Russian Fairy Tales | Annotated Tale

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Princess Helena the Fair

The supernatural steed which Katoma tamed belongs to an equine race which often figures in the Skazkas. A good account of one of these horses is given in the following story of--


                 We say that we are wise folks, but our old people dispute the fact, saying: "No, no, we were wiser than you are." But skazkas tell that, before our grandfathers had learnt anything, before their grandfathers [2] were born-- [3]

THERE lived in a certain land an old man of this kind who instructed his three sons in reading and writing [4] and all book learning. Then said he to them:

                 "Now, my children! When I die, mind you come and read prayers over my grave."

                 "Very good, father, very good," they replied.

                 The two elder brothers were such fine strapping fellows! so tall and stout! But as for the youngest one, Ivan, he was like a half-grown lad or a half-fledged duckling, terribly inferior to the others. Well, their old father died. At that very time there came tidings from the King, that his daughter, the Princess Helena the Fair, had ordered a shrine to be built for her with twelve columns, with twelve rows of beams. In that shrine she was sitting upon a high throne, and awaiting her bridegroom, the bold youth who, with a single bound of his swift steed, should reach high enough to kiss her on the lips. A stir ran through the whole youth of the nation. They took to licking their lips, and scratching their heads, and wondering to whose share so great an honor would fall.

                 "Brothers!" said Vanyusha, [5] "our father is dead; which of us is to read prayers over his grave?"

                 "Whoever feels inclined, let him go!" answered the brothers.

                 So Vanya went. But as for his elder brothers they did nothing but exercise their horses, and curl their hair, and dye their mustaches.

                 The second night came.

                 "Brothers!" said Vanya, "I've done my share of reading. It's your turn now; which of you will go?"

                 "Whoever likes can go and read. We've business to look after; don't you meddle."

                 And they cocked their caps, and shouted, and whooped, and flew this way, and shot that way, and roved about the open country.

                 So Vanyusha read prayers this time also--and on the third night, too.

                 Well, his brothers got ready their horses, combed out their mustaches, and prepared to go next morning to test their mettle before the eyes of Helena the Fair.

                 "Shall we take the youngster?" they thought. "No, no. What would be the good of him? He'd make folks laugh and put us to confusion; let's go by ourselves."

                 So away they went. But Vanyusha wanted very much to have a look at the Princess Helena the Fair. He cried, cried bitterly; and went out to his father's grave. And his father heard him in his coffin, and came out to him, shook the damp earth off his body, and said:

                 "Don't grieve, Vanya. I'll help you in your trouble."

                 And immediately the old man drew himself up and straightened himself, and called aloud and whistled with a ringing voice, with a shrill [6] whistle.

                 From goodness knows whence appeared a horse, the earth quaking beneath it, a flame rushing from its ears and nostrils. To and fro it flew, and then stood still before the old man, as if rooted in the ground, and cried,

                 "What are thy commands?"

                 Vanya crept into one of the horse's ears and out of the other, and turned into such a hero as no skazka can tell of, no pen describe! He mounted the horse, set his arms akimbo, and flew, just like a falcon, straight to the home of the Princess Helena. With a wave of his hand, with a bound aloft, he only failed by the breadth of two rows of beams. Back again he turned, galloped up, leapt aloft, and got within one beam-row's breadth. Once more he turned, once more he wheeled, then shot past the eye like a streak of fire, took an accurate aim, and kissed [7] the fair Helena right on the lips!

                 "Who is he? Who is he? Stop him! Stop him!" was the cry. Not a trace of him was to be found!

                 Away he galloped to his father's grave, let the horse go free, prostrated himself on the earth, and besought his father's counsel. And the old man held counsel with him.

                 When he got home he behaved as if he hadn't been anywhere. His brothers talked away, describing where they had been, what they had seen, and he listened to them as of old.

                 The next day there was a gathering again. In the princely halls there were more boyars and nobles than a single glance could take in. The elder brothers rode there. Their younger brother went there too, but on foot, meekly and modestly, just as if he hadn't kissed the Princess, and seated himself in a distant corner. The Princess Helena asked for her bridegroom, wanted to show him to the world at large, wanted to give him half her kingdom; but the bridegroom did not put in an appearance! Search was made for him among the boyars, among the generals; everyone was examined in his turn--but with no result! Meanwhile, Vanya looked on, smiling and chuckling, and waiting till the bride should come to him herself.

                 "I pleased her then," says he, "when I appeared as a gay gallant; now let her fall in love with me in my plain caftan."

                 Then up she rose, looked around with bright eyes that shed a radiance on all who stood there, and saw and knew her bridegroom, and made him take his seat by her side, and speedily was wedded to him. And he--good heavens! how clever he turned out, and how brave, and what a handsome fellow! Only see him mount his flying steed, give his cap a cock, and stick his elbows akimbo! why, you'd say he was a king, a born king! you'd never suspect he once was only Vanyusha.

               The incident of the midnight watch by a father's grave, kept by a son to whom the dead man appears and gives a magic horse, often occurs in the Skazkas. It is thoroughly in accordance with Slavonic ideas about the residence of the dead in their tombs, and their ability to assist their descendants in time of trouble. Appeals for aid to a dead parent are of frequent occurrence in the songs still sung by the Russian peasantry at funerals or over graves; especially in those in which orphans express their grief, calling upon the grave to open, and the dead to appear and listen and help. [8] So in the Indian story of Punchkin, the seven hungry stepmother-persecuted princesses go out every day and sit by their dead mother's tomb, and cry, and say, "Oh, mother, mother, cannot you see your poor children, how unhappy we are," etc., until a tree grows up out of the grave laden with fruits for their relief. [9] So in the German tale, [10] Cinderella is aided by the white bird, which dwells in the hazel tree growing out of her mother's grave.

               In one of the Skazkas [11] a stepdaughter is assisted by her cow. The girl, following its instructions, gets in at one ear and out of the other, and finds all her tasks performed, all her difficulties removed. When it is killed, there springs from its bones a tree which befriends the girl, and gains her a lordly husband. In a Servian variant of the story, it is distinctly stated that the protecting cow had been the girl's mother--manifestly in a previous state of existence, a purely Buddhistic idea. [12]

               In several of the Skazkas we find an account of a princess who is won in a similar manner to that described in the story of Helena the Fair. In one case, [13] a king promises to give his daughter to anyone "who can pluck her portrait from the house, from the other side of ever so many beams." The youngest brother, Ivan the Simpleton, carries away the portrait and its cover at the third trial. In another, a king offers his daughter and half his kingdom to him "who can kiss the princess through twelve sheets of glass." [14] The usual youngest brother is carried towards her so forcibly by his magic steed that, at the first trial, he breaks through six of the sheets of glass; at the second, says the story, "he smashed all twelve of the sheets of glass, and he kissed the Princess Priceless-Beauty, and she immediately stamped a mark upon his forehead." By this mark, after he has disappeared for some time, he is eventually recognized, and the princess is obliged to marry him. [15] In a third story, [16] the conditions of winning the princely bride are easier, for "he who takes a leap on horseback, and kisses the king's daughter on the balcony, to him will they give her to wife." In a fourth, the princess is to marry the man "who, on horseback, bounds up to her on the third floor." At the first trial, the Durak, or Fool, reaches the first floor, at the next, the second; and the third time, "he bounds right up to the princess, and carries off from her a ring." [17]

               In the Norse story of "Dapplegrim," [18] a younger brother saves a princess who had been stolen by a Troll, and hidden in a cave above a steep wall of rock as smooth as glass. Twice his magic horse tries in vain to surmount it, but the third time it succeeds, and the youth carries off the princess, who ultimately becomes his wife. Another Norse story still more closely resembles the Russian tales. In "The Princess on the Glass Hill" [19] the hero gains a Princess as his wife by riding up a hill of glass, on the top of which she sits with three golden apples in her lap, and by carrying off these precious fruits. He is enabled to perform this feat by a magic horse, which he obtains by watching his father's crops on three successive St. John's Nights.

               In a Celtic story, [20] a king promises his daughter, and two-thirds of his kingdom, to anyone who can get her out of a turret which "was aloft, on the top of four carraghan towers." The hero Conall kicks "one of the posts that was keeping the turret aloft," the post breaks, and the turret falls, but Conall catches it in his hands before it reaches the ground, a door opens, and out comes the Princess Sunbeam, and throws her arms about Conall's neck.

               In most of these stories the wife-gaining leap is so vaguely described that it is allowable to suppose that the original idea has been greatly obscured in the course of travel. In some Eastern stories it is set in a much plainer light; in one modern collection for instance, [21] it occurs four times. A princess is so fond of her marble bath, which is "like a little sea," with high spiked walls all around it, that she vows she will marry no one who cannot jump across it on horseback. Another princess determines to marry him only who can leap into the glass palace in which she dwells, surrounded by a wide river; and many kings and princes perish miserably in attempting to perform the feat. A third king's daughter lives in a garden "hedged round with seven hedges made of bayonets," by which her suitors are generally transfixed. A fourth "has vowed to marry no man who cannot jump on foot over the seven hedges made of spears, and across the seven great ditches that surround her house;" and "hundreds of thousands of Rajahs have tried to do it, and died in the attempt."

               The secluded princess of these stories may have been primarily akin to the heroine of the "Sleeping Beauty" tales, but no special significance appears now to be attributable to her isolation. The original idea seems to have been best preserved in the two legends of the wooing of Brynhild by Sigurd, in the first of which he awakens her from her magic sleep, while in the second he gains her hand (for Gunnar) by a daring and difficult ride--for "him only would she have who should ride through the flaming fire that was drawn about her hall." Gunnar fails to do so, but Sigurd succeeds; his horse leaps into the fire, "and a mighty roar arose as the fire burned ever madder, and the earth trembled, and the flames went up even unto the heavens, nor had any dared to ride as he rode, even as it were through the deep murk." [22]



[1] Afanasief, vi. No. 26. From the Kursk Government.

[2] Prashchurui.

[3] The sentence in italics is a good specimen of the priskazka, or preface.

[4] Gramota = γράμματα whence comes gràmotey, able to read and write = γραμματικός.

[5] Vanya and Vanyusha are diminutives of Ivan (John), answering to our Johnny; Vanka is another, more like our Jack.

[6] Literally "with a Solovei-like whistle." The word solovei generally means a nightingale, but it was also the name of a mythical hero, a robber whose voice or whistle had the power of killing those who heard it.

[7] Chmoknuel, smacked.

[8] See Barsof's rich collection of North-Russian funeral poetry, entitled "Prichitaniya Syevernago Kraya," Moscow, 1872. Also the "Songs of the Russian People," pp. 334-345.

[9] Miss Frere's "Old Deccan Days," pp. 3, 4.

[10] Grimm, KM. No. 21.

[11] Afanasief, vi. No. 54.

[12] Ona krava shto yoy ye bila mati, Vuk Karajich, p. 158. In the German translation (p. 188) Wie dies nun die Kuh sah, die einst seine Mutter gewesen war.

[13] Afanasief, ii. p. 254.

[14] Cherez dvyenadtsat' stekol. Steklo means a glass, or a pane of glass.

[15] Afanasief, ii. p. 269.

[16] Khudyakof, No. 50.

[17] Afanasief, iii. p. 25.

[18] Dasent's "Norse Tales," No. 40. Asbjörnsen and Moe, No. 37. "Grimsborken."

[19] Dasent, No. 13. Asbjörnsen and Moe, No. 51. "Jomfruen paa Glasberget."

[20] Campbell's "West-Highland Tales," iii. pp. 265, 266.

[21] Miss Frere's "Old Deccan Days," pp. 31, 73, 95, 135.

[22] "Völsunga Saga," translated by E. Magnússon and W. Morris, pp. 95-6.

Bibliographic Information

Tale Title: Princess Helena the Fair
Tale Author/Editor: Ralston, William Ralston Shedden
Book Title: Russian Fairy Tales
Book Author/Editor: Ralston, William Ralston Shedden
Publisher: Hurst & Co.
Publication City: New York
Year of Publication: 1873
Country of Origin: Russia
Classification: unclassified

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