Once Upon A Time in the East

Gamayun Tales 1 – An Anthology of Modern Russian Folk Tales by Alexander Utkin. Published by NoBrow Press.

“In the Murom district Kostroma was represented by a straw figure dressed in woman’s clothes and flowers. This was laid in a trough and carried with songs to the bank of a lake or river. Here the crowd divided into two sides, of which the one attacked and the other defended the figure. At last the assailants gained the day, stripped the figure of its dress and ornaments, tore it in pieces, trod the straw of which it was made under foot, and flung it into the stream while the defenders of the figure hid their faces in their hands and pretended to bewail the death of Kostroma.”

James George Frazer, The Golden Bough

When I was young, probably around 5 or 6, I read a book from the local library. The book, I think, told tales of the Slavic mythical character Baba Yaga and one panel haunted me. It depicted children held captive in bird cages suspended from the witches ceiling. I think about that scene to this day. There is a power in myth that calls to an instinctive part of our psyche.

There is a theory – a  well-founded one – that there are only a limited number of stories in the world. Certain tales can be traced through the mythologies of cultures all around the world. Tales of death and rebirth – of Orpheus fetching Eurydice from the underworld or the Gaelic equivalent take on the story The Ballad of King Orfeo which sees a human musician enter a fairy mound to rescue his wife from the fairy otherworld. 

Another example would be Biblical tales of crucifixion and resurrection and the Norse story of Balder killed by mistletoe. We build our belief systems around the death brought by winter and the rebirth of spring. In essence we still pray for the crops to grow, for the babies to be born, for fertility.

Gamayun Tales by Alexander Utkin
The King of Birds

Greetings, best beloved. My name is Gamayun. I am a magical human-faced bird from Slavic mythology. I can predict the future and I know the past. Believe it or not, I know everything. 

The host for our tales is the Gamayun, a prophetic bird of the same heritage as the sirens of Greek mythos. The Gamayun knows everything so is in a good position to give the reader the downlow on exactly what is going on. They promise “tales of courage, love and wisdom” and they certainly deliver.

The tales kick off with the story of an apple being illicitly eaten, an event which may ring a few church bells, causing no end of trouble – war, slaughter and disaster. We follow the epic tale as it spirals outwards. The book is split into three related stories – The King of Birds, The Water Spirit and Tyna of the Lake. The narrative ties together wonderfully and I certainly found myself rushing on to the next tale to see how things would develop – which is not something you can say for most mythological tales.

The characters of the merchant’s son and his magical partner Tyna are sympathetic and often quite funny. You will likely enjoy the Nirvana references and the battles with the likes of the Crab Squadron and Lobsterrific. The house-spirit Fyodor is also a marvellous character and probably the best parent in the book (admittedly there is not much competition there.) Characterisation can be a challenge for mythological characters, especially of the god-like variety. They should be relatable but not too down to earth. The eagle god The King of Birds is suitably awesome and the water spirit Vodyanoy is scary and powerful but with hints of a softer side.

Gamayun Tales by Alexander Utkin
Vodyanoy the Water Spirit

Visually Gamayun Tales is lush, bright and otherworldly. Ferocious battles explode in red, gold and yellow tones. The realm of the water spirit brings us murky greens and browns with flashes of brightness like sunlight piercing the depths. Alexander Utkin manages to convey both the everyday and the mystical in his art style – snow falls silently on Siberian forests where magical golden palaces burst forth. Gods and mythical creatures are suitably strange. Human protagonists seem soft and vulnerable – staying alive with their wits in a perilous world.

The art and especially the wonderful colours are perfectly delivered by the physical book which is up to the usual high production standards of NoBrow. It is a joy to read.

Gamayun Tales has the trippy, weirdness of watching Czechoslovak animation on BBC 2 on a wet Tuesday afternoon in 1975. The tales are familiar but the depiction is uncanny and kaleidoscopic. I hope future generations will stumble across this book and be haunted. As I was by Baba Yaga and her captives swinging from the ceiling in cages.

Gamayun Tales is published by NoBrow Press and you can order a copy from their website, or your friendly neighbourhood bookshop.

Alexander Utkin is on Behance and Instagram

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