Story of Ivan, the Peasant's Son

The Russian Garland March 29, 2015
14 min read
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In a certain village there lived a poor peasant with his wife, who for three years had no children: at length the good woman had a little son, whom they named Ivan. The boy grew, but even when he was five years old, could not walk. His father and mother were very sad, and prayed that their son might be strong on his feet; but, however many their prayers, he had to sit, and could not use his feet for three-and-thirty years long.

One day the peasant went with his wife to church; and whilst they were away, a beggar man came to the window of the cottage and begged alms of Ivan the peasant’s son. And Ivan said to him: “I would gladly give you something, but I cannot rise from my stool.” Then said the beggar: “Stand up and give me alms! Your feet are stout and strong!” In an instant Ivan rose up from his stool, and was overjoyed at his newly acquired power: he called the man into the cottage and gave him food to eat. Then the beggar asked for a draught of beer, and Ivan instantly went and fetched it; the beggar, however, did not drink it, but bade Ivan empty the flask himself, which he did to the very bottom. Then the beggar said: “Tell me, Ivanushka, how strong do you feel?” “Very strong,” replied Ivan. “Then fare you well!” said the beggar; and disappeared, leaving Ivan standing lost in amazement.

In a short time his father and mother came home, and when they saw their son healed of his weakness, they were astonished, and asked him how it had happened. Then Ivan told them all, and the old folk thought it must have been no beggar but a holy man who had cured him; and they feasted for joy and made merry.

Presently Ivan went out to make a trial of his strength; and going into the kitchen garden, he seized a pole and stuck it half its length into the ground, and turned it with such strength that the whole village turned round. Then he went back into the cottage to take leave of his parents and ask their blessing. The old folk fell to weeping bitterly when he spoke of leaving them, and entreated him to stay at least a little longer; but Ivan heeded not their tears, and said: “If you will not give me your consent, I shall go without it.” So his parents gave him their blessing; and Ivan prayed, bowing himself to all four sides, and then took leave of his father and mother. Thereupon he went straight out of the yard, and followed his eyes, and wandered for ten days and ten nights until at length he came to a large kingdom. He had scarcely entered the city when a great noise and outcry arose; whereat the Tsar was so frightened that he ordered a proclamation to be made, that whoever appeased the tumult should have his daughter for wife, and half his kingdom with her.

When Ivanushka heard this he went to the Court and desired the Tsar to be informed that he was ready to appease the tumult. So the doorkeeper went straight and told the Tsar, who ordered Ivan the peasant’s son to be called. And the Tsar said to him: “My friend, is what you have said to the doorkeeper true?”

“Quite true,” replied Ivan; “but I ask for no other reward than that your Majesty gives me whatever is the cause of the noise.” At this the Tsar laughed, and said: “Take it by all means, if it is of any use to you.” So Ivan the peasant’s son made his bow to the Tsar and took his leave.

Then Ivan went to the doorkeeper and demanded of him a hundred workmen, who were instantly given him; and Ivan ordered them to dig a hole in front of the palace. And when the men had thrown up the earth, they saw an iron door, with a copper ring. So Ivan lifted up this door with one hand, and beheld a steed fully caparisoned, and a suit of knightly armour. When the horse perceived Ivan, he fell on his knees before him, and said with a human voice: “Ah, thou brave youth! Ivan the peasant’s son! the famous knight Lukopero placed me here; and for three-and-thirty years have I been impatiently awaiting you. Seat yourself on my back, and ride whithersoever you will: I will serve you faithfully, as I once served the brave Lukopero.”

Ivan saddled his good steed, gave him a bridle of embroidered ribands, put a Tcherkess saddle on his back, and buckled ten rich silken girths around him. Then he vaulted into the saddle, struck him on the flank, and the horse chafed at the bit, and rose from the ground higher than the forest; he left hill and dale swiftly under his feet, covered large rivers with his tail, sent forth a thick steam from his ears, and flames from his nostrils.

At length Ivan the peasant’s son came to an unknown country, and rode through it for thirty days and thirty nights, until at length he arrived at the Chinese Empire. There he dismounted, and turned his good steed out into the open fields, while he went into the city and bought himself a bladder, drew it over his head, and went round the Tsar’s palace. Then the folks asked him whence he came, and what kind of man he was, and what were his father and mother’s names. But Ivan only replied to their questions, “I don’t know.” So they all took him for a fool, and went and told the Chinese Tsar about him. Then the Tsar ordered Ivan to be called, and asked where he came from and what was his name; but he only answered as before, “I don’t know.” So the Tsar ordered him to be driven out of the Court. But it happened that there was a gardener in the crowd, who begged the Tsar to give the fool over to him that he might employ him in gardening. The Tsar consented, and the man took Ivan into the garden, and set him to weed the beds whilst he went his way.

Then Ivan lay down under a tree and fell fast asleep. In the night he awoke, and broke down all the trees in the garden. Early the next morning the gardener came and looked round, and was terrified at what he beheld: so he went to Ivan the peasant’s son and fell to abusing him, and asked him who had destroyed all the trees. But Ivan only replied, “I don’t know.” The gardener was afraid to tell this to the Tsar; but the Tsar’s daughter looked out of her window and beheld with amazement the devastation, and asked who had done it all. The gardener replied that fool Know-nothing had destroyed the noble trees; but entreated her not to tell her father, promising to put the garden into a better condition than it was before.

Ivan did not sleep the next night, but went and drew water from the well, and watered the broken trees; and early in the morning they began to rise and grow; and when the sun rose they were all covered with leaves, and were even finer than ever. When the gardener came into the garden he was amazed at the change; but he did not again ask Know-nothing any questions, as he never returned an answer. And when the Tsar’s daughter awoke, she rose from her bed, and looking out into the garden, she saw it in a better state than before; then, sending for the gardener, she asked him how it had all happened in so short a time. But the man answered that he could not himself understand it, and the Tsar’s daughter began to think Know-nothing was in truth wonderfully wise and clever. From that moment she loved him more than herself, and sent him food from her own table.

Now the Chinese Tsar had three daughters, who were all very beautiful: the eldest was named Duasa, the second Skao, and the youngest, who had fallen in love with Ivan the peasant’s son, was named Lotao. One day the Tsar called them to him and said to them: “My dear daughters, fair Princesses, the time is come that I wish to see you married; and I have called you now to bid you choose husbands from the princes of the countries around.” Then the two eldest instantly named two Tsareviches with whom they were in love; but the youngest fell to weeping, and begged her father to give her for wife to Know-nothing. At this request the Tsar was amazed, and said: “Have you lost your senses, daughter, that you wish to marry the fool Know-nothing, who cannot speak even a word?” “Fool as he may be,” she answered, “I entreat you, my lord father, to let me marry him.” “If nothing else will please you,” said the Tsar sorrowfully, “take him—you have my consent.”

Soon after, the Tsar sent for the Princes whom his eldest daughters had chosen for husbands; they obeyed the invitation instantly, and came with all speed to China, and the weddings were celebrated. The Princess Lotao also was married to Ivan the peasant’s son, and her elder sisters laughed at her for choosing a fool for a husband.

Not long afterwards a great army invaded the country, and its leader, the knight Polkan, demanded of the Tsar his daughter, the beautiful Lotao, for wife, threatening that, if he did not consent, he would burn his country with fire and slay his people with the sword, throw the Tsar and Tsarina into prison, and take their daughter by force. At these threats the Tsar was aghast with terror, and instantly ordered his armies to be collected; and they went forth, commanded by the two Princes, against Polkan. Then the two armies met, and fought like two terrible thunder-clouds, and Polkan overthrew the army of the Chinese Tsar.

At this time the Princess came to her husband, Ivan the peasant’s son, and said to him: “My dear friend Know-nothing, they want to take me from you; the infidel knight Polkan has invaded our country with his army and routed our hosts with his terrible sword.” Then Ivan told the Princess to leave him in peace; and, jumping out of the window, he ran into the open fields, and cried aloud:

“Sivka Burka! he!
Fox of Spring! Appear!
Like a grass blade, here
Stand before me!”
The horse galloped until the earth trembled: from his ears came steam, from his nostrils flames. Ivan the peasant’s son crept into his ear to change himself, and came out looking such a brave knight as no pen can write down or story tell. Then he rode up to the army of Polkan, and laid about him with his sword, trod the army down under his horse’s hoofs, and drove it quite out of the kingdom. At the sight of this the Chinese Tsar came to Ivan, but knew him not, and invited him to his palace; but Ivan answered: “I am not your subject and I will not serve you.” And so saying, away he rode, let his horse run loose in the open fields, went back to the palace, crept again through the window, drew the bladder over his head, and lay down to sleep.

The Tsar gave a public feast for this great victory, and it lasted several days; until the knight Polkan once more invaded the country with a fresh army, and again demanded with threats the youngest Princess for his wife. The Tsar instantly assembled his armies again, and sent them against Polkan; but the knight defeated them forthwith. Then Lotao went to her husband, and everything happened exactly as before; and Ivan again drove Polkan and his army out of the empire. Thereupon the Tsar invited him to his palace; but without heeding him, Ivan turned off his horse in the fields, went back to the palace, and lay down to sleep. So the Tsar gave another feast, in honour of the victory over Polkan; but he marvelled what hero it could be who had so bravely defended his realm.

After a while, Polkan a third time invaded the empire, and all fell out as before: Ivan jumped out of the window, ran into the fields, mounted his steed, and rode forth against the enemy. Then the horse said in a human voice: “Listen, Ivan Peasantson! we have now a hard task to perform; defend yourself as stoutly as possible, and stand firm against Polkan—otherwise you and the whole Chinese army will be destroyed.” Then Ivan spurred his steed, rode against Polkan’s host, and began to slay them right and left. When Polkan saw that his army was defeated, he flew into a rage, and fell upon Ivan the peasant’s son like a furious lion, and a fight began between the two horses, at the sight of which the whole army stood aghast. They fought for a long time, and Polkan wounded Ivan in the left hand. Thereupon Ivan the peasant’s son, in a fierce rage, aimed his javelin at Polkan, and pierced him through the heart: then he struck off his head, and drove the whole army out of China.

Ivan now went to the Chinese Tsar, who bowed to the ground, and invited him to his palace. The Princess Lotao, seeing blood upon Ivan’s left hand, bound it up with her handkerchief, and invited him to remain in the palace; but, without heeding her, Ivan mounted his steed and trotted off. Then he turned his horse into the fields, and went himself to sleep.

The Tsar again ordered a great banquet to be prepared; and the Princess Lotao went to her husband and tried to awaken him, but all in vain. On a sudden she beheld with surprise golden hair upon his head, from which the bladder had fallen off; and, stepping up to him, she saw her handkerchief bound on his left hand; and now she knew that he it had been who had three times defeated and at last slain Polkan. Then she ran instantly to her father, led him into the apartment, and said: “See, my father! You told me I had married a fool; look closely at his hair, and at this wound which he received from Polkan.” Then the Tsar saw that it had been he who had thrice delivered his empire, and he rejoiced greatly.

When Ivan the peasant’s son awoke, the Emperor took him by his white hands, led him into the palace, thanked him for the services he had rendered; and being himself far advanced in years, he placed the crown upon Ivan’s head. Then Ivan mounted the throne, and ruled happily, and lived with his wife for many years in the greatest harmony and love.

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