Today’s fairy tale features yet another bad bargain, in which a tricksy villain blackmails an unknown reward from a desperate king. (Remember: If someone offers to save you from peril in exchange for the first thing that greets you when you get home? DON’T DO IT.) It also features 30 beautiful, shape-shifting maidens, amnesia, betrayal, wild flight, and a green-eyed monster.
Taken from Andrew Lang’s Green Fairy Book, this Russian tale is like a mash-up of many of my favorite motifs. See how many other fairy tales you can remember that use at least one of the same tropes.
There was once upon a time a king called Kojata, whose beard was so long that it reached below his knees. Three years had passed since his marriage, and he lived very happily with his wife, but Heaven granted him no heir, which grieved the King greatly. One day he set forth from his capital, in order to make a journey through his kingdom. He travelled for nearly a year through the different parts of his territory, and then, having seen all there was to be seen, he set forth on his homeward way. As the day was very hot and sultry he commanded his servants to pitch tents in the open field, and there await the cool of the evening. Suddenly a frightful thirst seized the King, and as he saw no water near, he mounted his horse, and rode through the neighbourhood looking for a spring. Before long he came to a well filled to the brim with water clear as crystal, and on the bosom of which a golden jug was floating. King Kojata at once tried to seize the vessel, but though he endeavoured to grasp it with his right hand, and then with his left, the wretched thing always eluded his efforts and refused to let itself be caught. First with one hand, and then with two, did the King try to seize it, but like a fish the goblet always slipped through his fingers and bobbed to the ground only to reappear at some other place, and mock the King.
‘Plague on you!’ said King Kojata. ‘I can quench my thirst without you,’ and bending over the well he lapped up the water so greedily that he plunged his face, beard and all, right into the crystal mirror. But when he had satisfied his thirst, and wished to raise himself up, he couldn’t lift his head, because someone held his beard fast in the water. ‘Who’s there? let me go!’ cried King Kojata, but there was no answer; only an awful face looked up from the bottom of the well with two great green eyes, glowing like emeralds, and a wide mouth reaching from ear to ear showing two rows of gleaming white teeth, and the King’s beard was held, not by mortal hands, but by two claws. At last a hoarse voice sounded from the depths. ‘Your trouble is all in vain, King Kojata; I will only let you go on condition that you give me something you know nothing about, and which you will find on your return home.’
The King didn’t pause to ponder long, ‘for what,’ thought he, ‘could be in my palace without my knowing about it–the thing is absurd;’ so he answered quickly:
‘Yes, I promise that you shall have it.’
The voice replied, ‘Very well; but it will go ill with you if you fail to keep your promise.’ Then the claws relaxed their hold, and the face disappeared in the depths. The King drew his chin out of the water, and shook himself like a dog; then he mounted his horse and rode thoughtfully home with his retinue. When they approached the capital, all the people came out to meet them with great joy and acclamation, and when the King reached his palace the Queen met him on the threshold; beside her stood the Prime Minister, holding a little cradle in his hands, in which lay a new-born child as beautiful as the day. Then the whole thing dawned on the King, and groaning deeply he muttered to himself ‘So this is what I did not know about,’ and the tears rolled down his cheeks. All the courtiers standing round were much amazed at the King’s grief, but no one dared to ask him the cause of it. He took the child in his arms and kissed it tenderly; then laying it in its cradle, he determined to control his emotion and began to reign again as before.
The secret of the King remained a secret, though his grave, careworn expression escaped no one’s notice. In the constant dread that his child would be taken from him, poor Kojata knew no rest night or day. However, time went on and nothing happened. Days and months and years passed, and the Prince grew up into a beautiful youth, and at last the King himself forgot all about the incident that had happened so long ago.