Copper Kingdom (woodcut)
I finish up the supper dishes and head down the hall. I hear Thalia’s voice drifting from the study.
Who could she be talking to?
Peeping around the study door, I see Thalia occupying my comfy chair, reading aloud. The fairy, her black hair floating in a static cloud around her head, is perched on Thalia’s shoulder. With a bit of a shock, I see that Thalia’s feet almost touch the floor.
My, but she is getting a bit gangly.
Cautiously, not to make too much noise, I add two logs to the fire in the hearth and peer over Thalia’s shoulder—not the one the fairy sits on—to see what she is reading to her miniature companion.
I recognize the book as my copy of Russian Fairy Tales, collected by Aleksandr Afanas’ev; the story title is The Three Kingdoms. I settle into my not-quite-so comfy chair to listen.
The parents of three brothers wish to get their sons married off. They send the eldest out to seek a bride. A three-headed dragon sets him a task to move a stone, declaring that when he fails the test, “There is no bride for you.”
The middle brother fails the same test, but the youngest, the Lazy Jack of the family, succeeds.
Under the stone is an opening to an underworld into which the dragon lowers him.
The youngest brother comes to a copper kingdom where a princess greets him and feeds him. He proposes marriage, but she counsels him to go on to the silver kingdom and gives him a silver ring. The same thing happens in the silver kingdom, and he is told to go on to the golden kingdom and he is given a golden ring. The princess at the golden kingdom agrees to marry him and he receives a golden ball.
They return through the silver and copper kingdoms, taking those princesses along with them. They come to the spot where he entered the underground world. There, above them are his brothers, come to look for him. They pull up the beautiful princesses, then decide to abandon their younger brother.
Wait, this is a Russian version of the Greek Underground Adventure!
Trapped in the underworld, he happens upon an inch-high man with a cubit-long beard, sitting in a tree, who tells him to find a little house in which lies a tall giant and ask him how to get back to Russia. The giant directs him to find the house of Baba Yaga, which stands on chicken legs. She tells him to go into the garden, take the keys from the sentry, go through the seven doors, climb onto the back of the eagle he finds there, and feed him meat as they fly back to Russia.
Yes, this is the tale that called to me and to Melissa at three in the morning. I must talk to her about this.
Unfortunately, he runs out of meat and the eagle takes a bite out of his shoulder. Then, and here I quote, “…dragged him out through the same hole to Russia.”
The youngest brother reclaims the Golden Princess from his brothers and they live happily ever after until this very day.
“Why did you choose this tale to read to the fairy?”
“Well, these are tales for fairies.”
“Fairy tales,” Thalia answers.
“Oh, of course.”
The fairy glared at me with a superior expression, indicating I should have known that.
Perhaps I should have.
Fairy Tale of the Month: February 2020 The Three Kingdoms – Part Two
I am standing across the street from Serious Books, but even from here I can see through Melissa’s store window to her choice for the Book-of-the-Day display. Today’s choice is Russian Fairy Tales, identical to my copy.
As I enter the shop, Melissa is helping a customer but motions me toward the store’s reading room. In front of the sofa, on an occasional table, is a pot of tea wrapped in its cozy, and two teacups. She, apparently, expected me.
“You and I are being stalked by this tale,” Melissa declares when she settles beside me on the sofa. “You saw my choice for the Book of the Day? Why does it call us again?”
“I am guessing it wants us the make comparisons,” I say.
“Between The Three Kingdoms and The Underworld Adventure?” Melissa considers, then continues. “They are quite different in tone. Take the protagonist for example. In the Greek version, the hero is the eldest of the three brothers and does battle with a serpent to earn his way back. In the Russian version, the youngest and laziest brother is wined and dined as well as given presents by the princesses. The Greek hero is worthy; the Russian hero—well—not heroic.”
“The tales’ thoughtless treatment of women is the same,” I suggest.
“That they are. In both cases, the three women are the prize and where the brothers have their falling-out. I couldn’t help noticing, a number the Russian tales in this book were critical of women in general, such as in The Bad Wife, The Stubborn Wife, and The Mayoress.
“What about that three-headed dragon?” I interject, to keep Melissa from going down her favorite rabbit hole.
“Yes, unusual. Dragons are fairly rare in the Grimm fairy tales but thoroughly populate the Slavic tales. In any case, their role is to whisk away beautiful maidens, usually a princess. These tales are all heir apparent to Saint George and the Dragon.
“To have a dragon, no less a three-headed one, as a magical helper, potentially facilitating a marriage, is out of character for the scaly beast.”
“However,” I say, “as a device to start off the story, I like it better than its Greek counterpart. The dragon poses a challenge, to roll away the stone that conceals the underworld entrance. In the Greek tale, three brothers hear about women at the bottom of a well and they go to see what they can see; kind of offhanded for an inciting incident.”
“I will grant you that.” Melissa pours out our tea. “It will get cold soon.” She takes a sip before saying, “But after that odd opening, the Greek version makes more sense than the Russian. The eldest is give two nuts containing dresses that he uses to reclaim his bride at the end of the story. Our lazy Russian youth, as he goes from the copper kingdom, to the silver, to the gold, is given a silver ring, a gold ring, and a golden ball, all of which totally disappear from the story and serve no purpose.”
“Oh, but wait,” I protest. “I always like the progression through the copper realm, be it a kingdom, castle, or forest, followed by a silver one and ending in a golden or diamond place.”
“A little overused for my taste,” Melissa frowns. “But I get the attraction. As like as not, these copper/silver/gold castles or trees are part of the underworld and connote an image of the unnatural and strange.”
Fairy Tale of the Month: February 2020 The Three Kingdoms – Part Three
“Speaking of unnatural images,” I say, draining my teacup, “when our Russian youth is abandoned by his brothers, he first comes across an inch-high old man with a cubit-long beard. Now, little old men with long beards are common enough, but this fellow is extreme.”
Melissa gives me a laughing smile. “I’ll suppose that has to do with the Russians’ bent toward exaggeration, which carries over into the tall giant lying in a small house.”
“He bothers me, too,” I say. “I am haunted by the notion that I have heard of him before.”
“Well,” Melissa reflects, “there are sleeping giants, like the Russian Svyatogor, and giants who are too big to live in houses, like the Welsh Bran, but I have not come across a tall giant in a small house before.”
I pour myself more tea. “Then those two visits are followed by a visit to Baba Yaga and her house on chicken legs.”
“Certainly unnatural but rather familiar to fairy-tale readers.” Melissa nods.
“Wait.” I put my teacup down. “I discern a pattern. I remember you describing The Underworld Adventure as being in three acts, the descent, the return, and the reclaiming of the bride. Here I see two acts that mirror each other.”
“How’s that?” Melissa peers into the teapot to see if there is more.
“In act one, after the dragon has lowered him into the underworld, each princess sends the youth on to the next kingdom. In each kingdom he is fed, receives a gift, and asks for marriage; all rather genteel and orderly.
“In act two, after he is abandoned by his brothers, he stumbles about, encountering rather frightening beings. The first one sends him to the second one, and the second one sends him to the third one, following the same pattern as the princesses.
“In act one, after the golden princess agrees to marry him, he retraces his steps, collecting the other princesses in his progress, returning to the underworld entrance.
“In act two, he is on the back of an eagle, feeding it meat until he runs out, at which point the eagle takes a chunk out of him; a pretty messy retreat.
“In other words, act one is sedate and orderly, act two, while the action is constructed in a similar manner, is full of disorder and danger.”
Melissa temples her fingers together. “About that bite the eagle takes out of his shoulder—the wording of the story is, ‘. . . dragged him out through the same hole to Russia.’ Which hole? The one just created in the youth’s shoulder or the same hole as at the start of the story?”
“Yes, I know,” I say. “That stopped me too. I wonder if we are being misled by translation. There is what the original teller intended, what the collector of the tale heard, and how that was translated into English.
“I feel having the youth dragged through the hole in his own shoulder is a little too surreal even for the Russians.”
Melissa smiles sadly. “I knew a Russian once. Actually, I married him. I wouldn’t put it past them.”
I’m not going to pry.