This Greek fairy tale is taken from the Ruth Manning-Sanders collection A Book of Dragons and begins with a trio of unemployed brothers who come across a field of ripe corn and optimistically begin reaping it in the hope that the owner will come along, be pleased with their work, and pay them for it. Unfortunately, when the owner does come along, it turns out he’s a dragon. Like, literally a dragon. Not a terribly impressive one, it’s true – his wings are very small so he bounds along instead of flying – but a dragon’s a dragon, especially when he’s bounding in your direction.
He’s actually very pleased with the reaping. Halfway through, though, he sends Constantes off to his wife the dragoness with a letter that Constantes, not being a total idiot, reads the second he’s out of the dragon’s sight. Good thing for him that he does. The letter instructs the dragoness to cook its deliverer, which puts an entirely different slant on the phrase ‘kill the messenger’. Constantes briskly rips that up and forges a different letter, procuring a delicious lunch for himself and his brothers and brazenly returning to the harvesting with it. The dragon is surprised but not angry – if anything, a bit impressed. He does not kill Constantes himself. At the end of the day’s reaping, he invites the three brothers home for supper and their pay.
Well, Constantes knows they can’t trust the dragon, but they haven’t worked all day for nothing either. They go with the dragon and receive the promised supper, but no pay. Instead, the dragon invites them to stay the night and he’ll definitely pay them in the morning. The brothers take his word for it and fall asleep. Only Constantes stays awake, thoroughly and justifiably suspicious. The dragon and dragoness are not the subtlest of souls; he overhears them plotting to kill and cook himself and his brothers for breakfast the next morning. As soon as they are asleep Constantes sneaks in to steal a ring off the dragoness’s finger as payment for the reaping, then hurries back to his brothers, wakes them and runs for it.
Early the next morning the dragon goes to kill the boys and finds they have disappeared. The dragoness, also waking, realises her ring is gone, and the dragon bounds off in pursuit of his reapers, shouting promises of payment. The brothers aren’t falling for that this time; they keep running, and come eventually to the king’s city. The dragon turns defeatedly back.
The brothers enter the service of the king. Constantes, being the cleverest of the three, is also the most popular with their new boss and his envious eldest brother goes to the king to try and stir up trouble. He points out the ring that Constantes always wears, telling the king of its history, and how really it’s so terribly fancy an ordinary man like Constantes should not be allowed to keep it. Fairy tale kings need little encouragement where the acquirement of valuables is concerned. Constantes is, after all, the clever one; when he is called before the king he guesses what this is about and hands over the ring before his boss has the chance to ask, which makes him look better than ever.
This is not the result his eldest brother was hoping for. That brother goes to the king again and tells him not only is there a diamond counterpane in the dragon’s possession, but that Constantes is the perfect man to obtain it. It’s useless for Constantes to protest he hasn’t the faintest idea of how to get the counterpane. What the king wants, the king gets.
Leaving the city, Constantes passes through a vineyard where a friendly old woman greets him. He tells her his troubles and she tells him how to fix them, a plan which hinges on the cunning use of a reed full of fleas. With this in hand, Constantes goes off to the dragon’s house. By the time he gets there, it’s night and the dragon and his wife asleep under their shiny counterpane. Constantes pokes the reed through a hole in the wall outside their room and shakes the fleas out, causing them to hop all over the bed. The dragon is not only more kangaroo than flying lizard, he’s also vulnerable to the bite of a flea. Furious at being woken up this way, he hurls the counterpane out the window. Constantes catches it up and runs for the city.
At dawn, the dragon wakes up his wife and tells her to go out for the counterpane, because he’s feeling chilly and is too much of a lazy lump to get it for himself. She goes to look and discovers it is gone. It doesn’t take long to realise where; by the light of the rising sun, the diamonds glow like a beacon. The dragon gives chase, but once again Constantes reaches the city in time and the dragon is forced to turn back.
Gifted with the glorious counterpane (presumably first denuded of fleas), the king rewards Constantes with two new suits of clothes. Which is maybe more impressive than it sounds, because the eldest brother is almost as furious as the dragon and soon comes up with another boast to put in Constantes’ mouth. He tells the king of a silver horse and a golden bell, both in the dragon’s house, both of which Constantes could fetch if he liked. The king, like a moody toddler, wants the new toys and will brook no denial.
Constantes is clever enough to ask for advice when he needs it. He goes back to the vineyard and the old lady who helped him the first time gives another set of detailed instructions. Accordingly, Constantes makes a set of wooden plugs, buys three pounds of barley sugar, and goes back to the dragon’s house.
The bell has forty one holes from which its music rings out. Constantes bribes the horse into silence with the barley sugar and begins to stopper the holes, but has lost his forty-first plug. When he rides away, the bell gives a faint sweet tinkle. At the sound, the dragon wakes and rushes to the stable, only to find two more of his treasures have been stolen. He pursues Constantes, shouting furiously. “Villain! Give me back my horse and bell! What new trick is this, you dog?” “What I have done so far is nothing to what I will do!” Constantes calls over his shoulder, and disappears into the safety of the city.
The king is pacified for a while, but the eldest brother just can’t leave well enough alone and comes up with a new task. Constantes soon finds himself ordered to bring the actual dragon into the city so the royal court can take a look at him. Going straight to the old lady in the vineyard, he is advised to fetch a tattered suit of clothes, a hatchet, saw and awl, nails and rope, and a false beard. Dressed up as an old woodcutter, Constantes goes to chop down a tree near the dragon’s house.
The dragon comes over to investigate, of course, and is told that the tree in question is being cut for Constantes’ coffin. Delighted, the dragon offers his help, pulling up the tree and working on the coffin with a will. The result is an enormous wooden box, but the disguised Constantes wonders aloud if it will be big enough and the dragon is so irritated he climbs in to show that it is. Constantes immediately nails the lid shut and has a horse drag the coffin home to the city.
You might think that the elder brother would have run out of nasty ideas by now, but no, a dragon is not enough. He must be wearing his ruby crown! Wearily, Constantes goes off to consult his accomplice and the old lady forges a letter to the dragoness, seemingly from her husband, telling her to wrap up the crown in a duster and wear it on her head before roasting Constantes for supper. Constantes delivers it. The dragoness is not much of a reader, or a liar, but she does her best. She asks Constantes to get on her shovel so that he’ll cast a shadow and she can tell if the fire is glowing hot enough to cook…pies! Yes, she’s totally cooking pies!
Constantes slithers about on the shovel, pretending he can’t figure out how to sit on it. The dragoness is finally exasperated into a demonstration, upon which the boy snatches the crown off her head and shoves her into the oven. Running back to the city, he tells the court to assemble for the premiere of DRAGON. This means hiding behind every window that faces onto the palace courtyard just in case this all goes terribly wrong.
“My eldest brother ought to have the honour of opening the coffin,” Constantes tells the king. “The exhibition was his idea.” The king, who doesn’t care, agrees, and for the first time the brother knows what it’s like to be trapped in an impossible position. When he prises open the coffin, he is the only one in the dragon’s sight, and so is the only one to be eaten. The dragon then bounds at a furious rate back to his house, where he finds his wife in the oven. Her scales are melting with the ferocity of the heat. The dragon drags her free and dives with her into a nearby lake, where the two of them remain. Even Constantes cannot reach them there.
We are, I assume, intended to like Constantes, and at the beginning I did. He’s certainly resourceful, and more interestingly, is entirely capable of seeking advice instead of pretending he can cope with impossible tasks on his own. And the dragon did try to eat him and his brothers. On the other hand, he’s every bit as bad – robbery, abduction, deprivation of liberty and attempted murder add up to a hefty charge sheet. I’m very glad the dragon and his long-suffering dragoness made it past the happy ever after.