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The Fairy Tales of Joseph Jacobs

The Three Soldiers

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ONCE upon a time three soldiers returned from the wars; one was a sergeant, one was a corporal, and the third was a simple private. One night they were caught in a forest and made a fire up to sleep by; and the sergeant had to do sentry while he was walking up and down an old woman, bent double, came up to him and said.

"Please, sir, may I warm myself by your fire?"

"Why, certainly, mother, you are welcome to all the warmth you can get."

So the old woman sat by the fire for a time, and when she had got thoroughly warmed she said to the sergeant:

"Thank you, soldier; here is something for your trouble." And she handed him a purse, which seemed to have nothing in it.

"Oh, thank you, marm," said the sergeant, "but I wouldn't deprive you of it, especially as there is nothing in it."

"That may be so now," said the old woman, "but take it in your hand and turn it upside down, and while you hold it like that gold pieces will come pouring out of it."

He took it, and, sure enough, whenever he held it up out came the gold pieces. So he thanked her very much, and off she went.

Next night the corporal had to play sentry, and the old woman came up to him and asked to sit by the side of the fire.

"Certainly, marm," said he, "and welcome you are. I have known what it is to shiver in my bones."

So the old woman sat by the fire for a time, and when she was leaving gave the corporal a table cloth.

Said he, "Thank you, marm, kindly, but we soldiers rarely use tablecloths when we are eating our vittles."

"Yes, but this gives you vittles to eat," said the old woman. "Whenever you put this over a table or on the ground and call out 'Be covered!' the finest dinner you could eat at once comes upon it."

"If that is so," said the corporal, "I'll take it and thank you kindly." And with that the old woman departed, and the corporal woke up his comrades and called out: "Tablecloth becovered!" And, sure enough, the finest dinner you could imagine appeared upon the cloth.

Next night the private marched up and down doing sentry-go, when the old woman appeared again and asked to sit by the fire.

"Surely," said the private, "you're as welcome as my own mother would be."

And after she had sat some time by the fire she got up and said:

"Thank you kindly, sir; I hope this will pay you for your trouble." And she gave him a whistle.

"And what's this for?" said the private. "I can't play on the whistle."

"But you can blow it," said she, "and whenever you blow it out will come a regiment of armed men that will do whatever you tell them."

And with that the old woman departed, and they never saw her more.

So the three soldiers travelled on till they came to a city where there was a princess, who was so proud of her card playing that she had agreed to marry any one who could beat her at cards. Now the sergeant was also very proud of his card playing, and he thought he would try his luck with the princess. So when he went up to the palace he offered to play a game with her, but she said to him:

"What are your stakes? If I lose I have to marry you. But if you lose what do you lose?"

So the sergeant said: "I'll stake my purse."

"Why, what's a purse with nothing in it!" said the princess.

"There may be nothing in it now," said the sergeant, "but see here," and he turned the purse upside-down and put his hand under it, and it kept on dropping gold pieces into his hand as long as he held it upside-down

So the princess agreed to play for the purse. But she had arranged a mirror at the back of his head in which she could see all his cards. And so she won easily, and he had to give up the purse.

But this princess was so charming that the sergeant had fallen in love with her, and when he went back to his comrades he asked the corporal to lend him his tablecloth. And he went back to the princess and said to her:

"Will you play me for this tablecloth?"

And she said: "It may be a very beautiful table cloth but it isn't quite equal to me."

Then he laid it on a table and said, "Cloth, cover thyself." And there was a most delicious dinner spread upon it.

But, as the princess knew she would be able to beat him, she agreed to play him for the table cloth, and, sure enough, by means of the mirror, she won the tablecloth from him.

The same thing happened when he borrowed the whistle from the private and tried his luck with the princess again. But this time he watched what she was doing, and knew that she had cheated him though he dared not say so. I lost again and went back to his comrades and asked them to forgive him, but he could not help it as the Princess had cheated him. So his friends forgave him, and they all went their various ways.

Now the sergeant wandered along, and wandered along, and wandered along, till he came to the bank of a stream on which there grew fig trees, white and black. And he gathered some of these figs from the different trees, and sat down by the bank to eat them. And he ate a black fig, and then, feeling thirsty, went down to the stream to drink some of the water, and as he looked in he found that he had two horns on the side of his head just like a goat, instead of two ears. He didn't know what to do; but as he was still hungry he ate one of the white figs; and when he went to drink again he found the horns had disappeared. So then he knew that the black figs brought the horns and the white figs took them away. So he gathered some more of them and went back to the palace of the princess, and sent her up some of the black figs as a present from an admirer.

And after a while there was a rumour spread around the city that the princess had horns in her head, and would give anything to any one who could remove them

So the sergeant went up to the palace and presented himself before the princess and said to her:

"I can remove your horns, but I want my purse, and my tablecloth, and my whistle back."

Then she ordered them to be brought and promised to give them back to him as soon as the horns were removed.

So he gave her a white fig, and as soon as she had eaten it the horns disappeared; and he took up the purse, the tablecloth, and the whistle. Then he said to her:

"Now, will you marry me?"

"No," she replied, "why should I?"

"Because you didn't win these fairly."

"That may be, or that may not be, but I see no reason why I should marry you."

Thereupon he blew his whistle, and the palace was filled with a regiment of soldiers. And the sergeant said:

"If you do not marry me these men shall seize your father and I will seize his throne."

So the princess married him, and he sent for the corporal and the private and made them rich and prosperous and they all lived fairly happily together.

Jacobs' Notes and References

This tale is widely spread through Europe, being found from Ireland to Greece, from Esthonia to Catalonia. It is generally told of three soldiers, or often brothers, but more frequently casual comrades. In Kohler's notes on Imbriani, p. 356-7, he points out that there are three different forms, in the first of which the fairy's gifts are recovered by means of a defect produced, which only one of the soldiers can cure. In the second form the latter part is wanting, and in the third the two gifts are restored by means of the third, which is generally in the form of a stick. See English Fairy Tales, No. 32. In my reconstruction I have followed the first form. Cosquin, XL, has a fairly good variant of this, with comparative notes. Crane, XXXI., gives, from Gonzenbach, the story of the shepherd boy who makes the princess laugh, which is allied to our formula, mainly by its second part. And it is curious to find the three soldiers reproduced in Campbell's Gaelic, No. 10. In this version the magic gifts are wheedled out of the soldiers by the princess, but they get them back and go back to their "girls."

In the Chinese version of the Buddhist Tripitaka, a monk presents a man who has befriended him with a copper jug, which gives him all he wishes. The king gets this from the monk, but has to return it when he gets another jar which is full of sticks and stones. Aarne in Fennia, xxvii., 1-96, 1909, after a careful study of the numerous variants of the East and West, declares that the original contained three gifts and arose in southern Europe. From the three gifts came three persons and afterwards the form in which only two gifts occur. Against this is the earliest of the Tripitaka versions, 516 A.D., which has only two magic gifts. Albertus Magnus was credited with a bag out of which used to spring lads with cudgels to assail his enemies.

Jacobs, Joseph, ed. European Folk and Fairy Tales. New York: G. P Putnam's Sons, 1916.

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Page created 4/15/05; Last updated 10/22/07