This Danish story, from Ruth Manning-Sanders’ collection A Book of Witches, introduces us to a family of twelve sons, eleven of whom are big, blokey types while the twelfth, Esben, is small and thin. Him being the youngest, you might not consider that too surprising, but his father and brothers treat any physical frailty like a disease they’re determined not to catch. The only member of the family who has any time for Esben is his mother, so he spends most of his time helping her in the house while the older boys work for their father in the fields.
One day, they decide to leave en masse and seek their fortunes. Losing eleven farm labourers at once is a hell of a blow to the ageing farmer, especially as they all expect to be equipped with horses for the journey, but he has done well enough to afford that, and a little extra money for the journey besides. Esben wants to go too, but the sudden departure of the farmer’s other sons hasn’t helped his youngest rise in the ranks. “If I could have kept your brothers at home and sent you away, it would have been better for me in my old age,” he declares, with withering bluntness.
Esben goes quietly into the woods and cuts himself a branch. He models it into the rough outline of a horse, and when he is satisfied with it he sings, “Fly quick, my little stick, carry me into the world.” The stick kicks off on twig legs, carrying him away in pursuit of his brothers.
They have ridden all day and by nightfall have reached a vast forest. There is only one house in sight, so that’s where they ask for shelter. Having eleven large men descend on you all at once would bother most people, I think, but the owner of this house is no ordinary old lady. She is a witch, and she has plans.
She also has thirteen daughters, who flirt cheerfully with the brothers while the witch makes supper, and then everybody goes to bed. In the same room. Which is large enough to be furnished with twenty four beds…which isn’t weird at all. The brothers, who do not seem terribly bright, go straight to sleep.
Not long afterwards, Esben arrives on his stick horse and sneaks inside. Based on an inexplicable hunch, he swaps his brothers’ nightcaps for those worn by eleven of the witch’s daughters, then hides under a bed. Soon the witch comes into the room with an axe. It’s too dark to see who occupies which bed, and to light a lamp does not suit her purposes, so she tries to guess from feel. She leaves the room believing she has beheaded her eleven guests. Thanks to Esben’s intervention, she has instead killed her own daughters.
When he is sure the witch has gone to sleep, Esben gets up and wakens his brothers, telling them to flee. They aren’t grateful, but they go, and he goes with them. In the morning they cross a river and reach a palace, where they are taken into service as stablehands. Esben, being young and little, is dismissed as useless. His brothers don’t speak up for him; the cook, however, thinks he’s funny and feeds him scraps. As a result he goes mostly unnoticed, which his brothers do not – they catch the attention of a vicious-tempered knight who, having won the king’s favour, is using it to wreck the lives of anyone he happens not to like. When the brothers refuse to defer to him, he goes to the king and tells him they know how to find a gold and silver dove. But they won’t get it unless threatened with death.
The king swallows the story effortlessly. Either the brothers give him the dove or they give him their heads. Hearing of the ultimatum, Esben wheedles himself a bag of dried peas and returns to the witch’s house on his stick horse. Sure enough, she has the bird, and he coaxes it off the roof with the peas. The moment it flutters down he stuffs it in a sack. Alerted by the rattle of his stick horse in the courtyard, the witch comes running out, calling him by name. “Was it you that made me kill my eleven daughters?” she shouts. “Yes!” Esben replies, brutally honest, and rides away before she can reach him.
The dove wins the brothers much favour with the king, and Esben none at all. The knight who stumped up the task in the first place is disgusted at how it turned out and quickly comes up with a harder goal – to produce a boar with silver and gold bristles. He really has a thing for that colour scheme. The brothers, of course, haven’t the slightest idea how to get hold of such a creature, but the king sets his heart on it and tosses out axe-related threats that end up at Esben’s ear. The boy quietly slips away, back to the witch’s cottage with a bag of malt. He uses this to entice the boar (because naturally, she has one) into a sack. He then rides away, with the witch running and shrieking behind him.
If the dove delighted the king, the boar is even better. He makes the eleven brother equerries (that is, personally responsible for the royal horses, a psychological and financial step up from stablehands). The knight who set them up is outraged. Now he has to think of something truly impossible. “If they were so minded,” he whispers to the king, “they could get you a lamp that shines over seven kingdoms.”
Despite brush-offs from his brothers, who appear to think their good fortune comes out of thin air, Esben learns of the latest task and pays yet another visit to the witch’s house, this time bringing a bushel of salt. He arrives at nightfall and climbs down the chimney so that he can search – but she, unlike his brothers, has learned from previous experience and hidden it well. At last Esben crawls into the oven to rest in concealment, and it’s a good thing he does, because the witch wakes up in the night with a craving for porridge. She sends one of her two remaining daughters to make it. Her specification is that there must be no salt in the dish, but while the girl is busy in the larder Esben sneaks out of the oven and tosses the whole bushel of salt into the pot.
Naturally, this meal does not suit the witch at all. There is no water in the house to make a second pot, so she is forced to fetch the magical lamp so that her daughter can go out to the well. Esben follows the girl, pushes her in, and takes the lamp for himself. Hearing her daughter’s screams, the witch comes running to pull her out and sees Esben disappearing on his stick horse, but all her outrage can’t bring him back.
Having completed three tasks – well, having let Esben complete them – you might think the brothers would now be safe, but quite soon the king has a passionate need for a coverlet sewn over with bells that can be heard in eight kingdoms. The witch, of course, has that in her keeping too. As soon as Esben lays a hand on it, however, the bells ring out, and she finally catches him. Showing tremendous self-restraint, she does not rip him apart on the spot; instead, she calls to her youngest daughter, and together they lock him in a dark room. There he will stay until he is fat enough to eat. To make sure he gains enough weight, she sets him a strict diet of nuts and cream, delivered by the thirteenth girl.
Despite the fact that Esben arranged the deaths of her eleven sisters and pushed the twelfth down a well, this daughter takes a liking to him. When her mother wants his finger chopped off, so that she can tell whether he’s fat enough yet, the girl wraps a nail in silk and offers that instead, buying him more time to think. In the end he has her give a roll of fat to the witch, convincing her he’s ready to be roasted, but this takes place on the night of a witches’ meeting and she must leave or be punished by her coven. She orders her daughter to prepare Esben in her stead. The girl is sad, but obedient – and Esben is cunning, tricking her into his cell and locking her there. He then runs upstairs to take the coverlet. Alerted by its ringing bells, the witch comes racing home. The sight of Esben galloping away enrages her so greatly that she…bursts into a million pieces of flint. As you do.
Esben has been away so long this time that his brothers have been imprisoned for their failure, with their executions scheduled for the next morning. So Esben takes the coverlet to the king himself, and reveals the whole story. Dismissing the slanderous knight from court, the king then offers all the brothers dukedoms, but they have finally realised what a fairweather patron he is and decide to go home to the farm instead. Piled high with gold and silver, they are welcomed home with open arms – even Esben, who only had to become a murderer and a thief to win his family’s respect.
This is a rather confronting story, one I’ve never liked. The witch is certainly a terrible person, but to be tricked into killing her own children is a brutal plot twist and Esben never shows the smallest hint of regret at what he’s done, even when the thirteenth sister treats him with such kindness. They are all capable of cruelty, youngest son and brothers, witch and daughters, king and knight. No one comes out of this one as a hero.