“Thanks, Prince Ivan!” Those words have been a sarcastic refrain around our house for fifteen years or more. It started when my brother and I discovered Andrew Lang’s translation of the Russian folktale, The Death of Koschei the Deathless.
If you’ve never read the story, you need to know a few things. First, Prince Ivan is a dumbbell. Second, Koschei the Deathless is a hunk of pure evil. Third, if your warrior princess wife, who is clearly smarter than you, asks you not to unlock a certain door while she runs to the grocery store … she’s probably got a good reason.
Okay, she doesn’t go to the grocery store. She rides off to war, being a warrior and all. Before leaving, Princess Marya establishes a clear set of boundaries: Her husband can have the run of the castle, but he can’t touch the closet door.
It’s an interesting twist, isn’t it? This is the subordinate position women in folktales usually occupy. Told to stay home, told a certain portion of the home is off-limits. It’s worth noting the castle in question belongs to Marya, not to Ivan. The narrative clearly states that after their wedding, she “carried him off into her own realm.” Prince Ivan (like your standard fairy tale heroine) is shut in a house that’s not his own, a battle raging between his common sense and his curiosity.
I always thought fairy tale princesses were overwhelmingly dumb because of sexist stereotypes, and I still think that’s true in most cases … but our man Ivan puts them all to shame.
What does Ivan do, you ask? Why, he goes straight to the forbidden closet and unlocks the door! When he finds a terrifying monster chained there, Koschei the Deathless himself, he doesn’t turn and run. He strikes up a conversation. Koschei asks for a drink of water. Ivan obliges. Koschei begs for more water. Ivan, in all innocence, complies. A third bucket of water? No problem, bro. Ivan’s got your back.
As I’m sure my clever audience has predicted, after his third drink, Koschei busts the iron chains, cackling, “Thanks, Prince Ivan!”
A superhuman killer released from prison just by asking nicely? Politely thanking his rescuer before heading out to wreck the poor sap’s life? Everything about this moment is absurd. I’m not surprised my brother and I adapted it to our own petty purposes. It’s a gem.
Of course, this is still a fairy-tale world. Good triumphs over evil. Prince Ivan manages (somehow) to snatch victory from the jaws of his own incompetence. He does wind up murdered, dismembered, and resurrected along the way, though. Seems fair.
No, I don’t think portraying men as bumbling fools is the best way to elevate women. I think Marya Morevna, warrior princess, could shine just as brightly next to a smart husband as a stupid one. But I am fascinated by the hints of matriarchy shown in Koschei the Deathless. Marya holds the power in their relationship. She chooses Ivan, not the other way around. She brings him to her home, not the other way around. She conducts her own military affairs without involving Ivan. Her rules are intended to keep Ivan safe, and when he disobeys her, that’s when the real trouble starts.
Sure, an equal partnership would be better . . . but most fairy tale marriages aren’t equal partnerships. I see no reason why a man shouldn’t be on the losing end for once. In fact, I believe the imbalance may prompt audiences to think.
So with that in mind, I offer a hearty, “Thanks, Prince Ivan!”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jessica Prescott writes books under the name Katie Hanna and blogs under the name Charles Baker Harris (confusing, she readily admits). You can find out more about Jessica, her pet projects, and her obsession with Doctor Who at I’m Charles Baker Harris (And I Can Read).