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Thursday, April 11, 2024

A To Z Blogging Challenge 2024 - Villains! - K Is For Koschei The Deathless


Kashchey The Immortal by Victor Vasnetsoy. Public Domain.

Koschei the Deathless is the villain of quite a few Russian folk tales. He has a tendency to kidnap highborn women and drag them off to his home, which is almost impossible to reach. But as these are fairy tales, someone always manages to reach it and rescue the kidnapped woman - and finish off the villain. 

So, why is he called the Deathless? In many of these tales, he can’t be killed without finding his life, which is in an egg, inside a duck, which is inside a hare, living in a hollow log on a distant island. Sound familiar? I’m wondering if J.K Rowling got the idea for Lord Voldemort’s Horcruxes from the story of Koschei. 

Of course, Voldemort wants to rule the wizarding world, as well as have immortality, while Koschei seems satisfied to live in a palace with royal women to ogle while living his immortal life.

The log/hare/duck/egg is not always the way of killing him. In The Red Fairy Book by Andrew Lang, there is a story called “The Death Of Koschei The Deathless.” In it, Prince Ivan, hero of a number of folk tales, marries warrior woman Marya Morevna, who goes off to battle, warning him not to open a certain room while she is away. Of course, he does, as per usual in this kind of story. I do wonder why the woman who loves him doesn’t explain why he shouldn’t open that door - after all, she is not  Bluebeard. 

But what he does is standard. And what he finds is, not a bunch of dead former husbands, but Koschei the Deathless, whom she has locked up and chained. Koschei moans that he has been there for ten years and is desperate for water. Ivan gives him some - three buckets full, in fact. Koschei now has his powers back, breaks out of his chains and escapes. And somehow manages to kidnap Marya Morevna, who had overcome him last time. 

So, Ivan has to ride after him. But Koschei has an amazing horse - one which also talks. Three times it warns its master that Marya and her husband have escaped. Twice he catches up to them and lets Ivan go because he gave him water. The third time, Ivan is chopped up and put in a barrel sent out to sea, but is rescued and brought back to life by his magical brothers-in-law. 

Ivan learns that Koschei’s horse is one of the herd owned by our friend Baba Yaga, and he was given it for looking after the herd for three days. Realising he needs a better horse, he goes to her home and asks for the same deal. She agrees, but has no intention of keeping her word, ordering the horses to run away from him.

In the end, he manages to get his horse - a sorry looking colt which he will feed up - from the back of her stable. She follows in her mortar and pestle craft and gets killed on a bridge too thin for her.

Then Ivan finds Koschei, who is killed by Ivan’s horse smashing his skull. So - Magic, but no horcrux stuff. 

“Tsarevitch Petr And The Wizard” does have the difficult way of killing him. Also, he has four palaces on top of a mountain virtually impossible to climb, unless you have the advice of a mysterious old man or woman, which the young prince does. 

Petr is trying to rescue his mother, Koschei’s latest victim. He is, as in many folk tales, the youngest son who succeeds where the older brothers fail. In three of the four palaces he finds beautiful princesses kidnapped by Koschei. The last one advises him how to find his mother in the fourth palace and to get around a giant snake using herbs she gives him. Then he finds out, with his mother’s help, how to kill Koschei, and sets off all the way down the mountain to find the log, hare, duck and egg, which he retrieves with the help of animals he has helped - another folk tale trope. Then he climbs all the way back to the palaces to kill the villain and rescue everyone. Two princesses marry his brothers, the third marries him. 

In this story Koschei is disgustingly ugly and hairy, and visits each of his captives. When Ivan is hiding under his mother’s robes, Koschei arrives - naked. He only goes to sleep with his head on her lap, but you do have to wonder…

Koschei appears in a lot of modern stories. One trilogy by Peter Morwood, “Tales Of Old Russia”, involves the story of Prince Ivan and Marya Morevna. I do recommend these books, which are brilliant. I bought them on Kindle, but they should be available elsewhere.

Another book, by Catherynne M Valente, is called Deathless and is set in early twentieth century Russia. I haven’t read this yet, but it sounds intriguing, so I will look it up.

There are many more references to this villain that have been used in film and TV, though I haven’t seen all of them. 

Here is a link to a post about Russian fairytale adaptations.

See you tomorrow! 



Debra She Who Seeks said...

Interesting! Have not heard of him before.

Ronel Janse van Vuuren said...

An interesting villain.

Ronel visiting for K: My Languishing TBR: K
Two-Faced Kishi

Sue Bursztynski said...

Hi Debra! I’m glad to have been able to introduce you to the dreadful Koschei!

Hi Ronel! Yes, very interesting, isn’t he?