Literature (adventure novels, stories and tales, byliny, folk and fairy tales) provided the lubok with an astonishing variety of fascinating plots and extraordinary characters to illustrate. The earliest of these characters was Alexander of Macedon, known in Russia from the twelfth-century translation of the famous Alexandria.
The Glorious Battle of the King Alexander of Macedon with King Porus of India, a woodcut of the early eighteenth century, based on this old source, was probably created during the Great Northern War (1700-21) to show support for Peter the Great, since the facial features of Alexander resemble those of Peter, while King Porus takes after Charles XII of Sweden. Both kings are dressed in contemporary Western clothes and Alexander even sports a kerchief around his neck and lace cuffs around his wrists, both favorites of Peter (Ovsiannikov 10). Alexander was also depicted in a more traditional type of a print, mounted on his horse, hardly different than any other popular character, or with elephants and fancy tents in the background to distinguish him from Russian heroes.
Alexander's adventures described in the Alexandria were also the source of the print Amazing People Found by the Emperor Alexander of Macedon which, in its ability to amuse and astonish could be placed along the prints describing the giant Bernard Gigli, the satyr from Spain, or the forest and sea monsters.
The Glorious Knight Evdon, Bertha the Beautiful, and The Valiant Knight Vintsian Frantsel, woodcuts from the middle of the eighteenth century, were inspired by the popular translated and original adventure novels and tales that featured exciting plots, exotic locales, and idealized heroes and heroines, often separated by circumstances but steadfast in their love and affection for each other.
Stories of this kind, previously unknown in Russian literature, attracted readers by their fantastic and magical qualities, by the presentation of ideas of chivalric honor and fidelity, and by their mild eroticism. Initially, they were favorite readings of the nobility, but later they became popular among the middle class and literate peasants (Terras 60 and 131). Of all the heroes of such literary works, the most popular and influential were Prince Bova, Yeruslan Lazarevich, and Peter the Golden Keys.
The first of these literary characters, Prince Bova, who reached Russia through many translations and reworkings of a medieval French romance about the knight Beuve d'Antone (in English, Bevis of Hampton, in Italian, Buovo d'Antona), was introduced around the seventeenth century. His adventures, because of the length and complexity of the story, were often rendered in many pictures, making up a small chapbook. An eighteenth-century example is the The Story of the Brave and Glorious Knight Prince Bova and of His Father's Death, but similar booklets existed even earlier. At the court of Peter the Great's father, Alexis Mikhailovich (1645-76), the illustrated story of Bova served as a "nursery book." The tradition continued when Peter the Great's son, Alexis Petrovich, used the book for his "leisure reading." Often, the portrait of Prince Bova, his beloved Princess Druzhnevna, or selected episodes from the story (The Battle of Prince Bova and Polkan) were printed separately.
The second knight, Yeruslan Lazarevich, is also an import, from Firdawsi's poem Shah-nameh. The hero of the Persian work, Rustam, turns into a lion (araslan), from which the Russian name Yeruslan derives. Yeruslan is a valiant knight who challenges other heroes and defeats them one by one. In the end, he conquers the Indian Kingdom and settles down with his wife. The prints featuring Yeruslan may include either his mounted figure or the favorite episodes from his story, especially his battle with the Dragon King of the Sea or his encounter with a slain hero's head. Sytova presents two examples of these popular prints, both of which can be entitled Yeruslan Lazarevich Kills the Three-Headed Sea Monster . Interestingly, the elements from the chapbooks about Bova and Yeruslan were used by Pushkin in his Ruslan and Ludmila, The Tale of Tsar Saltan, and The Golden Cockerel.
The third of the adventure novel heroes, Peter the Golden Keys, "arrived" in Russia at the end of the seventeenth century and became a popular subject of single folk prints and chapbooks. His story was a free translation of the French novel Histoire de deux vrais et parfaits amoureux Pierre de Provence et la belle Maguellone, fille du roy de Naples. Like the stories of Bova and Yeruslan, the fascinating tale of Peter's peregrinations and of his perfect love for the beautiful princess Magilena inspired the artists to portray him either in a single print, as in The Glorious Knight Peter the Golden Keys, or in a lubok booklet .
In comparison to the "exotic" Bova, Yeruslan, and Peter, the heroes of Russian byliny and fairy tales must have seemed bland and plain and less attractive to the lubok artists. Even though there existed traditional representations of Ilia Muromets, Buslai Buslaevich, and Alyosha Popovich riding their brave steeds, they were not as common as images of Bova and Yeruslan. The most popular was the bylina about Ilia and Nightingale the Robber. In the eighteenth century it was illustrated in eight pictures. Because Ilia bears resemblance to Peter and the Nightingale to the Swedish king Charles XII, Ovsiannikov believes that one of these early prints was made in support of Peter the Great. In the nineteenth century, one episode from the bylina, the shooting of the Nightingale (picture number four from the series), was singled out to appear alone, as in The Strong and Brave Hero Ilia Muromets Rides Out.
In 1790, a fairy tale about Prince Ivan, the Firebird and the Grey Wolf was published in the collection entitled Grandfather's Walks (Dedushkiny progulki). In the tale, one of the most beloved of Russian stories, Prince Ivan, assisted by the Grey Wolf, his miraculous helper, outsmarts his treacherous and evil brothers, captures the Firebird and the horse with a Golden Mane, finds a perfect bride, Elena the Beautiful, and lives with her happily ever after in the kingdom of his father Vyslav Andronovich. This wondrous and complex tale quickly became a subject of chapbooks; they continued to appear until the 1840s. Afterwards, they were replaced by a general, single print The Strong, Glorious, Brave Hero, Ivan Tsarevich, which showed Ivan on the Grey Wolf, holding a cage with the Firebird, and next to him Elena the Beautiful astride the Gold-Maned Horse.
A rare topic of block books was the Old Russian Tale of the Battle With Mamai, devoted to the battle of Kulikovo Field, not far from the river Don, where on October 8, 1380, the Russian forces led by the Prince of Moscow Dimitrii Ivanovich (later named Donskoi -- of the Don), stopped the punitive expedition of the Mongol khan Mamai and gained for the Russians the first important victory over their allegedly invincible conquerors. Much more intricate and fascinating, but also very rare, illustrations of the battle can be found in hand-drawn lubok.