Yes, you read that right, this Grimm fairy tale is about four brothers, not three, in a startling reversal of narrative norms – but it starts off with a totally familiar scene of the boys gathered together receiving their father’s wisdom. And for once it’s pretty good wisdom. He has no money to bequeath them so advises his sons to all go forth and seek a trade. This they do, and when they come to a crossroads each brother takes a different direction, having first promised one another to return to the same spot in four years time to see how the others have fared. This makes no sense because one of those four roads must lead back the way they came, but four is an important number to this family so let’s pretend we didn’t notice.
The eldest brother tells the first man he meets that he’s looking for a trade and this man immediately offers to teach him – how to be a thief. “No,” the eldest brother replies, shocked, “that is not an honest calling, and what can one look to earn by it in the end but the gallows?” The thief points out this is only a problem if you get caught. “I will only teach you to take what no one else wants, what no one else can get, or care anything about, and where no one can find you out.” The eldest brother overcomes his moral objections pretty quickly and turns out to be really good at thieving. So he’s all right.
The second brother takes the same approach. His random stranger offers to teach him the art of star-gazing, and thus how to read all manner of secrets in the heavens. This brother needs no convincing, and takes to the work well. At the end of his service his master gives him a spyglass. “With this,” he explains, “you can see all that is passing in the sky and on earth, and nothing can be hidden from you.” That sounds more like magic than skill, but whatever, that’s the two eldest brothers set up just fine. Normally by now they’d both be enchanted or dead. This is confusing.
The third brother runs into a friendly hunter, who takes him home and trains him up; at the end of his service, he gets a particularly impressive bow. Meanwhile the youngest brother almost bucks the trend of jumping aboard the first trade suggested to him, because he doesn’t want to be a tailor, but his prospective boss is cunningly enigmatic about the work and eventually rewards his pupil with a needle that can sew anything without leaving behind a visible seam.
So the four brothers meet up at the appointed time and return home to show off their shiny new skills. Their father tests each boy with a small but difficult task. The second brother is told to divine the number of eggs in a birdsnest; his elder brother is told to steal the eggs without the bird knowing they are gone, upon the success of which the third brother is told to shoot all the eggs in half at one shot. Afterwards, it falls to the youngest brother to sew up the eggs and the baby birds inside, so his eldest brother can slip them back into the nest. A few days later the eggs hatch and the baby birds emerge quite well, though with a thin red line across each of their necks as evidence of their brush with the brothers.
Having established the boys are experts in their individual fields, it does not take long for a real challenge to emerge. The king’s daughter is abducted by a dragon and the king has no idea what to do, beyond sending out word that whoever comes up with a successful rescue plan will win the princess’ hand in marriage. Imaginative, he is not. It has the desired effect, though, because the brothers set out straight away. The stargazer looks through his glass (please stop acting like this is science, Grimms, IT IS MAGIC) and sees the princess trapped on a rock in the middle of the sea. The brothers ask the king for a ship and travel to the aforesaid rock, where the dragon is napping, his huge head balanced on the princess’s lap. That cannot be comfortable. The hunter does not want to risk a shot, lest he kill the princess, so the thief sneaks her out from under the dragon and they sail away.
They have not gone far when the dragon wakes and realises his new pet has disappeared. As he dives for the ship, the hunter shoots him through the heart. Unfortunately, the corpse lands square on the ship, overturning it and throwing them all into the water. This is when Brother No.4 comes into his own. Quickly stitching up a few planks into a raft, he paddles about rebuilding the ship. It’s close enough to seaworthy that they reach the shore safely and the princess is returned to her home.
Here arises the first real difficulty of the whole endeavour – if the reward is marriage to the princess and there are four equally worthy candidates, what’s to be done? The brothers squabble about it in frustrated circles, pointing out the value of their own talents, until the king intervenes. “Each of you is right,” he says, “and as all cannot have the young lady, the best way is for neither of you to have her; and to make up for the loss, I will give each, as a reward for his skill, half a crown.” Not an actual crown, it should be pointed out, he’s talking about money, and not very much of it. The brothers, though, are so glad to have a solution they take the coins and go home happily.
This story is unconventional in a few different ways. The elder brothers make it through the story without turning into terrible and/or dead people! The princess doesn’t have to marry anybody! Though I’d be happier if someone had asked her what she thought about her suitors, and whether she fancied any of them. There are quite a few similar stories from all over the world, including Sicily and China – the number of brothers vary, as do their abilities, challenges and eventual reward, but in every story success depends on the whole family working together. This story may be ambiguous about the morality of thieving and financial compensation for heroic action, but its heart is in the right place.