Last week I debunked the theory that women in towers are always prisoners and that princes don’t ever need rescuing. But princesses are always the heroines. Yes? After all, they wear the pretty dresses, this is sartorial colour-coding for goodness incarnate! No one evil could possibly wear a fabulous ball gown! Well…you do know I am here to destroy your illusions, right? This week’s story comes from Hamlyn’s 1975 collection Russian Fairy Tales and let’s just say someone didn’t get the Disney memo.
Czar Bel Belanin has ruled his kingdom for thirty years without leaving his palace, without so much as mounting his horse or taking hold of a sword, when suddenly one day, out of the blue, he decides he wants to go forth and Meet People. He rides all day, until near nightfall he comes across a white tent with a horse tethered outside. Inside the tent is the Princess Blue-Eyes. She challenges the Czar to armed combat, and for some reason our agoraphobic monarch agrees. They ride against one another, clashing with swords and clubs, and on the third charge the Czar is unhorsed. Princess Blue-Eyes then leaps down to kneel over him, and wrenches out both his eyes, which she hides like a morbid hamster behind her right cheek. With no more use for the man, she throws him back on his horse and orders the beast to carry him home.
He is greeted gladly by his three sons, Vasilij, Fjodor and Ivan. Their happiness at his return turns to horror when they realise what has been done to him. Straight away the two eldest princes set out to exact vengeance, riding away on the finest horses, armed with the sharpest swords…and they are not seen again.
Three years pass. Ivan, youngest and possibly only surviving son of the Czar, is now old enough to go after his brothers, whether his father wants all this vengeance or not. Unlike his brothers, he sets off on foot. For a long time he walks, before coming across a very strange signpost. None of this such-and-such miles to wherever-you’re-going for this crossroads. If you turn left, you will marry. If you turn right, you will feast and be merry. If you continue straight on, you will lose your head.
Ivan considers this, and being neither hungry nor suicidal, decides to turn left. Outside a little cottage he finds the promised lady, a beautiful maiden who tells him she has been waiting for his arrival all along and intends to pamper him in all ways. He comes in and eats with her, but when she tries to usher him to a bed he flips her over so that she lands there instead. And oh my, what should happen but that the bed he was meant to sleep in turns upside down and catapults her down into a deep dark cellar. Nor is she the only one down there. Ivan hears his brother Fjodor calling out and lower his lance to pull his brother out. Fjodor is filthy and wounded from his long imprisonment, but the beautiful maiden still has the gall to cry out for help. As you can imagine, neither prince is especially inclined to be chivalrous at this point. It’s only when she offers them the second fastest horse in the world if they free her that Ivan grudgingly drags her out.
So off they ride, both brothers mounted on the amazing horse. They return to the crossroads and turn right, coming to a small cottage where an ugly old woman has apparently been waiting for them all along too. She tries to steer Ivan into an armchair so that he can be fed, but this prince is not so easily conned. He throws her into the chair instead and just like the bed before, it is a trap that drops its instigator down into a dark cellar. Down there Ivan finds Vasilij, in no better condition than Fjodor, covered in wounds and grime and moss. The old woman responsible for his imprisonment then tries to bribe her way to freedom. If they let her go, she promises, she will give them two bottles of miraculous water. The first, dead water, will heal any wound but kill those it touches. The second is the water of life, that heals nothing but restores all corpses that are given it. Well, that’s a useful combination. Ivan pulls her out of the cellar. He uses the dead water to heal his brothers, and the water of life to reverse the poison.
Together the three princes go back to the crossroads, where they part ways. The elder two return home to their father and Ivan rides on alone down the middle road. He travels for a long time, until at last he comes to a third cottage. Inside he finds the old woman Jaga, who has no traps but her own self. Her bony body is vast enough to fill the house. Terrifying as she is, though, she can be won over. Touched by the prince’s devotion to his father, she lends him her cloak and her talkative tom cat. When the prince reaches a white-stoned royal palace, home of the Princess Blue-Eyes, he obeys Jaga’s instructions by releasing the cat so that it can distract everyone with its song and slips past the guards, who believe him to be Jaga herself.
Ivan has no difficulty finding the princess, who lies asleep. He retrieves his father’s eyes, but he’s a prince and even quite clever princes have certain fatal flaws. He cannot resist stealing a quick kiss from the sleeping woman, which is a terrible idea for SO many reasons. As he rides away, his horse tells him so. “You should never have kissed the princess on her sugary lips. You will pay for it now.” Because Princess Blue-Eyes is now awake. And you know how Ivan is riding the second fastest horse in the world? Guess who owns the fastest?
Ivan reaches Granny Jaga’s house first and she gives him help once again, this time in the form of a comb, a stone and a red hot cinder. She also delays the princess when Blue-Eyes arrives at the cottage, by offering the one thing no one can resist after a long horse ride – a hot bath. By the time Blue-Eyes returns to the chase, Ivan has a long head-start. But that’s nothing to the fastest horse in the world. When he sees the princess behind him, brandishing her metal club, Ivan throws Jaga’s comb over his shoulder. It turns a field into a forest, and Blue-Eyes is forced to hack a path with her sword, but she’s still hot on his heels. Ivan throws the stone. It turns to a massive mountain of solid rock, too smooth to be climbed. Does the princess give up? Not a bit of it. She swings her metal club and smashes her way through. Ivan is forced to throw Jaga’s final gift, the cinder. It turns into a burning river flowing between himself and the princess. Even a horse as magnificent as her own can’t swim through fire. Blue-Eyes draw a deep breath and blows, a breath so fierce it is a gale, extinguishing a ford across the burning river.
Ivan realises he has no chance. Blue-Eyes has caught up with him and challenges him to the same fight that his father lost. They ride at each other hard, clashing violently with lances and clubs. On the third collision, Ivan is thrown. The princess leaps down and begins removing Ivan’s armour, so as to get at his heart. What’s a prince to do? “Don’t take my armour off, dear princess, don’t pierce my white flesh with your sword!” he pleads. “Kiss me on the lips instead.” Blue-Eyes pauses. She looks at him. She decides maybe there’s other uses for Ivan’s heart, and kisses him.
There is only place left to go after what may be the most bizarre courtship in the history of fairy tales. They’ve stolen things off each other, they’ve duelled, now they get married. After three weeks together in the princess’s white tent on the plain, Blue-Eyes tells Ivan she’ll see him again in three years time, and goes off to do whatever else is more interesting than he is. Ivan, in his turn, goes home. He uses his two healing waters to restore his father’s eyes to their rightful places and the Czar is so delighted that he names Ivan as his heir. Ivan’s brothers are less than impressed by this. Extravagant generosity, they say, and start a smear campaign against the youngest prince that is so successful that the Czar himself begins to rethink. When the rumours reach Ivan, he is understandably distraught. He rescued his brothers from the crossroads women, he fought to get back his father’s eyes (and got married. He may not have been entirely honest with everyone on that score) and he can’t bear to remain in the face of such total ingratitude. For three years he travels alone.
And at the end of the three years, Princess Blue-Eyes returns, as she promised she would. With her come two children, the result of those three crazy weeks in a tent. And being the sons of Blue-Eyes, they are not exactly your normal toddlers. When the panicked Czar sends out Fjodor to meet with her, she introduces him as Wicked Uncle No.1 and the kids hurl him into the sea. They do the same to Vasilij. Both princes almost drown, but don’t quite, just close enough that they repent of their scandal-mongering ways. And at this interesting moment of familial bonding, Ivan comes riding up. He bows to his wife and meets his children. Then, to the collective relief of his relations, he sails away with them to be consort in the kingdom of Princess Blue-Eyes.
What can I say? A princess who is both villain and heroine, who hefts a club with the best of them, rides like a demon and will drop everything at the promise of a good bath – I swear, I do not make these things up! This is a genuine folk tale! Blue-Eyes does some exceptionally mean things, so I don’t want to like her, but I kind of do anyway. What I love is that she wins, then decides to spare the prince after all – not because he has any power over her, but because she just changes her mind.
I admit, I’d love to see what Disney would make of this one. I bet they’d come up with a killer frock.