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Literature / Ruler of the Magical Keys

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Ruler of the Magical Keys (Повелитель волшебных ключей) is a series of fairy tales (shifting towards fantasy in the later books) written by Sofia Prokofieva in 1957, 1977, 1985, 1989 and 1992. The eponymous ruler of the magical keys is the wizard Alyosha, a gentle and rather absend-minded Blue-Collar Warlock who lives in a small Soviet/Russian town. He has a piece of chalk with which he can draw a key on any door and get into a parallel reality. These keys are involved in every story in some way:

  • The Wizard's Pupil (1957): they are used to bring a drawing of a cat to life, since a drawing is a fantasy universe too
  • The Island of Captains (1977): they are used to bring a painted swallow to life, and later to help fairytale characters get into our world
  • A Girl Named Glazastik (1985), Astrel and the Forest's Guardian (1989), Princess Wennie (1992): they are used to transport Alyosha into some or other fairytale universe that is in serious need of help

The series gradually gets Darker and Edgier (that doesn’t mean worse) with each book, starting from The Wizard’s Pupil which is an adorable fairytale comedy with only one nominal antagonist in the shape of Vas’ka, and ending with Princess Wennie which has a wizard who steals humans’ (and animals’) souls by forcing them to cross the Moral Event Horizon and keeps the stolen souls in an eerie supernatural world. Either Prokofieva, like J. K. Rowling, was writing for the audience that grew up as the series went on, or the weakening and later abolishment of the Soviet censure allowed her to write more freely (especially considering the Christian allusions that grow especially prominent in Wennie and that can be found in many of Prokofieva’s other post-Soviet works).

Some elements from the plot of A Girl Named Glazastik (the king’s name being Krapodin, the love story of Miel and the violinist, and the presence of a courtier who has no talent in music and wants to find the instrument that suits him) were used in While the Clock Chimes, a 1977 feature adaptation of another fairy tale by Prokofieva.

The first three books of the series were also adapted as stop-motion short movies in 1983, 1985 and 1987 respectively. While The Wizard’s Pupil and The Magical Bells (the adaptation of Glazastik) only retain the most basic plotline, The Island of Captains, being at almost thirty minutes twice as long as each of them, manages to cover all the major events and characters of the book.

Ruler of the Magical Keys contains examples of:

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    Tropes common to all books in the series 
  • Amulet of Concentrated Awesome: Played with. A piece of chalk doesn't look the tiniest bit presentable (and neither does its owner). But it is really an Ancient Artifact and really has awesome power hidden inside, allowing its owner to travel between worlds.
  • Born of Magic: The magical chalk allows you to bring pictures to life. Vas'ka the cat and Swallow Two Spots were "born" this way.
  • Catchphrase: Alyosha and Vas'ka when discussing something or talking to themselves. Try and count the times they say this:
    Alyosha: What do you think?.. Oh, undoubtedly!
    Vas'ka: Logical? Logical.
  • Cats Are Magic: Vas'ka, perfectly intelligent, Alyosha's friend and sort-of pupil. His Love Interest Murka, although an ordinary street cat, is also shown to be above average and familiar with magic (although perhaps the latter comes from talking to Vas'ka).
  • Casting Gag: In the stop-motion adaptations, Vas’ka is voiced by Oleg Tabakov whose star roles include a snarky talking striped cat in Prostokvashino, and the pirate leader from The Island of Captains by Yekaterina Vasilieva, who also played the bandit leader in Bumbarash.
  • Contrasting Sequel Antagonist. Books 2-3 and 4-5 pair up quite neatly.
    • The clever and attractive pirate lady and a crew of foolish cowardly mooks who want to kill, rob and drink rum mostly For the Evulz vs. The foolish, vain and ugly king who relies on the brains of his courtiers and his fiancée and whose firmly set goal is making lots of money (and thus avoiding Marriage of Convenience).
    • The conflicted Kargor, secretly tormented by his love for Dozhdirena and his guilt over her death vs. Tragimor, irredeemable bastard, period.
  • Everyone Calls Them Barkeep: Many times. The old lady in a cap of spiderwebs in The Wizard's Pupil, the Black Cat in The Island of Captains, the Little Mouse in Princess Wennie, and many more.
  • Good Eyes, Evil Eyes: If a character has big, bright, clear, deep eyes, you can safely bet they’re good (Katya, Christopher Columbus, Rengist, Smirinka etc.). Sharp and piercing equals irredeemably bad (Gina, The Chief Gatherer of Smiles, Tragimor).
  • I Should Write a Book About This: Almost every story finishes with Alyosha sitting at his desk and starting to write down his adventures.
  • Kick the Dog: The villains often have these moments.
    • Gina throws boiling water over Swallow Two Spots and leaves Squirrel, who trusts her absolutely, on a sinking ship among enemies.
    • Kargor turns his teenage maidservant into an elderly tortoise because she worked too slowly.
  • Meaningful Name: Lots and lots. Secret (Alyosha's old mentor), Auntie Oh (constantly sighing), Nitochka (meaning "thread" in Russian; the girl has a hand with needlework), Glazastik (meaning in Russian "big-eyed one")...
  • Non-Human Sidekick: Many characters have these, but most importantly there's Vas'ka for Alyosha.
  • Only One Name: "Alyosha" is a diminutive, but his full name (Alexey Secretovich) is only used once by the narrator, and his surname is unknown. He is called Alyosha by former classmates, the wizard Alyosha in the narrative, and Uncle Alyosha by children.
  • Vegetarian Carnivore:
    • Vas'ka and Murka stop eating birds after he becomes friends with Swallow Two Spots, and after meeting the Mouse Queen, Vas'ka quits eating mice too. By Princess Wennie, he only seems to care for milk products.
    • The fate reserved for Kargor in Astrel. He will be burnt alive if he tries to kill a single bird.
  • White Magic: All good wizards use it, and it works really well most of the times. Opposed to classical Black Magic in Astrel and Princess Wennie.
    The Wizard's Pupil 
  • A Pupil of Mine Until He Turned to Evil: Played for Laughs with Vas'ka. He learns just one spell – a spell that can turn anyone and anything into a mouse – and goes on wrecking chaos in the town as he searches for a suitable supper.
    Alyosha: I suspect that the culprit is my pupil!
  • Disproportionate Retribution: The genie suggests throwing Alyosha's friends into the abyss for daring to say magic is an old-fashioned profession.
  • Good with Numbers: It's mentioned that at school Alyosha was top student in physics and maths.
  • Lighter and Softer: With Vas’ka being the only antagonist, it’s considerably more cheerful than the following books.
  • Magic Versus Science: When technologies get more and more advanced and humans are in space... you are doing something like magic? Like, seriously?
  • Miles Gloriosus: Vasya Vertushinkin and Vas'ka the cat.
    Vas'ka (having just been brought to life): I'm the very very very best cat in the whole wide wor...
    Alyosha: Where? Where?
    The Island of Captains 
  • Alto Villainess: In the animated adaptation, voiced by the very deep-voiced Yekaterina Vasilieva, famous for her portrayals of antagonists.
  • Beary Friendly: The white bears in the northern regions of the Fairytale Ocean who help the crew of the Dream find the way to the ocean's border.
  • Beauty Equals Goodness: Viciously subverted with the Lovely Gina.
  • Berserk Button:
    • Never ever try to remind Captain Nils that his ship has paper sails.
    • Or tell John and Jack they aren't identical.
  • Cool and Unusual Punishment: The pirates are forced to become the crew of the Flying Dutchman.
  • Daddy's Little Villain: Gina, daughter of Signor Mafioso Banditto.
  • Demoted to Extra: Alyosha himself, oddly enough. His only prominent appearances are in the beginning (where he bring the swallow to life and explains about the Island of Captains) and closer to the end, when the crew of the Dream comes visiting from the magical world to ask his advice about the pirates.
  • Evil Chef: Gina, so very much.
  • Family-Values Villain: Signor Banditto is a terrible man no doubt, but his family is happy and loving.
  • Fair-Weather Friend: The moment the pirates are overcome, the Black Cat immediately tries to ingratiate herself with the captains.
  • Fat and Skinny: Played with. The twin pirate brothers Jack and John are exactly that in appearance, but they are dead certain that they are perfectly identical. Woe betide anyone who disagrees.
  • A Father to His Men: When Captain Tin Tinych learns the Dream is sinking, his only concern is to rescue his crew who are drugged and asleep.
  • Historical Domain Character: Subverted, as Christopher Columbus isn't the Columbus but rather his alter ego created when the real Columbus was only a boy.
  • I Don't Like the Sound of That Place: The Black Island, where the pirates are hiding.
  • Multinational Team: The captains (at least, the ones we meet) include a Russian, a Scandinavian, two Italians, a Frenchman, an African-American, and a German.
  • Perilous Old Fool: Downplayed. Christopher Columbus is so infirm he can't even walk by himself, and yet he sets sail to chase the pirates. Happily for him, the one time their ships cross paths, the pirates aren't ready to go out of hiding and blow off their lamps, so he doesn't notice them and it never comes to actual battle.
  • Pirate Girl: Gina.
  • The Pirates Who Don't Do Anything: Played straight when the pirate ship sets sail at first – the pirates are too busy singing songs and drinking rum to notice that the ship is falling to pieces. Then they are forced to go in hiding and do nothing because they lose the ship.
  • Raven Hair, Ivory Skin: The Lovely Gina.
  • Single Malt Vision: When the Black Cat gets drunk, she thinks she has two tails instead of one.
  • Stepford Smiler: The Lovely Gina with her ever-present charming smile which is a mask to hide the fact that she never smiles in truth.
  • Tulpa: Every captain on the Island of Captains was born when a little boy (or a girl) made a toy ship and set it sailing.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: The fates of old Luigi and his son, as well as that of Gina Banditto in our world, remain unknown.
    A Girl Named Glazastik 
  • Alas, Poor Villain: When Miraklus learns the king plans to pocket the golden smiles for himself merely to mint them into coins, his breakdown is so heartbreaking that even the palace guards feel sorry for him.
  • Betty and Veronica: Queen Vetrenitsa is the Veronica with her capricious behavior and ever-changing temper, and Krapodin is secretly planning to marry the quiet, warm-hearted Nitochka. She doesn't love him in the least, quite the contrary, but it doesn't matter to him.
  • Elemental Powers: Queen Vetrenitsa who's the sovereign of winds.
  • Hair of Gold, Heart of Gold: Nitochka is a gentle, timid (but by no means cowardly) golden-haired girl.
  • Hall of Mirrors: Krapodin's palace includes one. Alyosha and the Gatherer of Smiles both get lost there at one point, which is exacerbated by the fact that the former is dressed as the latter.
  • Heel Realization: Miraklus.
    Miraklus: Now I understand. If people can't be moved to smile when listening to music, the music is dead for them.
  • Interspecies Romance:
    • The Mouse Queen falls in love with Vas'ka. He doesn't reciprocate.
    • And then there's Interspecies Friendship (bordering on romance) between Glazastik and Vihrik who is a wind.
  • Marriage of Convenience: King Krapodin and Queen Vetrenitsa. Krapodin only courts her because she brings him the invisible keys.
  • The Rocinante: Pegash, Auntie Oh's old sad horse.
  • Seeking the Intangible: When the genie captures Katya to bring her to the evil king, she tells him she has lost her politeness somewhere in the room and has to find it before appearing at court. While pretending to search for the politeness, she smashes the thermos, the genie's living-place, without which the genie need not obey anyone's orders.
  • Voice Changeling: Vihrik can perfectly mimic people's voices.
    Astrel and the Forest's Guardian 
  • Accidental Truth: Astrel called Rengist Father because he was the only one (besides his servant Tortoise) to pity her. It turned out she was right.
  • Awesome, but Impractical: Astrel can become invisible, but only during dusk and away from direct sources of light such as lamps. Since she can’t run very far between sunset and nighttime, the ability only enables her to visit Rengist and Tortoise but can’t help her otherwise.
    • Subverted when it becomes the crucial clue to identify Astrel who’s been turned into a tree. Even as a tree, she becomes invisible at dusk.
  • Being Evil Sucks: Unlike other villains of the series who are ecstatic about their wickedness, Kargor is deeply unhappy. He is constantly tormented by the memory of Dozhdirena's death, his current life brings him no joy, and it is increasingly harder for him, when he is in raven form, to turn back into a human. Instead of being remorseful, though, he lashes out at the world, which naturally leads to him getting yet more embittered.
  • Cain and Abel: Kargor and Rengist. Kargor does not kill his brother, but by stealing his memory he dooms him to a Fate Worse than Death.
  • Creepy Crows: Kargor often turns into a huge monstrous raven to hunt down forest birds.
  • Death Equals Redemption: At one point Alyosha is bound with a magical rope that kills anyone who unties it. But there happens to be a very sad tornado in the neighborhood that only wants to stop causing death and chaos.
  • Distress Call: Astrel's letter that she sends to every good wizard. Only Alyosha responds.
  • Elemental Shapeshifter: Not only could Dozhdirena summon rain, she could also turn into it. When she died, she turned all into rain and fell on the ground, and there are hints that it was only her human form that died, since rain seems to be pretty intelligent whenever Astrel's in trouble.
  • Evil Uncle: Kargor for Astrel, who’s unaware of the relationship.
  • Exact Words: Kargor promised to hand over his mook Skipp's voice. He just didn't promise he'll give the voice to Skipp.
  • Hired to Hunt Yourself: Overly asks Kargor to help the birds get rid of a dreadful gigantic raven that has been terrorizing the forest. She has no idea Kargor is that raven and, of course, has no intentions to stop hunting down other birds.
  • Horrible Judge of Character: Overly the bird thinks Kargor is a good and compassionate wizard. Apparently, a creepy dark castle, the voice labyrinth and the flame snakes don't trigger any suspicions in her.
  • If I Can't Have You…: Kargor preferred to let Dozhdirena cry herself out to death (literally, as she is the Queen of Rain) rather than give her to Rengist.
  • Love at First Sight: Astrel and Gven.
  • Love Makes You Evil: Before Kargor and Rengist both fell in love with Dozhdirena, they were normal siblings who played together.
  • Meaningful Rename: Aunt Tortoise was only called that after Kargor turned her into an old tortoise and Rengist managed to turn her back halfway.
  • Noodle Incident: Kargor's voice labyrinth features a lot of snippets of life that sometimes make little to no sense out of context. In particular, there is the voice of a woman who apparently keeps bats as messengers and has a collection of human heads. She beats some man at a game and he tells her he will pay his debt in bats, while another man argues bats aren't a big deal.
  • Only Mostly Dead: It's implied Dozhdirena will return someday. Considering her powers are still protecting Astrel – who knows.
  • Princeling Rivalry: Igni and Tragni. The king laments that they're always fighting because of Astrel (who likes neither).
  • Shapeshifter Identity Crisis: As Kargor goes more and more crazy, it's increasingly difficult for him to keep his human shape until he can't at last and becomes a raven permanently.
  • Shapeshifter Mode Lock: Rengist ensures Kargor is stuck forever in the shape of a raven.
  • Younger Than They Look: Aunt Tortoise looks and behaves like a very old woman, but she is in fact a teenage girl under a curse.
    Princess Wennie 
  • Actually, That's My Assistant: Tragimor sends the Little Mouse to spy on two very suspicious newcomers and find out who is in command. Naturally, the Little Mouse believes that The Leader is the more scary one – that is, the cat.
  • Anti-Climax: Most probably done on purpose: the story arc involving Tragimor’s Sword of Death. It has that grand name and Tragimor muses on how nothing can escape its blow, and then it gets destroyed in one go by the remorse of Wennie and the Little Mouse.
  • Artifact of Doom: The grey thread that sucks out your soul.
  • Being Evil Sucks: What everybody wearing a grey thread ultimately realizes.
  • Darker and Edgier: Stolen souls kept in a supernatural world, personified vices shaped as black knights, the Moral Event Horizon you have to cross to put your soul in Tragimor’s power, soulless!Aurint’s terribly creepy treatment of Smirinka… no wonder Alyosha doesn’t even think of allowing his kid friends to deal with that universe.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: When Aurint adorns Smirinka with the enchanted jewels, the scene is disturbingly similar to a depiction of sexual assault (he catches her alone, tells her that they are going to marry whether she wants to or not, and starts putting jewels on her, all the time telling her how beautiful she is, while she is crying and begging for him to stop). Thankfully, Aurint gets a My God, What Have I Done? epiphany mere moments later.
  • Easily Forgiven: Pretty much everyone by Smirinka. She actually gets called out for that by Aurint, one of her worst offenders throughout the book, and promptly answers that try as she might, she can’t find anything good in Tragimor.
  • Even the Loving Hero Has Hated Ones: Smirinka lives by the Turn the Other Cheek principle and easily forgives everyone who bullies and offends her throughout the book. However, she has nothing but hatred and contempt for Tragimor, the story's main villain, who locks away souls in a supernatural world by forcing their owners to commit heinous crimes.
  • Evil Cannot Comprehend Good: The word “remorse” is stuck somewhere very far in Tragimor’s passive vocabulary, and in all his carefully laid plans, he doesn’t seriously consider that convincing his victims to do something really bad can lead to My God, What Have I Done? on their part instead.
  • Evil Weapon: Tragimor's Sword of Death is a weapon one can't escape from unless it's destroyed by genuine remorse.
  • Face Death with Dignity: Very nearly played straight by Alyosha and Vas’ka in their final confrontation with Tragimor. Then his magic ring turns out to be a fake, and Alyosha is able to turn his spell on him.
    Vas’ka: Well, I’ll die in the arms of my dear master and with Murka’s name on my lips!
  • Faux Affably Evil: With his victims, Tragimor is usually polite and courteous, but he is utterly remorseless and cruel.
  • Forced Marriage: Subverted as Smirinka got engaged to Aurint for love and she still does love him, but she refuses to marry his new soulless, harsh and cruel self.
  • Hair of Gold, Heart of Gold: Subverted, as Wennie is red-haired and gets golden hair as a bonus from Tragimor after her Face–Heel Turn.
  • Heel–Face Revolving Door: The grey thread's effects can be reversed by genuine repentance. Hence Aurint, Little Mouse and Wennie turning to playing The Mole in Tragimor's palace.
  • Held Gaze: Alyosha of all people. He is absolutely enchanted by Smirinka's beauty, and the narration states how “he couldn’t take his eyes off her” from the moment he saw her. At that point she’s happily reunited with Aurint, and anyway she doesn’t even know Alyosha exists.
  • If You're So Evil, Eat This Kitten!: Tragimor's strategy. Putting a grey thread on a person's neck is step one, and then the person must do something really evil to fall under Tragimor's power completely. The Little Mouse revealed his family's hiding place, Aurint was to put a grey thread around Smirinka's neck, and Wennie signed Wen's death warrant.
  • The Ingenue: Smirinka (derived from "smirenny" – "humble" in Russian).
    Aurint (discovering Smirinka and Wennie breaking into Tragimor's private quarters): Princess, one can forgive you, you are a child. But you, Smirinka, a grown woman!
  • Let's Get Dangerous!:
    • After being bullied by pretty much everyone for the whole book, Smirinka decides to help Wennie to destroy Wen’s death warrant and ends up fighting off Tragimor’s eagle-owl.
    • Alyosha also qualifies. Since most of his magic doesn’t work in parallel universes, he usually sabotages the villains’ plans without any direct confrontation (and if one happens, like in Glazastik, he tricks the villains and runs away). Here, in the climactic scene he comes face to face with Tragimor, who’s infinitely more dangerous than the previous antagonists.
  • Love Redeems: That's what led to the salvation of Aurint and Wennie. Even in their soulless state, they retain feelings towards their loved ones.
  • Mistreatment-Induced Betrayal: What induced Heel–Face Turn for the Little Mouse.
  • Mood Whiplash: Smirinka almost dies, Aurint gets a Heel Realization – and then the friendly sparrow Prohvostik flies inside and asks the girl what she's doing there, lying down in daytime like an idiot.
  • My God, What Have I Done?:
    • Aurint absolutely breaks down when his jewels nearly kill Smirinka.
    • Wennie is devastated immediately after Tragimor coaxes her into signing Wen’s death warrant.
  • Nice Job Fixing It, Villain: Tragimor, for all that he’s genuinely terrifying and clever, isn’t above grabbing the Villain Ball from time to time. The most prominent examples include:
    • He wants Smirinka to give up her soul, and he gives Aurint a box of magic jewels for her, thinking it should do the trick. Not only doesn’t Smirinka waver, but she is almost killed by the jewels’ magic, which leads to Aurint’s repentance, which ultimately leads to Tragimor’s downfall.
    • He casually allows the Fire Servants and the Knights of Darkness to kill the Little Mouse if they want. Cue Mistreatment-Induced Betrayal.
  • Objectshifting: Tragimor turns a talkative craftsman into a door.
  • Ominous Owl: Tragimor’s Non-Human Sidekick, a cruel eagle-owl called Secret Informer.
  • Only the Pure of Heart: …can destroy Tragimor’s otherwise indestructible artifacts.
  • Pretty Butterflies: Every morning, Wennie is woken up by friendly butterflies. They leave her when she gives away her soul, but return once she gains it back.
  • Puppy Love: Wen and Wennie are preteen best friends who say they'll get married when they grow up.
  • Ring of Power: The Snake's Eye Ring allows one, among other things to command the fierce snake-chains in the Kingdom of Dreams.
  • Shipper with an Agenda: It's not kindness that drives Tragimor when he wants to organize Aurint and Smirinka's wedding, but rather the desire to persuade Smirinka to give up her soul.
  • Spanner in the Works: Aurint finishes the replica of the Snake's Eye Ring after his repentance. It’s only done to avoid Tragimor’s suspicions, but the ring can’t be handled by the good-hearted and therefore fails to work, leading to its owner’s downfall.
  • Spotting the Thread: Zig-zagged, with the literal meaning – when Aurint's grey thread disappears, he realizes Tragimor is bound to notice and draw all the correct conclusions. Smirinka gives him an ordinary grey thread from her dress. Tragimor sees Aurint's eyes shine too brightly and he looks much too happy, but concludes that if the thread's in place, everything's okay.