Literature is full of stories that contain other stories – think of ‘The Thousand and One nights’ for example, where the individual stories are told by Shahryar’s new wife to her husband over the first three years of their marriage – or Chaucer’s ‘Canterbury Tales’ in which a group of pilgrims have a storytelling contest on their way to visit the shrine of Thomas a Becket. Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ has an ‘onion’ structure where the traveller/narrator finds a dying Victor Frankenstein and then hears his story, which is interrupted in turn by the monster’s narrative before flipping back to Frankenstein and then finally the original narrator. Emily Bronte does something similar in ‘Wuthering Heights’ with the storyteller, Lockwood, hearing most of the story of Heathcliff and Cathy from the lips of Nellie Dean, a servant who lived for years with Cathy and her family; and within that second, main narrative, we have other strands as Heathcliff, Cathy, Isabella and Zillah narrate a chapter or two each, thus providing other points of view and helping us gain insights into those characters.
I’ve chosen to tell a story with a medieval/middle English feel in which the ballad told by a minstrel contains stories told by the characters within the ballad. I hope you enjoy it as much as Little Tom did.
The Minstrel’s Tale
Wind howled at the widows and rain lashed down, but inside the manor, Sir Richard and his family were snug and dry. A log fire burned in the grate, and that – added to the rich tapestries on the walls – lent a sense of warmth to the oak-ceilinged great hall.
At Sir Richard’s feet, his children fidgeted, impatient for the evening’s entertainment to begin. Little Tom was desperate to see the juggler: last time, the man had juggled with oranges, then eggs, then finally daggers, catching each one deftly whilst Tom and his sisters watched wide-eyed.
However, it was not a juggler who stepped forward this evening, but a man with a lute. Tom’s heart sank: he was fed up with ballads about ladies fair who sat around in their towers, waiting for their true love to come and rescue them. And then the minstrel began his tale and Tom suddenly sat up straight. Now this, he thought, was more like it.
“I’ll tell you a tale of a brave young knight,” sang the minstrel,
And the fearsome dragon he went to fight.
Sir Thomas was strong and his heart was true –
On the dragon’s back our hero flew
Off to an isle that lay in the sea
For a crone and a curse and a golden tree.”
Then putting down his lute, he faced his audience. “Listen if you will to my story, for I will wager that you have not heard a tale like this before!
Now Sir Thomas was a knight, the youngest son of Sir Andrew of Lincoln, and he was tall and comely and the best swordsman in the county. His two older brothers were jealous of him for they knew he was his father’s favourite, and their father was an old man by now and in feeble health. And so they conspired to send their brother to certain death and they told him of a fearsome dragon that guarded a golden tree at the edge of the world, and they did tell him that the tree bore golden pomegranates for they knew, as did he, that the golden pomegranate was reputed to have healing powers.
Then was Sir Thomas glad when he did hear this, and he put on his armour and set out to seek the dragon and the golden tree, and his brothers laughed into their sleeves for they knew that he would never return.”
Little Tom sat entranced.
“Off he set on his milk-white charger, and he rode for many days and nights until he came at last to a tumbledown hovel where a crone sat by the fire, and this woman was the most hideous creature Sir Thomas had seen, yet he greeted her courteously for he was a knight and honourable, and chivalry ran in his blood.
‘Good e’en, fair mistress,’ quoth he, and at that the woman started in surprise for she had received no such courtesy for many a year. ‘I seek a golden tree at the end of the world,’ he told her. ‘Know ye of such a tree and if it may be reached swiftly, for my horse is tired and we have ridden hard and long already?’
And he bowed low for, as I have already said, he was a courteous young man.
Then wept the old crone, saying to him, ‘Would that you had never come to this place, for I am under a curse and the one who lifts it will surely die. Listen, and I will tell you my story.
“I was born but seventeen years ago, though my face is hideous and my back bent and deformed. Such was my beauty that suitors came from near and far to seek my hand in marriage, but I refused them all for my heart was proud.
At length, an ugly imp appeared at my castle gates (for know ye well that I have not always lived in a hovel and that I was once a king’s daughter) and asked an audience with me. So foul was his appearance that I bethought me to send him away immediately, but my father, the king, chided me, saying, ‘Beauty is only skin deep, but mercy lives in the heart.’ At his insistence, I agreed to see the disgusting creature, but I did so with reluctance for I had vowed never to marry until I could find a husband as beautiful as myself.
As the dwarf entered the throne room, I tried to hide my revulsion, but I could not prevent a gasp of horror at his twisted limbs and misshapen features. Striding up to me, he declared, ‘My lady, I have heard tell of your beauty and I see now that you are indeed fair to look upon, yet you are also vain and selfish, and so I know that you are the one whom I seek. Give ear to my words and you shall learn why I am here.
I stand before you now an ugly dwarf, and yet I was not born in the shape you see. Know that I am – or was – Prince Llewellyn of Glamorgan, third of his name, and that I was known as Llewellyn the Handsome, due to my great beauty. Like you, I was proud and arrogant, and so one day, a wizard cursed me and made me what I am today, saying that the spell would only be broken if I could find another even more beautiful and more arrogant than myself. Today, my lady, I gaze upon the one who breaks that curse.’
All gasped at his tale, but none more than myself, for as he spoke, a grey mist descended over the two of us, and when it lifted, a beauteous man stood before me and I knew that I had finally found someone worthy of me.
‘Good sir,’ I said, ‘now that I see your true form, I will marry you today,’ but he laughed and shook his head, saying, ‘Why should I marry a crone like you when I can choose between the fairest damsels of this land?’
I did not understand his words, but then one of my servants fetched a hand mirror and trembling brought it to me, and I did look and lo! I found that I was twice as ugly as the imp I had disdained before he regained his true shape.
Three years have passed since then and I have spent every one of them here, in this hovel, hidden away from my family who could no longer bear the sight of me.”
Her tale finished, she wept bitterly and Sir Thomas’s heart was moved to help her, for – as I have already said – he was chivalrous to the bone.
‘You did not tell me,’ he said presently, ‘how the curse on you might be lifted.’
At that, she sighed deeply, saying, ‘Only the seeds from a golden pomegranate on the tree that grows at the end of the world will restore my beauty – but the tree is guarded by a fearsome dragon, and anyone who tries to defeat him will ride to his death.’
Then was Sir Thomas’s resolve doubled to find the tree and slay the dragon and pluck the golden pomegranates. Long did the crone parley with him, begging him not to try, but he assured her that his heart was set and so, the next morning, he set off once more to find the golden tree.
He rode for a year and a day, and eventually he found that which he sought: a tree of solid gold bearing golden pomegranates and the dragon wound around its trunk. Fearlessly, he approached the great beast, intending, while it slept, to strike off its head with his sword, but the dragon opened one eye and regarded him balefully, saying, ‘Who is it that disturbs my sleep? Answer now that I may know who it is that I am about to devour.’
‘If you please,’ Sir Thomas said – for being a chivalrous knight, he was polite to everyone – I mean you no harm. I ask only that you let me take two of those golden pomegranates from your tree – one to restore my father’s health and another to restore a young girl’s beauty.’
‘And why,’ replied the dragon, ‘should I do any of this for you?’
And then was Sir Thomas troubled, for he could think of no answer for the dragon, yet he knew that he must have those pomegranates.
‘If you grant me this simple request,’ he said at last, ‘then I will swear an oath of fealty to you, to serve you as you will.’
But the dragon replied, ‘What use have I for a servant? Better that I should eat you now and then at least you will have served some purpose.’
And it opened wide its mouth and terrible were its teeth and the stench of rotting flesh that emanated from its throat as it belched was noisome indeed.
The lizard looked at Thomas and its eye was hungry and its belly rumbled, and the knight felt certain that his last hour had come. But then the creature paused as if in thought and said, ‘Yet mayhap there is indeed some service I require, and if you will do what I tell you, then you may pluck as many pomegranates as you desire.’
With gladdened heart, Sir Thomas agreed to the dragon’s request although he knew not what this boon would be. And that,” said the minstrel suddenly breaking off, “is where our story must end for tonight.”
“Nooo!” Tom protested, his heart pumping furiously with the desire to see whether or not Sir Thomas would complete his quest. “You said he would fly on the dragon’s back and visit an island and–“
“And so he will,” the minstrel replied, “but that is a tale for another evening.”
“Besides,” his mother added, “it is high time you were in bed!” And at that, she scooped up Tom in her arms and carried him to the bedchamber.
The next evening, little Tom was all agog to find out what had happened to his namesake and he wriggled as close as he could to the minstrel, that he might hear better. The minstrel looked round the room, struck a jaunty chord on his lute, and continued the tale.
“Sir Thomas looked at the dragon and the dragon looked at Thomas. ‘And what, O great one,’ said Sir Thomas, is your boon?’
A faraway look came into the creature’s eye. ‘My tale is a simple one,’ it said slowly, ‘and yet it must be told, for it tells of a hoard of gold and a dragon’s egg and an enchanter who tricked me long ago. Listen well, and you must then decide whether or not you will do my bidding.
When the world was new and dragons roamed the earth, we lived in harmony with all mankind for you treated us with deference and knew that we were your true masters.
But the time came when your wizards grew cruel and greedy and lusted after not only our gold but our majicks as well. One by one, they destroyed my people, slaughtering every dragon they could find, until only I and my mate remained, her belly swollen with the egg she carried. That egg was a sign of hope for us both, for it was the promise that our race would continue.
At last, the time came for her to release her egg, for know ye well that a female dragon lays her egg when it is almost ready to hatch and then she places it in a nest of fire that the warmth might tempt the little one to break its shell and enter the world. Without the flames, the egg will remain as it is, and there are dragons’ eggs that are still unhatched centuries after their mothers brought them forth.
And so, with much puffing and panting and moaning and groaning, my queen pushed our little one into the world, encased in a scarlet shell. Weak she was from all this exertion, and so I spread my wings and flew high into the sky, searching the terrain for a sheep or an ox that I could carry back to her that she might feed and sustain her strength.
Imagine my horror when I returned some minutes later with a fine, fat pigling only to discover that, in my absence, a wizard had chanced upon the scene and slit my queen’s throat so that her blood soaked the ground around her.’
Sir Thomas drew in his breath sympathetically, and the dragon continued.
‘Full of rage was I then, ready to breathe fire upon this miserable human and roast him to death, but snatching up the egg, he held it aloft and cried, “Hold your flames, Worm! Listen to me now or I will destroy the egg and butcher your offspring!
Know that I am Kalil, the most powerful enchanter this land has ever seen. I have tasted your queen’s blood and I feel dragon majick coursing through my veins. Tell me now where you have hidden your hoard of gold and I will spare your egg.”
But I answered him, “Why should I trust you, O deceitful one, for everyone knows that wizards lie!”
“Your gold,” he replied, ignoring my words and raising the egg as if to dash it to pieces; and so I told him the secret location in a cave buried deep within a mountain and he nodded in satisfaction.
“And now,” I reminded him, “my egg.”
But he laughed in my face, saying, “What? And let another dragon come into this world? No – I will not kill your little one for I promised to spare it, but I will take it far away from here and lock it within a fireproof chest on an island in the middle of the sea.”
And with that he vanished, leaving me with my dead queen and no egg and no gold.’
Sir Thomas’s eyes were moist by the end of this tale for he hated injustice. Then said he to the dragon, ‘Your story has moved me beyond words. How may I now be of assistance?’
‘Some years ago,’ the dragon replied, ‘a traveller came this way – like you, seeking the golden tree with the golden pomegranates. He was a former wizard and he carried a map of the seven seas, showing the location of my lost egg, and a key that would unlock the fireproof chest. He did not say why he desired a pomegranate – but I think maybe it was for his protection, that he might restore himself to health should any misfortune befall him on his way. He had not known the tree would be guarded by a dragon, and he did not know that the egg he sought was mine.’
‘What happened to him?’ Thomas asked.
‘I spared his life,’ the dragon replied, ‘in exchange for the map and the key.’
He turned, then, and Thomas saw for the first time that a cage hung from the golden boughs of the tree, and in that cage was a man with wild, staring eyes.
‘Was it really necessary to make him your prisoner?’ he asked.
‘Yes,’ replied the dragon. ‘I could not risk him stealing back the map and the key or running to tell another wizard about me. That cage is formed from dragon-majick and only a dragon may open it.’
‘And what is it that you want me to do?’ Thomas asked next.
‘Help me find my egg,’ the dragon replied. ‘I have the map and I have the key, but I have only claws, not fingers, and I need a human hand to unlock the fireproof chest.’
And so it was that Sir Thomas found himself seated upon a dragon’s back, flying over land and sea until they reached the isle where the dragon’s egg was imprisoned and he and the dragon found the chest and Thomas did unlock it and great was the dragon’s joy when he saw that the egg was unharmed.
Then Thomas took the egg in his arms and nestled it as the dragon flew back the way they had come, to the golden tree at the end of the world. And the dragon breathed flames and lit a fire, and they placed the egg in the flames and waited.
And after a while, a cracking sound was heard and scarlet shards flew into the air as the baby dragon cautiously crept out of the egg and greeted the world.
Then said the dragon, “You have done me a great service and so I will grant your wish and you may take as many golden pomegranates as you can carry.”
And so Thomas plucked nine of them, for everyone knows that nine is a mystical number for it is three times three, and he carried them back to his horse and they rode for a year and a day until they came to the crone’s hovel.
Thomas entered the hovel and presented the old hag with a golden pomegranate, and she ate the seeds and the years fell from her until she was as lovely as she had been before Prince Llewellyn’s curse. Then did Sir Thomas kneel before her, for he was dazzled by her beauty; but she bade him rise, saying, ‘Good sir, you showed me courtesy before you saw me in my fair shape and so I will marry you and you will be my lord.’ And then she kissed him to seal their betrothal and his heart was glad.
The next day, they began their journey back to see Sir Thomas’s father and brothers, and they rode for many days before his castle came in sight; but a black pennant flew from the tower, and then Sir Thomas knew that he was too late and his father was dead, and he wept bitterly for his loss.
Then did he take his bride to meet his brothers and they were jealous of Thomas and his good fortune for the girl was as lovely as spring and as graceful as a hind and each brother lusted secretly after her in his heart.
And they conspired again to be rid of Thomas, giving him poisoned eels for his supper so that by morning, his skin was grey and the mark of death was upon him. But his lady remembered the golden pomegranates, and she took one secretly and placed the seeds in her love’s mouth and he was instantly restored to health, and his brothers became more jealous still for he was now even more handsome.
And they went privately to their new sister and asked her how it was that Thomas had recovered from his sickness and now looked stronger than before.
‘Oh,’ said she, dimpling very prettily at them both, ‘know ye not that eels are a great restorative? If ye would look like my husband, then ye must eat the eel stew I have prepared.’
And they gobbled it greedily and fell down dead, for these were the same poisoned eels that they had given Thomas the night before and this time, their dose was fatal.
And so Thomas and his lady lived in his father’s castle, and Sir Thomas ruled wisely and well, and his sons after him – but that is another story.”