This Russian fairy tale comes from Ruth Manning-Sanders’ collection A Book of Kings and Queens, which honestly does not bode well for the specific kings and queens involved. It begins with a tried and trying family dynamic of witchy mother, witchy daughter and beautiful, ready-to-be-wronged stepdaughter. In this case the witchy daughter is called Jutta and the stepdaughter is Angela. One night Angela has a dream that she marries King Fyador and gives birth to three beautiful sons, each born with a golden star on his chest like a birthmark. Jutta mocks the dream and tells everyone about it, intending to make a laughingstock of her sister, which backfires on her when the king himself hears about it and decides to take a chance on the dream coming true by marrying Angela.
The witch stepmother is belatedly ambitious, thinking that if the king was going to marry anyone he should have married Jutta, but disguises her resentment so well that she is invited to the palace to look after Angela when the young queen falls pregnant. It’s a great opportunity for the witch to try and curse her, but no dice: Angela gives birth to the prophesied triplets, each with sky-blue eyes and a golden star on his chest. The witch gives up on subtlety and turns the three of them into wolf cubs. Even then, she can’t get rid of the tell-tale stars, so she sends the wolf cubs running and fills the royal crib with three kittens instead.
That does not go over well with Fyador, understandably, but he decides to try again with Angela and she falls pregnant for a second time. Which must have been pretty traumatic for her, given her first three children disappeared. This time she gives birth to another boy, with dark curls and big brown eyes. Instead of welcoming his son to the world, Fyador goes to complain to his councillors about his wife’s false promises. His councillors are a thoroughly bloodthirsty lot, advocating that the queen be put to death. The oldest member of the council offers a different solution: that Angela and her baby be placed in a barrel and put to sea, which sounds like a twist on the tradition of witch trials. Should the barrel sink, the queen will be punished for her deception. If the barrel floats, God will take care of her. Either way, not Fyador’s problem any more.
So Fyador washes his hands of wife and child, but fortunately for Angela her youngest son is not quite as ordinary as he seems. The boy, who she names Vanya, grows at a startling rate, and he comforts his weeping mother with the blithe assurance that they will be all right. By the time they reach land, he is strong enough to shatter the barrel with a single punch. Angela looks around and sees a wasteland, but Vanya scrabbles about in the moss and mud and produces a bag. From the bag emerge an axe and a hammer, requesting orders. They build a beautiful house from nothing at all and furnish it with all the supplies necessary for Angela and Vanya to live in perfect luxury.
The miraculous palace draws the notice of passing merchants, who are welcomed inside as honoured guests and emerge full of wondering stories about what they have seen. They carry their gossip to the court of King Fyador, who is glumly being seduced by Jutta. He brightens a little on hearing the merchants’ news but his plans to visit the mysterious palace for himself are quickly scuppered by the witch and her daughter. Jutta hastily distracts him with wondrous stories of her own about a cat in a green garden that sings and tells fairy tales, and the witch anchors him firmly with reminders about his upcoming wedding.
The merchants return to Angela’s palace, bringing news of the depressed king and of Jutta’s marvellous cat. Vanya is intrigued. He thinks a cat like that would please his mother. He commands the axe and hammer to produce a garden and a cat like the one in Jutta’s story, which they do in a moment, so when the merchants are next at Fyador’s court they are full of more amazed stories about Angela’s island. They are unaware that Vanya stowed away on their ship in the shape of a wasp. He is listening when Jutta tells of a new wonder, a fountain that radiates golden rain that rises again from the ground as golden birds. Irritated, Vanya stings her nose and hurries home to reproduce such a fountain for his mother.
It’s unclear with Jutta is just making up whatever she thinks will sidetrack her husband-to-be or not, but everything she talks about comes from ‘beyond the thirtieth land in the thirtieth realm’ and sounds like an increasingly frantic bid for attention. How to outdo a magic fountain that turns water into birds? Have you heard about the mirror that shows you anything you like in the whole wide world? Why yes, Jutta, Vanya does hear about it, so guess what shows up at his place. Like every prize, it is shown to his mother in the hope of pleasing her. Angela looks in the mirror and sees her three lost sons in the forest, still disguised as wolf cubs but recognisable by their stars.
Vanya is up for a rescue mission. He asks his mother to make three cakes then sets out for the forest where his brothers live. The wolf cubs cannot resist the cakes and as soon as they have eaten, they are overwhelmed by thoughts of the mother they have never met. They are also quickly sent into a deep sleep. Vanya emerges from hiding and ties the wolves’ tails together, then wakes them with a shout that sends the poor creatures running – only they can’t run all tied together and as they desperately pull at their bonds, their skins slide right off, revealing human boys underneath. Blue eyes and all. So there, Fyador.
Vanya burns the wolf skins and takes his older brothers home to Angela, filling them in on the whole story of curses and kidnappings and betrayal en route. So now Angela has her four sons safe with her, not to mention a magic palace, a talking cat, a fabulous fountain and a magic mirror, and it is safe to say she’s living her best life, but the same certainly can’t be said of Fyador, who has been convinced he needs to marry Jutta but isn’t at all happy about it. Ah, the hard lot of a reactionary king. The only bright spot in his life at present is the distraction of the visiting merchants and the stories they bring with them. They tell him of the palace where three beautiful boys have suddenly appeared, each with hair like the sun and eyes like the sky and a gold star on his chest…
So THERE, Fyador.
The king is overcome by very overdue concern for his first wife. He calls himself a fool, which is undoubtedly true, leaps aboard a ship and sails off to reconcile with Angela, who is an astonishingly tolerant woman and allows him to grovel at her feet for forgiveness. Let’s hope he was down there for a while. She does in fact forgive him and agree to return to his palace, sons at her back, garden of wonders packed up for the journey by Vanya’s axe and hammer. By the time that the royal family arrive home in triumph, Jutta and her mother have wisely made themselves scarce and stay that way.
What intrigues me about this story is how the narrative gives Angela some of the framing to be a witch herself – prophetic dreams, magical children, a trial by water. Unlike the heroine of ‘The White Bride and the Black Bride’, Angela is not granted special privileges by divine authority. She just wakes up one day with enough conviction that the king chooses to take a chance on her. The story ends with her taking a chance on him, but by then the odds are heavily in her favour, what with Vanya and the three young wolf-princes standing just behind her with an axe and hammer at the ready.