The Fool Who Became King

A Lithuanian fairy tale, this version is from Tales of The Amber Sea, compiled and translated by Irina Zheleznova in 1974.

In olden times, in the thick of a dark forest, there lived a man who had three sons. The father loved his two elder sons dearly but could not bear his youngest who was ill treated and called a fool by the whole family. No matter what he said or did, the others only laughed at him and insisted that they had never heard of anything so silly. If the elder brothers took a dislike to a piece of clothing he was made to wear it; if a dish was not to their liking he was forced to eat it. Whatever they asked for they got, but not so he who was never given anything he wanted. And if ever there was a household chore they hated doing they passed it on to him.

Thus it came about, since the two elder brothers found such work beneath them, that he was the one who had to pasture the pigs. He pastured them day in and day out, and as he had much time for thought began to wonder whether or not there were people living beyond the forest.

One morning he left the pigs to pasture by themselves and set out on his way. He walked for a whole day but there seemed to be no end to the forest. So he ate his breakfast, climbed a tree, and, tying himself to it, spent the night in it.

On the following day he went on again. He walked and he walked, ate his dinner, and toward evening, fearing the wild beasts, climbed a tree and spent the night in it just as he had before. On the third day on he went again.. He followed a path that led through the thickest part of the forest and he had his supper, but the edge of the forest was still not in sight.

Only on the fourth day, as he was sitting in a tree, did he suddenly hear the cocks crowing. He went in the direction from which the crowing came, and, reaching the forest edge at last, saw a city before him.

He came into the city and marvelled at the sight of so many people.

Seeing that many were weeping openly and that the walls of the houses were hung with lengths of black cloth, he asked a passer-by why this was so.

Said the man:

“Where do you come from that you don’t know that the wicked dragon is to get the king’s daughter tomorrow? Of all the maidens in the city the lot has fallen upon her to be given to him this time. The dragon threatens to level the whole city with the ground if this is not done.”

“Why does no one kill the dragon? ” the fool asked.

“Everyone fears him he is so fierce,” the man replied. “The king has promised to give his daughter in marriage and his throne, too, to whoever saves her from the dragon, but even so no one dares to attempt it.”

“Well, then, I will! ” cried the fool. ‘Take me to the king.”

When news of this began to get about, everyone thought the young stranger an empty braggart and only the king was pleased that at least one brave man had come forward. He ordered all sorts of weapons to be brought to him, swords, spears, lances, guns and poleaxes, and a choice of helmets and coats of armour, too, but the fool took nothing but a large axe.

“I’ve never handled any of these fancy weapons before in my life,” said he, “but I know how to use an axe well enough.”

On the following day the king took his daughter to the forest, chained her to a tree with iron chains, and, weeping bitterly, returned to the palace. The princess sighed as she waited for death, and the fool stayed with her and watched for the dragon’s coming. It was a cold morning, and, thinking to warm himself, he chopped some firewood and made up a fire nearby.

As he was fanning out the flames, the dragon came flying up. He snorted and opened wide his jaws, wanting to swallow the fool, but as soon as he had crawled up to him the fool snatched up one of the larger of the burning logs and thrust it down his throat.

The pain of it made the dragon open his jaws even wider, and the fool availed himself of this and pushed all of the logs down his throat. The dragon roared out in agony and began rolling over the ground. And the fool hurried up with his axe and went at him as if he were a block of wood. He chopped off his head, cut up his tail to bits and would not stop till he was quite worn out himself. The princess saw it all and at first she trembled with fear, but her fear soon changed to joy. And when the fool had cut her chains and freed her, the poor thing who had not thought to remain alive, threw her arms round his neck and kissed him.

Toward evening the king came to the forest and what did he see but the dragon hacked to pieces and the brave young stranger lying asleep, his head resting on the princess’s knees. The king embraced him and wept in joy, and from then on no one was there in the whole kingdom who was held in such esteem and regard. So fond did the king grow of the fool that he married him to his daughter and gave up his own throne to him.

After a time the fool bethought him of paying his parents a visit. He took his young wife with him, and off they set in a golden coach. Their way lay through a forest, but they had not quite reached the forest edge when the fool stopped the coach, put on his old clothes and went off to pasture the pigs as he had once done. As for his wife, he told her to ask his parents to let her in for the night, to pretend that she did not know him and not to be surprised at anything that might happen.

The princess did as he had told her, and the fool, seeing that the pigs were out by themselves, pastured them till evening and then drove them home, cracking his whip and shouting loudly: “Come on, you porkers! Get a move on, dearies! “

His father ran out to meet him and begged him to be silent, but he only shouted the louder.

“Do be quiet, the princess is staying in our house,” the father said.

But the son, pretending to be the fool they a)l thought him, replied:

“What do I care about the princess, I have to drive the pigs home. They’ve turned wild, what with no one to look after them, and won’t listen to me, so I’ve got to shout at them from time to time.”

He came into the hut just as if he had been there only yesterday, and, sitting down at the table, began to eat his supper.

“Where have you been all this time? ” his father asked.

Said the fool in reply:

“I went beyond the forest to see if there were people there and found that there were, indeed, and many more than here. Unlike you, they treated me with kindness and respect, and, to crown all, made me their king.”

The father heard him out and only shook his head. He asked him nothing more, for he had had enough.

In the meantime the mother cooked some supper for the princess but was fearful of serving so high a personage. She asked first one, then the other of her sons to do it, but they, too, dared not.

Said the fool:

“Since no one wants to serve the princess, I will. She won’t eat me up. I love her dearly and hope to make her my wife one of these days.”

The mother looked at him and shook her head, for was he not the fool he always had been, but she gave him the food to take to the princess.

The fool carried in the bowl of meat and set it down on the table in front of the princess with such force that—crash!—it broke and the meat fell out.

“Here, lap it up! ” said he and ran out again without another word.

The mother had been watching through a crack in the door and seen it all, and when he came back to the kitchen began scolding him for his rudeness.

“Where can a man learn good manners if he is out with the pigs all day! ” said the fool.

“Whether you’re out with them or not, nothing will change you,” said the mother with a shrug.

After that he carried in a bowl of soup, and, saying “Here’s some soup for you! ” set it down on the table with such force that the soup splashed over and wet the princess’s figured skirt. The princess only laughed and the fool ran out again.

“You ought to be ashamed of yourself, you pig you! ” cried his mother. “You’ve spoiled the princess’s skirt.”

“I don’t doubt but she has another,” said the fool.

Then he carried in a pot of turnips and this he overturned into the princess’s lap.

“Here, have some turnips! ” said he.

And the princess laughed so that she nearly died.

It was time to go to bed, and the mother said to the fool:

“You’d better find yourself a place to sleep in. Your brothers have taken your bed, so you must go to the cow-house and lie down on the floor there, there’s no room for you in the hut.”

Said the fool in reply:

“That I won’t, for the cow-house is not a fitting place for a king to sleep in. But since there is no room for me, I’ll lie down beside the princess.”

“You were always a fool,” said the mother, “but you never spoke such nonsense before. The things you think up! As if the princess would let you sleep beside her!

Only try it, and she’ll send you packing then and there! “

“Just you watch and see how the princess will treat me,” the fool said. “She’s my wife and is sure to be waiting for me.”

At this the fool’s mother, father and brothers burst out laughing.

“Ha-ha-ha! ” roared they.

They settled down for the night and the fool went to the princess’s room. She welcomed her husband lovingly, as was to be expected, but could not keep from laughing all the same.

The mother and father and the two elder brothers only gasped when the fool came out to them in the morning richly dressed and with his wife at his side.

They all went off to pay his father-in-law a visit soon after and they never stopped marvelling that the fool had become king.

I once paid him a visit and stayed in his palace and I came back home on a gingerbread horse he gave me for a gift.

And for all I know, he must still be alive and ruling the land.

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