As cold descends upon much of the Northern Hemisphere, we travel today to the wintry world of Russian fairy tales. It is in the frozen heart of Siberia that we find today’s cetacean story – the tale of a miracle whale whose command over the ocean bears more than a passing resemblance to the power of the mighty tsar. In 1815, a century before the fall of Imperial Russia, a boy called Pyotr Pavlovich Ershov was born in Siberia. Young Pyotr was exposed as a child to the folk tales of Siberian peasants, and their stories stayed with him throughout his life. His early interest in Russian folklore was nurtured by the atmosphere of romanticism sweeping across Europe in the 19th century. The belief that the essential character of a nation could be found in the unlearned stories of its peasant folk seized the imagination of Russian writers during the country’s “Golden Age” of literature. A student of philosophy at Saint Petersburg University, Ershov was only 19 years old when he composed his masterpiece, the epic poem Konyok-Gorbunok, or The Humpbacked Horse. Chronicling the life of folk hero Ivan, whose talking humpbacked horse helps him overcome the tsar’s impossible tasks and win the heart of a fairy princess, the poem was an enormous success as soon as it was published in 1834. Alexander Pushkin, often considered the father of Russian literature, declared that he would never write fairy tales again after reading The Humpbacked Horse because Ershov had already perfected the medium, commanding Russian verse “as fully as a landowner commands his serfs”.
Variously known as Ivan Tsarevich and Ivan the Fool, Ivan is the central protagonist of Russian folklore. Ershov’s poem draws from many different folk tales about Ivan, weaving disparate stories together into a cohesive narrative. In The Humpbacked Horse, the eponymous animal advises Ivan so that he can navigate the magical obstacles he has to overcome in order to unite the tsar with the young daughter of the Moon, and ultimately to thwart the tsar and marry the princess himself. Like Ivan, the small horse appears inferior at first, but is really always one step ahead. In the latter half of the poem, the princess refuses to marry the toothless old tsar, so to stall the wedding she demands he find her signet ring, which lies lost at the bottom of the ocean. The tsar sends Ivan and his horse on a quest to find the ring and return it to the princess so that she can be the royal bride. They are also charged with finding out why the Sun and Moon have cast darkness upon the land since the princess’s arrival. As they approach the ocean, Ivan and the horse come across a creature known as the Miracle-Fish Whale:
When they reached the glade, they flew
Straight towards the ocean blue;
There, across it, lay the whale –
Monster head and monster tail;
He was all one mass of holes,
From his ribs grew stakes and poles;
On his tail – a forest black;
And a village on his back;
Peasants on his lip drove ploughs,
Children danced between his brows;
Oak-trees on his huge jaws grew,
Maidens there sought mushrooms, too.
The whale asks Ivan and the horse where they are going, and when he finds out they’re headed to the palace of the Sun and Moon, he begs them to find out why he has been cursed to lie on this beach. The Moon, who has cast darkness over the Earth mourning the disappearance of her daughter, prophesies that the princess will marry a young man, not the ancient tsar, and reveals that God is punishing the whale for swallowing thirty ships whole without the Lord’s consent. She promises that God will release the whale if it returns the ships to the sea. Armed with this knowledge, Ivan and the horse return to the whale. The horse runs to the marketplace on the whale’s back and warns the villagers to evacuate. They gather up their children and flee, leaving the town deserted “as though Mamai’s fierce horde had swept the land with fire and sword”. (This Russian idiom references the 14th century Mongol Mamai who temporarily controlled part of Russia — it’s used for something that’s been left as a mess!)
The whale then spits up an entire navy, complete with its miraculously living crew. As the fleet sails gleefully away, the whale turns to Ivan and the horse, offering them the wealth of the sea – coloured seashells, golden fish, or strings of pearls. But Ivan wants only the princess’s ring. Dutifully, the whale summons his court of sturgeons and his two fastest dolphins, ordering them to scour the seas until they find the casket that holds the princess’s signet ring. They cannot find it until they enlist the help of a pugnacious perch, who takes a break from brawling and womanizing to dive to the depths of the ocean and retrieve the casket with dolphin guards keeping a watchful eye on him. It is in this section that Ershov’s version is revealed to be connected to a peculiarly Russian folklore motif, that of the perch warrior. The fighting perch, another common folk hero of Russian oral tradition, appears in a similar story recorded elsewhere, one where Ivan is searching for the Sultan’s ring instead of the tsar’s:
There is a Russian fairy tale of a hero named Ivan on whom the demand was made to search for the Sultan’s lost ring which had fallen into the sea and lay hidden there in a small casket. On his little magic hump-backed horse Ivan arrived in the middle of the ocean, and there he saw a whale that could not move because he had swallowed “a whole navy.” A forest had grown upon his back and women were searching in his mustache for mushrooms. Ivan told the whale about his quest, and the whale called a meeting of all the fishes, but not one could give any information except the little perch, who as was his wont, happened to be engaged in a fight with some other fish. He discontinued the combat for a moment to hunt for the casket, and was successful in his search but found that he was not strong enough to lift it. Numerous shoals of herrings come to his aid but in vain. At last two dolphins lifted the casket out of the ocean, and Ivan received the desired ring.
With the discovery of the gem the whale’s curse came to an end. He vomited up the navy which he had swallowed, whereupon he became able to move again, and the little perch betook himself once more to the pursuit of his enemies.
As you can see, several details are different than Ershov’s version. In the version quoted above, the breaking of the whale’s curse hinges on the discovery of the ring; in Ershov’s version, finding the ring is a reward to Ivan for helping break his curse. There is no mention of the overarching narrative involving the Moon and her daughter, nor the tsar. By contrast, Ershov’s much more elaborate description of the whale’s efforts to find the ring develops a clear parallel to the tsar and his bureaucracy:
In another hour or so,
Two white sturgeons, swimming slow,
Humbly bending head and tail,
Thus addressed the Monster whale:
“Be not wrathful, O great Tsar!
All the oceans, near and far,
We have searched and ploughed – but we
Of that ring no sign could see.
Of your subjects, but one fish –
That’s the perch – can do your wish;
He’s at home in all the seas,
He will find that ring with ease;
But, perhaps it was in spite,
That he left his home last night.”
“Have him found and brought to me
To my cabin, instantly.”
Thundered wrathfully the whale
Wiggling whiskers, fins and tail.
Bowing low, the sturgeons raced
To the county Court in haste;
There they had a Royal Writ
Drawn up instantly – to wit:
That the brawling perch, when caught,
To His Majesty be brought;
It was penned in copper-plate
By the bream, in duplicate;
And the sheat-fish (Counsellor)
Signed without the least demur;
Then the lobster and the eel
Sealed it with the Royal Seal,
Called a pair of dolphins, who
Were forthwith commissioned to
Institute a thorough search
For that vagrant brawling perch;
And, when they had found the same,
Seize him, in the Royal Name,
And immediately to hale
Him before the Royal Whale.
The whale episode does not appear in the main mythical cycle that inspired The Humpbacked Horse, a story known as “Tsarevitch Ivan, the Firebird and the Gray Wolf”, and it is often left out of adaptations of the poem such as those for film and ballet. The whole sequence has all the appearance of a narrative detour, and it seems its chief purpose was to satirize the tsar and his imperial bureaucracy. Ershov took the authoritative role of the whale in the story of Ivan and the sultan’s ring and worked it into an imperial parody that seeks to expose the absurdities of the Russian upper-class lifestyle. The tsar character was unflattering enough – a decrepit old man determined to wed a princess young enough to be his granddaughter – but the whale’s court takes the critique a step further by lampooning the entire institution. The comparison between the whale and the tsar did not go unnoticed when the poem was published in Russia. Despite The Humpbacked Horse‘s popularity, it faced serious censorship, with all sections critical of the tsar replaced with black dots.
With the fall of Imperial Russia and the rise of the Soviet Union, however, The Humpbacked Horse’s critical portrayal of the tsar took on new significance. What the tsar had censured, Stalin celebrated. Once writer Maksim Gorky convinced the Soviet regime that folklore, as the intellectual product of the working classes, could be used to advance communist values, the government ceased its strict censorship of folkoric studies and encouraged a new wave of collecting oral tradition from around the country. Since this watershed in the mid-20th century, the monstrous whale has become a favourite subject of Russian artists. One medium in particular found its niche in the depiction of fairy tales: When Christian icon painting shut down under the Soviet government, artists from central Russia turned to lacquer art to continue making a living. Fairy tales quickly became their most popular subject, meaning that Ivan, his horse, and the monstrous whale took on new artistic life.
From tattoos to children books, the monstrous whale of Ershov’s poem continues to inspire artists in Russia and beyond. Below are some of the many works depicting the great tsar of the oceans. Some modern retellings omit the imperial descriptions of the whale – does the absence of his mushroom-filled mustache in some of the more modern works reflect a similar softening of Ershov’s satirical bite?