When the going gets tough, the tough get storytelling.
This is one of Grimm’s.
It centres around that thing of dread, a well. Perhaps it is just a cultural thing, this fear of the depths of a hole which goes deep into the ground, of being stuck down there far from help, utterly alone, wet.
It has given rise to many stories.
This one goes like this: once upon a time there was a soldier who had been discharged from service because of injuries. He must leave the castle, its security and his comrades, walk through the gate, across the drawbridge and never be part of that tight-knit community again.
Disconsolate and rudderless, he struck out across the countryside and just as night was falling he happened upon a cottage.
Picture-book, it was. All white plaster and black wood beams. And the garden was replete with herbs and flowers, some of which the soldier had never seen before.
A bent old woman was tending the garden.
“Ma’am,” the soldier ventured. “It is late and there are no other places to stay. Might I stay here for the night?”
And when the woman turned and he saw her eyes he almost rescinded his request and backed away. For somewhere behind them was a witch, he would swear. And if he was not mistaken, she was malevolent.
But she was nodding. “You may indeed, young man,”she said, “But I’d be much obliged if you could dig my garden.”
That took a day and he was obliged to spend the night. She agreed again, as long as he chopped her wood, a labour which took a further day till nightfall. He may stay the night, said the old woman, if he retrieve the blue light from down her well.
Icy fear gripped the man. He did not relish being marooned at the mercy of the creature who was manipulating him. But down he went, in the bucket, with the wheel squeaking. A seemingly endless, dank journey.
He found the light. But what was it in the old woman’s tone of voice that put him in mortal fear of being left there forever, once she had the light?
He told her he would not send it up ahead of him. And she left the well for a while. He would come to his senses.
Except that the soldier had a cigarette, and he used the pipe to light it, and lo, there was a dwarf with him down there.
Grimm reports that the soldier was unperturbed. His wish was the dwarf’s command, it seemed, and the witch was done away with and a route found out of the well, sharpish.
And then he requested the princess. Whereupon the princess was brought, and returned to the castle at daybreak with only a strange dream as a way of recalling her experiences.Her mother put dried peas in her pocket so they would drop out one by one, leaving a trail; but the dwarf laid cunning trails of peas all over the city to prevent the soldier’s detection.
The next night the princess was summoned again; and hid her shoe under the bed to leave a fatal clue.
The soldier’s rooms were searched, the shoe found, and the soldier clapped in jail.He was condemned; and his final request? A cigarette. Lit by a blue light.
The dwarf appeared and vanquished the soldier’s enemies. And the soldier became king and ruled with his queen for many happy years.
The moral of this story? Always have a handy blue light around for emergencies.
You never know when you might be tricked down a very deep hole indeed.