by Claire Baldwin
Special to The Frontiersman

Steppe fairies whisking along with the wind, firebirds sailing down from the sky and light elves riding across rainbows all seem part of common history to Anne Nolting, who wrote about them in her new book, Rysaland.

However, she handles them with care and an ear for Russian oral history that would almost lead a reader to believe she was of Russian ancestry herself, and her characters were from stories she heard as a child, not the numerous hours of research that actually went into the book.

Nolting frames her novel around two women: Princess Ragnilda of the Slavs and Princess Anna of the Byzantines. Both are wives of Prince Vladimir, a 10th century Russian ruler. Rysaland, the title of the book, is the name of the area around Kiev where Vladimir lives.  It is to Rysaland that he eventually brings both Ragnilda and Anna.

In her novel, Nolting attempts to, as Anna puts it, “understand the things of his (Vladimir’s) mind.”  Amazing things they must have been.  Nolting explores interactions between Vladimir’s wives, the 10th century politics of Constantinople, and also the larger themes of religion, and belief—played out by Father Anastas’ baptism of Vladimir and the Russian Varangians and dogmatic pursuit of the Third Rome, honor and loyalty, shown both by Anna’s marriage to Vladimir and Vladimir’s bogyatyri (valiant knights).

Nolting also tries to define the role of place and tradition. She does this mainly through story-telling, or rhapsody, as the old Slavic tradition is called. Nolting begins each chapter with a piece of a legend or a song.  The excerpt is placed in italics and sets the place and mood for the upcoming chapter.  One of the most noticeable things about these excerpts is their rhythm.

It is easy to imagine some of their characters—the steppe fairies and dragons—actually existing thanks to Nolting’s style. Nolting’s portrayal of the stories—the Slavic “Sonya and the Dragon,” “Baba Yaga,” the firebird legend, the Norse creation story “Ginnungagap—continues beyond beginning excerpts.

She often has her characters take on the role of storyteller, or rhapsodist. She includes pieces of the stories in dialogue between the characters and as parts of the story itself. Yet Nolting is judicious and the novel reads like a story, not merely a collection of folk tales or a history text. But that is not to say Nolting’s facts are inaccurate. Nolting provides an extensive bibliography, historical background, notes on the songs and legends she used, a chronology of the Slavic and Byzantine rulers, and a time line of the events she wrote about. Even though Rysaland is a work of historical fiction, many of the events and situations she portrayed were real.

Nolting increases this sense of truth by making use of Greek and Slavic words throughout the novel.  At the beginning of the novel she provides both a Greek and early Slavic/Russian dictionary to aid the reader throughout the text. Although a reader can understand most of the Greek and Slavic words from the context in which they are used in “Rysaland”, it is very helpful to readers to have an exact translation. The only times Nolting’s use of Slavic and Russian becomes difficult to understand are toward the end of the book, in a few select passages.

When Greek-speaking Princess Anna is learning Slavic, translations between the two languages are frequent and a reader is hard-pressed to remember the words’ English counterparts. Most will have to flip back and forth to the dictionary.

The other time the dictionary comes in helpful is during a conversation between Wolf Tail and Father Anastas, near the end, that is written almost entirely in Slavic. If the reader does not remember all of the words and their meanings, he or she must again flip back and forth between the words and the dictionary to understand the language.

Overall, Nolting’s book is very interesting. Her broad knowledge of Russian fairy tales and creation stories, and the Byzantine baptism of Russia during the 10th century, provide an interesting framework to think about the different roles that tradition, storytelling or rhapsody, and religion, should play.

Copyright (c) 2000 The Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman
Displayed with permission of The Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman