PRINCESS HELENA THE FAIR
Fairytale from Russia
_We say that we are wise folks, but our old people dispute
the fact, saying: "No, no, we were wiser than you are." But
skazkas tell that, before our grandfathers had learnt anything,
before their grandfathers were born_--
There lived in a certain land an old man of this kind who instructed
his three sons in reading and writing and all book
learning. Then said he to them:
"Now, my children! When I die, mind you come and read
prayers over my grave."
"Very good, father, very good," they replied.
The two elder brothers were such fine strapping fellows! so
tall and stout! But as for the youngest one, Ivan, he was like
a half-grown lad or a half-fledged duckling, terribly inferior to
the others. Well, their old father died. At that very time
there came tidings from the King, that his daughter, the Princess
Helena the Fair, had ordered a shrine to be built for her
with twelve columns, with twelve rows of beams. In that shrine
she was sitting upon a high throne, and awaiting her bridegroom,
the bold youth who, with a single bound of his swift steed,
should reach high enough to kiss her on the lips. A stir ran
through the whole youth of the nation. They took to licking
their lips, and scratching their heads, and wondering to whose
share so great an honor would fall.
"Brothers!" said Vanyusha, "our father is dead; which
of us is to read prayers over his grave?"
"Whoever feels inclined, let him go!" answered the
So Vanya went. But as for his elder brothers they did
nothing but exercise their horses, and curl their hair, and dye
The second night came.
"Brothers!" said Vanya, "I've done my share of reading.
It's your turn now; which of you will go?"
"Whoever likes can go and read. We've business to look
after; don't you meddle."
And they cocked their caps, and shouted, and whooped, and
flew this way, and shot that way, and roved about the open
So Vanyusha read prayers this time also--and on the third
Well, his brothers got ready their horses, combed out their
mustaches, and prepared to go next morning to test their
mettle before the eyes of Helena the Fair.
"Shall we take the youngster?" they thought. "No, no.
What would be the good of him? He'd make folks laugh and
put us to confusion; let's go by ourselves."
So away they went. But Vanyusha wanted very much to
have a look at the Princess Helena the Fair. He cried, cried
bitterly; and went out to his father's grave. And his father
heard him in his coffin, and came out to him, shook the damp
earth off his body, and said:
"Don't grieve, Vanya. I'll help you in your trouble."
And immediately the old man drew himself up and straightened
himself, and called aloud and whistled with a ringing
voice, with a shrill whistle.
From goodness knows whence appeared a horse, the earth
quaking beneath it, a flame rushing from its ears and nostrils.
To and fro it flew, and then stood still before the old man, as if
rooted in the ground, and cried,
"What are thy commands?"
Vanya crept into one of the horse's ears and out of the
other, and turned into such a hero as no skazka can tell of, no
pen describe! He mounted the horse, set his arms akimbo,
and flew, just like a falcon, straight to the home of the Princess
Helena. With a wave of his hand, with a bound aloft, he only
failed by the breadth of two rows of beams. Back again he
turned, galloped up, leapt aloft, and got within one beam-row's
breadth. Once more he turned, once more he wheeled, then
shot past the eye like a streak of fire, took an accurate aim, and
kissed the fair Helena right on the lips!
"Who is he? Who is he? Stop him! Stop him!" was
the cry. Not a trace of him was to be found!
Away he galloped to his father's grave, let the horse go free,
prostrated himself on the earth, and besought his father's counsel.
And the old man held counsel with him.
When he got home he behaved as if he hadn't been anywhere.
His brothers talked away, describing where they had
been, what they had seen, and he listened to them as of old.
The next day there was a gathering again. In the princely
halls there were more boyars and nobles than a single glance
could take in. The elder brothers rode there. Their younger
brother went there too, but on foot, meekly and modestly, just
as if he hadn't kissed the Princess, and seated himself in a
distant corner. The Princess Helena asked for her bridegroom,
wanted to show him to the world at large, wanted to give him
half her kingdom; but the bridegroom did not put in an appearance!
Search was made for him among the boyars, among
the generals; everyone was examined in his turn--but with no
result! Meanwhile, Vanya looked on, smiling and chuckling,
and waiting till the bride should come to him herself.
"I pleased her then," says he, "when I appeared as a gay
gallant; now let her fall in love with me in my plain caftan."
Then up she rose, looked around with bright eyes that shed
a radiance on all who stood there, and saw and knew her bridegroom,
and made him take his seat by her side, and speedily was
wedded to him. And he--good heavens! how clever he turned
out, and how brave, and what a handsome fellow! Only see
him mount his flying steed, give his cap a cock, and stick his
elbows akimbo! why, you'd say he was a king, a born king!
you'd never suspect he once was only Vanyusha.
The incident of the midnight watch by a father's grave, kept by a son
to whom the dead man appears and gives a magic horse, often occurs in
the Skazkas. It is thoroughly in accordance with Slavonic ideas about
the residence of the dead in their tombs, and their ability to assist
their descendants in time of trouble. Appeals for aid to a dead parent
are of frequent occurrence in the songs still sung by the Russian
peasantry at funerals or over graves; especially in those in which
orphans express their grief, calling upon the grave to open, and the
dead to appear and listen and help. So in the Indian story of
Punchkin, the seven hungry stepmother-persecuted princesses go out
every day and sit by their dead mother's tomb, and cry, and say, "Oh,
mother, mother, cannot you see your poor children, how unhappy we
are," etc., until a tree grows up out of the grave laden with fruits
for their relief. So in the German tale, Cinderella is aided
by the white bird, which dwells in the hazel tree growing out of her
In one of the Skazkas a stepdaughter is assisted by her cow. The
girl, following its instructions, gets in at one ear and out of the
other, and finds all her tasks performed, all her difficulties
removed. When it is killed, there springs from its bones a tree which
befriends the girl, and gains her a lordly husband. In a Servian
variant of the story, it is distinctly stated that the protecting cow
had been the girl's mother--manifestly in a previous state of
existence, a purely Buddhistic idea.
In several of the Skazkas we find an account of a princess who is won
in a similar manner to that described in the story of Helena the Fair.
In one case, a king promises to give his daughter to anyone "who
can pluck her portrait from the house, from the other side of ever so
many beams." The youngest brother, Ivan the Simpleton, carries away
the portrait and its cover at the third trial. In another, a king
offers his daughter and half his kingdom to him "who can kiss the
princess through twelve sheets of glass." The usual youngest
brother is carried towards her so forcibly by his magic steed that, at
the first trial, he breaks through six of the sheets of glass; at the
second, says the story, "he smashed all twelve of the sheets of glass,
and he kissed the Princess Priceless-Beauty, and she immediately
stamped a mark upon his forehead." By this mark, after he has
disappeared for some time, he is eventually recognized, and the
princess is obliged to marry him. In a third story, the
conditions of winning the princely bride are easier, for "he who takes
a leap on horseback, and kisses the king's daughter on the balcony, to
him will they give her to wife." In a fourth, the princess is to marry
the man "who, on horseback, bounds up to her on the third floor." At
the first trial, the _Durak_, or Fool, reaches the first floor, at the
next, the second; and the third time, "he bounds right up to the
princess, and carries off from her a ring."
In the Norse story of "Dapplegrim," a younger brother saves a
princess who had been stolen by a Troll, and hidden in a cave above a
steep wall of rock as smooth as glass. Twice his magic horse tries in
vain to surmount it, but the third time it succeeds, and the youth
carries off the princess, who ultimately becomes his wife. Another
Norse story still more closely resembles the Russian tales. In "The
Princess on the Glass Hill" the hero gains a Princess as his wife
by riding up a hill of glass, on the top of which she sits with three
golden apples in her lap, and by carrying off these precious fruits.
He is enabled to perform this feat by a magic horse, which he obtains
by watching his father's crops on three successive St. John's Nights.
In a Celtic story, a king promises his daughter, and two-thirds
of his kingdom, to anyone who can get her out of a turret which "was
aloft, on the top of four carraghan towers." The hero Conall kicks
"one of the posts that was keeping the turret aloft," the post breaks,
and the turret falls, but Conall catches it in his hands before it
reaches the ground, a door opens, and out comes the Princess Sunbeam,
and throws her arms about Conall's neck.
In most of these stories the wife-gaining leap is so vaguely described
that it is allowable to suppose that the original idea has been
greatly obscured in the course of travel. In some Eastern stories it
is set in a much plainer light; in one modern collection for
instance, it occurs four times. A princess is so fond of her
marble bath, which is "like a little sea," with high spiked walls all
around it, that she vows she will marry no one who cannot jump across
it on horseback. Another princess determines to marry him only who can
leap into the glass palace in which she dwells, surrounded by a wide
river; and many kings and princes perish miserably in attempting to
perform the feat. A third king's daughter lives in a garden "hedged
round with seven hedges made of bayonets," by which her suitors are
generally transfixed. A fourth "has vowed to marry no man who cannot
jump on foot over the seven hedges made of spears, and across the
seven great ditches that surround her house;" and "hundreds of
thousands of Rajahs have tried to do it, and died in the attempt."
The secluded princess of these stories may have been primarily akin
to the heroine of the "Sleeping Beauty" tales, but no special
significance appears now to be attributable to her isolation. The
original idea seems to have been best preserved in the two legends of
the wooing of Brynhild by Sigurd, in the first of which he awakens her
from her magic sleep, while in the second he gains her hand (for
Gunnar) by a daring and difficult ride--for "him only would she have
who should ride through the flaming fire that was drawn about her
hall." Gunnar fails to do so, but Sigurd succeeds; his horse leaps
into the fire, "and a mighty roar arose as the fire burned ever
madder, and the earth trembled, and the flames went up even unto the
heavens, nor had any dared to ride as he rode, even as it were through
the deep murk."
We will take next a story which is a great favorite in Russia, and
which will serve as another illustration of the use made of magical
"properties" in the Skazkas.