This Grimm fairy tale begins with a pair of brothers – as you may have expected from the title – who are career-coded for ease of reference. One is a goldsmith, rich and evil. The other is a broom-maker, kind-hearted and very poor. The latter brother also has two sons, twin boys who are in the habit of doing odd jobs at their uncle’s house and being rewarded with leftovers from the better table.
While out collecting wood one day, the poor brother catches sight of the most beautiful bird he’s ever seen. So of course the first thing he does is throw a stone at it. What happened to KIND-HEARTED? Luckily all he manages to do is dislodge a feather. He brings it to his brother, who identifies it as pure gold and pays a high price for it. The next day the broom-maker tracks the bird to its nest and steals all its eggs. These, too, are gold and worth a large sum to the rich brother. On the third day, the broom-maker finally succeeds in killing the poor creature, because there is no little old man there at the right moment to salvage matters. He sells the dead bird to his brother for a great deal of gold and goes home without a twinge of guilt.
Killing the goose (or whatever kind of bird it actually is) that lays the golden eggs is not quite so stupid a plan as it sounds, from a financial perspective. Unlike his brother, the goldsmith knows that whoever eats the bird’s heart and liver will find a gold piece under their pillow each morning. He has his wife set it roasting over the fire, but when she leaves the kitchen for a moment her nephews come running in and try to help. They turn the spit a few times. In the process a couple of pieces fall off and the boys eat them, thinking no one will miss the scraps.
I’m giving you one guess what those two pieces are.
The goldsmith’s wife works it out immediately. Knowing her husband will probably blame her, she quickly kills a cockerel and stuffs the heart and liver of the ordinary bird into the body of extraordinary one. The goldsmith cannot tell the difference from taste, but the absence of gold under his pillow is a bit of a giveaway. In the broom-maker’s house, meanwhile, the twins wake each morning to a growing fortune and their father blithely tells his brother. Realising what’s happened, the goldsmith takes his revenge by insisting the gold is cursed and the boys are miniature Satanists. The broom-maker pulls a woodcutter and abandons both children in the woods, deep enough that they will not find their way home. Excuse me, narrative, THIS IS NOT WHAT KIND PEOPLE DO.
But this story is not about him, or the goldsmith. Those two are decoy brothers.
So what befalls the twins? A hunter finds them lost in the forest and hears that they are human gold machines. “Well,” he says thoughtfully, “that’s really nothing terrible as long as you remain good and upright and don’t become lazy.” He takes them home, training them up to be hunters and saving all their gold as a trust find because he’s a genuinely kind-hearted person. When they are full-grown, he takes them out to test their skills. They manage to shoot down specific geese from a formation overhead (no birds are safe in this story) and he proclaims both young men to be full-fledged hunters.
Now that they are officially men of the world, they want to go exploring, so he gives each a gun, a hunting dog and a share in their fortune. “If ever you should separate,” he advises, offering one final gift, “stick this knife into a tree at the crossroad. Then if one of you comes back, he can see how his absent brother is doing, for the side of the blade facing the direction he took will rust if he’s dying but will stay bright as long as he’s alive.” The brothers take the knife and set off.
They do not bring much food with them – why should they, as skilled hunters? But that’s not so simple an equation as they thought. Their first target, a hare, cries out a protest and offers two of its young in exchange for its life. The baby hares are so adorable the hunters agree. Next they try to kill a fox, who makes the same bargain. By the time they reach the other side of the forest, they have a troupe of two hares, two foxes, two wolves, two bears and two lion cubs. Because what Germanic forest is complete without lions?
So the twins now have a menagerie of cute but nothing to eat. They have the foxes lead them to the nearest village (aka a chicken-stealing hotspot) where they buy enough food for themselves and all their animals, and continue travelling with the foxes as their guides. After some while of travelling together looking for useful employment – well done, foster dad hunter, you have instilled a solid work ethic! – they decide to separate. At the next crossroads they stick their father’s blade in a tree and turn their separate ways, with the animals dividing up accordingly.
One brother goes west. He soon comes to a city swathed in masses of black crepe, which strikes him as an eccentric choice in urban beautification. After settling his animals at an inn for the night, he inquires about the purpose of all that crepe and the innkeeper explains that it is mourning for the king’s daughter, who is about to die. “Is she that sick?” the hunter asks. The answer is no, she’s perfectly healthy, but on a mountain outside the city there lives a sanctimonious dragon who will only eat the ‘purest’ of maidens and enforces his strict diet by threatening to destroy the kingdom if he’s not well supplied. As literally the last virgin for miles around, the princess is next on his menu.
The shocked hunter wants to know why no one has done something about this situation, such as killing the dragon. The innkeeper assures him many knights have tried, but none have ever succeeded. The next day, the hunter sets off up the mountain.
At the top he finds a small church and three goblets on the altar with a ‘Drink Me’ style note announcing that whoever drinks of the contents will become the strongest man in the world and will also be able to draw the sword buried in stone outside. After testing his own strength against the sword, just to be sure, the hunter knocks back all three goblets and this time pulls the sword loose with ease. Who put all that strength potion there? Why did no other knight ever receive this kind of assistance? Why am I even hoping for an answer?
When the king’s daughter climbs the mountain – watched from a distance by her father’s marshal, presumably to ensure she doesn’t bolt – she finds the hunter waiting there. He ushers her inside the church, then stands watch for the dragon. The creature makes for a formidable sight, seven-headed and flaming, but is taken aback at the interruption to his routine. “What do you think you’re doing on this mountain?” he demands. “I’ve come to fight you,” the hunter explains. The dragon promptly opens all seven of his mouths and sets fire to the dry grass, intending to asphyxiate the hunter with all the smoke, but the menagerie of wood creatures come rushing to put out the flames and when the frustrated dragon lunges forward the hunter manages to cut off three of his heads at once.
Enraged by the pain, the dragon breathes flames directly at his enemy. The hunter deftly ducks away and cuts off three more heads. The dragon attempts another lunge; the hunter swings the sword again and this time just gets the tail. Realising he’s lost his advantage, he calls to his animals and they come to finish off the task by ripping the dragon into little pieces.
When it’s all over, the hunter opens the church doors. The princess passed out during the worst of the battle but cheers up enormously when the hunter carries her outside to see the dismembered dragon. She promptly proposes, and wins my heart at least by turning her coral necklace into adorable little collars for the hunter’s menagerie. The hunter himself is given her handkerchief. He uses it for wrapping up all seven of the dragon’s tongues. I’m pretty sure that’s not what lover’s tokens are for…
After the excitement of fighting and fainting and smoke inhalation, he suggests a restorative nap and the princess agrees. They lie down side by side, tasking the animals to keep watch – but they are all as exhausted as each other and one by one drift into sleep.
Remember the marshal? When the dragon fails to fly away, he decides to investigate and finds the sleepers peacefully settled amidst the carnage. He sees an opportunity. Drawing his own sword, he beheads the hunter and carries off the princess. When she wakes, he threatens to murder her if she doesn’t back up his story that he killed the dragon. Only once he has her properly terrified does he take her home to her father and even then, her agreement is deliberately vague. The marshal tries to claim the promised reward of her hand in marriage, but she insists on a delay of a year and a day. She hopes that by then the hunter will have returned for her.
That’s…awkward, given he’s dead and all. When the animals waken and see what has happened, they all turn on the hare, who was the last to fall asleep. The only thing that stops them killing him on the spot is his assurance that he can bring their master back to life. With the frenetic speed of the panicked and guilt-ridden, he dashes away and rapidly returns with a magical root. When the lion places it in the hunter’s mouth, he immediately comes back to life – unfortunately, in his distress, the lion put his head on backwards.
The hunter doesn’t even notice at first. He thinks the princess has ditched him and is deeply depressed. The animals explain the situation as best they can, which is not very well, and the lion rips off his head so they can put it around the right way. The hunter doesn’t even care. Instead of pressing his claim on an apparently unwilling woman, he departs like a true gentleman and travels the world with his animals as a multi-species dance troupe.
Twelve months later, he passes through the city again and sees it is now draped all in crimson. The same innkeeper tells him it is in honour of the princess’s impending marriage. The quietly furious hunter sets a wager with him: that he can partake of the wedding feast without leaving the inn. His hare bravely races through the streets, pursued by the city’s dogs; he loses them at the palace and sneaks into the princess’s room, where she recognises him by his collar and greets him delightedly. At his request, she orders the baker to carry a loaf of bread to the inn. The hare takes it from him in the street outside and carries it to his master.
Next, the hunter wants a piece of roast meat. And some vegetables. And a little something sweet to finish. Course by course each animal slips into the palace, and comes out again with a gift from the princess; until the bear comes for dessert and the guards try to stop him. He slaps them irritably aside and goes straight to the princess, who gives him enough sugarplums that he can satisfy his own sweet tooth as well.
Last of all, the hunter orders wine. His lion saunters down the street, sending citizens scattering in all directions, and is sent to the royal wine cellar with the king’s own cupbearer. He insists on tasting each wine he’s offered – none of them are good enough. “How can a stupid beast understand anything about wine?” demands the cupbearer, and gets knocked over by the exasperated critic. After that he finally brings out bottles of the king’s private vintage and the lion – by now a bit drunk – has him carry them back to the inn. The hunter dines cheerfully with his menagerie, deciding the princess must like him after all.
When the meal is finished he bounces up from the table, announcing he’s going to marry the king’s daughter. The innkeeper points out she’s marrying someone else today. Even after being shown the dragon’s seven tongues, he bets his house that the hunter isn’t her real saviour. Meanwhile, the king is asking his daughter why tempestuous animals have been treating his house like a drive-through all day. She won’t explain herself, but advises he send for the hunter at once. The servant has perfect timing, arriving at the door just as the hunter makes his bet with the innkeeper. Pushing his victory for all its worth, the hunter insists on being sent fine clothes and a carriage before coming to the palace.
While the king is by now truly bewildered, he trusts his daughter and goes to receive her eccentric guest. In a deeply awkward turn of events, the hunter ends up seated next to his murderer, who doesn’t recognise him now he’s not covered in blood and ashes. The wedding ceremony is going ahead: it begins with the dragon’s seven heads being carried out on display, as the king praises his marshal’s courage. The hunter puts a spanner in the works, wondering aloud where the dragon’s tongues are. “Dragons have no tongues,” the marshal mutters. “Liars should have no tongues,” the hunter retorts, producing the princess’s handkerchief and its grisly contents. He then takes off each animal’s coral collar, showing how they were once all one necklace. The marshal’s treachery is revealed and as punishment the outraged king has him torn apart by four oxen. While he was undoubtedly a bad person, that’s way over the top. Prison time is an option, your majesty.
Anyway, no one thinks about that because they’re so excited about the princess marrying her true rescuer. The hunter dismisses his bet with the innkeeper and gives him a generous pile of gold in thanks for the timely gossip. Married life in the royal family suits the hunter splendidly – he rides out often with his gun and his animals to practice his favourite activity – but there’s one cloud on the horizon. Nearby is a forest rumoured to be enchanted. The hunter, by now officially appointed king of the realm, is the sort of person who is magnetically attracted to this kind of place. One day he rides into the forest in pursuit of a white doe, and does not return.
This is because he gets completely lost and is forced to make camp. While he’s sitting by a fire, surrounded by his animals, he’s startled by the sound of a human voice. He looks around at the dark trees, then up – and sees an old woman clinging to a branch above his head. She’s too afraid of his animals to come down and tosses him a switch, telling him to tap each beast to prove they won’t hurt her. Instead, the touch of the switch turns them to stone. She then jumps lightly down, strikes the young king himself with the switch and drags all the new statues to join her already impressive collection.
But what, you may be wondering, has become of the brother who went east? He, too, hit upon the idea of forming a dance act with his animals and has had moderate success. Passing the crossroads where he parted from his twin, he stops to check the knife and is greatly alarmed – for though half of that side of the blade is bright, half is rusty, meaning his brother must be in mortal danger. His anxious search leads him to the gates of the same city his brother now rules, where he’s mistaken for the young king. He puts no one right about that, thinking a bit of royal privilege may make his task easier, but when he’s obliged to share a bed with his brother’s wife he lays a sword between them to show how totally not into her he is. Luckily she’s not a restless sleeper.
He spends several days making inquiries about the forest, then insists on going there himself. As before, a white doe appears and he chases it. Just like with his brother, it disappears and he’s obliged to make camp overnight. He encounters the same old woman, but does not have his twin’s trusting temperament and refuses to strike any of his animals with her switch. “Either you come down,” he tells her, “or I’ll come get you!” She laughs at this, rightly – the lead bullets of his gun do her no harm. Then he loads up his gun with three silver buttons off his jacket, and those have an effect. She falls from the tree with a scream and he pounces on her at once, demanding to know what she did to his brother. Reluctantly, she leads him to the pit where she keeps her statues. He orders her to restore them all to life. A touch of her switch does the trick – the brothers embrace joyfully, then tie up the witch and burn her alive.
That is so – not necessary. Could they not have just turned her to stone? The concept of justice in this kingdom is utterly screwed up.
The brothers return home, swapping stories about their adventures. The one who is still a hunter unwisely reveals he temporarily took over his brother’s life, including his place in the princess’s bed, and is not given a chance to explain any more – overcome by a fit of blinding jealousy, the young king cuts off his head. He is instantly remorseful, however little that’s worth. The hare, accustomed to sudden death in this man’s presence, rushes off to fetch the root of life and the hunter is restored so swiftly that he doesn’t even know he died. No one enlightens him.
The young king arranges that they should enter the palace from opposite gates, baffling the princess and her father with their mirror arrivals. At first the princess cannot tell the two men apart. Then she spies the coral collars on her husband’s animals and decides this one must be hers, but still doesn’t know how she’s been deceived. That night she asks the young king why he’s been coming to bed with a sword lately and he realises how trustworthy his brother really is.
This story does not end with a happily ever after and well may it not – these brothers do not appear to have the aptitude for quiet lives. I am deeply disappointed in the first hunter, he starts out the story behaving so well only to get all hilt-happy at the end. There are regional variations on the twins of fortune theme, including Greece’s ‘The Twins’ (in which the rescued brother confesses to having killed and resurrected his twin) and Spain’s ‘The Knights of the Fish’ (in which the issue never comes up because they just trust each other). What I find most interesting about this version is how it contains the elements of so many other stories, from the golden goose to the sword in the stone. Who knows what the brothers may encounter next? I’m sure they can handle it, if they can only keep from each other’s throats that long.