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Koschei the Deathless (part 2)

Sorcerer Koschei the Deathless abducts Marya Morevna. Illustration by Zvorykin

So, when writing part one of my Blog posts about Koschei, I hadn't intended to make it a series. But it seems I have a lot to say about him:

- You can read part 1 here, which is about my mini-freak out when I realized the great Sarah J. Maas had used Koschei as a villain in her new book and so do I. (That comes up in chapter 6 of ACOSF, so I don't consider it super spoiler-y, and there's no other discussion of Maas's version of Koschei in this post, so it should be spoiler free.)

- This post will focus mainly on the tale the Death of Koschei the Deathless.

- My next post (link here when available) will focus on some other Koschei tales.

-And the last part of the series (link here when available) will focus on some Koschei retellings I've read (including ACOSF)

So who is Koschei?

Koschei is a reoccurring character from Russian Folklore/Fairytales, sort of a male version of the witch Baba Yaga, who more people are familiar with. While Baba Yaga can appear as both a villain or a helper to the heroes, Koschei is much more firmly a villain. He is a sorcerer, and some aspects of his character change through different versions of his tales.

I am not an expert in Russian fairytales by any means. I just came up with a very vague idea for a story, and wanted to do a fairytale retelling of something a little less mainstream (Lord knows I adore a Beauty and the Beast retelling, but do we really need any more of them?) and in my search I came across The Death of Koschei the Deathless (or Marya Marvena) which fit my characters perfectly. (You can read about where I came up with the idea for The Princesses of Selmy Island trilogy here.) But anyway, I'm off topic. Main thing I was trying to say was, I am not an expert, I can share what little I learned during research for my books. I am much more familiar with the Death of Koschei tale than the others, though I have read more of them for inspiration, and I have a bunch of retellings ready to read (Did you know Koschei features in the Hell Boy universe?)

The Death of Koschei the Deathless or Marya Morevna

This is one of the more well known Koschei stories, and the one my series is based on and the one that I know the most about. I sort of see this story in four parts when I look at it. When I first read it, it seemed so long and rambling and focused on so many different things. But the more I read it, I find each part fascinating. I think I may even write more books after my trilogy that focus on the later parts of the story.

Part 1- The three sisters.

In the beginning of the story there is a prince, Ivan Tsarevich (also a recurring character in these tales) who promises is his mother on her deathbed that he will not make his three sisters stay with him. He will marry each of them to the first suitors who ask. Shortly after that he and his three sisters are caught outside in a thunderstorm and in a bolt of lightening a Falcon appears, turns into a man and asks his eldest sister, Marya, to marry him. She does. About a year later the same thing happens again, this time an Eagle appears and turns into a man to ask for the middle sister, Olga's hand in marriage. And yet again, a year later, we get a raven who asks the youngest sister, Anna, to marry him. (This is the part of the story my trilogy the Princesses of Selmy Island focus on. Each princess gets a standalone romance arc with her fae/bird prince.)

Part 2- Ivan and Marya Morevna (Yes she also has the same name as his sister)

In this section of the story, Ivan gets lonely without his sisters and goes in search of them. On the way he encounters a felled army which he discovers was slaughtered by the warrior princess Marya Morevna. He stays with her in her camp and falls in love with her. She brings him back to her castle. When she grows antsy, she goes back to fighting as a warrior and leaves Ivan in charge, begging him not to look in a certain closet.... which of course he does. He finds Koschei chained up in the closet and gets him water, which rejuvenates him enough to break free. He runs off saying he is going to capture Marya Morevna and there's nothing Ivan can do about it.

Part 3- Ivan's journey and attempt to rescue Marya Morevna

Ivan sets off to rescue Marya Morevna. He is kind of wandering aimlessly when he comes across a palace, which turns out to be where Marya and her husband the Falcon live. Ivan stays with them for a while and then leaves them with a silver spoon to remember him by. The same thing happens again he finds Olga and the Eagle's home, and he leaves them with a silver fork. Then he ends up at Anna's and leaves her with his snuffbox. He continues on to find his wife.

Eventually he gets to Koschei's tower and makes off with his wife, but Koschei easily catches up to them because he has a magic horse. Koschei tells Ivan he will forgive him this time, and even a second time if he tries again, but the third time he will cut him to bits. Silly, Ivan tries and fails again two more times and gets cut to bits. Somehow, the silver items left with his sisters all turn black and the magical bird brothers-in-law come to his rescue and bring him back to life.

Part 4- Ivan saves a bunch of Animals and outwits Baba Yaga

Ivan is determined not to let Koschei have his wife. So he sneaks back to Koschei's tower and tasks his wife with finding out where Koschei got his magic horse. From Baba Yaga, apparently. So Ivan sets off to find her.

Along the way he doesn't eat a chicken, or take a bee's honey, or eat a lion cub even though he is starving and each animal in turn promises to help him when they can.

He eventually gets to Baba Yaga's, where she says he can have one of her magic horses if he can manage to take care of them for three nights with nothing bad happening to them, or them wandering off. He almost fails all three times, but for the help from the three animals he spared on his trip there. So he takes the magic horse, which is even better than Koschei's and rescues Marya Morevna at last. He pursues them, but somehow he and the horse defeat him even though he's supposed to be unkillable and everyone lives happily ever after...

I don't know why, but the more times I read this story and think about it, I just keep finding new interesting vaguenesses that would be so great to explain away in my own version. Like why does Baba Yaga have these magic horses? Why did the silverware turn black? How did they defeat Koschei if he was undefeatable? I definitely plan to explore more of these themes in my own works. I have managed to turn just Part 1 of the story into a trilogy all its own. I wonder what I could do with the other three parts?

Ok. So I was totally going to write about other stories with Koschei, and I think I've rambled long enough. So this series of posts is going to get longer. If you haven't read part 1 check it out here. Or if you're interested in reading the original tale for yourself, click here. Finally, check back for more installments, which will be linked here when ready.

Tell me in the comments, have you heard of Koschei? What else would you like to learn about him and his fairytales?

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