Russian Fairy Tales | Annotated Tale

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Emilian the Fool

We will take next a story which is a great favorite in Russia, and which will serve as another illustration of the use made of magical "properties" in the Skazkas.


THERE were once three brothers, of whom two were sharp-witted, but the third was a fool. The elder brothers set off to sell their goods in the towns down the river, [2] and said to the fool:

                 "Now mind, fool! obey our wives, and pay them respect as if they were your own mothers. We'll buy you red boots, and a red caftan, and a red shirt."

                 The fool said to them:

                 "Very good; I will pay them respect."

                 They gave the fool their orders and went away to the downstream towns; but the fool stretched himself on top of the stove and remained lying there. His brothers' wives say to him--

                 "What are you about, fool! your brothers ordered you to pay us respect, and in return for that each of them was going to bring you a present, but there you lie on the stove and don't do a bit of work. Go and fetch some water, at all events."

                 The fool took a couple of pails and went to fetch the water. As he scooped it up, a pike happened to get into his pail. Says the fool:

                 "Glory to God! now I will cook this pike, and will eat it all myself; I won't give a bit of it to my sisters-in-law. I'm savage with them!"

                 The pike says to him with a human voice:

                 "Don't eat me, fool! if you'll put me back again into the water you shall have good luck!"

                 Says the fool, "What sort of good luck shall I get from you?"

                 "Why, this sort of good luck: whatever you say, that shall be done. Say, for instance, 'By the Pike's command, at my request, go home, ye pails, and be set in your places.'"

                 As soon as the fool had said this, the pails immediately went home of their own accord and became set in their places. The sisters-in-law looked and wondered.

                 "What sort of a fool is this!" they say. "Why, he's so knowing, you see, that his pails have come home and gone to their places of their own accord!"

                 The fool came back and lay down on the stove. Again did his brothers' wives begin saying to him--

                 "What are you lying on the stove for, fool? there's no wood for the fire; go and fetch some."

                 The fool took two axes and got into a sledge, but without harnessing a horse to it.

                 "By the Pike's command," he says, "at my request, drive, into the forest, O sledge!"

                 Away went the sledge at a rattling pace, as if urged on by some one. The fool had to pass by a town, and the people he met were jammed into corners by his horseless sledge in a way that was perfectly awful. They all began crying out:

                 "Stop him! Catch him!"

                 But they couldn't lay hands on him. The fool drove into the forest, got out of the sledge, sat down on a log, and said--

                 "One of you axes fell the trees, while the other cuts them up into billets."

                 Well, the firewood was cut up and piled on the sledge. Then says the fool:

                 "Now then, one of you axes! go and cut me a cudgel, [3] as heavy a one as I can lift."

                 The axe went and cut him a cudgel, and the cudgel came and lay on top of the load.

                 The fool took his seat and drove off. He drove by the town, but the townspeople had met together and had been looking out for him for ever so long. So they stopped the fool, laid hands upon him, and began pulling him about. Says the fool--

                 "By the Pike's command, at my request, go, O cudgel, and bestir thyself."

                 Out jumped the cudgel, and took to thumping and smashing, and knocked over ever such a lot of people. There they lay on the ground, strewed about like so many sheaves of corn. The fool got clear of them and drove home, heaped up the wood, and then lay down on the stove.

                 Meanwhile, the townspeople got up a petition against him, and denounced him to the King, saying:

                 "Folks say there's no getting hold of him the way we tried; [4] we must entice him by cunning, and the best way of all will be to promise him a red shirt, and a red caftan, and red boots."

                 So the King's runners came for the fool.

                 "Go to the King," they say, "he will give you red boots, a red caftan, and a red shirt."

                 Well, the fool said:

                 "By the Pike's command, at my request, do thou, O stove, go to the King!"

                 He was seated on the stove at the time. The stove went; the fool arrived at the King's.

                 The King was going to put him to death, but he had a daughter, and she took a tremendous liking to the fool. So she began begging her father to give her in marriage to the fool. Her father flew into a passion. He had them married, and then ordered them both to be placed in a tub, and the tub to be tarred over and thrown into the water; all which was done.

                 Long did the tub float about on the sea. His wife began to beseech the fool:

                 "Do something to get us cast on shore!"

                 "By the Pike's command, at my request," said the fool, "cast this tub ashore and tear it open!"

                 He and his wife stepped out of the tub. Then she again began imploring him to build some sort of a house. The fool said:

                 "By the Pike's command, at my request, let a marble palace be built, and let it stand immediately opposite the King's palace!"

                 This was all done in an instant. In the morning the King saw the new palace, and sent to enquire who it was that lived in it. As soon as he learnt that his daughter lived there, that very minute he summoned her and her husband. They came. The King pardoned them, and they all began living together and flourishing. [5]

               "The Pike," observes Afanasief, "is a fish of great repute in northern mythology." One of the old Russian songs still sung at Christmas, tells how a Pike comes from Novgorod, its scales of silver and gold, its back woven with pearls, a costly diamond gleaming in its head instead of eyes. And this song is one which promises wealth, a fact connecting the Russian fish with that Scandinavian pike which was a shape assumed by Andvari--the dwarf-guardian of the famous treasure, from which sprang the woes recounted in the Völsunga Saga and the Nibelungenlied. According to a Lithuanian tradition, [6] there is a certain lake which is ruled by the monstrous pike Strukis. It sleeps only once a year, and then only for a single hour. It used always to sleep on St. John's Night, but a fisherman once took advantage of its slumber to catch a quantity of its scaly subjects. Strukis awoke in time to upset the fisherman's boat; but fearing a repetition of the attempt, it now changes each year the hour of its annual sleep. A gigantic pike figures also in the Kalevala.

               It would be easy to fill with similar stories, not only a section of a chapter, but a whole volume; but instead of quoting any more of them, I will take a few specimens from a different, though a somewhat kindred group of tales--those which relate to the magic powers supposed to be wielded in modern times by dealers in the Black Art. Such narratives as these are to be found in every land, but Russia is specially rich in them, the faith of the peasantry in the existence of Witches and Wizards, Turnskins and Vampires, not having been as yet seriously shaken. Some of the stories relating to the supernatural Witch, who evidently belongs to the demon world, have already been given. In those which I am about to quote, the wizard or witch who is mentioned is a human being, but one who has made a compact with evil spirits, and has thereby become endowed with strange powers. Such monsters as these are, throughout their lives, a terror to the district they inhabit; nor does their evil influence die with them, for after they have been laid in the earth, they assume their direst aspect, and as Vampires bent on blood, night after night, they go forth from their graves to destroy. As I have elsewhere given some account of Slavonic beliefs in witchcraft, [7] I will do little more at present than allow the stories to speak for themselves. They will be recognized as being akin to the tales about sorcery current farther west, but they are of a more savage nature. The rustic warlocks and witches of whom we are accustomed to hear have little, if any, of that thirst for blood which so unfavorably characterizes their Slavonic counterparts. 



[1] Afanasief, vi. No. 32. From the Novgorod Government. A "chap-book" version of this story will be found in Dietrich's collection (pp. 152-68 of the English translation); also in Keightley's "Tales and Popular Fictions."

[2] Nijnie, lower. Thus Nijny Novgorod is the lower (down the Volga) Novgorod. (Dahl.)

[3] Kukova, a stick or cudgel, one end of which is bent and rounded like a ball.

[4] Tak de ego ne vzat'.

[5] There are numerous variants of this story among the Skazkas. In one of these (Afanasief, vii. No. 31) the man on whom the pike has bestowed supernatural power uses it to turn a Maiden princess into a mother. This renders the story wholly in accordance with (1) the Modern Greek tale of "The Half Man," (Hahn, No. 8) in which the magic formula runs, "according to the first word of God and the second of the fish shall such and such a thing be done!" (2) The Neapolitan story of "Pervonto" (Basile's "Pentamerone," No. 3) who obtains his magic power from three youths whom he screens from the sun as they lie asleep one hot day, and who turn out to be sons of a fairy. Afanasief compares the story also with the German tale of "The Little Grey Mannikin," in the "Zeitschrift für Deutsche Mythologie," &c., i. pp. 38-40. The incident of wishes being fulfilled by a fish occurs in many stories, as in that of "The Fisherman," in the "Arabian Nights," "The Fisherman and his Wife," in Grimm (KM., No. 19). A number of stories about the Pike are referred to by A. de Gubernatis ("Zoolog. Mythology," ii. 337-9).

[6] Quoted by Afanasief from Siemienski's "Podania," Posen, 1845, p. 42.

[7] "Songs of the Russian People," pp. 387-427.

Bibliographic Information

Tale Title: Emilian the Fool
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: ATU 675: The Lazy Boy

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