Ivan the Fool

This folk tale shares a life lesson of how we should be careful with our preconceptions of people or creatures based on appearance

Once upon a time, there was a czar who had three sons. When the time came for the sons to marry, the czar called them to his chamber. Hoping to avoid any quarrels as to whom they should marry, he said, "Shoot an arrow as far as you can. Wherever the arrow falls is where you will find your bride."

With bows and arrows in hand, the sons proceeded to the palace garden. The eldest son, taking the first shot, aimed for the village square. His arrow landed over the wall of the lawyer's house; the lawyer's daughter was to be his betrothed. Next came the middle son, who targeted the countryside. His arrow fell upon the gardener's roof; his fate was to marry the gardener's daughter. Finally, the youngest son, who was known as Ivan the Fool, pulled out his bow and, with a loud cry, shot his arrow at the sun. But no one could see where it landed.

Ivan journeyed across the land in search of his arrow. At last, he found it in the middle of a flea-infested swamp. A large green frog sat on top of it.

"Give me back my arrow," Ivan said.

"Marry me," the frog replied.

"What? I can't marry a frog," Ivan declared.

"But you must," croaked the frog. "It is your fate."

Ivan the Fool was very upset. But he knew she was right. Picking up the frog, he carried her back to the palace.

The next week, the czar arranged to have one large wedding for all three of his sons. Glowing with pride, the eldest son marched down the aisle with his bride—a tall, beautiful maiden. Next, came the middle son, strolling arm-in-arm with a smiling, rosy-cheeked girl. Ivan the Fool followed in the rear of the procession with his head hung low, his frog bride leaping beside him.

Not long after the ceremony, the czar called his three sons together once more. "Only one of you can inherit this land," he said, "so I have devised a test. Have each of your wives sew me a shirt by tomorrow morning. Whoever has married the best seamstress will become the next czar."

That night, Ivan did not have an appetite for dinner. His wife, the frog, asked, "What troubles you, my husband?"

Ivan the Fool answered, "My father asks that you sew a shirt for him by tomorrow morning."

"Go to sleep, Ivan, and have no worries," the frog wife replied. "Morning is wiser than evening."

Sighing, Ivan crawled into bed. Meanwhile, the frog wife jumped outside to the garden. Under the light of the moon, she peeled off her frog skin, and became a princess as dazzling as the sun. Clapping her hands together, she twirled around singing,

"Mothers and nannies, gather around!
Sew me a shirt, the likes of which the czar has never seen."

In the morning, Ivan woke to find a glittering cloth beside his bed. It was a shirt of golden silk, trimmed in emeralds and diamonds. Wasting no time, Ivan grabbed the shirt and raced to his father's chamber. When he arrived, his older brothers were displaying the shirts their wives had sewn. The lawyer's daughter had sewn a shirt of linen, and the gardener's daughter one of cotton. The czar accepted the shirts with an appreciative nod. Ivan then handed his father the frog wife's shirt. The czar stepped off his throne to get a closer look.

"Never before have I seen a shirt as handsome as this," he exclaimed.

"Will Ivan the Fool and the frog then inherit your crown?" the eldest brother asked, raising his brow in mock sincerity. The two older brothers were well aware of their father's reluctance to see a fool as czar and a frog as czarina.

Tearing himself away from the silk shirt, the czar regained his composure. "This is only the first test, my sons," he said. "Have your wives bake a loaf of bread for my breakfast tomorrow. Whoever has married the best baker will become the next czar."

The frog wife found Ivan sulking in the garden staring at the noonday sun. "What troubles you?" she asked.

"My father asks that you bake a loaf of bread tomorrow morning," Ivan said.

"Don't be sad, Ivan," the frog wife said, "and have no worries. Morning is wiser than evening."

Meanwhile, the lawyer's daughter approached the gardener's daughter, saying, "I suspect that frog wife is no ordinary frog."

Agreeing, the gardener's daughter suggested, "Let's spy on her as she bakes bread tonight. Maybe we will uncover her secret."

Later that evening, just as the frog wife was about to peel off her skin and transform herself once more, she noticed the lawyer's daughter hiding behind a cabinet, and the merchant's daughter underneath a table. The frog wife, being clever, knocked a potted plant into some dough and kneaded it by jumping up and down. The two wives glanced at one another and nodded knowingly. The dirt from the potted plant, they concluded, was a secret ingredient that could turn plain white bread into a fine delicacy. When the frog's back was turned, they slipped out the kitchen door.

Alone at last, the frog wife stepped out into the moonlight and peeled off her skin once more. Clapping her hands together, she twirled around, singing,

"Mothers and nannies, gather around!
Bake me a loaf of bread, the likes of which the czar has never eaten!"

At dawn the next morning, Ivan woke to a most delicious aroma. Stumbling out of bed, he followed the smell to the kitchen. Cooling on the windowsill was the most scrumptious looking bread he had ever seen. Resisting the temptation to take a bite, he wrapped the bread in a cloth and hastened to his father's chamber.

When Ivan the Fool arrived, the czar had just taken a bite of the bread that the lawyer's daughter had made. All were quiet as the czar began to chew.

"This tastes like mud!" the czar exclaimed, spitting out the bread. The czar rinsed his mouth with water, then took a piece of the bread baked by the gardener's daughter.

"These women are trying to kill me!" he screamed, choking on her bread as well. After his father calmed down, Ivan the Fool offered him a bite of the frog wife's bread.

"Why, this is the most delicious bread I've ever had!" he declared.

"Will Ivan the Fool and the frog then inherit your crown, father?" the middle brother asked.

But the czar could not stop eating the frog wife's bread. With his mouth full, he said, "A final test is needed. Tonight we will have a feast. I want to see which wife dances the best and carries herself as befits a noble czarina. Whoever has married the woman who comports herself with the most style and grace shall inherit my kingdom."

As Ivan the Fool walked out of the czar's chamber, his older brothers followed behind, taunting him. "Ivan, would you be so kind as to grant us a dance with your glamorous bride tonight?"

When Ivan arrived home, the frog wife could plainly see the disappointment on her husband's face. "What troubles you?" she asked.

"My father asks that you attend a feast tonight... and..." He could not bear to tell her how his father would judge the winner of this test.

But the frog wife said calmly, "Have no worries, Ivan. Go to the feast alone and I will follow you. When you hear a loud noise, don't be scared. Tell everyone that your wife is coming."

Reluctantly, Ivan the Fool went to the feast. But when he greeted his older brothers, they began to parody a frog dancing, much to the amusement of their wives. Suddenly a loud noise erupted from the earth below. The whole palace shook.

"That's my wife," said Ivan, trying to calm down the guests.

A golden carriage drawn by six horses arrived in the czar's courtyard. A beautiful princess stepped down from the coach and took Ivan's arm.

"Your love has saved me," said the princess to Ivan, who had never before seen a face as lovely as the one he now beheld. "An evil witch cast a spell upon me at the moment of my birth," she continued. "The spell could be broken only if a man could bear to love me as a frog."

Ivan's older brothers had stopped their antics and stared, dumbfounded, at Ivan's wife. Their wives, too, gawked at the princess. But when they took their places at the great banquet table, the gardener's daughter said to the lawyer's daughter, "There is still time left. If we imitate her every move, the czar may declare a tie."

Noticing their sly smiles, the princess raised a glass of wine to the two wives and drank a sip. She then poured the rest in her left sleeve. Next, she picked up chicken bones from her plate and placed them in her right sleeve. The wives, who were intently watching every move the princess made, immediately stuffed their sleeves with wine and chicken bones.

After everyone had eaten, the czar signaled for the band to play a waltz. The princess took Ivan's arm and together the two glided across the floor. When the waltz ended, all the guests applauded with joy. Never had they seen a couple dance with such tenderness and grace. Although they cheered for another waltz, the princess shook her head and curtsied modestly. Then she waved her arms in a willowy gesture, sending two doves flying from her sleeve. The doves took their place on the czar's right and left shoulder.

Now, the older brothers and their wives had been waltzing on the same floor, but no one noticed them. All were too captivated by Ivan and his princess. But as Ivan and the princess exited the dance floor, the lawyer's daughter and the gardener's daughter took center stage. In a grand flourish, the two waved their arms at the czar. But the wine in their sleeves splattered across the czar's face, and the chicken bones hit him in the head.

"Enough," he cried loudly. "Enough! I am too old for any more tests!" He then called Ivan and his wife to his side and, taking off his crown, placed it on Ivan's head. The czar raised his glass of wine in a toast. "To my two older sons and their wives," he said, "I leave two patches of swampland that lie within a three-days' journey from this kingdom." He then whispered to his two sons, "If you visit me, do not, I beg you, bring your wives."

"And to my youngest son, Ivan, and his beautiful wife, I leave my land. May you live long and prosper."

True to the father's words, peace and prosperity reigned across the kingdom. And as the years passed, very few could recall that Czar Ivan had ever once been a fool, and that his beautiful czarina had been born a frog. 

By Roseann De Rosa - Peace Corps Volunteer: Russia (1996-1998)

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