Once upon a time, there lived an old peasant and his wife. They had three sons. The two eldest were clever. The old woman loved them. She cooked them tasty dishes and laundered their clothes. The youngest, whose name was Ivan, was dirty and was considered a fool.
One day the Tsar had sent heralds to announce that he wanted a Flying ship to be built and whoever would built it would have the hand of his daughter in marriage, as well as half his Kingdom.
The two eldest brothers decided to try their luck and build such a ship. Their mother baked them tarts, roasted chicken and goose to have on their journey and gave them her blessing.
The brothers went to the forest and began to chop trees. They chopped many branches and didn’t know what to do afterwards. They started to abuse each other and suddenly noticed an old man standing nearby.
– Why are you scolding? – he asked.
– Go away, beggary! – replied the brothers.
Some time later the brothers came back home. A few days after, Ivan begged his parents for permission to try his luck too.
– You will never be able to make such a journey and will probably be eaten by wild animals on the way, – said the mother.
The youngest insistent on his decision and started his journey. The mother gave him a thick slice of stale bread and sent him on his way.
Ivan went to the forest, fall a high pine-tree and began to build the flying ship. The old man came to him and asked:
– What are you doing here?
– I’m building the flying ship, – replied Ivan.
– It’s difficult to build such a ship.
– Old people are wise, please, give me a piece of good advice, – asked Ivan.
The old man instructed Ivan how he should build the flying ship and Ivan built it with great ease. The old man praised Ivan for a good work and offered him to have a snack.
– I can offer you only stale bread. It’s disgustful, – said Ivan sadly.
– No matter, give me your bread, – replied the old man.
Ivan gave him bread and it turned into fresh-bake wheat bread as soon as the old man touched it. After the meal they set sail and the old man instructed Ivan:
– You should take on board every wayfarer whom you pass!
Ivan thanked the old man profusely. No sooner did he sit down in the ship than it rose up into the air, soaring high above the treetops, the rivers and the wide fields. As he flew along, he spied a man below, kneeling on the ground, his ear pressed to the earth. Ivan was very surprised and asked the man:
– What are you doing with your ear pressed to the ground?
– I am listening how birds are singing in distant Southlands. I can hear all that is happening, no matter where in the world it is, – answered the man.
– Come and join me in my flying ship! – exclaimed Ivan.
The man agreed, climbed on board and they flew into the blue sky. They had not flown far when they saw a man hopping on one leg with the other tied to his ear. Ivan demanded him:
– Why are you hopping on one foot with the other tied to your ear?
– If I don’t do it, I will step across the world in no time at all, – replied the man.
– Then come and join us in my flying ship! – offered Ivan, bringing the ship down to land.
The man on one foot hopped into the ship and off and they flew again over forest and meadow until they noticed a man shooting his gun at nothing at all in the sky. Ivan brought his ship down and asked the man why he was aiming his gun at the sky when there was not a bird in sight.
– I am aiming my gun at the greyhen, which is sitting on the tree situated at a distance of a thousand kilometers from here, – answered the man.
– Come and join as! – said Ivan.
When he was on board, Ivan cast off. On and on they sailed through the endless sky until they saw a man below carrying a sackful of loaves on his back. Ivan steered the ship until it was level with the man and asked:
– Where are you going with such a load?
– I am going to town to get bread for my dinner, – answered the man.
Ivan was puzzled and exclaimed:
– But you have a whole sackful of loaves on your back!
The man replied:
– That’s nothing. I could swallow that in one gulp and still be hungry, – replied the man.
– Come and join us! – called Ivan, landing the ship beside the Hungry Man, who accepted the offer.
As soon as he climbed aboard they soared off. They had not gone far when they saw a man walking round and round a lake. Ivan asked him:
– Why are you walking round the lake?
– I feel thirsty, but I can find no water, – answered the man.
– But there is a whole lake of water in front of you! – said Ivan.
– I would swallow this lake in one gulp and still go thirsty, – replied the man.
Ivan invited him to join his voyage and the Thirsty Man climbed on board. One they flew until they saw a man walking into a forest with a bundle of brushwood on his back.
– Why are you taking brushwood into the forest? – asked Ivan.
– This is not just ordinary brushwood. I only have to scatter it over the plain and a whole army will spring up.
This man also joined the ship and shortly afterwards they met a man carrying a bale of hay. But this was no ordinary hay. No matter how hot the sun, he only had to spread the hay upon the ground and a cool breeze would spring up and snow and frost would follow.
He was the last wayfarer to join the band in the ship. They continued their journey and soon they reached the royal courtyard. At that time the Tsar was having his breakfast. Seeing the flying ship landing not far from the palace, he immediately ordered his servants to discover who the visitors were. The servants told him that common peasants arrived and there wasn’t a single one of noble blood. The Tsar was extremely displeased. How could he possible allow his daughter to marry a simple peasant? He asked boyars to help him and they gave him the following advice:
– You should set impossible tasks for these peasants and you will be able to get rid of them without going back on your word.
So the Tsar ordered Ivan to bring him two jugs: a jug of the Water of Life and a jug of the Water of Death – and to bring them to him before he finished eating his breakfast! Ivan was shocked because he couldn’t fulfill this order. Giantsteps said:
– Don’t worry, I will bring the jugs in a minute!
Giantsteps unhitched his leg from his ear, ran to the remote kingdom and collected the jugs. Then he thought to himself: “I have plenty of time and it is possible to have a rest.” He sat under a big oak and dozed off. Back at the palace, the Tsar was just finishing his breakfast and the men in the flying ship were becoming uneasy. The first wayfarer (the one who could hear the slightest sound near and far) put his ear to the ground and heard the mighty snores of Giantsteps beneath the big oak. The Marksman took his gun and fired at the oak. Acorns fell on the head of Giantsteps and woke up him. Giantsteps jumped up and brought the water in several seconds. The Tsar looked at the jugs of the Water of Life and the Water of Death and decided to test the magic water. Servants caught a cock and splashed the Water of Death on it. The cock died at once. Then servant splashed the Water of Life on it and the cock returned to life.
Foiled on the first task, the Tsar set a second. This time it was even more impossible: to eat a dozen roast oxen and a dozen freshy baked loaves at a single sitting. Ivan groaned:
– I could not eat a single ox in a week!
The Hungry man calmed Ivan and said:
– Don’t worry, that is only enough to whet my appetite!
And so the Hungry Man devoured the twelve roast oxen and twelve freshy baked loaves in one gulp – and then called for more! The Tsar was furious. He called for forty pails of beer to be poured into each of forty barrels and commanded that all this was to be consumed in a single draught.
Again Ivan was crestfallen. But the Thirsty Man cheered him up:
– I can drain them all in one draught, and still have room for more!
And so it was. This time the Tsar was desperate. He gave orders for an iron bath-house to be heated until it was white hot. Ivan had to spend the night steaming himself in it. That would surely put an end to him, the Tsar thought to himself.
Ivan entered the bath-house in the company of the Straw Man, who scattered his hay across the iron floor. This made the temperature drop so slow that Ivan had barely washed himself before the water turned to ice. When the Tsar unlocked the bath-house the next morning, Ivan stepped out, washed and clean and as fresh as a daisy!
The Tsar was beside himself with rage. He commanded Ivan to assemble an entire regiment of troops by the next morning. At last he had found the best solution to the entire problem, for where could a simple peasant raise an army? He would be rid of Ivan once and for all!
Ivan was distressed because he couldn’t complete this order. The Brushwood suddenly exclaimed:
– You have forgotten me! I can raise a whole host of fighting men in the twinkle of an eye. And if the Tsar refuses to give up his daughter after that, our army will conquer his kingdom!
In the morning Ivan and his friend went in the field and spread brushwood over the grass and in a twinkling a vast army of cavalry, infantry and artillery appeared.
When the Tsar awoke the next morning and saw the army before his palace, with banners and pennants fluttering in the morning breeze, he took fright and ordered his generals to withdraw the royal army. The Tsar’s army lost a battle and Ivan burst into the palace. The Tsar was very frightened, he groveled at Ivan’s feet asking him to marry his daughter. Ivan said:
– I won’t obey you any more!
Ivan turned the Tsar out of the kingdom and married the princess. No one ever refered to Ivan as “The Fool” after that. He became a clever ruler who was fair to common people. Everybody loved and respected him especially the princess with whom he lived happily for the rest of his days.