The Elements of Fairytales – Part One


I have been re-reading fairytales lately. A project idea had me running to my bookshelf to grab my copy of Grimm’s Fairytales which I had started reading a couple of years ago but I never finished. I was reading through, trying to refresh myself on the concept of what makes up a fairytale, and found that many had similar elements.  I discovered a rich world filled with the fantastic, often interlaced with moral undertones, although some do slap you upside the head with “goodness”, and an insight to an era of certain cultural beliefs and behaviors. I will try to explore five areas that I think gives a pretty good overview of fairytale elements, each with at least one story as an example.

Part One – The Mundane Made Magical 

A glass that if held up if front of a sick person allows the welder to see Death, a cooking pot that never empties but must be turned on and off with just the right words, and violin that compels those who hear its music to dance. These stories are filled with mundane items that possess magic.  I’d like to discuss, however, the tale “The Knapsack, the Hat and the Horn” which contains four magical items.

It starts out in the usual way. Three brothers go out into the world to seek their fortune. They venture into a forest and stumble across a hill made of silver. Content with this, the First Brother fills his pockets with silver and returns home. The Second and Third brothers both believe that they can do better than measly silver and continue with their quest. Exploring another forest, they find a hill made of gold. Although, the Second Brother debates between taking the gold and searching for more riches, he eventually decides that the gold before him is better than dreams of things not yet found. He fills his pockets and goes home. The Third Brother smirks at the hill of gold and trudges onward, knowing he will find better prizes than his brothers.

The Third Brother reaches a vast, dense forest and ventures inside it, walking for days without food and water. After three days of this, he climbs a tree to survey the land and what he finds is discouraging to his parched throat and growling belly. An infinite sea of green, and the forest does not seem to end. Sighing, the Third Brother climbs back down and said, “I wish that I had some food and drink.” When he alights from the tree, there laid out before him is a tablecloth covered with dishes of food. He eagerly fell upon the feast, devouring the food and sating his hunger. He folds up the tablecloth and puts it in his pocket, firmly believing it to be imbued with magical properties. He continues on his quest until he comes across a charcoal-burner who is preparing his own meager supper of fire baked potato without butter or salt.

The two men greet each other and the charcoal-burner offers to share his repast with the Third Brother to which the Third Brother replies, “No thank you but you shall be invited to dine with me.” He stretches out the tablecloth, expresses his desire to eat and the food appears. Delighted, the charcoal-burner eagerly accepts the invitation and they enjoy their meal. After filling their bellies, the charcoal-burner offers a trade.

“I have a knapsack that if struck once with the hand brings forth a corporal and six armed men. They will do the biding of whoever summons them,” the charcoal-burner said. The Third Brother agrees, takes the knapsack and heads off into the trees. He doesn’t go far before he tries out his new acquisition. He strikes the knapsack and the soldiers appear. The Third Brother then orders them to go back and retrieve his tablecloth. Once they return, tablecloth in hand, the Third Brother dismisses them and continues ahead.

Still traversing the forest, the Third Brother shortly encounters another charcoal-burner and the dinner is repeated. This charcoal-burner offers the Third Brother a hat that when worn and tugged forward on the head will produce a fearsome rain of cannonballs, a dozen for each pull of the brim, for the miraculous tablecloth. Intrigued with the hat, the Third Brother agrees and the items are exchanged. He leaves the charcoal-burner and  journeys onward for a while before stopping and striking the knapsack. Again he sends his men after the tablecloth and when they return, successful, the Third Brother resumes his trek once more.

Soon, the Third Brother meets another charcoal-burner and invites the man to dine with him. The charcoal-burner offers the Third Brother a horn, explaining that once blown, the horn had the power to destroy walls and even whole fortresses. He asked the Third Brother if he’d consider a trade to which the Third Brother readily agrees. After the items are exchanged, the Third Brother departs. He, again, send his men to retrieve the tablecloth and having the tablecloth back in his possession, the Third Brother decides he can now go home.

His brothers had transformed their modest hovel into a palatial mansion with their wealth and since the Third Brother wore a shabby coat and the battered old hat,  and had the ratty knapsack on his back, he was unrecognizable to his brothers who laughed at him, “Our brother would be returning far more richer than we did, you can’t be him.” The Third Brother is then denied entrance and removed from their doorstep.

Enraged, the Third Brother strikes the knapsack over and over again until he has summoned a 150 men, all armed and all willing do follow his orders.

“Attack, all of you but two!” The Third Brother demanded, and then pointed to two men nearest him. “You two, fetch hazel switches to beat my brothers with until they remember me.”

A king and his company were riding by and halted their procession, wondering what the reason was behind the battle. The interruption further fans the Third Brother’s fury and he summons more men, amassing a great army and orders them to attack the king. Overwhelmed, the king meets with the Third Brother and a deal is struck. The king’s daughter in marriage and the Third Brother would cease his onslaught.

The princess, disliking her husband from the start, begins to plot his downfall and notices that he is never without his knapsack. She transforms herself into the embodiment of a charming and loving wife until she is able to, one day, coax him into showing her the bag’s secret. She waits until the right moment and steals the knapsack. The princess strikes the knapsack and sends forth an army of men to seize him and bring him to before her father. The Third Brother would have met his end at this point, no doubt, but he still retained the hat and he used it. The Third Brother tugged on the brim of the hat once he was able to get his hands free and cannon fire rained down, destroying whatever it struck. He did not halt until the princess came to him begging that he stop, promising to behave better.

The Third Brother accepted the princess back, having made peace with her and for a time, the princess it the perfect wife. She was kind and loving and the Third Brother grew to trust her, confiding in her the powers of the hat. She waited until he slept and stole the hat, having him driven out of their home and into the streets but she did not know of the horn’s properties. The Third Brother brought the horn to his lips and blew a great breath into it, toppling the walls and the castle until it was only rubble and had buried the princess and the king. If he hadn’t halted when he did, he would have destroyed the homes and buildings of the village, leaving nothing standing. The Third Brother then made himself king of the whole country and no one wanted to contest his decision, having witnessed what he was capable of.

Even though the Third Brother became king, is he really better off than his brothers? I can’t help but think that maybe he should have just taken the gold and gone home. He would have saved himself a whole lot of trouble and heartache.

Note: I did not find the Third Brother a very sympathetic character and indeed, there are some “heroes” that are hard to like (as can be found in “The Jew Among Thorns” and “King Thrushbeard”).  They crop up here and there, but I am not discussing virtues in this part, only magical items and their use. There are many more stories that feature a magical item in the telling. The ones eluded to in the beginning of this part were: “The Wonderful Glass”, “Sweet Porridge”, and “The Jew Among Thorns”.

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