This week’s fairy tale is from the exasperatingly vague Hamlyn collection Legends from Eastern Lands and would appear to take place in a khanate far, far away. How far away? I don’t know. Which annoys me.
Anyway! The particular khan in this story is out riding one day with his beloved young son Jekovoy when they are set upon by a huge bear who snatches up the child and disappears into the forest. Despite the frantic searching of the khan and his men, Jekovoy is nowhere to be found. It seems very unlikely that he is still alive.
But in fairy tales unlikely things are basically normal life and in this case the bear has not only not eaten the kidnapped child, she’s bringing him up as her own. Jekovoy, in his turn, comes to think of her as his mother. One day when the khan returns to that part of the forest on a hunting trip, he sees the bear charging at him and gets in first with an arrow. While that’s an understandable reaction, Jekovoy doesn’t see it that way. Displaying astonishingly advanced language skills for a boy brought up by a bear, he denounces the khan as a murderer. You killed my mother! Prepare to die!
The khan, however, has a great comeback: Jekovoy, I am your father. Overwhelmed, Jekovoy lets himself be pulled into a paternal embrace. After he has buried his foster mother, he returns with the khan to the palace for a celebratory feast, but he is horribly confused by the whole situation and ends up escaping back to the forest to mourn over the bear’s grave. “Oh Mother!” he exclaims aloud, “how can I avenge your death?”
Unbeknownst to him, the khan’s spies were listening in. A messenger returns to the palace with the news that Jekovoy is plotting revenge. Alarmed, the khan sends back instructions that his son is to go chop down wood for the defences of his town, the real intent being for Jekovoy to be ripped apart by wild animals. That is not what I would describe as paternal.
This plan has a fatal flaw. Jekovoy gets on brilliantly with the wild animals, in fact they come over to help him rebuild the palisade. Unfortunately, the khan assumes this is an invading army and quickly calls together his viziers. Their advice is to send Jekovoy off on another potential suicide mission. If he recaptures the town of Chimkent from the khan’s enemies, all to the good; if he dies in the attempt, that’s a bonus! Relieved, the khan places the challenge before his son, who accepts. Jekovoy also refuses to take any of the khan’s men with him to join the fight, asking instead for a sword weighing seventy thousand stone and an iron club weighing sixteen thousand stone. That’s no small request, but anything to get him away from the palace is fine by the khan, so the ridiculously immoveable weapons are made and Jekovoy handles both with ease. Heroes are like that.
Eighty thousand warriors are guarding the walls of Chimkent. Jekovoy lays waste to the lot of them with the power of his voice alone. He then strides inside and tells the citizens he’s now in charge, which they do not dispute for obvious reasons. Actually, he’s a pretty great khan. His taxes are fair, his laws are not oppressive, and he cares about social justice. Well done, mama bear, you raised your boy well!
Far from being proud of Jekovoy’s achievements, however, his father is furious. “My son proved a thorn in my flesh before,” he tells his viziers, “and now he has set up a rival khanate. This is a threat to my authority that must not go unchallenged.” The viziers, who know their boss doesn’t give a damn about social justice, quickly come up with another solution. Suicide mission no.3: go into the mountains and bring back two giants on a leash. Why does the khan need two giants on a leash? DON’T ASK QUESTIONS.
Jekovoy doesn’t ask questions, he’s not that kind of a person; he gets ready to leave immediately. The people of Chimkent try to convince him this is a bad idea, pointing out that if he leaves they will only be invaded all over again by someone a lot fonder of taxes. “The minute I hear of any attack on Chimkent,” he promises, “I will return and crush the enemy to dust.” Or, you know, shout at them. Either’s good.
He then sets off for the mountains. On his way he meets a giant called Tash, who as it turns out is off to Chimkent. His plan, he tells Jekovoy, is to seize the city from its bleeding-heart boyo of a ruler. Jekovoy challenges Tash to a contest of strength, to prove he’s worthy of taking the town; then he grabs the giant and throws him across seven hilltops, just to make his point clear. That’s the easy bit. Finding the giant again is trickier. He tracks him down at last and is there when Tash wakes up, to inquire whether he’s still interested in Chimkent. Panicked, Tash kisses his hand and vows to take up cooking instead.
With one giant now in his service, Jekovoy goes looking for the other one, and finds him juggling plane trees. This giant is called Kheers and he’s also headed for Chimkent, intending to apply his hefty clubs to its weedy youth of a khan. Jekovoy smiles. Next thing Kheers knows, he’s being juggled with the trees. By the time Jekovoy lets him go, the giant is only too happy to stay away from Chimkent. He joins Jekovoy’s entourage and the trio travel on through the mountains.
One day they come to a small hamlet where seven witches are brewing up mutton stew on the village green. Jekovoy, the least judgy prince ever, greets them with scrupulous good manners. Mama bear, why did you not start up a royal daycare centre? The witches are pleased, but unwisely inform him that if he’d been rude they’d have eaten him up. Appalled at their wicked ways, Jekovoy whips out his club and beheads the lot of them.
The village, though, is rather nice and he decides to stay on for a few more days. The next morning, Kheers goes off with Jekovoy to check out the local scenery and Tash stays back at the campsite to cook lunch. A cauldron of soup is almost done when a tiny old man comes riding up on goatback to beg a bite and when Tash says yes, drinks the lot.
Tash cobbles a second batch together as best he can, but Jekovoy isn’t impressed and decides to stay behind the next day to do the cooking himself. When the little old man comes riding up for a second time, Jekovoy hurls a red hot boulder from the fire at him, and his head flies off – but unlike the witches, this doesn’t kill him. It only makes him really, really cross. Jekovoy snatches for the head, but it rolls down a hole in the ground and out of sight.
When the giants return, Jekovoy explains the situations and orders them to make a rope. Once that has been done, he gets Tash to climb down the hole, but Tash gets too scared to go on and has to be pulled back up. The same happens with Kheers. Exasperated, Jekovoy goes down himself. The rope is not quite long enough, so he jumps the rest of the way, and is of course completely uninjured. The first thing he sees at the bottom of the hole is a beautiful girl sitting in an iron cage. When she opens her eyes, daylight floods the cave. When she closes them again, night falls. Now that’s an original take on ‘the light of my life’.
Jekovoy is struck wordless with admiration. The girl opens her eyes again to study him and decides, quite kindly, that he is an idiot. “Birds enter here and scorch their wings,” she tells him. “If humans enter, they burn their limbs. I pity you!” The cavern, she explains, belongs to the evil sorcerer Razgoon and is guarded by seventy thousand bloodthirsty jinns. For every drop of their blood that is spilled, they double in number. The girl’s advice is that Jekovoy kill them all in their sleep, but he’s far too honourable and high-minded for that sort of thing, proving that she’s right: he is an idiot. More importantly, though, an idiot with a really impressive voice. His first shout brings down a small landslide; his second causes structural damage to the cave itself; his third brings about an outraged earthquake. The jinn, who are pretty rubbish guards, eventually get up to see what’s going on.
Talented though Jekovoy is, he’s simply not equipped for this sort of a fight. The battle drags on for days, but every time it seems he must at last lose the girl closes her eyes, casting the cavern into darkness and distracting the jinn. When his sword fails, Jekovoy brings out the club; he starts hammering djinn into the ground like nails. Seven days later, he beats Razgoon’s head right down through the stone bedrock and the battle is won. The girl in the cage opens her eyes, flooding the cavern in daylight. “Release me from my prison, noble youth!”
After defeating demons unnumbered, a cage is no trouble. The girl takes Jekovoy’s hand and leads him into Razgoon’s magnificent treasure room, the contents of which may as well now be his. Tash and Kheers pull it up sack by sack until only Jekovoy and the girl are left. An admirably cynical individual, she advises Jekovoy tie the rope around them both and have them hauled up at the same time, but Jekovoy dismisses her fears. That proves to be a terrible idea. The girl is pulled safely to the surface; the rope is cut while Jekovoy is only halfway up. He falls hard and is knocked unconscious.
Days later, he wakes and finds a passage to the surface. He searches the wilderness for the giants and the girl they have doubtless abducted, but in vain – all he finds is a town in the middle of nowhere where a man is doing his best to bury himself. Jekovoy, bewildered, asks him why. The answer is that a dragon has come to town and everybody is bunkering down to hide. That’s challenge enough for Jekovoy, who sets off like the dyed in the wool hero that he is to face down a dragon. Drawing his sword, he sets about chopping the poor beast into pieces. I’m sure it does his ego the world of good.
It was terrorising the town, though, and the villagers are all very pleased to see it gone. They invite Jekovoy to stay, recognising a useful neighbour when they see one, but he refuses very politely and resumes his search. The next place of note he comes to is the sea of Issyk-Kul, where the waters boil and another dragon is threatening the lives of children…the mythical bird Seemourg’s children, who are both the size of full-grown camels, but definitely children nonetheless and Jekovoy’s having none of it. He whips out his bow and brings down the dragon with a single arrow. Then he chops up the felled beast and climbs to Seemourg’s nest to feed her babies their enemy’s flesh. Which is WEIRD, but they like it.
While Jekovoy is occupied, Seemourg returns to the nest. Her children conceal Jekovoy under their wings, trying to deny his existence; when their mum remains unconvinced, they risk explaining who he really is. Seemourg is not much fond of human beings as anything except lunch, but the dragon has devoured many of her children and she is so glad to see it dead that she promises to grant Jekovoy any wish she can. All he wants is a lift back to Chimkent. He’s pretty sure he knows where the giants went.
Sure enough, there they are, living it up as fabulously wealthy khans while the people around them starve. The girl Jekovoy saved in Razgoon’s cavern has been caged once more, having refused to marry either giant, because they are creeps. Jekovoy handles the situation by shooting Tash straight through the heart. Kheers tries to retaliate by throwing his club, but Seemourg swallows the thing in midair like a worm; when the giant tries to run, he is felled by a second arrow. Jekovoy is greeted with joy by his constituents, and by the girl, whom he frees all over again. This time he asks her to marry him, and she says yes, because Jekovoy is not a creep.
The wedding ceremony is not quite over when a messenger from Jekovoy’s father comes riding into town. The khan’s town is in trouble. He needs a hero, and is calling on the only one he knows. Jekovoy has no illusions about the kind of man his father is, but because the people of the town are suffering he goes to banish their enemies and naturally succeeds in about ten seconds flat. Panic and gratitude bring about a change of heart with the khan, who begs Jekovoy to stay and be his successor. Jekovoy says no. He returns to his bride and to Chimkent, the town he made his own, where he rules wisely, generously, and above all, intelligently until the end of his days.
A hero of the story who is genuinely heroic! Who is polite to everyone, including people who are NOT exceptionally beautiful! A girl for whom the term ‘beautiful as the sun’ is not even a metaphor! There is much to enjoy in this fairy tale. If anyone can tell me what country it is originally from, I’d love to know.