Foolish Emilyan and the Talking Fish

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Emelya the Simpleton (or At the Pike's Behest) is a Russian fairy tale collected by Alexander Afanasyev in Narodnye russkie skazki. It's retold and translated into English by Lee Wyndham in "Russian Tales of Fabulous Beasts and Marvels", illustrated by Charles Mikolaycak. Other Russian tales told by Lee Wyndham include Ivashko and the Witch, Kuzenko Sudden-Wealthy, The Magic Acorn, and The Firebird.


Emelya lived in a village on the shore of the Volga River with his two brothers and their wives. Although he was good-looking, he was also foolish, lazy, and despised work. He spent his days sitting on the clay stove in the kitchen. His brothers ran a trading business left to them by their dead father. The brothers left Emelya one day, to sell their wares along the river, leaving Emelya with the wives, promising to return with a kaftan, red boots, and a red hat for their brother.

During the days and weeks the brothers were gone, the wives tried unsuccessfully to get Emelya to do work, until one day, they left Emelya with a choice: get water from the frozen river, or no dinner and no kaftan, red boots and red hat. At that threat, Emelya hurried on his way, and on reaching the river, he grumbled about his problems while hacking away at the thick ice. As he scooped water into the buckets, he noticed he had caught a fish: a large pike. Emelya was going to take it home for supper, but the pike pleaded with him, promising that if Emelya were to let him go, that Emelya would never need to work again, which was a tempting offer for lazy Emelya. All he would need to say, was “By the Pike’s command, and at my desire-(command)“ and his will would be done. Emelya agreed, and to his surprise, the commands worked.

Emelya was not careful to conceal his new talent for work, and soon the tsar heard about it, and ordered this ‘magician’ to appear before him at his palace by the Caspian Sea. Emelya, being foolish and lazy, ordered his stove to take him to the tsar, using the Pike’s command. He arrived instantly at the palace before the tsar, still lying on his stove, where he looked down on the tsar and was not acting the way a subject should towards his superior. The tsar would have ordered his head cut off, had he not wanted the secret to the boy’s power. However, he could not extract the secret from Emelya, so he tried to use his daughter to get the secret. After three days of teaching each other games, the princess had learned only that Emelya was handsome, fun, and charming. She wanted to marry him. The tsar was at first angry, then decided that Emelya would perhaps give up his secret to his wife, if he became married. So he arranged for a wedding.

At first, Emelya was horrified at the idea, believing a wife to be more trouble than it was worth. He agreed, though, and the wedding feast was held soon after, at which Emelya finally got down from his stove. During the feast, Emelya had terrible table manners, which convinced the tsar to finally rid himself of the obnoxious boy. A sleeping potion was added to Emelya’s wine, he was thrown in a barrel and tossed into the sea, and his bride banished to an island in the sea opposite the palace. While floating in the waves, Emelya encountered his friend the pike, who allowed Emilyan to wish for anything his heart desired, since he had not abused his power. Emelya wished for wisdom, and when the pike pushed him to the island, Emelya fell in love with his wife. He had the hut on the island transformed into a beautiful palace, with a crystal bridge connecting to the mainland, so that his wife could visit her father, the tsar. With his new-found wisdom, he made amends with everyone, and thereafter lived happily and ruled well.


  • Lee Wyndham, Russian Tales of Fabulous Beasts and Marvels, “Foolish Emilyan and the Talking Fish”
  • Thomas P. Whitney (transl.), In a Certain Kingdom: Twelve Russian Fairy Tales
  • Moura Budberg and Amabel Williams-Ellis, Russian Fairy Tales