Manuscript vs Myth: The House with Chicken Legs
Updated: Jan 2, 2021
“My house has chicken legs. Two or three times a year without warning it stands up in the middle of the night and walks away from where we’ve been living.”
Published in 2018, Sophie Anderson’s 'The House with Chicken Legs' reached swift popularity. It was shortlisted for five different awards in 2019, including CILIP Carnegie Medal and the Blue Peter Book Awards. The children’s book tells the enchanting story of a young girl named Marinka, who lives with her grandmother and Jack, a jackdaw that she raised from a chick. The three of them live in the woods in their house which, as the title suggests, has chicken legs. If this is starting to sound familiar, it should – the book is an enchanting retelling of a figure from Slavic folklore, the dreaded Baba Yaga.
In Sophie Anderson’s retelling, you meet many Baba Yaga throughout the novel, the first of course, being Marinka’s grandmother. The Yaga’s job is to guide the spirits of the dead to the afterlife, through a door in each of their chicken-legged houses. Marinka herself is a Yaga in training, though as a child her only duties are to prepare food for the spirit’s last meal and fix the bone fence that marks the perimeter of the property.
It is hard to credit any version of ‘Baba Yaga’ as being the original version of the folktale. She appears in hundreds of tales across Russia, Ukraine and other Slavic countries. In some versions of the myth she is alone, in others one of three sisters. The Baba Yaga of these myths is often described as a hideous witch, with a giant nose, living alone in the woods and devouring children, her house surrounded by a fence made of human bone. She often travels with death, feasting on the souls that he collects, and is sometimes depicted as guarding the waters of life and death. Depending on the myth, she either hinders or helps the protagonist (often a child) – folklore hero, Ivan Tsarevich she attempts to eat, however in the tale of Vasilisa the Beautiful, she frees the heroine from her wicked stepfamily. Villain or aide, Baba Yaga is usually depicted as amoral. Even when helping, she does so in a wicked way. Vasilisa is freed of her family because they are incinerated by the lantern that Baba Yaga gave her.
You may not think that this sinister, child-eating witch has anything to do with the charming characters in 'The House with Chicken Legs' however Anderson manages to keep quite a few elements of the original Baba Yaga tales in her children’s novel – even the bone fence remains. While the idea of a bone fence is terrifying, Anderson manages to make it bittersweet. Marinka’s job is to fix the fence, it is made of the same bones that it has had for years and so was once fixed by Marinka’s mother and father as children. Instead of revulsion at the use of human bones, the fence instead becomes a connection between Marinka and her deceased parents.
Another obvious connection between the Baba Yaga of myth and Anderson’s version is Baba Yaga as the ‘Guardian of the waters between life and death’. In the book, Baba’s house holds a gateway to the afterlife, and her main duty is guiding the souls of the dead through this gateway. When Marinka travels through this gateway she encounters a beautiful sky and a dark ocean. The dead – who are light – float up to become stars, while the heavy living sink down to the ocean and must battle the waves.
One key difference between the two, however, is the morality of Baba Yaga. Unlike the sometimes malicious, sometimes neutral figure of Slavic mythology, Marinka’s grandmother clearly loves Marinka. The Baba Yaga of Anderson’s story is a warm, practical, and dedicated woman who never gives the reader cause to doubt that she cares deeply about her granddaughter.
'The House with Chicken Legs' is not the only novel to take a well-known myth or fantastical creature and turn them from villain to protagonist. The Dark Romance trend takes terrifying creatures – commonly vampires or werewolves – and turn them from blood thirsty beast into dreamy love interest. Dark Romance is far from the only genre in which this takes place. Angela Carter’s feminist anthology 'Bloody Chamber' reinvents a series of fairy tales with strong female protagonists, while Terry Pratchett’s 'I Shall Wear Midnight' replaces the typical wicked witch with a wicked witch hunter. There is a growing trend in novels, offering a sympathetic voice to the stereotypical villains from folklore. Perhaps because in modern times the stereotypes that pervaded these old folktales – the wicked old woman, or the beautiful but useless maiden are so often seen as harmful today.
Anderson may have changed the myth in order to create a more friendly and loving Baba Yaga but enough elements of the original myth remain that the story becomes at once familiar and new. While the Baba of Anderson’s story is unlikely to eat children or incinerate families, she still has many of the traits that the reader will remember from the original folktales. She has the bone fence, the connection to the dead and, of course, the house with chicken legs.