An Estonian fairy tale, this version is from Tales of The Amber Sea, compiled and translated by Irina Zheleznova in 1974.
There was once a man who had three sons, two of them clever and the third, a fool. The father made much of his two elder sons but gave not a pin for his youngest one. The elder brothers, too, mocked at the fool and called him Smudgeface if they called him anything.
So unbearable was life for him at home that poor Smudgeface made up his mind to seek his fortune elsewhere. He thought and he thought where to go and at last decided, in the hope of finding some work there, to make for the town where lived the king himself.
On the way, Smudgeface heard that in the king’s forest there lived two fierce beasts, an aurochs and a boar, who attacked all and sundry and that this troubled the king so much that he had had the bravest of his men go into the forest time and again to try and kill them. But since none had been able to do so, the king had promised that he would give his daughter in marriage to whoever did away with the fearful beasts. The bravest of the brave and the strongest of the strong had set out at once to try their luck but had only gotten out of the forest alive by the skin of their teet, and the king did not know what to do.
“Why shouldn’t I go after those beasts!” said Smudgeface to himself. “I might get the better of them.”
And he came to the palace and declared that he would do away with the aurochs and the boar.
“Just look at him!” the king’s servants said. “Why, we had the likeliest and bravest of young men here and none of them could do anything, so what can this fool do! He’ll only make a laughing-stock of himself, and serve him right too!”
They would have liked to drive Smudgeface out of the palace then and there but dared not, for the king had said that anyone who wished to could try his luck and none were to be kept from doing so.
Smudgeface now announced that he would fight the aurochs first, and the whole town, including the king himself, came running to watch the combat.
Choosing a place near the church where grew age-old oak-trees, Smudgeface leaned against one of them and waited.
After a time out sprang the aurochs from the forest and came at him with a roar, but Smudgeface pretended not to see him, and it was only when he was very close about to pin him to the oak that he leapt aside. The aurochs lunged at him but missed, his sharp horns piercing the trunk of the tree and sticking in it so that toss and shake his head as he would he could not pull them out again. Smudgeface now rushed at the aurochs and with one wave of his sword cut off his head.
Seeing the beast dead, the townsfolk waved and cheered and the king himself clapped his hands for joy.
But even this was not enough for the king’s servants.
“The aurochs is nothing!” cried they. “Let the fool try and do away with the boar. The boar won’t stick his tusks ina tree, you may be sure!”
“We’ll see about that!” said Smudgeface.
He came into the church, and, locking all the doors save one, stood there and waited.
The boar now came running, and in his haste he did not notice Smudgeface at all at first. All round the church he ran, and only then, seeing him standing in the door, made a rush at him. But Smudgeface leapt aside, and the boar tore past him and into the church. Without a moment’s thought, Smudgeface slammed the door shut behind him, and the boar was trapped inside.
The townsfolk were filled with wonder to see how clever Smudgface was, and even the king himself was full of praise for him.
“Now there’s a clever lad!” said he. “He’s managed to trap the boar. Let’s see if he can do away with him.”
But Smudgeface only laughed to hear such talk. He called to the boar from behind the door and teased him, and the boar roared and flung about the church in a rage, trying to find a way out.
All of a sudden there he was standing on the belfry and looking down on the people below. For Smudgeface had left the door to the belfry ajar on purpose, to lure the boar there. He began teasing him now harder than ever, and the boar could bear it no longer but made a lunge at him, and, missing his footing, fell from the belfry. Smudgeface leapt aside just in time, and the boar hit the soft earth below. He plunged into it to his belly and could not so much as stir, and Smudgeface brought out his sword and cut off his head.
The people rejoiced to see the fearful beast dead, and the king clapped his hands in delight.
Said Smudgeface, coming up to him:
“Well, will you let me have your daughter in marriage?”
“I suppose I must, for a promise is a promise,” replied the king.
So Smudgeface and the king’s daughter were married, and a right fine wedding was theirs. So hard did everyone dance that the floor boards bent, the earth rocked and shook and the stars blinked in the sky. A hundred bulls and a thousand hogs were roasted for the guests, and the tables were set out in the palace courtyard that all might eat and drink at the king’s expense. Only after the new moon appeared in the sky for a second time did the guests begin to take their leave.
Smudgeface settled down in the palace and was happy as could be. His young wife was so comely and sweet that a better one could not be found and the servants attended to his every need just as if he were the king himself.
But the king did not like his sons-in-law to twiddle their thumbs and fritter away their time, so he said to Smudgeface: “There is a white bird, a magic one, living in my forest. I want it to be caught. Go with my other sons-in-law and hunt for it.” Said Smudgeface with a yawn: “Oh, all right, I’ll go if you say so! ” The other sons-in-law rose with the first gleam of dawn and went off to the forest to hunt for the bird but Smudgeface slept on as though he had not a care in the world. It was midday when his wife woke him, saying:
“Come, now, are you ever going to get up? The husbands of my sisters have been in the forest for a long time now, they may even have caught the bird while you lie here and sleep.”
“What is to be will be,” said Smudgeface in reply, yawning.
But he got up all the same, ate, and, taking some food along with him, went to the forest. He walked about in it for a long time but no bird did he see. After a time he met a grey-haired old man there who said to him:
“Give me something to eat, my lad. I haven’t had a crumb in my mouth for three days.”
Now, Smudgeface was never one to be stingy, so he gave his bag of food to the old man and said:
“Here, Grandpa, eat your fill. And don’t be cross that I have nothing better to offer you.”
The old man took the bag and began polishing off the food with great gusto.
Said he between bites:
“Were you setting out for a distant spot, then, that you took some food with you? “
Said Smudgeface in reply:
“I am here to try and catch the white bird, for so the king ordered his sons-in-law to do. But since the others set out before dawn and have surely caught it by now, I am simply wasting my time.”
Said the old man:
“Do not grieve, for no one can catch this bird without my help. Gather the bread crumbs from the ground and scatter them in the glade yonder. Many different birds will come flying to peck them, the one the king wants among them. You won’t have much trouble catching it, so never you fear. All you have to do is pounce on it and seize it. And if ever you need my help again, come here and call three times ‘I am here, Grandpa! ‘ and I’ll hear you and come.”
Smudgeface thanked the old man for his counsel and did just as he had told him. He caught the white bird, and, coming out on to the road along which the king’s other sons-in-law were to return home, sat down to wait.
He waited a long time, even finishing what was left of the food, and still they did not come.
It was evening when at last they appeared, coming out of the forest with hanging heads.
Seeing Smudgeface sitting there, they were very angry and began to chide and to scold him.
“Just look at that loafer! ” cried they. “Dozing by the wayside while we do all the work. We’re all in sweat what with running about so much! “
Said Smudgeface in reply:
“I am not such a fool as to rush about the forest in vain. Why shouldn’t I sit and sleep for a bit now that I’ve caught the bird! “
“Stop talking nonsense,” the sons-in-law burst out.
“If you don’t believe me, look for yourselves! “
And with these words Smudgeface untied his bag and showed them the bird.
“Who would have thought it! ” said they, amazed, and the oldest of them asked:
“What are you going to do with the you have it? Perhaps you’ll sell it to you well for it.” bird now that us? We’ll pay
“I will if you do.”
“How much do you want for it? “
“A piece of your little finger no bigger than an oat grain.”
The oldest of the sons-in-law thought this over.
“Of course, chopping off a piece of my finger will hurt,” said he to himself, “but still, I think I’ll let the fool have it. For then I’ll at least get the bird and the king will give me a good sum of money for it.”
He chopped off a piece of his little finger and handed it to Smudgeface, and Smudgeface slipped it in his pocket and gave him the bird. And the oldest of the sons-in-law took the bird to the king and got a large sum of money from him in reward.
On the following day the king summoned his sons-in-law again.
“I am pleased that you’ve managed to catch the white bird,” said he. “But only him will I think truly brave and reward royally who catches and brings me the magic horse. Many have tried to do it but none succeeded. Go to the forest now and catch it! “
On the next day, the sons-in-law rose with the first gleam of dawn and set out for the forest, and only Smudgeface snored on as if whether the horse were caught or not mattered to him not at all.
It was his wife who woke him, saying:
“Get up and go to the forest! Go now, and perhaps you’ll catch the horse. The others caught the bird yesterday while you returned empty-handed.”
Off went Smudgeface to the forest, nor did he forget to take along a bag of food.
He came to the place where he had met the old man and called out three times:
“I am here. Grandpa! “
And no sooner were t»he words out of his mouth than there stood the old man before him.
“Are you here to try and catch something again? ” asked he.
Said Smudgeface in reply:
“The king has ordered the magic horse to be caught. Do please help me! “
“That’s easy! Here is a bridle for you. Go to tne edge of the forest, and when some horses come to graze there, put it on the one that comes last. It will be the one the king wants.”
Smudgeface did as the old man told him. No sooner had he put the bridle on the horse than—o wonder of wonders! —the horse turned into a beautiful stallion with a gilded saddle. All one had to do was jump on his back and ride off at a gallop!
And that was just what Smudgeface did. He galloped to the place where he had met the other sons-in-law the night before, and, tying the horse to a tree, took out some food and began to eat.
The sons-in-law came out of the forest and said:
“Now, what sort of man are you! All you ‘do is eat and never want to do a stroke of work. Look at us! We’ve been wandering in the forest the whole day long and are coming back with nothing to show for it.”
Said Smudgeface in reply:
“Wait a minute, I’ll come with you, I’ll only run into the forest for a moment.”
He ran into the forest, untied the stallion, and, jumping into the saddle, came galloping back again.
The sons-in-law were thunderstruck.
“Where did you catch him? ” asked they.
Said Smudgeface in reply:
“He who looks hard enough is sure to find what he is looking for.”
“Well, we looked and never found him.”
“You didn’t look hard enough.”
Now the sons-in-law began to bargain with him.
“Sell us your horse! ” said they.
“I don’t mind if you pay me well for him.”
“How much do you want? “
“Oh, not so very much. Nothing but a signet-ring.”
The middle son-in-law began offering him a large sum of money, but Smudgeface would have none of it and insisted on the ring.
The middle sop-in-law gave him the ring, and, getting the horse in return, took him to the king who rewarded him royally.
On the following day the king said to the sons-in-law:
“There is a huge bear living in the forest who does much harm. He who kills him will get a sack of gold. Prove to me that you are indeed the brave lads I think you and kill the bear for me! “
Early the next morning they set out for the forest again, and only Smudgeface was in no hurry and slept and snored till it was almost noon. It was his wife who finally roused him and sent him in search of the bear.
Smudgeface came into the forest and called out ;hree times:
“I am here, Grandpa! I am here, I am here! ” The same moment the old man appeared. “Well, now, have you come to kill the bear?” asked he. “So I have,” said Smudgeface in reply. “But how will I do it? “
“I’ll tell you how. It’s still early, the bear is wandering about in the forest and is hard to find. Wait until noon when he will wander into a thicket for a rest and then kill him. Now, in order to do this creep up closer to him, strike him on the muzzle with a stake and then move aside quickly, and if he rushes out at you, look sharp and hide from him in the brush. You won’t have to strike the bear a second time, for your first blow will have been enough to finish him. When you see that he has breathed his last, skin him and take the skin to the king.”
Smudgeface did as the old man told him to. He found the bear, killed and skinned him and then came out on to the road to wait for the other sons-in-law. He sat down by the wayside and took out some food, and he was still eating when they appeared. Coming closer, they stood round him and laughed.
“Is it that you have killed the bear that you’ve worked up such an appetite? ” asked they.
“Of course I’ve killed him! ” said Smudgeface. And he brought out the bearskin to prove it, for they would not believe him otherwise.
The sons-in-law began to bargain with him. “Sell us the bearskin,” said they. “I don’t mind.”
“How much are you asking? ” “All I want is for the youngest of you to let me pierce his ear.”
At this the youngest of the sons-in-law said, displeased:
“Stop these silly jests of yours! What good will it do you if I have a hole in my ear? Better take some money.”
But Smudgeface would have none of it. “It’s up to you! ” said he. “The bearskin is mine, and the ear is yours.”
There was nothing to be done, and as the youngest of the sons-in-law was very eager to have the bearskin, he let his ear be pierced.
In return, he got the skin and took it to the king who gave him a sack of gold in reward.
Soon after that the king held a great feast to which he invited the kings of all the neighbouring lands and all his sons-in-law with the exception of Smudgeface.
“Why should I invite him!” said he. “He has done nothing to deserve it.”
The other sons-in-law went to the feast but Smudgeface made off for the forest. There he met the old man who asked him:
“What has happened, my son? Why do you frown? Are you angry at anyone? “
Said Smudgeface in reply:
“I am angry at my own self. Why did I catch the bird, the horse and the bear only to give them up to the other sons-in-law! It was very foolish of me. Now the king thinks that they are heroes and I am a good-for-nothing. Why, he did not even invite me to the feast! “
Said the old man in soothing tones:
“Don’t you grieve, you’ll be at the feast, too. Here is a pea for you. Eat it, and you 11 turn into whosoever you choose and will be able to go wherever you please.”
Smudgeface thanked the old man for his kindness and went home. He swallowed the pea, and, turning into a flea, slipped into the feast hall where all the king’s guests were gathered. There he saw the three sons-in-law and heard them boasting, the youngest saying that he had killed the ;bear, the middle one, that he had caught the magic horse, and the oldest one, that he had snared the white bird.
Smudgeface returned to his room, changed back into his proper shape again, and, dressing himself up in festive garb, rejoined the guests.
The sons-in-law were much surprised to see him. And Smudgeface spoke up right in front of everyone and said:
“You have turned out to be such braggarts that I cannot keep back the truth any longer. Let everyone know that it was I and not you who caught the bird and the horse and killed the bear.”
At this the sons-in-law raised a great hullabaloo, shouting, all three of them together;
“Lies! Lies! Lies! “
And they called in the servants and bade them throw Smudgeface in a dungeon.
But Smudgeface brought out from his pocket the piece of finger and the signet-ring and said:
“This is what I got from these knaves in return for the bird and the horse, and as for the bearskin, the younger son-in-law let me pierce his ear to pay me for it.”
The sons-in-law, seeing that they were shown up for what they were, left the feast in disgrace, and the guests surrounded Smudgeface and began praising him.
And as for the king, he was now full of such respect for him that he proclaimed him his heir.
At the king’s death Smudgeface became king in his stead and must be reigning over the kingdom still if he is alive.