This week’s fairy tale is a Russian story from Ruth Manning-Sanders’ collection A Book of Enchantments and Curses. The titular heroine is an orphan, beautiful but broke, earning a living as a household servant. One of her daily duties is collecting firewood from the forest around the foot of an imposing mountain. It is rumoured to be a stronghold of Morez, the Frost Demon, though no one has ever gone up to look and the demon never comes down to them. The village can live with this arrangement and most local girls collect their wood there. On Catrinella’s very first day, however, a voice calls down the mountainside: “Catrinella! Catrinella! Come up higher!”
The girls scatter, panicked. But they cannot stay away from the forest, because that means bringing no wood home, and every time Catrinella goes near the mountain the voice cries out the same words. Since the owner of the voice never does anything other than shout, the girls soon lose their fear and start poking fun instead. “Only fancy, the demon Morez has fallen in love with you!” they tease Catrinella, more or less good-naturedly, but the sound of her name being called so desperately gnaws at her conscience. At last she throws down her sack and, ignoring the alarmed exclamations of her friends, starts up the mountain.
Following the sound of the voice, she climbs all day. By sunset Catrinella has reached the mountaintop, a frozen plateau where she finds the mouth of a cave. Within stand a company of young huntsmen on horseback, with hounds at their sides, all encased in ice. Freaked out and half-frozen herself, Catrinella starts backing away, but the voice calls out her name again. One of the riders is still conscious and capable of speech. His name is Prince Ilya and he unwisely pursued a golden-horned stag up the mountain with his hunters at his heels. Instead of catching the beast, they ran right into Morez, who did not appreciate the intrusion.
“Ice you shall remain,” Ilya quotes, “for a hundred times a hundred years. No sun shall have power to warm you, no fire shall have power to melt you, for I am stronger than the sun, and more powerful than any fire, except the fire that glows in the heart of the great diamond that is hidden in the Palace of Shifting Rooms in the Kingdom of the Uttermost East, where the sun rises to warm the earth. None may lay hold that diamond but a maiden who has no guile.” That is what Ilya hopes Catrinella might be. He dreamed she would be the one to set him and his company free, and promises her any reward she wishes if only she’ll take on the task. Very moved by his miserable state, Catrinella is willing enough, and asks the way to the Palace of Shifting Rooms.
Ilya doesn’t know. The dream did not include directions.
Fortunately the conversation is interrupted by, of all things, a bumblebee. He knows the way to the palace and is happy to guide Catrinella as long as she leaves now. They journey across mountains, through forests and deserts and across raging rivers. Woefully under-prepared for such a trek as she is, Catrinella survives mostly on honey and roots, recommended by her guide. At last they reach the promised kingdom of Uttermost East, wherein lies another mountain and a huge chasm.
“Being underground doesn’t agree with my health,” the bumblebee announces. He tells Catrinella about a path that leads into the middle of the mountain, and how a stone wall will block her way but can by dismissed by smacking it with one of her tattered shoes. The only thing he can’t tell her is where to find the actual diamond. That, Catrinella must manage on her own.
Descending into the chasm without triggering an avalanche is no easy task, but Catrinella persists. When she reaches the wall she whacks it as hard as she can and it falls apart with a satisfying crash. On the other side is a lush meadow and a horse that bounds joyfully over to greet her. Catrinella stops a moment to pet him, because adorable.
Most of her attention, however, is fixed on the shimmering building just beyond the meadow. The palace is a labyrinth of glass chambers, each surface reflected a thousand times over and radiating light without any need for windows or lamps. In fact, there are no furnishings at all, only glass. It is impossible to conduct a methodical search when the rooms have no distinguishing features, let alone when one moment the walls are wide apart and the next they’re closing in so tight it’s all Catrinella can do to move. There is no C-3PO in the control room to help, either.
Yet Catrinella keeps going. At long last she comes to a room different from all the others – a vast space where patterned golden pillars support an arched glass roof. It looks like a place you could hide something so Catrinella searches it thoroughly, but the diamond is nowhere to be seen. Attempting to leave, she finds a wall where the door used to be.
It is entirely reasonable at this junction to burst into tears and Catrinella is so distraught that at first she doesn’t realise she’s no longer alone. “What’s the matter here? What’s the matter?” an irritable voice suddenly snaps, and she looks up. A tiny white mouse has been drawn by the sound of her sobbing. Though not immediately inclined to sympathy, his interest is aroused when she explains her story. He points her towards one of the pillars, painted with a scene of willow trees. A kingfisher is perched among the branches, its throat swollen as if caught by the artist mid-swallow. Catrinella slaps the picture hard and the painted bird opens its beak, releasing a crystal box; and within the box is a diamond so bright it could be a shard of sunlight.
“Hold onto it tightly,” advises the mouse, just in time. The palace starts spinning wildly, knocking Catrinella off her feet; unseen hands snatch at the box, but she won’t let it go. The force of the assault throws her right out of the palace. This is a bad idea on the part of the diamond’s protectors, as the horse who lives outside has taken a fancy to Catrinella and happens to know a shortcut to Morez’s mountain. Astride his back with the crystal box under her arm, the mouse perched on one shoulder and the bee on the other, Catrinella rides with all speed back to the prison of ice. Inside the cave, she shuts her eyes and opens the box. It blazes ferociously, melting everything within the cave. In fact, it is so powerful Catrinella can’t close the box again and has to leave it where it is.
Restored to life, the company of hunters ride out onto the plateau. Ilya, his priorities firmly in order, leaps off his horse and kneels at Catrinella’s feet. “I have no words to thank you,” he declares devoutly. “I can but offer you all that I have and am. If you will come to my kingdom with me and be my wife, I will love and cherish you to the end of my days.”
What a surprise, Catrinella says yes.
They ride away down the mountain, men and girl, mouse and bee and all, spring spreading in their wake as the effect of the diamond melts the snow and brings long-dormant flowers unfurling between the rocks. The prince’s throne has not been claimed by anyone else in his absence and everybody is tremendously excited at his sudden return. As for the demon Morez, he arrives home to find his mountain on fire. He’s no match for the power of the diamond so he leaves it to burn and departs in disgust.
This story would have made a much better basis for Disney’s Frozen than ‘The Snow Queen’, if you ask me. It even has inexplicable but cute animal assistants! Between them those three are the ones who really save the prince, but they wouldn’t have done it without Catrinella’s motivation. Also, that’s hands down the most romantic proposal anyone’s delivered in any fairy tale I’ve ever read. Give pointers to your fellow royals, Ilya. They really need them.