Russian Fairy Tales | Annotated Tale

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Fiddler in Hell, The

Clearer and fuller than these vague and fragmentary sketches of a "heavenly realm," are the pictures contained in the Russian folk-tales of the underground world. But it is very doubtful how far the stories in which they figure represent ancient Slavonic ideas. In the name, if not in the nature, of the Ad, or subterranean abode of evil spirits and sinful souls, we recognize the influence of the Byzantine Hades; but most of the tales in which it occurs are supposed to draw their original inspiration from Indian sources, while they owe to Christian, Brahmanic, Buddhistic, and Mohammedan influences the form in which they now appear. To these "legends," as the folk-tales are styled in which the saints or their ghostly enemies occur, belongs the following narrative of--


THERE was a certain moujik who had three sons. His life was a prosperous one, and he laid by money enough to fill two pots. The one he buried in his corn-kiln, the other under the gate of his farmyard. Well, the moujik died, and never said a word about the money to any one. One day there was a festival in the village. A fiddler was on his way to the revel when, all of a sudden, he sank into the earth--sank right through and tumbled into hell, lighting exactly there where the rich moujik was being tormented.

                 "Hail, friend!" says the Fiddler.

                 "It's an ill wind that's brought you hither!" [2] answers the moujik; "this is hell, and in hell here I sit."

                 "What was it brought you here, uncle?"

                 "It was money! I had much money: I gave none to the poor, two pots of it did I bury underground. See now, they are going to torment me, to beat me with sticks, to tear me with nails."

                 "Whatever shall I do?" cried the Fiddler. "Perhaps they'll take to torturing me too!"

                 "If you go and sit on the stove behind the chimney-pipe, and don't eat anything for three years--then you will remain safe."

                 The Fiddler hid behind the stove-pipe. Then came fiends, [3] and they began to beat the rich moujik, reviling him the while, and saying:

                 "There's for thee, O rich man. Pots of money didst thou bury but thou couldst not hide them. There didst thou bury them that we might not be able to keep watch over them. At the gate people are always riding about, the horses crush our heads with their hoofs, and in the corn-kiln we get beaten with flails."

                 As soon as the fiends had gone away the moujik said to the Fiddler:

                 "If you get out of here, tell my children to dig up the money--one pot is buried at the gate, and the other in the corn-kiln--and to distribute it among the poor."

                 Afterwards there came a whole roomful of evil ones, and they asked the rich moujik:

                 "What have you got here that smells so Russian?"

                 "You have been in Russia and brought away a Russian smell with you," replied the moujik.

                 "How could that be?" they said. Then they began looking, they found the Fiddler, and they shouted:

                 "Ha, ha, ha! Here's a Fiddler."

                 They pulled him off the stove, and set him to work fiddling. He played three years, though it seemed to him only three days. Then he got tired and said:

                 "Here's a wonder! After playing a whole evening I used always to find all my fiddle-strings snapped. But now, though I've been playing for three whole days, they are all sound. May the Lord grant us his blessing!" [4]

                 No sooner had he uttered these words than every one of the strings snapped.

                 "There now, brothers!" says the Fiddler, "you can see for yourselves. The strings are snapped; I've nothing to play on!"

                 "Wait a bit!" said one of the fiends. "I've got two hanks of catgut; I'll fetch them for you."

                 He ran off and fetched them. The Fiddler took the strings, screwed them up, and again uttered the words:

                 "May the Lord grant us his blessing!"

                 In a moment snap went both hanks.

                 "No, brothers!" said the Fiddler, "your strings don't suit me. I've got some of my own at home; by your leave I'll go for them."

                 The fiends wouldn't let him go. "You wouldn't come back," they say.

                 "Well, if you won't trust me, send some one with me as an escort."

                 The fiends chose one of their number, and sent him with the Fiddler. The Fiddler got back to the village. There he could hear that, in the farthest cottage, a wedding was being celebrated.

                 "Let's go to the wedding!" he cried.

                 "Come along!" said the fiend.

                 They entered the cottage. Everyone there recognized the Fiddler and cried:

                 "Where have you been hiding these three years?"

                 "I have been in the other world!" he replied.

                 They sat there and enjoyed themselves for some time. Then the fiend beckoned to the Fiddler, saying, "It's time to be off!" But the Fiddler replied: "Wait a little longer! Let me fiddle away a bit and cheer up the young people." And so they remained sitting there till the cocks began to crow. Then the fiend disappeared.

                 After that, the Fiddler began to talk to the sons of the rich moujik, and said:

                 "Your father bids you dig up the money--one potful is buried at the gate and the other in the corn-kiln--and distribute the whole of it among the poor."

                 Well, they dug up both the pots, and began to distribute the money among the poor. But the more they gave away the money, the more did it increase. Then they carried out the pots to a crossway. Every one who passed by took out of them as much money as his hand could grasp, and yet the money wouldn't come to an end. Then they presented a petition to the Emperor, and he ordained as follows. There was a certain town, the road to which was a very roundabout one. It was some fifty versts long, whereas if it had been made in a straight line it would not have been more than five. And so the Emperor ordained that a bridge should be made the whole way. Well, they built a bridge five versts long, and this piece of work cleared out both the pots.

                 About that time a certain maid bore a son and deserted him in his infancy. The child neither ate nor drank for three years and an angel of God always went about with him. Well, this child came to the bridge, and cried:

                 "Ah! what a glorious bridge! God grant the kingdom of heaven to him at whose cost it was built!"

                 The Lord heard this prayer, and ordered his angels to release the rich moujik from the depths of hell. [5]

               With the bridge-building episode in this "legend" may be compared the opening of another Russian story. In it a merchant is described as having much money but no children. So he and his wife "began to pray to God, entreating him to give them a child--for solace in their youth, for support in their old age, for soul-remembrance [6] after death. And they took to feeding the poor and distributing alms. Besides all this, they resolved to build, for the use of all the faithful, a long bridge across swamps and where no man could find a footing. Much wealth did the merchant expend, but he built the bridge, and when the work was completed he sent his manager Fedor, saying--

               "'Go and sit under the bridge, and listen to what folks say about me--whether they bless me or revile me.'

               "Fedor set off, sat under the bridge, and listened. Presently three Holy Elders went over the bridge, and said one to another--

               "'How ought the man who built this bridge to be rewarded?' 'Let there be born to him a fortunate son. Whatsoever that son says--it shall be done: whatsoever he desires--that will the Lord bestow!'" [7]

               The rest of the story closely resembles the German tale of "The Pink." [8] In the corresponding Bohemian story of "The Treacherous Servant," [9] it may be observed, the bridge-building incident has been preserved.



[1] Afanasief, v. No. 47. From the Tver Government.

[2] "You have fallen here" neladno. Ladno means "well," "propitiously," &c., also "in tune."

[3] Nenashi = not ours.

[4] Gospodi blagoslovi! exactly our "God bless us;" with us now merely an expression of surprise.

[5] Iz adu kromyeshnago = from the last hell. Kromyeshnaya t'ma = utter darkness. Kromyeshny, or kromyeshnaya, is sometimes used by itself to signify hell.

[6] Ha pomin dushi. Pomin = "remembrance," also "prayers for the dead."

[7] Afanasief, vii. No. 20. In some variants of this story, instead of the three holy elders appear the Saviour, St. Nicholas, and St. Mitrofan.

[8] "Die Nelke," Grimm, KM., No. 76, and vol. iii. pp. 125-6.

[9] Wenzig, No. 17, pp. 82-6.

Bibliographic Information

Tale Title: Fiddler in Hell, The
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 471A: The Monk and the Bird

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