I’ve been talking recently about tropes in fairy tales, and one of the biggest you’ll find is the Heroic Youngest Son. The storyteller’s statistics tend to favour family groupings involving three children, and in the course of their inevitable adventures it is the elder two siblings who are most likely to meet dreadful fates. If they survive, it will be because the youngest brother or sister comes to the rescue. Quite frequently they’re not at all grateful, rewarding family loyalty with wicked plots.
The stereotype has left a fair few elder siblings understandably miffed. What’s important to remember, though, is that it wasn’t always like that. You don’t have to look back that far in history to see a strong bias going the other way: it was the eldest brother who was most likely to inherit, and therefore marry well, as he could afford to look after a family. To have a youngest son steal the thunder from under his nose was actually kind of subversive.
In this week’s Fairy Tale Tuesday, however, I’ll be looking at a trio of stories in which all the brothers are heroes – and what is more, they actually LIKE each other.
Story 1: The Three Sons
This first story comes from Peter Hyun’s collection Korean Children’s Favourite Folk Tales. On his deathbed, a poverty-stricken father distributes what little he has left between his three sons. The eldest is given the grinding stones of a hand-mill; the second son gets a bowl and a bamboo stick; and the youngest gets a drum. With these few things, they must make their own ways in the world.
After their father’s funeral the brothers set out to start their new lives. Instead of sticking together to pool their resources, as you might expect, they decide to part ways at the first crossroads. What’s more, they arrange to meet again at this same spot in TEN YEARS TIME. So, no family back-up should they run into trouble, then.
The eldest brother takes the right hand fork in the road and walks until nightfall. Exhausted but alert to the dangers of travelling alone, he climbs a tree, hauling his millstones with him. His fears prove to be well-founded. He’s still sitting up there, trying to sleep, when a gang of robbers convene under his tree to divide their loot. Unaware of his presence, they argue loudly. In the midst of the fight the eldest brother starts shaking the wet branches and grinding his millstones together, faking a storm. The robbers are fooled and run away to find shelter, leaving a chest of treasure behind. The next morning the eldest brother sets off again with his dodgily-gotten gains and stops in the first village he comes to, building a house, marrying a local girl, and getting started on his happily ever after.
The second brother, meanwhile, took the middle road. He is still grieving for his recently deceased father and long lost mother, a state of mind that is not improved when nightfall finds him beside a graveyard. Inexplicably, he decides to spend the night there, and for those of us who know anything about ghost stories, what happens next is inevitable. Something comes walking out of the dark to speak to him. “Come on, skeleton,” the disembodied voice commands. “Let’s take a walk before dawn. Wake up there, I say, sleepyhead.”
This is a goblin, who is both surprised and suspicious when the second brother replies in an unmistakeably human voice. Not wanting to be outed as one of the living in case that means he won’t stay that way, the second brother quickly holds out his upside down bowl for the goblin to feel, telling him this is his skull. The goblin is not quite convinced; he also wants to feel the ‘skeleton’s’ arm. The second brother holds out his bamboo stick. “Very well,” decides the goblin, “let us go. Tonight we are going to steal the soul of a rich man’s only daughter.” He indulges in a bit of maniacal laughter, because he knows what you’re obliged to do in a graveyard at midnight, and they set off. Making their way to the outskirts of a village, the goblin breaks into the aforesaid rich man’s house and returns with the unfortunate girl’s soul. He forgot to bring anything to carry it in, however, and so passes it into the keeping of the second brother to be collected another night. It being close to dawn, the goblin then vanishes.
The young man returns to the village, where news of the girl’s death is already spreading. Doctors have been called in, though of course they can do nothing. The second brother offers his services, on the condition that no one else is permitted in the room while he works. These terms are accepted. When he has locked up the room around him, the second brother opens his purse under the girl’s nose so her soul can re-enter her body via the…nostrils. Um. Okay. Well, it works – the girl wakes up and her parents are so delighted that they immediately adopt the second brother as their son-in-law.
And what has befallen the youngest brother? He took the left-hand road and that leads him into the mountains, where he entertains himself as he walks along by playing the drum. He unwittingly attracts the attention of a large tiger that comes prancing out of the woods to dance to his music. Not daring to stop his drumming in case the tiger gets bored and eats him, the youngest brother keeps walking and keeps playing, until he and his tiger come to a village. The people there mistake the scene for a travelling act and show their appreciation with a shower of money. The youngest brother decides that having a tiger follow him around is pretty good luck after all, especially when the king himself grows curious and sends out a summons. And this is a nice king. When the youngest brother arrives to perform, one of the princesses takes a fancy to him, and instead of demanding impossible tasks the king basically goes ‘yeah, sure’. The tiger stays on at court. Because adorable.
At the end of ten years the three brothers meet to share their stories and visit the graves of their parents. GROUP HUG.
Story 2: The Three Brothers Who Grew Up In a Year
This one comes from Samira Kirollos’ 1989 collection The Wind Children and other tales from Japan. A father who is both rich and healthy nevertheless tells his three teenage sons it’s time to go forth and Grow Up. They must leave home and learn a skill worthy of a responsible adult. The boys are on board with this plan. They pack up their things and take to the road, trying to decide what they will do with the year. Like the brothers in the previous story, they eventually come to a crossroads and part ways; the younger brothers take the roads to the right and the left, heading towards two different villages, while the eldest, Taro, takes the middle road straight up the mountain.
Now, it should be mentioned at this point that he is only fourteen years old. He has never had to travel alone in his life and his father obviously hasn’t prepared him very well, because when he sees a light in the distance he immediately assumes it is an inn and therefore a safe place to rest. It’s not. Actually, it’s the home of Oni Baba, witch of the mountain and probably a relative of Russia’s Baba Yaga, who emerges at his knock in all her fanged, spiky glory.
Taro has, however, been trained well in common courtesy. He speaks up politely, explaining his purpose and asking for a night’s lodging. Oni Baba weighs him up thoughtfully, then lets him in. She hands him a short work kimono and explains that he can spend his year working for her, collecting wood on the mountainside. That’s okay; Taro had no idea what to do with himself and this is at least a steady job. He works hard and conscientously, so well that by the end of the year Oni Baba doesn’t want to lose him. She announces that he can only leave when his kimono is worn out. Panicking, Taro immediately runs out to do as much damage to the garment as he can, but it is magic and refuses to tear no matter what he does – unlike his skin, which is soon scratched, bruised, and sore. He is at his wit’s end when suddenly a little voice pipes up, instructing him to pick up the white stone by his right foot and hit his kimono with it. Without bothering to see where this advice has come from, the eldest brother obeys it, and his kimono promptly falls to rags.
If you’re wondering who and what the owner of the voice will turn out to be, forget it. It would seem that in ancient Japan disembodied voices offering words of wisdom weren’t particularly uncommon, because the story doesn’t even bother following up that one.
Oni Baba, being a good-hearted sort of witch even if she’s not an entirely trustworthy employer, reluctantly agrees to let Taro go. As wages for the year’s labour, she presents him with a small mud doll that, in her words, “will help you and also give you a little bit of fun.” The boy thanks her politely and starts down the mountain. He passes a house on the way that smells of wonderful cooking, reminding him of how hungry he is, and he remarks aloud on it. To his astonishment, the mud doll jumps out of his arms and runs away, only to return moments later with a bowl of stolen food. Taro, untroubled by the questionable ethics of his devious doll, eats up contentedly as he walks down the mountain to meet with his brothers.
They have done pretty well for themselves. Both are glammed up in magnificent samurai robes, one carrying a sword and the other a bow. Taro, who is once again wearing the same clothes he had on when he left home, is both happy to see them and embarrassed by the comparison he makes to their success. This only gets worse when the three of them arrive home and are asked to show off their new skills for their father and uncle. Taro’s youngest brother cuts a piece of rice paper floating in their pond precisely in half. His middle brother shoots down a pear from a distant branch. Taro knows that being really good at collecting wood and getting along with witches isn’t going to impress his father much, especially after that.
But Taro’s mud doll has other ideas. “Tell your father that you’ve become the most famous thief in all Japan,” it instructs him – and, having no better ideas of his own, he does. His father is outraged. Thieving is not an appropriate manly activity! He is about to kick his son out of the house when Taro’s uncle intervenes, suggesting a test of his nephew’s abilities. He asks Taro to steal a treasured pair of china lions from his house. Taro keeps up the bluff. “Of course I can steal your lions. I can do that easily, even while I am standing here talking to you.” Only of course he’s not the master thief. He’s barely finished speaking when he finds the lions hidden in his robes and draws them out to display to everybody. His uncle is not yet satisfied, though – he challenges Taro to steal his money box that night, and sets about protecting it by ordering his servants to all remain awake and seating himself, sword in hand, beside the box. All the doors are shut tight.
That’s no defence against witch magic! The mud doll slips in through a chink in the front doors and sets about arranging musical instruments throughout Taro’s uncle’s house. When it unlocks the door to let Taro in, everybody is playing a flute or gong or (in his uncle’s case) a drum. All Taro has to do is walk in, grab the box and walk out again. This rather defeats an integral part of stealing, i.e. to not be seen. Still, he did get the box and his uncle is duly impressed. “I don’t know exactly what you learnt during your year away,” he says, “but I do know that you certainly learnt to get yourself out of a bad situation.” Which is true. He’s so impressed that not only is Taro told to keep the money he stole, he’s also made heir to his father’s house. And I feel that’s is fair, because what he really practiced during his year away was conscientous hard work, good manners and respect for others. That’s plenty manly as far as I’m concerned
Story 3: The Three Brave Brothers
In this third story, taken from Hamlyn’s Legends from Eastern Lands, the three brothers are fully grown and their father is poor but not yet on his deathbed. He sends his sons out into the world with a few words of advice and a horse each to help them make their own fortunes – to try to catch the bird of happiness, as he puts it. The three young men set off together and resist the allure of a crossroads. At the end of a long day’s ride, they make camp and divide the night into watches. The eldest brother, Tonguch, is first.
And it turns out that keeping watch was a really good idea, because he is promptly attacked by a lion. He doesn’t bother waking his brothers for help, easily cutting off each of its paws as it swipes at him then its head as it leaps. He then cuts off a strip of its fur and ties it underneath his shirt, for reasons unknown. I don’t want to know, I was on the lion’s side.
Anyway. The next day the brothers continue riding until they come to a large mountain which is, unbeknown to them, inhabited by the king of snakes. They make camp at the foot of the mountain and once again arrange watches. Tonguch’s is uneventful this time, but not long after the middle brother Ortanch takes over the snake king wakes up, scents human flesh and comes slithering out of his cave to investigate. Ortanch strides forward alone to deal with the giant snake, and by ‘deal with’ I actually mean ‘kill’. Like Tonguch before him, he cuts a strip off his fallen opponent’s skin, ties it under his shirt and returns calmly to the camp to continue his watch.
On the third day they come to a hill and narrative logic would imply it is the youngest brother’s turn to face the local nasty. At first all seems well, but Kengah is so busy looking out for potential peril that he doesn’t notice the fire going out. Realising what’s happened, he gets up and goes looking for someone else’s fire from which to take a branch – which seems a very roundabout and intrusive way to get a blaze going, but there you are. He sights a light in the distance and leaves his sleeping brothers to go find it. Thus making himself the worst guard ever.
The light, as it turns out, comes from inside a building, and when Kengah goes to peek in a window he sees a group of twelve grim-faced men circling a pot of soup. Instead of assuming that, I don’t know, the soup tastes awful or something, Kengah decides they must all be robbers. “If I retreated now and left them to their evil designs,” he reasons, “I should not be acting right. No, I must think of a trick to make them take me into their confidence. That way I shall be able to find out what they are planning to do. When the time comes to make my getaway, I shall surely think of something or else be unworthy of my father’s name.” Overthinking this much?
He throws open the door and the men inside reach for their weapons. Kengah announces it has “long been my wish to join a band of brigands as splendid as yours.” He then lists his skills, which include ‘drawing out people in a subtle manner’ and ‘the knack of spying unobtrusively’. Defying the laws of common sense, the robbers decide to believe him and clue him in on the plan. Tonight’s the night they intend to break into the shah’s treasure house and an extra pair of gold-shifting hands won’t come amiss. In fact, the robbers make Kengah a key part of their strategy – they lift him over the wall as a lookout to see whether the guard is asleep and it’s safe for everyone to come over.
Well, the guard is asleep – but it’s not safe. Every man who climbs over the wall is beheaded by Kengah before he can cry out to warn the others. With the whole gang dead, Kengah decides to check out the shah’s palace. He opens one door, sees a beautiful girl asleep in bed, and steals a ring off her finger. Apparently THAT’S an acceptable type of robbery. Through the next door is a girl even lovelier, and he steals her bangle. The third girl (we knew there would be a third!) is the most beautiful of all, at least as far as Kengah’s concerned, and he expresses his admiration by stealing her earring. Then he grabs a burning torch from a bracket in the palace gate and returns to his camp to rekindle the fire. Luckily nothing fatal has befallen his brothers in the meantime.
In the morning, the three young men arrive in a town and stop for a spot of tea. While they are there, they hear a crier announcing the deaths of the robbers. The shah, who was understably taken aback to find twelve dead men in his garden, wants to find out who killed them and is ordering all strangers to be brought to his palace right away. This includes the brothers. They are left alone in a room together with a plate of food, while the shah and his vizier listen in for clues in their conversation. What they get is weirdness. Tonguch remarks that the lamb he’s eating was suckled by a dog. Ortanch complains that the grape preserve tastes of human blood. Kengah concedes that shahs are a bloodthirsty lot (hello Mr. Hypocrite!) but admires the masterful arrangement of the pastries.
Having dissected the meal, they turn to their experiences, at last sharing the stories of their eventful evenings and revealing their trophies. The shah and vizier listen in amazement. They then call on the shah’s shepherd and gardener to confirm the brothers’ other claims, and it’s true – an orphaned lamb was raised by a dog and the grapes from which the preserve was made came from soil that had been splattered with a thief’s blood. As for the pastries, the shah arranged them himself; pastry-making is his secret hobby.
So impressed is the shah (and probably unnerved), he insists the brothers each marry one of his three daughters and move into the palace as his sons-in-law. For a while all goes well, but fairy tale rulers are a paranoid lot at the best of times, and when one afternoon the shah wakes to see Kengah fingering the hilt of his blade, he jumps to the immediate conclusion that the young man means to kill him and claim his throne. He’s wrong. Kengah was holding his sword because he’d just killed a snake approaching in the grass. The vizier, however, who is feeling supplanted, is more than happy to go with the shah’s theory, and Kengah is tossed into prison. His wife has to plead with her father (and damage her health) in order to have Kengah brought forth to answer the key question: why?
Kengah, you may remember, overthinks things. Instead of saying “what the hell, I didn’t try to kill you”, he responds with a story – the Story of the Parrot. It goes like this. There once was a shah who adored his pet parrot more than anyone or anything else. When the parrot asked for leave to visit his family in India, the shah reluctantly agreed, on the condition that his pet would only be gone twenty days. While he was away with his family, the parrot heard about the grains of life, which were said to restore a person’s youth. His mother hoped that if the parrot brought his master some of these he might earn his freedom. But the shah’s vizier was jealous, because viziers always are. He convinced the shah to try out the grains on a pair of aged peacocks first, both of which died. Enraged, the shah killed his parrot. Proving he was a dangerously short-tempered individual, the very next day he got angry with an old courtier and ordered the poor man to chew on the remaining grain as a novel form of execution. Instead of dying, the courtier was restored to youth and health, and the shah realised too late that he’d been conned.
Story complete, Kengah finally gets around to explaining what actually happened with the snake in the garden. He even has its body as evidence. Embarrassed by his paranoia, the shah tries to make amends, but the brothers decide to return to their father and live on the land again. Their wives agree to accompany them, and they all live happily ever after without any need for royal power, wealth or the promise of a throne.
The point of these stories, for me, is the recognition that it’s possible to have more than one hero. That sometimes it’s better to work together than forge the lone road like a Stetson wearer in a Western. Familial relationships tend to be pretty broken in fairy tales, all widows and orphans and ill-intentioned stepmothers, kings who imprison their daughters and children abandoned by their parents, so it’s nice to be reminded that there are alternatives. You can find your fortune without losing your family.