The Three Brogatyrs (Warrior-Knights) by Vikotr Vasnetsov, 1898
[In order: Dobrynya Nikitich, Ilya Muramets, Alyosha Popovich]
This week I bring you the rough draft of a narrative poem I wrote upon discovering a children’s illustrated version (in English) of a folk tale/legend of the Eastern Slavs and Russians. I picked up this book at the Pushkin Library here in Minsk — a place we will visit frequently in days to come! I compared the children’s story with some older versions of this folk tale/legend that I could find online and cobbled together my own version. For any of my Belarusian friends and colleagues, feel free to message me with suggestions for revision, particularly if there are important cultural elements that I’m missing! Cheers…
Ilya of Murom: A Legend of the Kievan Rus
Many years ago in a village on the bank of a river
near Murom in the east, a peasant named Ivan lived
with his wife Eufrosinia. They prayed for a child for years
many times a day until their prayers were finally granted,
and a son was born. But little Ilya could not walk about
even when he was grown, and for thirty years
he stayed like an infant in his parents’ home.
One day while his parents were out working hard,
Ilya heard knocking at the door. Through the screen
he saw three pilgrims standing, waiting. “It is no use
to come in,” he said, “for I am in no shape to entertain.”
“Get up at once,” came the reply, “and you will find
you can do all that you can imagine and more.”
And Ilya felt his legs suddenly tense with muscle,
and he jumped to his feet amazed. “Come and sit,”
he told his visitors, then rushing to the cellar,
he drew some beer and served the pilgrims
who reclined awhile before going on their way.
His parents returning home stopped in their tracks –
their son was clearing a field so rapidly that in one hour
they had a field ready to plant where before had been
only woods. Soon Ilya’s hard work gave them plenty
to live a good life, and he gained a little newborn foal
as a gift for helping another childless wifeless farmer.
Fed by Ilya’s hands and bathed in each morning’s dew,
the foal changed into a noble steed like that of a warrior.
With his own hands Ilya shaped a spear of steel
and made a shining coat of armor. “Bless me, Father!
Bless me, Mother!” Ilya said, “And may it please you
to send me to Kiev to kneel to God and Prince Vladimir
the Dazzling One, for I can help defend this land.”
His parents were pleased to send their warrior son.
“Only promise not to shed senselessly the blood
of our people,” his parents smiling said. Ilya nodded,
and they sent him happy-hearted on his journey west.
Three tests stood between Ilya and the royal city of Kiev,
and Ilya met the first of these as he entered a dark forest
where bandits had set up camp. They saw him coming,
riding on a valiant steed, and they burst out in bands
to stop him in his tracks. Ilya halted only long enough
to fit a golden arrow to his bow and send it toward them,
slashing a path through the ground. Their eyes amazed,
the bandits fell to their knees, crying, “We are your servants!
Take from us what you wish!” But noble Ilya refused,
saying only, “No more attacks if you wish to live!”
As he neared the city of Chernigov, a second test waited.
Legions of Tartars had laid siege to the city, thinking
to level the cathedrals and take the Duke captive.
Beating back his horror, Ilya took his spear and slashed
through the enemy, mowing them down and entering the city
to a hero’s welcome. There was rejoicing and celebrating
in the cathedrals and the streets. The nobles of Chernigov
blessed Ilya and gladly showed him the way to Kiev.
Between Ilya and the city of the famous Prince
lay a final test, for here Ilya had to pass along the road
guarded by a fierce brigand named Nightingale –
a warrior who bested men by whistling them to death,
his tunes casting strange terror into the strongest hearts.
Hearing the sound of Ilya and his horse approaching,
Nightingale felt fear for the first time and let out a wild roar,
but still they came. So he turned to whistling and hissing,
and the snake sounds made Ilya’s horse quail beneath him.
But Ilya simply fitted another golden arrow to his bow
and sent if flying up the tree where it struck Nightingale,
passing through his right eye and left ear. The brigand
fell to the ground, where Ilya clapped him in irons
and made him trot behind his horse up to the palace
where the brigand’s daughter saw them coming.
Waiting to cast a mighty stone on the captor’s head,
she thought to hide herself until Ilya cast his spear,
pinning her effortlessly to the wall while he passed through
the disgraced palace, making his way to the river’s ferry.
The ferry was being manned by an ogre who refused
to grant him passage. Ilya would not be stopped, however.
Grabbing ancient oaks between his arms, he toppled them
and let them fall across the river, snapping the ferry in half
and casting the graceless ogre to a watery death.
In Kiev at last, Ilya left his faithful steed just outside the palace,
the faithless brigand Nightingale still in chains beside the horse,
and striding in, he found Prince Vladimir feasting with his warriors.
“Ah, noble man, your face as much as your armor tell me
you have a tale to tell!” With these words, the dazzling prince
turned all eyes on Ilya who did not leave them waiting long.
“By the blessing of God and my humble peasant parents,
I have come to serve you, the best of all Princes.” And he
related his adventures from the day of leaving his parents
until arriving in Kiev. “You cannot have taken Nightingale!”
the Prince exclaimed. “Admit that you’re lying to my face!”
Ilya would not do it, so Prince Vladimir sent out his two men,
those bravest of heroes, Dobrynya Nikitich and Alyosha Popovich,
to see for themselves. “My lord,” the heroes said upon returning,
“It seems this man speaks true words. For tied in steel bands
to the noble steed at the gate is one who looks like Nightingale
the Brigand.” The Prince and all his company went out,
stealing glances at Ilya with wondering eyes. “And can we hear
the terrible song of Nightingale,” the Prince gave request –
“this Nightingale whose whistling casts fear into so many hearts?”
“Whistle at half strength,” Ilya told the captive brigand.
But Nightingale shrilled the air with terror, wailing as if to burst
his own lungs. All the Prince’s company fell to the ground –
Ilya alone remained standing, and his shining steel spear
swiftly stilled the song and stopped the beating heart of the brigand.
And so it was that Ilya joined the company of Prince Vladimir,
and three heroes instead of two stood round that dazzling prince,
holding firm the borders of Mother Russia in the land of Kiev.