Chocolatespoon: Emily’s Musings

The Firebird

Posted on: June 29, 2004

For folk tales this week, I’ve been looking at some Russian folktales.

Spirin, Gennady. The Tale of the Firebird. Translated by Tatiana Popova. Illustrated by Gennady Spirin. Philomel Books, 2002. 32 pages. $16.99. ISBN 0399235841

firebird.jpgGennady Spirin’s retelling of The Tale of the Firebird combines elements from the classic Russian folktales “Ivan-Tsarevitch and Gray Wolf,” “Baba Yaga,” and “Koshchei the Immortal.” Beautiful full-page illustrations and tapestry-like borders filled with elaborate details of swords and wolves and firebird feathers bring the story to life. The illustrations capture the ornate architecture and royal trappings of the palaces of the Tsars and Kings, with dazzling attention to the details down to the golden buttons on the robes, the brocade dresses and onion-topped domes. The tale begins with a Tsar and his three sons and focuses on the youngest, Ivan-Tsarevitch. Someone is stealing golden apples from the Tsar’s treasured tree, and Ivan-Tsarevitch catches a tail feather from the culprit and is sent off on an adventure to bring back the firebird. Ivan-Tsarevitch meets a gray wolf who offers to help to repay an earlier kindness, and advises him on how to capture the firebird. But Ivan-Tsarevitch does not heed the advice and is caught by King Muhmud, who spares him in exchange for bringing back a horse with a golden mane. The adventure continues as the wolf takes him to King Karam’s palace where he can take the horse – as long as he does not touch the harness. Ivan-Tsarevitch, unable to resist again, is caught but spared in exchange for rescuing the King’s sister, Yelena the Beautiful. The wolf takes Ivan-Tsarevitch to Baba Yaga the Wicked at her cottage with the chicken feet. Baba Yaga is in countless Russian folktales – usually as a mean witch, but sometimes kind and helpful. Katya Arnold explains in Baba Yaga: A Russian Folktale, that “She is so familiar to Russian children that she’s almost a member of the family – like an elderly aunt who is either mean or nice, depending on her mood.” (Author’s Note) In Spirin’s retelling, she is much kinder than in most and offers help without demanding work as in many other tales. Here, she tests Ivan-Tsarevitch and rewards him with a magic sword (in a lake reminiscent of the Arthur legends) with which, along with more help from the magical wolf, Ivan-Tsarevitch is able to battle Koshchei the Immortal and rescue Yelena the Beautiful. Victorious, they return the promised items and are richly rewarded. The language of the story lends itself to being read aloud, and listeners will delight in the patterns they hear of the three sons, three quests, three great leaps to travel from place to place, and other repeated elements.

Related Tales:

Sanderson, Ruth. The Golden Mare, the Firebird, and the Magic Ring. Illustrated by Ruth Sanderson. Little, Brown and Company, 2001. 32 pages. $15.95. ISBN: 0316769061
Ruth Sanderson’s The Golden Mare, the Firebird, and the Magic Ring, which is based on elements from “The Firebird, the Horse of Power and Vasilissa,” “The Firebird and Princess Vasilissa”, “The Humpbacked Pony,” and “Tzarevich Ivan and Grey Wolf” is very similar to The Tale of the Firebird. In this retelling as well, wise animals offer counsel and magical aide in repayment of past kindness by our hero. After a continuing series of quests, one leading to the next, the hero ends up marrying the beautiful woman he rescues.

Kimmel, Eric A. Baba Yaga: A Russian Folktale. Illustrated by Megan Lloyd. Holiday House, 2003. 32 pages. $14.95. ISBN: 082340854X
This story starts off as a Cinderella tale, and the wicked step-mother sends the lovely Marina (who has “a great ugly horn growing out of the middle of her forehead”) on an errand to “Auntie-in-the-Forest,” Baba Yaga the witch. By listening to the advice of a wise frog and by treating the animals and even the trees and fences with care, she is able to outsmart and escape Baba Yaga. The magic items that create deep rivers and dense forests to slow down the chase are common in many Russian folktales (sometimes with Baba Yaga, sometimes with a giant or other enemy of our hero).

Mayer, Marianna. Baba Yaga and Vasilisa the Brave. Illustrated by K.Y. Craft. Morrow Junior Books, 1994. 40 pages. $15.89 ISBN: 0688085008
This is also a Cinderella tale involving Baba Yaga, and goes into great detail about the witch and her household. Vasilisa outsmarts Baba Yaga with the help of her magical doll, instilled with her mother’s love.

Reesink, Marijke. The Magic Horse. Illustrated by Adrie Hospes. McGraw-Hill Books, 1974. $5.95.
In this older version of the classic tale, a miller with three sons finds his wheat being trampled in the night and only the youngest son figures out the mystery. When he frees the culprit, a magical grey-tailed white horse, he is promised the horse’s service whenever he wishes, and uses him to win the hand of the tsar’s daughter.

Kimmel, Eric A. I-Know-Not-What, I-Know-Not-Where: A Russian Tale. Illustrated by Robert Sauber. Holiday House, 1994. 64 pages, $16.95. ISBN: 082341020X
This longer, chapter-book format retelling of the Russian folk-tales is similar in structure to The Tale of the Firebird, but features Frol, the middle son of a peasant and his adventures. Beautifully told and illustrated, this version combines elements of a cursed princess Frolya in the form of a white dove who turns out to be the granddaughter of Baba Yaga in this story. A greedy czar and his advisor send Frol on a series of quests, eventually to bring back I-Know-Not-What from I-Know-Not-Where, which turns out to be just the thing to break Frolya’s spell and free her from Koshchey the Deathless’s power (the same villain as had captured Yelena in The Tale of the Firebird).

Riordan, James. Russian Folk-Tales. Illustrated by Andrew Breakspeare. Oxford University Press, 2000. $19.95. 96 pages. ISBN: 0192745360
This wonderful collection contains “Vasilissa the Wise and Baba Yaga,” and “The Firebird.” In this version of The Firebird, it is a stable lad named Ivan who is sent to capture the firebird (with the grey wolf’s help). He is then sent to rescue Yelena the Fair for the king, but falls in love with her on the trip back.

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