Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 807
The Firebird is a tale told in the traditional quest pattern, in which the hero is called by destiny into a series of adventures. In Ilya's case the call comes first by accident, through the Firebird's curse, and later the whim of an unruly horse. He goes into an enchanted forest, where he sees wondrous sights and overcomes a series of tests. Finally he comes to a Castle Perilous where he faces his greatest task, the need to uncover a dark secret and to undo evil. The novel's major theme is thus the universal one of good versus evil.
The evil in this story is not a dark force which is simply horrific by definition, as in many horror novels. Rather, its essence is connected to the desire for power. Both Tsar Ivan and the Katschei are obsessed with power and control, and it has made them oblivious to other issues and joys in human life.
As Ilya studies the Katschei, he realizes that the only pleasure their captor gets from the twelve beautiful maidens comes in humiliating them. He could have forced them to his bed if he had wanted to, but he did not; he could have had them willingly if he had been kind rather than cruel. This truth which seems so obvious to Ilya is lost to the Katschei; lust for power has driven away his erotic impulses.
Along with the obsession of power comes the drive to perfect it, and the Katschei has done this very well. He has made the castle and his treasures, including his out-of-body heart, so well protected that he feels invulnerable. His tools are what might be called magico-mechanical. Like their creator, they have no real heart, only intricately designed mechanisms.
Because this is a fantasy novel, the methods Ilya could have used against this monster are manifold. Skill with conventional weapons, surprise, trickery, perseverance, by-the-numbers spells similar to the Katschei's, or any of several other varieties of magic—all are theoretically available to him. As it turns out, in the long course of his campaign he draws on most of these. But it is no accident that when he finally recovers and shatters the villain's black heart, it is with the aid of the Firebird, and of a small fox who has become his friend. Their natural magic works against the Katschei's cold spells, and possibly weaves some wariness about technology into the theme.
More surely, it makes Ilya's victory a triumph of spiritual over purely material power—a victory foreshadowed at several points earlier in the book. In one view, of course, this message is hopelessly idealistic and unrealistic (one recalls Stalin's sneering question, "How many divisions does the Pope have?"). But in an era which has seen events like Czechoslovakia's Velvet Revolution, the theme is plausible as well as heartwarming.
Two subsidiary themes are also visible in the novel's events. The first is about planning and the need to control one's own destiny. Some planning and foresight is essential, a lesson Ilya learns from Pietor's successful escape. Pietor, however, did not realize that things often are not what they seem to be. Thus he was turned into a statue guarding the Katschei's castle. Ilya almost makes a similar mistake when he meets the snow-maiden in the forest. One does his best to make adequate plans, but it is not possible to totally control events. A wise person does not even try. This is a point Lackey has made even more strongly in other novels, such as Sacred Ground (1994; see separate entry).
The other theme is the importance of friendship. Here, the author's treatment is a bit nonstandard. Ilya's brothers would normally be his built-in friends, but (except for some light chatter with Sasha about girls) they are not. His only true friends in his father's household are Ruslan, Father Mikail, and Mother Galina, the dairy supervisor. All three are much older and wiser, and they often serve Ilya as surrogate parents or mentors. Nevertheless, their friendships keep him sane and relatively cheerful. A similar role is played by Yasha, an old hunter whom Ilya meets in the forest. He offers the boy shelter and advice, because of his past friendship with Ilya's grandfather Vasily.
Most fantasy heroes have a friend or sidekick with them on their perilous journey. Ilya does not, except at rare moments when the magical Firebird appears. Even the talking horse who led him into the forest soon dies. When he reaches the castle precincts he makes friends with the red fox vixen. Later, he befriends Sergei, one of the Katschei's lesser monsters, who resembles a sentient rabbit. All these friends keep his loneliness at bay and help him in his tasks. The fact that none are vigorous young men, Ilya's supposed peers, shows that friendship can exist across social boundaries.
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