There are hundreds of fantasy books, movies, and TV shows, but have you ever thought about fantasy in classic literature? There are many books that do not primarily belong to the fantasy genre but are so full of fantasy elements that they definitely have their place there too – a place on the borderline, but still. A long time ago, I was told that Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov was a love novel. Although this is partially true, the statement is ridiculously simplified! The book is so much more; Master and Margarita is a multi-genre masterpiece, a complex satirical novel with elements of dark comedy and full of supernatural characters. Certain characters in Master and Margarita do have a strong fantasy vibe and that’s what I will focus on in this article.
Master and Margarita’s survival: Manuscripts don’t burn
Mikhail Bulgakov (1891 – 1940) was a Soviet writer born in Kyiv. He came to Moscow in 1921, and that’s where he wrote his most famous work – Master and Margarita. The atmosphere of Soviet Moscow is what he wanted to describe, and he did it in a quite unique way – Satan himself, with his entourage, visits the capital of the Soviet Union, and we see the city and its people through their reactions in contact with these strange visitors.
It was not the first time Bulgakov showed the downsides of Soviet reality, so no wonder that many of his works were banned. Therefore, Bulgakov knew he couldn’t publish the book, so he burned the first manuscript. But as Bulgakov’s Satan once said “The manuscripts don’t burn”. The idea remained and grew even stronger, so Mikhail started to write the novel again and he worked on it for the rest of his life, literally. Master and Margarita’s book survival wasn’t easy and it was published long after his death.
Postal stamp from 1991 in honor of Michail Bulkgov’s 100th birthday
Satan as a philosopher with a sense of justice
The plot of Master and Margarita is made of two stories. We simultaneously follow Satan and his retinue who visit one capital every year and make a Spring Ball of the Full Moon there, and Pontius Pilate who meets Jesus on trial.
Satan visits Moscow disguised as mysterious professor Woland, a professor of black magic. Master and Margarita is not the first, and certainly not the last book where Satan is one of the characters, but Professor Woland is not a stereotypical devil.
When we say “devil,” most people think of the evil, seductive manipulator that we should be afraid of. However, there is no need to be afraid of Woland (or his entourage). In Master and Margarita, he is just an observer. One might argue that whoever met Satan, except Master and Margarita, found themselves in, let’s say, an unpleasant situation. True that. However, I would say that these events had nothing to do with Satan. Those people’s greed, vanity, and gullibility are what put them in those situations.
Spectators in the Variety theater didn’t end up with worthless papers and underwear because of the professor of black magic, but because their greed made them blind to everything else but money and expensive stuff. They came for an entertainment show, so the beginning was boring, confusing, and disappointing for them – Woland just watched the audience and barely said anything. Not a single person tried to find any sense in Woland’s observation, they started to enjoy the show when Behemoth and Korovyev showed them some tricks, and got crazy when they threw the money in the audience and Hella “opened” the shop with expensive clothes offering it for free. It was too late to think when everything they grabbed disappeared
Woland and his retinue’s performance of black magic at Variety Theatre
Likhodeyev, the man who lives in a great apartment and enjoys a bunch of privileges didn’t deserve any of that with hard (or smart) work, but because he’s a self-serving hypocrite who denounced a few innocent people as spies. He was rewarded for lying and sending innocent people to jail. Was he kicked out of the apartment and ended up at Yalta, lost and confused? Did the Devil do that? Yes, but the apartment didn’t belong to him anyway.
People who met some of Woland’s companions and regretted it are also greedy and obedient hypocrites.
So, where’s the devil’s fault? I don’t see it. He didn’t corrupt these people; their moral compasses were already broken. Those whose souls were not corrupted could go as far as to make a deal with the devil and stay clean. Those who realized what they were doing wrong are forgiven.
Nothing bad happened to Master or Margarita. Ivan Bezdomny was in serious trouble, however, but in the end that made him a better person. He ended up in a lunatic asylum trying to understand that he was just chasing the devil who killed his friend, talking about a huge black cat that travels in a tram, and lots of things that sound ridiculous. He was losing his mind, but understanding important things and deciding to stop writing tendentious poetry is what saved him.
Meet more characters in Master and Margarita: Satan’s retinue
We get to meet more characters in Master and Margarita as Professor Woland is accompanied by the funny-dressed and talkative Koroviev, chatty black cat Behemoth, creepy Azazello, and the vampire Hella. Koroviev and Behemoth are the ones who bring the spirit of dark comedy into the plot. Nothing is funny in demonic temptation, yet we laugh while these two do that.
Needless to say why Bulgakov has chosen the black cat as one of the demonic companions of the devil. In most cultures, the black cat is related to supernatural and demonic power. Are you afraid when you see a black cat crossing your path? Don’t be.
Behemoth’s name refers to the mythical chaos beast. That’s clever because he does make some chaos wherever he shows up.
Personally, I would love to have a chat with him. I would enjoy his sarcasm. Besides, he’s the only cat among the characters in Master and Margarita. I love cats, so how can I resist the cat who talks, plays chess (and cheats while playing), drinks vodka and eats with a fork, fires with a gun, and whatnot?
Korovyev looks like some weird but totally harmless man who just talks too much. Nothing demonic is in the way he looks. But he can make people see what’s not there, and at the end, we see that he actually looks very serious in his true form – a dark knight with a serious face.
Azazello is something close to a bodyguard, and his name is as ominous as Behemoth’s. It refers to the fallen angel mentioned in the Book of Enoch as the creature who taught people how to make weapons and jewelry. He talks much less than Behemoth and Korovyev. He’s more violent and doesn’t look so friendly but rather threatening.
Hella is a beautiful redhead woman. And a vampire. Varenukha, the house manager of the Variety, knows that. She turned him into one. If you ask if I think that he too deserved it, like others who suffered unpleasant consequences of meeting someone from this company, I say yes. Why else would his name refer to alcoholic fruit punch If he was a decent person? Nearly all characters in Master and Margarita, human or supernatural, have symbolic names, I don’t think this one is an exception. But he also deserved to be forgiven and saved; they restored his humanity.
See, none of these characters are typical demons. We see more mockery of people’s desires that comes from greed, vanity, credulity, and radical rationalism than violence.
Behemoth, Azazaello, and Korovyev playing cards
Witchcraft as a part of characters in Master and Margarita
There is a part of the book where Margarita becomes a witch, flies naked on a broom, and comes among mythological creatures who perform spring rituals and greet her as the queen. In that part, we take a break from mostly biblical characters and the urban environment to step into the world of nature and folklore.
Woland needed a hostess for the Spring Ball, and her name had to be Margarita. The Master’s Margarita has been chosen, and Azazello comes to her with an offer. Margarita realizes what’s happening, she knows that she’s dealing with something demonic, but she so strongly wants to save her Master that she willingly accepts the offer.
By using the cream that Azazello had given her, she becomes invisible and able to fly. She flies over Moscow, laughing and feeling free. She’s one of the characters in Master and Margarita that’s devoted to freedom, life without it destroys her, and she can’t live with the social role the society forces her to play, so this transformation sets free her true self. No wonder she took the risk for freedom and love. That’s the difference between her and others who meet Woland. What would they ask him for, hm? Money, comfort. What does she ask for? Nothing! She was promised the reward, but she did not want to ask, and when Woland ASKS HER to DEMAND anything she wants, despite her desperate desire for freedom for her and the Master, she asks for mercy for one of the guests from the ball – the woman named Frida who’s tortured in hell for killing her child. She gives Frida hope so she could not forget about it and think about her own desires. See the difference?
Sabbath on the Lake
Witchcraft is something that we see often in fantasy books, but Bulgakov made some difference here. Witches are usually related to something evil or at least mysterious. Here, some stereotypes about witches are neglected, and witchcraft is also used for satirical purposes.
Witches usually serve Satan, but Margarita doesn’t play that role. She’s the Queen of the Ball, and Satan highly respects her.
Natasha, Margarita’s maid, is the witch who brings humor and satire into the plot. She uses the cream after Margarita has gone, and they meet in the sky. But unlike Margarita, who uses a good traditional broom for flying, Natasha flies on a pig! The girl was sick of her neighbor’s courting, so she turned boring Nikolay Ivanovich, who is much older than her, married, and fat, into a boar. It’s a very comical scene because the boar wears glasses and a bag while flying and keeps repeating that he’s protesting.
After the flight, Margarita enters a new world. It looks like she stepped into some old Slavic story about fairies and other mythological creatures. She meets other witches, a goat-legged man, and mermaids. In all mythologies, spring is the time when new life is celebrated through interesting rituals (many rituals survived and still exist in Christian customs, some of them just changed the form a little bit, but they are alive). This is the part when we see the rituals and beliefs from the distant past.
A short fantasy story within Master and Margarita: Satan’s Ball
We are leaving the world of nature and folklore when the car driven by the huge bird comes for Margarita. She is brought to see Woland and then Korovyev, Hella, and Behemoth prepare queen Margo for the ball.
This part of the book – preparation for the ball, the ball, and the conversation after that – is like a whole short fantasy story within the novel. Of course that the guests are dead people, and this is the only night for them to enjoy, after that, they go back to hell. While they are approaching Margarita to kiss her hand and her knee, Korovyev and Behemoth talk about these strange guests, their lives, and their sins.
When Woland shows up, he looks different, he’s not in an elegant suit anymore because he’s not professor Woland on this occasion – he is the devil, Satan himself, who drinks blood from the skull. Powerful and symbolic scene – the blood is from the spy who was killed at the ball, and the skull is the remain of Misha Berlioz who met Woland at the beginning of the novel and argued with him about the devil’s existence.
Satan’s Spring Ball
Why should fantasy fans read Master and Margarita?
Master and Margarita might not be the right book for people who love to read only regular fantasy classics like the Sword of Truth series, but I believe that there are more who chase fantasy everywhere, even in classic literature.
This book has everything. Want some entertainment? It’s all over the book. Who would dare to say that it’s not funny when Nikolay Ivanovich, former boar, asks for written confirmation of what happened because the police may ask where he was all night, so he needs proof? Hella writes on a typewriter that he was at Satan’s ball, and Behemoth uses his paw as the stamp.
Violence? You can find that too. Not too much, but Behemoth does take a man’s head off. Philosophy? It’s everywhere, and the best thing is that everyone can understand it. Everything is said through dynamic easy-reading dialogs, most of them with fantasy characters as participants. There’s also some history, religion, psychology, love, whatever you want!
For those who like a little bit of everything in one book, this may be one of their favorites.
In case you are not a book fan, worry not – there is a great adaptation of Master and Margarita that I highly recommend to everyone. It is one of the best book adaptations I’ve ever seen and you can find all 10 episodes with English subtitles on YouTube.