Four skilled brothers, a stolen princess and an angry dragon.
The German tale of four brothers who set out to learn their crafts in the big wide world. When they return home as skilled men; a thief, an astronomer, a hunter, and a tailor their skills are challenged by their father – ‘I should like to try what each of you can do in this way.’
The brothers’ are then put to the ultimate test when the princess is stolen away from the kingdom by an angry dragon. Do they have the skills to save her?
The Four Clever Brothers is a Brothers Grimm tale originally collected in Children’s and Household Tales in 1819. We’ve taken this version of the text from ‘The Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm’. The illustrations are by Arthur Rackham.
You can read more Grimm tales here.
The Four Clever Brothers
A Brothers Grimm Tale
THERE was once a poor man who had four sons, and when they were grown up, he said to them: ‘Dear children, you must go out into the world now, for I have nothing to give you. You must each learn a trade and make your own way in the world.’
So the four Brothers took their sticks in their hands, bid their father good-bye, and passed out of the town gate.
When they had walked some distance, they came to four cross roads, which led into four different districts. Then the eldest one said: ‘We must part here, but this day four years, we will meet here again, having in the meantime done our best to make our fortunes.’
Then each one went his own way. The eldest met an old man, who asked him where he came from, and what he was going to do.
‘I want to learn a trade,’ he answered.
Then the Man said: ‘Come with me and learn to be a Thief.’
‘No,’ answered he, ‘that is no longer considered an honest trade; and the end of that song would be that I should swing as the clapper in a bell.’
‘Oh,’ said the Man, ‘you need not be afraid of the gallows. I will only teach you how to take things no one else wants, or knows how to get hold of, and where no one can find you out.’
So he allowed himself to be persuaded, and under the Man’s instructions he became such an expert thief that nothing was safe from him which he had once made up his mind to have.
The second Brother met a Man who put the same question to him, as to what he was going to do in the world.
‘I don’t know yet,’ he answered.
‘Then come with me and be a Star-gazer. It is the grandest thing in the world, nothing is hidden from you.’
He was pleased with the idea, and became such a clever Star-gazer, that when he had learnt everything and wanted to go away, his master gave him a telescope, and said—
‘With this you can see everything that happens in the sky and on earth, and nothing can remain hidden from you.’
The third Brother was taken in hand by a Huntsman, who taught him everything connected with sport so well, that he became a first-rate Huntsman.
On his departure his master presented him with a gun, and said: ‘This gun will never miss: whatever you aim at you will hit without fail.’
The youngest Brother also met a Man who asked him what he was going to do.
‘Wouldn’t you like to be a Tailor?’ he asked.
‘I don’t know about that,’ said the young man. ‘I don’t much fancy sitting cross-legged from morning till night, and everlastingly pulling a needle in and out, and pushing a flat iron.’
‘Dear, dear!’ said the Man, ‘what are you talking about? If you come to me you will learn quite a different sort of tailoring. It is a most pleasant and agreeable trade, not to say most honourable.’
So he allowed himself to be talked over, and went with the Man, who taught him his trade thoroughly.
On his departure, he gave him a needle, and said: ‘With this needle you will be able to stitch anything together, be it as soft as an egg, or as hard as steel; and it will become like a whole piece of stuff with no seam visible.’
When the four years, which the Brothers had agreed upon, had passed, they met at the cross-roads. They embraced one another and hurried home to their Father.
‘Well!’ said he, quite pleased to see them, ‘has the wind wafted you back to me again?’
They told him all that had happened to them, and that each had mastered a trade. They were sitting in front of the house under a big tree, and their Father said—
‘Now, I will put you to the test, and see what you can do.’
Then he looked up and said to his second son—
‘There is a chaffinch’s nest in the topmost branch of this tree; tell me how many eggs there are in it?’
The Star-gazer took his glass and said: ‘There are five.’
His Father said to the eldest: ‘Bring the eggs down without disturbing the bird sitting on them.’
The cunning Thief climbed up and took the five eggs from under the bird so cleverly that it never noticed they were gone, and he gave them to his Father. His Father took them, and put them one on each corner of the table, and one in the middle, and said to the Sportsman—
‘You must shoot the five eggs through the middle at one shot.’
The Sportsman levelled his gun, and divided each egg in half at one shot, as his Father desired. He certainly must have had some of the powder which shoots round the corner.
‘Now it is your turn,’ said his Father to the fourth son. ‘You will sew the eggs together again, the shells and the young birds inside them; and you will do it in such a manner that they will be none the worse for the shot.’
The Tailor produced his needle, and stitched away as his Father ordered. When he had finished, the Thief had to climb up the tree again, and put the eggs back under the bird without her noticing it. The bird spread herself over the eggs, and a few days later the fledglings crept out of the shell, and they all had a red line round their throats where the Tailor had sewn them together.
‘Yes,’ said the old man to his sons; ‘I can certainly praise your skill. You have learnt something worth knowing, and made the most of your time. I don’t know which of you to give the palm to. I only hope you may soon have a chance of showing your skill so that it may be settled.’
Not long after this there was a great alarm raised in the country: the King’s only daughter had been carried off by a Dragon. The King sorrowed for her day and night, and proclaimed that whoever brought her back should marry her.
The four Brothers said to one another: ‘This would be an opportunity for us to prove what we can do.’ And they decided to go out together to deliver the Princess.
‘I shall soon know where she is,’ said the Star-gazer, as he looked through his telescope; and then he said—
‘I see her already. She is a long way from here, she is sitting on a rock in the middle of the sea, and the Dragon is near, watching her.’
Then he went to the King and asked for a ship for himself and his Brothers to cross the sea in search of the rock.
They found the Princess still on the rock, but the Dragon was asleep with his head on her lap.
The Sportsman said: ‘I dare not shoot. I should kill the beautiful maiden.’
‘Then I will try my luck,’ said the Thief, and he stole her away from beneath the Dragon. He did it so gently and skilfully, that the monster never discovered it, but went snoring on.
Full of joy, they hurried away with her to the ship, and steered for the open sea. But the Dragon on waking had missed the Princess, and now came after them through the air, foaming with rage.
Just as he was hovering over the ship and about to drop on them, the Sportsman took aim with his gun and shot him through the heart. The monster fell down dead, but he was so huge, that in falling, he dragged the whole ship down with him. They managed to seize a few boards, on which they kept themselves afloat.
They were now in great straits, but the Tailor, not to be outdone, produced his wonderful needle, and put some great stitches into the boards, seated himself on them, and collected all the floating bits of the ship. Then he stitched them all together so cleverly, that in a very short time the ship was seaworthy again, and they sailed happily home.
The King was overjoyed when he saw his daughter again, and he said to the four Brothers: ‘One of you shall marry her, but which one, you must decide among yourselves.’
An excited discussion then took place among them, for each one made a claim.
The Star-gazer said: ‘Had I not discovered the Princess, all your arts would have been in vain, therefore she is mine!’
The Thief said: ‘What would have been the good of discovering her if I had not taken her from under the Dragon? So she is mine.’
The Sportsman said: ‘You, as well as the Princess, would have been destroyed by the monster if my shot had not hit him. So she is mine.’
The Tailor said: ‘And if I had not sewn the ship together with my skill, you would all have been drowned miserably. Therefore she is mine.’
The King said: ‘Each of you has an equal right; but, as you can’t all have her, none of you shall have her. I will give every one of you half a kingdom as a reward.’
The Brothers were quite satisfied with this decision, and they said: ‘It is better so than that we should quarrel over it.’
So each of them received half a kingdom, and they lived happily with their Father for the rest of their days.