Fairy Tale Tuesday No.120 – Five Gold Rings

Let’s be honest: I adore December and when I see an opportunity to create a Christmas special, nothing shall stand in my way. Thus this week I bring you what is probably the most enormous Fairy Tale Tuesday I have ever written, all wrapped up with a shiny bow. Which is not to say all of these stories shall be seasonal, or particularly sweet. I can’t even guarantee that all the rings are really made of gold. What I can promise are magicians. And mermaids! Giants! And of course that fairy tale staple, people making very bad decisions.

Story 1: Jack and the Wizard (A Book of Wizards, retold by Ruth Manning-Sanders)

We kick things off with another Jack – but don’t worry, this one is Welsh and not a giant killer at all. He’s the younger of two brothers, both very poor. The elder marries money so Jack goes to work for him, but when he’s refused pay he sets off to look for a better situation. Unfortunately, no one is hiring. At last he meets a fellow traveller with a suggestion. Pointing out a nearby castle, the traveller explains that it is the Black Enchanted Castle, and that its owner always has work. He’s also a wizard. “Is he a bad one?” asks Jack. “Some find him bad, and some find him good,” the traveller says cryptically, continuing on his way. Jack decides to take the risk and makes for the castle.

The door is answered by a cheerful rosy-cheeked man who doesn’t fulfil Jack’s cliched expectations of a scary sorcerer at all, so he asks for that job. “To all who come here I give three days’ work,” the wizard replies. “And they can’t do it, and I can’t pay them.” Jack insists he’ll manage. He’s given a square meal for the promise, a comfortable bed for the night and breakfast to boot.

Once he’s eaten, the wizard gives more details about the day’s task. He shows Jack a golden watch and asks the boy to find its key. Jack sets to with a will, looking throughout the castle and grounds, persisting through the whole day. By sunset he’s forced to return empty-handed. Frustrated and depressed, he sits by the pig trough and toys absently with a twig in the water. Then he gets annoyed with himself and splits the twig in two.

Out falls the golden key.

Thoroughly relieved, Jack hurries into the castle to show his employer, who is equally pleased. Two more meals and a good night’s sleep later, he feels prepared to handle whatever strange work the wizard has in store. He’s given a basket of coltsfoot plants, which are very magic and not weeds, as the wizard takes takes some pains to make clear. Jack’s deceptively simple job is to plant them. He tries one bed of earth; the plants all somersault out of the ground and turn their roots in the air. He tries another bed; same result. All day he labours to plant them, and at every turn they make it plain they don’t intend to be planted.

It’s almost dark when Jack, by now throwing clods of earth around in a fit of despair, happens upon a filthy old ring. Slipping it into his pocket, he’s struck by a sudden new conviction. He jumps up and starts ramming the plants into the ground leaves first. When he glances behind to check his progress, he sees they have made their usual somersault and are now roots down. Reverse psychology carries the day and he returns to the castle tired but happy. The wizard is every bit as excited by this success as Jack himself and gives him a splendid meal as his reward.

The next day is Jack’s final test. Today he must find the wizard himself.

Jack looks all day, without success. “What a senseless task!” he thinks bitterly. “How can I find a man who vanishes? A thousand times better to look for a needle in a haystack, because at least the needle is in the haystack, and if you search long enough you’re bound to find it. But this old fellow, he may be at my elbow, laughing at me, for all I know – or care! I give up!” He stops in the stable to rest and sees an egg, which he decides to take for his supper, since losing the day’s challenge means he’s lost his bed and board too. When he cracks it open, however, out bounces the wizard with a shout of delight.

In the morning the wizard settles the matter of wages with typical magic-person logic. “Which will you have, one gold coin with my blessing, or a hatful of gold coins with my cursing?” Jack is smart enough to pick option A, though it only lasts him a couple of weeks. When he has run out of money he brings out the dirty ring from his pocket and sets to cleaning it, trying to ascertain its value. He’s no sooner started than a beautiful girl appears from nowhere. The ring is hers and she’s here to grant wishes. This is the only explanation she chooses to give.

Jack gapes for a bit, then pulls himself together and very politely asks for something to eat. The girl flourishes over his table and cupboard, leaving food in her wake; then, with a stately nod, she vanishes. Jack waits until he’s eaten all the food before trying to bring her back. When he does, and asks for his pantry to be restocked, she urges him to think a little bigger. Looking around, he realises his one-roomed, earth-floored cottage is a shabby location for such a visitor and hesitantly wishes for a nicer house. The girl produces a beautiful mansion, manageably sized and fully furnished, not forgetting pictures for the walls, flowers for the garden, horses for the stables and BOOKS. She remembered books! Jack spends days admiring the place before gathering his courage to call on his benefactress for a third time. “Lady, I am very lonely,” he tells her. “Could you find it in your heart to live here with me?”

She laughs. It is a good kind of laugh, though, because that’s precisely where she wants to be and they are married the next day when Jack puts the magic ring on her own finger. I approve this choice. The wizard is invited to the wedding and reveals in typical wizard fashion, i.e. at the last minute, that the girl is his daughter. Given the circumstances, he reiterates that blessing.

Story 2: The Garden of Health (Fairy Tales from Spain, retold by J. Munoz Escomez)

This story begins with a boy called Enrique, who is walking on the outskirts of his village and crying over the inescapable fate of his dying sister Luisa. A young goat grazing nearby hears his sobbing and tells him not to worry, she has a solution. “Look there, to the right in that spring,” she instructs, “and you will see a ring that was left there and forgotten by the magician Agrajes. Put it on and ask to go to the Garden of Health, and immediately it will take you there.” He must ask for the Blue Ivy, the juice of which will cure his sister.

First, Enrique would like to know what he’s dealing with. In his experience, goats don’t talk much. “I am a well-bred and compassionate kid,” his advisor coolly replies. “Anyway, I cannot tell you who I am. If you are grateful you will know.” With that, she sends him on his way.

The ring deposits him outside a silver wall. At the gate stand two young women, one dressed in white and carrying an apple, the other in black with a scythe in her hand. The boy tells them what he has come for, and the first woman – who introduces herself as Life – is willing to give it, if her sister Death agrees. Death does not agree; she sees Luisa as her own. The boy must enter the garden and find the ivy for himself. Death does her best to prevent him getting in at all, striking out with her scythe, but Life holds her apple to Enrique’s nose and revives him at the last moment.

As you might have gathered from the name, this is not an ornamental garden; every plant it contains is the treatment to an illness, and the moment Enrique enters they all start calling out to him, hawking their skills. The cacophony is too much. “That’s enough!” Enrique cries, “otherwise you will drive me mad.” “I cure madness!” a helpful little shrub shouts back. The Blue Ivy, however, remains elusive. Death is hiding it in plain sight.

Enrique suddenly remembers he’s wearing a magic ring. He commands it to show him the plant he seeks and bingo, an oak tree appears swathed in magical ivy. “Do not cut me now,” the ivy calls out, “because your sister is going to die, and you will not arrive in time. Death is now close to her bedside.” Enrique’s having none of that. He orders the ring to bring Death to the garden, tied up. When the woman in black appears, scytheless, the plants applaud gleefully and advise Enrique to kill her on the spot. Is that actually possible?

Well, he decides to test the theory, ordering for sticks to appear from thin air and start beating her. They knock out her teeth (though the narrative insists those were fake anyway, so it’s all okay!), drag out her hair and ruin one eye before Enrique cuts himself some ivy and departs. It’s not clear what happens to Death after that. Perhaps her sister comes in to fix her up – perhaps she’s immortal and will heal just fine on her own – perhaps she’s a severely beaten woman who’s had her scythe stolen by the borrowed power of an adolescent boy.

Anyway, Enrique doesn’t care, the ring has taken him to his sister’s bedside and the juice of Blue Ivy fixes her up immediately. Their startled family shower Enrique in praise, but he remembers he owes his success to the kid and goes to thank her. When he can’t find her, he uses the ring to summon her to his side.

Turns out she’s not a kid at all – or at least, not the goat kind. She’s actually Atala, the daughter of Agrajes, and planted her father’s ring in the hope Enrique would be able to save his sister. Enrique enthusiastically invites her home to play, at which point she somewhat tartly reminds him he’s wearing a ring of great and terrible power and she can’t actually say no. He quickly gives it back, and she disappears. Not for long – she was going to consult with her father, who says she can go play if she wants. Enrique’s family indulge her sweet tooth to the hilt and she becomes a regular at the house. One day, her dad comes to visit too and leaves behind a chestful of gold coins, enough to set up both his daughter’s friends for life.

Excellent magician, excellent parenting. He needs to keep a closer eye on that ring, though.

Story 3: The Magic Lake (A Book of Mermaids, retold by Ruth Manning-Sanders)

This Irish story introduces us to Rory Keating, who has just bought a wedding ring for his girlfriend and is bounding home with his friends, tossing the ring high into the air so that it sparkles in the sunlight. This is not a good idea. It’s an even worse idea if you happen to be passing over a lake. Before you know it, the ring has tumbled past his fingers and into the deep water.

Rory wants to jump in after it but this particular lake has a nasty reputation. Boys who go swimming there have a tendency not to come back and Rory has a feeling his girlfriend would rather have him than the ring. Determined to give her both, he offers the highest reward he can to any of his friends who might be willing to retrieve the lost jewellery. While sympathetic to his plight, they are not that sympathetic – but one boy, Padeen, is willing to focus more on the offered five guineas than the dangers of the lake. Once he’s ascertained Rory’s good for the money, he jumps in without hesitation.

It is a good deal deeper than he expected. When he finally stops sinking, he has come out the other side of water to dry ground, with a blue sky above and beautiful gardens all around. To his astonishment, he recognises the gardeners working there as the boys who have gone missing over the years. He calls out to them, but not one will acknowledge him. As they labour, they sing praises to the beauty of their employer. Padeen’s curiosity quickens his pace. He comes to a grand house and walks through the open door – and sees the owner almost at once. She comes as a bit of a shock, being basically a cross between a very large walrus and a jewellery box. There’s a bit too much judgement of her weight and probably green hair is very attractive to other mermaids, but I have to admit the wolf’s teeth might be a little alarming.

Though taken aback, Padeen retains common courtesy. He greets the mermaid politely and she giggles coquettishly, sure he’s come to court her. “Well, ma’am,” he admits, “first and foremost I’m come after Rory Keating’s gold ring.” The mermaid obligingly hands it over and Padeen asks her how to leave, which does not go down half as well. She expects male adoration from all sides and preferably a marriage proposal too. Padeen quickly backs up, assuring her he’ll return once he’s been paid. He wonders aloud if she has been married many times. “A few good offers,” she agrees. “But they didn’t please me, so I set them to till the pleasure grounds.” Turns out that if the men don’t sing her praises, they don’t get fed. I think she’d get along great with the Sun Princess.

Padeen lays the flattery on thick, slowly backing out of her house and along her garden path while the captive men grimly raise their voices in her honour. First chance he gets, Padeen slams a gate between them and strikes for the surface. The mermaid is too weighed down with jewels to follow.

He breaks the surface at last with the ring in his hand. The young men gathered by the shore had almost given up hope, given how long he’d been down there, and Rory is delighted to hand over the five guineas in exchange for his ring. Padeen, who is an honourable soul, considers for a while whether he ought to go back to the mermaid, but decides that she’s already kidnapped herself enough suitors – if she’s that desperate to get married she can pick one of them. There’s such a thing as taking honour too far.

Though now the men have seen someone escape, she may not have them much longer…

Story 4: Molly Whuppie (Classic Folk-Tales From Around the World, published by Leopard)

This tale is grouped in with the ‘English and Welsh’ section of the anthology, so I’m just going with Celtic as its origin. Proving how badly fairy tales need decent contraception, a couple with too many children and not enough money decide the solution to their problem is pick three of their daughters and dump them in the middle of a forest. That’s the third fairy tale I can name offhand in which parents do this, despite the number of ogres, monsters and dragons who have stated their canonical desire to be foster parents. Someone start an adoption system already.

Anyway, the three girls have to search for somewhere to spend the night and eventually, when it is almost full dark, find a house. The woman who lives there is more than happy to let them in but her husband is a giant and anything but charitable. She has only just set them at the table with milk and bread when the man himself comes storming in shouting “Fee, fie, fo, fum/ I smell the blood of some earthly one.” His wife comes immediately to the sisters’ defence, telling him to leave them be, and he appears to come around to the idea of being charitable, suggesting they stay the night. They can squeeze into the same bed as the couple’s own three daughters.

It seems a kind offer, but the youngest of the human girls is Molly Whuppie and she’s understandably cynical. When the giant makes his three guests put straw ropes around their necks while his children wear gold chains, Molly smells a rat and swaps the ornaments around.

Lucky for her she does – during the night the giant comes in with a club, feels for the markers and takes the girls wearing straw ropes out the bed. Laying them out on the floor, he proceeds to batter them to death with his club. I am sickened. His intent was terrible, but his daughters should not have paid the price. When he has gone, Molly wakens her sisters and they creep out of the house, then run like mad.

The next house they come across is home to the king and when he hears their story, he decides to employ Molly as a thief. The giant owns a sword he fancies. If Molly can retrieve that, he’ll give her eldest sister his eldest son as a husband, leaving me a bit confused about the ages of these girls.

Anyway, Molly considers it a good bargain. She sneaks back into the giant’s house and hides under his bed. Once the couple are sleeping, she pulls the sword down from its place behind the bed, but it gives a tell-tale rattle – the giant leaps awake and Molly flees, racing out the door with the sword in hand. She escapes by running across a bridge too narrow for her enormous pursuer, and he’s left on the far shore shouting threats.

The king is pleased. So pleased he thinks of another job. If Molly can bring him the giant’s purse of gold, her second sister will marry the second prince. So back she goes, once again waiting for the giant to sleep before slipping the purse from under his pillow. This of course wakes him up and he chases her from the house to the same bridge. “Woe worth ye, Molly Whuppie!” he howls at her retreating figure. “Never you come again.” “Once yet, carle,” she shouts back, “I’ll come to Spain.” I’m not sure what that means but it sounds like sass.

The king likes his sword and his gold but is not quite satisfied. This time he wants Molly to steal the giant’s ring from his finger. As a reward for this final task, she is promised his youngest son as her husband. Molly must like him, or the stability he represents, because that night she slips into the giant’s house and carefully pulls the ring off his finger. It is a brave but reckless decision; he wakes fast enough this time to seize her. He’s so livid he can’t think of an appropriate punishment and so wonders aloud what he should do. “I would put you in a sack,” Molly suggests, “and I’d put the cat inside with you, and the dog aside you, and a needle and thread and shears, and I’d hang you upon the wall, and I’d go to the wood, and choose the thickest stick I could get, and I would come home, and take you down, and bang you till you were dead.”

The giant thinks that sounds a great plan and makes it his own. He is not a clever person.

Once he’s gone looking for the stick Molly sets to work on his wife. “Oh, if ye saw what I see,” she sings, and is so generally irritating that the giant’s wife can’t handle it any more and asks to be allowed into the sack so she can see whatever the hell it is. Molly cuts a hole with the shears, lets the woman in and sews up behind her. When the giant returns he starts beating the sack with both his pets and his wife inside, and even if he doesn’t know about the last he does know about the dog and cat. It is so heinously unfair that his totally innocent household keep paying for HIS CRIMES. Suddenly, he catches sight of Molly slipping out the door and realises he has been tricked. Her headstart takes her easily to the bridge, out of his reach. She gives the king the ring, he gives her his son and she never goes thieving for him again.

Though she quite possibly goes into business with Jack the Giant Killer.

Story 5: The Fisherlad and the Mermaid’s Ring (Thistle and Thyme: Tales and Legends from Scotland, retold by Sorcha Nic Leodhas)

The titular fisherlad begins the story by proposing to a girl who is actually in love with someone else and says no in the nicest possible way. The fisherlad is so upset that he denounces any possibility of ever finding someone else to love and avoids all his friends by fishing in another  cove. The fish he catches, he sells at a different market. He even builds a hut, giving a worrying permanence to his hermitage. For a whole year he broods in isolation, but for all his determination he can’t quite avoid people altogether. One day as he pulls in his nets, he sees a huge silver tail and long hair and realises he’s caught a mermaid.

He seizes her arm and tangles her so tight in the net she can’t get loose. Panicked, she offers him any ransom he chooses – gold or gems from her father’s treasure – but that’s not the reward he has in mind. “I want the lass I love best in all the world,” the fisherlad tells her. “She’s not to be had for gold nor jewels, nor will a true heart win her. For I offered her my own and she would not take it.” I really don’t like this boy. The mermaid, also unimpressed by his broody talk, wants to know what’s so special about the girl in question. The fisherlad tries to describe her, but she’s underwhelmed by his gushing praises of blue eyes and golden hair. Still, the mermaid is willing to give his cause a go, if he’ll release her. He must come to her father for a consultation. Hope overriding his need for a captive listener, he cuts the net and follows her into the sea.

The sea king is very relieved to see his daughter alive and free, having heard from his spy network of fishes that she was in trouble. He’s angry that the fisherman held her captive at all. SO MUCH YES. But the promise has been made and he agrees to help the boy get what he wants, though it might take a while. “For another year and a day,” he explains, “you must bide in your cove and do as you have done day in and night out.” He then produces a golden ring set with pearls. “When the year and the day are over, if you go to the lass you love best in all the world, you’ll find her waiting for you. Take this ring and keep it carefully, and when you find her, put it on her finger and wed her with it.”

With that the fisherlad is sent back to the surface. He’s all hope and excitement now. Drawing up on the beach a few days later with his catch of fish, he sees what looks like a pile of seaweed on his doorstep but when he gets closer, he realises it is the long brown hair of a girl huddled there. Her eyes are red from crying. The fisherlad is indignant that someone else dares to have problems and demands to know what she’s doing outside his hut. “I’ve run off from my father’s house,” she confesses. “There’s a new stepmother there and she no older than myself. There’s no place for me there because she can’t abide me, and I came away lest she do me some harm.” Honey, I somehow get the feeling you’ve been told you’re in a fairy tale.

The fisherlad tells her to go back home. She begs him to give her a job and a place to stay, promising to be no trouble; when all that fails, she bursts into tears and threatens to drown herself. The fisherlad may be a terribly selfish person, but he has his limits. Seeing how distraught she really is, he lets her inside.

As it happens, she is an excellent housekeeper. She also keeps out of his way as much as she can, recognising she’s not really welcome. For weeks they live this way, as separate as possible, until the fisherlad realises he’s being an idiot and tells her she can eat at the table with him. It takes a couple more weeks before they manage to make conversation. Once they reach that milestone, though, things get better. He agrees her father sounds awful and she admires the conjured blue eyes and golden hair of his obsession. She takes to coming down to shore and helping him with the boat. Tiny and curvaceous, brown-skinned with dark hair and eyes, she’s the polar opposite of his fantasy ice queen, but he has to acknowledge she’s very pretty in her own way.

She’s also very kind, and very capable. Now she’s more sure of her welcome, she starts planting flowers around the hut and sewing curtains and generally making it less of a primitive place to live. She even makes the fisherlad a chart to mark off the days of his wait, so he’ll know how long is left until he can marry his true love. It finally occurs to him to find out where she’s been sleeping and when he realises she’s been bunking down in the shed with his fishing gear, he stirs himself to build another room onto the hut for her. She starts singing as she goes about her work.

Months pass. One day the fisherlad comes in and finds the girl holding up her hand to the light, with the gold ring on her finger. She whips it off as soon as she sees him and quickly puts it away. Soon after that, she announces her intention to leave. “The year and the day will soon be up and you’ll be going to fetch your own true love,” she reminds him, when he protests she’d much better stay. She is older now, and stronger, and feels she can return to her father’s house. The year is gone; on the last day she rises early, packs her few things and quietly leaves. He sits staring after her for a while, slow on the uptake as ever. It takes him a whole day of sitting there to realise he has been tricked. The mermaid gave him the ring, not to make another girl fall for him against her own heart, but to make him pull himself together.

The next day he dresses with care and start walking inland. Before long he comes to a house and the girl in its garden. “I thought you had gone to claim your own true love,” she says hesitantly, at the sight of him. “I have so!” he agrees, and offers her the ring. I think she could do better, myself, but she likes him and is delighted to accept. The wedding is a happy one and she’s actually managed to make friends with her stepmother, so the whole family is there. Afterwards the fisherlad takes her to meet his friends in the other cove. While there he sees the girl he used to love, who is unchanged, but does not hold the same enchantment. Together he and his brown-eyed bride go home to the house they made together.

On the shore there they meet with the mermaid. “Did you get your true love?” she inquires, and the fisherlad proudly introduces his wife. The mermaid drily points out the lack of blonde hair and blue eyes, and the fisherlad says he wants her just the way she is. For all he’s prone to self-obsession, he does say the odd sweet thing. “Well,” the mermaid concludes, “you’ll not be saying we did not give you what you asked for,” and she dives away into the sea, leaving them to their happy ending.

Not all of these rings are magic. Their real value is not monetary, but what they mean to those who own them. In these fairy tales a ring can represent hope, or love, or a challenge – or all three at once – but the power comes from what you choose to do with it.

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Fairy Tale Tuesday No.93 – A Wickedness of Wells

Here is some life advice for you: wells are where the scary things are, avoid them if you can. If you live in a fairy tale, unfortunately, decent plumbing is a dream up there with winged piglets, so it generally comes down to using a well or dying of dehydration. Either way, you’re in trouble.

Story 1: Kojata

In this Russian fairy tale, taken from Ruth Manning-Sanders’ collection A Book of Wizards, a king has been travelling through his lands, distracting himself from his childless state with the vocal adoration of the populace. During the homeward journey, his retinue makes camp in a shady wood until the worst of the day’s heat has passed. The only one who remains awake is the king, who is struck by a sudden thirst. Instead of rousing an attendant to fetch water, he goes off alone to look for a spring.

Before long he comes across a well. Floating conveniently on the surface is a golden goblet; less conveniently, it is impossible to catch. Eventually the king gives up and stoops to drink directly from the well, but when he tries to straighten he realises that something under the water has a hold on his beard. Looking down, he sees a face staring back at him with blazing green eyes and an unnaturally wide grin.

The king struggles wildly to free himself, to no avail. His captor waits until he’s too worn out to fight any more before speaking. “I am the wizard Kojata. You have drunk of my well without my leave. I will never let you go unless you make me a promise…A promise to give me the most precious thing your palace contains; the precious thing that was not there when you came away.”

Could it be more obvious that THIS IS A TRICK?

The king, however, who is one sharp tug away from drowning, quickly agrees and heads home with all speed. A grand celebration appears to be taking place in the capital. At first he assumes the banners and cheering are a homecoming surprise, but when he reaches the palace he sees his wife waiting to greet him with a newborn baby in her arms. From this we can establish two things: the king was away a really long time, and he’s already ruined his son’s life.

His response is deepest denial. The prince, named Alexey, grows up knows nothing of the deal – until one day while out hunting, he is separated from his companions and becomes lost in the woods. A tree trunk opens before him like a door and a wizard with glowing green eyes steps out. “Go home and greet your father from me,” he says. “Remind him of his debt, and tell him I await its payment.”

When Alexey relates the story his father goes into a meltdown and calls a barber immediately, because obviously getting rid of the beard is priority No.1. He also reluctantly reveals the bargain made over the well. Alexey, confident he can repay his father’s debt and return safely, rides back to the tree from which the wizard ambushed him. Kojata is nowhere to be seen.

Alexey rides on, waiting for a sign. At length he comes to a lake where thirty ducks are swimming and thirty shifts are laid out on the shore. The prince puts the two together and deduces something magical is going on. Stealing a shift from the lineup, he hides in the rushes to watch as the ducks return to shore. One by one they shrug on their shifts and transform into beautiful girls, who are then swallowed by the earth. At last only one duck is left, searching frantically among the rushes. When she spies the hidden prince, he returns her clothes and she turns into a girl. Specifically, the Princess Nadya, youngest daughter of the wizard Kojata and quite the plotter herself. She recognises Alexey at once and takes him down into her father’s subterranean palace, with the warning that no matter what happens, he must show no fear.

That’s easier said than done; Kojata is in a frothing rage. Obeying Nadya’s instructions, though, the prince approaches on his knees, making himself proudly ridiculous. Kojata finds the display amusing and sends Alexey to spend the night in a magnificent suite. In the morning, the friendly mood dissipates abruptly. “By this time tomorrow you must build me a marble palace,” Kojata announces, “with windows of crystal and a roof of gold. The palace is to stand in the middle of a beautiful garden with fish ponds and waterfalls. If you are able to do this, we shall be friends. If you are not able to do it – off goes your head, for I have no use for people who are not clever.” I don’t think ‘friend’ means what you think it means, wizard king.

Alexey spends the rest of the day moping in his suite, unable to eat or sleep, but as evening falls a bee taps at the window and turns into Princess Nadya. She tells him not to worry, building ornate palaces overnight is a gift of hers. Certainly her father can find no fault with her work the next day, but that doesn’t mean Alexey is safe. Kojata’s next task is to line up his thirty daughters and have the prince find Nadya among them. When she comes to him that night, Alexey brims with confidence, and it’s her turn to doubt. Her thirty sisters are so alike her own father needs magic to tell them apart. “You will know me by a ladybird on my left eyelid,” she tells him, and departs the room as a bee. Insects are kind of her thing.

The task is as difficult as she predicted. The thirty girls are dressed and posed identically, and Alexey is only allowed to look at the line three times. Despite his care, he almost misses the tell-tale ladybird – but he does see it, and Kojata, far from being impressed, is outraged. “In three hours from now I shall set alight a handful of straw,” he declares, “and before that straw is burnt up you shall turn it into a pair of boots. You shall do this in my presence, you rogue, that I may see with my own eyes if anyone helps you!”

Alexey and Nadya meet in the prince’s suite to discuss their options, which in this context means Nadya coming up with another fiendish plan. Locking the door and throwing away the key, she seizes Alexey’s hand and leads him from the palace into the open air. They emerge by the lake where they first met, to find Alexey’s horse grazing there happily. It amiably enters the getaway spirit and gallops away.

Three hours later Kojata sends his servants to fetch the prince. Nadya’s breath, frozen on the window-pane, replies ‘I am coming directly’. Kojata waits a few minutes, then sends the servants back. Three times the echo of Nadya’s magic delays them, until Kojata’s patience snaps and he has the door broken down. With the plot revealed, the servants set off in pursuit and soon close in on the runaways. Nadya turns herself into a river, the prince into an iron bridge, and the horse into a blackbird. On the far bank, the road branches three ways, none of them marked by hoofprints. Bewildered, the servants return empty-handed to their master, but he isn’t fooled and sends them out again in a screaming fury. This time Nadya, queen of disguise, transforms her trio into the illusion of a vast forest, losing the servants in her depths. I have no words for her awesome.

Realising his minions are hopelessly outmatched, Kojata sets off in pursuit himself. Alexey wears a cross around his throat; Nadya uses it to transform herself into a church, the prince into a monk and the horse into a candle. That’s one way of making your body a temple…Fooled by the façade, Kojata stops to question the ‘monk’ and is told the lovers have already moved on. He has no power to pass the church, and so must return to his palace alone. He’s even talked out of slaughtering his servants, on the principle he’d then have to do everything himself, so all that’s left to do is fume.

Alexey, meanwhile, returns home with a stunning sorceress and gets married with all speed. “In the beginning my beard caused us to live in trouble, so I cut it off,” the king muses. “But in the end, behold it has caused us to live in happiness! I will grow it again!”

Story 2: Alas!

This Greek story, from Ruth Manning-Sanders’ Damian and the Dragon, introduces us to a poverty-stricken widow and her useless son. The thing going for Andronikos is good looks; if you expect him to actually do anything, you’re in for a disappointment. He’s so lazy that he’d rather eat dough than go to trouble of fetching firewood so his mother can make bread. Despite an ache in her knees and an excess of chores, she must go herself. She leans her bundle against the parapet of a well to give herself a break and mutters “Alas! Alas!”

At once an ogre leaps from the well and wants to know what’s up. In an unexpected coincidence, his name is ‘Alas’ and he believes she’s called on him for assistance. With a series of pointed questions, he learns about Andronikos and suggests the widow bring him to the well for tutoring, ogre-style. “Oh, sir, but you have such big teeth!” the widow worries. “Bah!” Alas cries dismissively. “I swear to you, mother, I never eat men. They don’t agree with my stomach.”

To sweeten the deal, he produces a handful of gold coins. If she brings the boy, she will receive another handful; if she doesn’t, Alas will destroy them both. The widow returns home somewhat shattered and explains the situation to her son. As if to emphasise her point, an earthquake strikes and one of their walls collapses. “Now we have plenty of fresh air,” Andronikos laughs, but seeing his mother’s panic, he agrees to go.

Upon meeting the ogre, he is still unfazed. The job he’s being offered is hardly strenuous – house-sitting when Alas is away, the odd bit of sweeping – the only condition being that he’s forbidden from entering the garden. Not that Andronikos cares. On his very first day he strolls carelessly through the gate to admire the flowers. “Not go into the garden indeed! I shall come here every day!”

There is a cottage hidden among the flowers, and a girl in the cottage. She calls Andronikos over to tell him, in a nice way, that he is an idiot. While Alas doesn’t eat humans, he’s a tricksy carnivore regardless. He has enchanted water that can transform unwanted apprentices into a hare or lamb, which he will then devour. The girl, however, has a plan. She is the guardian of the Red Water, the most magical draught of all, and Alas’s last resort for stubborn victims. It can turn anyone into an animal – and any animal, at that.

When Alas returns empty-handed and hungry, he gives Andronikos the enchanted water and tells him to shake himself, so as to transform into a hare. Andronikos pretends he doesn’t know how to shake himself, and he gives off such a general air of incompetency that Alas believes him. When persistence and shouting fail to achieve any result, Alas storms over to the girl’s cottage to air his grievances, and she suggests he use the Red Water. No sooner has Andronikos drunk it, however, than he shakes himself, becomes a pigeon and flies the heck out of there.

With his dinner disappearing on the horizon, Alas turns into an eagle and gives chase. The pigeon becomes a fly and hides in a bath-house; Alas becomes a rich man, buys the bath-house and loses the fly, who has already moved on. Zipping through a palace window, Andronikos transforms into a carnation and falls into a princess’s lap. Alas, right behind him, turns into a Turkish ambassador and pressures the king into handing over the flower. The king sees no reason why not, but Andronikos has played his last card: turning back into a hot idiot and pouring out his tale of woe to a dazzled princess. She sends down a bouquet of carnations from the garden instead.

This plan fails miserably; Alas can tell the difference and the king believes him, demanding the princess give the real flower or have it taken from her. The moment the carnation touches the ogre’s hand, however, it turns into a grain of wheat and Alas turns into a rooster to chase it down. The wheat becomes a fox and eats the rooster up.

The king goes into a flailing panic, but Andronikos talks him down. “There is nothing to fear,” he declares. “I am a prince; my mother was a fairy, and taught me much magic. The man you saw was my servant, and he stole my book of enchantments.” The king swallows the lie so easily that he even offers his daughter’s hand in marriage. Andronikos, though, has a few loose ends to take care of, and asks for seven days grace to make his decision.

First, he returns to the well, where his mother waits anxiously with the ogre’s gold, hoping to bargain for his life. BEST MUM. Andronikos sends her home with the reassurance it’s not blood money, he’s just fine, he’ll come see her soon! Then he goes to meet the girl in the ogre’s garden. “I will take you home to your parents,” he tells her, “or I will marry you, whichever you please.” The girl is either betrothed or wants Andronikos to believe she is, and she really doesn’t need his help, because hello, guardian of the Red Water? Taking a draught herself, she turns into a pigeon. Andronikos escorts her home as an eagle, then flies back to the credulous king and his daughter to accept the proposal of marriage. Which goes to show you can be as useless as you like if you’re the hero of the story, and base your happy ending on a con, because the narrative loves you anyway.

Story 3: The Dragon of the Well

This fairy tale is also Greek, and another Manning-Sanders story from her collection A Book of Dragons. A king with three daughters goes on a little ego trip by calling the girls together and demanding to know just how much they love him. The eldest says she loves him like honey, the second like sugar. The youngest princess, continuing the food analogy, says she loves him like salt. The king is apparently an obsessive sweet tooth with a grudge against savouries, because he banishes the princess on the spot. In fact he throws her into the arms of the first man passing the palace door and tells him to marry her.

The man’s name is Simonides. He takes the princess home and tries to look after her, but as he’s terribly poor and already looking after his mother, he doesn’t really need another dependent. At length things get so bad he journeys into town, hoping for a good job so he can send money home. He’s hired by three merchants as a servant, and one of his first tasks is to refill their water bottles at a well by the road. Unbeknownst to him, the well is home to a dragon.

The dragon is not a looker. In fact, he’s kind of nightmarish, but the princess’s husband greets him politely and the dragon is so pleased by this unexpected civility he decides that only will he not eat him, he’ll give him Simonides pomegranates. One is to send to his wife; the other two he must keep, and not cut open until he reaches home. Simonides returns to the merchants with the water in his hands and the fruit hidden in his pockets. When he meets a man going the opposite way, he entrusts one of the pomegranates to him and thinks no more about it.

This is no ordinary fruit, however. When the princess cuts it open to share with her mother-in-law, diamonds spill out instead of seeds. By the time Simonides returns home, his hut has been replaced by a palace. A fountain stands before the gates, offering fresh water to all travellers. He walks bewilderedly inside and the first person he sees is his wife, trailing a rainbow of silks as she jumps into his arms. Catching on, Simonides quickly opens the other two pomegranates and unleashes enough jewels to build an even bigger palace, plus set up a food bank outside for people not fortunate enough to befriend a dragon.

This is quite a story and in time the king hears of it, though he’s unaware he knows the key players. When he writes to the couple, they make no attempt to enlighten him. Instead, the princess orders a magnificent banquet be prepared, with no salt in anything. When the king arrives, he doesn’t even recognise her and gets straight to the food, but without salt finds it all uneatable. “And when I told you I loved you like salt, you drove me away!” the princess exclaims. With her identity waved under his nose, he finally gets it. “I have been foolish and blind,” he assures her. “Salt is more needful than sugar, more precious than honey!” The princess is actually happy where she is, no thanks to him; she accepts his apology and brings out the seasoning.

As for the dragon, Simonides’ friendliness is a turning point. He no longer wants to eat travellers, instead allowing them to drink freely from the well, and in return some take to dropping offerings into the water. The dragon hoards these tokens as his treasure.

So wells aren’t always a bad thing – if you’re lucky, you might make friends with an adorable dragon. The idea of the well as a portal to strange and often sinister places makes sense, and is played out in other fairy tales, such as ‘The Frog Prince’. For every charming reptile and mildly manipulative amphibian, however, there’s a maniacal sorcerer or hungry ogre. I wouldn’t take the risk, if I were you.

Fairy Tale Tuesday No.31 – Farmer Weathersky

If you want to make a hero, the first thing you do is call him Jack. The Jacks of the fairy tale world are the sort of people who climb beanstalks, kill giants, and make off with other people’s gold. So when in this Norse fairy tale (taken from the 1982 reprint of Ruth Manning Sanders’ A Book of Wizards) a couple call their only son Jack, you know this is a boy destined for Adventure. His mother clearly knows it too. One day she sends him off with his father to find a master of something to be apprenticed with. She is not particular as to what this something may be, but as she puts it, “Jack must be apprenticed to someone who will teach him to be a master above all masters.”

Well, they find a great many skilled tradesmen who could teach Jack everything they know, but none of them can promise to teach him to be better than everybody else in the world. So father and son keep looking. Eventually, walking on through the biting cold to a plain covered in ice, they come across a man in a sledge who calls out to ask where they are going. Jack’s father explains his predicament. His wife wants their boy to be a master above all masters at whatever it is he learns – but who can teach him that?

I can,” says the total stranger, “and I’m in need of an apprentice. So up, with you, Jack!” The next moment Jack is in the sledge, and the sledge is rising into the sky. Frantically Jack’s father shouts at them to stop, asking the man his name, where his home is – any personal details to identify him as an employer rather than a kidnapper. The man’s reply: “Oh, I’m at home north, east, south and west, and my name is Farmer Weathersky. Come here again in a year and a day, and you shall hear whether Jack suits me or not.” HOW VERY REASSURING. Not.

Jack’s father goes home and tries to explain what happened to his wife, who naturally enough does not believe a word of it. She packs him off again straight away. “And don’t you come back until you’ve found out where our Jack is!” Well, that’s easier said than done. Jack’s father walks on and on, until he comes to a great forest and in it a little cottage. Outside the cottage is an old woman, who is drawing water from her well by the unconventional means of a very long nose. No explanation is given as to how exactly this is achieved, but it certainly doesn’t sound fun. Jack’s father stops, asking for a night’s lodging, and when she says no he offers her a little tobacco and snuff from his bag. “You are a man after my own heart!” she declares. “You can stay the night.”

In the morning, Jack’s father asks about Farmer Weathersky. His hostess has never heard of the man, and even when she summons together all the beasts of the wood to answer the question, none can help. But she is only one of three sisters, and she advises Jack’s father to ask the others. Lending him her sledge (what was in that snuff?), she sends him off, and by nightfall he comes to a little house on the sea shore. Its resident old woman is using her long nose to rake up seaweed. She is no more inclined to give Jack’s father a room for the night than her sister before her, but he wins her over with more snuff and come morning she is still in such a good mood that she calls all her fishes to her to ask after Farmer Weathersky. His name has not been heard of by anything that lives in the sea either. There is, however, a third sister left to ask; so, borrowing this old woman’s boat and her best dolphin, Jack’s father sails off to find her.

And find her he does, standing at her hearth poking the fire with her extraordinary nose. The snuff does its magic all over again and the next day the old woman calls down all the birds of the air to answer his question. Where is Farmer Weathersky? Not one of the birds can tell that, but then last of all comes an enormous eagle, who has flown straight from the house of Weathersky himself. After a meal and a night’s rest, he agrees to go back and take Jack’s father with him.

It is a long journey, midnight by the time they arrive, and they don’t need to guess whether Weathersky is asleep – his thunderous snoring answers that – so Jack’s father sneaks in straight away. Following the instructions of the eagle, who has after all been here before and escaped in one piece, he goes first to the kitchen to take three crumbs from the table drawer, and then to Weathersky’s bed to pull three feathers from his head. Risky? Little bit. But though the wizard’s shout is enough to bring down part of the ceiling, he somehow sleeps on. Next Jack’s father steals three wooden chips and the large black rock they were under. He then uses the breadcrumbs to entice a hare out of the stables, which he seizes, pulls three feathers from the eagle’s tail, then mounts up again with all his stolen oddments to make their escape.

But Farmer Weathersky is awake now. When the eagle stops to rest, Jack’s father sees a flock of crows behind them, and the eagle orders him to drop the first three feathers, the ones taken from Weathersky’s own head. These turn into a flock of ravens that chase the crows away. That buys them a little time, but soon enough they see Farmer Weathersky pursuing them himself. Jack’s father drops the chips of wood, which ignite into a ferocious conflagration. Weathersky is forced to turn back to fetch water to put it out, and the eagle flies on. When the wizard catches up with them again, Jack’s father drops the stone, which becomes a terrible black fog. Weathersky persists, trying to find a way through, but he breaks his leg in the dark and is forced to go back the way he came.

Arriving home, Jack’s father puts down the hare and it turns, unexpectedly, into his son. Jack’s mother is delighted to see them, but her priorities have not entirely deserted her and she wants to know if her boy is really now a master above all masters. Jack believes he is. That isn’t good enough for her, though, she wants evidence, and so the next day Jack gets up early to turn himself into a horse. This is not the end of the demonstration, either. He tells his father to take him to market and sell him, but whatever he does, he is not to sell Jack’s halter. That agreed upon, they set off.

At the market, Farmer Weathersky appears as a merchant and buys the horse that is Jack. He wants the halter, of course, but Jack’s father won’t sell it, and when he gets home with the money his son is already there toasting his feet by the fire. The second day’s con is equally successful. Jack’s father get the money, Farmer Weathersky gets the horse, the horse gets the hell out of there. By the third day, Jack’s father has grown a little cocksure of his son’s abilities. When Weathersky continues to up his price for the bridle, Jack’s father sells it, confident that his clever boy will find a way to get loose.

But Jack can’t. That isn’t how magic works. Farmer Weathersky leads him into the stables of an inn, where he ties him up with a barrel of red-hot nails before him and a barrel of oats behind, then goes off into the inn to eat a good meal himself. And there is absolutely nothing Jack can do about it.

Forunately for him, however, the inn’s serving maid is an animal lover. Hearing the horse’s cries, she comes out to see what is the matter and is horrified at the cruelty of such a master. She unties the halter, and Jack can finally slip loose. He’s no sooner out of the stable than Weathersky is out of the inn, hot in pursuit. The horse leaps into the pond and becomes a fish; the man follows him as a fish-eating pike. The fish becomes a dove. The pike becomes a dove-destroying hawk.

But there are more weapons in a dove’s arsenal than you might think. Flying through the open window of a palace, Jack throws himself on the mercy of a princess who happens to be sitting there, and she turns out to be the sort of girl who takes stories of shape-shifting birds and murderous ex-employers in her stride. She tells Jack to turn into a golden ring on her finger, which she will pretend was a precious gift from her mother. While Jack is charming the princess, though, Weathersky has gone to work on the king – in that he has made him terribly sick and come to the palace as the only doctor in the world who knows how to cure him. Also, he wants his fee first. It’s a little thing, no trouble, nothing excessive…all he wants is the golden ring on the princess’s finger.

She tries to refuse, offering richer rings for the ‘doctor’ to choose from, but he will have no other and the enraged king, horrified at his daughter’s heartlessness, orders that she bring that ring right now. The princess tells him tough, she can’t get it off her finger. “If you’ll let me try,” says Weathersky, “I’ll soon get it off.” “Don’t you dare touch me!” the princess snaps. “If anyone must try, I’ll try myself.” And she goes to the grate to put ashes on her finger, slipping the ring off in the process. Straight away Weathersky turns himself into a rooster that can peck through the ashes; with equal speed, Jack turns into a fox, and bites off his head.

Well, that’s that, then. With Weathersky’s death his spell on the king is lifted, who is so pleased with his instantaneous recovery that when the princess tells him she wants to marry the dodgy looking fox boy he’s like, yes darling, whatever darling, life glorious life! Thus Jack becomes husband to the world’s most unflappable princess, and finally satisfies his mother that he is indeed a master above all masters.

I have talked about fairy tale employment before with two other Ruth Manning Sanders stories, ‘The Old Witch’ and ‘The Good Ogre’, but ‘Farmer Weathersky’ is a bit different. For one thing, the witch and the ogre weren’t bad people to work for, despite some peculiarities over cleaning and the preparation of porridge. Weathersky turned his apprentice into a hare, and not in a friendly ‘let’s broaden your horizons, my boy’ kind of a way either, I suspect. (Believe it or not, that has been done. I’ll tell about it sometime.) Then again, what story of wizards would be complete with rivalry and a shapechanging chase scene?

Fairy Tale Tuesday No.15 – Long, Broad and Sharpsight

There are variations on every fairy tale. In some the brothers are turned to ravens, in others they are swans; a lonely girl might just as easily receive sartorial assistance from a bird as a fairy godmother. Even stories theoretically told by the same people have developed noticeable differences over centuries of retellings. This week’s fairy tale comes from the 1982 reprint of A Book of Wizards and has some similarities to a Grimm brothers story called ‘How Six Made Their Way In the World’ – but this one is told by Ruth Manning Sanders and is therefore superior in every way. I freely admit that I am slightly biased.

One day a king decides it is time for his only son to marry and sends the young man up a stair that nobody ever uses to a room he has never seen before, where eleven stained glass windows each show a beautiful princess smiling out at him. The prince is supposed to choose one for his bride, but all he knows about them are their faces and those are all as lovely as each other. At last, after walking from picture to picture without coming any closer to a decision, he comes to a window that is covered by a white curtain – and, in true fairy tale style, cannot resist finding out what lies behind. And it is a twelfth girl, not smiling like the others but desperately sad instead. The prince’s chivalry is roused. He promises his heart to the sad-faced princess and immediately all the other pictures disappear.

Well, he’s made his choice. It isn’t necessarily a wise one, as his horrified father tells him when he returns from the tower. The hidden girl was never meant to be seen; she is the prisoner of a powerful wizard and rescue is impossible. Go back to the tower, the king pleads, go back and choose another bride, but the prince is determined and sets off regardless. He travels for a long time, until in the heart of a dense forest – the very worst place to lose one’s way – he finds himself without a road. But help arrives in a very unexpected form. A man comes running after him, asking to be taken into his service. To prove his usefulness, he stretches himself up as high a pine tree and brings down a bird’s nest as he shrinks again to his proper size. The prince is impressed, but insists the bird be given back its nest and the man – named Long, for self-evident reasons – find a way out of the wood instead. Long easily obliges, soaring up so high he can see right out of the forest.

So off they go. Quite soon they have left the forest behind and are travelling across an enormous plain, where mountains tower over them and only Long would have a hope of spotting someone he knows. This friend is named Broad. Almost as wide as he is tall, he doesn’t appear terribly impressive at first sight, but when the prince asks for a demonstration it almost kills him, because suddenly Broad stretches sideways until his body is covering almost the whole plain. When he shrinks back to his usual size, the accompanying wind makes the forest sway like it’s in the grip of a storm. Why this man and Long want to be in the prince’s service when surely they could be the heroes of their own story is a mystery. His service is what they want and what they get.

Across the plain, at the foot of the mountains, they meet a man with his eyes bandaged like a blind beggar’s. He, too, asks to be taken into service. The prince welcomes him to travel with them but isn’t sure what use a blind man can be to him. Only as it turns out, his new friend is very far from blind. With his eyes bound he can see as clearly as any normal person; with them unbound, he can see through anything, and if he looks at something in a certain way it will catch fire or splinter into pieces. His name is Sharpsight and he proves his claims by shattering a wall of rock that stands in the prince’s way. This is definitely a man you want on your side. The prince asks him to find the wizard’s iron castle, where the sad princess is kept captive, and Sharpsight not only sees it, he sees into it where the girl from the window sits crying on her own. The prince is galvanised. “Let us hasten to her rescue!” he cries, and they all head north.

It’s a very long way but when you have a man actually called Long with you, with the abilities to match, there are certain advantages. Like, he can pick you up and lift you over any pesky mountains that happen to be in your way. At last all four adventurers come to stand on a desolate heath where the wizard’s castle is waiting for them, its iron walls turned an ominous red by the setting sun. They cross over the drawbridge and the castle closes its gates behind them, making them prisoners – well, sort of, because as Long points out, he can easily just lift them all out again. Talk about ruining the suspense! The prince isn’t going anywhere until he finds his mournful maiden, though, so onward they go, to a…stable. The prince is a responsible horse owner. But his is the only living creature in a crowded stable – all the others have been turned to stone, and inside the castle itself are more statues, this time of people. Stone princes raise swords against a foe they can no longer strike; stone knights try to run from something they can now never escape. There are even stone servants frozen in the middle of various tasks, which seems very counterproductive of the castle’s new owner.

Finally the four travellers come to a room where there are no statues, just a feast set out waiting for them. Personally, after witnessing the state of the other people in this castle, I would be very wary of eating anything, but the prince and his friends have no such qualms. No sooner have they finished their meal than the door blows dramatically open and the wizard himself comes to greet his guests, leading with him a pale sad-faced young woman. The prince leaps to his feet, recognising her at once. Rescue isn’t so simple as all that, though, and even the wizard’s terms aren’t as easy as they first appear. If they want to win the princess, he says, they must keep her in their sight for three nights – if they can’t do this, they will all be turned to stone like everybody else in the castle. The wizard bursts into hysterical shrieks of laughter and goes away, leaving the princess behind.

The prince is thrilled to meet her. He tells her he’s already in love with her and promises that he will be the one to set her free (how many times must she have heard that?) but he can’t make her say a word in response. His friends, meanwhile, are making their preparations to thwart the wizard. Long encircles the room with his elongated body, Broad swells himself out to fill the whole doorway, and Sharpsight settles himself in the middle of the hall so he can watch everything that happens. But even this won’t be enough to stop the princess disappearing. A wicked little wind comes stealing into the room, sending everyone to sleep and whisking the princess away with it.

The prince wakes at dawn to find his princess gone. He wakes his friends with a horrified shout and Sharpsight tears the bandage from his eyes, seeking the princess as only he can. Carried on Long’s shoulders, the two cross a hundred miles to a wood of oak trees and bring back a single acorn. When they return to the anxious prince, the acorn falls to the ground and becomes the princess again. The wizard, arriving moments later in full expectation of four more statues, can’t believe his eyes. He drags the princess away and leaves her four would-be rescuers to ponder how on earth they all fell asleep.

It’s a long day. The drawbridge is down again and the prince takes his horse for a ride, but the heath around the castle is empty of any kind of life, not even a flower or a blade of grass. He returns only to spend the rest of the day looking at the statues of other people who tried to rescue the princess, and failed. It doesn’t put him in the best of moods. When night comes, he is determined to keep better watch, but the wizard’s breeze returns with its irresistible sleep and steals the princess from under their noses. At dawn the frantic prince wakes his friends. Long crosses two hundred miles with his impossible legs; Sharpsight shatters a mountain with his impossible eyes; and they return to the prince with a precious jewel that falls to the ground as the missing princess.

The wizard is infuriated. To his credit, so are the four friends. On the third night they refuse even to sit, walking around the room as the night wears on so that they will not be tempted to sleep. Which is a very good idea, but common sense is no match for magic and when the wizard’s breeze comes it sends them to sleep in mid-step. At dawn the prince shouts to wake Sharpsight, but even his piercing eyes can’t find the princess at first. At last he sees her. Three hundred miles away is a black sea; in the middle of the sea is a shell, and inside the shell a ring, and the ring is the princess. Long and Sharpsight can’t reach her alone. This time Broad comes with them and uses his own gift to drink the whole sea dry. Long snatches up the shell and they set off again for the wizard’s iron castle, but Broad is full of sea and exceptionally heavy. The sun rises, the wizard comes – and the princess is not there.

But Sharpsight is watching. He tells Long, who reaches the castle in one more extraordinary stride and flings the ring inside, where it becomes the princess. For the first time it is the wizard who has failed to keep her under his eye. He transforms into a raven and flies away to who knows where. The princess’s pale face flushes with colour – she runs to the prince and he kisses her while all around them the statues come to life. Even the desolate heath is restored with a wash of green. The prince then leads a magnificent procession of rescued people back to his home, where his father has been mourning him as dead ever since he left. There is a joyous reunion, a royal wedding, and the princess actually laughs. But Long, Broad and Sharpsight will not stay. Their work is done – the prince no longer needs their services. They say goodbye to the happy couple and head out into the world to seek some other quest. On the way, Sharpsight does the prince one last favour, returning to the iron castle and razing it to the ground with a single pointed glance. As a raven or a man or, I don’t know, an acorn, that wizard is never coming back.

Ah, Sharpsight! He was probably my first ever book crush. A Book of Wizards has been in my family for as long as I can remember and ‘Long, Broad and Sharpsight’ is near the top of my list of All Time Favourite Fairy Tales. A prince who is moved by sadness instead of beauty, and worries about mother birds; a sneaky wizard obsessed with hide and seek who doesn’t get his head chopped off; a valiant display of common sense in the face of underhanded zephyrs. What is there not to love?