This is a story of young men who get what they want regardless of societal norms or even simple politeness.
A Tzar had a tree that bore golden apples. He treasured it because he believed that golden apples grant immortality. Yet every night one of the apples disappeared. The Tzar set guard around the tree, and the guard reported that it was the Firebird who kept stealing precious apples, one by one. “What does the Firebird want them for? – marveled the Tzar, – Immortality if of no use to her. Catch the thieving bird, and you get half of my kingdom!” The two older princes tried several times, but the wily bird managed to escape. Then the youngest son, Ivan (of course!), asked permission to try his luck. “Eh, -said royal dad, – you are too young, but if you have nothing better to do, go ahead.”
This is the great Ekaterina Kondaurova as Firebird and Ilya Kuznetsov as Ivan in Stravinsky’s famous eponymous ballet, commissioned by Dyagilev for Ballets Russes in Paris, original sets by Alexander Golovin, costumes by Leon Bakst, choreography by Michael Fokine, recreated by Mariinsky theater in St Petersburg. As you see, Ivan Tzarevich (Prince Ivan) manages to grab the Firebird by the tail, but she escapes, leaving only one feather in his hand. Now Papa Tzar is obsessed with the bird, rather than the golden apples. “Drat the fruit, – he rages, – together with immortality! Get me that brazen birdie, and the deal stands: half a kingdom plus my throne when I die which is never because I did manage to bite into one of them apples.”
Again the two older brothers embark on this adventure, while Ivan stays at home. Soon they come to an intersection marked by a stone inscribed with the following road directions: the road on the left leads you to cold and hunger, if you take the one in the middle, you will lose your horse but you survive, and if you take the one on the right, your horse will live, but you will die. They scratch their heads under heavy helmets and unanimously decide to turn around and go back. End of adventure.
That leaves young Ivan as the only option, and as he arrives to the same stone, as you see on the painting by the XIX century Russian artist V. Vasnetsov, he comes up with a solution: sacrifice the horse. Pretty soon a huge gray wolf eats his horse, as foretold, and he continues on foot. The wolf takes pity on him, though, and offers to carry him to a king who keeps the Firebird in a golden cage. “Be careful, though, – warns the wolf, – not to touch the cage. Grab the bird, and let’s go, man!” But the cage is so shiny and pretty that Ivan can’t help himself; he touches it, the bells start clinging, waking the guards up, and he is apprehended. “You should’ve simply asked for it, – says the King when Ivan is brought before him, – but now I will only exchange it for the Horse with the Golden Mane.”
“No problem, – says the wolf, – I’ll take you there, but listen to me, don’t touch the golden bridle.” But the bridle is so shiny and pretty, that you can guess already what happens; Ivan touches it, sets of the alarm, and is captured. “Didn’t they teach you the magic word PLEASE? – asks the second King, – You should’ve simply asked for it, but now you will have to go and bring me Helen the Beautiful for a wife.”
“Fine,” – says the wolf and snatches Helen from her castle. “And none but thou shall be my paramour!” – cries Ivan upon seeing her face (I am sure he hasn’t read Christopher Marlowe, but the sentiment is there). Ivan and Helen fall in love and ride the wolf together, as you see on the second Vasnetsov painting. But remember, there is an entire chain of exchanges, where Helen is only step one!
“No problem,” – says the wolf and turns himself into… Helen the Beautiful. Ivan exchanges fake Helen for the horse, equipped with the golden bridle, then the wolf turns himself into the horse, and Ivan exchanges the fake horse for the coveted Firebird, complete with the golden cage. The impertinent youngster is on his way home with the girl, the horse, and the bird. Happy end? Oh, no! Envious brothers kill him, hack the body into pieces, and threaten Helen with the same fate if she says as much as a word. So one of them gets half a kingdom, and the other one is about to marry Helen, when the wolf again comes into the picture, restores and revives poor hapless Ivan, and kills the brothers. Ivan marries Helen and they live happily ever after.
That was one of those typically Russian, long and convoluted fairy tales, Beautiful People. What makes it unique is the name Helen. It isn’t a Russian name (at least it wasn’t in those times), and girls in Russian tales are usually called Maria (Mashen’ka as an endearment) or Anastasia (Nasten’ka). Where did Helen come from, as well as the Golden Apples?
We have to go up on Mount Olympus where Zeus is having a party. Everyone is invited, except Eris, the goddess of discord. True to her nature, irate Eris throws a golden apple inscribed “to the fairest one” into the crowd of other goddesses, each of whom considers herself Ms Olympus. Just as the king in the Russian tale, they could care less about immortality supposedly granted by the apple; they are goddesses, immortal by definition. It’s the title that counts! Zeus wisely bails out of the event, appointing a mortal, Trojan Prince Paris to judge the Beauty Pageant of the Goddesses. The Judgement of Paris, by Boticelli, seems to be the only one of many depictions of this myth where the three ladies are fully clothed.
It appears that bribery is a known practice in the ancient world, since each one of the three tries to offer Paris something of value if he rules in her favor. Hera, Mrs Zeus, the most powerful of them, would make him king of Europe and Asia. Athena, the wise and militant one, proffers wisdom and success in wars. But Aphrodite, the goddess of love, offers Helen of Sparta, the most beautiful woman on earth. Guess who gets the apple! Young Paris, just as audacious as Prince Ivan in the Russian tale, rushes to grab Helen and bring her home to Illium (that’s Troy, Beautiful People), ignoring the fact that she is a married lady. What ensues is best expressed in the immortal words of Christopher Marlowe delivered by Sir Richard Burton:
What do you expect of two young, immature princes, if a distinguished, learned, middle-aged Dr Faustus loses his head over Helen the Beautiful? And who wouldn’t, if she looks like Elizabeth Taylor!
What happened to the Golden Apples, though? Why, they ended up on my table, having visited my Instant Pot for a while, and transformed into a delicious mousse.
I cannot guarantee immortality, Beautiful People, but I can assure you of one of the healthiest desserts you have ever enjoyed!
- 2 lbs apples (any kind) peeled, cored, and quartered
- 1 cup or less sugar or sweetener
- Cinnamon to taste
- Combine ingredients, mix.
- Set Instant pot on Meat Stew. Alternatively, simmer stove top for 35 – 40 minutes, stirring occasionally.
- Remove, stir, serve chilled.
About the guest author:
Dolly Aizenman is the brainchild behind Kool Kosher Kitchen (Which her blog and her book are named after).
This charismatic Russian blogger is fond of cooking and writing.
She has a BA in Art and Music Education, MA in English, MS in Education and Ed.D. in Educational Leadership.