In this Grimm brothers story, a tailor purchases jam. That doesn’t sound like the beginning of anything other than lunch, but it’s summer and the tailor, having incautiously left his bread and jam unattended, finds the party crashed by a swarm of flies. He snatches up a nearby bolt of cloth and swats with sharp accuracy, killing seven flies in the one blow.
The success goes to his head somewhat. “What a fellow you are!” he tells himself. “The whole town shall knows of this. Ah – not one city alone; the whole world shall know it!” This being pre-Twitter, he hastily stitches himself a belt that reads ‘Seven at One Blow’, so that everyone who meets him shall know what a fearsome slayer of flies he is.
He now considers himself prepared for great adventures. Putting an old cheese in one pocket, and an unsuspecting bird in the other, he strides off briskly. His way leads him up a hill, at the top of which a giant sits minding his own business. The tailor bounds up to bother him. “Good-day, comrade,” he cries. “In faith, you sit there and see the whole world stretched below you. I am also on my road thither to try my luck. Have you a mind to go with me?”
The giant looks him up and down, mostly down, utterly unimpressed. The tailor responds to the dismissal by opening his coat to reveal the grandiose belt. Assuming the ‘seven at one blow’ refers to men the tailor has killed, the giant’s interest is caught and he wants to prove the claim. Thankfully not by killing random passersby; no, he wants a contest of strength. The giant squeezes a stone so hard it drips water, and asks the tailor to do the same. Instead of taking up a stone, the tailor squeezes his cheese, which yields with considerably more ease. The giant tries another challenge, tossing a stone so high it disappears from sight. The tailor throws his bird, which naturally enough doesn’t return. You’d think the giant might notice that his competitor’s stone has wings, but apparently not.
He’s not satisfied, though. Leading the tailor to a felled oak tree, he asks for help carrying it out of the forest. The tailor agrees at once and offers to hold up the boughs while the giant carries the trunk. This means that the giant must necessarily turn his back to walk in front, and far from helping carry the tree, the tailor hitches a ride amidst the branches. Delighted with his own trickery, he begins to whistle. When the giant stops to rest, he leaps down to embrace his end like he’s been holding it up all along.
Next they pass a cherry tree. The giant seizes the top of the tree and bends it sideways, giving it to the tailor to hold, who of course can’t hold it down for two seconds. It springs back and takes him with it, sending him flying through the air. He lands on the other side uninjured and tells the sceptical giant that he just wanted the view, that leaping over trees is his thing, how about you try it? The giant does, and gets stuck. He’s too embarrassed to keep asking questions.
A rapport of sorts having been struck, the giant invites the tailor home for the night. He doesn’t mention that he has two fellow giants as housemates, or that they plan to kill their guest during the night. Fortunately for the tailor, the bed he’s given is far too big for comfort and he slips off to sleep on the floor, so the blow that was meant to kill him merely ruins the bed. The next morning, he bounces out to greet his hosts and they run away in terror.
Well fortified by this encounter, the tailor continues travelling. At length he grows tired and stops to sleep. Being the kind of man he is, he chooses the courtyard of a palace for this little nap. Passersby stop to read his belt, make the same assumption as the giants and report his arrival to the king. A courtier is sent to wait with the tailor and when he wakes, asks him to lend his clearly legendary fighting skills to the service of the king. “Solely on that account did I come here,” the tailor lies, and just like that is given the cushiest possible post, because the kingdom is at peace and he need not prove anything.
His arrival stirs considerable resentment in the king’s palace. The courtiers worry that should the kingdom go to war, he’ll claim all the glory of victory for himself, and work themselves into such a state they approach the king to offer an ultimatum: the tailor goes or they do. Hiring a man who kills seven at a blow is easier than firing him – the king is too afraid to dismiss him directly, so comes up with a suicidal task. There are a pair of giant robbers living in the forest, so powerful that no one can stop them. It’s the tailor’s task to kill them both. If he succeeds, he will win the king’s daughter as his bride and reign over half the kingdom.
The tailor likes the sound of that and strides off into the forest. He soon locates the giants, who are slumped asleep under a tree. The tailor climbs that tree, shins along a branch so he’s positioned directly above the sleepers and starts dropping stones on them. Waking this way, each giant assumes the other is attacking him and they start fighting. It ends with trees broken in all directions and two giants lying dead on the ground. The tailor concludes his task by stabbing both giants through the heart so it looks like he killed them himself and goes to inform the king.
Who promptly produces another excuse. A unicorn is running rampant in the same forest – if the tailor wants to earn his princess and title, he must catch it. I’m pretty sure this is the first time a unicorn has shown up in Fairy Tale Tuesdays! The tailor sets off alone, as before. Finding the unicorn isn’t difficult; it no sooner sees him than it charges, but being very light of foot he manages to jump aside in time. The unicorn rams the tree behind him instead, and can’t get its horn free. The tailor harnesses it with rope, cuts it free and brings it back to the king.
But what kind of fairy tale monarch demands only two tasks? There has to be a third! In the Forest of All Things Havoc, there is a wild boar in need of capture. The tailor positions himself beside a conveniently isolated chapel. When the boar runs at him, he skips aside, so that it overshoots into the building and the tailor just has to shut the door. Out of excuses, the king allows his champion to marry his none too enthusiastic daughter, and hands over half his kingdom for the couple to rule.
The tailor, it turns out, talks in his sleep. One night his wife overhears him muttering about waistcoats and yard-measures and puts the clues together. It’s the last straw. She runs to her father, demanding he fix things, and he promises to have the tailor kidnapped during the night. Unfortunately for the royals, the tailor overhears their plotting and comes up with a plan of his own. Pretending to be asleep that night, he starts muttering again. “Boy, make me this waistcoat, and stitch up these trousers, or I will beat the yard-measure about your ears! Seven have I killed with one blow; two giants have I slain; a unicorn have I led captive; and a wild boar have I caught; and shall I be afraid of those who stand without my chamber?”
The king’s servants hear him and flee. After that, no one dares oppose him, and so the con artist becomes king. Self-belief can be a scary thing.
This is one of those stories coded to try and make you sympathise with a protagonist whose only valuable qualities appear to be luck, cunning and underdog status. I don’t hate the tailor, but I’m desperately sorry for the princess. An extraordinary ego does not a hero make, and she’s married to him. She should get with the princesses from ‘King Thrushbeard’ and ‘The Tinderbox’ and start a club.