“Boys who never read fairy tales, often end up marrying princesses that turn out to be frogs rather than frogs that turn out to be princesses.”
* * *
Many years ago a tsar had three sons. When they came of age he sent for them and said:
“My sons, before I am too old I want you to marry, and I would like to see my grandchildren.”
The sons replied:
“In that case, father, give us your blessing. But whom are we to marry?”
“My sons,” the tsar said, “take your bows, go out into the open field, and shoot an arrow. Wherever it falls, there you will find your wife.”
The sons bowed to their father, took their bows, went into the fields, drew them and shot their arrows. The eldest son’s arrow fell into a nobleman’s courtyard, where it was picked up by his daughter. The second son’s arrow fell into a merchant’s courtyard, and it was picked up by his daughter. But the arrow shot by the youngest son, Prince Ivan, rose so high and flew so far that he didn’t know where to look for it. So he started to walk, and at last he came to a marsh. In the marsh he saw a frog with his arrow in its mouth. He said to the frog:
“Frog, give me back my arrow.”
But the frog replied:
“Then take me for your wife.”
“Oh, come now,” the prince said, “how can I have a frog as my wife?”
“But you must, for it is the tsar’s will.”
At first the prince tried to avoid it, but eventually he had to accept his fate and carry the frog home.
Then the tsar arranged for the three marriages; his eldest son to the nobleman’s daughter, his second to the merchant’s daughter, and the unhappy Prince Ivan to the frog.
After the weddings the tsar summoned his sons again, and told them:
“I want to see which of your wives is the finest needlewoman. Each one is to make me a shirt by tomorrow.”
The sons bowed to their father and went to tell their wives. But when Prince Ivan arrived home he sat down looking very miserable. The frog was jumping around on the floor, and it asked him:
“You look very unhappy, Prince Ivan ? Are you in trouble?”
“My father has ordered you to make him a shirt by tomorrow,” the prince answered.
“Do not worry, Prince Ivan,” the frog said. “You just go to bed. You will feel better after a good sleep.”
So he went to bed. But the frog jumped out on to the verandah, threw off its skin and turned into the wise Princess Vassilisa, a maiden so beautiful that words could never describe her. She clapped her hands and cried:
“My faithful attendants, gather round and listen to me. Sew for me by tomorrow morning a shirt like the one my own father used to wear.”
When the prince woke up next morning the frog was jumping about the floor again, but a shirt wrapped in linen was already lying on the table. He was overjoyed. He picked up the shirt and took it to his father. When he arrived, the tsar was receiving the gifts from his two elder sons. The eldest son spread out the shirt his wife had made. As the tsar accepted it he said:
“This is a shirt for everyday wear.”
When the second son spread out his shirt, the tsar said:
“I could only go to the bath in that.”
Then Prince Ivan unfolded his shirt; it was embroidered with gold and silver threads in intricate patterns. The tsar took one look at it and declared:
“Now that is a shirt; I can wear it on important occasions.”
The two elder brothers went oft home, remarking to each other as they went:
“It seems we were too quick to laugh at Ivan’s wife; she is no frog, she is a witch.”
Now the tsar sent for his sons again, and told them:
“Each of your wives is to bake a loaf of bread for me by tomorrow. I wish to find out which is the best cook.”
When Prince Ivan arrived home after seeing his father he looked so miserable that the frog asked him:
“What is the matter, Prince Ivan?”
“You have to bake a loaf of bread for the tsar by tomorrow,” Ivan answered.
“Do not worry; just go to bed. You will feel better after a good sleep.”
At first the elder sons wives had made fun of Prince Ivan’s frog wife. But now they had changed their minds, and they sent an old kitchen woman to spy out how the frog was going to bake bread. But the frog, being wise, realised their scheme. After kneading the dough it made a hole in the top of the brick oven and poured the dough through the hole. The woman saw what had been done, and ran to the elder brothers’s wives and told them. So they set to work and did the same. But after Prince Ivan had gone to bed the frog jumped out on to the verandah, turned into the wise Princess Vassilisa, and clapped her hands:
“My faithful attendants, gather round and listen to me. Bake for me by the morning soft white bread like the bread I ate at my father’s table.”
When the prince woke up next morning the loaf of bread was already lying on the table. It was decorated with various fancy designs, and on its top was the shape of a city with walls and gates. He was delighted, wrapped the bread in clean linen, and took it to his father. When he arrived the tsar was receiving the loaves brought by his two elder sons. But their wives had poured the dough into the ovens just as the old woman had told them, and all they had to show for their labour were two burnt cinders. The tsar took the burnt loaf offered by his eldest son, looked at it, and sent it straight to the servants’s quarters.
Then he took the loaf from his second son, and sent it after the other. But when Prince Ivan handed him his loaf the tsar said:
“Now this is such good bread, it should be eaten only on great occasions.”
The tsar had arranged a banquet for the following day, and he ordered his sons to attend with their wives. The thought of his frog wife attending a banquet made Prince Ivan feel far from cheerful, and he returned home with his head hanging. As usual, the frog was jumping about the floor. When it saw him it asked:
“Prince Ivan, what are you looking so miserable for? Has your father said something unpleasant to you?”
“How can I help looking miserable, frog? My father has ordered me to bring you to a banquet; and how can I show you to people?”
But the frog answered:
“Do not grieve, Prince Ivan. You go oft to the banquet by yourself, and I will follow later. When you hear a knock and a clap of thunder, do not be afraid. If anyone asks you what it means, just say: “That is my little frog who is coming riding in a little box.”
So he went off to the banquet alone. His elder brothers arrived with their wives dressed in their finery, wearing their jewellery, their faces painted and powdered. They laughed at Prince Ivan and asked:
“Why did you not bring your wife with you? You could have carried her in a handkerchief. Wherever did you find such a beauty? You must have searched all through the marshes for her.”
The tsar, his sons, their wives, and all the guests sat down at the oaken tables, which were spread with embroidered tablecloths. But before they started to feast there was a loud knock and a clap of thunder, so powerful that the palace shook. The guests were alarmed, and jumped up from their seats. But Prince Ivan said:
“Do not be afraid. It is only my little frog coming. She is riding in a little box.”
At that moment a gilded carriage drawn by six white horses drew up at the tsar’s front door, and the wise Princess Vassilisa stepped out. She was wearing an azure gown studded with stars; on her head was a shining chaplet; she was so beautiful that the guests sat and stared. She took Prince Ivan by the hand and he led her to the oaken table.
The guests began to eat and drink, and to make merry. But the wise Vassilisa only took one sip from her glass, pouring the rest into her left sleeve. She only nibbled at her plate of swan meat, and dropped the bones into her right sleeve. And when the two elder brothers’s wives noticed what she was doing they followed her example.
After the eating and drinking it was time for dancing. The wise Vassilisa took Prince Ivan’s hand and they danced together. And she danced so marvellously, so beautifully, that all the guests were amazed. Then she waved her left sleeve, and suddenly a lake was formed in the hall; she waved her right sleeve, and white swans floated on the lake. The tsar and his guests were filled with astonishment.
Then the elder brothers’s wives also danced. And when they danced they waved one sleeve, but they only sprinkled the guests with wine; they waved the other sleeve, but only bones flew out. One bone hit the tsar in the eye, and he was so angry that he drove both the wives out of the palace.
Meanwhile, Prince Ivan quietly slipped out of the hall, and hurried home. He found the frog skin lying on the verandah and threw it into the stove, where it burnt in the fire. When Princess Vassilisa returned home she saw that the frog skin was gone. She sat down on a bench and said to her husband sorrowfully:
“Ah, Prince Ivan, what have you done? If you had waited only another three days I would have been yours for ever. But now I must say goodbye. You can look for me in the thirtieth kingdom beyond three times nine lands. There you will find me with Kashchey the Deathless.”
Then she turned into a grey cuckoo and flew out of the window. And the prince wept bitterly. Bowing to all the four points of the compass he went off into the world to seek his wife, the wise Princess Vassilisa. He walked for so long that he wore out his boots, his clothes were torn, and the rain soaked through his cap. One day he happened to meet a very old man, who asked him:
“Hello, young man! What are you seeking, where are you going?”
The prince told him how he had lost his wife, and was now seeking her. And the old man said:
“Ah, Prince Ivan, what made you burn the frog skin? You did not have to wear it or take it off. The wise Vassilisa was born cleverer and wiser than her father, and he was so annoyed that he ordered her to be a frog for three years. What is done cannot be undone. Take this ball; wherever it rolls, you follow boldly after it.”
The prince thanked the old man and started to follow the ball. It rolled along, and he walked behind it. In the open country he came across a bear, and took aim, intending to kill it. But the bear spoke to him in a human voice:
“Do not kill me, Prince Ivan. Some day I shall be of service to you.”
The prince had pity on the bear, and went on his way without shooting it. As he walked he saw a drake flying above him.
He took aim to shoot it, but the drake spoke to him in a human voice:
“Do not kill me, Prince Ivan. I shall be of service to you.”
So he had pity on the drake and went his way. Next a hare came running past. Ivan thought he would shoot the hare; but it said in a human voice:
“Do not kill me, Prince Ivan. I shall be of service to you.”
So he let the hare go, and went his way. He came to the blue sea and saw a pike lying on the sand of the shore. It was hardly able to breathe, and it said to him:
“Prince Ivan, have pity on me; throw me back into the blue sea.”
So he threw the pike into the sea, and followed the ball as it rolled along the shore. At last the ball rolled into a forest. There the prince saw a little hut standing on a chicken leg, and twisting round and round. He said to the hut:
“Little hut, little hut, stand just as you were built, with your back to the forest, your front to me.”
Then the little hut turned with its front towards him, and its back to the forest. He went inside, and saw an old witch, the Baba Yaga, lying on top of the stove, her chin resting on the shelf at the top of the stove, and her nose pressed up against the ceiling.
“Why have you called on me, young fellow?” the old witch asked him. “Are you seeking your fortune, or are you running away from it?”
“You old scold,” the prince answered, “before you start asking questions you should give me food and drink and a hot bath.”
So the old witch Baba Yaga gave him a hot bath, gave him food and drink, and put him to bed. Then the prince told her he was seeking his wife, the wise Princess Vassilisa.
“I know, I know,” the old witch said. “Your wife is with Kashchey the Deathless now. It will be difficult to get her away from him, Kashchey is not easy to deal with. His death is right at the point of a needle, the needle is in an egg, the egg is in a duck, the duck is in a hare, the hare is sitting in a stone chest, the stone chest is in the crown of a lofty oak, and Kashchey the Deathless guards that oak as he would the apple of his eye.”
Prince Ivan spent the night in the old witch’s hut, and next morning she told him how to get to the spot where the lofty oak was growing. The prince found the spot, and saw the oak standing, rustling its leaves; in its crown was a stone chest, so high that it was very difficult to get at.
Suddenly a bear ran up and tore the oak up by its roots. The chest fell, and was smashed to pieces. A hare leapt out of the chest, and fled at top speed. But a second hare chased after it, overtook it, and tore it to pieces. But a duck flew out of the pieces, and sailed right up to the sky. However, as the prince watched, a drake flew at the duck; as he struck her she let fall an egg, and the egg dropped into the azure sea.
At the sight Prince Ivan shed bitter tears: how could he ever find that egg in the sea? But suddenly a pike swam up to the shore with the egg in its mouth. The prince broke the egg, took out the needle, and set to work to snap its point. As he snapped it Kashchey the Deathless struggled and writhed. But he could do nothing: the prince snapped off the point of the needle, and Kashchey died.
Then the prince went to Kashchey’s white stone palace. The wise Princess Vassilisa ran out to meet him, and kissed him on his lips. So Prince Ivan and Princess Vassilisa returned home, and they lived happily to a ripe old age.