The Tale of Ivan Tsarevich, the Firebird, and the Grey Wolf
Ivan Tsarevich is a placeholder of sorts for the male protagonist of many famous Russian folk, myths and legends (Ivan is one of the most common names in Russia). Sometimes Ivan is the son of a peasant, sometimes he is the son of a tsar, (“tsarevich” means “tsar’s son”) but he is just about always the youngest of three sons. While his two older brothers fail due to ineptitude or maleficence, Ivan always succeeds in his task. Many folktales relate encounters Ivan has had with mythical creatures- both good and evil. One of his most famous quests is called The Tale of Ivan Tsarevich, the Firebird, and the Grey Wolf.
Legend has it Tsar Vislav had a wonderful orchard of which he was very proud. One morning while walking among his apple trees, the Tsar realized that someone had been sneaking into the orchard and stealing his apples. Enraged, the Tsar ordered guards to patrol the orchard, however, they could not catch the culprit who continued to steal more and more apples every night. The Tsar began to grow despondent.
“Dear Father, don't grieve, we ourselves will guard the garden,” said his three sons. That night the oldest son, Dmitry, stood guard but by midnight had fallen asleep. The next morning the Tsar asked, “Well, did you see the culprit?” “No, Father,” said Dmitry. “All night I didn't sleep, my eyes never closed, but I didn't see anything.”
The next night the middle son, Vasiliy, stood guard in the orchard but by midnight he too had fallen asleep. The next morning the Tsar asked, “Well, did you see the culprit?” “No, Father,” said Vasiliy. “All night I didn't sleep, my eyes never closed, but I didn't see anything.”
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The third night it was the turn of the youngest son, Ivan, to stand guard in the orchard. The hours passed slowly by and Ivan grew very sleepy. Yet, he knew how important his job was so he took drops of dew from the grass and wiped the sleep from his eyes. Shortly after midnight, the Firebird came into the orchard. “Suddenly the whole orchard lit up as if a thousand lights were shining on it” (Polenov, 2016).
The Firebird landed softly on the bough of the apple tree and began to eat away at the fruit. Ivan ran to catch hold of its tail but it took flight, leaving only one precious tail feather in Ivan’s hand. The next morning the Tsar asked, “Well, did you see the culprit?” “Dear Father,” said Ivan. “I have discovered who destroys our garden. Here is a memento from the culprit for you to take. It is, Dear Father, the Firebird.”
Ivan catching the Firebird's feather. ( Public Domain )
The rest of the legend (which is very entertaining and can be found following the links at the end of this article) relates how Ivan and his brothers attempt to capture the magnificent Firebird. Needless to say, Dmitry and Vasiliy are unsuccessful in their attempts. Ivan, meanwhile, wins the sympathy of the Grey Wolf, who helps the boy complete his quest. Ivan eventually returns to his father with not only the Firebird but also its golden cage, a horse with a golden mane and its bridle set with precious stones, and the fairest princess in the land, Elena Prekracnaya. While riding here and there on the back of the Grey Wolf, Ivan and Elena fall in love and, after a few close calls, live happily ever after together at the end of the story.
The Tale of Ivan Tsarevich, the Firebird, and the Grey Wolf contains several key elements found in other ancient myths including the Irish fairytale “The Greek Princess and the Young Gardener,” the Swedish fairytale “The Bird ‘Grip,’” and the Swahili fairy tale “The Nunda, Eater of People.” All of these stories are classified type 550 “quest for the golden bird/ firebird” in the Aarne–Thompson classification system (an index used to organize and analyze different narratives). Firebirds are mythical creatures that come from faraway lands and can bring either blessings or curses upon those with whom it comes into contact. In Ivan Tsarevich’s case, the Firebird brought good fortune.
Ivan Tsarevich riding the Gray Wolf by Viktor Vasnetsov, 1889. ( Public Domain )
Firebirds are often depicted as looking similar to peacocks except instead of blue and green plumage, the Firebird’s feathers are bright red, orange, and yellow, like a bonfire or a turbulent flame. The majestic bird appears to glow in the dark and in some stories its feathers continue to shed light even when removed from the bird. Most Firebird quests involve the protagonist being sent off in search of the mythical creature after a father or ruler sees a single feather. The father or ruler is covetous and wants to possess the bird to enhance their standing and/or fortunes but the hero takes up the quest for nobler reasons, such as duty, adventure, or curiosity. The journey to the Firebird is difficult and more often than not, the hero is assisted by a magical helper, usually another animal. In the story of Ivan Tsarevich, he is aided by the Grey Wolf.