Today’s fairy tale features some common themes: Twin brothers born of magic to humble parents who go off to seek their fortunes in the world (the brothers, not the parents) and eventually have to sleep with one another’s wives. (They only sleep, perverts!) There’s also a damsel in distress, magic potions that bring the dead back to life, dragons, and fish. It’s not a good story unless there’s a magical, talking fish that invites you to eat it.
What other stories can you think of that feature these themes? “The Two Brothers” from the Brothers Grimm is one. Do you know any more?
Many thanks to Andrew Lang’s Brown Fairy Book for this Spanish tale of wonder and adventure.
The Knights of the Fish
Once upon a time there lived an old cobbler who worked hard at his trade from morning till night, and scarcely gave himself a moment to eat. But, industrious as he was, he could hardly buy bread and cheese for himself and his wife, and they grew thinner and thinner daily.
For a long while whey pretended to each other that they had no appetite, and that a few blackberries from the hedges were a great deal nicer than a good strong bowl of soup. But at length there came a day when the cobbler could bear it no longer, and he threw away his last, and borrowing a rod from a neighbour he went out to fish.
Now the cobbler was as patient about fishing as he had been about cobbling. From dawn to dark he stood on the banks of the little stream, without hooking anything better than an eel, or a few old shoes, that even he, clever though he was, felt were not worth mending. At length his patience began to give way, and as he undressed one night he said to himself: ‘Well, I will give it one more chance; and if I don’t catch a fish to-morrow, I will go and hang myself.’
He had not cast his line for ten minutes the next morning before he drew from the river the most beautiful fish he had ever seen in his life. But he nearly fell into the water from surprise, when the fish began to speak to him, in a small, squeaky voice:
‘Take me back to your hut and cook me; then cut me up, and sprinkle me over with pepper and salt. Give two of the pieces to your wife, and bury two more in the garden.’
The cobbler did not know what to make of these strange words; but he was wiser than many people, and when he did not understand, he thought it was well to obey. His children wanted to eat all the fish themselves, and begged their father to tell them what to do with the pieces he had put aside; but the cobbler only laughed, and told them it was no business of theirs. And when they were safe in bed he stole out and buried the two pieces in the garden.
By and by two babies, exactly alike, lay in a cradle, and in the garden were two tall plants, with two brilliant shields on the top.
Years passed away, and the babies were almost men. They were tired of living quietly at home, being mistaken for each other by everybody they saw, and determined to set off in different directions, to seek adventures.
So, one fine morning, the two brothers left the hut, and walked together to the place where the great road divided. There they embraced and parted, promising that if anything remarkable had happened to either, he would return to the cross roads and wait till his brother came.
The youth who took the path that ran eastwards arrived presently at a large city, where he found everybody standing at the doors, wringing their hands and weeping bitterly.
‘What is the matter?’ asked he, pausing and looking round. And a man replied, in a faltering voice, that each year a beautiful girl was chosen by lot to be offered up to a dreadful fiery dragon, who had a mother even worse than himself, and this year the lot had fallen on their peerless princess.
‘But where IS the princess?’ said the young man once more, and again the man answered him: ‘She is standing under a tree, a mile away, waiting for the dragon.’
This time the Knight of the Fish did not stop to hear more, but ran off as fast as he could, and found the princess bathed in tears, and trembling from head to foot.
She turned as she heard the sound of his sword, and removed her handkerchief from his eyes.
‘Fly,’ she cried; ‘fly while you have yet time, before that monster sees you.’
She said it, and she mean it; yet, when he had turned his back, she felt more forsaken than before. But in reality it was not more than a few minutes before he came back, galloping furiously on a horse he had borrowed, and carrying a huge mirror across its neck.
‘I am in time, then,’ he cried, dismounting very carefully, and placing the mirror against the trunk of a tree.
‘Give me your veil,’ he said hastily to the princess. And when she had unwound it from her head he covered the mirror with it.
‘The moment the dragon comes near you, you must tear off the veil,’ cried he; ‘and be sure you hide behind the mirror. Have no fear; I shall be at hand.’
He and his horse had scarcely found shelter amongst some rocks, when the flap of the dragon’s wings could be plainly heard. He tossed his head with delight at the sight of her, and approached slowly to the place where she stood, a little in front of the mirror. Then, still looking the monster steadily in the face, she passed one hand behind her back and snatched off the veil, stepping swiftly behind the tree as she did so.