There are variations on every fairy tale. In some the brothers are turned to ravens, in others they are swans; a lonely girl might just as easily receive sartorial assistance from a bird as a fairy godmother. Even stories theoretically told by the same people have developed noticeable differences over centuries of retellings. This week’s fairy tale comes from the 1982 reprint of A Book of Wizards and has some similarities to a Grimm brothers story called ‘How Six Made Their Way In the World’ – but this one is told by Ruth Manning Sanders and is therefore superior in every way. I freely admit that I am slightly biased.
One day a king decides it is time for his only son to marry and sends the young man up a stair that nobody ever uses to a room he has never seen before, where eleven stained glass windows each show a beautiful princess smiling out at him. The prince is supposed to choose one for his bride, but all he knows about them are their faces and those are all as lovely as each other. At last, after walking from picture to picture without coming any closer to a decision, he comes to a window that is covered by a white curtain – and, in true fairy tale style, cannot resist finding out what lies behind. And it is a twelfth girl, not smiling like the others but desperately sad instead. The prince’s chivalry is roused. He promises his heart to the sad-faced princess and immediately all the other pictures disappear.
Well, he’s made his choice. It isn’t necessarily a wise one, as his horrified father tells him when he returns from the tower. The hidden girl was never meant to be seen; she is the prisoner of a powerful wizard and rescue is impossible. Go back to the tower, the king pleads, go back and choose another bride, but the prince is determined and sets off regardless. He travels for a long time, until in the heart of a dense forest – the very worst place to lose one’s way – he finds himself without a road. But help arrives in a very unexpected form. A man comes running after him, asking to be taken into his service. To prove his usefulness, he stretches himself up as high a pine tree and brings down a bird’s nest as he shrinks again to his proper size. The prince is impressed, but insists the bird be given back its nest and the man – named Long, for self-evident reasons – find a way out of the wood instead. Long easily obliges, soaring up so high he can see right out of the forest.
So off they go. Quite soon they have left the forest behind and are travelling across an enormous plain, where mountains tower over them and only Long would have a hope of spotting someone he knows. This friend is named Broad. Almost as wide as he is tall, he doesn’t appear terribly impressive at first sight, but when the prince asks for a demonstration it almost kills him, because suddenly Broad stretches sideways until his body is covering almost the whole plain. When he shrinks back to his usual size, the accompanying wind makes the forest sway like it’s in the grip of a storm. Why this man and Long want to be in the prince’s service when surely they could be the heroes of their own story is a mystery. His service is what they want and what they get.
Across the plain, at the foot of the mountains, they meet a man with his eyes bandaged like a blind beggar’s. He, too, asks to be taken into service. The prince welcomes him to travel with them but isn’t sure what use a blind man can be to him. Only as it turns out, his new friend is very far from blind. With his eyes bound he can see as clearly as any normal person; with them unbound, he can see through anything, and if he looks at something in a certain way it will catch fire or splinter into pieces. His name is Sharpsight and he proves his claims by shattering a wall of rock that stands in the prince’s way. This is definitely a man you want on your side. The prince asks him to find the wizard’s iron castle, where the sad princess is kept captive, and Sharpsight not only sees it, he sees into it where the girl from the window sits crying on her own. The prince is galvanised. “Let us hasten to her rescue!” he cries, and they all head north.
It’s a very long way but when you have a man actually called Long with you, with the abilities to match, there are certain advantages. Like, he can pick you up and lift you over any pesky mountains that happen to be in your way. At last all four adventurers come to stand on a desolate heath where the wizard’s castle is waiting for them, its iron walls turned an ominous red by the setting sun. They cross over the drawbridge and the castle closes its gates behind them, making them prisoners – well, sort of, because as Long points out, he can easily just lift them all out again. Talk about ruining the suspense! The prince isn’t going anywhere until he finds his mournful maiden, though, so onward they go, to a…stable. The prince is a responsible horse owner. But his is the only living creature in a crowded stable – all the others have been turned to stone, and inside the castle itself are more statues, this time of people. Stone princes raise swords against a foe they can no longer strike; stone knights try to run from something they can now never escape. There are even stone servants frozen in the middle of various tasks, which seems very counterproductive of the castle’s new owner.
Finally the four travellers come to a room where there are no statues, just a feast set out waiting for them. Personally, after witnessing the state of the other people in this castle, I would be very wary of eating anything, but the prince and his friends have no such qualms. No sooner have they finished their meal than the door blows dramatically open and the wizard himself comes to greet his guests, leading with him a pale sad-faced young woman. The prince leaps to his feet, recognising her at once. Rescue isn’t so simple as all that, though, and even the wizard’s terms aren’t as easy as they first appear. If they want to win the princess, he says, they must keep her in their sight for three nights – if they can’t do this, they will all be turned to stone like everybody else in the castle. The wizard bursts into hysterical shrieks of laughter and goes away, leaving the princess behind.
The prince is thrilled to meet her. He tells her he’s already in love with her and promises that he will be the one to set her free (how many times must she have heard that?) but he can’t make her say a word in response. His friends, meanwhile, are making their preparations to thwart the wizard. Long encircles the room with his elongated body, Broad swells himself out to fill the whole doorway, and Sharpsight settles himself in the middle of the hall so he can watch everything that happens. But even this won’t be enough to stop the princess disappearing. A wicked little wind comes stealing into the room, sending everyone to sleep and whisking the princess away with it.
The prince wakes at dawn to find his princess gone. He wakes his friends with a horrified shout and Sharpsight tears the bandage from his eyes, seeking the princess as only he can. Carried on Long’s shoulders, the two cross a hundred miles to a wood of oak trees and bring back a single acorn. When they return to the anxious prince, the acorn falls to the ground and becomes the princess again. The wizard, arriving moments later in full expectation of four more statues, can’t believe his eyes. He drags the princess away and leaves her four would-be rescuers to ponder how on earth they all fell asleep.
It’s a long day. The drawbridge is down again and the prince takes his horse for a ride, but the heath around the castle is empty of any kind of life, not even a flower or a blade of grass. He returns only to spend the rest of the day looking at the statues of other people who tried to rescue the princess, and failed. It doesn’t put him in the best of moods. When night comes, he is determined to keep better watch, but the wizard’s breeze returns with its irresistible sleep and steals the princess from under their noses. At dawn the frantic prince wakes his friends. Long crosses two hundred miles with his impossible legs; Sharpsight shatters a mountain with his impossible eyes; and they return to the prince with a precious jewel that falls to the ground as the missing princess.
The wizard is infuriated. To his credit, so are the four friends. On the third night they refuse even to sit, walking around the room as the night wears on so that they will not be tempted to sleep. Which is a very good idea, but common sense is no match for magic and when the wizard’s breeze comes it sends them to sleep in mid-step. At dawn the prince shouts to wake Sharpsight, but even his piercing eyes can’t find the princess at first. At last he sees her. Three hundred miles away is a black sea; in the middle of the sea is a shell, and inside the shell a ring, and the ring is the princess. Long and Sharpsight can’t reach her alone. This time Broad comes with them and uses his own gift to drink the whole sea dry. Long snatches up the shell and they set off again for the wizard’s iron castle, but Broad is full of sea and exceptionally heavy. The sun rises, the wizard comes – and the princess is not there.
But Sharpsight is watching. He tells Long, who reaches the castle in one more extraordinary stride and flings the ring inside, where it becomes the princess. For the first time it is the wizard who has failed to keep her under his eye. He transforms into a raven and flies away to who knows where. The princess’s pale face flushes with colour – she runs to the prince and he kisses her while all around them the statues come to life. Even the desolate heath is restored with a wash of green. The prince then leads a magnificent procession of rescued people back to his home, where his father has been mourning him as dead ever since he left. There is a joyous reunion, a royal wedding, and the princess actually laughs. But Long, Broad and Sharpsight will not stay. Their work is done – the prince no longer needs their services. They say goodbye to the happy couple and head out into the world to seek some other quest. On the way, Sharpsight does the prince one last favour, returning to the iron castle and razing it to the ground with a single pointed glance. As a raven or a man or, I don’t know, an acorn, that wizard is never coming back.
Ah, Sharpsight! He was probably my first ever book crush. A Book of Wizards has been in my family for as long as I can remember and ‘Long, Broad and Sharpsight’ is near the top of my list of All Time Favourite Fairy Tales. A prince who is moved by sadness instead of beauty, and worries about mother birds; a sneaky wizard obsessed with hide and seek who doesn’t get his head chopped off; a valiant display of common sense in the face of underhanded zephyrs. What is there not to love?