Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, lived a good king and queen. The land was fair and prosperous, but one day there appeared in the forest near the castle a wicked witch, and, as you might imagine, things became less fair and prosperous after that.
The witch was very old and very ugly. She had huge bushy eyebrows and a nose that was so long that you wouldn’t believe me if I tried to describe it to you: some said that it looked like a gurney. Well, what happened was that people who wandered into the forest fell under the enchantment of the witch and, no matter who they were, or what they looked like before, they turned into very old and very ugly people with exceedingly long noses. The witch, who was evil at heart and always trying to turn good things into bad, also gave the people a grumbling attitude so that they never tried to solve their problems, but just shuffled around grumbling all the time.
One day, the king and queen went riding abroad in their royal carriage, and the king remarked to the queen: “How camest it to be that so many of our subjects are old and ugly and have such long noses?” They rode on farther and the queen remarked: “How camest it to be that there is such grumbling in the land, when the weather is fair and the crops are bountiful?”
When the king and queen returned to the castle, the queen went up a long and winding stair, into the highest tower, to a door that was locked with twelve locks. The queen unlocked each lock and then entered a wondrous room that was decorated with mysterious wooden carvings overlaid with gold and inset with jewels. On one side there was affixed to the wall a silver mirror and on the sides of it were two candles in golden candlesticks, and the candles never went out. (Of the creation of this room and its remarkable objects, no tale tells, the castle being very ancient.) The queen approached the mirror and asked in rhyme, as her mother had taught her:
Mirror, mirror on the wall
Why’s there grumbling, one and all,
And why the brows all rough and ferny
And noses long just like a gurney?
The image of the queen in the mirror began to swirl and twirl, and in place of the queen’s image, there appeared the image of Belinda the Wise (the good witch of whom many tales are told). The kindly voice of Belinda replied:
Deep midst the forest, down in a ditch,
There lives a foul and evil witch.
To save the land, and people dear,
The king must go. There he will hear
Three tasks to do, but should he fail,
The king will die, and all shall wail.
That was disturbing news. The queen loved the king very much, and was afraid that he might die, and so she didn’t tell him about what the mirror had said about the tasks. Well, as you can imagine things just got worse and worse. More and more of the people fell under the spell of the witch’s enchantments. Nobody tilled the fields; nobody milked the cows. The cobbler and the blacksmith stopped their trades. Soon there was nothing to eat, and naturally they blamed it all on the king. Indeed, people took to coming to the castle and shouting bad things to the king, saying that they needed a new king, one who make the crops plant and plow themselves, and the cows milk themselves, and the shoes and tools make themselves.
The king was very distressed by this turn of events and decided that he needed to take some time off alone to ponder the solution. So he decided to go hunting in the forest, taking his heroic steed Valencia, his faithful hound Marvo, and his shotgun KABOOM. And he set off towards the forest.
The king noticed that the forest was much darker than he remembered it. The pathways were almost all overgrown. The branches came so low that he had to lead his horse. They walked and they walked, but the king did not see a single living creature. Finally they came to a ditch and as the king was about to descend, Valencia said (for of course heroic steeds can speak at necessity): “Something’s foul down in this ditch. It might be wraith, or hag or witch.” The king went on until he came to a curious hut at the end of the ditch. There he saw something long sticking out of the door that looked like a gurney, but what troubled him greatly was that around the hut there were poles set in the ground, twelve in number, and atop each one, save one, there was a human skull. The king called out: “Who lies within this hut with nose like a gurney?” And at that, the witch came out and waved her wooden spoon (this was the source of her magic) to enchant the king. This didn’t work because at the warning of his horse the king took a drink from the water of critical thinking that he always carried around with him, and so his mind remained clear.
The king could not but help notice that the old woman he saw was much like the transformed subjects in his realm, only that she was older, and uglier and had a longer nose. Wondering if there were come connection, he asked the old woman about it. She replied that the people of the kingdom followed her now and would continue to do so unless the king could prove himself more worthy. To prove himself more worthy he must perform three tasks, and if he succeeded, the king’s subjects would return to normal. The witch gave the king three eggs and sent him home.
When the king returned home, he recounted his adventure to the queen and this disturbed her very much. When the king said that he resolved to perform the three tasks, the queen told him of her oracle from the magic mirror and told him the secret that if he failed in the tasks, he must die. Nevertheless, the king resolved to try the tasks, and nothing the queen said would persuade the king otherwise.
The next morning, the king took one of the eggs given him by the witch into his garden and broke it open. Out flew a dove, and this is what the dove said:
King, to prove thy worthiness
And to again thy subjects bless,
Go beyond the thrice-nine lands,
And seize the sky within your hands.
And should you fail to pass the test,
You head upon a pole shall rest.
The king was horribly upset by this challenge. “How can one seize the sky?” he said. When the queen saw the king so utterly downcast, she asked him the explanation, and he told her what the dove had said. The queen said not to worry, and she immediately began to climb the long and winding stairs to the tower and to consult the magic mirror. The queen put her question to the mirror:
Oh mirror, how can my husband seize the sky in his hand?
In her haste, she forgot her mother’s instructions and didn’t ask the question in rhyme. Her image in the mirror began to swirl and twirl and then she saw, in the mirror, to her dismay these words: “404 Page Not Found.” The message meant nothing to her and in sadness and dejection, she trudged down the long stairs to tell her husband the king that there was no message from Belinda the Wise, and that he must not go on the quest. However, the king said that he had broken the egg and now he must finish the quest or die.
So the next morning the king set out from his castle with his heroic steed Valencia, his faithful hound Marvo, and his shotgun KABOOM. The king traveled on and on, and then he traveled some more, and some more yet. Finally he arrived at the place beyond the thrice-nine lands, but still had no idea how to grasp the sky.
As he continued his journey beyond the thrice-nine lands into a mountainous country, the king came upon a small cave high in the side of a mountain, and just as he got there, a very small troll poked his head outside the mouth of the cave. The troll had a wide-brimmed leather hat, a leather shirt, leather breeches and a rock, tied with a leather thong, around his neck. The troll said: “Identify yourself and name your quest. Answer me now and do your best.” The king showed the troll his drivers license and told the troll that he was looking for a way to grasp a piece of the sky.
The troll said that he might be able to help him, but first the king must barter: “One thing I lack to complete my outfit is some leather gloves, but alas, all the cows beyond the thrice-nine land are flying cows, and I have not been able to catch one. If you get me a flying cow, I will tell you how to seize a piece of the sky.” And indeed, at that very moment a large smelly object splatted on the ground next to the king, and when he looked up, there was a flying a cow! In a time faster than it takes to tell it, the king raised his shotgun and KABOOM, shot the cow, which plummeted to earth. The troll was overjoyed, and he explained that the rock around his neck was a bit of a huge stone that had fallen from the sky. The troll showed the king the rest of the meteor (for that’s what it was) and the king chipped off a piece and seized it in his hand.
In fairy-land, time can be made to go very fast, and so without any more words than this, the king arrived home with a piece of the sky, and was joyfully reunited with his wife.
Thinking perhaps that the piece of the sky would impress his subjects, the king called them together and showed them the piece of the sky that he had gotten. They were not impressed. Someone said that anybody could get a rock and say it was a piece of the sky. And anyway, the sky is supposed to be blue.
There was nothing for it but to continue with the second quest, so next morning the king took the second egg into his garden and broke it. This time a raven flew out, and the raven said:
A single task shall not suffice,
Nor shall success be found by twice.
The task to do for you to live
Is gather water in a sieve.
Beyond the thrice-ten lands to go
And hurry thou, and be now slow,
For should you fail to pass the test,
You head upon a pike shall rest.
And so the king once again set out on a quest with his heroic steed Valencia, his faithful hound Marvo, and his shotgun KABOOM. Well, if crossing the thrice-nine lands was a long trip, you can imagine how long it was to cross the thrice-ten lands! But after a time, much longer than this story tells, the king passed the last land and entered into a country where it was very cold. He went on until he came to a ice cave in the wall of a glacier, and no sooner had he come there when a medium-sized troll popped it’s head out of the mouth of the cave. The troll, wearing a fur hat, a fur shirt and fur breeches said: “Identify yourself and name your quest. Answer me now and do your best.” The king showed the troll his passport and then explained his quest.
The troll said that he might be able to help, but that the king must barter for his advice. The troll said that he lacked one thing to complete his outfit, some fur boots. But, alas, all the rabbits in that land were so fast that he could not catch one. And indeed, at that very moment a rabbit whizzed by. Faster than it takes to tell it, the king raised his shotgun, but alas, the rabbit had already gone. Perplexed, the king thought what he might do, when all of the sudden another rabbit ran by, and the King’s trusty hound Marvo leaped after it. No hound that ever lived was faster than Marvo, and faster than it takes to tell it, Marvo returned with the rabbit in his jaws. The troll was overjoyed and told the king that in his country water quickly turned to ice. The king took a sieve to a waterfall and held it under the water and pretty soon ice built up on the sieve and it began to hold water. The king put some of the water into a bottle and headed back for home.
Needless to say, no one was impressed with a bottle of water, or believed it had been held in a sieve (in the king’s southern realm, no one had even heard of ice). Of course, the king should have known that when three tasks are given, three must be accomplished. So next morning, the king broke the third egg, and out flew a cuckoo, who said:
Three tasks are they which must be done
Before your rest beneath the sun.
Beyond the lands thrice-times eleven,
You must a thing cast up to heaven
And should it ne’er to earth return
Your people’s praise you then shall earn.
But should you fail to pass the test,
Your head upon a staff shall rest.
Well, the king knew very well that what goes up must come down: that was natural law! (He had read it in a book.) He was almost dismayed, but he plucked up his courage and the next morning rode out taking his heroic steed Valencia, his faithful hound Marvo, and his shotgun KABOOM. If we told all the trials of the king in passing the thrice-eleven lands, this story would be very long indeed. But finally, the king passed the thrice-eleven hands and entered into a desert country without any water to be seen. He went on and on and finally he came to a cave set in the side of a dry canyon. No sooner than he had come, out popped the head of a huge troll. The troll was dressed in armor all over, but his head was bare.
The troll roared: “Identify yourself and name your quest. Answer me now and do your best.” Thereupon the king showed the troll a certified copy of his birth certificate and told the troll that he must find a way to throw something heavenward that would not come crashing back down. The troll answered that he might be able to help, but first the king must barter for his advice. The troll said that his armor was incomplete, lacking a helmet. The king thought and thought, but had no ideas. Then about that time a tortoise came ambling by and the king hit it with a rock, but with no effect, so strong was the tortoise’s shell. He shot it with his shotgun, but the tortoise just pulled in his head and the blast had no effect. But then the king’s heroic steed Valencia struck the tortoise with his mighty hoof and split the tortoise shell in two, just perfect for making an invincible helmet for the troll.
The troll then told the king that the land thereabouts was so very dry that water evaporated almost instantly. So the king took a little of the water of critical thinking, which he always carried with him, tossed it into the air, and it evaporated and fell not to the ground. The joyous king returned home just as fast his heroic steed could carry him.
Full of excitement, the king called the people together to announce the completion of his three quests proving his worthiness, and to receive the respect of his subjects. However, someone said that they didn’t believe the story about the evaporating water. (It was very humid in the king’s realm.) They just kept on grumbling and their noses were just as long as before.
Frustrated and angry the king, with his dog and his steed and his gun, set off for the forest and when they arrived at the hut at the end of the ditch, the witch again appeared. She was somewhat surprised that the king had survived his journeys. The king demanded an answer as to why the enchantment had not been lifted upon the completion of his tasks. The witch, in answer, handed the king three more eggs and told him to go home. The king was enraged and the witch fled as fast as her bony legs would go, but Marvo was faster and caught the witch and held her. Then the king caught up to them riding Valencia. He took his shotgun and KABOOM, that was the end of the witch. The king then cut off the head of the witch and put it atop the twelfth pole. When he returned home, the appearance of his subjects had returned to normal. They still grumbled, but not as much, and things did seem to get a little better.
And so the king and queen lived happily ever after, with the occasional mild economic downturn, and the pair had three sons (about which many stories are told).