Illustration from Bilibin, Ivan, illustrator. Tsarevitch Ivan, the Firebird and the Gray Wolf. Moscow: Department for the Production of State Documents, 1899.

Isn’t that bird gorgeous?

Lots of threes in this story. A tsar, with three sons, has a magnificent walled garden, full of rare trees, including an apple tree whose apples were made of solid gold. One day, the tsar notices each night one apple goes missing. He sets guards to watch the garden and they reported that

every night there came flying into the garden a bird that shone like the moon, whose feathers were gold and its eyes like crystal, which perched on the apple tree, plucked a golden apple and flew away.

The oldest two sons fail in their attempt to catch the Fire Bird, and on the third night, the youngest, Ivan, only succeeds in grabbing a feather, but after that the bird doesn’t return.

The two older brothers go out to retrieve the bird, but give up when it became difficult and pitched their tent in a pleasant area and relaxed. When they don’t come back, Ivan begs until he is allowed to go to find the Fire Bird. He has to make a difficult choice, but it leads to him meeting the Gray Wold, who becomes his helper as he completes three quests for three kings, retrieving the Fire Bird, the Horse with the Golden Mane and Helen the Beautiful. The wolf helps Ivan trick the king’s, but on the way back to Ivan’s fathers kingdom, Ivan’s brothers find him and Helen resting. Seeing Ivan’s prizes, his brothers kill him and take Helen, the bird and the horse back to the palace for themselves.

The Wolf, with the help of a crow, brings Ivan back to life and carries him back to the palace just in time to stop the wedding between Helen and the middle brother. Helen tells the tsar the whole story.

And when the rejoicing was ended, the two elder brothers were made, one a scullion and the other a cowherd, but Tsarevitch Ivan lived always with Helen the Beautiful in such harmony and love that neither of them could bear to be without the other even for a single moment.

So the youngest is the hero again. I like the wolf who helped him though. He’s a mysterious figure to me. He can talk while he’s in wolf form and can change into any shape he wishes. He also returns to Ivan’s side when Ivan thinks off him. He’s an interesting character.

This is the first time I’ve read this story, but when I saw the title I expected the Fire Bird to be more of a phoenix, just from the name.  According to the on-line Encyclopedia Mythica, however, “in Russian folklore the Firebird (Zshar-ptitsa) is a miraculous bird. Its feathers shine like silver and gold, its eyes sparkle like crystals, and it is usually been seen sitting on a golden perch. At midnight this bird comes to gardens and fields and illuminates the night as brightly as a thousand lights; just one feather from its tail could light up a dark room. The Firebird eats golden apples which give any who eat them youth, beauty and immortality; when the bird sings, pearls would fall from its beak. The Firebird’s chants can heal the sick and return the vision to the blind.” Quite a bird.

You can read Tsarevitch Ivan, the Fire Bird and the Gray Wolf at SurLaLune Fairytales. It’s the version I read, and it’s from Russian Wonder Tales by Post Wheeler, published 1912.

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