Year of the Witch: The Whirlwind’s Castle

After last week I think we are all due a story about a witch who is actually having fun and this Finnish story from Ruth Manning-Sanders’ collection A Cauldron of Witches is here to oblige. It opens with a king and queen and their two young sons Marko and Nicko, who are all very happy until the day the queen goes for a walk in her own garden and vanishes utterly. Years pass. The princes grow up.

When Marko is old enough, he decides to ride forth on a quest to find his mother and doesn’t so much as wait for his father’s blessing before he’s out the door. Impatience appears to be key trait of his – when an old lady steps on the road in front of him and asks where he’s going, Marko barely gives her the time of day. She offers to send him in the right direction. “If I took advice from every old fool I met,” Marko retorts, “I should soon get to my journey’s end shouldn’t I?” With that he hits the old lady with the butt of his whip and carries on his obviously doomed way.

Weeks pass. Nicko declares his intention to find both brother and mother, to his father’s understandable horror – if Nicko does not return the king will have lost his entire family and there’s no reason to think Nicko will succeed other than this being a fairy tale and him being the only prince left to get the job done. Nicko, at least, accepts his father’s blessing before he goes on his way. Like Marko before him, he meets an old lady on the road. Unlike Marko, he courteously asks what is the matter. “There is much, much the matter,” the old lady informs him. “All is wrong as wrong can be. But if you listen to me, all that is wrong can be put right.”

Nicko has acquired good manners from somewhere because he insists the old lady sit down and share a meal with him before they talk further about this whole ‘everything is terrible’ business. She ploughs steadily through the supplies he brought from the castle until every scrap is gone and then coolly dissects every single one of Nicko’s problems. Where’s his mum? Kidnapped by the Whirlwind and locked up in the castle on that hill over there. Where’s Marko? Also kidnapped because he’s an idiot who won’t listen to what other people have to say. How to rescue the pair of them? Wait until the Whirlwind whirls off then sneak in while he’s gone. Also, Marko sucks as a person and Nicko should not trust him as far as he can throw him.

Nicko is too loyal a brother to hear the old lady on that last point. She gives him her own blessing anyway and disappears on the spot, because obviously she is a witch. Nicko rides off the indicated hill, where there is indeed a castle, and before long the dreadful Whirlwind whizzes by. This is a creature of glaring eyes and long hair, clawed hands snatching indiscriminately at everything in his way. Though he spots Nicko straight off, he is in too much of a ferocious hurry to turn aside and capture him. So Nicko walks up to the door of the castle and just knocks. The door is opened by another of the Whirlwind’s captives, a girl who warns Nicko to escape while he can. He gently shifts her out of his way and goes looking for his lost relations.

He finds his mother and brother tied to chairs and is quick to free them. The long-awaited reunion with his mother is equally brief. They have to get out of there before the Whirlwind returns, and Nicko asks the girl to come with them. So they run for the door, the four of them, with Marko in the lead and Nicko at the back. Which is how the queen and the girl flee down the hill, and Marko can slam the door in Nicko’s face, locking him inside the castle. If Marko can’t play the hero, he’s certainly not going to let his brother have the glory.

So Nicko is stuck. He searches the castle for another way out but there is a reason why his mother was trapped there so long – the place is locked down tight. Nicko comes to a room where he finds a staff made of ebony, heavily carved and inscribed with the words Bah mek tant a rebeck. When Nicko reads the words aloud, a completely naked man appears from nowhere and asks what he desires. Nicko barely even startles. “Oh to get out of this accursed castle!” he replies, heartfelt, and the naked man picks him up. If this is the kind of magic that the Whirlwind accumulates, he must throw some really interesting parties.

Nicko is duly deposited outside the castle, where his horse is still waiting, and the naked man vanishes. As Nicko is riding down the hill, he sees the witch is waiting for him too. After indulging in a little ‘I told you so’, she gets to business. Marko needs to be dealt with. “There will be no peace for you, or for your father, or for your mother whilst that rascal remains in your father’s palace. Now will you take my advice?” Nicko agrees. The witch transforms him into ‘Okkin the shoemaker’, complete with shoe shop and royal clientele. Marko comes in for a pair of shoes, unaware that he is ordering around his own brother. He doesn’t even pay for his new footwear, claiming he wants to test them out thoroughly to make sure they are worth the price. He is, in short, the nightmare of retail workers everywhere, but there’s witchcraft at work here, and when Marko walks off he cannot stop walking. He walks and walks, right out of the story.

No one misses him. Nicko is restored to himself, marries the girl he freed from the Whirlwind’s castle and gets his happy ending as an only child.

There are not a lot of helpful witches out there, statistically speaking, but once you manage to get a witch on side you are set, because witches have a tendency to take things personally and that extends to the exclusive club they take under their wings. You need not bother to take vengeance yourself; a witch is infinitely better at that sort of thing. There is also a dark tinge of irony to the curse in this story – more than one witch is danced to death in fairy tales, but this witch is not only in complete control of her own feet, she can send her enemies walking on a one-way trip out of her life.

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Year of the Witch: The White Bride and the Black Bride

Trigger warning: racism

This German fairy tale is from Vintage Grimm and you can probably guess what’s coming just from the title. Let’s all take deep calming breaths because we are definitely going to need them.

It begins with three women – mother, daughter, stepdaughter – who are out in the fields when they meet God. You know, like you do. He’s disguised himself as a peasant, because that’s an excellent use of ineffable resources, and asks the women for directions to the village. The mother tells him to look for himself. The stepdaughter adds sarcastically that he ought to bring a signpost with him, if he’s so worried about directions. The stepdaughter takes pity on him and shows the right way. God is so offended by the first two that he ‘cursed them so that they became black as night and ugly as sin’. Oh, but wait, it gets even worse. He rewards the stepdaughter with three wishes and the first thing she asks for is beauty and purity, so he literally whitens her skin. Then she asks for a load of money and guaranteed entry into heaven. I expect she also voted for Donald Trump while she was at it.

Deep breaths, remember, deep and calming breaths.

So, God goes off to mess with other people and the stepdaughter goes home as rich and white as it is possible for her to be, and astonishingly her family cannot stand her, but she has a brother called Reginer who sat out the whole ‘meet God in a field’ incident and he’s very fond of her. He wants to paint her picture so that he can look at her all the time, and she agrees sit for the picture on the condition that only he ever sees it.

Thing is, Reginer lives in the palace of the king, where he is a coachman. The king has just lost his very beautiful wife and is sad because he doesn’t think he can find a woman attractive enough to replace her. Word of the portrait reaches his ear and he flexes his kingly decrees to have it brought before him. It turns out that Reginer’s sister bears a striking similarity to the dead queen and the king simply has to marry her right away. Decking Reginer out in finery fit for a future brother-in-law, he sends him off to fetch the stepdaughter, who is only too happy to be pressganged onto a throne. All well and good for them, but the mother and daughter who have had to share a house with her are by now WELL AND TRULY OVER IT, and decide to take matters into their own hands through use of witchcraft. Who can blame them, honestly.

The mother steals away half of Reginer’s sight and half of her stepdaughter’s hearing, then sits in the carriage with her own daughter and awaits their opportunity. When Reginer calls back to remind his sister to take care of her appearance, in preparation for meeting the king, the stepdaughter can’t hear him properly and the mother declares Reginer actually suggested that the two young women in the carriage should swap clothes. So the stepdaughter gives up her golden gown and trades it for the other girl’s dull grey outfit. Then both the mother and daughter shove the stepdaughter out the window of the carriage into a river, where she immediately turns into a duck. What is it about the Grimm brothers and women who turn into ducks? Why is that such a consistent theme?

Anyway, as far as the witches in the carriage are concerned, the stepdaughter is dead and gone and they soon arrive at the court of the king. When he sees his bride-to-be is not as advertised, he orders that Reginer be thrown in a pit of snakes, but the witches get to work and in the end the king marries the false bride. I can’t imagine he’s a pleasant husband, but hey, they get a palace and some pretty clothes out of it.

One night, a little white duck swims up the drain into the palace kitchen and asks a kitchen boy to light a fire for her. He obligingly does so and catches her up on court gossip, including her brother’s imprisonment and the king’s marriage. The white duck swims away in distress. That does not stop her returning the next night, and the next, until the kitchen boy cannot stand it any more and tells the king. The king comes down to the kitchen, takes one look at the duck and whacks off her head with a sword.

She promptly turns back into a young woman and tells him everything. Her priority is that her brother be taken out of the snake pit; the king’s priority is taking revenge on his wife and mother-in-law. The story expects us to believe that the older witch is SO ABSENT-MINDED that she doesn’t realise he’s onto her and condemns herself and her daughter to execution in a barrel of nails. So the witches die horrible deaths, the white bride gets royal privilege on top of everything else, her clueless brother is given wealth instead of snakes, and the king gets to do whatever he wants.

I had not read this story before. I was in two minds about whether to include it in the Year of the Witch at all, but I think it does no one any favours to pretend that fairy tales such as this one don’t exist, even if they have mercifully fallen by the wayside over the centuries since the Grimms first wrote them down. While I do truly believe fairy tales as a whole are much greater than their worst elements, much stronger than the bigotry of past storytellers, that does not erase or exonerate the racism and misogyny that can be found threaded through so many of them like dry rot. When I hear complaints about fairy tales being sanitised, I have to wonder about the real issue with modern adaptations when this is what the original looks like. I’m not sure this story can possibly be salvaged but pretty much anything would be better than what it is. We have to do better.

Year of the Witch: The Witch of Fraddam

There are fairy tales that are about witches and their personal relationships with Hell, and then there are Ruth Manning-Sanders’ fairy tales about witches and their personal relationships with Hell – including that memorable time in ‘The Blackstairs Mountain’ when a bunch of witches threw an absolutely feral party and Satan showed up to play a few tunes, and that other time in ‘Old Witch Boneyleg’ when Satan was invited to a dinner party but had to rescue his witch bestie from her own oven instead. Fairy tale theology is flexible, is what I’m saying, and witches hang out with whoever the quite literal hell they choose.

In this Cornish story, from Ruth Manning-Sanders’ collection Peter and the Piskies, we are introduced to the Witch of Fraddam and her arch-nemesis Marec the Enchanter. She is doing her level best to become a rural supervillain, raising storms, blighting crops and ill-wishing people and beasts alike. Marec the Enchanter keeps thwarting her. One night the witch leaps astride a ragwort stalk and swoops off to a cliff where she opens a tunnel in a very showy and destructive way. From the mouth of it emerges a demon.

He casually greets the witch as a friend, which she’s not having in the least. He’s supposed to be helping her defeat her nemesis. “Marec the Enchanter still walks the earth, despite all I can do, and all you promised!” she shrieks. “Did I promise,” the demon remarks delicately. “I rather think, madam, that I merely made a bargain.” The witch does not have much patience with his ‘hair-splitting’. She screams at him, he grins at her, and the upshot of it all is that he irritates her into signing over her soul. This is a painful process. He strips off a piece of skin from her forearm, writes up a contract in her blood and gets her to sign.

Neither of them are terribly enthusiastic, which is understandable on the witch’s side and a bit offensive on the demon’s. He asks her what she wants. “To destr-r-r-roy the Enchanter Marec!” the witch screeches. The demon balks. That task is a lot harder than he is willing to take on, soul or no soul, so he weasels out of it by offering the witch advice and getting her to do all the legwork herself. There is a flower that grows blue streaked with white, blooming only at midnight, that will make an irresistibly sweet drink. Its berries are black streaked with purple and they will make a hell-broth. The sweet drink is a lure for Marec’s horse; the hell-broth is to be thrown upon the enchanter himself, to bring him under the witch’s power.

Step one: harvest the flower and berries. Step two: brew up the potions. Step three: set up an ambush. So far, so good – the witch is safely hidden behind a hedge, the sweet drink set out in a tub, the hell-broth in a crock at her elbow. Marec the Enchanter approaches and his horse is drawn to the fragrant contents of the tub. The witch is ready…she’s set…

Oh hey, guess what, Marec is telepathic. No, really, he ‘could hear her thoughts speaking’, divines the whole plan in a heartbeat and instructs his horse to kick over the tub instead of drinking. The tub tumbles into the crock, the crock knocks over the witch, the witch falls into the tub, the tub is now a COFFIN. Hear that wind blowing? The wind is the demon. He whisks up the coffin and drops it into the sea.

And so the witch becomes a sea-bound undead thing, floating about in her coffin, still raising storms with her whirling ladle – but the Enchanter Marec is still there to stop her, blowing his trumpet to calm the waves. Arch-enemies they remain, then, on and on without end.

This story is basically a superhero comic. It ought to be a superhero comic. Even damnation could not keep these nemeses apart and I think that’s beautiful.

Year of the Witch: The Nine White Sheep

This fairy tale is French and ha, Perrault didn’t get his hands on it first so I have hope. It is from Ruth Manning-Sanders’ collection Jonnikin and the Flying Basket, published by E.P. Dutton & Co, Inc., in 1969. The story introduces us to Milia, who at the age of fourteen is raising her NINE LITTLE BROTHERS after the death of their parents. She is at least wealthy enough to do it the fun way, in a nice house with a nurse to help out. Her heart being about the size of a county, Milia has also become unofficial guardian of the local bird population, feeding them in her beautiful garden. A regular and beloved visitor is a red and blue parrot who chats to Milia as a friend and hints at a tragic past that he will not divulge in detail.

The nine brothers go into the woods to pick wild strawberries for Milia’s fifteenth birthday and in their enthusiasm, they wander too far. They come to a little house. Now, I am sure there are little houses in the woods that do not belong to witches. Red Riding Hood’s granny lived in one – which now I come to think of it, does not actually prove anything, who knows what her day job was before retirement, ill health and harassment by wolves? To return to my point, not every cottage in the middle of the deep dark forest is going to have chicken legs or gingerbread walls, but one must be prepared for the possibility.

The little boys are not prepared. They knock on the door to ask for water and the door is opened by a witch whose tongue is so long it wraps around her body SEVEN TIMES. I feel like a frog-related curse was involved somewhere in that. Seeing the children’s terror, the witch begins to cry and bemoan her appearance. “What’s a poor old body to do if her looks scare away everyone who comes to call on her?” she wails. It is a mystery how she is able to talk at all, given the complicated tongue situation. The boys, who have a nurse with Opinions on due courtesy, pull themselves together immediately and the eldest politely asks for the water. The witch invites them all in and pets them like puppies as they drink, and when they are done she asks for payment.

The eldest brother assures her that his sister will settle their bill, whatever it is, but the witch does not want money. “It’s a little husband I’m wanting,” she leers. “Now which of your is going to be my little husband?” The eldest brother chokes out something about asking his sister and the lot of them bolt, leaving the horrible creepy witch and her horrible creepy cottage behind. When they tell Milia what happened, she reacts with the appropriate outrage. “What an idea! She shan’t have any one of you!”

So when the witch comes to their house the next morning to demand her chosen payment, Milia spreads her arms wide to physically block the way while her brothers hide behind her, and she tells the witch – quite politely – to get out. The witch reacts with all the maturity you might expect, dumping Milia in a grassy plain in the middle of nowhere and transforming all of her brothers into sheep.

Milia is, naturally, upset. She’s a pragmatic soul, however, and makes the best of her situation. The nine little sheep have plenty to eat on the plain, and Milia takes as good care of them now as she did when they were humans. She takes care of herself, too, building a hut with her bare hands, and her friend the parrot visits three times a day with care packages in a basket. Not your average bird, that one. Milia is quite content in her new life of post-curse pastoral minimalism.

The witch, who was probably hoping for frantic angst à la Wild Swans and Seven Ravens, realises she miscalculated and is livid about it. She blows a fog across the plain and when it lifts, the sheep have been spirited away. Milia is truly distraught now, but is not permitted to cry for long. The parrot takes charge. “The witch has taken the nine white sheep and put them in her barn,” he says. “Oh yes, she will feed them well; but when they are fat enough she will eat them.” Fortunately he knows the way from the plain to the witch’s house, and it doesn’t seem to be that far. He also has a few more tips and tricks for dealing with the witch’s vindictive magic. Milia is to refuse anything the witch offers her, at the risk of being turned into a statue, and ask only for a corner to sleep in.

The witch pulls out all the stops to tempt Milia. She offers her cake and wine, jewellery and ballgowns. “It shall never be said that a guest comes to my house without carrying away some mark of my bounty,” the witch croons, like the shocking liar that she is. Milia’s polite but iron-clad refusals aggravate her dreadfully, but at length the witch has to accept them and sulk upstairs to come up with some other way to get a hold on her.

When the witch finally drops off to sleep, Milia hurries to the window to let in the parrot. He is armed with a knife. He instructs Milia to take the knife and kill the witch, and when she protests that she just can’t do it, he goes ahead and murders the witch himself. Got to say, did not see that coming. When the parrot comes downstairs, he has transformed into a handsome young man. Yes, his hinted backstory was a curse that he’s now broken for himself. He’s also filched the witch’s chemise, which was the source of her magic. When Milia puts it on, she can just command her brothers be turned back into themselves and it happens.

Then the ex-parrot leads her through the house and she disenchants the witch’s other prisoners, including a king, queen and assorted courtiers. Overjoyed to be free, they offer Milia everything from a fortune to eternal devotion, but she’s got her brothers and she’s got her life back so she’s just fine as she is. She magics up a row of carriages to send the dignitaries home, then turns the big grassy plain back into her house. The parrot who is not a parrot moves in with her and they get married, and Milia – who could find happiness while living in a hut with cursed sheep for brothers – is so contented she cannot find any further use for the chemise at all. She washes it, and while it is lying the sun to dry it is stolen by a passing tramp as a gift for his wife. As for what becomes of it from there, who knows? Not Milia. She’s already got her happily ever after.

It is interesting to compare Milia’s practical compromise to Elisa, the heroine of Andersen’s fairy tale the Wild Swans, who spends the entire story torturing herself to lift the curse from her brothers. Milia is not silenced by the curse on her family; she treats it as a hindrance to be manoeuvred around. Which is not to say Elisa had no right to her desperation and that her brothers’ humanity was not worth fighting for – but there are other ways to live, less brutal forms of defiance. Also, sometimes, there is a parrot with a knife, who has frankly raised my expectations of cursed fairy tale birds everywhere.

Year of the Witch: The Witch and the Sister of the Sun

This story is taken from Alexander Afanasyev’s Russian Fairy Folk Tales. I am terribly excited about getting my hands on this book, which I have been promised contains a great deal of witchy goodness, and this specific story has a very intriguing title. It begins by introducing us to a royal family with a son named Iván Tsarévich, a boy who has never been able to speak. One of his favourite people in the world is a groom who tells him stories. Then comes a day when the groom tells him something else. “Your mother will soon have a daughter, and you will have a sister. She will be a dreadful witch and will eat up your father and your mother and all their subjects.”

Iván is so struck by this confronting revelation that he is driven to speak for the first time in his entire life, to ask his father for a horse, and his father is so struck by that revelation that he gives one without question. Probably he would have done better to ask a lot of questions. Iván rides away to look for a new family. I am not joking. He comes across an elderly pair of seamstresses and asks them to take him in. Unfortunately, as soon as they have finished breaking a box and sewing it back together – a somehow significant task? – Death will come for them, so they regretfully send Iván away.

Next he meets a man called Vertodúb and literally says to him, “Will you take me as your son?” Vertodúb, however, is turning oak trees around and when his task is done Death will come for him as well. Iván rides away in tears. Then he comes to Vertogór, who is turning mountains for his own cosmic purposes and will die when he is done. But in time Iván comes to the Sister of the Sun, who is happy to adopt him and has no pressing engagements with Death.

Though he is safe and beloved with his new mother, Iván is desperate to know what has happened in his kingdom – mostly because he has a very clear idea of what has happened in his kingdom. I mean, it was spelled out pretty explicitly. Still, he climbs to the very top of a mountain in order to glimpse the place he left behind and sees a wasteland where everything has been devoured. His weeping draws the concern of the Sister of the Sun, but he won’t tell her what’s wrong, insisting that the wind blew something into his eye. After he has climbed the mountain for a second time and excused his grief the same way, the Sun steps in, telling the wind to just stop blowing. So when Iván climbs the mountain for a third time, he is forced to explain himself to his adoptive mother. He is probably too late to do any earthly good, but he wants to go home and do something.

And lucky for him, his mum is amazing, with magic at her disposal. She gives him a brush, a comb and two apples, which are of course rather more than they appear. When Iván throws the brush, it becomes a vast range of mountains. Vertogór’s death is indefinitely postponed! When Iván throws the comb, it transforms into an enormous forest of oak trees. Vertodúb can’t die until every one is turned! When Iván comes to the seamstresses, he gives each an apple and they are restored to youth. What’s more, they have a gift to offer in return: a handkerchief that will turn into a lake.

So onward goes Iván, to the horror show of his old home, where his sister runs to greet him like they are long-lost relatives instead of mass murderer and soon-to-be latest victim. She sits Iván down in front of a harp and tells him to play for her while she goes to fetch dinner. This is obviously so that she knows exactly where he is at all times while she is getting ready for her dinner, but to really spell it out, a little mouse pokes its head out and hisses at Iván to run for his life. He follows that advice. The mouse runs up and down the harp, to trick the witch into believing Iván is still there, then scampers back into hiding when she returns. Realising that Iván has bolted, the witch sets off in unnaturally swift pursuit. He waves the handkerchief and produces a lake, which buys him a little time, but his sister is a very fast swimmer and she is soon close at his heels again.

Iván rides frantically past Vertogór, who throws oak trees in the witch’s path. She chews right through the obstacle. Next Vertodúb sticks a pile of mountains in her way. She scales them like a homicidal mountain goat, but it wins Iván enough time to flee to his adoptive mother’s house.

Not that that stops the witch for a minute. She demands that Iván be handed out to her. The Sun refuses. Then the witch proposes a test: she and her brother will lay upon scales and whoever is the heavier will be the victor. This, the Sun agrees to. Iván sits upon the scales first. When the witch goes to stand upon the other scale, her weight is such that Iván flies off the scale into the sky. He is safe with the Sun – and the witch remains on the earth, where no one is safe at all.

This is an unnerving story on a number of levels, beginning with the prophecy of the witch’s birth, which feels like it should have been a kingdom-wide public service announcement so that more than one person could survive the oncoming destruction. Then there is Iván’s speech disability which just vanishes away, never to be mentioned again, like all he needed to talk was to be terrified out of his wits.

And there is the fact that the witch is not defeated; she reaches a stalemate against forces that she cannot overpower, but there is nothing to stop her continuing to devour whatever she wishes, unless Iván returns with significantly more firepower. The individual who comes closest to defeating the witch is the mouse. The witch is more than a villain – she is a devourer, a destroyer. She is a one-woman apocalypse.

Year of the Witch: Jack and the Butter-Milk

Regular readers of this blog may be aware that I have opinions about Jacks, primarily that I don’t trust them as far as an angry giant can throw them and that’s a pretty long way. In this English story, taken from The Lore of the Land by Jennifer Westwood and Jacqueline Simpson, the Jack in question is a seller of butter-milk. One day he runs into a witch who lays down terms in a somewhat confrontational way: either he hands over the butter-milk or she’ll put him her bag. Being a Jack, he goes with option B and thus goes into the bag.

The witch is on her way home, newly acquired Jack and all, when she remembers that she left some of her shopping behind in the town. Jack is too heavy for her to just carry him all the way back down the road so she leaves the bag in the charge of a group of workmen. As soon as she’s gone, Jack calls out to offer the men a deal: he gives them butter-milk and they let him free, refilling the bag with thorns so the witch won’t realise he’s gone until it’s too late to catch him. And she doesn’t realise, even as the thorns prickle her on the way home, mistaking them for pins in Jack’s clothes. When she finally opens the bag, however, she flies into a fury. Catching Jack and boiling him is a matter of principle for her now.

Well, she completes step one in her plan the next day, managing to catch Jack and stuff him back in her impressively sized bag. Keeping him there is another matter. Forced to leave him under the eye of a crew of road-menders, she discovers too late that Jack sweet-talked the lot of them into letting him go and filling the bag with stones instead.

And so dawns day three of the Kill Jack scheme. You might think the simpler route here would be to ambush Jack and deal with him on the spot instead of taking him home, but the witch is very committed at this point to doing things a certain way. She grabs Jack. She squashes him into her bag. She goes straight home, not giving him the opportunity to weasel his way to freedom. But she has to leave the house, presumably to fetch water for boiling him in – the story is unclear on this point – and Jack makes full use of her absence. He gets himself out of the bag, fills it with every single pot she possesses and vamooses up the chimney. Jacks, I’m telling you, they’re just like that.

The witch returns. She empties out the bag and ends up shattering all her pots. That’s that; even she has to admit defeat. As The Lore of the Land wryly remarks, ‘As in many folktales, the moral seems to be that no one, not even a witch, gets more than three goes at outsmarting a boy called Jack’. Truer words have never been said.

Year of the Witch: The Three Ivans

This Russian story comes from Ruth Manning-Sanders’ collection A Book of Sorcerers and Spells, and it is a long one, so pick a comfortable chair and settle in because there’s a quest to be getting on with.

The story begins with a king and queen who long for a child. One day the queen is so overcome by her misery that she retreats to the meadows outside the castle to weep in private, only privacy is hard to come by as a royal and before long an old woman appears out of nowhere to inquire into the cause of her grief. When the queen explains what she desires, the old woman points out a pool where a golden pike can be found, and whosoever eats that pike will be certain of bearing a child.

That’s rough on the fish but great news for the queen, who goes straight to her husband to make him catch it for her. He in turn gets his fishermen on the case and when they return with the pike, it is handed over to the cook to prepare a truly magical meal for the queen. She eats her fill, but the fish is so big that she can only manage half of it. The other half returns to the kitchens. The cook and the gardener’s wife share what is left. It is not surprising, then, that all three women give birth on the same day. Their sons share more than a birthday; they look so much alike that they may as well be triplets, and the king and queen decide they may as well just adopt the other two. They lean into the inherent confusion of the situation by giving all the boys the same name: Ivan King’s Son, Ivan Cook’s Son and Ivan Gardener’s Son.

The Ivans grow up and grow restless. The king’s son suggests that they go forth to seek adventure. The others are on board with that plan but first need to choose a leader among themselves. They agree that whoever can lift a large stone in the garden will be proven the strongest and accordingly the best fit for leadership, because everyone knows that making important decisions is all about what you can bench press. The king’s son tries first and fails to lift the stone. The cook’s son tries next and cannot lift it either. The gardener’s son gives the stone a good kick and it rolls to the far end of the garden where it shatters, every piece becoming a sapling tree.

Well, we know he’s a problem solver. That’s a start.

Where the stone had stood, there is now a deep hole and a staircase descending into it. The boys head down, led by the gardener’s son, and emerge into a stable where three beautiful horses stand, apparently waiting for them. The Ivans ride up the steps and out into the world, across mountains and meadows and into the depths of a forest. In the shadow of the trees they find a hut. It stands on chicken’s legs and is turning, unnervingly, in circles.

The gardener’s son calls out to it. “Little hut, little hut, turn your back to the forest, your face to us, and stand still.” For a wonder, the house does what he says. The three Ivans enter the house and come face to face with Old Witch Boneyleg – as I understand it, basically another name for Baba Yaga. “I have smelled three Russian souls,” she snarls. “Now my eyes see them. Now my hand shall kill them, and they shall be my dinner.”

The gardener’s son speaks up again. “Little mother, before you do that we will kill you. So get up off the floor and behave yourself.” WOW. And like her house, Boneyleg listens to him. She asks where they are going and how she can help them, and when they tell her they seek heroic adventures, she tells them exactly where to go – the bridge across the River Sorodin, where they will find three ogres and the great adventure of death. Ivan Gardener’s Son is brimming with confidence. He declares they will go and fight the ogres, and has the brass to ask for a night’s lodging in the witch’s house.

He gets it, too. After a dinner which does not involve Boneyleg eating the three of them, she asks if they are happy to all look the same as they do. The gardener’s son says that is their fate; Boneyleg snorts out, “Bah! What is Fate?” I’d like that on a shirt. Boneyleg touches each Ivan’s head and in a moment the king’s son has brown hair, the cook’s son has black hair and the gardener’s son is blond, so now she can at least tell the irritating kids apart. In the morning Boneyleg watches the Ivans ride away and comments to herself, “It seems I am a wicked old woman. I have sent them to their deaths.” I kind of want that on a shirt too.

The Ivans ride all day and by nightfall they have come to an iron bridge. The banks of the river are piled knee high in human bones. The king’s son and the cook’s son are deeply unnerved, but the sight only fires up their brother’s stubborn streak. He looks around and spots a very convenient little wooden hut, complete with pasture for their horses. The Ivans settle there for the night with the king’s son standing watch, but after some time pacing about with his sword and shield, Ivan King’s Son drifts off to sleep in a bush. Fortunately, the gardener’s son is a light sleeper and comes to check on him. While Ivan Gardener’s Son is outside, looking about for his brother, the river surges wildly and across the iron bridge comes a six-headed ogre. He is mounted on a black horse with a raven on his shoulder and a huge black dog running behind.

Partway across the bridge, the horse balks and the raven flaps frantically, the dog bristling against an unseen enemy on the ground. “Do you fancy Ivan Gardener’s Son is here?” the ogre asks of them. “I think he is not born yet. But if he is born, he is not yet fit for war. If he is fit for war and comes here, I will sit him on one of my hands, and with the other hand I will clap upon him.” Ivan Gardener’s Son emerges from beneath the bridge to shout his defiance, calling the ogre ‘Unclean Strength’ like the bull-headed little daredevil that he is. The two of them lunge at each other, swords clashing. The earth shakes beneath the fight, the river flooding its banks. Ivan succeeds in hacking off one head after another, until the ogre is dead at his feet. After piling the heads beneath the bridge, he proceeds to chop up the rest of the ogre’s body and throws the lot into the river. The raven and dog flee from him, but Ivan catches the ogre’s horse and ties it alongside his own.

In the morning, the gardener’s son asks his brother how he passed the night and laughs when the king’s son calls it quiet, but does not enlighten him. Neither of the other Ivans notices the big black horse in the meadow. They spend the day hunting and that night the cook’s son takes his turn to keep watch. Like his brother before him, he quickly falls asleep and the gardener’s son gets up to take his place. He waits, watching, and sure enough an ogre rides to the bridge: nine-headed, with a raven on each shoulder and three dogs loping at his heels. “If Ivan Gardener’s Son is here, well and good,” the ogre says aloud. “The eagles shall eat of his flesh, and his bones shall be strewn on the banks of the River Sorodin.”

Ivan leaps forward to challenge that declaration and they fight savagely. It looks like Ivan has gained the upper hand, chopping off six of the ogre’s heads, when the ogre finally gets hands on him and shoves him with brute force knee-deep into the ground, so that he cannot move. Ivan throws a handful of dirt into the ogre’s eyes, blinding him just long enough to take off his remaining heads. He deals with the body as before, leaving the heads beneath the bridge and throwing the rest into the river, then he ties up the horse with the others.

The cook’s son somehow notices nothing and the gardener’s son laughs at him too. They hunt again but come nightfall it is officially Ivan Gardener’s Son’s turn to keep watch and he is anxious enough about it to try and rely on his brothers again. He places a bowl of water on the table in the hut. If it stays half-full of water, all will be well, but he warns them that if the water overflows he will be in dire need of their help and they must ride to his side on the ogres’ black horses. His brothers agree without question. They watch the water diligently for a while, then less diligently, and then they are asleep.

Ivan Gardener’s Son is at the bridge. An enormous winged horse gallops towards him, its hair all silver and gold, and on its back rides a twelve-headed ogre. “Is Ivan Gardener’s Son here, or is he not?” the ogre demands. “If he is here I have but to touch him with my fiery finger, and not even his ashes will remain to show where once he stood.” He literally breathes fire. No wonder Boneyleg was certain this quest led to death.

But Ivan Gardener’s Son is stubborn to the last. He confronts the ogre, hacking off three heads in a single blow, only to watch on in horror as the ogre simply picks them up and sticks them back on. Then the ogre grabs him and begins to shove him deep into the earth. Up to the waist, terrified, Ivan shouts for his brothers, hurling his iron glove at the hut to wake them – but they do not wake. Ivan struggles out of the earth and fights with redoubled desperation. He takes off nine of the ogre’s heads, but the creature is practically a hydra, putting the heads back on as fast as Ivan chop them off. The ogre grapples with Ivan again, thrusting him into the ground until he is in earth to the shoulders. “Come, brothers, come!” Ivan Gardener’s Son screams, and hurls his hat in the direction of the hut. And what a hat it must be, because the force of the throw knocks the hut to bits and finally rouses the other two Ivans. They start awake, look at the bowl and see the water has turned to blood, spilling over the edges. The Ivans leap up, running to loose the horses.

While King’s Son and Cook’s Son pull their brother free, the big black horses descend upon the twelve-headed ogre like they’ve been waiting for this opportunity for years. The Ivans charge into the fray – Ivan Gardener’s Son cuts off the ogre’s fiery finger and in so doing prevents him from healing himself. The winged horse flies away; the dogs and ravens take off; the ogre is slowly, methodically, hacked up and the battle is won.

Ivan Gardener’s Son strokes the horses and thanks them for their service before letting them loose to return to their homes, wherever that might be. Exhausted, the gardener’s son then collapses into a deep sleep and dreams a very disturbing dream, in which Boneyleg comes to him with a warning. The battle may very well be won, but the war is not, for the ogres had wives and a mother and they are plotting terrible vengeance. Boneyleg, however, is on the Ivans’ side. While a mercurial ally, she is an invaluable one and gives Ivan Gardener’s Son a golden pebble that will allow him to transform into a bird. In this disguise, he will be able to infiltrate the palace of the ogresses.

Ivan wakes, and there’s the pebble in his hand. He puts it in his mouth, turns into a bird and flies to a white stone palace where the ogres’ mother and wives live. They are currently deep in mourning. The appearance of an adorable little bird with a golden crest is a welcome distraction, to be fed and fussed over and told of all their grief. “All my sons are gone; the waves of the River Sorodin have carried away their dead bodies; their heads lie piled one on top of the other under the iron bridge that spans the River Sorodin,” the ogres’ mother weeps. “Ah me! Ah me! Who will now avenge my loss?”

It is a clarion call. The wife of the first ogre declares, “It is I who will avenge our loss.” She plans to turn herself into an apple tree, to tempt the Ivans in a very Biblical fashion, but if they eat of her fruit they will burst. The wife of the second ogre rallies to the idea, deciding to turn herself into a well, so that should the Ivans evade the threat of the apple tree they will kill themselves drinking from her. The third wife cries that she will turn herself into a bed of soft moss, to tempt the weary young warriors, only to set fire to whoever lies upon her.

Fair warning, I am now Team Ogresses.

Ivan Gardener’s Son returns to his brothers to warn them of the dangers ahead and together they ride for home. When he sees the apple tree, Ivan Gardener’s Son slashes his sword across its trunk and it sinks into the earth with a scream. He does the same to the well and to the bed of moss, and after that he thinks that they are safe. I am not surprised by this turn of events, but neither am I HAPPY.

As the Ivans ride on, an old woman comes tottering toward them, begging for a coin. Ivan Gardener’s son slows to lean down to her and she grabs hold of him, dragging him to the ground, then through the ground. His brothers are left behind in helpless panic, with no idea where Ivan Gardener’s Son can be now.

He is, in fact, in a cave, face-to-face with the ogres’ wizened elderly father, whose eyebrows and eyelashes are so long that they leave him blinded. The ogres’ mother, kidnapper most devious, brings him up to speed on the situation and demands to know what he’s going to do about it. Personally she favours boiling oil.

The ogres’ father has his own ideas. First he calls twelve servants to prop up his excessive hair with iron forks so he can see Ivan. Then he dismisses his raging wife’s grief as a tantrum and sends her out so he can talk to Ivan alone. “That woman gets on my nerves,” he remarks, “she is no good to me. I shall push her into a pool and drown her one of these days. Now as for you, little Ivan Gardener’s Son, I will spare your life if you will go to the Invisible Kingdom and bring from there the Princess Sophora. She is the wife for me, young and pretty and sweet tempered.” YIKES. Double Team Ogresses.

The Invisible Kingdom exists in the Unheard-of Realm. In order to get there, Ivan is instructed to strike the oak tree outside of the cave three times to call forth a ship, and strike the tree three times to close it up again. Well, Ivan manages step one – he gets the magic ship and sails away across land and sea. But then he looks behind him and sees an actual armada of ships of all sizes floating behind him, presumably still streaming out of the tree. One of them draws alongside Ivan’s ship and an elderly man comes aboard to offer Ivan his service. Ivan is skeptical. “What can you do?” he asks. “I can eat, Ivan Gardener’s Son,” the old man tells him, “I can eat to empty the world.”

Ivan is still unimpressed by this skillset, which he shouldn’t be because a one-man famine is a terrifying thing, but he takes on the old man anyway, and when a second old man comes up claiming the ability to drink the world dry, Ivan takes him on too. A third old man sails up; he can freeze the hottest water. A fourth old man can navigate by the stars, while a fifth old man can turn himself into a fish. By this point Ivan is starting to get a little irritated by these endless demands to join his service, but he agrees to all of them.

In this way, he arrives in the Invisible Kingdom with a flotilla of ships and a retinue of slightly alarming old men. The winds have warned Princess Sophora of their approach and she has been making preparations for months. She will not allow Ivan to come any closer until mountains of bread have been eaten and gallons of beer and wine have been drunk. Big Eater and Big Drinker set to work, ploughing through every loaf and every cask until there is none left. Sophora is horrified to hear of their success but immediately considers another strategem. She orders for Ivan to be welcomed and led to a bath house, where the water will be stoked so hot it will boil him alive.

Sophora counted without Old Man Freezer (yep, that’s the actual name Ivan calls him by). When Ivan calls to him, the old man turns the bubbling water to ice and fills the room with snow. Ivan emerges unharmed and instructs the shocked servants outside to lead him to the princess.

She’s in for a shock too. Ivan Gardener’s Son is young and handsome, and Sophora would not at all mind marrying him. “I think that you might love me?” she inquires with admirable confidence. Ivan refuses to confirm or deny that statement, but his smile gives it all away. So she comes aboard the ship and they sail off. Unfortunately Ivan is tougher to seduce than she expected and it looks like she might end up shackled to a murderous ogre of a husband, so she ditches the ship and turns herself into a star instead. Which is the most completely reasonable reaction and I have expanded Team Ogresses to include her.

Only, remember Old Man Astrologer? Turns out he can turn himself into a star as well and pushes Sophora right out of the sky, back onto the ship. Sophora cries and cries and Ivan does nothing about it so she turns herself into a fish, but Ivan has a servant to thwart her there as well – the fifth old man turns himself into a bigger, spikier fish and harasses her back into human shape.

It seems I must accept my fate,” Sophora says to Ivan, who smiles and agrees that would be best, and if something heavy landed on him at this point in time, I would have NO objections.

The ships return to the oak tree and sail inside, taking the old men with them. Ivan closes up the tree with a brisk smack of his cudgel, then he leads the princess into the cave to meet with the old ogre. In their absence, said ogre has murdered his wife, all the better to be ready for his new bride. HEAVY FALLING OBJECTS ALL AROUND. The only loose end as far as the ogre is concerned is Ivan, who he would really like to kill despite their arrangement. He weasels his way around the bargain by instructing Ivan to walk across a thin pole above a deep pit, promising that if he can manage it then Ivan will be set free.

Ivan manages the task so effortlessly that the pole does not so much as bend. “That is more than you can do, father ogre!” Sophora taunts, and the ogre’s pride is so stung that he has to try and prove her wrong. As he claws his way along the pole, it snaps and he falls to his death, shattering into a thousand shards of flint at the bottom of the pit. His servants flee; Sophora coolly proposes marriage to Ivan, who accepts, and they return to Ivan’s home where his parents and brothers throw an overjoyed wedding for the pair of them. Afterwards, the king declares Ivan Gardener’s Son as his heir and the other two Ivans swear to serve him loyally as he reigns – an oath they keep when he ascends to the throne.

I have very mixed feelings about this particular fairy tale, because it contains so many things I like – unpredictable witch! Lady ogres swearing vengeance! A princess with a lot of personality! – but the lady ogres are all killed, their very legitimate grievances are dismissed and I think we can all agree that Sophora deserves better than literally everything she has to deal with in this story.

However much I dislike Ivan Gardener’s Son, it is worth noting that he ends up being considered the best leader among his brothers, chosen over the king’s son, which is not a common phenomenon in fairy tales where birthright is strongly linked to ability. Due to this aspect it could be argued into my mental box of social justice fairy tales, but I am too upset about the ogresses to be objective about it right now.