Tuesday, 16 June 2020


This very long Russian fairy tale was collected by Alexander Afanasiev and translated by W.R.S. Ralston in ‘Russian Folk-Tales’ Smith, Elder, 1873. A 1945 translation by Norbert Guterman gives the title as ‘The Sea-King and Vasilissa the Wise’, but Ralston’s version is so readable I’ve stuck with him and only tweaked a few words here and there. This is just the second half of the story, effectively a tale in its own right; but here is a brief account of the first part.  

A King is befriended by an Eagle, whose life he has spared out hunting. This Eagle carries the King through the air and over the sea to visit his mother and three sisters. At the end of the visit he gives the King two chests, green and red, with advice not to open them until he gets home, and provides a ship to carry him back across the sea. Pausing at an island on his voyage home, the curious King opens the red chest to find what’s in it. Out comes a vast quantity of cattle, so numerous the island barely has room for them. The King is dismayed. How will he ever put them back in the chest again?

But a man comes out of the sea. “Why are you crying?” he asks – and offers to put the cattle back in the chest if the King will give him “whatever you have at home that you don’t know about.” 

Believing he knows everything of value that he has at home, the King agrees – and of course when he arrives, his wife has given birth to a baby boy. Without daring to tell her what he has promised, he opens the red chest, and out come herds of cows and oxen, and flocks of fine sheep. He opens the green chest: a wonderful garden appears. He’s so delighted he forgets his bargain. Years go by, the Prince grows into a young man, and one day, walking by the river, the King is confronted by the same man as before – who rises from the water and demands that he pay his debt. 

Elements of this story will remind you of others. The assistance lent on condition of a reciprocal promise to give  ‘whatever greets you on your homecoming’, or ‘the first thing you see’, or ‘the thing you carry’ – it always turns out to be a child – is a motif at least as old as the story of Jephtha’s daughter in the Old Testament. ‘Rapunzel’ comes to mind, and the beginning of the Irish tale, ‘The Woman Who Went to Hell’, (#12 in this series). The second half of the story, as you will see, follows the pattern of ‘The Mastermaid’,( #7 in this series): the heroine is the active, canny, magic-working daughter of a supernatural father - sea-king, troll, enchanter, ogre, giant, etc - who saves the hapless prince’s life, orchestrates his escape and reclaims him after he has forgotten her. 

Then doesn’t this make them ‘all the same story’? No, no and no! ‘The Water King and Vasilissa the Wise’ is very different in character from the forthright Norwegian comedy of ‘The Mastermaid’. A Baba Yaga in unusually amiable mood helps the urbane Prince, perhaps because he politely calls her ‘granny’: the tasks he must perform are on a palatial scale far removed from mucking out stables or catching horses, and the episode in the bath-house is linked to Russian peasant customs (or at least Eastern European customs, since something similar is also to be found in the Romanian tale ‘Iliane of the Golden Tresses’, (#3). Though the same motifs recur in fairy tales across Europe, the resulting tales are delightfully individual variations on themes – which is all part of the pleasure.  

We begin at the point where the King confesses the truth: his son is promised to the man from the sea. 

The King went home full of grief and told the truth to the Queen and Prince. They mourned and wept together, but there was no help for it: the Prince must be given up. So they took him to the mouth of a river and left him there alone.

                The Prince looked around, saw a footpath and followed it, trusting God to lead him. He walked and walked till he came to a dense forest: in the forest stood a hut: in the hut lived a Baba Yaga. 

                “Suppose I go in,” thought the Prince, and went in. 

                “Good day, Prince!” said the Baba Yaga. “Are you looking for work or avoiding it?”

                “Eh, granny! Give me something to eat and drink first, then ask me questions.” So she gave him food and drink, and the Prince told her where he was going and for what purpose. 

                Then the Baba Yaga said: “My child, go to the sea-shore. You will see twelve spoonbills come flying in; they will turn into maidens and begin bathing. You must creep quietly up and steal the eldest maiden’s shift. When you have struck a bargain with her, go to the Water King; and on your way you will meet with three heroes: Obédalo [‘the Eater’], Opivalo [‘the Drinker’], and Moroz Treskun [‘Crackling Frost’] – take them with you; they’ll do you good service.” 

                The Prince bid the Yaga farewell. Down to the sea-shore he went, and hid behind the bushes. Soon twelve spoonbills came flying in, struck the moist earth, turned into fair maidens and began to bathe. The Prince crept from the bushes, stole the eldest one’s shift and hid again – he didn’t move an inch. The girls finished bathing and came to shore: eleven put on their shifts, turned into birds and flew away leaving only the eldest, Vasilissa the Wise. She began praying and begging the good youth.

                “Do give me my shift!” she says. “I know you are on your way to the house of my father, the Water King. When you come, I will befriend and help you.” 

                So the Prince gave back her shift, and immediately she turned into a spoonbill and flew off after her companions. Going further on his way, the Prince met the three champions, Obédalo, Opivalo and Moroz Treskun: he took them with him and went on the Water King. 

                The Water King greeted him: “Hail, my friend! Why have you been so long in coming to me? I have grown tired of waiting for you. Now get to work. Here is your first task. In one night you must build me a great crystal bridge: it must be ready by tomorrow. If you don’t build it – off with your head!” 

                Leaving the Water King, the Prince burst into floods of tears. Vasilissa the Wise opened the window of her upper chamber. “Prince, what are you crying about?”

                “Ah, Vasilissa the Wise, how can I help crying? Your father has ordered me to build him a crystal bridge in a single night, and I don’t even know how to handle an axe.”

                “No matter! Lie down and sleep; the morning is wiser than the evening.”

                She ordered him to sleep, but she herself went out on to the steps and called aloud with a mighty, whistling cry. From all sides, carpenters and workmen came running; some levelled the ground, others carried bricks. Soon they had built a crystal bridge and painted it with marvellous devices; then they vanished to their homes. 

Early next morning Vasilissa the Wise called the Prince: “Get up, Prince! the bridge is ready; my father will be coming to inspect it.”

Up jumped the Prince, seized a broom, took his place on the bridge and began sweeping here, clearing up there. 

The Water King praised him. “Thanks!” says he. “You have done me one service; now here is another. By tomorrow morning you must plant me a garden green – big and shady. It must be full of song-birds and blossoming trees, with ripe apples and pears dangling from the branches.”

Away went the Prince from the Water King, dissolved in tears.  Vasilissa the Wise opened her window and asked, “What are you crying for, Prince?”

“How can I help crying? Your father has ordered me to plant a garden in one night.”

“That’s nothing! Lie down and sleep: the morning is wiser than the evening.”

She made him go to sleep, but she herself went on to the steps, called and whistled with a mighty whistle. From every side gardeners of all sorts came running, and they planted a garden green, and birds sang in the garden, flowers bloomed on the trees, and ripe apples and pears dangled from the branches.

Early in the morning Vasilissa the Wise awoke the Prince: “Get up, Prince! the garden is ready and Papa is coming to see it.”

The Prince snatched up a broom and ran to the garden.  He swept a path here, trimmed a twig there. The Water King praised him and said, “Thanks, Prince! You’ve done me good and trusty service. Now choose yourself a bride from among my twelve daughters. They all look exactly alike: in face, in hair and in dress. If you can pick out the same one three times running, she shall be your wife, but if you fail I shall put you to death.”

When Vasilissa the Wise knew about this  she seized the chance to say to the Prince: “The first time I will wave my handkerchief, the second time I will be arranging my dress, the third time you will see a fly above my head.” So three times running the Prince guessed which was Vasilissa the Wise, and he and she were married, and a wedding feast was got ready. 

The Water King prepared so much food of all kinds that more than a hundred men could not have got through it, and he ordered his son-in-law see that everything was eaten. “If anything’s left over, the worse for you!” says he. 

“My father,” begs the Prince, “there’s an old fellow of mine here. Please allow him to take a bite with us.”

“Let him come!” 

At once appeared Obédalo, the Eater. He gobbled up everything in sight and even then he wasn’t full. So the Water King set out forty barrels of all kinds of strong drink and ordered his son-in-law to see that they were all drained dry.

“My father,” begs the Prince again, “there’s another old man of mine here; let him too come and drink your health.”

“Let him come!”

Opivalo the Drinker appeared, emptied all forty barrels in a twinkling, and asked for a drop more to wash it all down. The Water King saw he couldn’t win that way, so he gave orders to prepare a bathroom for the young couple – an iron bath-room! – and to heat it as hot as possible. Twelve loads of firewood were set alight, and the stove and walls became red-hot – it was impossible to come within five versts of it.

“My father!” says the Prince; ‘let an old fellow of ours go into the bath-room first for a good scrub, just to try it out.

“Let him do so!”

So Moroz Treskun – Crackling Frost! – went into the bath-room. He blew into one corner, blew into another – next moment, icicles were hanging there. The young couple followed him into the bath-room, scrubbed and steamed themselves and came home.[1]
Vasilissa said to the Prince, “We must get out of my father’s power. He is terribly angry with you and may be plotting some evil deed.”

“Let us go,” said the Prince. At once they saddled their horses and galloped off into the open plain. They rode and rode; many an hour went by. 

“Jump down from your horse, Prince, and lay your ear to the earth,” said Vasilissa. “Can you hear the sound of those pursuing us?”

The Prince bent his ear to the ground but he could hear nothing. Then Vasilissa herself leapt down from her steed. She laid herself flat on the earth and said, “Ah, Prince! I hear a great noise of those chasing after us.” She turned the horses into a well and herself into a basin and the Prince into a very old man. Up came the pursuers.  “Hey, old man!” said they, “have you seen a young man and maiden pass by?”

“Indeed I did, my friends, but it was long ago. Why, I was a just a young man myself at the time I saw them ride by.” 

The pursuers returned to the Water King. “No trace of them at all,” they said, “no news: we saw nothing but an old man beside a well, and a basin floating on the water.”

“Why didn’t you seize them?” cried the Water King. He ordered them to be put to a cruel death and sent another troop after the Prince and Vasilissa the Wise.

In the meantime the fugitives had ridden far and fast. Vasilissa the Wise heard the noise of the fresh troop coming after them, so she turned the Prince into an old priest and she herself became an ancient church, its walls crumbling and covered in moss. Up came the pursuit. ‘Hey, old man! have you seen a young man and maiden pass by?”

“I saw them, my children! but it was a long, long time ago. I was only a young man when they rode by; it was while I was building this church.”

So the second set of pursuers returned to the Water King, saying, “Your royal majesty, there is neither trace nor news of them. All we saw was an old priest and an ancient church.”

“Why did you not seize them?” cried the Water King louder than ever, and putting the pursuers to a cruel death he galloped off himself in pursuit of the Prince and Vasilissa the Wise. This time Vasilissa turned the horses into a river of mead, with banks made of pudding, and she changed the Prince into a drake and herself into a grey duck. The Water King flung himself on the mead and the pudding, and he ate and ate and drank and drank until he burst! And so he gave up the ghost.

The Prince and Vasilissa rode on. At last they drew near to the home of the Prince’s parents. Then said Vasilissa, “Go on in front, Prince, and announce your arrival to your father and mother while I wait for you by the wayside. But remember these words: kiss everyone else, but don’t kiss your sister; if you do, you will forget me.”

The Prince reached home, greeted everyone – kissed his sister too – and no sooner had he kissed her, he forgot all about his wife. It was as if she had never even entered his mind. 

Vasilissa the Wise waited for three days. On the fourth day she dressed herself like a beggar, went into the city and took up lodging in an old woman’s house. By now the Prince was preparing to marry a rich princess, and orders had been sent throughout the kingdom for everyone to bring a wheaten pie to the palace to congratulate the bride and bridegroom. So, like everyone else, the old woman began sifting flour to make a pie. 

“Why are you making a pie, Granny?” asked Vasilissa.

“Why, don’t you know? The King is giving his son in marriage to a rich princess: everyone must go to the palace to serve the dinner to the young couple.”

“Well now! I will bake a pie too, and take it to the palace. Perhaps the King will give me some gift in reward.”

“Bake away in God’s name!” said the old woman. 

Vasilissa took flour, kneaded dough and made a pie. And inside it she put some curds, and a pair of live doves. 

Well, the old woman and Vasilissa the Wise reached the palace just as dinner was being served. What a feast it was, fit for all the world to see! Vasilissa’s pie was set on the table before the bridegroom. As soon as it was cut in half, the two doves flew out. The hen bird seized a piece of curd, and her mate said to her,

“Give me some curds too, Dovey!”

“No I won’t,” replied the other dove, “else you’d forget me, as the Prince has forgotten his Vasilissa the Wise.”

Then the Prince remembered his wife. He jumped up from the table, caught her by her white hands and seated her close to his side. And from that time on they lived together in happiness and prosperity.

[1] Translator’s note: ‘The Russian bath somewhat resembles the Turkish. The word here translated ‘to scrub’ properly means to rub and flog with the soft twigs used in the baths for that purpose. At the end of the ceremonies of a Russian peasant wedding, the young couple always go to the bath.’

Picture credit: 

The Water King: Russian lacquer box painted by Aleksey Zhiryakov

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