Koschei the Deathless
Koschei the Deathless, originally titled “Princess Miranda and Prince Hero,” is a Polish story from a collection of fairy tales by A.J. Glinski published in 1862. Glinski was Poland’s master folklore writer, and his nation’s equivalent of the Brothers Grimm. He spent many years in the mid-nineteenth century travelling all over his nation’s lands, listening to and writing down the stories as told to him by peasant folk.
Koschei the Deathless is a popular villain in Russian, Ukrainian, Polish, and Czech fairy tales. He is a powerful sorcerer that achieves immortality by hiding his soul outside of his body. Legend goes that the only way to kill him is to find and destroy his soul. Unfortunately, his soul happens to be inside of a needle, which is in an egg, which is in a duck, which is in a hare, which is in an iron chest, which is buried under a great oak tree on an island that doesn’t exist.
Koschei the Deathless
(Polish Fairy Tale)
Far away, in the wide ocean there was once a green island where lived the most beautiful princess in the world, named Miranda. She had lived there ever since her birth, and was queen of the island. Nobody knew who her parents were, or how she had come there. But she was not alone; for there were twelve beautiful maidens, who had grown up with her on the island, and were her ladies-in-waiting.
But a few strangers had visited the island, and spoken of the princess’s great beauty; and many more came in time, and became her subjects, and built a magnificent city, in which she had a splendid palace of white marble to live in.
And in course of time a great many young princes came to woo her. But she did not care to marry any of them; and if anyone persisted, and tried to compel her by force to be his wife, she could turn him and all his soldiers into ice, by merely fixing her eyes upon them.
One day the wicked Koschei, the king of the underground realm, came out into the upper world, and began to gaze all round it with his telescope. Various empires and kingdoms passed in review before him; and at last he saw the green island, and the rich city upon it; and the marble palace in this city, and in this palace the twelve beautiful young ladies-of-honor, and among them he beheld, lying on a rich couch of swans down, the Princess Miranda asleep. She slept like an innocent child, but she was dreaming of a young knight, wearing a golden helmet, on a gallant steed, and carrying an invisible mace, that fought of itself, and she loved him better than life.
Koschei looked at her; he was delighted with her beauty; he struck the earth three times, and stood upon the green island.
Princess Miranda called together her brave army, and led them into the field, to fight the wicked Koschei. But he, blowing on them with his poisonous breath, sent them all fast asleep, and he was just going to lay hands upon the princess, when she, throwing a glance of scorn at him, changed him into a lump of ice, and fled to her capital.
Koschei did not long remain ice. As soon as the princess was away, he freed himself from the power of her glance, and regaining his usual form, followed her to her city. Then he sent all the inhabitants of the island to sleep, and among them the princess’s twelve faithful damsels.
She was the only one whom he could not injure; but being afraid of her glances, he surrounded the castle—which stood upon a high hill—with an iron rampart, and placed a dragon with twelve heads on guard before the gate, and waited for the princess to give herself up of her own accord.
The days passed by, then weeks, then months, while her kingdom became a desert; all her people were asleep, and her faithful soldiers also lay sleeping on the open fields, their steel armor all rusted, and wild plants were growing over them undisturbed. Her twelve maidens were all asleep in different rooms of the palace, just where they happened to be at the time; and she herself, all alone, kept walking sadly to and fro in a little room up in a tower, where she had taken refuge—wringing her white hands, weeping, and her bosom heaving with sighs.
Around her all were silent, as though dead; only every now and then, Koschei, not daring to encounter her angry glance, knocked at the door asking her to surrender, promising to make her queen of his underground realm. But it was all of no use; the princess was silent, and only threatened him with her looks.
But grieving in her lonely prison Princess Miranda could not forget the lover of whom she had been dreaming; she saw him just as he had appeared to her in her dream. The sun rose up in the dawn, and at noontide stood just over the princess’s tower, and she said, “Thou soul of the world! Bright sun! Look on me, in this prison undone! Have pity on me! Oh! Where is my loved one? Say! Through what lands do his footsteps stray? And does he now think of me?”
“Princess Miranda,” said the sun, “dry your tears, comfort your heart; your lover is hastening to you, from the bottom of the deep sea, from under the coral reefs; he has won the enchanted ring; when he puts it on his finger, his army will increase by thousands, regiment after regiment, with horse and foot; the drums are beating, the sabers gleaming, the colors flying, the cannon roaring, they are bearing down on the empire of Koschei. But he cannot conquer him by force of mortal weapons. I will teach him a surer way; and there is good hope that he will be able to deliver you from Koschei, and save your country. I will hasten to your prince. Farewell.”
The sun stood over a wide country, beyond the deep seas, beyond high mountains, where Prince Hero in a golden helmet, on a gallant horse, was drawing up his army, and preparing to march against Koschei, the besieger of the fair princess. He had seen her three times in a dream, and had heard much about her, for her beauty was famous throughout the world.
“Dismiss your army,” said the sun. “No army can conquer Koschei, no bullet can reach him; you can only free Princess Miranda by killing him, and how you are to do it, you must learn from the old woman Jandza; I can only tell you where you will find the horse, that must carry you to her. Go hence towards the East; you will come to a green meadow, in which there are three oak trees; and among them you will find hidden in the ground an iron door, with a brazen padlock; behind this door you will find a battle charger, and a mace; the rest you will learn afterwards. Farewell!”
Prince Hero was most surprised; but he took off his enchanted ring and threw it into the sea; with it all his great army vanished directly into mist, leaving no trace behind. He turned to the East and travelled onwards.
After three days he came to the green meadow, where he found the three oak trees, and the iron door, as he had been told. It opened upon a narrow, crooked stairway, going downwards, leading into a deep dungeon, where he found another iron door, closed by a heavy iron padlock. Behind this he heard a horse neighing, so loudly that it made the door fall to the ground, and at the same moment eleven other doors flew open and there came out a war-horse, which had been shut up there for ages by a wizard.
The prince whistled to the horse; the horse tugged at his fastenings, and broke twelve chains by which he had been fettered. He had eyes like stars, flaming nostrils, and a mane like a thunder-cloud; he was a horse of horses, the wonder of the world.
“Prince Hero,” said the horse, “I have long waited for such a rider as you, and I am ready to serve you forever. Mount on my back, take that mace in your hand, which you see hanging to the saddle; you need not fight with it yourself, for it will strike wherever you command it, and beat a whole army. I know the way everywhere; tell me where you want to go, and you will presently be there.”
The prince told him everything; took the self-fighting mace in his hand, and sprang on his back.
The horse reared, snorted, spurned the ground, and they flew over mountains and forests, higher than the flying clouds, over rapid rivers, and deep seas; but when they flew along the ground the charger’s light feet never trampled down a blade of grass, nor raised an atom of dust on the sandy soil.
Before sunset Prince Hero had reached the primeval forest in which the old woman Jandza lived.
He was amazed at the size and age of the mighty oaks, pine trees and firs, where there reigned a perpetual twilight. And there was absolute silence—not a leaf or a blade of grass stirring; and no living thing, not so much as a bird, or the hum of an insect; only amidst this grave-like stillness the sound of his horse’s hoofs.
The prince stopped before a little house, supported on crooked legs, and said, “Little house, move on your crooked legs free: Turn your back to the wood, and your front to me.”
The house turned round, with the door towards him; the prince went in, and the old woman Jandza asked him, “How did you get here, Prince Hero, where no living soul has penetrated till now?”
“Don’t ask me; but welcome your guest politely.”
So the old woman gave the prince food and drink, made up a soft bed for him, to rest on after his journey, and left him for the night. Next morning he told her all, and what he had come for.
“You have undertaken a great and splendid task, prince; so I will tell you how to kill Koschei. In the Ocean-Sea, on the island of Everlasting Life, there is an old oak tree; under this tree is buried a coffer bound with iron; in this coffer is a hare; under the hare sits a grey duck; this duck carries within her an egg; and in this egg is enclosed the life of Koschei. When you break the egg he will die at once. Now good-bye, prince; and good luck go with you; your horse will show you the way.”
The prince got on horseback, and they soon left the forest behind them, and came to the shore of the ocean. On the beach was a fisherman’s net, and in the net was a great fish, who when he saw the prince, cried out piteously, “Prince Hero! Take me out of the net, and throw me back into the sea; I will repay you!”
The prince took the fish out of the net, and threw it into the sea; it splashed in the water, and vanished. The prince looked over the sea, and saw the island in the grey distance, far, far away; but how was he to get there? He leaned upon his mace, deep in thought.
“What are you thinking of, prince?” asked the horse.
“I am thinking how I am to get to the island, when I cannot swim over that breadth of sea.”
“Sit on my back, prince, and hold fast.”
So the prince sat firm on the horse’s back, and held fast by the thick mane; a wind arose, and the sea was somewhat rough; but rider and horse pushed on, through the billows, and at last came to shore on the island of Everlasting Life.
The prince took off his horse’s bridle, and let him loose to feed in a meadow of luxuriant grass, and walked on quickly to a high hill, where grew the old oak tree. Taking it in both hands he tugged at it; the oak resisted all his efforts; he tugged again, the oak began to creak, and moved a little; he mustered all his strength, and tugged again. The oak fell with a crash to the ground, with its roots uppermost, and there, where they had stood firmly fixed so many hundred years, was a deep hole.
Looking down he saw the iron-bound coffer; he fetched it up, broke open the lock with a stone, raised the lid, picked up the hare lying in it by its ears; but at that moment the duck, which had been sitting under the hare, took the alarm, and flew off straight to sea.
The prince fired a shot after her; the bullet hit the duck; she gave one loud quack, and fell; but in that same instant the egg fell from her—down to the bottom of the sea. The prince gave a cry of despair; but just then a great fish came swimming, dived down to the depths of the sea, and coming to the shore, with the egg in its jaws, left it on the sand.
The fish swam away; but the prince, taking up the egg, mounted his horse once more; and they swam till they reached Princess Miranda’s island, where they saw a great iron wall stretching all round her white marble palace.
There was only one entrance through this iron wall to the palace, and before this lay the monstrous dragon with the twelve heads, six of which kept guard alternately; when the one half slept the other six remained awake. If anyone were to approach the gate he could not escape the horrid jaws. Nobody could hurt the dragon; for he could only suffer death by his own act.
The prince stood on the hill before that gate, and commanded his self-fighting mace, which also had the faculty of becoming invisible, to go and clear his entrance to the palace.
The invisible, self-fighting mace fell upon the dragon and began to thunder on all his heads with such force, that all his eyes became bloodshot, and he began to hiss fiercely; he shook his twelve heads, and stretched wide his twelve horrid jaws; he spread out his forest of claws; but this helped him not at all, the mace kept on smiting him, moving about so fast, that not a single head escaped, but could only hiss, groan, and shriek wildly!
Now it had given a thousand blows, the blood gushed from a thousand wounds, and there was no help for the dragon; he raged, writhed about, and shrieked in despair; finally, as blow followed blow, and he could not see who gave them, he gnashed his teeth, belched forth flame, and at length turned his claws upon himself, plunging them deep into his own flesh, struggled, writhed, twisted himself round, and in and out; his blood flowed freely from his wounds – and now it was all over with the dragon.
The prince, seeing this, went into the courtyard of the palace, put his horse into the stable, and went up by a winding stair, towards the tower, whence the Princess Miranda, having seen him, addressed him, “Welcome, Prince Hero! I saw how you disposed of the dragon; but do be careful, for my enemy, Koschei, is in this palace; he is most powerful, both through his own strength, and through his sorceries; and if he kills you I can live no longer.”
“Princess Miranda, do not trouble about me. I have the life of Koschei in this egg.” Then he called out, “Invisible self-fighting mace, go into the palace and beat Koschei.”
The mace bestirred itself quickly, battered in the iron doors, and set upon Koschei; it smote him on the neck, till he crouched all together, the sparks flew from his eyes, and there was a noise of so many mills in his ears.
If he had been an ordinary mortal it would have been all over with him at once; as it was, he was horribly tormented, and puzzled—feeling all these blows, and never seeing whence they came. He sprang about, raved, and raged, till the whole island resounded with his roaring.
At last he looked through the window, and behold there he saw Prince Hero. “Ah! That is all your doing!” he exclaimed; and sprang out into the courtyard, to rush straight at him, and beat him to a jelly! But the prince held the egg in one hand ready; and he squeezed it so hard, that the shell cracked and the yolk and the white were all spilled together – and Koschei fell lifeless!
And with the death of the enchanter all his charms were dissolved at once; all the people in the island who were asleep woke up, and began to stir. The soldiers woke from sleep, and the drums began to beat; they formed their ranks, massed themselves in order, and began to march towards the palace.
And in the palace there was great joy; for Princess Miranda came towards the prince, gave him her white hand, and thanked him warmly. They went to the throne-room, and following the princess’s example, her twelve waiting-maids paired off with twelve young officers of the army, and the couples grouped themselves round the throne, on which the prince and princess were sitting.
And then a priest, arrayed in all his vestments, came in at the open door, and the prince and princess exchanged rings, and were married. And all the other couples were married at the same time, and after the wedding there was a feast, dancing, and music, which it is a pleasure to think of. Everywhere there was rejoicing.
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