We are on the final stretch of the project now, with only a few weeks left before the last witch makes her appearance. It was honestly a shock to look at my list of fairy tales and see so few left. This one comes from Gianni and the Ogre, a collection of Mediterranean fairy tales by Ruth Manning-Sanders, and is yet another story that I have never actually read before now. It begins with familiar ground: a young man out to seek his fortune with nothing but a bottle of water and a loaf of bread to his name, and both of those are soon gone. He cries himself to sleep and wakes at dawn to find a knight on horseback looming over him, ordering him to mount up behind him or be stabbed.
Put like that, the young man doesn’t have much choice. He scrabbles his way up onto the horse and it takes off with supernatural speed, sparks flying and dust whirling as they go. When the horse comes to an abrupt halt, the dizzy young man finds himself on a plateau grown over with flowers and home to a flock of brilliantly coloured birds. The knight commands that his press-ganged passenger dismount; the young man obeys. “You seek your fortune?” the knight demands, rhetorically. “You will find it here.” He gives the young man a flint, a bow and a task: to shoot a bird and so feed himself for the day.
Either the young man is a rotten shot or the birds are very canny, or some combination thereof, because he tries again and again without success. Near the end of the day, as he begins to lose the light, he decides to take one final shot and then lie down to die. Fortunately for him, this is the shot that hits its target. The next day, he has better luck, catching two birds. As he is sitting by the fire to cook them, he is greeted by a fox who is more bone than flesh, barely able to move across the ground. The young man offers him one of the birds and the fox scarfs it down gratefully.
“Now I will be your guardian,” the fox announces. “I will watch over you whilst you sleep. I will serve you by day. I am yours, heart and soul!” He begins his self-imposed duties straight away, vigilantly standing guard over the young man’s sleep. The next night, a skeletal wolf drags himself to their camp and the fox welcomes him as a brother, promising a meal that the young master is happy to share. And so the wolf adds himself to their company. When the young man returns the night after with his catch, he finds that the fox and wolf have adopted a bear in his absence. The night after that, it is a monkey – then a jackal, and a golden eagle. It’s lucky that the young man’s aim is improving so much, because he’s now responsible for feeding a household of six servants. Not so lucky for the birds of the plateau, of course.
The animals hold an election as to who will lead them and the fox is unanimously voted in as king of the council. They take the whole business very seriously, creating a flower crown and a tree trunk throne to provide the necessary trappings of authority. It’s all a little too Animal Farm for me. The fox’s first priority is to improve his master’s living conditions, which are about as basic as it’s possible to be, and to do that all the animals troop off into the desert. The eagle acts as lookout, warning the fox when a train of camels approach. The women of this local tribe are in the lead, unarmed, with the men lagging behind. The fox leads his company of bandits on a lightning raid, stealing the camels and bringing them back to the plateau with all the goods that they carry. This includes a tent, cooking pots and all sorts of good food. When the young man returns to camp and finds his life transformed, he must surely guess what his animals have been up to, but he doesn’t look the gift camels in the mouth.
For some time the fox is content, but eventually he calls together the animals for another meeting. “Our master still lacks,” he informs them. He wants to find the young an a suitable bride, and by suitable I mean he wants her to be ‘divinely beautiful’. The eagle immediately offers up a candidate, having seen a very lovely princess during his travels, so without further ado he flies off and kidnaps the poor girl. She is very dubious about the matchmaking fox, but the animals take turns to sing their master’s praises to the skies and the princess decides to roll with the situation. She cooks a magnificent meal then arranges to prank her fiance, hiding behind the bear and leaping out while all her new animal friends laugh. The young man immediately drops to his knees; the fox officiates the wedding; the monkey plays the flute and the rest of the animals burst into a chorus worthy of Disney. The princess seems quite happy to be the Maid Marian to their merry bandits.
Her father is less happy. His daughter has vanished and there’s no rock he won’t turn to find her, but even with half a kingdom on the table, all her would-be rescuers come up empty-handed. Then a ragged old woman comes to the palace, declaring that she will bring back the princess…if the king promises to take her on as his advisor. The king gives his word without hesitation, which is unwise, because the old woman is a witch and has all sorts of plans for the kingdom. First, though, she needs to deliver the princess, so she takes some jewels and rides off in an earthenware jar whipped with an unfortunate serpent.
She calls up a dark cloudbank to cover her arrival, disappearing into bushes near the camp on the plateau to spy on the company of animals. The young man goes out hunting, the animals busy themselves in the camp and the princess goes out for a walk in the sunshine. She is surprised when the old woman shows herself, but hospitably invites her back to camp for a meal and a comfortable bed. The animals take an instinctive dislike to the guest, but the princess has a great sense of courtesy and it’s easy for the witch to influence her. The young man doesn’t even need a touch of magic to let the witch stay; if his wife is happy, he’s happy.
It becomes an established routine that the princess goes out walking with the witch, who acts as lady’s maid and tells her stories. One day the witch pretends to stumble over the big earthenware jar and the two women look inside. The princess reaches inside for the jewels…and in an instant the witch has pushed her over, sealing her inside with the lid. Off and away they go, in the princess’s second kidnapping. Poor girl just cannot win.
The young man comes home to find the company of animals all in buckets of tears and as soon as he hears the news, he joins them in mourning. Still, the princess isn’t dead. The fox pulls himself together first and sends the eagle to search for their lost mistress. The witch has indeed returned the princess to her father and now the king has surrounded his beloved child with armed guards. There is no chance of the eagle carrying her away now. Instead he carries the fox, the bear and the wolf to the edge of the king’s city, where the fox puts his plans into action. He hitches up the bear and wolf to a plough and acts as ploughman himself, which becomes such a spectacle that everyone must come and watch…including the king and princess.
Whatever her feelings on the initial kidnapping, the princess is not happy to be in her father’s kingdom again. She is delighted to see the familiar faces of the animals in the field and when she looks up, she spots the eagle overhead. “I feel just a little faint,” she tells her guards. “I must get out and rest here on the grass for a moment.” She emerges from the carriage and ushers her ladies and guards onward to see the bizarre performance being played out in the field. As soon as she is alone, the eagle swoops and snatches her up.
This time her abduction is witnessed by an enormous audience. The king is in a panic; the guards take aim and shoot. In the confusion, the fox, wolf and bear disappear into the woods and wait for a rendezvous with the eagle. By nightfall the entire company is reunited and ready to celebrate a successful heist.
The danger, however, has not passed. As the fox is quick to remind everyone, the witch is sure to come back for the princess, having succeeded once before. All the animals take turns keeping watch and it is the fox who is standing guard when the witch makes her reappearance, sailing through the sky in her jar. This time when she lands, the animals are ready and waiting for her. She is dead before she can so much as scream.
That leaves the king. For forty days he waits for word of his daughter and when the witch fails to return, he raises his army to march on the plateau. Each of the animals goes to muster their own allies, amassing an impressive force, and arrive at the king’s camp by cover of darkness. They drive off the horses of the cavalry and disappear back into the wilderness before the soldiers know what is happening. The king has to send for more horses and even then, the journey is slow going. In their next attack, the animals go for bridles and belts, ripping apart all the leatherwork that holds an army together. Once again the king has to send for fresh supplies.
On the third night of the campaign, the fox has his forces dig a deep trench around the king’s camp and then disguise it expertly so that the ground looks undamaged. When the soldiers start marching out, they crash into the ditch and a flock of eagles attack from the skies. The king is forced into a furious surrender, but he has not quite given up yet. He wants his daughter back, whatever the terms. “Your daughter is the wife of my beloved master,” the fox informs him. “And if you are to have her back my master must be your heir.” The king agrees, for lack of options, and leads his army back to the city.
The princess is welcomed with open arms. Even the young man is accepted, but the gates are firmly shut on his servants. Then the young man puts down his foot. “You will give them each a room,” he declares, “and serve them every day with boiled mutton and roast fowl. If you disobey me in this, I will see to it that your heads fly from your shoulders!” He is very quick to enjoy the authority of a prince. The animals are duly brought inside the palace, where the king has his daughter, the young man has his fortune and the fox has the lovely warm glow of victory.
The witch does not get much of a role in this story, appearing mostly in the middle act, but the role she does play is intriguingly political. She talks the king into giving her the power she desires; she charms the princess into trusting her, a relationship that is helped along by a little enchantment. If she had just remembered to summon up clouds on her return to the plateau, she might very well have succeeded in kidnapping the princess all over again and winning her place as power behind the throne. I admit to being curious: what would she have done with that authority? And how is it fair to paint her as the villain when, from the perspective of anyone not on the plateau, she’s mounting a rescue operation? If it’s fair for a young male hero to win half a kingdom by rescuing a princess, it’s fair for a witch to do the same.