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Literature / The Adventures of Strong Vanya

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German edition

The Adventures of Strong Vanya (German: Die Abenteuer des starken Wanja) is a 1968 German Fantasy children book written by Otfried Preu▀ler, author of Krabat, The Little Witch and The Robber Hotzenplotz. It is strongly inspired by Russian Mythology and Tales.

A long time ago, in a remote Russian village, there lived a farmer called Vasili Grigorevich, who had three children: Grischa, Sascha and Vanya. Grischa and Sascha were diligent hard workers, but Vanya was a self-confessed and proud slacker who, in spite of his flaws, was the apple of their father and their Aunt Akulina's eyes.

One day, Vanya is gathering wood in the forest when an old, blind stranger approaches him to tell him he is destined to become Tsar; but he needs to lie down on his house's large stove (Russian stoves were large structures where people often slept on) during several years to gather strength, without talking and without moving beyond what was strictly necessary. And when he is ready, he must travel through several countries and cross the White Mountains.

At first Vanya laughs the kindly man's extraordinary claims off, but he instinctively feels he should trust him. So, he goes back home, and refusing to give any explanation to his family, he gathers several blankets and sacks of sunflower seeds and lies down on top of the stove. For the next seven years, Vanya will rest, build up his strength, and fight every attempt to force him to get down from the stove (including his brothers' threats of burning their home down).

When he is finally ready, Vanya says goodbye to his family and sets off on a long journey towards the White Mountains. On his path he will happen upon adventures, monsters and an evil conspiracy to seize the rightful Tsar's crown.

The Tropes of Strong Vanya:

  • Absurdly Sharp Blade: Vanya is armed with the Ironwood Lance, whose tip can shatter every weapon or shield upon contact.
  • Aristocrats Are Evil: Grand Duke Dimitri is a sinister, stone-hearted, power-hungry schemer who disposes of anybody who dares to criticize him and intends to seize the throne by forcing the Tsarevna to marry him. Dimitri is despised by the old Tsar and Tsarevna Vasillisa, and feared and hated by the peasantry who thank God when Vanya arrives in the city wearing the Armor of the Tsar Ivan Vasilievich.
  • Bears Are Bad News: Grand Duke Dimitri keeps three wild, hungry Siberian bears in a pen behind the palace's gate to deal with unwanted visitors. It is said that whoever gets to deal with them will not need a coffin afterwards.
  • BFS: Foma Drachensohn, the Stone Knight, wears three huge and heavy swords. The smallest of them weighs fourteen Russian Puds/Poods (aproximately 505,54 pounds/229,32 kilograms).
    Foma Drachensohn raised the first of his three swords, which weighed seven times seven Poods.
  • Big Bad: Grand Duke Dimitri. His ploy to take over the throne by forcing the Tsarevna to marry him prompts the Tsar to demand an impossible task as simultaneously looking for someone who is able to undertake the quest. When Vanya appears clad in the Armor of the Tsar Ivan Vasilievich, Dimitri attempts to murder him by any means: poison, fire...
  • Breath Weapon: Och, the Green Devil, can expel out hurricane-force blasts of air. They are powerful enough to uproot trees and bring entire villages down.
  • Bring It: Every time the Stone Knight urges Vanya to surrender, the latter goads the former into attacking him.
    Stone Knight: Do you surrender? Or do I have to kill you?
    Vanya: Hit me!
  • Cain and Abel: Grischa and Sascha often get pissed off at Vanya, who is their father's favorite despite being a total slacker. Both brothers become gradually more hostile and confrontational when Vanya starts his strength-gathering training, to the point they try to beat him up; and when it fails, they threaten to burn the house down if he does not get him down from the stove.
  • Composite Character: Vanya combines traits of the folk hero Ilya Muromets, who gained super-strength after spending several years lying on a stove, and several different fairy tale heroes named Ivan (see: "Tsarevitch Ivan, the Fire Bird and the Gray Wolf" and "The Death of Koschei the Deathless" for examples)
  • Cool Horse: Waron, Vanya's black horse, is "faster than the wild Steppe wind, the best and most loyal horse under God's Sun".
  • Dark Is Not Evil: Waron, Vanya's swift and loyal horse, is completely black.
  • Determinator: Pleas. Prayers. Exorcisms. Taunts. Threats. Extreme cold. Unbearable heat. Physical assaults. All of them were attempted during seven years, and all of them failed to get Vanya down from the stove.
  • Engagement Challenge: Grand Duke Dimitri plots to force the Tsarevna Vasilissa into marrying him to take over the throne. Aware that Dimitri is despised by his daughter and hated and feared by the common follk, the old Tsar invokes one law which allows him to launch an engagement challenge: Anybody who intends to marry the princess must bring the Armor of the Tsar Ivan Vasilievich within seven years, seven months and seven weeks multiplied by seven. Meanwhile, he secretly mentors one guy who looks decent to undertake the challenge.
  • Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep": The old blind Tsar's real name is never given.
  • Evil Chancellor: Dimitri acts as a trusted advisor, but he is scheming to take over the throne by forcing the Tsarevna to marry him, and it is rumored he caused the old Tsar's disabling illness. He also attempts to murder Vanya before he makes a legitimate claim for the throne.
  • The Good King: By all indications, the old blind Tsar is popular and well-beloved. He obeys the kingdom's laws, even those ones which he does not like, and is willing to pass over his crown to someone trustworthy. When Vanya questions a farmer's son's ability to rule a kingdom, the old Tsar assures him that a good ruler needs a good heart rather than blue blood.
  • Gratuitous Russian: Vanya talks about gifting Aunt Akulina a samovar (a Russian teapot). The characters also often use words like "Tsar", "Tsarevna" or "Tsarevich".
  • Green and Mean: The evil Och, also known as "The Green Devil", is a dragon-like creature who enjoys terrorizing peasants and destroying villages and forests.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: Anissim, an innkeeper who is on Grand Duke's payroll, sets the Steppe on fire to murder Vanya, so carelessly that he does not notice the flames are surrounding him.
  • House Fire: Alioska Roschof, the Vanya's town's biggest and dodgiest troublemaker, talks Grischa and Sascha into setting their house on fire to force Vanya to jump off the stove.
  • It Amused Me: Alioska turns people against each other just because he enjoys their quarrels.
  • Impossible Task: The old Tsar decrees anyone who intends to marry his daughter and become his successor must bring to him the Armor of the Tsar Ivan Vasilievich, which is hidden on the other side of the White Mountains, and guarded by an inhumanly strong giant known as the Stone Knight.
  • In-Series Nickname: Nobody refers to Vanya as Ivan Vasilievich, his actual name.
  • Karmic Death:
    • Och is so angry after being defeated by Vanya he literally bursts with rage.
    • Anissim gets killed by the same fire which he caused as attempting to murder Vanya.
  • Kill It with Fire: Anissim, one of Grand Duke's minions, attempts to murder Vanya by setting the Steppe on fire to burn him to ashes.
  • King Incognito: The old blind Tsar passes himself as a beggar twice: when he appears before Vanya to tell him he can become Tsar; and six years later when he explains Vanya's weird behavior to his father Vasili.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: It is suspected that Dimitri caused the old Tsar's blindness through poison or sorcery. The matter is left ambiguous, and given the setting, it could be either or even both.
  • Missing Mom: Vanya, Sascha and Grischa's mother is dead, and Aunt Akulina is helping his brother-in-law Vasili take care of his sons.
  • Nothing Can Stop Us Now!: Grand Duke Dimitri gloats that nothing can stop him from becoming Tsar, since the time for some claimant appearing is up tomorrow. Several hours later, he is informed by one of his spies that one man clad in the Armor of the Tsar Ivan Vasilievich is coming.
    Grand Duke Dimitri: I counted exactly. The seven years and seven times seven weeks are up tomorrow. And nothing in the world will prevent me from taking you as my wife the day after tomorrow!
  • Our Dragons Are Different: Och is a round, swollen, ox-sized green monster, resembling a cross between a newt and a fish, with four ridiculously thin limbs and batwing-like ears. Its mouth can unleash terribly destructive gale-force winds.
  • Parental Favoritism: Vasili Grigorevich is proud of Grischa and Sascha, but he is so fond of Vanya that he does not allow Vanya's older brothers to beat his laziness out of him.
  • Rags to Riches: Vanya, a farmer's lazy son born in a backwater, remote Russian village becomes Tsar.
  • Required Secondary Powers: Although it is not brought up, Vanya is real tough in order to use his inhuman strength safely.
  • Rule of Three:
    • The story is split the story into three parts: First Book (Vanya's training), Second Book (Vanya's journey) and Third Book (his final adventure).
    • Vasili Grigorevich has three sons: Grischa, Sascha and Vanya.
    • Vanya fights three evil creatures during his journey: the monster Och, the witch Baba Yaga, and the Stone Knight. After each victory he claims the Ironwood Lance, the black horse Waron and the Armor of the Tsar Ivan Vasilievich.
    • Foma Drachensohn, the Stone Knight, wields three gigantic swords.
  • Rule of Seven:
    • Vanya spends seven years lying on his home's stove, living off seven sacks of sunflower seeds and relying on seven sheepskin blankets to keep himself warm. After leaving his home, he travels through sevent countries and seven kingdoms during seven times seven weeks until he crosses the White Mountains.
    • Foma Drachensohn, the Stone Knight, is armed with three swords. The smallest of them weighs seven times seven Russian Poods (1 Pood=16,38 kgs). His second sword weighs seventy-seven Poods, and the third one weighs seven times seventy-seven Poods.
    • The Tsar declared his daughter will only get married to the one who brings the armor of the Tsar Ivan Vasilievich. However, if no suitor succeeds in fulfilling the task in seven years and seven times seven weeks, the law states the Vasilissa must get married to her most distinguished suitor.
  • Solitary Sorceress: The witch Baba-Yaga lives in a single hut built in the heart of a moor.
  • Super-Strength:
    • Vanya is strong enough to tow a whole ship full of passengers.
    • The Stone Knight's biggest sword, which he wields easily, weighs nearly nine tons.
  • Swamps Are Evil: The only swamp which appears in the story is home to the evil and cruel witch Baba Yaga.
  • Talking in Your Dreams: As talking to Vasilissa, the old Tsar explains he knows the bearer of the Armor of the Tsar Ivan Vasilievich is coming because he talked to him and his father as dreaming, and he knows those dreams were somehow real.
  • Tragic Keepsake: Vanya always carries in a little pouch one coin which his mother gave to him before dying.
  • The Unfought: The Grand Duke gets killed by his own wild bears without Vanya ever coming face to face with him.
  • Unskilled, but Strong: Vanya is a farmer's son who has never received formal training on fighting, but he is superhumanly strong and has a magic spear, which is more than enough to deal with most of foes he stumbles upon.
  • Villains Want Mercy: As soon as Och, Baba Yaga and the Stone Knight are defeated, they right away beg Vanya to state his demands.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: Aunt Akulina berates Grischa and Sascha for thinking that burning their house down was an acceptable method to convince Vanya to get down.
  • Wicked Witch: Baba Yaga is an old, evil witch who steals horses and kills whoever she finds wandering around her swamp.
  • Youngest Child Wins: Vanya, Vasili Grigorevich's third and youngest son, becomes Tsar.