If you want to make a hero, the first thing you do is call him Jack. The Jacks of the fairy tale world are the sort of people who climb beanstalks, kill giants, and make off with other people’s gold. So when in this Norse fairy tale (taken from the 1982 reprint of Ruth Manning Sanders’ A Book of Wizards) a couple call their only son Jack, you know this is a boy destined for Adventure. His mother clearly knows it too. One day she sends him off with his father to find a master of something to be apprenticed with. She is not particular as to what this something may be, but as she puts it, “Jack must be apprenticed to someone who will teach him to be a master above all masters.”
Well, they find a great many skilled tradesmen who could teach Jack everything they know, but none of them can promise to teach him to be better than everybody else in the world. So father and son keep looking. Eventually, walking on through the biting cold to a plain covered in ice, they come across a man in a sledge who calls out to ask where they are going. Jack’s father explains his predicament. His wife wants their boy to be a master above all masters at whatever it is he learns – but who can teach him that?
“I can,” says the total stranger, “and I’m in need of an apprentice. So up, with you, Jack!” The next moment Jack is in the sledge, and the sledge is rising into the sky. Frantically Jack’s father shouts at them to stop, asking the man his name, where his home is – any personal details to identify him as an employer rather than a kidnapper. The man’s reply: “Oh, I’m at home north, east, south and west, and my name is Farmer Weathersky. Come here again in a year and a day, and you shall hear whether Jack suits me or not.” HOW VERY REASSURING. Not.
Jack’s father goes home and tries to explain what happened to his wife, who naturally enough does not believe a word of it. She packs him off again straight away. “And don’t you come back until you’ve found out where our Jack is!” Well, that’s easier said than done. Jack’s father walks on and on, until he comes to a great forest and in it a little cottage. Outside the cottage is an old woman, who is drawing water from her well by the unconventional means of a very long nose. No explanation is given as to how exactly this is achieved, but it certainly doesn’t sound fun. Jack’s father stops, asking for a night’s lodging, and when she says no he offers her a little tobacco and snuff from his bag. “You are a man after my own heart!” she declares. “You can stay the night.”
In the morning, Jack’s father asks about Farmer Weathersky. His hostess has never heard of the man, and even when she summons together all the beasts of the wood to answer the question, none can help. But she is only one of three sisters, and she advises Jack’s father to ask the others. Lending him her sledge (what was in that snuff?), she sends him off, and by nightfall he comes to a little house on the sea shore. Its resident old woman is using her long nose to rake up seaweed. She is no more inclined to give Jack’s father a room for the night than her sister before her, but he wins her over with more snuff and come morning she is still in such a good mood that she calls all her fishes to her to ask after Farmer Weathersky. His name has not been heard of by anything that lives in the sea either. There is, however, a third sister left to ask; so, borrowing this old woman’s boat and her best dolphin, Jack’s father sails off to find her.
And find her he does, standing at her hearth poking the fire with her extraordinary nose. The snuff does its magic all over again and the next day the old woman calls down all the birds of the air to answer his question. Where is Farmer Weathersky? Not one of the birds can tell that, but then last of all comes an enormous eagle, who has flown straight from the house of Weathersky himself. After a meal and a night’s rest, he agrees to go back and take Jack’s father with him.
It is a long journey, midnight by the time they arrive, and they don’t need to guess whether Weathersky is asleep – his thunderous snoring answers that – so Jack’s father sneaks in straight away. Following the instructions of the eagle, who has after all been here before and escaped in one piece, he goes first to the kitchen to take three crumbs from the table drawer, and then to Weathersky’s bed to pull three feathers from his head. Risky? Little bit. But though the wizard’s shout is enough to bring down part of the ceiling, he somehow sleeps on. Next Jack’s father steals three wooden chips and the large black rock they were under. He then uses the breadcrumbs to entice a hare out of the stables, which he seizes, pulls three feathers from the eagle’s tail, then mounts up again with all his stolen oddments to make their escape.
But Farmer Weathersky is awake now. When the eagle stops to rest, Jack’s father sees a flock of crows behind them, and the eagle orders him to drop the first three feathers, the ones taken from Weathersky’s own head. These turn into a flock of ravens that chase the crows away. That buys them a little time, but soon enough they see Farmer Weathersky pursuing them himself. Jack’s father drops the chips of wood, which ignite into a ferocious conflagration. Weathersky is forced to turn back to fetch water to put it out, and the eagle flies on. When the wizard catches up with them again, Jack’s father drops the stone, which becomes a terrible black fog. Weathersky persists, trying to find a way through, but he breaks his leg in the dark and is forced to go back the way he came.
Arriving home, Jack’s father puts down the hare and it turns, unexpectedly, into his son. Jack’s mother is delighted to see them, but her priorities have not entirely deserted her and she wants to know if her boy is really now a master above all masters. Jack believes he is. That isn’t good enough for her, though, she wants evidence, and so the next day Jack gets up early to turn himself into a horse. This is not the end of the demonstration, either. He tells his father to take him to market and sell him, but whatever he does, he is not to sell Jack’s halter. That agreed upon, they set off.
At the market, Farmer Weathersky appears as a merchant and buys the horse that is Jack. He wants the halter, of course, but Jack’s father won’t sell it, and when he gets home with the money his son is already there toasting his feet by the fire. The second day’s con is equally successful. Jack’s father get the money, Farmer Weathersky gets the horse, the horse gets the hell out of there. By the third day, Jack’s father has grown a little cocksure of his son’s abilities. When Weathersky continues to up his price for the bridle, Jack’s father sells it, confident that his clever boy will find a way to get loose.
But Jack can’t. That isn’t how magic works. Farmer Weathersky leads him into the stables of an inn, where he ties him up with a barrel of red-hot nails before him and a barrel of oats behind, then goes off into the inn to eat a good meal himself. And there is absolutely nothing Jack can do about it.
Forunately for him, however, the inn’s serving maid is an animal lover. Hearing the horse’s cries, she comes out to see what is the matter and is horrified at the cruelty of such a master. She unties the halter, and Jack can finally slip loose. He’s no sooner out of the stable than Weathersky is out of the inn, hot in pursuit. The horse leaps into the pond and becomes a fish; the man follows him as a fish-eating pike. The fish becomes a dove. The pike becomes a dove-destroying hawk.
But there are more weapons in a dove’s arsenal than you might think. Flying through the open window of a palace, Jack throws himself on the mercy of a princess who happens to be sitting there, and she turns out to be the sort of girl who takes stories of shape-shifting birds and murderous ex-employers in her stride. She tells Jack to turn into a golden ring on her finger, which she will pretend was a precious gift from her mother. While Jack is charming the princess, though, Weathersky has gone to work on the king – in that he has made him terribly sick and come to the palace as the only doctor in the world who knows how to cure him. Also, he wants his fee first. It’s a little thing, no trouble, nothing excessive…all he wants is the golden ring on the princess’s finger.
She tries to refuse, offering richer rings for the ‘doctor’ to choose from, but he will have no other and the enraged king, horrified at his daughter’s heartlessness, orders that she bring that ring right now. The princess tells him tough, she can’t get it off her finger. “If you’ll let me try,” says Weathersky, “I’ll soon get it off.” “Don’t you dare touch me!” the princess snaps. “If anyone must try, I’ll try myself.” And she goes to the grate to put ashes on her finger, slipping the ring off in the process. Straight away Weathersky turns himself into a rooster that can peck through the ashes; with equal speed, Jack turns into a fox, and bites off his head.
Well, that’s that, then. With Weathersky’s death his spell on the king is lifted, who is so pleased with his instantaneous recovery that when the princess tells him she wants to marry the dodgy looking fox boy he’s like, yes darling, whatever darling, life glorious life! Thus Jack becomes husband to the world’s most unflappable princess, and finally satisfies his mother that he is indeed a master above all masters.
I have talked about fairy tale employment before with two other Ruth Manning Sanders stories, ‘The Old Witch’ and ‘The Good Ogre’, but ‘Farmer Weathersky’ is a bit different. For one thing, the witch and the ogre weren’t bad people to work for, despite some peculiarities over cleaning and the preparation of porridge. Weathersky turned his apprentice into a hare, and not in a friendly ‘let’s broaden your horizons, my boy’ kind of a way either, I suspect. (Believe it or not, that has been done. I’ll tell about it sometime.) Then again, what story of wizards would be complete with rivalry and a shapechanging chase scene?