Combing the Dragons Hair: The Earth-Gnome
A version by Martin Shaw
There was once an elderly King with three daughters. As he grew towards the end of his life, he became obsessed with an apple tree in the center of his garden, that, when harvest came, produced perfect, blood red apples. He loved those apples, coveted them, hoarded them – until one day he issued a hard decree, that if anyone gathered an apple they would find themselves a hundred yards under dark soil. They were to be his, and his only. No one quite knew the root of his obsession.
One day his three daughters found themselves under that very tree. As they gazed up at the apples, the eldest girl – known for having the keen intelligence of the hawk – said; “it is fair that our father keeps the apples for himself. It keeps him in good health, and in doing so remains a good sovereign for the land. There is a wider mission to his hoarding.”
The middle girl – known for having the great heart of a mother bear, spoke up and said; “ah it make me tender to see my father with his apples, a great nostalgia comes upon him, he remembers the sweetness and adventures of his youth, and death is defeated for another night. It is those rememberingʼs that keep him from the gatherer of souls”
And the third daughter, who was not known for the intelligence of the hawk or the warmth of the bear but the impulsiveness of the goat, just reached up, grabbed the most succulent apple and started taking huge bites.
She stopped. Looked around. The sky hadnʼt fallen on her head. So, emboldened, she beckoned to her sisters to eat with her. When even the last pip had been consumed, they smiled guiltily at each other. At that moment, the long grasses opened and they found themselves a hundred yards under dark soil.
When the king realized what had happened, in terror he sent out a decree that he would give great wealth to whoever could find his girls. His grief for their disappearance overwhelmed him utterly.
In a poor kingdom, the promise of wealth is a rare thing, and soon everyone was searching for the Kings daughters. Out in the lonesome edges of the kingdom, in a dark stretch of forest, three hunters – brothers – searched for the princesses.
They came upon the ruins of an ancient, abandoned castle. They had passed this way before but had never seen it. Despite its ruins, there was there the delicious smell of cooked food coming from the kitchen. After suspiciously hanging around on the doorway, their desire led them in, and they beheld a great table of food. As they ate, it seemed the castle was re-building itself around them. They noticed this from the corner of their eye as they wolfed down the food. That night they slept under silk sheets, with a fire in the hearth that did not need tending.
Having grown up in poverty, the boys grew very attached to the castle, and one would guard it on the days the others searched the woods, in rotation. One day there was a knock at the door. Standing there was a small brown man. What you may call a gnome, what they used to call an “earth-god”.
He spoke; “Can i come in? Can i cross the threshold?”. Well, the oldest brother let him in. He croaked; “Iʼm hungry, could i have a piece of bread?” A small thing to ask, and the brother handed him the bread. Very deliberately the small man dropped the bread between them. “Would you pick my bread up? would you carry my bread?” he enquired, eyeballing the hunter. The oldest brother leaned down and picked up the bread.
The moment he did, the small man produced an enormous club and attacked him, thrashing him black and blue. Before skipping over the twitching body and back out the door.
This happened with the other two brothers, but the youngest refused to carry the bread, saying: “bread is a matter of life and death, if you canʼt carry yours, do you really expect me to do it for you?”. And with that he produced an even BIGGER club, and attacked the small man.
“All right all right!” he yelped, “iʼll tell you where the princesses are”. Some huge moment has arrived very swiftly.
He took the younger son out to an abandoned well. An eerie place, a place forgotten, a place you would shudder and roll up your collar as you passed. The top of the well was crumbling, wet and mossy, covered in cobwebs.
“The girls are down at the very bottom of the forgotten well, exiled in three separate chambers.” “Ah ha!” said the hunter “iʼll go down in the bucket and get them out”.
“Not so simple – down in the glitter-gloom of their cells are dragons, their heads wresting on the hips of the three women, who keep them calm by combing and cutting the hair that flows from the dragons head. The monsters dream dragonish dreams. Any swift move will awake them. And one final piece of advice, do not tell your brothers about this, they do not have your best interests at heart”.
And with that, he turned and walked back into the dream-time of the forest. One dimension into another. Gone. As if he was never there.
Well of course he told his brothers. They went green and yellow with envy, and insisted they go down first. Eldest brother got fifteen foot down before nightmares and claustrophobia and a hundred other terrors consumed him and he rang a little bell to be winched up. Next brother got thirty yards down – same thing – it was only the third brother, the runt of the litter, that descended all the way to the bottom.
He visited each chamber and each woman glanced up from their work and uttered the words; “there is a time to comb and a time to cut. This is a time to cut.” And with that he cut the heads off the dragons, taking their tongues as evidence of his underground work and placing them in his leather bag.
One by one the daughters were winched up by the two brothers in the little bucket. But malice overtook them, and when the youngest brother climbed in, they betrayed him and cut the rope. With threat and magics they bound the women to not revealing the truth of their release to their father the king, under pain of death. The older hunters would be the heroes, the wealth-collectors, with no mention of the runt.
Long time passed for the hunter at the bottom of the well. He walked round and round in the dark, a kind of darkness your eyes never get used to. His hair and beard grew in a great tangled torrent, his skin pale as snow, his belly stuck to his spine. Soon he was on all fours rather than upright. For all the world, he looked like some kind of wolf.
One day he groped into the dark and found a musical instrument, a flute. How could he have never found it before? His hands had touched every inch of his underground lair. Wistfully, he put it down. “Now is not the time for music.”
More hard months passed at the bottom. Above him the world continued, bustling and filled with laughter, but down there, amongst dragon skulls and roots of trees and black mud, life was cold and slow and strange.
There came a day where he sensed he was being tracked in the darkness, some vast presence was near. A Lord of Night. Death. Only then did he pick up the flute and start to play. His chapped lips formed a note.
Of a sudden, with every note played, a small earth-man appeared in the bottom of the well. Soon the small space was jostling with life, the men offering their help. “Get me to the top the well” he gasped, his voice sounding broken and strange, so long had been since he had spoken at length. Each man took a curl on his head and started to float up the gloomy cobwebbed tunnel to the light. Like some strange cave painting, the exhausted hunter was wafted through the smoky darkness by their care and deposited at the surface, food and drink waiting.
When he had revived a little he wasted no time in getting to the kings door. Although bound to secrecy, the daughters had found ways to avoid any kind of marriage to the hunters, the whole affair was in a kind of limbo. They recognized they were in a kind of danger different to the dragons, but no less real. So they found endless reasons to drag their feet when marriage was suggested to the two ʻrescuersʼ. Their inventiveness bought them time.
When the king saw the sudden arrival of wild man he bellowed for the guards, but the women spoke up.
“He is more than he seems! We are under enchantment to not tell you directly his story, but if we were to tell it to the fire, then maybe you could listen in by the door”
Well, he stood in the place between rooms, the hinge, the place of Hermes, and the princesses told their story – and this time it was the oldest who told it with the heart of a mother bear, the middle woman with the energy of a goat, and the youngest with the far reaching intelligence of the hawk. Some say that this was the beginning of the tradition of telling stories by the fire.
As evidence, the hunter produced the tongues, and then the king knew the final truth of the matter. The false brothers were thrown into a dungeon and to the best of my knowledge are still languishing there, and over time a great courting took place between the eldest daughter and the youngest son.
There was a wedding where all the locals came, and the king gave out his apples to all, and felt mighty better for doing so, a weight lifted. Some say the earth-gods played their horse-hair fiddles that night, and dragons tapped their tails far under the mighty earth.
Over the many winters that followed, people of court and village would gather by the fire to hear the tales assembled by the women that gained their wisdom by combing the hair of dragons. They would swoon to hear the hunters flute – music from the bottom of the well. Words and music forged under the ground, and at great pressure.