I sit on the window seat of the bay window in my study, watching the day disappearing over the magic forest in the near distance. I don’t usually sit here, but I have the windows open allowing the soft evening air to wash over me as I smoke a bowl of Dark Dwarf.
My thoughts—drifting away with the smoke—swirl about the three soldiers of The Devil and His Grandmother. While I can’t call the three soldiers a motif, the trio shows up in more than one Grimm story. To my thoughts comes The Three Army Surgeons, The Long Nose, and The Crows—although in this last one the three are not companionable. Outside of Grimm I can think of The Three Soldiers in Jacobs’ Europa’s Fairy Book, and the well-known Stone Soup.
I am sure with a quick search I can find another. Stephen Badman’s Odds and Sods sits atop a pile of books near me. I grab it and page through. Sure enough, I find The Three Rowan Trees.
Three soldiers are dismissed from service with little to show for their time. They agree to travel together and stumble across an empty castle in which all their needs are mysteriously met. That evening, to the soldier named Hans, comes a snake that crawls into his bed and turns into a princess.
She explains to Hans that she and her sisters are the three rowan trees growing in the garden. If Hans and his companions will bear being whipped all night long for three nights starting at Midsummer’s Night, the spell will be broken. Hans agrees to try.
In the morning he visits the rowan trees and is given three magical gifts: a purse that never empties, a cloak that will take him anywhere, and a bag that contains an army.
Immediately forgetting his promise, he and his companions travel to London via the cloak and Hans pursues the hand of the daughter of the King of England. She cheats him out of the magical gifts and abandons him. He is close to suicide when he comes across a tree of golden apples that cause a horn to grow out of one’s forehead, and a golden pear tree that removes it. Tricking the king, queen, and princess into eating the apples, they are beholden to him to have the horns removed. Thus he regains the magical gifts.
He uses the bag containing the army to release his companions who have gotten themselves into trouble, and returns to the castle by Midsummer’s Night. By keeping himself and his companions drunk for the next three days and nights, they survive the whippings and break the spell. Each marries a princess and Hans becomes king.
What is it about a trio of soldiers gallivanting around the countryside that engages the listener? Hans is the protagonist, but the other two companions are not completely necessary for the story. A teller could easily edit them out. Yet time and again a trio like this appears to populate a ribald tale.
I hear Thalia padding down the hall. For the moment, this puts an end to my reflections.