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.