of identity does the Bear have at this point?
The farmer’s a sly character in the original folktale. The trolls are colorful and profane. But Bear is the interesting one because Bear has to perform multiple roles. The second bear is a kind of consummate actor—consummate because he doesn’t even know he’s an actor.
Because it’s pretty clear to me that, even if it’s never stated in the folktale, the farmer raises Bear as if he were a human being with a bit of the third bear in him.
So, what happens next?
Two years later, the trolls come by and the farmer’s “cat” is all grown up: “There rose a huge shadow with large yellow eyes and rippling muscles under a thick brown pelt. The claws on the shadow were big as carving knives, and the fangs almost as large.” Bear savages the trolls, just like a bear.
Suddenly they heard a growl that turned their blood to ice and set them to gibbering, and at their rear there came the sound of bones being crunched, and as they turned to look and see what was happening, they were met by the sight of some of their friends being hurled at them with great force.
Mobhead is furious with the farmer, but Bear is too much for the trolls. They won’t be coming back.
In the traditional version, that’s the end of the story: the farmer triumphant, the trolls vanquished. All is right in the world again. It is the classic trickster tale—one which often presupposes the stupidity of the opposition, unfortunately: a kind of brain-versus-brawn equation that allows for none of the clever complexity of, say, Roadrunner versus Coyote or Holmes versus Moriarty. And, again, we don’t find out what happens to Bear afterwards. These bears are always falling off the map.
But when I finished reading, I was still thinking about Bear and his role in the story. If you look at it from Bear’s perspective, what a screwed up childhood! He’s orphaned. He’s sold into the farmer’s family under false pretenses. The farmer makes him part of the busy yet stable farm life—“The farmer and his cat would take long walks through the fields, the farmer teaching the cat as much about the farm as possible. And he believed that the cat even appreciated some of it.”—but he also has to be a cold-blooded troll-killer when it comes right down to it.
The untold story within this folktale is about our place in the world. Where do we fit in? How much are we shaped by our environment, how much by our heritage? The farmer knows who he is, as do the trolls. They’re more boring for it, but I’m sure Bear would prefer to be boring than unsettled and confused, the reader’s boredom level rarely a concern of fictional characters. Bear is, in a sense, the classic teenager—neither fish nor fowl; capable of restraint and unbridled passion in almost the same instant.
So how does this folktale really end? How can it end, except with uncertainty?
Once inside, the farmer and the bear laughed.
“Thanks, Mob-Eater,” the farmer said. “You looked really fierce.”
The bear huffed a deep bear belly laugh, sitting back on its haunches in a huge comfy chair the farmer had made for him.
“I am really fierce, father,” the bear said. “But you should have let me chase them. I don’t like the taste of troll all that much, but, oh, I do love to chase them.”
“Maybe next year,” the farmer said. “Maybe next year. But for now, we have chores to do. I need to teach you to milk the cows, for one thing.”
“But I hate to milk the cows,” the bear said. “You know that.”
“Yes, but you still need to know how to do it, son.”
“Very well. If you say so.”
They waited for a few minutes until the trolls were out of sight, and then they went outside and started doing the farm chores for the day.
Soon, the farmer thought, his wife and children would come home, and everything would be as it was before. Except that now they had a huge talking bear living in their house.
Sometimes folktales didn’t end quite the way you thought they would. But they did end.
At least, this is the way I think the folktale should end. With Bear blithely unaware of the contradiction between third-bear bloodthirsty-ness and human boy frustration with chores. With the farmer realizing that the solution to one problem may have created another, altogether more deadly and personal problem.
Because, ultimately, the second bear is still a wild animal, not a human being at all.
“The Third Bear”
The third bear is problematic. It doesn’t think of itself as a bear. It doesn’t want to be in this essay. The third bear is always waiting to be written. He lives in the deepest of deep forest. He has no patience with human folktales. He lives rough and is all animal. No taint of human in this bear. He has no name, not even “Bear.” He does sometimes exist at the edges of other folktales that are not about him at all—spore-dropping in the dark part of the woods; the sense of menace that forms the backdrop to some more brightly lit tale. You can just see him in the dark recesses of the foliage in the paintings of Rousseau. This is the bear Masha’s parents warned her about. This is the bear that existed in the crunch of bone and spurt of blood when the second bear was slaughtering trolls.
But this is an essay about folktales, so let me put the third bear in that context.
Once upon a time…
One terrible stormy night…
There once was a…
Three bears once…
Once, there lived a creature that might have been a bear. This “bear” came to the forest near the village and soon anyone who used the forest trail, day or night, disappeared, carried off to the creature’s lair. By the time even large convoys went through the forest, they would discover two or three of their number missing. A straggling horseman, his mount cantering along, just bloodstains and bits of skin sticking to the saddle. A cobbler gone but for a blood-soaked hat.
The villagers were distraught. Without using the trail through the forest, they couldn’t bring in food from the farmers on the other side. Without that trail, they couldn’t bring their goods to market. They were stuck in a nightmare.
Slowly, they realized that they couldn’t wait for the third bear to devour them all. They had to strike back.
The village’s strongest man, Clem, a blacksmith, volunteered to fight the beast. He had arms like most people’s thighs. His skin was tough from years of being exposed to flame. With his full black beard he almost looked like a bear himself.
“I’ll go, and I’ll go willingly,” he told the village elders. “I’ve not met the beast I couldn’t best. I’ll squeeze the ‘a’ out of him.” And he laughed, for he had a passable sense of humor, although the village elders chose to ignore it.
Fitted in chain mail and leather armor, carrying an old sword some knight had once left by mistake in the village, Clem set forth in search of the third bear.
He left the path almost immediately, wandered through the underbrush to the heart of the forest, where the trees grew so black and thick that the only glimmer of light came reflected from water glistening on leaves. The smell in that place carried a hint of offal, so he figured he was close.
Clem had spent so much time beating things into shape that he had not developed a sense of fear, for he had never been beaten. But the smell in his nostrils did make him unease.
Clutching his sword, he came upon a hill and a cave inside. From within the cave, a green flame beckoned.
A lesser man might have turned back, but not Clem. He didn’t have the sense God gave a donkey. Into the cave he went.
Inside, he found the third bear. And behind the third bear, arranged around the walls of the cave, the heads of the third bear’s victims. The heads had been painstakingly painted and mounted on stands. They were all in various states of decay.
Many bodies lay stacked neatly in the back of the cave. Some of them had been mutilated. All of them had been defiled in some way. The wavery green light came from a candle the third bear had placed in the back of the cave, to display his handiwork. The smell was so horrible, Clem had to put a hand over his mouth. And as he took it all in, the methodical nature of it, the fact that the third bear had, in fact, not eaten hardly any of his victims, he found something inside of him tearing and then breaking.
“I…,” he said, and looked into the eyes of the third bear. “I….”
Clem stood there, frozen, as the third bear disemboweled him and tore his head from his shoulders.
The third bear had no use for heroes. Except, possibly, as part of a pattern of heads.
A month later. Clem’s head was found on the trail in the forest. Apparently, it hadn’t fit the pattern. By then, four or five more people had been killed, one on the outskirts of the village. The situation had become desperate. Several villagers had risked leaving, and some of them had even made it through. But fear kept most of them in the village, locked into a kind of desperate fatalism that made their eyes hollow as they stared into some unknowable distance.
Over time, the village sent four or five of its strongest and most clever men and women to fight the third bear.
One, before the end, said to the third bear, “I think you were misunderstood as a child.”
Another said, before fear clotted her windpipe, “You just need love.”
A third, even as he watched his intestines slide out of his body, said, “Surely there is something we can do to appease you?”
The third bear said nothing. He had no snappy comebacks. No pithy sayings. No wisdom. His conversation was through his work, and he said what he wanted to say very eloquently in that regard.
The villagers became ritualistic and primitive and listless. They feared the forest so much that they ate berries and branches at the outskirts of their homes and never hunted wild game. Their skin became ever more pale and they stopped washing themselves. They believed the words of madmen and adopted strange customs. They stopped wearing clothes. They would defecate in the street. At some point, they lost sight of reason entirely and sacrificed virgins to the third bear. They took to mutilating their bodies, thinking that this is what the third bear wanted them to do. Some few in whom reason persisted had to be held down and mutilated by others. A few, during the winter, cannibalized those who froze to death, and others who had not died almost wished they had.
By the time the third bear finished his pattern and moved on, the remaining villagers had all become no different than him.
And they all lived happily ever after.
There are always carious eyes peering out from the forest in a certain kind of folktale. Something hidden in the middle distance. Readers often think they are wolf eyes. But they are not the eyes of wolves. They are the eyes of the third bear. Peering from darkness into darkness.
The original folktales often served as literal warnings against wolves, bears, and other threats prevalent in a pre-industrial world. When the folktales became civilized, they developed more refined subtexts about human predators or dangerous situations. They began to impart advice, in a sense, that had to be extracted from that subtext. We’ve become quite adroit at infusing and extracting this subtext as writers and readers. We add postmodern twists to our folktales—updating them for what we feel the modern world needs from them. In the process, we ironically enough sometimes make them more distant and less visceral than they need to be to work for us in the modern world.
But the smell of the third bear gives him away. It’s the smell of piss and blood and shit and bubbles of saliva and of half-eaten food. It’s what we forget is always with us no matter now big our cities get, how advanced our civilization. To say the third bear is all bear is to miss the point. To say that the third bear needs no symbolism but is simply himself is also to miss the point.
Sometimes I think modern fairy tales should be horror tales, that to encompass all of the ferocity and animal intensity at the core of the past century’s excesses, we need a little bit of the third bear in everything we write.
But, at the very least, when we re-invent our folktales, we need to acknowledge the third bear, even if only by his absence.
Sometimes the author has no recourse. Sometimes, there is nothing I can do.