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Literature / Tsarevich Petr and the Wizard

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Koschei the Deathless by Ivan Bilibin

"Know that my life is in neither the broom nor the hedge, but is in an egg. The egg is in a duck, and the duck is in a hare, and the hare nests in a great hollow log that floats in a pond in a forest of the island Bouyan"
Koshchei the Deathless

Tsarevich Petr and the Wizard -also known as Koshchei the Deathless- is a Russian Fairy Tale included in Alexander Afanasyev's Narodnye russkie skazki, George Post Wheeler's Russian Wonder Tales and William Ralston Shedden's Russian Fairy Tales: A Choice Collection of Muscovite Folk-lore.

A Tsar and his Tsaritsa have three sons, Alexei, Dimitri, and Petr. One day, the Tsaritsa vanished while walking. His advisors conclude that she was kidnapped by Koshchei, the most powerful of all the wizards, and advise him to marry again. Instead, he offers anyone who sets off after her anything they need. After many heroes have tried and failed, the Tsar tells his sons that they must go.

Alexei took gold and a troop of soldiers, but he lost the men one by one until he had only ten. Then he met an old man who told him he would not reach the castle of Koshchei because there were three rivers, and the ferrymen demanded high tolls. Alexei scornfully said he had money enough, and reached the first ferryman, who frightened off his remaining men, and demanded his right hand. Alexei allowed it but when he reached the next ferryman, he panicked and returned home.

Dimitri went after him, and even got to the second ferryman, who demanded that he let him cut off his left foot, but then, he panicked at the third ferryman.

Petr, however, went with only a horse and a sword. He chose the sword by testing all the swords for a month, and the horse by having them all driven into the sea and picking the one that swam the farthest and wrestled with the waves. Then he rode off. He was polite to the old man, who thought he might reach it, and told him how to get in. When he met the ferrymen, he demanded that each one ferry him before getting the price, and then killed them on the other side. He then climbed the mountain with iron claws, as the old man had said. Then he found a castle of copper, with a stolen princess, spinning copper, who could only direct him onward, to the castle of silver. There, a princess sent him onward to a castle of gold. There, a princess sent him to a fourth castle, of pearl, where his mother was.

His mother tried to trick the knowledge of where his heart was from Koshchei. When he lied and claimed it was in a broom, she had it decorated with gold, and then the same with a hedge. Finally, he told her "Know that my life is in neither the broom nor the hedge, but is in an egg. The egg is in a duck, and the duck is in a hare, and the hare nests in a great hollow log that floats in a pond in a forest of the island Bouyan".

Petr set out backwards to find it. He rescues a salmon, a hawk and a bear along the way. With their aid, he deals with the animals and returned with the egg, and killed Koshchei with it. Then he brought back his mother and the three princess, marrying the princess of the golden castle himself and having his brothers marry the two others.

Full text here and here.

Compare with The Giant Who Had No Heart in His Body and The Death of Koschei the Deathless.

Tropes included

  • Antagonist Title: The titular wizard is the evil and immortal sorcerer Koshchei, who holds the main character's mother and several princesses captive.
  • An Arm and a Leg: The first ferryman will transport people if they will let him cut their right hands off. The second ferryman demands the traveller's left foot.
  • Damsel in Distress: Koshchei keeps Petr's mother and three maiden imprisoned on the top of a mountain.
  • Gilded Cage: Three princesses kidnapped by Koshchei are held captive in three magnificent palaces made from copper, silver and gold and built on the top of a mountain.
  • Happily Married: The Tzar Bel-Belianin greatly missed his Tzaritza and categorically refused to marry again.
  • Missing Mom: Petr's mother goes for a walk and vanishes.
  • Off with His Head!: The third ferryman demands the traveller's head after ferrying them across the river.
  • Old Beggar Test: The old grey-bearded man does not feel obliged to explain Alexei and Dimitri what is the ferrymen's toll because they arrogantly dismiss his warnings. However, since Petr is humble and polite, the old man warns him about the toll, and reveals how he can climb Koshchei's mountain.
  • Our Giants Are Bigger: The rivers bordering Koshchei's mountain are guarded by armored swordsmen who are "as tall as firs".
  • Our Liches Are Different: Koshchei the Deathless is considered the prototype of the Dungeons & Dragons Lich. He is an immortal and powerful sorcerer, who keeps his soul in a needle, hidden inside an egg hidden inside a duck hidden inside a hare hidden inside an iron chest buried under an oak tree on an island in the middle of the ocean. Open the chest and the hare will try to run away; kill the hare and the duck will fly out.
  • Rule of Three:
    • Tsar Bel-Belianin has three sons.
    • Three giant ferrymen must be paid or fought in order to reach Koshchei's mountain.
    • In addition to his mother, Petr finds and rescues three princesses.
  • Soul Jar: Koshchei's soul is kept in an egg. The egg "is in a duck, and the duck is in a hare, and the hare nests in a great hollow log that floats in a pond in a forest of the island Bouyan."
  • The Promise: Petr promises every captive princess to not forget about them and take them back to the "white world" if he defeats Koshchei.
  • The Quest: Petr must rescue his mother from the immortal and evil sorcerer Koshchei.
  • Textile Work Is Feminine: When Petr meets the princesses, they are embroidering, weaving or lace-making.
  • Threshold Guardians: Koshchei's mountain is surrounded by three rivers, and each river's crossing is guarded by a giant who will maim or behead any traveller.
  • With This Herring: Averted. The zar lets each quester take so much gold from the royal treasury as they need.
  • Wolverine Claws: Petr binds four iron claws to his hands and feet to climb the mountain on whose top are sitting the Koshchei's four palaces.
  • Youngest Child Wins: Petr, the Tzar's youngest child, defeats the immortal sorcerer Koshchei, rescues his mother and finds a beautiful bride.