The ballad "Prince Roman and Marya Yurievna", apparently, reflects an episode from the life of Roman Mstislavovich Volysky, the grandson of Prince Izyaslav. Prince Roman Mstislavovich is famous for uniting the Volynskoe principality and the Galitskoe principality into a strong, unified state (the end of the XII century).
Prince Roman stood up for Orthodoxy and defended his state from the Poles incited by the Pope who intended to catholicize Orthodox Russia. Trying to strengthen and enlarge the territory of his state, Roman made war on the Polovtsy, the Poles, the Lithuanians, and even managed to come to the throne of Kiev.
The unknown author of "The Lay of Igor's Host" describes Prince Roman as a brave warrior, who forced many rulers from different countries into submission.
The life of Prince Roman was interesting for narrators of folk tales and bylinas. It's possible that the subject of the ballad "Prince Roman and Marya Yurievna" is based on real facts because cases of kidnapping were widespread in medieval Russia.
In the town of Tsargrad there lived Prince Roman with his young wife Marya Yurievna. One day Prince Roman intended to go to distant towns to receive tribute. Marya Yurievna began to try to dissuade him from going. "Don't leave me, Prince Roman, I had a bad dream last night. I dreamt that my gold ring crumbled to dust right on my finger!"
Roman disregarded his wife's words and went off to remote towns to take tribute. When two days had passed, a big black ship appeared on the open sea from the East. The ship entered the harbor. Sailors made the colors, set oak bridges and covered them with dark-green carpets. The bogatyr Basil the Cockroach (Vasko Torokashko) left the ship and went straight to the white stone palace of Prince Roman, and demanded to see him.
"Roman's gone to remote towns to take tribute," the princess told Basil.
"Let's go, my darling Marya Yurievna, on board my ship!" offered the sly Basil. "I'll show you my rich goods!" Marya Yurievna grew interested and began asking him about his wares.
"Oh, my beloved Princess Marya Yurievna!" replied Basil the Cockroach. "I can offer you anything you wish! I have various goods: Siberian sables, silks, different materials, delicious fruits, beverages and food!" Maryushka went to get some money and was about to go with Basil the Cockroach on board his ship.
"Don't go with him!" her chambermaids tried to dissuade her. "Don't go, our dear mistress, with sly Basil. He wants to abduct you!"
The princess answered them, "My dear maids! Don't worry about me. I won't spend much time on board. I won't make idle conversation with Basil. I'll just buy some of his goods and come back!"
The maids then started scolding Basil the Cockroach. "You've come here not to trade but to steal! You want to carry off the young wife of Prince Roman!"
Marya Yurievna didn't listen to her chambermaids' warnings and decided to go with Basil the Cockroach. She put on her sable fur-coat and went across the oak bridges and on board the ship. Having descended into the hold, she found there many wonderful goods. Staring at different wonders, she forgot her maids' cautions.
Meanwhile Basil the Cockroach went stealthily on deck and said to the sailors, "Weigh anchors quietly! But don't take away the oak bridges, it may cause noise! We'll kidnap Princess Marya Yurievna and marry her off to Tsar Grubiyanish (the Rude)."
The sailors set silk sails and weighed anchors. Maryushka felt the swaying of the ship and asked, "Basil, why is your ship swaying?
"The sea is heavy today, the wind blows violently and shakes the ship," answered the sly Basil the Cockroach. Marya Yurievna chose some items from amongst Basil's goods, settled accounts with him, climbed up onto the deck and was stupefied with terror: she was surrounded by the blue sea and the shore was nowhere to be seen. She understood at once that she had been deceived and burst into tears.
In two days the ship entered a harbor. The sailors hoisted silk flags to celebrate their arrival. Basil the Cockroach supported the princess under the arm and led her to Tsar Grubyanish. He was astonished by the princess's beauty at first sight.
"I have never seen such a beautiful woman as you!" he said grinning. "Thank you, Basil the Cockroach, you've done me a service. You'll receive in exchange for such a beauty three large ships crews to man them."
Then Tsar Grubyanish led Marya Yurievna into the chambers of his magnificent palace. Having locked her in the most beautiful chamber, he ordered the ward to guard the entry. Grubyanish was so glad to acquire the princess that he decided to arrange a sumptuous feast. All night long the tsar and his guests were banqueting, drinking wine and beer.
Meanwhile Marya Yurievna was praying to the Blessed Virgin. "Our Lady, save me from the vile Tatar. I'll better drown myself in the Pochay River than marry Tsar Grubyanish." Her prayers were heard and the princess managed to escape.
When the tsar and his tipsy guests fell asleep, Maryushka started to offer money to the guards, entreating them to release her. The guards took the money and opened the door. The princess ran out of the chamber, managed to leave the palace successfully and then began to make her way to the Pochay River. In three days she reached the place and sat under a tree, pondering how to cross the river. Suddenly she saw a small boat that appeared in the middle of the river from nowhere. Soon the boat moored at the bank not far from the place where the princess was sitting.
"Sit in my boat, Maryushka!" said the boatman. "I'll put you across the river!" Marya Yurievna sat in the boat and was about to give some gold coins to the boatman to show her gratitude to him.
"I don't need your gold!" said the boatman. "I help you voluntarily!" Very soon the boat reached the opposite bank of the Pochay River. As soon as the princess left the boat and stepped onto the shore, the boatman suddenly disappeared together with his boat.
Meanwhile Tsar Grubyanish woke up and was told that Marya Yurievna had escaped from the palace. He opened his magic book and read that the princess was hiding somewhere on the opposite bank of the Pochay River.
"My faithful servants!" roared Tsar Grubyanish. "Saddle your steeds and gallop at full speed to the Pochay River! Swim across the river and find Marya Yurievna! She is hiding somewhere on the opposite bank."
The servants saddled the steeds and galloped to the river. Having reached the place, they stood on the riverside thinking how to cross the river. The Pochay River was very wide and deep; it was very difficult to swim across it.
"We may drown in the river if we swim across it! We haven't any boat! Let's tell Tsar Grubyanish that the princess has drowned in the river! He will never find out the truth." So, the servants came back to the palace and reported to the tsar that Marya Yurievna had drowned in the river.
Meanwhile Prince Roman came back to his principality from distant towns and found out that his young wife had been kidnapped and carried to the Tatar principality. Roman assembled his troops, attacked the Tatar army of Tsar Grubyanish and defeated it. Basil the Cockroach in fright escaped from the Tatar principality and was never seen there afterwards. Everything seemed to have gone well, but Roman couldn't find his young wife Marya Yurievna. He interrogated Tsar Grubyanish and his servants trying to find out where his wife was and received the news that Maryushka had drowned in the Pochay River.
Three years passed and Prince Roman decided to marry a young beautiful woman. He proposed marriage to her, and ordered the court riflemen to shoot game to supply the wedding banquet with different delicacies.
One of the riflemen found himself in the thick, dark forest. After a long rambling, he came to a wide, sunny glade. Being very tired, he sat under the shade of a big oak. Suddenly he heard a faint female voice that was heard from behind the bushes. "My dear rifleman! Give me your shirt to dress. For pity's sake! I'm shivering with cold!"
The rifleman threw his shirt behind the bushes and in a minute a young beautiful woman appeared before him. She said, "Thank you, very much, dear rifleman for your kindness! I'm very hungry! Could you give me something to eat! Take pity on a poor thing! Don't be afraid of me. I'm Orthodox, I come from an ancient noble family!"
The rifleman was so sorry for the woman that he gave his whole lunch to her. Having refreshed herself a little, the woman began asking the rifleman: "Who are you? Where are you from? What are you doing here?"
"I'm a court rifleman," was the reply. "I'm from the town of Tsargrad. I've been ordered to shoot game for the wedding of my master Prince Roman."
"Has Prince Roman already married?" asked Marya Yurievna, nearly paralyzed with agitation.
"No," answered the rifleman. "The wedding ceremony will be tomorrow morning."
"Dear rifleman," exclaimed Maryushka. "Please, show me the way to Tsargrad, lead me to Prince Roman. I'm his young wife Marya Yurievna."
The princess burst into tears and told the rifleman her sad story. The rifleman believed her and led her through the forest to the white stone chambers of Prince Roman. Roman welcomed the rifleman cordially. Having filled a big gold bowl with sweet wine, he offered it to the rifleman. The rifleman drank wine and said, "Thank you, Prince Roman, for your kindness. But my poor friend is also thirsty. Could you give him also wine to drink?"
Roman decided to amuse himself a little and gave a bowl of wine to the stranger. He couldn't even guess that the rifleman's friend dressed in plain peasant clothes was really his beloved wife Marya Yurievna.
Meanwhile Maryushka drank wine, sank her wedding-ring to the bottom of the bowl and gave it back to Prince Roman. Roman noticed the familiar ring at once, looked at the stranger more closely and recognized his young wife Marya Yurievna. Roman was happy to find his wife. He kissed and embraced Maryushka, lost in admiration of her.
"I'm happy to find my wife!" he said to all the citizens of the town. "Nobody can replace her! My wedding is canceled! But I want to show my gratitude to the rifleman who's led Maryushka to me. He'll marry the girl that was to be my bride today instead of me! He is very handsome and kind, I'm sure the girl will agree to marry him."
In the evening a sumptuous feast was arranged. All the citizens of the town were celebrating the rifleman's wedding and Maryushka's returning home. Since that time Prince Roman and Marya Yurievna never parted and lived in joy and harmony the rest of their days.