Three runaway soldiers, a dragon with a magic whip, and a riddle seven years in the making.
The Dragon and His Grandmother
– A Brothers Grimm Tale –
ONCE there was a war. The King who had waged this war had many soldiers; but although he was glad enough to let them fight and die for him, he was not willing to pay them enough to live on. At last three of his soldiers put their heads together and decided to run away.
“But how shall we manage it?” said one. “If we get caught, it’s the gallows for us.”
“Do you see that rye-field?” said another. “We’ll sneak over there at dusk and hide in it for the night. Tomorrow the army will move on and then we can make our escape with safety.”
But things did not go that way. Orders were changed and the army stayed on day after day. The three runaway soldiers in the rye-field waited and waited—without food, without water. They dared not come out of hiding and it looked as though they would have to die there of hunger and thirst.
At last, who came? A fiery dragon came flying along and lay down in the field, coiling himself in and out among the rye-stalks.
“Soldiers, eh? Why are you hiding here?” asked the dragon.
“We ran away from the King’s army,” said the soldiers, “because he paid us so very little money for so very much fighting. But here we are, dying of hunger. We can’t go out after food, for we would surely be captured and that would be the end of us.”
“Hm! Hm!” said the dragon. “I can save you, my good lads; and I’ll do it gladly, too, if you’ll promise to serve me for seven years.”
The soldiers looked at each other doubtfully, for they did not like the idea of having a dragon for a master.
“Still,” said they to one another, “we have no choice. After all, anything is better than dangling on the gallows or starving miserably in this rye-field.”
So they promised.
The dragon seized them in his claws, flew through the air high above the army, and carried them far from the encampment. He set them carefully on the ground and gave them each a little whip, saying: “Snap these whips, gentlemen, and gold will spring out of the air like grasshoppers. The more you snap the whips, the more money you will have. See, my friends? You can live like lords and have no end of fun. This will be your life for seven years. At the end of that time I will ask you a riddle. If you guess it, you can keep your whips and I will have no further power over you. But if you fail, you will belong to me forever after.”
The soldiers shuddered a little, and when the dragon asked them to sign their names in his book, their hands trembled. But as soon as the dragon had flown away they forgot their fears. Quickly they snapped their whips, and hui! the gold sprang out of the air and lay in shiny yellow heaps about them.
Now the three lads started off on a carefree journey. They went here, there, and wherever their fancy led them. What a merry time they had, snapping their whips, gathering in the gold, and living in style! They bought fine clothes, elegant carriages and prancing steeds. They were good-hearted fellows, never harmed any one, shared their gold with one and all, and spread gayety wherever they wandered.
Well, so it went for seven years, with a hi ya ya! and a hup sa sa! But as their time drew to a close, two of the soldier-lads became sad and fearful. The third soldier was not afraid. He was a light-hearted fellow and he said: “Come, come, my comrades. Don’t worry about it. I didn’t fall on my head when I was a baby—I’ve got my wits about me—and I’ll find an answer to the dragon’s riddle when the time comes.”
But the other two were not very hopeful. They sat there with drooping mouths and long faces, looking as gloomy as a wet week, when who should come hobbling along but an old granny? She saw how sad they were and asked them what their trouble was.
“What can it matter to you, little old mother?” said the soldiers. “Surely you can’t help us.”
“Who knows?” said the granny, wagging her head. “Who knows? Come, tell me all about it and we’ll see.”
When she had heard their story, she said: “Now, now, my lads, that’s not as bad as it might be. I can tell you what to do. One of you must wander in the woods until he finds a big cliff. In one side of it is a cavern which looks like a home. This he must enter and there he will find help.”
The two doleful ones thought, “We’ll never be saved that way,” and went on moping. But the light-hearted one tossed his cap into the air, caught it again and cried, “Many thanks, little old mother. I’m off!”
He wandered all day, and toward nightfall he came upon something which looked like a cave-home in the side of a cliff. He peered in at the door and saw an old, old, very old woman. The soldier-lad wished her the good of the evening, and the old woman was so pleased with his merry, honest face that she asked him to come in and sit down. They chatted for a while and, just think, the soldier found that he was talking to the dragon’s own grandmother! She did not like her grandson very well, and she did like the merry soldier-lad; so when she heard his story she took pity on him.
“It’s getting dark,” she said, “and my dragon-boy will soon be home. Hide here,” she added, lifting up a flat door in the floor over the cellar. “Be as quiet as a mouse and prick up your ears. You may hear something which will help you in your trouble.”
The soldier-lad did as he was told, and soon the dragon came flying along. He crowded himself into the cave and demanded some dinner. The old woman spread out a mighty repast which put the dragon in great good humor.
“Well, my boy,” said the grandmother, “and how have things been going with you?”
“Oh,” said the dragon, “not much luck today. But why should I care? In a few days I will have some fun. Listen to this, grandma. Seven years ago I signed up three soldier-lads, and he he! hei hei! their time is almost up!”
“Are you so sure you’ll get them?” asked the grandmother. “They might be too clever for you.”
“Oh no!” shouted the dragon gleefully, with plenty of smoke coming out of his nostrils. “Oh no, grandma. I’ve got a good riddle for them—they’ll never guess it.”
“And what kind of a riddle may that be?” asked the grandmother as she filled up his bowl again.
The dragon gave another smoky snort and said: “I’ll tell you. It’s a good one. In the great North Sea lies a dead long-tailed monkey—that’s to be their roast meat. The rib of a whale shall be their spoon, and an old hollow horse-hoof shall be their wine glass. Isn’t that good? He he! Ha ha! Ho ho!”
And he went to bed in high glee.
Now the old woman lifted up the cellar door and the soldier stepped softly out of his hiding place.
“Did you hear what he said?” whispered the grandmother.
“Yes, thank you, my good woman,” said the lad. “I heard everything clearly.”
He hurried back to his companions and told them what had happened. Now all three were wild with joy, and snapped their whips right and left, so that the money sprang about like hailstones in a storm.
A few days later the seven years were up and the dragon appeared. He pointed to the three names in his book and said, “You promised!”
“Yes, we promised,” said the soldiers, trying not to look cheerful.
‘And so now for the riddle,” continued the dragon. “I know you’ll never guess it and you’re as good as mine already.”
“Well then?” said the soldiers.
“Well then,” said the dragon, “I will take you to my dominions, where I will give you a feast. And what do you think you’ll have for roast meat?”
Said the first soldier-lad: “In the great North Sea lies a dead long-tailed monkey. I suppose that’s to be our roast meat.”
The dragon was taken aback.
“Hm! Hm! Hm!” he muttered. “But what’s to be your spoon?”
Said the second soldier-lad: “The rib of a whale—I dare say that’s to be our spoon.”
The dragon made a wry face.
“Hm! Hm! Hm!” he muttered again. “But can you guess what shall be your wine glass?”
Said the third soldier-lad: “An old hollow horse-hoof—that’s to be our wine glass, like enough.”
The dragon turned purple with fury.
“Hu! Hu! Hu!” he roared, and flew quickly away, for well he knew that he had lost all his power over them.
The three soldier-lads were now free forever. They were merry and carefree once more, snapped their whips for gold as before, and if they haven’t stopped they’re at it still.
* * * * *
This story was taken from the book:
This edition of Tales from Grimm is a fantastic selection of stories, decorated with Wanda Gág’s splendid illustrations. Included, are such well-known and loved stories as ‘The Frog Prince’, ‘Hansel and Gretel’, ‘The Valiant Little Tailor’, ‘Cinderella’, ‘Snow White’, and ‘Rumpelstiltskin’.
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