The Little Humpbacked Horse

This must be the longest post I’ve ever made – but it is nearly Christmas, and perhaps you would like a good story to curl up with.

A while ago, I came across some very interesting illustrations of what appeared to be a mule in a fantastical setting. I looked it up and read about “The Little Humpbacked Horse” – a 19th century Russian fairytale-poem by Pyotr Pavlovich Yershov. It is heavily rooted in Russian folklore and features the ‘golden-maned’ character trope (for another of these, read about the Tikbalang in this post).

Although the poem never actually refers to Ivan’s magical steed as a mule, I consider it to be a fairly obvious deduction. Initially I was just going to reprint the poem here, but it’s so long that I thought I would do better to retell it in prose, cutting out any parts that weren’t strictly related to Little Humpback (such as the extended scene in the ocean court). This turned out to be a bigger job than I thought.

If you prefer the original, you can read it in English here or in Russian with the original illustrations here.

An 1868 lithograph

Part One: the white mare, the brothers’ betrayal, the generous Tsar

There was once a farmer who had three sons: Danilo, the eldest and the smartest; Gavrilo, the middle child, who was neither sharp nor dull; and Ivan, who was a fool. One day they discovered that something had destroyed their corn overnight, so one by one the three sons stood guard to try and catch the culprit. The two older boys were too afraid and hid in the haystack, but when it was Ivan’s turn to stand guard he saw a beautiful white mare trampling around in their fields.

He crept up on her, seized her by the tail, and jumped onto her back to teach her a lesson. The mare bucked and leapt but was unable to free herself, so with Ivan facing backwards she took him on a high-speed race across the valleys and hills. She crossed rivers, rushed under low branches, and tried all her tricks to rid herself of this rider. Clinging low over her haunches, his hands wrapped around her tail, Ivan hung tight and eventually the mare was forced to admit defeat.

“I am now yours to possess,” she told him, coming to a stop. “Find somewhere for me to rest and care for me well. For three days you must let me out to graze every morning, and then finally set me free; if you do this, I will give you two handsome steeds whose beauty will know no equal. I will also give you a third: a small creature with two humps upon his back, ears a yard long, and eyes as black as coal. Do what you will with the first two – sell them if you wish – but you must never part with the little steed, no matter how dire your need. He will be a faithful friend to you.”

Ivan found shelter for the mare in an empty shepherd’s hut and went home to tell his brothers about his night’s adventures – with some embellishments. He breathed not a word of the mare or her promise, and instead told his brothers that he had encountered the devil and ridden upon the devil’s back. The devil had finally promised to mind the law for a full year just to get rid of Ivan. At this, his brothers and his father laughed and thought no more of such a tall tale.

Some time later, Danilo happened upon a remote shepherd hut and discovered three animals within: two great black horses with manes of spun gold, and a small beast, barely twelve hands high, with enormous ears and two humps upon its back. He immediately realised that this was where his youngest brother had been spending so much time lately and hurried home to fetch the second brother, Gavrilo. They were amazed at the two beautiful horses and hatched a plan to sell them at the horse fair on Sunday.

Ivan knew nothing of this. The night before the fair, he made his usual journey over to the shepherd’s hut and found, to his dismay, that the horses were gone and only Little Humpback remained within.

“Don’t worry,” said Humpback. “Your brothers stole the horses, but I will help you. Quickly! Jump on my back. I may be small, but I’m as good as any horse.”

Ivan did as he was told, holding onto those great long ears, and Little Humpback sped away as quickly as an arrow from its bow. It didn’t take long at all before they caught up with Danilo and Gavrilo, who looked upon their younger brother with astonishment.

“Aren’t you ashamed?” Ivan cried. “You may be cleverer than me, but I am more honest than you.”

His older brothers hung their heads. “We are both to blame,” said Danilo. “But consider this: we struggle to make ends meet. The rent is always overdue, our father is old and ailing, and we thought we could sell these two horses at the fair and finally make our fortunes. We were going to use some of the money to buy you gifts, too.”

Ivan thought about this. “Well,” he said, “if that is so, then I suppose you better had sell my two horses. I will go with you.”

The three of them, with their mismatched steeds, set off once again towards the fair. It was a long hike and the weather turned bad, blowing in such snow that the brothers were forced to take shelter in some woodland. As they settled in for the night, Danilo spotted a bright light in the sky. With a sly wink to Gavrilo, he pointed towards it and told Ivan to go and fetch some embers from it. It must be a fire, he proclaimed, something which they were sorely in need of as he had forgotten his flint.

Ivan hopped onto Little Humpback and sped away into the night. Soon, they came upon the spot where the light shone from: a field, lit bright as day by fire that burned without heat or smoke.

“This is a Firebird’s feather,” said Humpback. “But for your own sake, don’t touch it. It will bring nothing but sorrow and misfortune.”

Ignoring his steed’s advice, Ivan carefully wrapped the feather inside a rag, hid it beneath his hat, and galloped back to his brothers.

“There was nothing there,” he told them, “except for a smouldering stump. I blew and blew until I nearly fainted, but could not reignite the flames.”

His brothers laughed, and thought no more of it.

The winter storm blew itself out overnight, and the next day the three brothers were able to continue their journey. As expected, Ivan’s horses created quite a stir among the traders and buyers at the fair – so much so that the Mayor himself rode in to see what was happening.

“Wondrous is God’s world,” he breathed, stroking his beard as he gazed in awe at the magnificent animals before him. Then, coming to, he quickly gave the order that these horses must not be sold without permission and made with haste to the palace. He told the Tsar of the great crowd he’d seen at the horse fair, and of the two horses they surrounded. The Tsar wasted no time in calling his coach and hurrying down to see these marvels himself.

Ivan and his brothers were only too pleased to sell to the Tsar, and named their price of ten caps full of silver. The Tsar brought the horses immediately, adding an extra five rubles to the agreed price for good measure, and had his grooms lead them away. The horses, however, had other ideas. They knocked their grooms over, broke their bridles, and ran back to Ivan.

The Tsar returned and told Ivan that he would make him Master of Horse if Ivan agreed to accompany the horses to the palace stables, since it was apparent that no one else could handle them. This idea pleased Ivan very much and he agreed at once, providing that the Tsar promised to never treat him badly. Then he whistled a song and set off through the streets, with the two great chargers and Little Humpback dancing down the road behind him.

As for his brothers, they pocketed the silver, bought themselves new horses, and rode home to share their earnings with their father. They married and lived happy, wealthy lives for ever after, and always spoke of Ivan with praise.

A detail from a fourth edition book cover, 1980

Part Two: the jealous Chamberlain, the Firebird, and the daughter of the moon

Ivan lived like a lord at the Tsar’s palace. He was befriended by the Chamberlain, but the Chamberlain’s friendship was false: it was he who had been Master of Horse before Ivan was appointed, and he swore to himself that he would see this plough boy kicked out.

He watched Ivan closely and realised that Ivan never fed or groomed those golden-maned horses, yet their mangers were always full and whenever they were paraded before the Tsar they were always gleaming with health, perfectly brushed and with manes and tails braided. The Chamberlain became convinced that Ivan was a wicked sorcerer, and one evening he hid beneath some hay in the stables in order to see how it was done.

At midnight, the door creaked open and the Chamberlain watched with bated breath as Ivan came into the stables. He removed his cap and, from beneath it, took out a handkerchief which he shook until the feather within blazed. Placing the light on a nearby feed bin, Ivan began to groom the horses. He sang while he worked, braiding those long manes, and then filled each trough with crystal clear water and heaped several scoops of corn into the mangers. His work done, he returned the feather to its place beneath his cap, stretched out in the straw beside the horses, and fell into a deep sleep.

As dawn broke, the Chamberlain crept out from his hiding place and, seeing that Ivan was still sound asleep, he stole the feather from beneath the boy’s cap and made of with it as quickly as he could.

The Tsar was furious when he heard that Ivan had been keeping the Firebird feather a secret from him. The Chamberlain, for he was a vindictive man, also lied and said that Ivan had been heard boasting of being able to call the Firebird itself to the Tsar’s chambers. Taking the feather, the Tsar placed it in a locked box and summoned Ivan.

It took some time to wake Ivan, and he was oblivious to the trouble he was in until the Tsar produced the Firebird’s feather and demanded an explanation. Ivan dropped to the floor and begged for mercy.

“As you have only sinned once, I will forgive you,” said the Tsar, “but only if you call the Firebird to me, as you claim you are able to do.”

Ivan tried to protest, explaining that he had never said such a thing and could not do it, but the Tsar grew angry again and sent him away. Ivan fled back to the stables, where he sat in the hay and cried.

Presently, Little Humpback came by. He was pleased to see Ivan, but quickly sensed that something was wrong and drooped his great long ears out to the side.

“What has happened?” Humpback cried. “Are you ill? What has made you so sad? Tell me, and I will fix it for you.” Sobbing, Ivan kissed his faithful friend’s ears and told him what had happened. Little Humpback nodded sagely. “Truly,” he said, “your misfortune is great. I warned you not to touch the feather, and you see now that I was not lying. I will help you of course, for the solution is simple. Go to the Tsar and tell him that you must have two troughs full of the best grain, and wine brought in from overseas, and we will leave at dawn.”

His lesson learnt, Ivan had no reason to question Little Humpback’s directions and so he did as he was told immediately. The Tsar complied with his Horse Master’s curious request, and at dawn the next day he and Humpback left the palace with the wine and grain stuffed into a sack. They rode for seven days and, on the eighth, encountered a verdant woodland.

“There is a glade here,” said Little Humpback, “in which sits a silver hill. Every morning Firebirds come to drink from a stream there, and it is there we will catch them.”

They slipped through the trees and soon came to the promised glade. The hill rose so high that Ivan could not see the top of it, and the sunlight reflecting off its sides shone bright like a beacon. Without hesitation, Little Humpback began his ascent at a gallop.

They had travelled for a couple of miles before Humpback stopped and said, “It’s getting dark. Mix enough wine and grain together to fill one trough, and then hide yourself beneath the other. Do not make a sound and do not fall asleep! At dawn, the Firebirds will come. You must catch one while they feed, and hold tight to it. Then call for me.”

Ivan waited all night until, quite suddenly, the air was lit by a flock of Firebirds who descended upon his wine-soaked grain and began to hungrily devour it. Ivan crept closer, seized the nearest bird by the tail, and yelled for Little Humpback who appeared in a flash.

“Quickly,” said Humpback, “put the bird into the sack and jump on.”

They ran all the way back to the palace and Ivan, without pausing for breath, threw the sack over his back and hurried to the Tsar’s chambers. There he closed all doors and shuttered all the windows before revealing the captured bird to the delight of the Tsar.

Peace was restored in the palace for a while. The Tsar was much pleased with Ivan, but the Chamberlain seethed with jealous rage. Three weeks later, he overhead a kitchen servant talking about a fantastical story he’d read in which a fair maiden, daughter of the moon and sister to the sun, lived all alone in a distant ocean. She sailed a golden boat from shore to shore, plucking at a silver-stringed zither known as a gusli. The Chamberlain immediately ran to tell the Tsar the tale he’d heard.

“Your Master of Horse,” he said, “claimed that he knew this maiden, and boasted how he could catch her too. He swore on your Royal head.”

Once again, Ivan was summoned to the Tsar’s chambers. Once again, Ivan tried to protest – he would never have said such things, he pleased, except in a dream – but the Tsar grew angry and told him that if he did not return with the maiden in three weeks time, then he would have Ivan impaled.

Ivan fled to where his Little Humpback lay and, as before, Humpback comforted him and asked him to relate the matter.

“Truly, your misfortune is great,” said Humpback. “I warned you not to touch the feather, and you continue to pay the price. But here is what we shall do. Ask the Tsar to give you two large cloths, a tent of gold brocade, a set of golden crockery, and a selection of sweetmeats.”

At dawn the next day, with all the gear placed in a sack, Ivan and Little Humpback left the palace. They rode for seven days and, on the eighth, sighted the ocean far ahead.

“The maiden can be found on this shore,” said Humpback, “only twice a year. You must pitch your tent in the sand, lay out the cloth within it, and place the sweetmeats and the plates on top of the cloth. Hide behind the tent and do not make a sound. She will walk into the tent and you must allow her to eat and drink as she pleases. Then, once you hear her gusli playing, seize her, hold tight, and call for me. Do not fall asleep.”

Ivan did as he was told. At noon, the maiden’s golden boat was sighted and softly came ashore. She was not, Ivan thought, as pretty as he had expected. He waited as she went inside the tent, and after a while he heard her playing. She sang so sweetly that before he knew it his head had drooped, his eyes had closed, and he fell into a peaceful sleep.

He was woken with a start some hours later, long after the sun had set. Little Humpback stood beside him and gave him a firm kick.

“Sleep!” cried Humpback. “Sleep! You will be impaled, not I!” Ivan cried into his steed’s mane and begged him to help. Eventually, Humpback softened a little and added, “Well, maybe all is not lost. She will be back tomorrow at dawn. You have the chance to try again – do not fail this time.”

As Humpback had said, the maiden returned the next day and went back into the tent. This time, when she began to play and Ivan felt sleep prick at his eyelids, he leapt to his feet and rushed in to grab her. Leaping onto Little Humpback, they galloped back to the palace and presented her to the Tsar.

The Tsar was instantly besotted. He waxed lyrically about her beauty and about his love for her, and proclaimed that he would marry her the following day; but the maiden turned away in disgust.

“If you truly love me,” she said, once he had dropped to his knees before her, “then in three days time you must bring my ring to me, which lies upon the ocean bed. Only then can we marry.” Ivan, a victim of his own success, was called on once again to complete the task. Before he left, the maiden called out to him and said, “On your way, convey greetings to my mother and ask her why she conceals her rays for these three nights; and ask my brother why he hides his face in cloud for these three days. Do not forget to do this.”

Ivan traipsed back the hay barn and sat down before Little Humpback, who asked him what was the matter.

“I must go back to the ocean,” said Ivan miserably, “to find a ring; and I must travel to the sky, to speak to the Moon and the Sun.”

“Oh, this is an easy task,” Little Humpback assured him. “We will leave early tomorrow morning.”

An 1870 lithograph

Part three: the Monstrous Whale, the Moon, and the wedding

Little Humpack and Ivan flew across the earth as the sun rose the next day. They covered 20,000 leagues in a single day, and as they approached the ocean shore Humpback slowed and said, “We will soon encounter the Monstrous Whale, who has lain here for ten years wondering how he can earn a pardon. Promise him that you give him this pardon if he asks you to.”

They galloped out across the ocean and soon found the whale, lying pitifully on the surface of the water. He was pinned through with stakes and holes, a forest on his tail and a village on his back. Farmers pulled ploughs across his lips, children played above his eyes, and maidens picked mushrooms from his jaws.

“God speed you,” sighed the whale, rolling his eye up as he watched Little Humpback and Ivan pass overhead. “Where are you going?”

“We go East, to the Sun,” replied Humpback.

At this, the whale perked up a little. “May I humbly ask you,” he said, “when you reach the Sun’s domain, to ask him how long I must suffer this disgrace, and why? Do this favour for me, and one day I shall serve you.”

“Yes, yes! Of course!” cried Ivan, and with one leap Little Humpback carried him across the ocean to the distant shore.

They ran and ran, over distances too vast to tell, and eventually came to the place where the earth meets the sky. Up and up they climbed, leaving behind the earth for the soft blue skies, and presently came within sight of a gleaming tower. Little Humpback motioned towards it with one ear, and told Ivan that this was the maiden’s dwelling; every night the Sun slept there, and every day the Moon came to rest.

Ivan dismounted when they reached the gates and walked through to find the Moon relaxing within. He greeted her cordially, and after exchanging pleasantries he related her daughter’s message to her.

“What!” cried the Moon. “Are you the one who stole our princess? How is she? Is she safe?”

“Yes, it was I,” said Ivan, “or I would have lost my head. She is well, though skin-and-bone; but will surely improve once she weds the Tsar.”

“That villain! Why, he is eighty, and he wants to wed our princess? I will not have it.” The Moon sat and stewed, her brow knitted, then remembered Ivan’s question. “When we found she was lost,” she explained, “the Sun and I grieved so hard that we forgot to shine.”

“Thank you,” said Ivan. “I will tell her. Oh – before I go. There is a whale we met while crossing the ocean. I promised him I would ask the Sun to explain his punishment, and tell him how he could free himself.”

“He swallowed thirty ships,” the Moon replied, “and so is punished for his transgression. If he releases them, the Sun will take away his pain.” Ivan thanked her again, but before he left the Moon called out to him and said, “Tell my daughter not to fear. She will never marry this old Tsar, but will wed a young and handsome man instead.”

Back across the ocean ran Little Humpback and Ivan. As they came once again upon the Monstrous Whale, the whale called out to them to ask what they had discovered; but Humpback asked him to wait and alighted in the village square. Here, he told the villagers to leave as quickly as they could, for the whale was about to be freed. They ran about in alarm, gathering together their worldly belongings, and by noon the place was deserted. Then Humpback galloped back to the whale’s head and told him what the Moon had said before leaping, in one single bound, over to the opposite shore.

The whale began to turn, stakes snapping, houses tumbling from his great back, and spat out the thirty ships he’d swallowed. As the fleet sailed away, the Whale turned towards Ivan and Humpback and asked them what he could do for them in return.

“Can you please,” asked Ivan, “fetch the maiden’s ring from the ocean bed?”

“Certainly, for friends as good as you.” The whale dived. He was gone for a very long time, and as it grew dark Ivan began to despair; but, at length, the waters rippled and the whale surfaced once again. He placed a jewelled chest before them and promised that he would always heed Ivan’s call, if he was ever needed again.

“I can not lift it,” cried Ivan to his faithful steed, as the whale disappeared from sight. He tugged and pulled at the great chest but could not move it an inch. “It must weigh a hundred tonnes.”

Little Humpback said nothing, but placed the box upon his neck with one swift kick. Ivan climbed up behind and together they sped back to the palace. They arrived just in time and the Tsar, taking the ring from the chest, rushed to present it to maiden.

“That’s nice,” she said, “but I still can’t marry you. You are too old and grey, and I am too young; if we marry, everyone will laugh at you.” The Tsar begged and pleased, but the maiden would not change her mind. Eventually, she told him, “If you could regain your youth, then I would gladly marry you.” The Tsar, desperate to please, asked how this could be done and the maiden continued, “Next morning, place three cauldrons on the lawn. Two must have fires lit beneath them: one must be filled with water, one filled with milk. Boil them both. The third must be filled to the brim with cold water. if you wish to be young and handsome again, you must disrobe and dive into the milk; then into the boiling water; and then, finally, into the cold.”

The Tsar eagerly called Ivan to him and told him of the plan. Ivan’s job, he said, would be to test the cauldrons first; and Ivan, who may have been a fool, was still able to see the folly of this plan and tried to persuade the Tsar that he would be boiled alive by this ploy. The Tsar grew angry and told Ivan that if he did not do as he was told, then Ivan would be hung, drawn and quartered instead.

Back went Ivan to the hay store to find his long-eared friend. “Ah,” said Humpback, “your misfortunes really are the price for ignoring my warning when we found the feather. But, I will help you. When you go out onto the lawn tomorrow, ask the Tsar to have me brought to you so that you may say goodbye to me. I will dip my nose in each cauldron, whistle three times, and you must then dive quickly into the milk, followed by the water as you have been told.”

The next morning, Ivan stood naked and miserable upon the palace lawn. The Tsar and the maiden stood side-by-side to watch, the maiden having politely veiled her face.

“Please, your majesty,” he said, “allow my humpbacked steed to be brought here so that I may say goodbye to him before I take this test, for I doubt I will survive it.”

The Tsar was happy to agree, and soon Little Humpback appeared, being led by a groom. He lashed his tail from side to side, dipped his nose into each cauldron in turn, snorted on Ivan twice, then began to whistle. As the third whistle ended, Ivan took a deep breath and leapt into the first cauldron. He emerged, dived into the second, surfaced again, and dived into the third.

Finally, he emerged and began to dry himself. He was handsome now beyond compare – no words could describe him. The maiden peeked around her veil, and the Tsar quickly began to undress. He rushed forward, dived into the first cauldron, and was immediately boiled to death.

The maiden removed her veil and addressed the crowd. “See,” she cried, “the Tsar is dead. Will you have me in his place? Speak! If so, then recognise as lord my husband – Ivan.”

The crowd shouted their assent, and the two were whisked away to the chapel where they wed. They feasted all night long, accompanied by laughter and music, and lived happily ever after.

The Chamberlain, who had been a wicked man, was nonetheless pardoned and allow to retire to a modest home in the countryside; for without his meddling, Ivan and the maiden would never have met.

And what of Little Humpback? Well, the stories don’t tell us; but it can be assumed that the faithful creature stayed by Ivan’s side and, as Ivan’s run of misfortune seemed to have finally come to an end, his long-eared companion could finally, deservedly, get some rest.

If the Christmas TV schedule isn’t doing it for you, then here’s the 1947 animated film:

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