In honour of the family reunion I am attending in the Estonian Baltic this week, I share the wit and wisdom of an Estonian folktale:
One day a poor youth was walking along a road. Feeling tired, he sat down on the grass by a large stone to rest and have a bite to eat. After he had eaten he stretched himsef out on the ground and fell asleep.
In his sleep he had a strange dream: he seemed to hear a squeaky little voice piping something in his ear. But the piping did not stop when he woke. By the sound of it he judged that it came from under the stone if not from somewhere within it.
The youth put his ear to the stone and found that that was where the piping was indeed coming from! He listened carefully and was gradually able to make out the words:
"O good and kind youth! Please deliver me from my long and trying captivity! For seven hundred years have I been suffering the most terrible torture but my captors won't let me die. You were born at sunrise on Easter day, therefore you alone can save me."
"I don't know if it is in my power to do-so," replied the youth hesitantly. "Tell me how you have come to be where you are and what I must do in order to rescue you."
Said the squeaky little voice:
"First you must find a rowan-tree that grows on the border of three farms and cut off a piece of its branch a finger thick and an inch long. After that you must take several bunches of savory and of caraway, burn them and the rowan branch together, and, walking round the stone nine times, with your face to the sun, let the smoke curl over the whole of it. Only then will the gate of my prison open and I will see the sun again and feel the breath of the wind. If you save me my gratitude will know no bounds: I will make you rich and famous."
The youth thought this over and said:
"To help someone who is in trouble is every man's duty. Although I don't yet know whether you are a good or an evil spirit, I will try to do what I can for you. But first you must swear that, once you are free, you will do no one any harm."
To this the captive readily agreed, vowing on his honour to keep his word.
The youth then went off to the forest in search of the rowan-tree and the herbs. Fortunately, he knew of a place nearby where a rowan-tree grew on the border of three farms but it took him much longer to find the herbs and he was only back with them on the following day.
It was after sunset of that day that he set about his task, going round the stone nine times, with his face to the sun, and being careful to let the smoke curl over its whole surface.
He was nearly done when there came the most terrible noise, it was as if the earth itself were being rent asunder. The same instant the huge stone moved from its place and rose in the air to a height of twenty feet and a tiny little man sprang from under it and rushed off on twinkling feet. Then the stone crashed down again in its old place, spraying everything around with earth and dust. The tiny little man ran back to his deliverer and threw himself on his neck. He even tried kissing his hands and feet, but this the youth would not let him do. Then they both dropped down on the grass beside the stone, and the little man told the youth the following story:
"I was once a magician and a famous one who did much good to many and was richly rewarded for it. I healed the sick, both men and animals, and broke the evil spells cast over people by witches and sorcerers who feared me because I was stronger than they. Many a time did they get together and try to think of ways of doing away with me, but by means of the secret knowledge that I possessed I was able to upset their wily plans and they could do me no harm.
"At last they collected a large sum of money and sent a messenger with it to an evil sorcerer who lived in a northern land, calling on him to help them. It was this knave who finally got the better of me, though not so much by wisdom as by cunning. He stole my tools of magic and threw me in a dark hole under the stone to languish there till the day when a man born at sunrise on Easter day should come and free me. For seven hundred years I waited for that happy moment. Then you came, and, heeding my plea, delivered me from captivity. To the end of my days I shall not tire of thanking you and will serve you selflessly, giving all my strength and knowledge to making you happy and to raising you to the greatest height a mortal can reach on earth. When I have done this, I will ask you to help me again that I might square my accounts with my enemies should they appear. Until then, lest my enemies learn of my escape, I will hide myself from all eyes. By means of magic I can take any shape I please. Thus, I can turn myself into a flea and shelter in the pocket of your breeches. But if ever you need my help and advice I will scramble out of your pocket, jump behind your ear and tell you what to do. I won't want any food, for I have done without all the seven hundred years I spent under the stone, and fresh air and sunshine are enough for me. And now let us sleep, for in the morning we will set out together to seek our fortune."
The kind spirit or sorcerer or whoever he was had now come to the end of his story, and the youth had his supper and lay down for a sleep.
On the following morning, rising late, when the sun was already high in the sky, he looked around him, but the little man whom he had rescued the night before was nowhere to be seen. Half awake as he was, the youth was not sure whether he had really seen him or whether it had all been a dream.
He had his breakfast and was about to start on his way again when three wayfarers appeared on the road. Judging by their clothes, they were artisans, and there were leather bags strapped on to their backs. Just then the youth felt a tickling behind his ear and a voice as thin as the piping of a mosquito said: "Invite the three wayfarers to stop for a rest and ask them where they are bound."
The youth now saw that his adventure of the night before had not been a dream. He recalled that the little man had said that he would hide in his pocket and only emerge if his deliverer needed his counsel.
The youth came up to the three men and in the most friendly fashion invited them to sit down and rest, saying that he would go with them if they happened to be going the same way as he. The three, who turned out to be apprentices, told him of a terrible misfortune that had occurred in the king's own city several days before: the king's daughter, his only child, had drowned while bathing, and though the river was not at all deep, her body had not been found.
Suddenly the youth heard the voice behind his ear whisper to him:
"Go wherever they are going, for you might make your fortune there."
The youth heeded this counsel and went with the apprentices.
The road soon led them into a dense pine forest where, lying in a gutter by the wayside, was an old knapsack.
The voice behind the youth's ear whispered:
"Take that old knapsack, it might come in handy on the way."
Though the youth was doubtful that anything so old and worn could be of any possible use, he picked up the knapsack and hung it on his back, saying with a laugh:
"A man must not disdain that which he finds lying in the road. Who knows but that this old knapsack may be of use to us! "
His companions scoffed at this but said:
"If you want to take it, go ahead. An empty knapsack is not so heavy that it will weigh down your shoulders."
However, they soon changed their tune when they saw that the knapsack was no ordinary knapsack but a magic one.
Walking in the hot midday sun had wearied the travellers, and, seating themselves in the shade of a leafy tree, they were about to refresh themselves with the little they had brought along, when the little man hiding behind the youth's ear said to him:
"Order the knapsack to bring you food!"
The youth, who thought this a jest but decided that it might amuse his companions, took the knapsack off his back, put it on the grass in front of him, rapped it with a stick and said:
"Knapsack, knapsack, bring us some food!"
At this something quite unheard of happened. There before them, where the knapsack had just been, now stood a small table spread with a white cloth and stacked with food and drink. Four spoons lay beside the platters and bowls which contained such delectable dishes as a thick beef broth, roast pork, sausages and pies made of the finest, whitest flour that ever was. And there was enough beer, wine and mead in the jugs to quench anyone's thirst!
The travellers did not wait to be asked but set to in earnest. It was as if they were at a wedding feast, for never before in their lives had they eaten anything so delicious!
When everyone had had his fill, the table vanished as suddenly as it had appeared and the old knapsack again lay in its place.
If at first the three apprentices had jeered at the youth for having taken it with him they now vied with each other for the right to carry the knapsack. In fact, they were close to quarrelling over it when the youth stopped them by saying:
"I was the one to pick it up, so it's mine by rights."
There was nothing to be said to that, so they left it to him. But since it was unthinkable to allow this treasured possession to simply dangle on his back, unprotected, one of the apprentices brought out a needle and a ball of silk thread from his bag and made a cover for the knapsack out of a piece of sacking.
After a rest the travellers went on. A full stomach and a hopeful heart are the merriest of companions, and it was not to be wondered at that the four of them walked along singing and joking.
With the onset of evening they found shelter for the night under a bush and the knapsack provided them with as fine a meal as it had at midday. Before going to bed they thought long about how to protect it from thieves, deciding at last that they would all rest their heads on it whilst keeping their legs stretched out in four different directions: the first, to the south, the second, to the north, the third, to the east, and the fourth, to the west. As if this were not enough, its owner tied the knapsack to one end of his belt and his left hand to the other end that none might pull at it however lightly without his feeling it. But though better ways of safeguarding the knapsack could hardly be devised, the four young men slept fitfully, and whenever they woke, which was often, would grope for the knapsack to make sure it was still there.
In the morning the knapsack brought them food again and they had a hearty breakfast, and this went on every day for a week by which time they had arrived at the king's city.
Here the little man who was still sitting behind his deliverer's ear, told him that the princess had not been drowned at all but dragged into a whirlpool by a wicked mermaid. He promised to show him the way to the place where she was being held captive, saying that before anything else he was to go to the king and announce that he would go in search of the princess and try to find her no matter what it cost him, but that if he did not return the king was to send one half of the gold due him by way of reward to his parents and distribute the rest among the poor.
The king, who had lost all hope of ever seeing his daughter again, gladly agreed, saying that he would do everything the youth asked him.
The youth left the palace, and the little man behind his ear piped:
"You must catch three crayfish, they will show you the way."
And, of course, the youth heeded this counsel and did as he was told.
On the following day the townsfolk flocked to the river bank where he was to begin his search for the princess. The king came, too, for he wanted to see for himself what the brave youth would do, and he ordered the princess's servant-maids who had witnessed the whole terrible happening to point out the spot where they had seen her last. The servant-maids did so, and now it became clear again to everyone that it was practically impossible to drown there, the river being no more than three feet deep, with a level bottom and a weak current. True, there was a deep hole much farther down the river, but how could the princess have come to be that far? Surely, black magic had been at work here!
"Let one of the crayfish down into the water without anyone noticing and see where it crawls," the little man piped in the youth's ear.
The youth hastened to do as he was told. Pretending that he wanted to measure the river depth with his hand, he dropped one of the crayfish in the water. The crayfish crawled alongside the shore for twenty paces or so and then turned sharply left and disappeared under an overhanging cliff.
When the second and the third crayfish had done the same, the little man piped:
"Now that we know where to go there is no time to be lost. Strike the shore three times with the heel of 71 your left foot and dive in the river. Once there, we'll find the way."
The youth did as he was told. He struck the shore three times with his foot and dived in so that the water all around rippled and foamed. The lookers-on waited silently to see what would happen next.
Reaching the spot underwater directly beneath the cliff, the youth saw an opening that led into a cave, and so narrow was it that to squeeze in was almost more than a man could do.
"Into the cave with you!" the little man cried.
The youth crawled in with difficulty, but as he pushed ahead the walls fell back and he was soon able to stand up.
After a while a faint light gleamed in the darkness, and the youth stepped out of the cave to see a broad grass-grown valley spreading before him with a large house of blue stone showing in the distance.
Said the little man:
"Listen carefully to all I'm going to say and do just what I tell you, for you will never rescue the princess otherwise. She is being held captive by a mermaid in that blue house yonder, and two bears stand on watch by the gate day and night to prevent anyone from getting in or out. We must try and make friends with the bears. As soon as we come near, order your knapsack to turn into a hive full of honey and then thrust it at them and slip into the house. Once we are inside, I'll tell you what to do next."
The youth came up to the gate, he heard the bears roaring and was filled with fear. And when he had peeped through a crack and caught sight of them, his heart was in his heels. Still, he took the knapsack down from his back and ordered it to turn into a hive full of honey. So heavy was the hive that he could not even lift it, but the bears, feeling the smell of the honey, threw the gate wide open and rushed greedily toward it. They never saw the youth who slipped into the yard behind their backs, and, the door hot being locked, made his way into the house.
Said the little man:
"There are two doors here, one on your left and one on your right. The one on the left has a golden key in it and the one on the right, a silver one. First, you must lock the door with the golden key, so the old mermaid will not be able to come out, and then unlock the door with the silver key and let out the princess."
The youth did as he was told. He locked the door with the golden key, and such a terrible roar came from the room that the very walls shook. But he never paused and hurried to the door with the silver key. Unlocking it, he saw the princess who was sitting on her couch with a sorrowful look on her face. The sight of him frightened her at first, but when he told her that he had come to free her she was overjoyed and jumped gaily down to the floor.
Said the youth:
"There is no time to be lost. We must get out of here before the bears have eaten all of the honey."
And taking the princess by the hand, he led her to the door. The bears, still busy with the hive which they had rolled into the yard, paid them no heed, and the runaways tiptoed past them noiselessly and ran out through the gate. The youth then locked it so that the bears might not rush out after them, and the two hurried on. "Tell the knapsack to come back to you! " the little man piped in his ear.
"Knapsack, knapsack, come back to me! " called the youth.
And the same instant the knapsack was back in its place on his back again.
They came to the cave, and the youth said to the princess:
"The cave is dark and narrow, but don't be afraid, for we will be out of it in a little while. As soon as we are in the water, shut your eyes and don't open them until
I have carried you out on shore."
The underground passage was now far wider than it had been before for some reason, and the runaways made their way through it quite easily. When they got to the river the youth took the princess up in his arms and carried her out on to the shore.
Losing all hope of his ever returning, most of the people who had been there had gone off home. But the king and his courtiers were still sitting by the river and talking about the princess and the terrible fate that had overtaken her when her head and that of her deliverer suddenly bobbed up out of the water.
When they saw the princess alive and well, the happiness of the king and those who were with him knew no bounds. The king kept embracing now his daughter, now her deliverer and weeping for joy.
The glad tidings flew as fast as the wind, and the townsfolk flocked to the river-bank in their thousands to see the miracle for themselves.
By order of the king, the youth was given chambers of his own in the palace and his reward was trebled. In the evening, when the youth was about to go to bed, the little man piped in his ear:
"Now that you have become rich, there is no need for us to tarry here. In two or three days we must be on our way again. I have no doubt but that the king would have given you his daughter in marriage in time, but I don't think you should marry just yet, you are far too young. Come with me and let us roam the wide world until you have grown older and wiser."
The youth did not much care for this bit of advice, but remembering that all of the little man's counsels had done him nothing but good, decided to do as he was told. The king and the princess begged him to stay with them longer, but he would not and prepared to set off on his way again.
The youth was rich now and could well afford to ride m a coach. But as he was in no haste to get to any particular place and as the magic knapsack provided him daily with all the food he could eat, he continued his journey on foot.
One day, stopping for a rest, he again felt a tickling behind his ear and heard the little man's squeaky little voice say to him:
"Some of the townsfolk are after you, they want to rob you of your knapsack. It was the three apprentices who travelled with you that let the cat out of the bag. Now, what you must do is take a thick cudgel of pine of a length to fit into your knapsack, bore a hole in it at one end and then fill the hole with molten lead.
Armed with this, you will be well able to defend yourself from your enemies! "
The youth did as the little man told him and thrust the cudgel into his knapsack.
On the following day, as he was passing through a thick forest, he was set on quite suddenly by ten men.
Said the little man in a whisper:
"Tell the cudgel to jump out of the knapsack! "
This the youth did, and at once the most wonderful thing happened, for the cudgel came alive, and, jumping out of the knapsack, fell on the robbers and began beating them about the shoulders so hard that they took to their heels.
Once of a fine summer evening the youth came to a large village where a fete was being held, some of the younger people singing songs and swinging on swings and others dancing away on the green to the strains of a bagpipe.
Suddenly the youth, who had been admiring the merry scene before him, heard the little man behind his ear whisper:
"We have come here at a lucky hour, for the villain I have been seeking is here. If my plan comes off, and it is bound to if you go about things properly, he will be in my hands today and I will be able to square my accounts with him at last. Take a good look at the dancers, and you will see among them a girl who has a bright ribbon round her neck. Invite this girl to dance with you, and as you are spinning her round, seize the ribbon and give it a mighty pull so that it rips into shreds.
Nothing will happen to the girl: she has nine lives, like a cat." The youth at once drew nearer to the dancers and began to look for the girl with the ribbon round her neck. He soon saw her. She was tall and her hair curled prettily, and there was a crowd of young men around her, all vying with each other for the right to dance with her.
Just as she and her partner had wound up their dance, the youth came up and invited her to dance with him. He spun her round very fast, seized her ribbon and gave it such a pull that it ripped into shreds! With a heart-rending scream the girl vanished.
Alarmed by the scream, the dancers and those who stood around watching them turned and saw a man with a funny grey beard running as fast as his legs could carry him for the forest, with another and taller man close at his heels. By then it had grown quite dark, the two men were soon lost to sight, and the merrymaking was resumed just as if nothing out of the way had happened.
The youth stood watching the dancers for a time and then moved on to try and find himself a place where he could spend the night.
As he was nearing the village, he heard quick footsteps behind him. Glancing over his shoulder, he saw a man hurrying after him.
"Wait for me, my lad! " cried he. "I am coming with you, for I am still in your debt. Don't you know me now that I am tall and strong again? Not only did you free me from captivity but, too, delivered my worst enemy into my hands. Now there is no further need for me to hide in your pocket."
And the little man or, as we will now call him, the good magician, told the youth that he had caught and bound his enemy and that he would never be able to escape, for all his magic powers had gone with the ribbon which had not been a ribbon at all but a live snake. He said that he was going to take a cudgel and beat his enemy with it until he disclosed to him where it was he kept the three princesses and all their countless treasures that he had carried off these seven hundred years ago.
"If we find them and you succeed in breaking the magic spell cast over them, then you will be both happy and rich," said he in conclusion.
The two had a good supper brought them by the magic knapsack and then lay down for a sleep.
On the following morning they set off for the forest to see how the captured sorcerer was faring. They found him all rolled up into a ball like a hedgehog, and his arms and legs having been bound and a stick passed under his knees, unable so much as to stir.
"Out of the knapsack, cudgel! " ordered the good magician.
And the cudgel flew at the wicked sorcerer and began pummelling him so hard as if it had set out to mash every bone in his body. The sorcerer wept and cried and begged for mercy and said that he would tell them whatever they wanted to know. But when his captor demanded that he bring back the three princesses and all their countless treasures, he told them that so much time had passed since he had carried them off that he no longer remembered where he had hidden them. At this the cudgel was ordered out of the knapsack again, and the sorcerer, seeing that unless he spoke out he was done for, finally told them all.
Said the good magician:
"I am going to keep you captive until we have found the princesses and all their countless treasures. But I cannot leave you here, for someone may see you, and, not knowing who you are, free you out of Pity."
With these words he seized the sorcerer, heaved him up on to his back like a bale of tow, carried him to a deep ravine and threw him down into it so that his bones rattled.
"Wait there until we come back! " cried he with a laugh.
He then told the youth that the place the wicked sorcerer had told them about lay a great distance away so that they could only get there by means of magic. At a word from him the knapsack turned into a trough, just big enough to hold two people, with wings nearly twelve feet long on either side of it.
No sooner had the two friends climbed in and seated themselves than the trough rose into the air, and, soaring to the clouds, flew south. It sped them tirelessly onward day and night, and th'ey never ran out of food or drink on the way, for it supplied both as promptly as had the knapsack.
For over a week they flew, and at last the good magician ordered the trough to descend.
They came down in a vast sun-parched desert with ruins dotting the sands here and there, and the good magician turned the trough back into a knapsack again, and, hanging it on his friend's back, said:
"You have a two-day journey ahead to a place where I cannot accompany you."
He began shovelling away the sand at the foot of one of the ruins and soon uncovered a secret trapdoor. Lifting the top, they saw a stairway leading downward.
The good magician caught a large fly, put it in a box and told the youth to hide it in his bosom.
"If you are asked to tell one princess from another, let the fly out of the box and watch carefully to see on which of them it lights," said he. "She will be the. one you want."
"Let come what may!. " said the youth to himself, and he set boldly off on his way.
On and on he went down the dark stairway, and at last, when a few hours had passed and he began to feel tired and hungry, sat down on a step. He had some food and water and after resting for an hour or two went on again. His eyes soon caught a faint gleam of light ahead, and a half hour later he came out on to a large glade where stood a beautiful palace.
The youth made for the palace and was met at the door by a little old man with a long grey beard who said to him:
"Come in, my lad, and try your luck. If you succeed in guessing which of the three princesses is the youngest, then you will only need to take her by the hand, and all who are asleep will come awake again. If you don't, then you, too, will fall asleep and never wake any more."
The youth drew out from his bosom the little box with the fly in it and followed the old man. Passing through two rooms, they came into a third where stood three silken beds in which three pretty maids lay fast asleep, and so much alike were they that none could have said which of the three was the youngest.
The youth looked at the maids for a long time, but at last, seeing that he could never tell them apart, let out the fly from its box. The fly spun round the room for a while and then lighted on the maid in the middle bed. The youth at once came up to her, and, seizing her by the hand, cried:
"Here is the youngest sister!"
The same instant the princesses awoke and rose from their beds, and the youngest of the three threw her arms round her deliverer's neck and said:
"Thank you, brave youth! You have wakened us from a long sleep and broken the magic spell cast over us. Let us hurry home now!"
They started back, but when they came to the place where the staircase had been, the youth saw that it was no longer there, and he and the three princesses had to grope their way through a dark underground passage. After a time they came out into the sunlight again, but—lo and behold! —where a sandy desert had spread were lush, flower-grown meadows and where had been ruins stood a magnificent palace with a large town beyond it.
The good magician came forward to meet them. He took the youth by the hand and led him aside to where, hidden behind some bushes, was a small lake with the purest, clearest water ever seen!
"Look at your reflection in the water! " said the magician.
The youth looked and could not believe his eyes: his face had not changed, but he was clothed as richly as a king in garments of silk, velvet and gold.
"Whom have I to thank for all this? " asked he.
Said the good magician:
"That is the knapsack's last service to you. From now on you won't need either its help or mine, for you are going to marry the princess and, when the old king dies, become king yourself. I hope that I have now repaid the debt I owed you."
"A thousand times over! " exclaimed the youth joyfully.
As the good magician said so it was, for only a few days later the youth and the princess were married, and in a year, when the old king closed his eyes forever, his son-in-law became king in his stead.