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.