Sacred-Texts Legends & Sagas Index Previous Next
THIS familiar story appears in the form of Swiftfoot, Quickhand, and Sharpeye. It begins with the lamentation of a rich but childless wife, who is consoled by a pretty little girl,1 who suddenly appeared, and directed her to boil three eggs of a black hen for her husband’s supper, and then to send him to bed, but to walk in the open air herself before retiring. In due course, three strong boys were born, and the fairy came to see them in their cradles. She took a ball of red thread from her pocket, and tied threads round the ankles of one boy, the wrists of another, and the temples of the third. She directed the mother not to disturb p. 13 the threads till the children were taken to the christening, and then to burn the threads, collect the ashes in a spoon, and moisten them with milk from her breast; and as soon as the children were brought home from the christening, to give each two drops of the mixture on his tongue. Of course one boy was gifted with great swiftness, and another with great strength and skill in handiwork, and another with great sharpness of sight.
When they grew up, the youths separated to seek their fortunes, agreeing to meet at home in three years’ time, and Swiftfoot went eastwards, and entered into the service of a king as groom, and made himself famous in that capacity.
Quickhand, who went southwards, could take up any trade without learning it, and could turn out twenty coats or pairs of shoes in a day, better made than the best tailor or shoemaker. He too made himself famous by supplying a whole army with a full outfit at the shortest notice, when all the workmen in the kingdom were unable to do so by the time required.
The adventures of Sharpeye may be given more in detail.
Sharpeye, the third brother, set out westwards. p. 14 He wandered about for a long time from one place to another without meeting with any profitable employment. He could easily earn enough anywhere for his daily expenses as a good shot, but what could he make in this way to bring home? At length he reached a large city, where everybody was talking about a misfortune which had befallen the king thrice already, but which no one was able to comprehend or guard against. The king had a valuable tree in his garden, which bore golden apples, many of which were as large as a great ball of thread, and might have been worth many thousand roubles. It may be imagined that such fruit was not left uncounted, and that guards were stationed around night and day to prevent any attempt at robbery. Nevertheless one of the largest apples, valued at six thousand roubles, had been stolen every night for three nights running. The guards had neither seen the thief nor been able to discover any trace of him. It immediately occurred to Sharpeye that there must be some very strange trick in the affair, which his piercing sight might perhaps enable him to discover. He thought that if the thief did not approach the tree incorporeally and invisibly, he would never be able p. 15 to escape his sharp eyes. He therefore asked the king to allow him to visit the garden to make his observations without the knowledge of the guards. On receiving permission, he prepared himself a place of concealment in the summit of a tree not far from the golden apple-tree, where no one could see him, while his sharp eyes could pierce everywhere, and see everything that happened. He took with him a bag of bread and a bottle of milk, so that there would be no need for him to leave his hiding-place. He now kept close watch on the golden apple-tree, and on everything around it. The guards were posted round the tree in three rows, so close that not a mouse could have crept between them unobserved. The thief must have wings, for he could not reach the tree by the ground. But Sharpeye could detect nothing all day which looked like a thief. Towards sunset a little yellow moth fluttered round the tree, and at last settled on a branch which bore a very fine apple. Everybody could understand just as well as Sharpeye that a little moth could not carry a golden apple away from the tree, but as he could see nothing bigger, he kept his eyes fixed upon it. The sun had set long ago, and the last traces p. 16 of twilight were fading from the horizon, but the lanterns round the tree gave so much light that he could see everything distinctly. The yellow moth still sat motionless on the branch. It was about midnight when the eyes of the watchman in the tree closed for a moment. How long he dozed, he could not tell, but when his eyes fell next upon the apple-tree, he saw that the yellow moth was no longer sitting on the branch, and was still more startled to discover that the beautiful golden apple on that branch had also disappeared. He could not doubt that a theft had been committed, but if the concealed watchman had related the affair, people would have thought him mad, for even a child might know that a moth could not carry away a golden apple. In the morning there was again a great uproar when it was discovered that another apple was missing without any of the guards having seen a trace of the thief. But Sharpeye went to the king again and said, “It is true that I have seen as little of the thief as your guards; but if there is a skilful magician in or near the town, let me know, and I hope with his aid to catch the thief to-night.” As soon as he learned where the magician lived, he p. 17 went straight to him. The two men consulted what was best to be done, and at length Sharpeye cried out, “I have hit upon a plan. Can you make a woven net so strong by magic that the thread will hold the most powerful creature fast, and then we can chain up the thief so that he cannot escape again?” The magician said it was possible, and took three large spiders, which he made so strong by sorcery that no creature could escape from their meshes, and put them in a little box, which he gave to Sharpeye, saying, “Place these spiders wherever you like, and point with your finger where they shall spin their net, and they will immediately spin a cage round the prisoner, which only Mana’s1 power can loosen; and I will come to your aid myself, if needful.”
Sharpeye hid the box in his bosom, and crept back to his tree to wait the upshot of the affair. He saw the yellow moth fluttering round the apple-tree at the same time as the day before; but it waited much longer before settling on a branch which bore a large golden apple. Sharpeye immediately slid down from his tree, went up to the golden apple-tree, set a ladder against it, and climbed p. 18 up carefully, so as not to scare the moth, and set each of his small weavers on separate branches. One spider was a few spans above the moth, a second to the right, and a third to the left, and then Sharpeye drew lines with his finger backwards and forwards round the moth, which sat motionless with raised wings. At sunset the watcher was back in his hiding-place in the tree, from whence he saw to his joy that his three weavers had woven a net round the moth on all sides, from which it could not hope to escape, if the magician possessed the power which he pretended. The man in the tree did his best to keep awake, but nevertheless his eyes closed all at once. How long he slept he knew not, but he was roused up by a great noise. When he looked round, he saw that the soldiers on guard were running about the apple-tree like ants, and shouting, and in the tree sat an old grey-bearded man with a golden apple in his hand in an iron net. Sharpeye jumped hastily from his tree, but before he reached the apple-tree the king himself arrived. He had sprung from his bed at the shouts of the guards, and hurried to see what unusual event was happening in the garden. There sat the thief in the tree, and could not get away. p. 19 “Most noble king,” said Sharpeye, “you can now go quietly to rest again, and sleep till to-morrow morning, for the thief cannot now escape us. If he was as strong again as he is, he could not break the magic meshes of his cage.” The king thanked him, and ordered the greater part of the soldiers to retire to rest also, leaving only a few on guard under the tree. Sharpeye, who had kept watch for two nights and two days, also went away to sleep.
Next morning the magician went to the king’s palace. He was glad when he saw the thief in the cage, and would not let him out till the fellow showed himself in his real form. At last he cut off half his beard under his chin, called for a light and began to singe the hairs.1 Oh, how the bird in the iron cage suffered now! He shrieked pitifully and beat himself with pain, but the magician went on singeing fresh hairs to make the thief manageable. At last he said, “Confess who you are.” The fellow answered, “I am the servant of the sorcerer Piirisilla,2 who sent me here to steal.” The magician p. 20 began again to singe the hairs. “Ow! Ow!” shouted the sorcerer; “give me time and I will confess. I am not the servant, but the sorcerer’s son.” Again they singed his hairs, when the prisoner yelled out, “I’m the sorcerer Piirisilla himself.” “Show yourself in your proper form or I’ll singe you again,” said the mighty magician. Then the little man in the cage began to expand, and grew in a few minutes to the size of an ordinary man, who could have carried off a golden apple easily. He was taken down from the tree in the cage, and asked where the stolen apples were hidden. He offered to show the place himself, but Sharpeye begged the king not to let the thief out of the cage, or he would become a moth again, and escape. They were obliged to singe his hair many times before he would give up all the stolen property; and at last, when all the golden apples had been recovered, the thief was burned in the cage, and his ashes scattered to the winds.
There was great rejoicing when the three brothers returned home at the end of the term agreed upon. Shortly afterwards, hearing that the p. 21 daughter of a rich king in the North was destined as the bride of any one who could perform three wonderful feats, they set out to the court of her father.
The first feat was to watch a swift reindeer cow for a whole day, and bring her back to the stable at night; the second to bolt the palace door in the evening; and the third was to shoot an arrow straight through the middle of an apple, which a man, standing on the top of a high hill, held in his mouth by the stalk.
The three brothers were so much alike that as each could accomplish one of the feats only, they decided to personate the same man, which was not difficult, when they trimmed their beards to exactly the same pattern.
Swiftfoot went first to the king, and the princess peeped at him through the crack of the door, and fell in love with him, wishing she could hobble the reindeer’s feet that the handsome man might win her. However, he found that he was easily a match for the reindeer, though she could have run across the world in a single day. In the evening he brought the cow back to her stable, and after supper returned to his brothers.
Next day, Quickhand dressed himself up like his brother, and went to the court, where every one took him for Swiftfoot. The princess again peeped at him, and wished she could drive away the witch from the palace door. This witch was accustomed to change herself into the iron door bar, and if any one climbed a ladder to close it, she would grasp his hand, and set the folding doors swinging backwards and forwards till morning, while the man swung helpless in her grasp. But Quickhand ordered an iron hand to be made,1 which he heated red hot, and mounting the ladder, held it out to the witch, and shot the bolt at the moment that she grasped it; and the door remained bolted till the king rose in the morning. Quickhand spent that day with the king, and returned to his brothers in the evening.
Next day, Sharpeye went to the palace, and it was arranged that the shooting feat should come off on the following morning; and the princess declared that she would part with all she possessed to ensure his success. The man who held the apple on the mountain looked no bigger than a crow, and fearing for his own safety, did not hold p. 23 the apple by the stalk, but in his mouth, thinking that the marksman would be more likely to shoot the arrow at a safe distance from him. But Sharpeye struck the apple precisely in the middle, carrying away a bit of flesh from each cheek of the holder with it.
Sharpeye declined the king’s proposal to betroth him to his daughter immediately, and he returned to his brothers, when they rejoiced in their success like children, and then cast lots1 for the princess.2 The lot fell to Sharpeye, who married the princess, while his two brothers returned home, when they bought large estates and lived like princes.
The brothers are once spoken of as “Swedes,” for what reason does not appear. Another story on similar lines is that of the Swift-footed Princess (Kreutzwald); but here the various feats, including the race against the princess, who will not marry p. 24 unless she is worsted in a foot-race, are performed by the gifted servants in the train of the prince who seeks her in marriage.
1 The word used means a little girl or a doll; Löwe translates it “doll,” which seems to be incorrect in this place.
1 The God of Death.
1 Combings or cuttings of hair are never burned or allowed to be blown about in the air in Esthonia, but carefully buried; otherwise the owner would suffer from violent headache.
2 This word would have no apparent meaning as a proper name; p. 20 but Löwe suggests that it might be a corruption of Virgilius, which, though not impossible, seems rather far fetched.
1 Compare vol. i. p. 176.
1 Their good faith and absence of envy is as conspicuous as in the case of the sons of Kalev (vol. i. p. 58).
2 When the five Pandavas, the heroes of the Maha-Bharata, were returning victorious from an expedition during which Arjuna had won the princess Draupadi in a contest with the bow, their mother, hearing them coming, but not knowing what had happened, cried out, “Share equally what you have brought.” Upon which it was arranged that she should become the joint wife of the five brother princes.