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The Poor Man and His Sons — a Ukrainian Fairy Tale
Once upon a time there lived a poor man who had three sons — Petro, Havrylo and Ivan. Petro was the eldest, and Ivan was the youngest.
One day, when the boys grew up, their father said to them,
“Sons, I’ve grown old and cannot provide for you any longer. You are already grown-ups, go search for work in distant lands. But in a year’s time you should come back home, and the one ho will have earned most, can stay with me in my house.
The three young men did as they were told to do.
Twelve months later, they came back to their father’s house. Petro, the eldest son, brought a lot of money with him. The next day came Havrylo, the middle son who had with him several nuggets of gold. And a day later, the youngest son returned — empty-handed.
The old man was angered by his youngest son’s failure to gain anything during his yearly absence and he chased the lad out of his house. The young man went where his feet would carry him, up hill down dale. He never stopped walking until the night came which found him in a forest. Ivan sat down on a tree stump, pulled the last piece of bread he had out of his bag, and started eating. He was so absorbed in his sad thoughts that he neither heard nor saw a giant come out of the thicket. The giant came up to Ivan and asked,
“Why are you so sad, young man?”
Ivan got an awful fright at first but seeing that the giant meant no harm, Ivan told him of what had happened to him.
“I could hire you if you are looking for a job,” said the giant.
Ivan jumped at the offer and with but little hesitation followed the giant. The giant led the way and soon they came to the densest part of the forest where the giant’s house stood. From that night on Ivan lived at the giant’s place.
It was a good life with not so much work to do. The giant taught Ivan to ride a horse and to fence with a sword. The giant also taught his servant to read, write and do the arithmetic count.
One day, twelve months later, the giant said to Ivan,
“Now, Ivan, saddle the horse and get your weapons. I want you to go south, and there, beyond two high mountains, you will find a great castle surrounded by ramparts and high walls, and there lives, in that castle, an ogre whom you will have to kill.”
Ivan saddled the horse, armed himself with a sword and shield, put some bread and water into his bag, said goodbye to the giant and started on his journey.
He traveled for three days before he saw a black castle of forbidding appearance with black ramparts all around it. Ivan found a way to get into the castle and there he saw the ogre, sitting on the throne and holding an iron club.
When the ogre spotted Ivan, he roared in a thunderous voice,
“What are doing here? How dare you to come here?”
“I have come here to challenge you to a fight,” said Ivan.
The ogre broke into derisive laughter and hurled his club at Ivan. Ivan ducked and the club hurtled past him doing him no harm. Ivan rushed to pick up the club. He took careful aim and threw the club at the ogre. His throw hit home — and the club killed the ogre.
As he was leaving, Ivan looked into the stable and saw a saddled black horse there. He tied his own horse to the saddle of the black one by a tether, mounted the black horse and off he rode.
The giant was glad to see Ivan return safely. He praised the young man for his courage and led the horses to the stable.
Some more time passed. Ivan grew ever stronger and wiser. One day the giant said to him,
“Now you will go north. There, beyond the impenetrable forests and stagnant bogs, you will see a castle. There lives another ogre. He does a lot of harm to people. That ogre must be slain. If you kill him, the bogs will turn into fertile fields where people will be able to grow grain.”
It did not take Ivan long to get ready for the journey and on the next day he rode off.
He found the forest the giant had spoken of and boldly rode into it. Soon the growth became so dense that he could not move forward. He pulled out his sword and began hacking his way through the forest. By the end of the day he was still in the forest and he realized he had to spend the night there.
Ivan tethered his horse to a tree, lied down on the mossy ground and fell asleep.
He slept but for a short time. Something woke him up. He raised his head and saw that instead of the thicket there was a big clearing in front of him. Everything around him was lit by an unearthly light and the ground was covered with beautiful and fragrant flowers. Fabulous birds sang sweet songs of the kind that Ivan had never heard before.
Mavky* and vodyani** came from the depths of the forests and from the lakes to sing and dance in front of Ivan. All sorts of animals gathered around him, big and small, with no animal doing any harm to any other animal. On one of the branches of the tree, to which Ivan’s horse was tethered, sat an old owl with a little turtle-dove perched next to the owl. The owl was telling the turtle a tale and the turtle-dove was avidly listening.
Ivan began to listen to the owl too and from what he heard he learnt that the forest he was in used to be cursed, with no birds or other animals living in it. But when Ivan had come hacking his way through, life began coming back to it, with animals returning and flowers blooming. And now, the owl said, all the living things in the forest were celebrating.
Ivan marvelled at the wonders he saw and heard but sleep overcame him again. He woke up again only when the sun was up. As he raised himself up, he saw that he was not far from the edge of the forest and that there was a wide field stretching into the distance beyond the forest. The field was dotted with sweet-scented flowers.
“The bogs must have gone dry and turned into the fields,” he thought to himself. “I must not tarry and go fast and slay the ogre.”
Ivan got into the saddle and set off at a gallop. He did not gallop for long before he saw a castle surrounded by ramparts and walls. Ivan rode into the inner yard of the castle at a full gallop and there he saw the ogre who must have been expecting Ivan to come.
The ogre rushed at Ivan and they began to do battle. The ogre was losing his strength fast and Ivan overwhelmed him. In the castle, Ivan found a wonderful horse and beautiful harness and tying this horse to his he rode off. He was in a hurry to get back home.
All around him, he saw people working in the fields, mowing grass, ploughing and stacking hay. He rejoiced at what he was seeing and in good heart he returned home. The giant was happy to see Ivan return safely. He praised Ivan, led the horses to the stable and told him to take a good rest.
Not long after his return, the giant told Ivan to go east to fight still another ogre. This time he rode across the arid steppes and deserts. Huge venomous snakes threatened to attack him and sting him to death. Enormous spiders tried to entangle Ivan in their cobwebs; mirages and visions attempted to lead him the wrong way. He saw rivers and lakes but when he rode towards them to water the horse and drink himself they receded into the distance.
In spite of all the dangers, Ivan kept unswervingly going east. At last, he reached a white castle surrounded by ramparts and walls. The ogre who lived there proved to be the strongest of the three of those that had he fought, but Ivan managed to overpower and slay him. He found a wonderful white horse and beautiful harness in the castle and leading that horse away, he set on his return journey.
On his way home, he discovered that the deserts had sprouted green plants, that the deep ravines had filled with water, that rivers had started flowing across the steppes, sparkling in the sun. Birds were chirping merrily in the trees.
Ivan returned home safely. The giant praised Ivan and the horse and harness that he had brought back with him. After resting for some time, Ivan got down to studies again and widened his knowledge and learnt new skills.
There was one thought on his mind that bothered him — Why the giant, his master, did not go fight the ogres himself and kept sending him, Ivan, to do it? So one day, he asked the ogre,
“Do not be angry with me, but I would like to ask you a question. Why is it that you, so powerful and strong and agile, kept sending me to fight the ogres instead of doing it yourself?”
The giant instead of getting angry smiled and said,
“You see, my boy, when a great deed is done by the strong and wise, it does not have the same value as when it is performed by someone who is not that strong or wise. Remember, glorious deeds are often done by those who possess a great will power and desire to accomplish rather than just strength.”
Ivan was quite satisfied with the answer he was given and stopped thinking about it.
One day the giant proposed to go for a ride. They got on the horses and rode off. When they came to a city, they saw that everybody in it was in mourning.
They asked what grief the city was stricken with and they were told this story.
“A horrible dragon came and has already eaten half of the cattle that we had and said that he would eat the other half too if we did not give him the king’s daughter. The girl volunteered to go and render herself to the dragon — she knew that we could not survive without cattle. We are in grief because we do not want her to be given to the dragon. If only there would someone who would fight the dragon and slay him, the king would give this man of valour his daughter in marriage and later he would even give him his kingdom to rule.”
“Ivan, you must challenge the dragon and save the king’s daughter from terrible death, and free this land of the pestilent beast,” said the giant.
They returned home, and Ivan led the black horse out of the stable, saddled him and rode off to fight the dragon. When he arrived in the city he was told that the king’s daughter had already been taken to the forest where the dragon lived. Without losing a moment, Ivan galloped to the cave in the forest where the dragon’s lair was. When he saw the fair girl who was standing near the cave and weeping bitter tears, he called out to her,
“Do not cry, princess, it’s too early for you to die!”
The girl stopped crying and smiled at Ivan and Ivan walked to the entrance of the cave in which the dragon was hiding.
“Come out, coward! I challenge you to a fight!”
“Wait a little, I am not ready!” came the booming voice from inside the cave.
Not too long after that, the dragon himself came out of the cave with much noise and bluster. Ivan jumped back into the saddle and attacked the dragon.
The battle was fierce. Ivan chopped off the dragon’s heads one after the other, but the moment the severed head fell to the ground, a new head grew from the neck. The dragon vomited fire and Ivan felt he was losing strength to fight on.
Then the moment came when the dragon knocked Ivan together with his horse down on the ground and poised to fall on Ivan with all his weight to smother him. But Ivan managed to pierce the dragon’s belly with his sword just not a moment too soon. The dragon uttered a piercing scream, fell down on its side and died.
Ivan looked around and saw the princess standing some distance away and wringing her hands.
“Don’t be afraid! The dragon is dead! You can go home,” he called out to her.
The princess did not move — it seemed she could not believe her eyes or ears.
“No, I will not go home all alone. You must come with me — you have saved me and so many other people from sure death,” she said.
She came up to Ivan and took him by the hand. He put her on the horse and walked the horse back to town. The people there were bemoaning their great misfortune and grieving the death of the princess.
“Stop crying! I am alive and well! Ivan has saved me and you!” she called out to the people.
The people rejoiced in the sudden and happy change of fortune. They accompanied the princess and Ivan to the palace. When the king who thought he would never see his beloved daughter again, saw her walk in, happy and merry, he burst into tears of joy. He kept his word and gave his daughter in marriage to Ivan.
The wedding reception was the greatest ever given. Ivan invited the giant, his former master, to join them in merry-making, and probably, if they are alive, they are still celebrating.
Art by Oleksandr Melnyk
* Mavka — a fairy-tale creature that looked like a beautiful girl
but whose back had no skin with all the entrails exposed;
she lured the unwary men into the depths of the forest and killed them.
** Vodyany — a fairy-tale creature that lived in lakes and river
and could drag swimmers to the bottom.