As wildfires burn in our country and other disasters follow, I am reminded of the tale of the Firebird and its hero—the young archer and his horse. As the archer confronts one impossible task after the other under threat of death, we can identify. We also are faced with seemingly insurmountable difficulties.
It is our fate at this time in history, to have picked up the feathers of the Firebird
In Slavic folklore, the Firebird burns with flames so bright that it lights up its surroundings: a single feather from the magical bird will light up an entire room. Firebirds are hunted and treasured, but a meeting with the firebird always means trouble. If one picks up a feather of the firebird, it signals the start of a difficult quest. One thing leads to another, as in this rousing folktale.
The Firebird, The Horse of Power, and the Princess Vasilissa
Once a strong and powerful Tzar ruled in a country far away. And among his servants was a young archer, and this archer had a horse—a horse of power—such a horse as belonged to the wonderful men of long ago—a great horse with a broad chest, eyes like fire, and hoofs of iron.
Well, one day long ago, in the green time of the year, the young archer rode through the forest on his horse of power. The trees were green; there were little blue flowers on the ground under the trees; the squirrels ran in the branches, and the hares in the undergrowth; but no birds sang.
The young archer rode along the forest path and listened for the singing of the birds, but there was no singing. The forest was silent, and the only noises in it were the scratching of four-footed beasts, the dropping of fir cones, and the heavy stamping of the horse of power in the soft path.
“What has come to the birds?” said the young archer.
He had scarcely said this before he saw a big curving feather lying in the path before him. The feather was larger than a swan’s, larger than an eagle’s. It lay in the path, glittering like a flame, for the sun was on it, and it was a feather of pure gold.
Then he knew why there was no singing in the forest. For he knew that the firebird had flown that way, and that the feather in the path before him was a feather from its burning breast.
The horse of power spoke and said, “Leave the golden feather where it lies. If you take it you will be sorry for it, and know the meaning of fear.”
But the brave young archer sat on the horse of power and looked at the golden feather, and wondered whether to take it or not. He had no wish to learn what it was to be afraid, but he thought, “If I take it and bring it to the Tzar my master, he will be pleased; and he will not send me away with empty hands, for no Tzar in the world has a feather from the burning breast of the firebird.”
And the more he thought, the more he wanted to carry the feather to the Tzar. And in the end, he did not listen to the words of the horse of power. He leapt from the saddle, picked up the golden feather of the firebird, mounted his horse again, and galloped back through the green forest till he came to the palace of the Tzar.
He went into the palace, and bowed before the Tzar and said, “O Tzar, I have brought you a feather of the firebird.”
The Tzar looked gladly at the feather, and then at the young archer.
“Thank you,” says he, “but if you have brought me a feather of the firebird, you will be able to bring me the bird itself. I should like to see it. A feather is not a fit gift to bring to the Tzar. Bring the bird itself, or, I swear by my sword, your head shall no longer sit between your shoulders!”
The young archer bowed his head and went out. Bitterly he wept, for he knew now what it was to be afraid. He went out into the courtyard, where the horse of power was waiting for him, tossing its head and stamping on the ground.
“Master,” says the horse of power, “why do you weep?”
“The Tzar has told me to bring him the firebird, and no man on earth can do that,” says the young archer, and he bowed his head on his breast.
“I told you,” says the horse of power, “that if you took the feather you would learn the meaning of fear. Well, do not be frightened yet, and do not weep. The trouble is not now; the trouble lies before you. Go to the Tzar and ask him to have a hundred sacks of maize scattered over the open field, and let this be done at midnight.”
The young archer went back into the palace and begged the Tzar for this, and the Tzar ordered that at midnight a hundred sacks of maize should be scattered in the open field.
Next morning, at the first redness in the sky, the young archer rode out on the horse of power, and came to the open field. The ground was scattered all over with maize. In the middle of the field stood a great oak with spreading boughs. The young archer leapt to the ground, took off the saddle, and let the horse of power loose to wander as he pleased about the field. Then he climbed up into the oak and hid himself among the green boughs.
The sky grew red and gold, and the sun rose. Suddenly there was a noise in the forest round the field. The trees shook and swayed, and almost fell. There was a mighty wind. The sea piled itself into waves with crests of foam, and the firebird came flying from the other side of the world. Huge and golden and flaming in the sun, it flew, dropped down with open wings into the field, and began to eat the maize.
The horse of power wandered in the field. This way he went, and that, but always he came a little nearer to the firebird. Nearer and nearer came the horse. He came close up to the firebird, and then suddenly stepped on one of its spreading fiery wings and pressed it heavily to the ground.
The bird struggled, flapping mightily with its fiery wings, but it could not get away. The young archer slipped down from the tree, bound the firebird with three strong ropes, swung it on his back, saddled the horse, and rode to the palace of the Tzar.
The young archer stood before the Tzar, and his back was bent under the great weight of the firebird, and the broad wings of the bird hung on either side of him like fiery shields, and there was a trail of golden feathers on the floor.
The young archer swung the magic bird to the foot of the throne before the Tzar; and the Tzar was glad, because since the beginning of the world no Tzar had seen the firebird flung before him like a wild duck caught in a snare.
The Tzar looked at the firebird and laughed with pride. Then he lifted his eyes and looked at the young archer, and says he,
“As you have known how to take the firebird, you will know how to bring me my bride, for whom I have long been waiting. In the land of Never, on the very edge of the world, where the red sun rises in flame from behind the sea, lives the Princess Vasilissa. I will marry none but her. Bring her to me, and I will reward you with silver and gold. But if you do not bring her, then, by my sword, your head will no longer sit between your shoulders!”
And so the trouble continues…to read the entire folktale, click here:
Old Peter’s Russian tales
By Arthur Ransome
Publisher: Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd., London.