One Foot on the Path to Yonder

At last she carefully wrote the words, “Once upon a time…” and thought that the looping line the pen made was a world line, like the one left behind by the tide, and that lines left on beaches and pages everywhere must wind up by going all around the world if one could only follow them.

– Margaret Mahy, The Tricksters

Every beginning is arbitrary and endings are even more so. All stories must start somewhere, theoretically, but finding the end of the thread is something like trying to untangle a spider’s web, and I don’t believe any story will ever really end until the world does. But a book is as good a place as any to start. In 1812 a collection of stories was published by a pair of young German scholars under the title Kinder-und Hausmärchen, translating in English to Children’s and Household Tales. Two hundred years later, the stories are instead synonymous with their compilers, the brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm.

These stories have reshaped the way not only Germany, but the entire Western world, sees its own traditions, becoming an integral part of the genre of speculative fiction and indeed the wider world of all literature. Most importantly of all, they are an integral part of childhood for generations past, present and future.

2012 has been the unofficial year of the fairy tale. An extraordinary number of retellings have been released in every possible format, from plays and films to short stories and novels, the ABC’s online project Re-enchantment – there is even a television series, currently airing in Australia, that has the Grimms as a secret police force defending humanity through the centuries from the creatures of their stories. I wonder what the real men would have made of that.

They were actually librarians. The brothers began their systematic collection of fairy stories in 1806 when Clemens Brentano, a friend and fellow writer, asked for their help in assembling a book of folk songs. Their method was not particularly adventurous; instead of going out to find wise old women or little grey men, they invited their storytellers home, and in fact most of their sources were middle class or aristocratic young women, who in turn had heard the stories from nursemaids and servants. Brentano never ended up using their work, but this research would become the driving force behind the rest of both brothers’ lives.

Their work was taking place at a time when the country of Germany was splintered in smaller principalities, and the Napoleonic wars were bringing much of Europe under the rule of the French. For the Grimms, passionate supporters of German unification, collecting the folk lore of their homeland must have been like a small rebellion, a way of reminding themselves and their readers who they really were. Their first intention was to keep the fairy tales as close to the original tellings as possible, but all writers find it hard to resist a little tampering and over the course of their lifetimes they published three editions of Kinder-und Hausmärchen, each one revised to fit better with their morality – removing sexual subtext, inserting references to Christianity, airbrushing the protagonists to better fit the traditional gender mould. The book had become a kind of educational manual for children aimed squarely at the middle-class market. Dedicated scholars they might be, but the Grimms had sound business sense.

This annoys me. Of course it does. No man, alive or long dead, is allowed to tell me what my gender ought to be, especially when he’s scrubbing out the words of real women in order to do it. I have never forgiven the Grimms for ‘King Thrushbeard’, which is essentially The Taming of the Shrew with Kate and Petruchio as royals. I resent the way they changed Rapunzel into a babbling idiot who couldn’t keep a secret, and turned Snow White from a political refugee into a tame housekeeper. I don’t like the moralism. I don’t like what they were trying to teach.

But here’s the thing. Fairy tales have transcended. They are an ancient thing, a powerful thing, stories retold so many times that they have soaked into the collective dreams of humanity and rooted there. They are a path of white pebbles in the dark forest, the howl of the wolf, the gleam of golden hair at a tower window. They are a glimpse of something else – something other – something yonder.

The revisions didn’t stop with the Grimms. In the decades after their deaths the stories were translated into other languages, brought to other countries, polished by ever more exacting standards of morality. Some became famous. Others were forgotten. Scholars and psychologists have studied them, dissecting them for hidden meanings and symbolism, trying to force them into making sense. And this annoys me even more, because it misses the point altogether. Stories speak for themselves. They don’t need to be translated into nice clean little boxes. They are what they are, and that means they are something different for each person who finds them.

But the Grimms did more than find them. They kept them safe. They wrote them down and gave them back to the world when they might have been forgotten about altogether. They changed them, yes, all storytellers do that. The stories are changing still. That can’t be stopped, and maybe it shouldn’t be anyway.

Jacob and Wilhelm didn’t realise what they were starting. They couldn’t have imagined that two hundred years after they first published their book of household tales there would be a cyborg Cinderella, a werewolf Red Riding Hood, a tyrant Rapunzel. They didn’t know that they would be made into a legend themselves. They were simply trying to hold on to their history.

They may not be where the story begins, but they are the reason it’s still here.

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Review No.46 – Carabas

Carabas – Sophie Masson

Hodder SF/Fantasy, 1996

When the people of Catou’s village turn against her, recognising in her a strangeness they can neither trust of understand, the only voice raised against the mob is Frederic’s and he is repaid for his kindness by being banished with her. But Catou’s problems are greater than he suspects. She is one of the matagot, a shapechanger, and there is a destiny on her that will sweep Frederic into a world the like of which he could never have imagined. But will Catou let him keep it? And what price is there to be paid for a life built on lies?

Retellings of the fairy tale ‘Puss in Boots’ are not so common as others from Charles Perrault’s collection, such as ‘Cinderella’ and ‘The Beauty and the Beast’. Masson has an interesting take on the title character, turning her ‘Puss’ into a shapechanging girl with mysterious origins, and there are some other enjoyable inversions that keep the story moving in interesting directions. Unfortunately, there is a shallowness to the characters that makes them difficult to like or care about, and the book suffers as a result. Carabas is intriguing, but there’s no heart to hold it together.

Review No.45 – The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making – Catherynne M. Valente

Corsair, 2012

Whisked away from her perfectly ordinary home by the inexplicable Green Wind, on the back of his Leopard, September is ready for adventures. When she falls into Fairyland, however, it is not quite as she had expected. The land is buckling under the rule of the malicious Marquess. September sets off to do something about it, encountering along the way an encyclopaedic wyvern, a migration of bicycles and a caged boy called Saturday. But her quest shifts unpredictably under her feet. What can September do to stop the Marquess’s destruction – and what will it cost her?

What an irresistible title this book has! My library’s Corsair reprint of the 2011 novel is a beautiful, whimsical paperback that promises a great deal, and lives up to it with a mad adventure that is equal parts exuberant and poignant. In the tradition of Lewis Carroll and Maurice Sendak, but with a style that is entirely her own, Valente has created a book that feels like a journey, and one that I didn’t want to end. Fortunately its sequel, The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There, was released earlier this year. I can’t wait to get hold of it.

Fairy Tale Tuesday No.17 – Three Men Not To Marry

People seem to think that just because a person’s female and pretty they’re not supposed to do magic, and they’re supposed to stay at home and have babies and be obedient and be married…Why is that? Why?

– Diana Wynne Jones, Year of the Griffin

In most fairy tales, marriage is the happy ending, the reward for everything that the hero or heroine (or in some cases, both) have slugged through to get there. The finding, losing and reclaiming of spouses is a popular theme in stories such as ‘The Goose Girl’, ‘Cinderella’, ‘The Beauty and the Beast’, ‘The Real Princess’ (otherwise known as ‘The Princess and the Pea’), ‘East of the Sun, West of the Moon’, and so on. This is quite reasonable when you consider that for a long time, marrying into money was the best chance you had to transform your life. Even now, girls fantasise about being whisked away by handsome millionaires; how much greater a dream that would have been for a peasant’s daughter with a short, hard life ahead of her and little hope of changing it.

There are, however, fairy tales in which marriage is not a reward, but something to be escaped at all costs, in what I suppose could be described as the Bluebeard Phenomenon. Funnily enough they don’t seem to attract many modern retellings. As storytellers, humans really haven’t changed all that much: a love story trumps an escape. For this week’s Fairy Tale Tuesday, however, I have collected three different stories on the same theme, in which the wedding is no happy ever after.

Version 1: The Robber Bridegroom

This story comes from the Dean&Sons collection Grimm’s Fairy Tales and begins with a miller’s pretty daughter who gets loaded off onto the first rich man who comes along. Her fiance has good manners and is liked by her father, but something about him bothers her. When one day he suggests she come and visit the house where she will live once they are married, the girl tries to find excuses not to go, but her bridegroom insists and sets a date for the visit, telling her that the right path will be strewn with ashes. It’s difficult to take that as a good omen.

So the next Sunday the girl goes into the woods and finds a path of ashes waiting for her. She doesn’t trust it though, and having filled her pockets with peas and beans, Hansel and Gretel style, she scatters them behind her to mark her own path. She is alone, which seems puzzling in what was a very moral time, and the journey takes all day. The woods are very dark by the time she reaches her fiance’s house. Everything seems very still, and then suddenly a voice cries out from nowhere, warning her to run away. When she looks around, the girl realises it’s coming from a little bird in a cage hanging over the door. Still, this is her fiance, it isn’t like she can avoid him forever – so she goes inside.

Wandering from room to room, she finds no one in the house but a very old woman who is horrified to see her. Because this is no innocent visit planned by her fiance. The girl has been tricked into a robber’s den, and if they find her, they will kill her. The old woman hides her behind a large cask, warning her not to move or make a sound, and it’s lucky she does because the next minute the robbers return, bringing with them another girl drawn into their trap. In all their feasting and carousing they give her three draughts of wine, and their victim falls to the floor dead. The miller’s daughter watches, appalled, as the man chosen to be her husband tries to snatch a ring from the hand of the girl they’ve just killed. It flies up into the air and falls into his fiance’s lap. The robbers search for it but, fortunately for the terrified bride, the old woman distracts them with more food and wine. Only this time, she’s drugged it. Never underestimate a dissatisfied cook.

Soon the robbers are sprawled across the floor, snoring away. The girl is forced to walk over them in order to get away, but they do not wake, and together she and the old woman flee into the woods. The path of ashes has been blown away by the wind, but the girl’s foresight is rewarded – her peas and beans are still there, showing her the way home. They walk all night. By morning they have reached the safety of the mill and the girl pours out her story to her father. Who hopefully feels bad about his terrible judgement and promises to let her pick her own husband next time, although I wouldn’t count on that.

The day of the wedding arrives. The robber bridegroom arrives and during the celebrations one of the other guests, a friend of the miller’s, asks everybody present to tell a tale. Well, the miller’s daughter has quite an interesting one in mind. She had a dream once, she tells the wedding party, in which she was going through a wood, and when she came to a house there was a bird who warned her away…And she blithely tells the whole story, concluding by showing everyone the ring. Her fiance tries to escape but is surrounded by the other guests. When they say he and his robber friends meet the due reward of their wickedness, let me put it this way, I don’t think it was a wedding.

Version 2: Cannatella

This Italian fairy tale comes from Ruth Manning Sanders’ 1982 reprint of A Book of Wizards and bears some unfortunate similarities to a Grimm brothers story called ‘King Thrushbeard’, which I loathe. A king is trying to marry off his beautiful daughter but she doesn’t like any of the young gallants he throws at her head and jokes that her dream husband should have a head of gold and teeth to match. She of course believes that no such man exists, but that’s never a safe assumption in the world of fairy tales and the king takes her at her word, sending out a proclamation in the hope that such a man will come forward. A wizard called Sciorovante hears of this. Summoning up his imps, he has them conjure him a golden head and rides off to the palace to claim his bride.

Cannatella is in her room, trying on dresses, and ignores the king’s summons until she’s quite ready to come. Maybe if she had been prompter, things would have turned out differently, but she’s a sullen eighteen-year-old princess and incredibly good at infuriating her father. By the time she arrives, the king has already decided to marry her off to Sciorovante whether she likes it or not. And she doesn’t like it. He’s hideous and terrifying and gold is in fact not such a good look. But Cannatella has her pride and she refuses to show her fear. Sciorovante whisks her onto his black horse and rides away, telling the king that they will marry in his own country and he’ll claim the kingdom when he’s ready. The king is fine with that. He wants to plan his retirement anyway. What he doesn’t realise is that Sciorovante doesn’t intend to look after his daughter at all. Instead they stop at a stable and the wizard throws the girl in an empty stall. He is going away for seven years, he tells her, to return to his own country and arrange the wedding, and if Cannatella is not in this very stable when he returns, she will regret it.

And so Cannatella is left there, to live off what the horses leave, drinking from their troughs and sleeping in the straw. They won’t even let her stroke them – Sciorovante is not the sort of owner who makes his beasts happy or well-adjusted. For months the princess lives like this, growing thinner and sicker and more miserable with each day, until one morning she notices a little crack in the wall. On the other side is a beautiful garden full of the most luscious looking fruit. Sciorovante is far away and she’s starving; there is no reason she can see not to slip out of the stable and eat as much of that fruit as she can.

Only the next day, the door won’t open, leaving her with an incriminating pile of fruit stones that she is forced to hide in the straw. To her horror, Sciorovante appears that very evening. Instead of talking to Cannatella, maybe asking her how she’s survived all this time or telling her a few of his wedding plans, he goes straight to his black horse and asks what’s been happening in his absence. The black horse tells him exactly where to find the fruit stones and the wizard goes half mad. For a minute Cannatella thinks he’s going to kill her; he pulls an enormous knife and it takes all her sobbing and pleading to change his mind. Eventually he puts away the knife and tells her what he did when she first came to this awful place, that he’s going away for seven years and she has to find a way to survive in the stable until he gets back. Again.

For a whole year Cannatella lives on oats and bran. Then one day she hears wheels and hooves outside and the whistling tune of a familiar song. Running to the stable door, she hammers on the door, screaming for help, and it is pushed open by none other than her father’s cooper, the man who makes wine barrels in the palace at home. He doesn’t recognise Cannatella at first, but when she tells him the whole story he agrees to help her escape. Hiding her away in a barrel, he brings her back with him and rouses the whole palace in his excitement. The king is not pleased to be woken in the middle of the night by the delivery of a barrel, but when his long-lost daughter emerges he can’t believe his eyes. He has been regretting his hasty decision ever since he let her go and now is his chance to make things up to her.

But she isn’t safe yet. Sciorovante, who seems to have a very flexible approach to the timing of this journey of his, has returned to the stable and found his prisoner gone. The black horse tells him where Cannatella went and the wizard immediately sets about getting her back. Goodness knows why. He didn’t seem to want her much when he had her. Anyway, removing his golden head and replacing it with the more ordinary-looking original, he bribes an old woman to let him spy on the palace from her rooftop. But Cannatella sees him. The golden head may be gone, but she knows who he is all the same. She runs to her father and has him make her a room with seven iron doors, all of which are securely locked behind her. Surely, she thinks, even Sciorovante can’t get through them all.

Only he doesn’t have to. He bribes the same old woman into bringing a beautiful rose-coloured bowl into the palace, which the unthinking king has brought to his daughter. While Cannatella is admiring her present, the old woman slips a piece of paper underneath her pillow. It reads, May all other folks be fast asleep, and only Cannatella be left awake. When the wizard comes for her, there is no one left conscious to hear her screams. One by one the iron doors fall. Cannatella, in a mad panic, leaps onto the bed and refuses to be dislodged; Sciorovante just picks the whole bed up and carries it away. On the way out, however, he stumbles over one of the fallen iron doors, and the slip of bespelled paper falls out from under Cannatella’s pillow. Immediately, the palace awakens. And everyone, from the king and his guards to every cook and scullery maid, fall upon the wizard with every weapon they have to hand. Take our princess? Not bloody likely.

Sciorovante turns into a lion, then a serpent, then a fire and after that a hare, but in no shape can he escape his attackers. Even a rat is too much of a target. Turning into a gnat, he is just about to fly away up the chimney when the king spies him and squashes him flat. Cannatella is finally safe. She marries the next prince who comes calling, perhaps on the principle that however dull he is, that way she will never be the victim of another wizard’s schemes. That isn’t quite the end of the story, though. Freed from Sciorovante’s cruel mastery, the black horse returns to his master’s stable and sets all the other horses loose, then leads them away to live on their terms, happily ever after.

Version 3: Blue Beard

Taken from Puffin Books’ 1999 collection Perrault’s Complete Fairy Tales, this is the story of a man who is arguably the most famous evil fictional bridegroom in the English language. You might not think so, though, from the way the story starts – we are introduced to Blue Beard as a wealthy and powerful man who is simply unfortunate enough to have facial hair in an unusual colour. Girls don’t exactly flock to him. When he proposes to the beautiful daughters of his neighbour, allowing their mother to choose which girl will marry him, another reason springs to mind. He’s just weird, really.

But he’s also persistent. When both sisters make it clear that neither of them like him, he arranges a grand house party in the country for them and their friends, and the younger girl decides that if life with him is this fun all the time he might not make such a bad husband after all. They are married. Less than a month later, Blue Beard is obliged to go away on business, but he encourages his young wife to invite some friends down to the country and entertain herself as she likes while he’s gone. He produces a ring of keys with detailed instructions for each one. These are for the storerooms, this one is to lock up the silver and gold plate, these are for the strongboxes…and this little key right here, it’s for a room you must never ever enter. Then he gives her directions on where that room is. Because if you don’t want someone to go somewhere in your house, you want them to know exactly how to find where they aren’t allowed to go. Obviously.

No sooner has he departed than his wife’s friends descend for an enjoyable snoop around the house, running from room to room and admiring his wealth. She, of course, is distracted – she wants to know what’s in that hidden room. Leaving her guests to poke around a bit more, she sneaks off and Pandora-like, unlocks the forbidden door. The windows are closed, so at first she can’t see what’s inside. Then, as her eyes become more used to the dark, she realises the floor is thick with clotted blood. Hung on the walls are the bodies of dead women – the lost wives of Blue Beard, their throats all cut.

The girl is so terror-stricken that she drops the key. Later, shutting herself in her own room to try and pull herself together, she notices that the key is now stained with blood and nothing she does can wash that away. Who knows why she doesn’t tell her guests straight away and leave with them – perhaps she’s still in a panic – but by the evening it’s too late anyway, because Blue Beard returns. He received letters on his way that meant his business is already concluded. His wife, scared almost out of her wits, tries to look as if she thinks this is a good thing. The next morning, Blue Beard asks for the keys. Her panic betrays her immediately; the key seals her fate. “You wanted to enter the little room!” Blue Beard cries. “Well, madam, enter it you shall – you shall go and take your place among the ladies you have seen there.”

His wife sobs and pleads. Her beauty and misery win her but a quarter of an hour to say her prayers. This is when things get even weirder, because she immediately calls her sister Anne to her. What is her sister doing in the house, and why aren’t they formulating a plan that is slightly more reliable than ‘go to the tower and see if our brothers are coming to visit’? The minutes pass and Anne sees nothing on the road, only dust and grass and sheep. Meanwhile, Blue Beard has brought his cutlass and is standing by the stairs shouting for his wife to come down to her death. At the very last minute, when he has her by the hair and his cutlass is about to cut open her throat, the brothers burst in on horseback. Blue Beard tries to run, but they catch him, and they run him through. Grisly, but poetic justice, I think.

Blue Beard’s very relieved widow is now sole mistress of an enormous estate. She rewards her sister’s loyalty by settling on her a large sum that pays for Anne’s wedding and buys a captain’s commission for each of her brothers. At length she herself marries again and this time her husband is a perfectly normal man instead of a homicidal maniac, so even if she doesn’t necessarily live happily ever after, at least she lives.

Unlike the other two versions of this story, though, this one comes with official morals, courtesy of Perrault. In two smug little rhymes, he both tut-tuts at female curiosity (because girls who don’t do what their husbands say clearly deserve to be murdered) and praises 18th century men, who control their households without going around killing their wives. Oh, yay. I feel so safe now.

But really, you know, I think he’s completely misinterpreted what the story means. Each of the girls from these three fairy tales are pushed into marriages with men they neither like nor trust and in each, their natural curiosity leads them to discover the truth. It is not what puts them in danger – on the contrary, it is what saves them. If there is a moral to these stories, it is to tell women to trust their instincts. The man who asks for your hand isn’t always Prince Charming. Unlock the forbidden doors and see what he’s hiding on the other side.

Just don’t drop the damn key.

Review No.44 – The Casual Vacancy

The Casual Vacancy – J.K. Rowling

Little, Brown, 2012

There has been an inevitable hype around the release of The Casual Vacancy. Being Rowling’s first post-Potter novel and also her first work officially for adults, there were bound to be high expectations. As one of the generation who grew up hoping to go to Hogwarts, I obviously had to read this. I knew it would be very different to her other work, but I confess, I wasn’t prepared for quite how different it would be.

Pagford is a picturesque little English town, where the pace of life is slow and people are friendly. When popular councillor Barry Fairbrother unexpectedly dies, however, and the news ripples outward, Pagford’s pretty surface begins to crack, revealing the deep divisions that lie beneath. With Barry’s empty seat on the Parish Council opened to an election and his campaign of passionate advocacy left incomplete, a series of ugly revelations are about to shake the town to its foundations.

Firstly: if you have been thinking of letting your kids read this, stop right there. Every example of unpleasant human behaviour, from foul language and entrenched sexism to domestic abuse and rape, is laid out over the course of the book. There is no one happy in this town – or if there are happy people, Rowling isn’t interested in them. It is as if she is so determined to prove she can write grown-up books that she has abandoned all the mad whimsy and warmth that made me like Harry Potter in favour of bleak, gritty realism. She writes it very well, imbuing even the most damaged characters with haunting poignancy, and she doesn’t pretend that there are glib easy answers. Her characters are complex and interesting. I just didn’t like any of them, and that pretty much sums up how I felt about the entire book. J.K. Rowling is a very talented writer, but if she publishes any more adult fiction, I’ll be more wary of reading it.

Review No. 43 – Shatter Me

Shatter Me – Tahereh Mafi

Allen&Unwin, 2011

The one thing Juliette wants – more than escape from the asylum where she has been imprisoned for so long, more than food she can recognise or the sight of a bird that can fly in this dead drab world – more than anything else, she just wants to be touched. But that is something she can never have. Because when Juliette touches someone, terrible things happen. All her life, she has been told that this makes her evil, a monster, but then she steps foot outside the asylum for the first time in almost a year and she sees that there are real monsters waiting for her in the new order of the Reestablishment. The question is, will she join them, or for the first time in her life, will she fight back?

There are some interesting concepts in Shatter Me, Tahereh Mafi’s first novel and the beginning of the Shatter Me series. Written in first person, it takes the narration to a very personal level by running words together to indicate Juliette’s confusion and even implies what thoughts she considers forbidden by crossing them out, as though you’re reading her journal. That’s a little puzzling because, though she does keep a journal, this isn’t it. I found her an interesting protagonist, although I would have liked her to show a harder edge at times. The other main characters weren’t quite so convincing or as likeable, though, and I didn’t really buy the world of the Reestablishment either – it felt too generically dystopian, and too quick a downhill slide from corner shops and school lunches to military wasteland and environmental havoc. Perhaps more satisfying explanations will be offered in book two, Unravel Me. It is due for release in February next year.

Fairy Tale Tuesday No.16 – The Golden Goose

What is it about fairy tales and gold? Golden apples, golden hair, golden birds. Wealth was only a dream for so many people in centuries gone past, as it still often is, but they could at least dream outrageously of gold in their stories. This version of the Grimm fairy tale is taken from Wonderful Fairy Stories In Colour, retold by Lornie Leete-Hodge and published by Hamlyn in 1981. I don’t know why they thought the colour was so important it had to be included in the title, but the illustrations are pretty cute, in a slightly odd sort of a way. I almost picked the version from a serious anthology, but thought hey, what the hell! This is not a story to be taken seriously.

A woodcutter with three sons sends his eldest out to bring down one of the very tallest trees in the forest. He sets out with some fresh-baked fruitcake for his lunch and a bottle of best wine, courtesy of his adoring mother, and when he reaches the tree decides to eat straight away and do the chopping afterwards. No sooner has he unwrapped his meal than he sees a little grey-bearded man coming towards him, hopeful of sharing, but the woodcutter’s son has no intention of obliging a total stranger with some of his mother’s delicious cake. It’s a decision he’ll quickly regret. When he finishes his meal and sets to work on the tree, his axe immediately slips and cuts his arm.

He is so badly injured he has to go directly home and another brother has to set out in his place. Their mother provides her second eldest son with another cake and more wine, which again proves too tempting. As before, the little grey-bearded man comes asking to share the meal, and like his brother before him, the second son refuses. He is still scoffing to himself about it when he sets to work on the tree, but then his axe slips, and his leg is so badly hurt he can barely get himself home.

There is only one son left. He has a name, presumably, but his exasperated family think he’s a bit of an idiot and just call him Dummling. When he asks to try his luck with the killer tree, his father essentially throws up his hands in defeat and says, why not? Just don’t chop off your own head. Dummling’s mother takes a similar attitude, giving him a piece of bread off her shelf and a bottle of plain beer. When he, too, meets with the little grey man, Dummling is happy to share his rather dull meal and they have a companionable picnic together in the sunshine. I wonder if things would have been different had Dummling been given a piece of his mother’s legendary fruitcake instead…

When the meal is over, the little grey man is so pleased with his new friend’s generosity that he gives the boy some advice. Don’t cut down the fir tree marked by your father, he says – cut down that tree over there instead. Dummling, deciding one tree is as good as another anyway, cuts down the suggested alternative and when it falls, he finds a living goose with golden feathers living in the roots. Well, he’s wiser than his family give him credit for, wise enough not to go back to them with something so self-evidently valuable. He tucks the bird underneath his arm and heads for the nearest inn.

The innkeeper’s daughters each take one look at the goose and fall in love. With the bird, not Dummling. One at a time, the girls slip upstairs during the night to his room to try and steal one golden feather, and each finds herself stuck to the bird’s impossible plumage instead. Dummling sleeps through it all. When he wakes up the next morning he somehow doesn’t notice three full-grown young women attached to his goose, so perhaps he’s not so bright after all. He just tucks it under his arm – somehow – and trots off down the road while the girls stumble after him. A parson, seeing them and misunderstanding the situation, runs forward to try and pull them off. He can’t get away again any more than the girls can. Anyone who tries to help the others get free only gets stuck as well, so soon there are no less than seven people running along in Dummling’s wake, while the boy bounds obliviously onward. Eventually they come to a castle with a rather unusual notice on its gates. The king’s daughter, it would appear, is so unhappy that nothing can make her smile, and it has been decreed that whoever can cheer her to laughter will win her hand in marriage. What could possibly go wrong?

Dummling goes in to try his luck. The melancholy princess, seated by a window overlooking the road, takes one look at his bizarre procession and bursts out laughing. The king’s court is amazed. They didn’t know she could laugh like that. Dummling is undoubtedly the winner and as though the princess’s laughter was all the counter-spell required, his unwilling companions are finally freed. They don’t hang about to congratulate him – I’m not sure they’d dare get near him again.

The king, however, is having second thoughts about his proclamation now he’s actually faced with his prospective son-in-law. He tests Dummling with another task. If he can procure someone who can drink a whole cellar full of wine, the king says, he can marry the princess. After all, nobody could do that, could they? I wouldn’t be so sure, your Majesty. Dummling goes straight back to the forest, where he finds the little grey man sitting on the stump of the goose’s tree. His friend is still thirsty. He has absolutely no difficulty in drinking every cask in the king’s cellar dry. The king, his conditions met, is more opposed to the marriage than ever. Who wants a son-in-law with such inebriated friends? So he sets another challenge for Dummling to complete. “Find me someone who can eat a mountain of bread,” he says. You’d think he might have learned. The little grey man returns and demolishes enough bread to sop up all the wine from the last task. He doesn’t leave so much as a crumb.

The king isn’t quite ready to give in. He demands Dummling produce a ship that can sail on land as well as water. It is an impossible ask, and Dummling knows it. He doesn’t expect the little grey man to have any answers this time, just a sympathetic ear, but there is more to his friend than an insatiable appetite. The boy returns to the king with a ship that sails like a swan on water and land alike, thanks to a set of magic wheels fitted by you know who. The king is finally won over. Dummling marries the princess with his friend the little grey man as guest of honour. It’s such a party that even the people he humiliated with his goose come along to celebrate, but there’s a bittersweet ending. Dummling never forgets his strange friend from the forest, even after he inherits the throne, but he never sees the little grey man again.

The version from the serious anthology is more or less the same, though it makes slightly more sense – the sisters from the inn try to warn one another and get ignored, and while the boy notices them there in the morning, he doesn’t bother himself with trying to pull them free. It doesn’t have the same light, whimsical charm as the Hamlyn version, though, with its illustrations of fruitcake and attractive hats (in colour!), and the good-natured, if selectively blind, hero. It’s not a fairy tale with grand quests and adult themes. It’s silly, and just a bit sweet.