Here is some life advice for you: wells are where the scary things are, avoid them if you can. If you live in a fairy tale, unfortunately, decent plumbing is a dream up there with winged piglets, so it generally comes down to using a well or dying of dehydration. Either way, you’re in trouble.
Story 1: Kojata
In this Russian fairy tale, taken from Ruth Manning-Sanders’ collection A Book of Wizards, a king has been travelling through his lands, distracting himself from his childless state with the vocal adoration of the populace. During the homeward journey, his retinue makes camp in a shady wood until the worst of the day’s heat has passed. The only one who remains awake is the king, who is struck by a sudden thirst. Instead of rousing an attendant to fetch water, he goes off alone to look for a spring.
Before long he comes across a well. Floating conveniently on the surface is a golden goblet; less conveniently, it is impossible to catch. Eventually the king gives up and stoops to drink directly from the well, but when he tries to straighten he realises that something under the water has a hold on his beard. Looking down, he sees a face staring back at him with blazing green eyes and an unnaturally wide grin.
The king struggles wildly to free himself, to no avail. His captor waits until he’s too worn out to fight any more before speaking. “I am the wizard Kojata. You have drunk of my well without my leave. I will never let you go unless you make me a promise…A promise to give me the most precious thing your palace contains; the precious thing that was not there when you came away.”
Could it be more obvious that THIS IS A TRICK?
The king, however, who is one sharp tug away from drowning, quickly agrees and heads home with all speed. A grand celebration appears to be taking place in the capital. At first he assumes the banners and cheering are a homecoming surprise, but when he reaches the palace he sees his wife waiting to greet him with a newborn baby in her arms. From this we can establish two things: the king was away a really long time, and he’s already ruined his son’s life.
His response is deepest denial. The prince, named Alexey, grows up knows nothing of the deal – until one day while out hunting, he is separated from his companions and becomes lost in the woods. A tree trunk opens before him like a door and a wizard with glowing green eyes steps out. “Go home and greet your father from me,” he says. “Remind him of his debt, and tell him I await its payment.”
When Alexey relates the story his father goes into a meltdown and calls a barber immediately, because obviously getting rid of the beard is priority No.1. He also reluctantly reveals the bargain made over the well. Alexey, confident he can repay his father’s debt and return safely, rides back to the tree from which the wizard ambushed him. Kojata is nowhere to be seen.
Alexey rides on, waiting for a sign. At length he comes to a lake where thirty ducks are swimming and thirty shifts are laid out on the shore. The prince puts the two together and deduces something magical is going on. Stealing a shift from the lineup, he hides in the rushes to watch as the ducks return to shore. One by one they shrug on their shifts and transform into beautiful girls, who are then swallowed by the earth. At last only one duck is left, searching frantically among the rushes. When she spies the hidden prince, he returns her clothes and she turns into a girl. Specifically, the Princess Nadya, youngest daughter of the wizard Kojata and quite the plotter herself. She recognises Alexey at once and takes him down into her father’s subterranean palace, with the warning that no matter what happens, he must show no fear.
That’s easier said than done; Kojata is in a frothing rage. Obeying Nadya’s instructions, though, the prince approaches on his knees, making himself proudly ridiculous. Kojata finds the display amusing and sends Alexey to spend the night in a magnificent suite. In the morning, the friendly mood dissipates abruptly. “By this time tomorrow you must build me a marble palace,” Kojata announces, “with windows of crystal and a roof of gold. The palace is to stand in the middle of a beautiful garden with fish ponds and waterfalls. If you are able to do this, we shall be friends. If you are not able to do it – off goes your head, for I have no use for people who are not clever.” I don’t think ‘friend’ means what you think it means, wizard king.
Alexey spends the rest of the day moping in his suite, unable to eat or sleep, but as evening falls a bee taps at the window and turns into Princess Nadya. She tells him not to worry, building ornate palaces overnight is a gift of hers. Certainly her father can find no fault with her work the next day, but that doesn’t mean Alexey is safe. Kojata’s next task is to line up his thirty daughters and have the prince find Nadya among them. When she comes to him that night, Alexey brims with confidence, and it’s her turn to doubt. Her thirty sisters are so alike her own father needs magic to tell them apart. “You will know me by a ladybird on my left eyelid,” she tells him, and departs the room as a bee. Insects are kind of her thing.
The task is as difficult as she predicted. The thirty girls are dressed and posed identically, and Alexey is only allowed to look at the line three times. Despite his care, he almost misses the tell-tale ladybird – but he does see it, and Kojata, far from being impressed, is outraged. “In three hours from now I shall set alight a handful of straw,” he declares, “and before that straw is burnt up you shall turn it into a pair of boots. You shall do this in my presence, you rogue, that I may see with my own eyes if anyone helps you!”
Alexey and Nadya meet in the prince’s suite to discuss their options, which in this context means Nadya coming up with another fiendish plan. Locking the door and throwing away the key, she seizes Alexey’s hand and leads him from the palace into the open air. They emerge by the lake where they first met, to find Alexey’s horse grazing there happily. It amiably enters the getaway spirit and gallops away.
Three hours later Kojata sends his servants to fetch the prince. Nadya’s breath, frozen on the window-pane, replies ‘I am coming directly’. Kojata waits a few minutes, then sends the servants back. Three times the echo of Nadya’s magic delays them, until Kojata’s patience snaps and he has the door broken down. With the plot revealed, the servants set off in pursuit and soon close in on the runaways. Nadya turns herself into a river, the prince into an iron bridge, and the horse into a blackbird. On the far bank, the road branches three ways, none of them marked by hoofprints. Bewildered, the servants return empty-handed to their master, but he isn’t fooled and sends them out again in a screaming fury. This time Nadya, queen of disguise, transforms her trio into the illusion of a vast forest, losing the servants in her depths. I have no words for her awesome.
Realising his minions are hopelessly outmatched, Kojata sets off in pursuit himself. Alexey wears a cross around his throat; Nadya uses it to transform herself into a church, the prince into a monk and the horse into a candle. That’s one way of making your body a temple…Fooled by the façade, Kojata stops to question the ‘monk’ and is told the lovers have already moved on. He has no power to pass the church, and so must return to his palace alone. He’s even talked out of slaughtering his servants, on the principle he’d then have to do everything himself, so all that’s left to do is fume.
Alexey, meanwhile, returns home with a stunning sorceress and gets married with all speed. “In the beginning my beard caused us to live in trouble, so I cut it off,” the king muses. “But in the end, behold it has caused us to live in happiness! I will grow it again!”
Story 2: Alas!
This Greek story, from Ruth Manning-Sanders’ Damian and the Dragon, introduces us to a poverty-stricken widow and her useless son. The thing going for Andronikos is good looks; if you expect him to actually do anything, you’re in for a disappointment. He’s so lazy that he’d rather eat dough than go to trouble of fetching firewood so his mother can make bread. Despite an ache in her knees and an excess of chores, she must go herself. She leans her bundle against the parapet of a well to give herself a break and mutters “Alas! Alas!”
At once an ogre leaps from the well and wants to know what’s up. In an unexpected coincidence, his name is ‘Alas’ and he believes she’s called on him for assistance. With a series of pointed questions, he learns about Andronikos and suggests the widow bring him to the well for tutoring, ogre-style. “Oh, sir, but you have such big teeth!” the widow worries. “Bah!” Alas cries dismissively. “I swear to you, mother, I never eat men. They don’t agree with my stomach.”
To sweeten the deal, he produces a handful of gold coins. If she brings the boy, she will receive another handful; if she doesn’t, Alas will destroy them both. The widow returns home somewhat shattered and explains the situation to her son. As if to emphasise her point, an earthquake strikes and one of their walls collapses. “Now we have plenty of fresh air,” Andronikos laughs, but seeing his mother’s panic, he agrees to go.
Upon meeting the ogre, he is still unfazed. The job he’s being offered is hardly strenuous – house-sitting when Alas is away, the odd bit of sweeping – the only condition being that he’s forbidden from entering the garden. Not that Andronikos cares. On his very first day he strolls carelessly through the gate to admire the flowers. “Not go into the garden indeed! I shall come here every day!”
There is a cottage hidden among the flowers, and a girl in the cottage. She calls Andronikos over to tell him, in a nice way, that he is an idiot. While Alas doesn’t eat humans, he’s a tricksy carnivore regardless. He has enchanted water that can transform unwanted apprentices into a hare or lamb, which he will then devour. The girl, however, has a plan. She is the guardian of the Red Water, the most magical draught of all, and Alas’s last resort for stubborn victims. It can turn anyone into an animal – and any animal, at that.
When Alas returns empty-handed and hungry, he gives Andronikos the enchanted water and tells him to shake himself, so as to transform into a hare. Andronikos pretends he doesn’t know how to shake himself, and he gives off such a general air of incompetency that Alas believes him. When persistence and shouting fail to achieve any result, Alas storms over to the girl’s cottage to air his grievances, and she suggests he use the Red Water. No sooner has Andronikos drunk it, however, than he shakes himself, becomes a pigeon and flies the heck out of there.
With his dinner disappearing on the horizon, Alas turns into an eagle and gives chase. The pigeon becomes a fly and hides in a bath-house; Alas becomes a rich man, buys the bath-house and loses the fly, who has already moved on. Zipping through a palace window, Andronikos transforms into a carnation and falls into a princess’s lap. Alas, right behind him, turns into a Turkish ambassador and pressures the king into handing over the flower. The king sees no reason why not, but Andronikos has played his last card: turning back into a hot idiot and pouring out his tale of woe to a dazzled princess. She sends down a bouquet of carnations from the garden instead.
This plan fails miserably; Alas can tell the difference and the king believes him, demanding the princess give the real flower or have it taken from her. The moment the carnation touches the ogre’s hand, however, it turns into a grain of wheat and Alas turns into a rooster to chase it down. The wheat becomes a fox and eats the rooster up.
The king goes into a flailing panic, but Andronikos talks him down. “There is nothing to fear,” he declares. “I am a prince; my mother was a fairy, and taught me much magic. The man you saw was my servant, and he stole my book of enchantments.” The king swallows the lie so easily that he even offers his daughter’s hand in marriage. Andronikos, though, has a few loose ends to take care of, and asks for seven days grace to make his decision.
First, he returns to the well, where his mother waits anxiously with the ogre’s gold, hoping to bargain for his life. BEST MUM. Andronikos sends her home with the reassurance it’s not blood money, he’s just fine, he’ll come see her soon! Then he goes to meet the girl in the ogre’s garden. “I will take you home to your parents,” he tells her, “or I will marry you, whichever you please.” The girl is either betrothed or wants Andronikos to believe she is, and she really doesn’t need his help, because hello, guardian of the Red Water? Taking a draught herself, she turns into a pigeon. Andronikos escorts her home as an eagle, then flies back to the credulous king and his daughter to accept the proposal of marriage. Which goes to show you can be as useless as you like if you’re the hero of the story, and base your happy ending on a con, because the narrative loves you anyway.
Story 3: The Dragon of the Well
This fairy tale is also Greek, and another Manning-Sanders story from her collection A Book of Dragons. A king with three daughters goes on a little ego trip by calling the girls together and demanding to know just how much they love him. The eldest says she loves him like honey, the second like sugar. The youngest princess, continuing the food analogy, says she loves him like salt. The king is apparently an obsessive sweet tooth with a grudge against savouries, because he banishes the princess on the spot. In fact he throws her into the arms of the first man passing the palace door and tells him to marry her.
The man’s name is Simonides. He takes the princess home and tries to look after her, but as he’s terribly poor and already looking after his mother, he doesn’t really need another dependent. At length things get so bad he journeys into town, hoping for a good job so he can send money home. He’s hired by three merchants as a servant, and one of his first tasks is to refill their water bottles at a well by the road. Unbeknownst to him, the well is home to a dragon.
The dragon is not a looker. In fact, he’s kind of nightmarish, but the princess’s husband greets him politely and the dragon is so pleased by this unexpected civility he decides that only will he not eat him, he’ll give him Simonides pomegranates. One is to send to his wife; the other two he must keep, and not cut open until he reaches home. Simonides returns to the merchants with the water in his hands and the fruit hidden in his pockets. When he meets a man going the opposite way, he entrusts one of the pomegranates to him and thinks no more about it.
This is no ordinary fruit, however. When the princess cuts it open to share with her mother-in-law, diamonds spill out instead of seeds. By the time Simonides returns home, his hut has been replaced by a palace. A fountain stands before the gates, offering fresh water to all travellers. He walks bewilderedly inside and the first person he sees is his wife, trailing a rainbow of silks as she jumps into his arms. Catching on, Simonides quickly opens the other two pomegranates and unleashes enough jewels to build an even bigger palace, plus set up a food bank outside for people not fortunate enough to befriend a dragon.
This is quite a story and in time the king hears of it, though he’s unaware he knows the key players. When he writes to the couple, they make no attempt to enlighten him. Instead, the princess orders a magnificent banquet be prepared, with no salt in anything. When the king arrives, he doesn’t even recognise her and gets straight to the food, but without salt finds it all uneatable. “And when I told you I loved you like salt, you drove me away!” the princess exclaims. With her identity waved under his nose, he finally gets it. “I have been foolish and blind,” he assures her. “Salt is more needful than sugar, more precious than honey!” The princess is actually happy where she is, no thanks to him; she accepts his apology and brings out the seasoning.
As for the dragon, Simonides’ friendliness is a turning point. He no longer wants to eat travellers, instead allowing them to drink freely from the well, and in return some take to dropping offerings into the water. The dragon hoards these tokens as his treasure.
So wells aren’t always a bad thing – if you’re lucky, you might make friends with an adorable dragon. The idea of the well as a portal to strange and often sinister places makes sense, and is played out in other fairy tales, such as ‘The Frog Prince’. For every charming reptile and mildly manipulative amphibian, however, there’s a maniacal sorcerer or hungry ogre. I wouldn’t take the risk, if I were you.