Myths and Folk-tales of the Russians, Western Slavs, and Magyars | Annotated Tale

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King of the Toads, The

MANY and many a year ago there was a cottage by the sea, and in this cottage lived a fisherman who caught fish in the sea. By the king's command he was allowed to take fish, not when he liked, but only once a week, and that on Mondays. He was anxious, therefore, to catch many on that day. Fish, of course, are not so crafty as men, but still they know enough to see that there is no fun in being caught. What is to be done with them afterwards they don't know; still, they must suspect that it can hardly be for their amusement. It is no wonder then that they did not crowd into the fisherman's net.

                The fisherman worked every Monday till the sweat streamed down his face; and this all the more, since, come what might, he was obliged to bring fish to the king's kitchen each Monday. Once he worked the whole forenoon without catching even a white fish. "I will try once more," thought the tired fisherman; "I will throw everything into the water, and jump around to frighten the fish, they are so stubborn."

                He threw the net deeply, and when he pulled it was very heavy. "Now there will be fish," thought he, joyfully; but what was his astonishment when, instead of fish, he drew out a great copper kettle.

                The kettle was so well fastened that the fisherman had to work long before he could take off the cover. But how he was frightened! Scarcely had he removed the cover when out of the kettle rushed black smoke, which grew thicker and thicker, till at last it changed to a fiery man.

                "Thou hast helped me, and I will help thee," said he to the terrified fisherman; "but in my own way I will destroy thee."

                The fisherman lost his head, but soon recovering said: "Oh, I don't care, I am already tired of this world; still thou must do something for me, since I freed thee. I can't understand how thou wert able to live in such a small place, and under the water too, and then change so quickly."

                "I'll show thee in a moment," said the fiery man; and he began to turn into black smoke, and in no long time he was packed into the kettle again.

                "Dost see me?" inquired he of the fisherman.

                "I see thee," answered the fisherman, laughing; "I see thee, but thou'lt not see me any more."

                The cover was already on the kettle and fastened firmly. The fiery man by no means expected to find such cunning among people, and considering his condition in the kettle, began to beg of the fisherman: "Let me out and I will reward thee."

                "Swear that thou wilt never destroy me," said the fisherman.

                The spirit answered with a solemn voice, "I swear."

                The fisherman removed the cover, and black smoke rolled out, growing thicker and thicker, till at last it turned into a fiery man.

                "Follow me," said he to the fisherman; and the latter followed without thinking.

                In a short time they came to a high cliff in which steps were cut in the stone. The fiery man bent to the earth, plucked an herb, and giving it to the fisherman said: "Keep this with thee always. Put thy foot on this step; immediately after thou wilt be on a high mountain, from which thou wilt see a great lake. In the lake is a wealth of fish, and thou hast the right to catch as many of them as may please thee, but only once a week, on Mondays. When thou hast the wish to come down, climb to the top, and soon thou wilt be at the bottom."

                Thereupon the fiery man vanished, but the fisherman went on the steps cut in the rock; in one moment a mighty wind caught him, and in a twinkle he was on a high mountain, from which he saw an altogether unknown country covered with dark forests, in the midst of which was a broad lake; only here and there was a grass-plot to be seen, there were neither hills nor the dwellings of men.

                The fisherman went down from the mountain, and when he had reached the lake he found a boat with all the fishing-tackle, as if made ready for him. He went to work willingly, threw in the net, and drew out nothing; he threw it in a second time, drew out as much as before. "That fiery man has fooled me," thought he, "but the third throw is always the best." He cast his net again and drew out three fish; when he saw them in the net, he said bitterly: "Well, this is a wealth of fish! If it goes on in this way I'll soon leave the place; besides, I don't like travelling by wind." But when he looked at the fish more carefully, and took them in his hand, he found that in all his life he had never seen anything like them. "These are not for me," muttered he, "I must give them to the king; he will soon try them." With that he left the boat, went to the mountain, and had barely touched the summit when a mighty wind seized him, and placed him on level land. He set out for home, and it was time; for his wife had already cooked the dinner and was waiting. As soon as he saw her before the door, he hurried his steps; and when she was in the cottage he began to run. And why did he run, because he feared her? Not at all. He cared nothing for her, as he said himself; but he loved domestic peace, and did everything his wife wanted, but always did it in such fashion that she might not know what he was doing; this was to preserve his own importance in her eyes. He went into the house slowly, and said at the door: "Well, my dear, I have caught a few fish to-day; but I had much trouble, or I should have been home long ago."

                "Time for thee," snapped his wife; "if thou art late again I'll eat alone, leave nothing, and thou wilt find out that I am not thy slave to wait and suffer hunger."

                "Oh well, things are not so bad to-day," said the fisherman; "better come and see these wonderful fish."

                "They are just like any other fish," cried the woman, "only they look a little different, that's all."

                "And for that very reason thou wilt take them to the king. He will pay us well for them; we should not be able to use them."

                "Oh, thou couldst soon do away with them," replied his wife, "but that's why I'll take them to the king; besides, we are up to our ears in fish."

                After dinner the fisherman's wife hurried to the king with the fish. When she came to the palace, she asked the first man she met where the king was, but got as answer: "I don't keep the king!" She went farther, making confusion everywhere until all the servants came together, but no one said anything to her. At last she reached the guard who stood before the king's chamber; she wanted to go without ceremony to his Kingly Grace. The guard pushed her back sharply, but the fishwoman did not retreat so easily; she tried once more to break through the guards, but this time she was repulsed. One of the guards, as firm as a rock, and with as much hair on his face as a bear, caught her by the hand and pulled her so roughly that she almost fell to the floor. She screamed that they were killing her, and roused the whole palace; even the king came. She turned straight to him and cried out over the heads of the men: "Royal Grace, I am bringing fish, and these bears won't let me in."

                The king, who was in good humor that day, beckoned her to come. "What kind of fish, and how many?" asked he when she approached.

                "Royal Grace, only three, but so wonderful that I have not seen such as long as I live." With that she took a fish from the basket and handed it to the king.

                "Wonderful, indeed," said the king, "but give them not to me, give them to my cook; and here is to thee for the road," giving her a handful of goldpieces.

                The fishwoman, when she saw so much money, fell at the king's feet, and came near throwing him down; but he didn't mind. Then she took the fish to the kitchen, and ran headlong home.

                After she had gone the king went to the kitchen, looked at one of the fish, and said to the cook: "Thou must dress these fish in a special manner, and answer with thy head for the cooking."

                "Royal Grace, in what manner?" asked the cook, trembling with terror when he heard of his head; for though he was a great hero at cutting off heads, he trembled like an aspen when his own head was in question.

                "That's thy affair," replied the king; "I will send my chamberlain to thee to look after the fish."

                The king went away, and presently the chamberlain appeared. The cook did not know how to prepare the fish, and lost his wits,--but that was his luck, for he did everything without knowing it, and altogether different from his wont. At last when they had the fish on the pan, and began to butter them, the whole palace trembled. Then followed a terrible shock; and before the cook or the chamberlain could think what it meant, they received each such a slap on the face from an invisible hand that they fell senseless to the floor. And while they were lying in such concord on the floor, they knew not that one of the fish stood on his tail in the pan, and said to the other two: "Will ye serve me or be food for the king?"

                "Serve thee," said both in one voice. With that all three of them vanished, and to this day no man knows whither they went.

                The cook woke up from his involuntary slumber sooner than the chamberlain; he did not rise, however, but waited for the other. Then he rose, groaned heavily, complained, and both hurried to the fish; but they were gone. "The devil take the fish!" said the cook; "but what will the king say?"

                It was no great joy for the chamberlain that the fish were gone; still he went to the king and told him of all that had happened in the kitchen.

                "I cannot believe it," said the king; "but if thou canst get more fish like these, thou wilt be forgiven this time. Now go to the fisherman and tell him to get other fish like these."

                The chamberlain hurried away with light heart, rejoiced at his easy escape. The fisherman said that he could catch fish only on Mondays. The chamberlain told this to the king; the king was very angry. But what could he gain by that?

                There was joy in the fisherman's cottage by reason of so much money, and the fisherman's wife could hardly wait till Monday. She roused her husband early Monday morning, got him a holiday breakfast, and almost pushed him out of the house, so as to bring those strange fish with all speed. The fisherman obeyed, not his wife, however, but the king, and hastened to the cliff with the wonderful herb in his bosom. He had barely stood on the step, when he was carried to the mountain; and from there he rushed to the lake, where he found a boat waiting for him as before. The first and second time he caught nothing; but the third time he drew out three fish. "Now my wife will be glad," thought he, and hurried up the mountain; from there he was taken to the valley in an instant, and ran home. His wife pulled the fish out of his hands, threw them into a basket, and ran to the king's palace. The guard was ordered to let her pass; and she went straight to the king, who came out to meet her, and looking at the fish, to see if they were the same, gave her another handful of gold for her trouble. The fishwoman thanked him, took the fish to the kitchen, and went home leisurely, for she counted the money to see if there was the same as before; there was still more. Now there was joy in the cottage; and the fisherman was thankful in his heart to the fiery man, by whose action he had gained such peace in his household.

                New orders were issued by the king to the cook, who was trembling with terror, thinking what would come of the fish. But the king, who did not believe even the chamberlain, sent his eldest son to watch both the chamberlain and the cook, lest they should eat the fish themselves. They all stood in great expectation around the pan in which the butter was melting under the fish; but as soon as they began to butter the fish, the castle was shaken more violently than before, a still louder shock followed, and the cook, chamberlain, and even the prince himself, received such slaps from an unseen hand that all three fell senseless to the floor. And while they were lying there, they did not know that one of the fish stood on its tail in the pan, and said to the other two: "Will ye be food for the king, or serve me?"

                "Serve thee," answered the two in one voice; then all three vanished in an instant, and to this day no man knows whither.

                The cook came to his senses first; but seeing the chamberlain and the prince still on the floor, he stayed where he was. The chamberlain followed his example; at last the prince jumped up and roused both. For a while they acted as if they had lost their wits, then rose to their feet slowly, and complained. When they looked in the pan they found it empty. The prince told all carefully to his father. The king was raging, and threatened them all with death. At last he was pacified, and sent the prince to the fisherman. The prince gave the king's order, but the fisherman said that he could catch those fish only on Mondays. When the king heard this he fell into a towering passion, though he knew himself that the fish could be caught only on Mondays. At last he grew calm, but resolved to be present next time they cooked these most wonderful fish.

                On Monday the fisherman's wife pushed her husband out of the house at the dawn of day. The fisherman came to the top of the mountain as before, then hastened to the lake, where on the third cast of the net he drew out three fish. He hurried to the top of the mountain; next moment he was in the valley, and ran home as fast as his breath would let him. His wife shortened the journey for him: she ran to meet him, and pulling the fish out of his hands, rushed off to the palace like a crazy woman. The king was waiting; and ran out the moment he saw her. When he looked at the fish he gave her two handfuls of gold. She took the fish to the kitchen, and hurried away. When she came to the field she sat down and counted the money ten times.

                In the king's kitchen the king, the prince, and the chamberlain watched the cook while he was preparing the fish. Because the king was present, great attention was paid to everything. This was done partly to make the king tired of being there; but he gave them to understand that he would wait till the fish were ready. After long preparation they got them on the pan; but as soon as the cook began to butter them the palace shook as in a tempest. Then came a shock as from a lightning-stroke, and in an instant all present received such slaps on the face that they fell senseless to the floor. While lying there without distinction of persons none of them knew, not even the king, that one of the fish stood on its tail in the pan and said to the other two: "Will ye serve me or be food for the king?"

                "Serve thee!" answered both in one voice; and all three vanished.

                After a long time the cook woke from his trance, and seeing the king prostrate, remained as he was. In like manner acted the chamberlain and the prince when they recovered. At last the king rose, walked around the pan quickly, saw no fish, wondered greatly, and went to his chambers in silence. When the king had gone, the prince, the chamberlain, and the cook sprang from the floor and shook themselves.

                The king pondered long over these fish, weighed everything duly, and then sent for the fisherman. The fisherman came straightway; but how he wondered when he heard what had happened at the buttering of the fish! The king said: "Take me to that lake; I will examine everything carefully myself." The fisherman of course consented. The king took his body-guard, and all moved toward the cliff, with the fisherman at the head. When they arrived there the fisherman gave the king some of the herb which he had received from the fiery man, took him by the hand, and stood on the stone step. In an instant a mighty wind seized them; the king and the fisherman flew through the air, but the body-guard stood, as if fallen from heaven. They waited long; but when nothing came of it, they returned to the palace, and told the terrified people what they had seen.

                In due time the king with the fisherman appeared on the summit of the mountain, from whence he saw the whole country. Although there was no palace, nor even a cottage, still it pleased him greatly at first sight.

                "There," said the fisherman to the king, "is the lake where I catch the wonderful fish; I haven't gone farther yet in any direction."

                "Very well," said the king, "let us go down."

                On reaching the lake the king told the fisherman to catch the fish; but he went on himself to examine the place. The farther he went the thicker the grass, till at last he had hard work to get through; still he advanced till he came to a beautiful green meadow, having on one side the forest, and on the other the lake. Near the shore in a boat sat an old grandfather, whose head was as white as an apple-tree in blossom.

                "Wilt thou row me over, grandfather?" asked the king.

                "Why should I not, since that is what I am here for?"

                The king took a seat in the boat. The old man rowed without hurrying; but the boat moved lightly over the smooth water, like a fly through the blue sky. When they reached the middle of the lake the old man turned to one side. Then the king saw a grand castle half hidden in the dark forest.

                "Oh, what a beautiful castle! Who reigns there?" asked the king.

                "Thou wilt learn if thou enter," replied the old man. When they touched the shore he gave the king a green twig, and said: "Take this twig; it will be of use to thee. Good-by, for thou wilt not see me again."

                "But who will take me back?"

                "No one. Thou wilt go back on dry land;" and turning aside, he disappeared.

                The king went straight to the palace; and if he wondered at the words of the old man, he was still more astonished when he entered the principal gate and saw no living soul. Thoughtfully he ascended the broad steps, went through one chamber, then another, a third, and a fourth; but nowhere did he find a living creature. "This is some enchanted castle," thought the king to himself. "Who knows how I shall escape? But I will see all, and then find the way home." He examined the chambers further till he came to the last, and there in the middle of the room sat an old man, bent to the floor. "I said this was an enchanted castle," thought the king; "here sits one man!"

                The old man raised his head, and seeing the king, said: "Welcome; at last I see a human face!"

                The king approached him and asked: "Who art thou, and what does this empty palace mean?"

                "I am a king, but without subjects or power; another rules in my place," answered the old man, bitterly.

                "What is the cause of this?"

                "The treason of my own wife."

                "And is there no rescue?"

                "Well, the same as none; therefore be off at once, otherwise my wife will kill thee when she returns from the King of the Toads."

                "I am not afraid of a woman," said the king. "I want to stand before her; we shall see if there is no escape."

                "If there were escape I should not be sitting here confined by the King of the Toads!"

                "Who is this King of the Toads?"

                "Listen; I will tell thee my whole sad story. The sun is yet high, and until it sets my wife will not return: Once I ruled over a powerful nation; around my palace was a great city, and near it a beautiful garden. All is changed into a dark forest and a lake. The fish in the lake are my former subjects. I was once happy, and the more so because I obtained as wife a beautiful and kind princess; but the King of the Toads got into the place where the lake now is, and he turned my wife's heart from me. I remonstrated, begged, threatened my wife with death, but in vain. Every day she went to meet the King of the Toads, and listened to his wheedling speech. Once I came upon them in the summer-house, and heard with my own ears their whispering and kissing. At last the King of the Toads said: 'I will find the nest of the magic bird, will take its eggs, and give them thee to eat; thou wilt become immortal and ever young; then we shall be altogether happy.' 'Deceitful serpent!' I cried, springing from my hiding-place; and with a sharp sword I cut the King of the Toads in two. My wife fell upon him, weeping, and he grew together again. Looking at me with venomous eye he muttered words I could not understand, and that moment I felt my blood grow cold, and my veins stiffened so that I could not think of further struggle. I came home in misery and sat down on this chair to rest; but the King of the Toads froze me to my seat, and laid a spell upon the land. From that time I sit here, I know not how many years. My wife spends every day with her lover, and catches frogs for him out of the lake; in return, he promises her immortality and eternal youth. Now, thou canst see there is no aid for me; but escape thou before my wife kills thee."

                "I will not flee," said the king, and drew his sword. "I'll cut off her head,--the traitorous soul!"

                "Foolish man," said the old king; "the King of the Toads saves her, and will not let her be hurt."

                "Let him guard her; I must avenge thee," answered the king, and sat on a chair waiting for the deceitful queen, paying no attention to the old man, who begged him by everything in the world to escape.

                As the sun was going down the queen came, and was not a little astonished when she saw the stately knight with her husband. The king drew his sword and ran towards her, but the moment the sword touched her clothing it broke in two. It would have been bad for the king now, if he had not remembered the twig which the boatman gave him. He pulled it out quickly, and struck the queen three times. The third time he struck she dropped on a seat, and was unable to move an eye.

                "Sit there, like thy husband," said the king, mockingly, and counselled with the old man what to do further.

                "It would be better," said the old man, who gained courage when he saw his wife frozen to the chair, "to persuade the King of the Toads to free the kingdom and me from enchantment."

                "I will try," answered the king; and going to the adjoining chamber, where the queen's wardrobe was, he dressed in her garments and came back to the old man. "Now I will go to the King of the Toads and pretend to be his love, thy virtuous wife. Then I will beg him; and if he does not do what I want, I'll freeze him with this twig, and stroke him with my sword till his heart softens."

                "But beg of him first," said the old man.

                The king made his way in silence to the King of the Toads; but as it was night he could not find him, and was obliged to call out. He changed his voice, which deceived the King of the Toads, who came quickly and wished to embrace him, thinking that he was the queen.

                "No, my dear," said the king; "first thou must do something to please me. What good is it for us to live together if my former husband is troubling me? Either kill him altogether or give him back his former condition, so that he may die; if thou wilt take the spell from him, he will fall to dust and ashes."

                "Let it be as thou wishest," said he, drawing nearer.

                But she moved away, and said: "I have one more favor to ask, but this concerns us alone. As soon as my former husband dies thou wilt take his place and we shall reign together, but what sort of a reign would it be if the whole country were enchanted; therefore give back its former shape to the kingdom, and I will marry thee before the world."

                "So let it be," replied the King of the Toads, and embraced his supposed love, who refused no longer. Scarcely had he touched her when he was struck three times with the twig, in the dark night, and the King of the Toads was frozen to the earth.

                "Serpent of hell!" cried the king with his powerful voice, "now I'll enchant thee for the eternal ages;" and with that he drew out his sword and cut him into countless pieces, which he threw into the water. Frogs rushed from every side with a terrible croaking, and greedily swallowed the bits of the body of their destroyer.

                They had barely devoured him when the water began to run out of the lake; and the king saw by the light of the moon which had risen over the mountain summit, how the tree-tops were rising quickly from the water, higher and higher till the water disappeared altogether, and in the place of the lake was a splendid park, in which were multitudes of people who, praising the king, hurried to the castle. The king joined them, but before reaching the castle he had to pass through a large city; and only after travelling many streets did he arrive there. All the chambers were lighted up, and full of people, so that with difficulty did he find the old man, who was standing in the last chamber, and preventing the people from hewing the queen to pieces; but the king drew his sword and cut off her head. "She deserved it," said he to the old man, who dropped a few tears for his former wife.

                Now universal rejoicings began, but the liberated king took no part in them. He called his deliverer and said: "My hours are numbered, I give the whole kingdom to thee; rule in my place."

                The new king thanked the old one kindly, and when he rose in the morning, he heard that the old king was dead.

                Our king mounted a fiery steed, rode to the city, and announced to the people the death and last will of their former ruler. They grieved for a moment, then with shouts of gladness greeted the new king.

                After the burial of the old monarch, his successor examined the kingdom; and as everything pleased him greatly, he decided to stay there. Therefore he went to his former palace, but the road was far longer than when he had travelled it with the fisherman. He was obliged to ride several weeks before arriving there. No one knew him, for several years had passed while he was in the enchanted kingdom. At last an old grandfather came, who said: "I am one of the body-guard who went with thee to the cliff where thou didst leave us. Take me, I beg, into thy service again, for all my comrades are dead; I am alone."

                The people believed quickly the grandfather's words, gathered around the king and kissed the hem of his garment. The king sold his castle, put everything he could into wagons, and made ready for the road. Now he remembered the fisherman, asked how he was getting on, and when he had returned home.

                "Only yesterday," was the reply.

                "Send for him," commanded the king; and straightway the fisherman was there.

                When the king asked about his adventures, the fisherman answered: "Royal Grace, I have no fish, and God alone knows what happened in that place. All at once the water disappeared under my boat and I was on dry land. I left everything and ran away; but trees began to grow under me, and so quickly that every second branches struck my face. Since it was in the night I might have lost my senses. In the morning I wondered when I saw instead of a forest an enormous city, with a great palace. I hurried from that magic country, thinking to see my cottage soon; but I travelled one day, I travelled two, a week, a month, and then a year--no sign of my cottage. I gave up for a time, and only yesterday I came home safely. My wife was dead; I am all alone now in this wide world."

                "Do not cry," said the king; "thou hast me yet. Thou wilt stay with me."

                The fisherman answered with tears, and all started off on their journey. They arrived safely at the new kingdom; and all lived happily till they died.

Bibliographic Information

Tale Title: King of the Toads, The
Tale Author/Editor: Curtin, Jeremiah
Book Title: Myths and Folk-tales of the Russians, Western Slavs, and Magyars
Book Author/Editor: Curtin, Jeremiah
Publisher: Little, Brown, and Company
Publication City: Boston
Year of Publication: 1890
Country of Origin: Czech Republic
Classification: unclassified

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