The Sea King’s Daughter
A Russian Legend
Told by Aaron Shepard
Reader’s Theater Edition #14
Adapted for reader’s theater (or readers theatre) by the author, from his picture book published by Atheneum, New York, 1997, and reprinted by Skyhook Press, Friday Harbor, Washington, 2011
For more reader’s theater, visit Aaron Shepard’s RT Page at
Story copyright © 1997 Aaron Shepard. Script copyright © 1997, 2002 Aaron Shepard. Scripts in this series are free and may be copied, shared, and performed for any noncommercial purpose, except they may not be posted online without permission.
PREVIEW: A poor musician is invited to play in the Sea King’s palace, where he’s offered more than riches.
GENRE: Legends, folktales, epic ballads
CULTURE: Russian (medieval)
THEME: Making choices; value of arts
READERS: 9 or more
READER AGES: 10 and up
LENGTH: 10 minutes
ROLES: Narrators 1 & 2, Sadko, Sea King, Sea Queen, Volkhova, Host, Friend, Captain, (Merchant), (Dancers)
NOTES: This is a retelling of the most popular of Russia’s epic ballads, the legend of the merchant-musician Sadko. It takes place in Novgorod, the greatest commercial center of medieval Russia. For best effect, place NARRATOR 1 at far left, and NARRATOR 2 at far right, as seen from the audience. Novgorod is pronounced “NOV-go-rod.” Sadko is pronounced “SOD-ko,” rhyming with “sod go.” Gusli, a type of psaltery, is pronounced “GOOSS-lee,” sounding like “goose lee.” Volkhov sounds like “vole cove.” Volkhova is pronounced “VOLE-ko-vah,” sounding like “vole cove ah.” Ladoga is pronounced “LAH-do-gah,” rhyming with “Lotto Pa.” Performance of this script can be enhanced by recorded music as called for. Though the Russian gusli is recorded mostly as part of balalaika orchestras, the Finnish kantele is a close cousin and is commonly recorded on its own. Kantele resources are easily found by searching the Web.
NARRATOR 2: Every day, a rich merchant or noble would send a messenger to Sadko’s door, calling him to play at a feast. Sadko would grab his twelve-string gusli and rush to the banquet hall. There he’d pluck the strings of his instrument till all the guests were dancing.
HOST: Eat your fill!
NARRATOR 1: . . . the host would tell him later, pointing him to the table, and passing him a few small coins besides.
NARRATOR 2: And on such as he was given did Sadko live.
NARRATOR 1: Often his friends would ask him,
FRIEND: How can you survive on so little?
SADKO: It’s not so bad.
NARRATOR 2: . . . Sadko would reply.
SADKO: And anyway, how many men can go to a different feast each day, play the music they love, and watch it set a whole room dancing?
NARRATOR 1: Sadko was proud of his city, the richest and most free in all Russia. He would walk through busy Market Square, lined with merchants in their stalls and teeming with traders from many lands. He never crossed the square without hearing tongues of far-off places, from Italy to Norway to Persia.
NARRATOR 2: Down at the piers, he would see the sailing ships with their cargos of lumber, grain, hides, pottery, spices, and precious metals. And crossing the Great Bridge over the River Volkhov, Sadko would catch the glint from the gilded roofs of a dozen white stone churches.
SADKO: Is there another such city as Novgorod in all the world? Is there any better place to be?
NARRATOR 1: Yet sometimes Sadko was lonely.
NARRATOR 2: The maidens who danced gaily to his music at the feasts would often smile at him, and more than one had set his heart on fire. But they were rich and he was poor, and not one of them would think of being his.
NARRATOR 1: One lonely evening, Sadko walked sadly beyond the city walls and down along the broad River Volkhov. He came to his favorite spot on the bank and set his gusli on his lap.
NARRATOR 2: Gentle waves brushed the shore, and moonlight shimmered on the water.
SADKO: (sighs) My lovely River Volkhov. Rich man, poor man—it’s all the same to you. If only you were a woman! I’d marry you and live with you here in the city I love.
NARRATOR 1: Sadko plucked a sad tune, then a peaceful one, then a merry one. The tinkling notes of his gusli floated over the Volkhov.
NARRATOR 2: All at once the river grew rough, and strong waves began to slap the bank.
SADKO: Heaven help me!
NARRATOR 1: . . . cried Sadko as a large shape rose from the water.
NARRATOR 2: Before him stood a huge man, with a pearl-encrusted crown atop a flowing mane of seaweed.
SEA KING: Musician, behold the King of the Sea. To this river I have come to visit one of my daughters, the Princess Volkhova. Your sweet music reached us on the river bottom, where it pleased us greatly.
SADKO: (stammering a little) Thank you, Your Majesty.
SEA KING: Soon I will return to my own palace. I wish you to play there at a feast.
SADKO: Gladly. But where is it? And how do I get there?
SEA KING: Why, under the sea, of course! I’m sure you’ll find your way. But meanwhile, you need not wait for your reward.
NARRATOR 1: Something large jumped from the river and flopped at Sadko’s feet. A fish with golden scales! As Sadko watched in amazement, it stiffened and turned to solid gold.
SADKO: Your Majesty, you are too generous!
SEA KING: Say no more about it! Music is worth far more than gold. If the world were fair, you’d have your fill of riches!
NARRATOR 2: And with a splash, he sank in the river and was gone.
* * *
NARRATOR 1: The next morning, Sadko arrived at the market square just as the stalls were opening. He quickly sold the golden fish to an astonished merchant. Then, hurrying to the piers, he booked his passage on a ship leaving Novgorod that very day.
NARRATOR 2: Down the Volkhov the ship sailed, across Lake Ladoga and the Gulf of Finland, and into the Baltic Sea. As it sped above the deep water, Sadko peered over the rail.
SADKO: (softly, to himself) In all the wide sea, how can I ever find the palace?
NARRATOR 1: Just then, the ship shuddered to a halt. The wind filled the sails, yet the ship stood still, as if a giant hand had grasped it. The captain cried out to his crew,
CAPTAIN: It must be the King of the Sea! Perhaps he seeks tribute—or someone among us.
SADKO: Do not be troubled. I know the one he seeks.
NARRATOR 2: And, clutching his gusli, he jumped from the ship.
NARRATOR 1: Down sank Sadko, down all the way to the sea floor. The red sun shone dimly through the water above, while before him stood a white stone palace.
NARRATOR 2: Sadko passed through a coral gate. As he reached the huge palace doors, they swung open to reveal a giant hall.
NARRATOR 1: The elegant room was filled with guests and royal attendants—herring and sprats, cod and flounder, gobies and sticklebacks, sand eels and sea scorpions, crabs and lobsters, starfish and squid, sea turtles and giant sturgeon.
NARRATOR 2: Standing among the guests were dozens of maidens—river nymphs, the Sea King’s daughters. On a shell throne at the end of the hall sat the Sea King and his Queen.
SEA KING: You’re just in time! Musician, come sit by me—and let the dance begin!
NARRATOR 1: Sadko set his gusli on his lap and plucked a merry tune. Soon all the fish swam in graceful figures. The seafloor crawlers cavorted. The river maidens leaped and spun.
SEA KING: I like that tune!
NARRATOR 2: The King jumped to the center of the hall and joined the dance. His arms waved, his robe swirled, his hair streamed, his feet stamped.
SEA KING: Faster! Play faster!
NARRATOR 1: Sadko played faster and the King’s dance grew wilder. All the others stopped and watched in awe. Ever more madly did he move, whirling faster, leaping higher, stamping harder.
NARRATOR 2: The Sea Queen whispered urgently,
SEA QUEEN: Musician, end your tune! It seems to you the King merely dances in his hall. But above us, the sea is tossing ships like toys, and giant waves are breaking on the shore!
NARRATOR 1: Alarmed, Sadko pulled a string till it snapped.
SADKO: Your Majesty, my gusli is broken.
SEA KING: A shame.
NARRATOR 2: . . . said the Sea King, winding to a stop.
SEA KING: I could have danced for days. But a fine fellow you are, Sadko. I think I’ll marry you to one of my daughters and keep you here forever.
SADKO: (carefully) Your Majesty, beneath the sea, your word is law. But this is not my home. I love my city of Novgorod.
SEA KING: Say no more about it! Now, behold your bride—the Princess Volkhova!
NARRATOR 1: The princess stepped forward. Her green eyes were sparkling, and a soft smile graced her lips.
VOLKHOVA: Dearest Sadko, at last we can be together. For years I have thrilled to the music you’ve played on the shore.
SADKO: (in wonder) Volkhova! You’re as lovely as your river!
NARRATOR 2: But the Sea Queen leaned over and said softly,
SEA QUEEN: You are a good man, Sadko, so I will tell you the truth. If you but once kiss or embrace her, you can never return to your city again.
* * *
NARRATOR 1: That night, Sadko lay beside his bride on a bed of seaweed. He longed to hold her, but time after time, the Queen’s words came back to him—
SEA QUEEN: (voice only, offstage) . . . never return to your city again . . .
NARRATOR 1: —and his arms stayed frozen at his sides.
VOLKHOVA: Dearest, why do you not embrace me?
SADKO: (stammering a little) It is the custom of my city. We never kiss or embrace on the first night.
VOLKHOVA: (sadly) Then I fear you never will.
NARRATOR 2: . . . and she turned away.
NARRATOR 1: When Sadko awoke the next morning, he felt sunlight on his face. He opened his eyes and saw beside him not the Princess Volkhova but the River Volkhov. And behind him rose the walls of Novgorod!
SADKO: My home.
NARRATOR 2: . . . said Sadko, and he wept—perhaps for joy at his return, perhaps for sadness at his loss, perhaps for both.
* * *
NARRATOR 1: The years were good to Sadko. With the money that remained to him, he bought a ship and goods enough to fill it. And so Sadko became a merchant, and in time, the richest man in Novgorod. What’s more, he married a fine young woman and raised a family.
NARRATOR 2: Yet sometimes still on a quiet evening he would walk out of the city alone, sit on the bank, and send his tinkling music over the water. And sometimes too a lovely head would rise from the river to listen—
NARRATOR 1: or perhaps it was only moonlight on the Volkhov.
About the Story
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Read the book!
The Sea King’s Daughter
A Russian Legend
Told by Aaron Shepard
Illustrated by Gennady Spirin