Remember ‘The Tinderbox’? The Andersen fairy tale in which a soldier murders a witch, abducts a princess, and corrupts three perfectly innocent dogs to help him overthrow someone else’s city? Well, in each of these two stories, the hero finds himself likewise the unexpected recipient of canine superpowers, but things turn out rather differently for everybody concerned.
Story 1: The Three Dogs
This German story is from Ruth Manning-Sanders’ collection A Book of Dragons. Upon the death of their father, a shepherd’s two children are left to divide his few possessions between them, those being his house and his three sheep. There is nothing to stop the siblings sticking together and pooling their resources, but the brother, whose name is Mario, tells his sister to choose what she wants most and when she picks the house, he takes the sheep and sets off into the world with them. Before long he comes across a man travelling with three black dogs. The man proposes an exchange. Mario refuses, pointing out that his sheep are cheaper and lower maintenance, but the stranger is determined to have them and explains how really he’s doing Mario a tremendous favour.
The first dog is called Salt; if Mario gets hungry, she will bring him food. The second is Pepper. Should Mario ever be threatened, he’ll tear his enemies to pieces. The last dog is Mustard, and he can bite through steel. “If what you tell me is true, I should be foolish not to take them,” Mario admits. “But why should you wish to exchange three such valuable animals for three ordinary sheep?” “That is my own affair,” the stranger says loftily, and disappears, taking the sheep with him.
The question that has to be asked at this point is: were they ordinary sheep at all?
But Mario is more interested in his side of the bargain. He tells Salt that he is hungry and immediately she disappears, returning the next moment with a basket of wonderful food. It’s so loaded up with tasty things that there is enough for Mario to share with all the dogs, which he wisely does. The basket then vanishes and the quartet go happily on their way.
The next travellers they meet on the road are a girl in a coach, dressed all in black and sobbing her heart out, and her similarly attired driver. Mario jumps up to intercept them and find out what’s wrong. The coachman is not inclined to tell him, but the girl leans out of the carriage and explains. “You see that high mountain in front of us? That is the mountain of death. And it is there that I must go to meet my fate. It is there that I am to be devoured by a fiery dragon.” It turns out that the dragon has, in the traditional fashion, been demanding an annual sacrifice and this year it is the turn of the king’s daughter. She tells Mario to turn back before it’s too late, but he doesn’t. He follows the coach all the way to the foot of the mountain, and then up the mountain, all while she pleads with him to go away and let her die alone.
Halfway up the mountainside, the dragon notices them. It comes swooping down through a haze of flames and the princess faints, but Mario has time to shout for Pepper and the dog flies at the dragon. He gets its by the throat and while the dragon roars and flames and smacks its wings, he refuses to let go. At last the dragon falls dead, and Pepper eats it. Mustard joins in, crunching up the giant bones.
Luckily for everyone, dogs do not generally demand sacrifices.
Salt, being the polite member of the family, tends to the princess instead, gently licking her awake. The girl starts crying again out of sheer relief. She tries to persuade Mario to return with her to her father’s palace, where he will doubtless be rewarded, but Mario set out to travel and he’s only about a day from home. He promises to return in three years time, once he’s seen something of the world. Pocketing two of the dragon’s teeth as keepsakes, he calls to his dogs and climbs casually down the other side of the mountain to continue his adventuring.
The princess is a bit smitten. She didn’t mention marriage as part of the reward, but she’s secretly hoping it will be. Unfortunately for her, the coachman has other plans. He witnessed the entire battle from a safe distance and when he sees the princess walking back towards him on her own, what he sees is an opportunity. He doesn’t act on it immediately – he waits, letting her get in the coach and driving towards home, only to stop halfway across a bridge.
“A fine champion you found, who left you without so much as a word or a sigh!” he sneers. “Now I have a heart which beats for you alone. It would be worth your while to make a fellow happy. So when I tell the king, your father, that it was I who killed the dragon, you’d better not contradict me. It’s no good your scowling at me, my beauty! If you don’t promise to agree that it was I who killed that dragon, I shall throw you into the river and drown you, and drive back alone. No one will be the wiser. Everyone will think you’ve been eaten by the dragon.”
Where are those dogs when you need them? The princess knows he’s right, he could murder her and get away scot free. Forced to agree with his story, she returns miserably to the palace, where her father joyously pledges her hand to her ‘rescuer’. There are, however, conditions. “As the princess is so very young, I think we must put off the wedding for a year,” he says firmly, and has the coachman start training to be a prince. This gives the princess a chance. At the end of the first year, she convinces her father that she’s still too young to marry, and wins another year’s reprieve after that. But when the three years promised by her real rescuer are up and there’s no sign of him, she doesn’t know what to do. So she cries, but she does as she’s told, because a princess always does her duty. A grand betrothal feast is held, with everyone in the king’s city feasting at his expense, and the only one left miserable is the bride to be.
Well, not quite. Mario has kept his word; he arrives in the midst of the party and is not at all pleased to hear of the coachman’s lies. In fact, he’s quite loud about it, and gets himself thrown in jail. Lying bruised and furious on the floor of his cell, he hears a whine at the door and realises his dogs have found him. A tip to security: do not mess with magic dogs. Mustard makes short work of the door and Mario jumps out into the courtyard; then Salt swipes him supper from the king’s own table. The princess feels a gentle lick on her hand and she, too, realises she has been found. She jumps up joyfully and tells her father everything. He promptly sends for Mario and has the cell mended so that they can toss the coachman in there instead. Mario offers the dragon’s teeth as proof but the king has already accepted his daughter’s word, and her wishes. The princess and her dragon slayer get married on the spot. Why waste a good wedding?
Then Mario remembers his sister, left living alone in their father’s ramshackle old hut. He tells the princess, who immediately sends out a carriage to collect her new sister-in-law. The shepherd’s daughter is adopted into the royal family and it’s made official when the king’s nephew proposes to her. Weddings all round!
On the morning after the marriage, the dogs come to Mario to say goodbye. To literally say it – they can apparently talk when they have a mind to, which shouldn’t really be surprising after the dragon killing and the chomping of iron doors. They wanted to make sure he didn’t forget his sister; now that they know she’s taken care of, they can be on their way. With that, the three black dogs turn into three white birds and fly away.
Story 2: The Little Tailor and the Three Dogs
This is another German story from another Ruth Manning-Sanders collection, A Book of Ogres and Trolls. The hero of this one is a tailor who falls on hard times and is forced onto the road to go seek work in larger towns. On his way, he has to pass through a large forest. In the gloomy dark he is accosted by an enormous dog, who advises he take it into his employment. The tailor is happy for company, however unexpected its appearance. When a second dog appears, then a third, he lets them tag along too. Why not?
Then they come to the end of the forest, and a tavern, and reality brings him down with a thud. They are all hungry, and he has no money. That’s boring thinking, though, and the dogs are having none of it. They order him inside and he demands dinner with such vehemence that the tavern keeper dashes about getting him the best of everything. Once the table is laid, the dogs come flying in, each leaping onto a chair and helping themselves to the food with superb table manners.
After they have all finished eating, the dogs instruct the tailor to make himself scarce, leaving his things behind so it looks like he’ll be back any minute. Then, as soon as the tavern keeper leaves the room, the dogs catch up the tailor’s possessions and dash off after him.
The tailor is a teeny bit guilty about all this. On the other hand, he’s feeling guilty on a full stomach, so he doesn’t worry about it for long. The dogs lead him back into the forest, to a clearing where a castle stands tall. “Have you any courage, my master?” inquires the first dog. “A deal more courage than cash,” the tailor replies, which is not much of an answer, but the dog proceeds with its instructions anyway and has the tailor tie the three of them together. The castle, he is told, is full of ogres. The tailor must walk in and offer the dogs for sale. The ogres will receive him, but they are not to be trusted under any circumstances, so each dog gives the tailor a gift: an ointment that will glue anything down, a stick that will lengthen as needed and kill anyone it strikes, and a horn that will bring the dogs to his side when he needs them most. He tests it and the resulting note is so clamorous that the castle door flies open of its own accord.
The tailor walks in with his leashed dogs. They cross a grand hall, climb a staircase and enter a vast dining room where twenty four ogres are busy getting drunk. The tailor exerts his acting skills again, offering his handsome trio for a gold piece each. The ogres are seemingly agreeable; they all leave the room and take the dogs with them, promising to fetch the money. Not trusting that promise for a second, the tailor quickly coats each chair with his magic ointment. That turns out to be a good idea. The ogres have chained the dogs in the stable and are consulting how best to kill the tailor. When they all tramp back into the dining room, their story is that the tailor has defrauded them; the dogs are not worth the money that they have not actually paid him yet and he is thereby condemned to death.
It doesn’t really matter if their argument makes sense or not, and they know it. The tailor, though, tells them he is owed a trial and they find the idea funny, so they gather around the table to hear his defence. Once they are all stuck fast to their chairs, the tailor flips the situation, condemning them all with his magical stick. Each ogre falls dead the instant it touches them.
One ogre remains, however. The king, in fact, who has just returned from hunting to find the tailor surrounded by bodies. The tailor tries to hit him with the stick too, but the ogre king catches it and snaps it, then seizes the tailor himself between finger and thumb. He carries him out into the garden to hang him from the tallest tree. But the tailor has an ace up his sleeve – specifically, a horn. He blows it with everything he’s got and the dogs come flying to his rescue, leaping onto the ogre king and tearing him apart.
The tailor climbs down from the tree. To his surprise, the dogs are no longer there. Instead, there are three furry skins and three human beings, two women and a man, all crowned in gold. “You are our deliverer,” pronounces the man. “The ogre king cast a spell on us and turned us into dogs, because we would not give him our daughter in marriage. But now the enchantment is broken.” It certainly is; the forest is turning into a city, the birds into humans. The crowned girl kisses the tailor, and they decide on the spot to get married. Directly after the wedding, though, the tailor returns to the tavern and pays its owner four times what he owed. Guilt has no place in a happy ending.
If I were the tavern keeper, I’d prefer an explanation for the whacking great city that has appeared from nowhere, but it’s a sweet gesture just the same.
My headcanon is that the dogs are the same in both stories; that they have been travelling around the world collecting enough magic to save themselves from the ogres, with Mario’s unknowing assistance. This would make Pepper a girl (a queen, no less), but who knows who that stranger was anyway, and whether he could be trusted to get genders right?
I have no explanation for the sheep.