This Russian fairy tale is taken from Ruth Manning-Sanders’ collection A Book of Monsters and begins with a hunter called Zar, who is having a bad day. Having utterly failed to find any game, he’s dispiritedly turning for home when a creature called Monster Copper Forehead springs out at him from behind the trees. Zar panics and tries to shoot him in the head – which does not work so well, because copper forehead.
“Now I shall eat you!” shouts the monster. Zar offers anything he owns in exchange for his life and Monster Copper Forehead agrees to spare him, at the price of something at home Zar does not know he has. Of course, when he gets home his wife has given birth, and he realises that what the monster wants is his infant son Ivan. Sure enough, Monster Copper Forehead shows up on the doorstep the very next day to claim his prize. When both parents plead to keep their child, saying they’d rather give anything else, the monster points out they have nothing else to give. Nevertheless, he grants them a delay of twelve years. At the end of that time he’ll come back, and this time he will take the boy.
Twelve years is a lot of time for Ivan’s desperate parents to plot. They dig a huge cellar under the garden, stock it well with food, and as the time draws near for the monster’s return, they move in. Zar’s mother is installed in the house instead, with the promise she will not give them away. That promise counts for a lot less when the monster himself arrives. “If you lie to me it will be the worse for you,” he menaces. “I have been known to make my dinner off little old grandmothers.” YOU FIEND. Terrified, the old lady tells him to take the poker and toss it in the garden. By weirdly predictable good luck – or bad luck, depending upon your position – it lands precisely against the hidden trapdoor to Zar’s family bunker. Before long the monster has dragged out all three of its residents.
“If I weren’t a kind-hearted fellow,” he roars, “I’d crack your skull in, Zar, for so deceiving me!” He settles for taking Ivan away to his house in the deep dark woods.
He does not, however, want to eat him – far from it, he does not want Ivan for himself at all, but for a little girl called Berta who already lives with him. He took her away from a wicked stepmother and now keeps her locked up inside the house like a beloved pet. One day while he’s out, however, a huge raven visits the house and calls out to the children. At his suggestion they climb up the chimney, jump onto his back and fly away for home.
Unfortunately for them, Monster Copper Forehead is quick to notice their absence. Using his villain of the story superpowers, he scans the skies and spots the runaways, then stamps his foot and sends a flame spearing up through the air. The fire singes the raven’s wings and he falls to earth, where Monster Copper Forehead is waiting. He snatches up the children and storms home, thoroughly put out.
The raven is not the only bird to have noticed their captivity, though. The next time Monster Copper Forehead is out, a huge falcon comes flying to his house. “Creep up the chimney, young Ivan,” he urges. “Creep up the chimney, little Berta, and I will carry you home.” But the falcon is no more able to elude the monster’s fire than his predecessor, and the children’s escape fails again. This time Monster Copper Forehead blocks up the chimney, to prevent a third attempt.
But he lives in a fairy tale and can no more prevent the Third Thing taking place than he can reverse gravity. This time a huge bull shows up outside his house. The children break a window and clamber onto the beast’s back, and he runs like a monster is on his tail. Which, of course, one is. He runs so fast it is too late to employ the fire, so Monster Copper Forehead pursues on foot instead. He corners the bull at a lake, and it seems like this rescue will fail too – but across the water come the bull’s friends, Sharp-Clawed Cat and Bristle-Haired Dog, who just happen to have a raft. They pick up the bull and the children and Monster Copper Forehead is left stranded on the other side, crying out to the children, begging them to come back. Ivan has no sympathy, being kidnapped and all, but Berta has lived with the monster longer and knows he’s not all bad. One day, while the assorted beasts and birds she now lives with are busy with other things, she borrows the raft and crosses the lake to where Monster Copper Forehead is still crying.
“Ah, ah, you will come back and live with me, my darling!” he cries delightedly, at the sight of her. “No,” Berta corrects him, “but get on the raft, and I will take you to live with us.” I like you, Berta, I like the way you think. Her hopes for forging one big happy family are crushed, however, when she hears her housemates returning, singing about how they want to kill the monster. While their attitude is understandable, given the history, it’s ultimately unhelpful. Berta has extracted a promise from the monster not to harm Ivan; at this moment she realises Ivan has made no similar promise and isn’t likely to do so. Monster Copper Forehead quickly turns himself into a pin and she hides that in the wall. The cat and dog are suspicious and try to search the house, but Berta has prepared supper and soon everyone is eating instead.
The next morning, when they have all gone hunting, Berta pulls the pin loose and it turns into a monster again. She tells him he must go home or her friends will murder him – and I think it’s significant she uses the word ‘murder’ rather than ‘kill’. Monster Copper Forehead would rather run the risk of bows and arrows than return alone to his empty house, so Berta agrees to go with him. “But you must never again lock the door and bar the window and keep me prisoner,” she warns him, and he gives her his word he won’t.
Ivan’s reaction when he realises Berta is gone is mild annoyance. “We have lost our housekeeper,” he complains. “Now we must take it in turns to stay home and do the cooking!” No wonder she ran away to live with her monster. The whole Lost Boys lifestyle suits Ivan for a while, but eventually he begins to think about his parents and decides to go home. As a farewell gift, the cat and dog dig him up a cache of gold coins, and the bull helps him carry them home. His parents had given up hope of his ever returning – they are so overjoyed at his suddden appearance that they adopt all his friends too, an assimilation made much easier by the riches in Ivan’s bags.
So Ivan is happy, his parents and friends are happy, and Monster Copper Forehead – who never liked Ivan that much anyway – is happy, because he has Berta. But Berta herself is beginning to feel her isolation. As she grows up she often feels very alone, and the monster, being a surprisingly attentive father figure, realises she needs other humans in her life. One day he stays out late and eventually comes home with a startled prince tucked under his arm, whom he promptly pushes at Berta like a doll. “What did I tell you?” he exclaims proudly. “Isn’t she good? Isn’t she beautiful? Doesn’t she shine like the very sun, doesn’t she, doesn’t she?”
Ahem. I may have something in my eye.
“She make the darkness bright around her,” says the prince, who is not an idiot. Berta laughs. When she agrees to marry her giftwrapped suitor, the monster gives them both a very literal lift back to the palace. “I will not come in to fright the wedding guests,” he tells them sadly. “I will say goodbye to you here, my little Berta.” He may be an incompetent parent, but he means well and he’s tried very hard. She kisses him affectionately on the cheek, and though he returns home alone, it is with a smile on his face.
SHE DOESN’T MARRY IVAN. I was so sure that was coming, I was bracing myself for it – but no, she doesn’t have to marry the neglectful hunter who saw her only as a housekeeper, she gets a poetically minded prince! She also has a terrifying adoptive parent to call on in times of crisis, always useful when you enter a royal family. If anyone ever threatens her children, I’m pretty sure they’ll regret it. After all, what prince or princess’s life story could not be improved by the presence of a ferociously protective monster grandad?