Cue the curse-breaking and mass reanimations! Since starting this project two years ago I’ve spent one hundred Tuesdays reviewing fairy tales and if you aren’t equipped to get that joke by now, I do not know what to do with you people.
As I’ve already reviewed ‘Sleeping Beauty’, however, I looked elsewhere for this week’s fairy tale. A milestone such as this requires celebration, and what better way than DRAGONS! It’s often assumed that all fairy tale dragons want to do is eat princesses and lurk in caverns of gold – and that the happy ending demands death by knight – but there is so much more to them than that and I have a quartet of fabulous fiery beasts only too happy to prove it.
Story 1: Chien Tang
This Chinese fairy tale is taken from Ruth Manning-Sanders’ collection A Book of Dragons and its titular hero is a dragon in the service of Heaven. His duty is to bring down the rain when it is most needed and blow the clouds away when it is not. When not thus occupied, he lives peaceably in his well. The grateful populace often come there to sing his praises, dropping poems and flowers as tokens of their appreciation, but one day the fairy tale version of an internet troll comes by to make trouble. He throws a bundle of rags and a rude little down the well for Chien Tang to read.
You know what they say about letting sleeping dragons lie? That’s because BAD THINGS happen when you offend them. Chien Tang is so outraged that he whips up a ferocious storm and makes it rain for nine whole years. Villages are washed away and the people either drown or flee.
This is known as an overreaction.
At last the Supreme Ruler of Heaven has had enough and throws Chien Tang into a lake to think about what he’s done, whilst chained to a pillar so he can’t do it again. The pillar belongs to the palace of the Dragon King, who is incidentally Chien Tang’s brother. The Dragon King has recently married off his beautiful daughter to the dragon king of a nearby river – in hindsight, a dreadful mistake. Her husband is abusive and treats her like a slave.
Dragons, it’s important to note, can be shapeshifters. The princess is out herding goats in human form when she meets a young student called Liu. Seeing how unhappy she looks, he offers his assistance and she reveals the whole miserable business. A similar explanation is contained in a letter she has written for her father, but until now she’s had no means of sending it. Acting on her instructions, Liu goes to the Dragon King’s lake and strikes the tallest tree on the bank three times. This draws the attention of a young dragon who takes him down to a magnificent bejewelled palace, where the whole court await his message. When the Dragon King himself enters and the truth of his daughter’s marriage comes out, everybody begins to weep and wail. Too late, they remember that the princess’s uncle is within hearing range.
Outraged on behalf of his niece, Chien Tang breaks free of his chain and soars to the rescue. He takes care of the situation with incredible speed: first devouring his niece’s awful husband, then dashing up to Heaven to ask forgiveness for the whole flooding thing, before returning to the lake with the glowing princess in his arms. She marries Liu instead, who now has excellent motivation to be the ideal spouse.
Story 2: Pepito
This Greek story is from the same collection. Pepito is a young woodcutter struggling to support his widowed mother. One day, while out at work in the forest, he is approached by a well-dressed merchant offering a sweet deal – several days service on a short voyage in exchange for a hatful of gold pieces. Pepito does not need to be asked twice. The merchant has a whole fleet of ships waiting, and when Pepito arrives they set off.
Three days later they drop anchor alongside an island that is ninety nine percent mountain. Pepito’s job is to get to the top and throw down whatever he finds there. There’s a catch: the only way to reach the top is to be sewn inside a carcass so that the hungry local eagles will carry him up, then cut his way free before they tear the carcass to pieces. Pepito manages, just. The eagles are deeply unhappy about being tricked.
Fighting his way free of the bull hide, Pepito looks around and realises just what it is the merchant wants so badly. The top of the mountain is a meadow where brightly coloured flowers grow thickly – and scattered around them just as thickly are jewels and coins. Pepito is entranced. At the merchant’s distant shout, though, he snaps to his task and begins hurling treasure over the side of the mountain. He works all day, until every ship is loaded. Then the merchant sets sail, abandoning Pepito with no way to get down.
All of that treasure seems considerably less appealing now. Pepito throws a huge gemstone out of sheer misery, accidentally revealing a ladder that was hidden beneath. It leads down to a dark passage, and that in turn leads to a lush valley. A marble palace amidst the green fields implies habitation, so Pepito heads for that. As he walks through the open gates there appears to be no one home, but a loaf of bread and flagon of milk are laid out in one room. Pepito is draining the last of the milk when a whirring of wings alerts him to the return of the owner. It is a magnificent dragon with a golden beard and golden horns! Far from being angry at Pepito’s arrival, the dragon is thrilled to have company. He beams welcoming fangs and wags his tail, trying to look approachable.
Pepito cautiously introduces himself. “I haven’t got a name that I know of,” the dragon sadly replies. “You see, there’s no one to call me anything. And no one to talk to except the fishes in the stream. And they’re so silly – they do nothing but giggle.” It’s all too much. He bursts into tears. Pepito, remembering a rumour that dragons love pearls, offers one he pocketed in the meadow and the dragon cheers right up, fitting the jewel into the scales of his neck.
They are oddly matched housemates, but Pepito hasn’t much choice in the matter and the dragon is a deeply conscientious host, giving his new friend the best of everything. Then one day Pepito notices a door he hasn’t seen before and wants to know what’s behind it. At first the dragon tries to deflect him. Eventually, however, he’s pressured into handing over the key. On the other side lies a pretty but otherwise unremarkable garden and Pepito is just about to leave when a pigeon flutters down, turning into a beautiful girl. She takes off her robe of feathers and bathes in the garden’s fountain. Disregarding the basic rules of privacy, Pepito tries to talk to her, but she just pulls on her robe and flies away.
The dragon explains the situation. The girl’s father is a magician and her mother is a witch; they cursed her to be trapped in the shape of pigeon, only allowed to become human when she bathes in the fountain. This is the kind of punishment magical parents consider appropriate for disobedience. Pepito is immediately fired up with the resolve to rescue her, which isn’t really that difficult – all he needs to do is take away her robe of feathers. Next time she comes down to the fountain, he seizes it and proposes marriage.
The girl seems okay with that. It’s better than being a pigeon, anyway. The dragon is less than pleased at the interruption to his bromance, but produces some beautiful clothes for the girl to wear instead of her robe. He advises Pepito to burn the feathers, but Pepito thinks they’re too beautiful and the girl assures him she’ll never want to wear the robe again. The dragon turns himself into a priest to marry them, then back into a dragon to be their sole and somewhat sulky wedding guest.
The couple live very happily in the dragon’s palace. In time they have two children, a boy and a girl, and the lullaby their mother sings to them reminds Pepito of his own mother. The dragon, who has grown very attached to the whole family, nobly offers to send Pepito home, on the condition he eventually comes back. In a blink of dragon magic, Pepito finds himself transported to his mother’s cottage, his wife and children with him. The joy of the reunion is supplemented with the long-promised gold.
Pepito buys a farm (forgetting all about his promise to the dragon) and has his mother come live with him. He gives her the feather robe to hide, but it’s so beautiful that she sometimes brings it out to admire, and on one such occasion her daughter-in-law comes in unexpectedly. She reaches out to touch the feathers and the robe lifts by itself, wrapping around her. A pigeon once more, and the children cursed with her, she cries out a clue for her husband: “seek me in the castles green and the castles red and the five white towers!”
Pepito’s mother passes on the directions when he gets home, but he has no idea what they mean. His only hope is the dragon. Disguising himself, he goes to the port and hires on with the same merchant. This time he turns the tables; the merchant gets him where he wants to go, but doesn’t get so much as a penny out of it. Instead Pepito climbs straight down the passage to the dragon’s hidden valley.
His friend has been desperately lonely since he left and is so overjoyed to see Pepito again that he turns somersaults. His mood takes a downturn when he realises Pepito is just there for information and plans to go away again when he gets it, but being an awesome person and the best of friends the dragon tells him what to do anyway. Deep in the dragon’s palace are stored a rusty sword, an old hat and the stump of a poplar tree – all of which are considerably more powerful than they appear. The sword will cut down whatever it’s told, the hat will make you invisible, and the stump will carry you wherever you need to go. Abandoned twice over, the dragon sadly watches Pepito go.
The five white towers stand on a white mountain, which sounds like a riddle about teeth or something but isn’t. Pepito’s wife is in the courtyard of the fifth tower, dressed in rags and feeding chickens. Amongst the poultry are two little pigeons. Pepito whips off his hat to reveal himself and his family rush to greet him, but this reunion isn’t set to go smoothly. The doors to the tower fly open and Pepito’s wife barely has time to cram the hat back on his head before her father the magician comes storming out. It turns into a bit of a farce – the magician running all over the yard, trying to lay hands on Pepito, sending gusts of wind to pry at his magic hat, all without success. At last the magician gives up. “You can take your wife,” he declares, “if by tomorrow morning you have thrown down this mountain and made a flower garden of it.”
Pepito has no chance. Pepito’s wife does. She has him throw a tile in the tower well, and at once a small army of workmen rise out of it to start pulling apart the mountain. Sure enough, by morning the towers stand in a field of flowers.
That’s not enough for the cursed girl’s parents. The witch comes bursting forth next, riding an extremely unhappy dragoness, to help her husband catch Pepito. He can’t elude both of them, so draws his sword of last resort and orders it to cut off both their heads. At once the two little pigeons turn into Pepito’s children and he has his family climb aboard the poplar to go home. “You can go home, too,” he suggests to the dragoness. She starts crying. Home for her was the well in the yard, and it’s horrible down there. “Would you like to have a handsome husband and live in a palace?” Pepito the matchmaker enquires. It doesn’t take much effort to convince the dragoness, and the whole lot of them return to the dragon’s valley together.
He’s waiting there miserably for Pepito to return. At the sight of his friend, he bounds over, hoping this time he’s back for good – which he’s not. But then the two dragons are introduced, and it’s love at first sight. As Pepito and his family fly away, they look back and see the dragon and dragoness dancing through the flowery valley to their own happily ever after.
Story 3: Yanni
In this Macedonian fairy tale (also from A Book of Dragons), a boy called Yanni is on his way to visit his sweetheart when a dragon jumps out at him from behind a fountain and explains his new title is ‘dinner’. “If your dinner I must be,” Yanni bargains, “let me first say goodbye to my dear little sweetheart!” The dragon consents.
Yanni arrives at the girl’s house in a state of understandable depression. When he tells her what’s happened, she insists on accompanying him back to the fountain. The dragon is delighted at the sight of them (“My dinner comes double!”), but the girl has a plan. “Go on and fear not,” she tells Yanni. “I have eaten nine dragons for breakfast – I will now eat the tenth one!”
She’s terribly convincing. The dragon edges nervously back. “Pray tell me, friend Yanni,” he says, “whose daughter is that one?” The girl steps in front of her lover. “I am the daughter of Lightning,” she declares, “grand-daughter of Thunder. Move aside, Yanni. I will flash with my lightning, I will crash with my thunder! I will eat this small dragon!”
The dragon flies away as fast as he can and never comes back.
Story 4: Damian and the Dragon
This Greek story comes from a different Manning-Sanders anthology, also entitled Damian and the Dragon. It starts with a king, who has three sons and one daughter. One morning he asks each of his sons to tell him their dreams from the night before, because these will reveal their true selves. The elder two princes dream of possessing great estates, or at least are smart enough to say they do, so their father grants them large chunks of the kingdom. The youngest prince, Damian, doesn’t want to admit to his dream at all, but when pressed, admits in his dream his father brought his washing water and his mother a towel, like servants. The king is furious. Though Damian tries to explain it’s only a dream and not what he really believes, he’s sent on a walk in the woods with the royal executioner, and it’s plain he’s not intended to come back.
The executioner doesn’t have the heart to go through with it. He confesses the plan. Damian comes up with a compromise; he has the executioner cut off his finger and stain his shirt with the blood, to take to the king as evidence of his ‘death’. He then walks away from everything, all because of a stupid dream.
For six months he lives as a beggar. At last he comes to a large castle, where he hopes there may be work. No one answers his knocks, so he walks into the courtyard – and sees a dragon coming in at the same time, driving a flock of sheep. Damian quickly hides behind a pillar. He needn’t have worried; the dragon has no eyes to see him with.
When the dragon starts milking the sheep, Damian sneaks over to drink some. Later, he watches the dragon settle in the great hall of the castle with a pipe and decides to adopt him. Seriously, he comes over and introduces himself as his son.
The dragon is surprised, but not displeased. As he can’t see, Damian’s presence is actually very useful. The prince turns housekeeper, cleaning the long-disused chambers of the castle, bringing in wood, even scouring the milk pail. He makes an excellent son and the dragon, providing square meals and a supportive attitude, makes an excellent dad.
One day, while the dragon is out tending the sheep, Damian finds a flute forgotten on a shelf. When he plays it, all the furniture begins to dance. Even the castle begins to waltz around him. The dragon returns home puffing, having been obliged to dance as well. Damian conscientiously offers to tend the sheep the next day and the dragon agrees, on one condition: he must not go near the green hill with the little house on top. Witch-maidens live there, and they collect eyes. That’s how the dragon lost his.
Damian promises obediently to avoid the hill, and of course the moment he’s out of the castle that’s exactly where he goes. The witch sisters who live there see him coming and immediately covet his bright eyes – but before they can catch him, Damian starts playing the flute. The witch-maidens are forced to dance along with everything else. One nearly gets hold of Damian, but he seizes her hair and ties it to a branch instead. The second witch makes a desperate leap – but no, he catches her and ties her up the same way.
“Restore my father’s eyes,” he commands. The sisters tell him the eyes are in a box on their mantleshelf, in the shape of two apples, but are guarded by a pair of imps. Damian must greet them with a cry of ‘Chuck! Chuck’ – by no means ‘Bo!’ – and cuddle them so they’ll let him pass. He doesn’t trust a word of their instructions, and cries ‘Bo!’ instead. The imps fall in the fire with shock and puff out of existence. That leaves Damian to take the apples unimpeded. The witches call for him to let them down, but he insists on restoring the dragon’s eyes before going near them again.
That evening he convinces the dragon to eat both apples and two golden eyes appear in his head. The first thing the dragon does is hug Damian; the second, to go vapourise the witches. When he comes back he gives Damian a ring of keys, and tells him that anything he fancies in the castle is now his. Damian finds whole rooms of gold and silver, heaps of precious stones, all kinds of treasure – but has no use for any of it. At last he takes a few gemstones, a beautiful suit of silver clothes, a rather impressive sword and a suit of armour. He’s on his way back to the dragon when he notices one more door, to which he has no key.
The dragon is very reluctant to let him in. First he pretends the key is lost, then he tells the prince that if he enters the room, he’ll never come back. Seeing how upset his adoptive father is, Damian tries to forget the door, but can’t get it out of his head. Eventually the dragon caves and gives him a tiny key. “Unlock that door if you must,” he says, “but remember that wherever you go my love goes with you.” Dragon dads are the best dads.
Damian is puzzled by this attitude. He only intends to take a quick look. On the other side of the door is a stable, and in that is a silvery mare. “So, my prince,” she exclaims, “you have come at last! We must be away faster than the wind!” The king, it turns out, has made another huge blunder. He’s announced that whatever man can leap across the great marsh behind the palace may marry Damian’s only sister – and a great many men have tried. The neighbouring kingdoms are up in arms to avenge their drowned sons. Damian may know his father’s faults firsthand, but he doesn’t want him to die. Jumping on the mare’s back, he returns home with whirlwind speed.
That’s not enough for the mare. She insists he buy a bladder from a butcher’s shop and put it over his head so it looks like he’s bald, then cover her up in the hide of a dead horse. Next, she has him buy ragged clothes to replace his silver suit. They are going to leap the marsh and mustn’t be recognised. Damian thinks that’s a terrible idea – he’s the last person who wants to win his sister’s hand – but the mare is determined and he reluctantly goes along with her plan.
The king is in a dreadful temper. He’s sick of watching suitors drown but too stubborn to change his own criteria. He doesn’t recognise his son, who is admittedly very well disguised, and is appalled when this ‘bald beggar’ manages what no one else could. “Whoever calls that fellow my son-in-law shall have his head cut off!” he shouts, but the whole crowd around the marsh is saying it and so he stumps furiously back home to punish the princess instead, because he can. She’s shut in the stable on a diet of bread and water. The queen, though, has a comfortable bed and a good meal sent down, so that’s all right.
Basically the no.1 rule for survival in this family is don’t tell the king.
Being in a murderous state of mind, the king heads defiantly off to war, despite being badly outnumbered. On the way Damian falls deliberately into a ditch to embarrass him. The moment the rest of the army has passed by, he jumps out again, whips off his disguise and races to the battlefield in shining armour to save the day. Well, save his father’s day. The opposing armies are beaten back and the silvery mare leaps into the clouds, making the king believe it was an angel sent by God to save him. Have I mentioned he has a bit of an ego?
That night Damian breaks into the stable to visit his sister. She’s thrilled to see him and laughs at his story. Overhearing, the king mistakes this for unbecoming hijinks and wants to execute her on the spot. His wife seizes his arm, panicked. “In heaven’s name, what are you about?” she cries. “Perhaps the poor girl is only laughing for grief!”
Um. Your excuses could do with some work, honey. The king settles for sending out a maidservant to tell the princess to shut up, but the maid gets caught up in the excitement of the prince’s return and the noise from the stable only gets louder. The king, working himself into a towering rage, rushes out to kill the lot of them, only to see his saviour standing there in shining armour. He still doesn’t recognise Damian as his son. The prince refuses to come out, saying he’ll visit the palace tomorrow. In preparation, the king has every room adorned in gold and silver and a glorious feast laid out. During the banquet, he even brings Damian his washing water, and has the queen bring a towel.
Afterwards, Damian stands up, saying he wants to tell a story. The king orders that anyone who interrupts shall have their head chopped off, and actually calls the executioner over to stand ready. So Damian begins with three princes, and three dreams – and the king interrupts. At every juncture of the very familiar tale, he has exclamations and questions and the executioner doesn’t know quite what to do. When Damian reaches the part about the bloody shirt, he holds up his missing finger and turns to the executioner to thank him for his life.
The king hides under the table. How did this man ever end up RUNNING A COUNTRY?
But Damian is all “bygones!” and pulls him out. He doesn’t want the king to grovel, and he definitely doesn’t want the throne. He does insist on the executioner getting a dukedom. Things change for the better in the kingdom, because whenever the king is on the point of losing his temper all Damian needs to do is hold up his stump of a finger and his father is instantly quieted.
What about his other father, though? The dragon who was an actual decent parent? Nudged into remembering by the silver mare, Damian rides back to visit and finds the dragon crying while he milks the sheep. “Father!” Damian whispers, the way he did when they first met. “Here is your son.” Huge hugs ensue. And every full moon after that, Damian comes back to visit.
Some dragons are villains, some are just cowards, and yet others are heroes. Claws can be fearsome or beautiful – it all depends on who tells the story. The reason I started writing Fairy Tale Tuesdays in the first place was because the stories I knew were so much more complicated, and so much better, than the versions I was seeing told. Tradition is made from what we choose to remember, so next time you read a fairy tale, remember this. The princess is not always waiting for rescue; sometimes, she battles kings and witches and Destiny itself. The prince is not always a hero. Sometimes, he’s the one who needs saving. The stepmother isn’t always a villain, and the dragon doesn’t have to die.