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The Tale of the Monk Who Asked for the Hand of the King’s Daughter


This tale has an even more pronounced folk-tale character.

The subject matter is simple. It tells of a certain monk who is puzzled by the New Testament words in St Matthew: “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you.” He goes to the king’s palace and seeks admittance; the king lets him in. Delighted to have confirmation of the New Testament words, the monk asks the king: “You have a daughter, Sire. Give her to me!” “I shall give you an answer in the morning, father,” replies the king equally briefly. He does not refuse the monk’s request, but says that he must first fetch a “precious stone”. In the cave of a dead hermit on the seashore the monk finds a glass vessel in which “something was buzzing, like flies”. It is a demon who has been trapped inside the vessel by a cross on the top (a motif also found in hagiographical literature, cf., the legend about John of Novgorod’s journey on a devil’s back). The monk agrees to let the demon out of the vessel if it promises to get him a “bright precious stone” from the sea. The demon becomes enormous, like a great oak, “jumps into the sea”, stirs it up “with great winds and strong waves”, brings out the stone and gives it to the monk. The monk asks the demon if it can grow small again and get back into the vessel. The demon shrinks and “jumps onto his palm”; whereupon the monk traps it in with the cross again. The story has an unexpected ending. True to his promise the king agrees to give the monk his daughter when he has received the stone from him. But the monk refuses to take her. He had only wanted to test the truth of the New Testament words. “Keep your daughter and the precious stone,” he says to the king and returns to his meditations.27

In The Tale of the Monk the dual nature is felt even more strongly than in The Tale of Babylon. The tale is a didactic one—it confirms the New Testament words. But in fact the events have only a formal correspondence to this homily: the king’s behaviour does not bear out the words “ask and it shall be given you” at all, for he agrees to comply with the monk’s request only if the monk performs an obviously impossible task—to fetch treasure from the bottom of the sea; in order to do so the monk has to seek the assistance of a demon. The subject of the tale—the performance of a difficult task with the help of a supernatural assistant—clearly belongs to the folk tale.

Readers of the tale about the monk, like the readers of Stefanit and Ikhnilat, reacted in different ways to it. Some were upset by the anonymity of the characters (a monk, a king and a demon), which is customary in the folk tale but not in Old Russian literature, and they invented names for them; others were disturbed by the monk’s deception of the demon and sought an explanation for this (in one version the monk even begs the demon’s forgiveness).

The Tale of the Monk resembled the tales, well known to the fifteenth-century reader, of the stranger who appears at (or is brought to) the king’s palace and succeeds in performing an apparently impossible task. In this respect the hero of the Tale resembled the heroes of such translated works as Solomon and Kitovras (Kitovras) and Stefanit and Ikhnilat (Ikhnilat). Yet The Tale of the Monk was no translation, but an original Russian work. The finest specimens of the original Russian tale of this period were The Tale of Dracula and The Tale of Basarga.