Prince Ivan and the Firebird
Taken from Essential Russian Mythology compiled by Pyotr Simonov
In a certain kingdom in a certain land here lived a tsar called Vyslav Andronovich who had three sons named Prince Dimitri, Prince Vasili, and Prince Ivan. The tsar had a garden so rich and abundant, there was none like it in any realm. Among the many valuable and rare trees in this garden – both with and without fruit – was one that was especially prized by the tsar. It was an apple tree that bore beautiful golden apples.
It happened that a firebird took to visiting Tsar Vyslav’s garden every evening. Her wings were of gold and her eyes sparkling crystals of the orient, and she would fly into the tree, perch on a bough, and pick the beautiful golden fruit. Then she would fly away, only to return the following evening to feast on the precious apples. The star was greatly distressed at the diminishing number of apples on the tree, so he summoned his three sons and said to them, “My beloved children, can any one of you catch the firebird that is attacking my favorite apple tree? Whoever captures the bird alive will receive one half of my kingdom here and now, while I yet live; and when I die he will inherit the rest.”
Then his sons, the three princes, shouted in response with one voice, “Gracious sovereign and father, we will endeavor with pleasure to capture the firebird alive.”
The first night Prince Dimitri kept watch in the garden and stood by the apple tree from which the firebird had been plucking the golden apples. He waited and waited and eventually fell deeply asleep and so did not notice the firebird enter the garden, fly into the tree and pick the precious fruit. The next morning Tsar Vyslav called Dimitri and asked him, “well, my dear son, did you or did you not see the firebird?”
“No gracious sovereign and father,” he replied, “for the firebird did not come last night.”
The next night, Prince Vasili kept watch in the garden and stood by the same apple tree. But barely had two hours elapsed before he fell fast asleep and so did not notice the firebird enter the garden, fly into the tree and pick the precious fruit. The following morning Tsar Vyslav called Vasili and asked him, “Well, my dear son, did you or did you not see the firebird?”
“No, gracious sovereign and father,” he replied, “for the firebird did not come last night.”
The third night Prince Ivan kept watch in the garden and stood by the same apple tree. He remained alert for one hour, then two and then three – then suddenly the entire garden was flooded with light as if by many flames. Down flew the marvelous firebird; she alighted on one of the boughs of the apple tree and began to pick the priceless fruit. With great cunning and caution, Prince Ivan crept up to her, stretched out his arm and made a sudden grasp. But the bird was too quick for him; she tore herself free and flew off in fright. All that was left in Prince Ivan’s clenched fist was one brightly colored tail feather.
Early the next morning the prince rushed into his father’s chambers, “Well, my dear son, did you or did you not see the firebird?”
“Yes gracious sovereign and father,” replied Ivan, “the firebird did come last night and here is a feather from her tail. She will never trespass in your garden again.”
Tsar Vyslav was greatly delighted that his youngest son had been able to retrieve even one small feather from the firebird’s tail. And what a feather it was! When placed in a darkened room it glowed marvelously and shone with the light of a thousand candles. The tsar treasured this relic, for a thing so marvelous, he thought, should be preserved for all time.
“If but one small feather can possess such extraordinary beauty,” mused Tsar Vyslav, “what must the entire bird be like?” An idea suddenly possessed him. He again summoned the three princes and said to them, “My dear children, I offer you my blessing to set out on an urgent mission. Go forth and seek out the fabulous firebird. Bring her to me alive, and what I had promised at first will surely go to the one who succeeds.”
Now Prince Dimitri and Prince Vasili bore malice against their younger brother because he had been able to seize a feather from the firebird’s tail. They were determined to get the better of him this time so, taking their father’s blessing, they rode swiftly away together to capture the firebird. Prince Ivan as well received from his protective and reluctant father a blessing to set out on this quest. The young man immediately selected a fine horse and set out on his journey even though he knew not where he was going.
Randomly taking a dusty path, he proceeded onwards uphill and downhill, near and far, along byways and throughways. Eventually he reached wide open country and rode onto a grassy meadow. In front of him he spotted a tall stone pillar on which were written the words:
Whoever continues straight on past this pillar,
Will become cold and hungry.
Whoever turns to the right will keep strong and healthy,
But his horse will be killed.
Whoever turns to the left will himself be killed,
But his horse will be safe and sound.
Having read this inscription, Prince Ivan decided to go to the right, bearing in mind that although his horse might be killed, he himself would remain alive and would in time get another horse.
He travelled for one entire day, then for a second day and finally for a third. All at once an enormous grey wolf leaped towards him and tore the prince’s horse in two and departed as quickly as he came.
Prince Ivan lamented bitterly the loss of his horse, but continued his journey on foot. He walked the entire day and became unspeakably exhausted. Just as he was about to sit down and rest for a moment, the grey wolf quite suddenly appeared and said, “I am extremely sorry, Prince Ivan, that you are so tired from walking and I also regret having destroyed your fine horse. So please climb on my back and tell me where I may take you and for what purpose.”
The prince climbed on the wolf’s back and told him the whole story about the firebird and the tsar’s commands. The grey wolf sped off with him more swiftly than and horse could have carried him and by nightfall they arrived at a low stone wall.
“Now, Prince Ivan, climb down and quickly scale that stone wall. Behind it you will discover a beautiful garden, and in that garden sits the firebird that you seek. She is sitting in a gilded cage. Take the firebird, but I warn you, do not touch the golden cage. If you attempt to remove it, you will be unable to escape but will be caught straight away.”
Prince Ivan climbed over the stone wall into the garden, spotted the firebird in her gilded cage, and was totally captivated by the beauty of the cage. He removed the bird from the cage and began retracing his steps when he stopped in his tracks and thought, ‘why have I taken the firebird without her cage? Where shall I put her?’ So he returned , and no sooner did he lay his hand on the cage than there was a thunderous noise that echoed throughout the garden, for warning wires had been attached to the bird’s golden cage. At once the watchmen woke up, ran into the garden, apprehended Prince Ivan with the firebird and took him to their king, whose name was Dolmat.
Dolmat was greatly incensed at the prince and shouted at him in a fierce and furious voice: “What is this! Young man, are you not ashamed to steal? What is your name and who is your father and from which land have you come?”
“I am Prince Ivan, the son of Tsar Vyslav Andronovich, and have come from his kingdom. Your firebird made a habit of flying to our royal garden each night to pluck the golden apples from my father’s favorite tree. She has practically ruined the entire trees. This is why my father sent me to locate the thieving firebird and take her to him.”
“Oh, young man, Prince Ivan! Listen carefully, If you render me a special service, I will pardon you your offence and give you the firebird with all honor. Go beyond the thrice-nine lands to the thrice-tenth kingdom and get me from Tsar Aphron his golden-maned steed. If you refuse me this, I will let it be known in all parts how despicably you have behaved in my kingdom and that you are a miserable thief.”
Prince Ivan was greatly distressed. He promised to procure for King Dolmat the horse with the golden mane, and took his leave of him.
He went back to the grey wolf and reported to him all that King Dolmat had said. “Ah, Prince Ivan, young man,” said the grey wolf, “why did you disobey my instructions? Why did you attempt to take the gilded cage? Very well. Now climb back on my back, and I shall take you wherever you wish to go.”
The prince did so and the grey wolf sped off like lighting, a short distance or a long one, toward the eastern sky. At dusk they entered the realm of Tsar Aphron and eventually came to the white-walled stables. The grey wolf said “You must go alone into these white-walled stables, Prince Ivan, but have no fear, the guards are fast asleep. Take the golden-maned steed which you will find in the furthest stall. But heed this warning, do not lay a finger on the golden bridle that hangs on the wall. Otherwise great misfortune will befall you.”
Prince Ivan entered the white-walled stables, took the horse and began retracing his steps when he stopped in his tracks and thought, “What an exquisite bride. Without it, how can I lead this noble beast?” So he removed it from the wall. Instantly the stable guards woke up, rushed in, seized Prince Ivan and conducted him to Tsar Aphron. The Tsar was furious. “Listen carefully young Prince, if you render me a special service, if you will go beyond the thrice-ninth lands to the thrice-tenth kingdom and get for me Princess Elena the fair, with whom I long ago fell completely in love with, heart and soul, but whom I cannot secure for my wife, I will pardon you your offence and give you the horse with the golden mane with all honor. But if you refuse me this, I will let it be known in all parts how despicably you have behaved in my kingdom and that you are a miserable thief.” Prince Ivan promised Aphron to secure Princess Elena the fair and then left the palace weeping bitterly.
He went back to the grey wolf and reported to him all that Tsar Aphron had said. “A, Prince Ivan, young man,” said the grey wolf, “why did you disobey my instructions? Why did you attempt to take the golden bridle? But so be it. Climb back upon my back and I shall take you wherever you wish to go.”
The prince did that and the grey wolf sped off like lightning, so that in an amazingly short time they reached the kingdom of Elena the Fair.
This time, the grey wolf told Prince Ivan to wait for him while he went to retrieved the princess. The grey wolf waited for Princess Elena by the golden fence. Toward evening, as the sun was sinking low in the western sky and the night air lost its warmth, Princess Elena set out on her evening stroll with her handmaidens. As soon as she approached the spot by the fence where the grey wolf was lying in wait, he suddenly jumped out, seized her, sprang back again and bore her away at full speed.
When he met up with Prince Ivan he shouted, “My prince! Leap up on my back immediately!” Prince Ivan did so, and the grey wolf sped off, bearing them both along to the territory of Tsar Aphron.
Meanwhile, Princess Elena’s handmaidens reported the events immediately, and at a moment’s notice men-at-arms were commanded to pursue and overtake the grey wolf; but no matter how fast they ran, they could not outrun hum and were forced to turn back without her.
While sitting beside Elena the Fair on the grey wolf’s back, Prince Ivan fell totally in love with her, and she also began to love him. Thus by the time the grey wolf had entered Tsar Aphron’s domain, Prince Ivan began to be sullen and to lament with bitter tears.
“Why are you weeping so, Prince Ivan?” asked the grey wolf.
“Oh, grey wolf, my dear friend, how can a young fellow such as I not weep and grieve? I have fallen in love with Elena with all my heart and soul, and now I must render her up to Tsar Aphron in return for the horse with the golden mane. For if I fail to do this, the tsar will dishonor me far and wide.”
“I have been of much service to you, Prince Ivan,” said the grey wolf, “but I shall help you once again. You must take me to the tsar in Princess Elena’s place, for I can transform myself into any form I wish. I will transform myself into the fair princess. After you leave me, you only need to call me to your remembrance, and I will be at your side again in my true form.”
Having uttered these words, the grey wolf struck himself against the earth and became the image and likeness of Princess Elena the fair so that it was impossible to distinguish between them. When the prince presented the false Elena to the tsar, he immediately rejoiced with all his heart that he had taken possession of the treasure which he had long desired. Accepting the beautiful imposter, the tsar gave Prince Ivan the horse with the golden mane. The prince immediately mounted the steed and rode out of the town to his fair Elena whom he seated behind him; thereupon he set his course to the kingdom of Tsar Dolmat.
As for the grey wolf, he remained with the tsar for one day, a second day, and then a third, in the place of Elena the Fair. On the fourth day, he went to take a stroll in an open field. Meanwhile, Prince Ivan was riding along the highways with the Princess Elena, almost forgetting about the grey wolf. However, he suddenly remembered what the grey wolf had told him and he exclaimed, “Oh, where can my grey wolf be?”
In the twinkling of an eye, the grey wolf appeared before him, and joined them on their journey to the kingdom of King Dolmat.
After traveling a long time or a short time, they approached the kingdom and stopped a few miles outside of the town. Prince Ivan began to beseech the grey wolf, saying, “My dear friend, grey wolf, please listen to my words. You have been of much service to me and I am extremely grateful. Now do me one last favor, would it not be possible for you to take on the appearance of a golden-maned horse in place of this one? For I greatly desire to have my own horse with a golden mane.” Immediately the grey wolf struck himself against the ground and became the image and likeness of a horse with a golden mane.
Leaving the Princess and the true golden-maned horse in a green meadow, Prince Ivan climbed onto the grey wolf as the false horse and entered the wide palace courtyard of King Dolmat. As soon as the king saw Prince Ivan approaching, on the horse with the golden mane, he rejoiced greatly. In a few moments, he rushed down to meet the prince with wild excitement, and presented to the prince the firebird in its golden cage. Together with the firebird, Ivan journeyed outside the town, mounted the true golden-maned steed alongside Princess Elena the Fair and set out for his homeland, the kingdom of Tsar Vyslav Andronovich.
As for King Dolmat, he decided the next day to break in his new steed out in the open field. He ordered his aides to saddle the steed, then he mounted it and rode off to the open field. But his actions irritated the horse, which threw him from his back. The horse then became the grey wolf again, raced away and caught up with Prince Ivan.
As soon as the grey wolf had brought Prince Ivan to the spot where he had torn his horse in two he stopped and said: "Now Prince Ivan, I have served you long enough in faith and truth. Here is the place where we first met and I tore your horse in two. I have now returned you to the same spot safe and sound. I am no longer your servant." With these words the grey wolf departed quickly. Prince Ivan bitterly bewailed the loss of his faithful wolf and continued his journey with the beautiful princess.
When Prince Ivan returned to the kingdom of Tsar Vyslav Andronovich with the golden-maned horse, the beautiful princess, and the firebird, his brothers Prince Dimitri and Prince Vasili were consumed with jealousy. But Ivan the prince married Princess Elena the Fair that same day and lived with her in such harmony and love that neither of them could bear to be without the other for a single moment.