A Fairy-Tale
Category: Children
Level 4.1 1:12 h
"Ivan the Fool" (also known as "Ivan the Fool and his Two Brothers") is an 1886 short story (in fact, a literary fairy tale) by Leo Tolstoy, published in 1886. The name "Ivan the Fool" alludes to a popular hero of Russian folklore.

A Fairy-Tale

About Iván the Fool and His Two Brothers, Semén the Warrior and Tarás the Paunch, and His Dumb Sister Malánya, and About the Old Devil and the Three Young Devils

Leo Tolstoy


In a certain kingdom, in a certain realm, there lived a rich peasant. He had three sons, Semén the Warrior, Tarás the Paunch, and Iván the Fool, and a daughter Malánya, the dumb old maid.

Semén the Warrior went to war, to serve the king; Tarás the Paunch went to a merchant in the city, to sell wares; but Iván the Fool and the girl remained at home, to work and hump their backs.

Semén the Warrior earned a high rank and an estate, and married a lord’s daughter. His salary was big, and his estate was large, but still he could not make both ends meet: whatever he collected, his wife scattered as though from a sleeve, and they had no money.

Semén the Warrior came to his estate, to collect the revenue. His clerk said to him:

“Where shall it come from? We have neither cattle, nor tools: neither horses, nor cows, nor plough, nor harrow. Everything has to be provided, then there will be an income.”

And Semén the Warrior went to his father:

“You are rich, father,” he said, “and you have not given me anything. Cut off a third and I will transfer it to my estate.”

And the old man said:

“You have brought nothing to my house, why should I give you a third? It will be unfair to Iván and to the girl.”

But Semén said:

“But he is a fool, and she is a dumb old maid. What do they need?”

And the old man said:

“As Iván says so it shall be!”

But Iván said:

“All right, let him have it!”

So Semén the Warrior took his third from the house, transferred it to his estate, and again went away to serve the king.

Tarás the Paunch, too, earned much money,—and married a merchant woman. Still he did not have enough, and he came to his father, and said:

“Give me my part!”

The old man did not want to give Tarás his part:

“You,” he said, “have brought nothing to the house, and everything in the house has been earned by Iván. I cannot be unfair to him and to the girl.”

But Tarás said:

“What does he want it for? He is a fool. He cannot marry, for no one will have him; and the dumb girl does not need anything, either. Give me,” he said, “half of the grain, Iván! I will not take your tools, and of your animals I want only the gray stallion,—you cannot plough with him.”

Iván laughed.

“All right,” he said, “I will earn it again.”

So Tarás, too, received his part. Tarás took the grain to town, and drove off the gray stallion, and Iván was left with one old mare, and he went on farming and supporting his father and his mother.


The old devil was vexed because the brothers had not quarrelled in dividing up, but had parted in love. And so he called up three young devils.

“You see,” he said, “there are three brothers, Semén the Warrior, Tarás the Paunch, and Iván the Fool. They ought to be quarrelling, but, instead, they live peacefully; they exchange with each other bread and salt. The fool has spoiled all my business. Go all three of you—get hold of them, and mix them up in such a way that they shall tear out one another’s eyes. Can you do it?”

“We can,” they said.

“How are you going to do it?”

“We will do it like this,” they said: “First we will ruin them, so that they will have nothing to eat; then we will throw them all in a heap, so that they will quarrel together.”

“Very well,” he said. “I see that you know your business. Go, and do not return to me before you have muddled all three, or else I will flay all three of you.”

The three devils all went to a swamp, and considered how to take hold of the matter: they quarrelled and quarrelled, for they wanted each of them to get the easiest job, and finally they decided to cast lots for each man. If one of them got through first, he was to come and help the others. The devils cast lots, and set a time when they were to meet again in the swamp, in order to find out who was through, and who needed help.

When the time came, the devils gathered in the swamp. They began to talk about their affairs. The first devil, Semén the Warrior’s, began to speak.

“My affair,” he said, “is progressing. To-morrow my Semén will go to his father.”

His comrades asked him how he did it.

“In the first place,” he said, “I brought such bravery over Semén that he promised his king to conquer the whole world, and the king made him a commander and sent him out to fight the King of India. They came together for a fight. But that very night I wet all his powder, and I went over to the King of India and made an endless number of soldiers for him out of straw. When Semén’s soldiers saw the straw soldiers walking upon them on all sides, they lost their courage. Semén commanded them to fire their cannon and their guns, but they could not fire them. Semén’s soldiers were frightened and ran away like sheep. And the King of India vanquished them. Semén is disgraced,—they have taken his estate from him, and to-morrow he is to be beheaded. I have only one day’s work left to do: to let him out of the prison, so that he can run home. To-morrow I shall be through with him, so tell me which of you I am to aid!”

Then the other devil, Tarás’s, began to speak:

“I do not need any help,” he said, “for my affair is also progressing nicely,—Tarás will not live another week. In the first place, I have raised a belly on him, and made him envious. He is so envious of other people’s property that, no matter what he sees, he wants to buy it. He has bought up an endless lot of things and spent all his money on them and is still buying. He now buys on other people’s money. He has quite a lot on his shoulders, and is so entangled that he will never free himself. In a week the time will come for him to pay, and I will change all his wares into manure,—and he will not be able to pay his debts, and will go to his father’s.”

They began to ask the third devil, Iván’s.

“How is your business?”

“I must say, my business is not progressing at all. The first thing I did was to spit into his kvas jug, so as to give him a belly-ache, and I went to his field and made the soil so hard that he should not be able to overcome it. I thought that he would never plough it up, but he, the fool, came with his plough and began to tear up the soil. His belly-ache made him groan, but he stuck to his ploughing. I broke one plough of his, but he went home, fixed another plough, wrapped new leg-rags on him, and started once more to plough. I crept under the earth, and tried to hold the ploughshare, but I could not do it,—he pressed so hard on the plough; the ploughshares are sharp, and he has cut up my hands. He has ploughed up nearly the whole of it,—only a small strip is left. Come and help me, brothers, or else, if we do not overpower him, all our labours will be lost. If the fool is left and continues to farm, they will have no want, for he will feed them all.”

Semén’s devil promised to come on the morrow to help him, and thereupon the devils departed.


Iván ploughed up all the fallow field, and only one strip was left. His belly ached, and yet he had to plough. He straightened out the lines, turned over the plough, and went to the field. He had just made one furrow, and was coming back, when something pulled at the plough as though it had caught in a root. It was the devil that had twined his legs about the plough-head and was holding it fast.

“What in the world is that?” thought Iván. “There were no roots here before, but now there are.”

Iván stuck his hand down in the furrow, and felt something soft. He grabbed it and pulled it out. It was as black as a root, but something was moving on it. He took a glance at it, and, behold, it was a live devil.

“I declare,” he said, “it is a nasty thing!” And Iván swung him and was about to strike him against the plough-handle; but the devil began to scream.

“Do not beat me,” he said, “and I will do for you anything you wish.”

“What will you do for me?”

“Say what you want!”

Iván scratched himself.

“My belly aches,—can you cure me?”

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