Like most parents of small-ish children, I spend a lot of time reading fairy tales. I was reading my four year old a very short, slightly boring version of Cinderella, and my 9 year old snuggled in. He was quite aggrieved at the details being “wrong”. In the version he reads, the coachman is crafted from an enchanted lizard, but in my daughter’s version, it is a rat, which he thought was not as interesting, and nobody wants to end up sitting next to a disenchanted rat at the end of the ball. I explained to him that the way fairy stories came about was from hundreds of years of re-telling, with each narrator adding or removing tiny details, to suit their own knowledge or preferences.
When we were little, my parents gradually bought us the whole set of Andrew Lang’s fairy books, which still are quite a wonder. Many of them seem a bit brutal for children’s ears, with minor characters meeting gruesome endings. A few year ago, I read a story, possibly from the Green Fairy Book, which was loosely connected to Greek myths, and featured some disconcerting head-chopping.
My sons asked for a story from Lilac Fairy Book the other day. I chose “The Rich Brother and The Poor Brother”. It sounded interesting and unlikely to feature decapitation, I thought; the relationship between brothers seems like an eternally fascinating theme, from Cain and Abel to Castor and Pollux. The stories never tread the middle ground. They are either terrible competitions to the death, or eternal and undying loyalty, unmatched by any other relationship they have. As an identical twin with no other siblings, I have no point of reference in understanding brothers who are 22 months apart. The fact they are not the same age, with different skills as they grow up, and no doubt therefore a very different understanding of themselves and events, seems like a terrible tragedy to me. The first and often last time we did all sorts of kids’ events was of course with our first baby. The younger one was there, but he’ll only know those things from photos. He may well believe himself to have been there, because he will place his memories of the photo as being memories of the event. Much like a fairy tale, he will tell himself the truth that suits the situation.
Which leads us to this ancient Portuguese tale. And what a fable it is. A dutiful older son helps his widowed father for many years with his farmland and property. It is agreed that the older son will inherit all land and property. However, he marries a girl without telling his father, his father banishes him, and sends for his younger son. The brothers have never really got on, and the younger brother is quite pleased at having supplanted the heir. The father dies, and the younger son inherits everything. The older brother has a large family by this time, and no living with which to feed his children. So he asks his younger brother to give him some unfinished houses, which he has the skills and interest to finish, and only wants them to have a place to live. As he points out, there is no money to be made for anyone whilst they are unfinished.
This all goes well, and the family are able to live in reasonable comfort from the work they have put in to finishing the houses. But the younger brother’s wife is jealous, and wants the houses for herself. She hassles her husband about it for some time.
“She began to cry, and made such a noise that all the neighbours heard her and put their heads out of the windows, to see what was the matter. ‘It was absurd,’ she sobbed out, ‘quite unjust. Indeed, if you came to think of it, the gift was worth nothing, as when her husband made it he was a bachelor, and since then he had been married, and she had never given her consent to any such thing.'”
Eventually, the younger brother agrees to put the matter before a court, and petition for his older brother to return the houses. So both brothers set out to the city of Evora, to settle the issue before a judge. The rich, younger brother is on horseback, with plenty of food and nice clothes. The poor, older one is on foot, wearing rags. On the way, they stop at a farmhouse.
The older brother has brought along four onions and a piece of bread to eat, which he is granted permission to eat in a corner. The farmer’s wife insists she must have one of these onions, which the poor man gives her immediately, presumably in gratitude at them letting a poor person into their house. The farmer’s wife gets a terrible stomach ache, and says
“‘Oh, I feel so ill, I’m sure I’m going to die,’ wept she. ‘It was the onion, I know it was. I wish I had never eaten it. It must have been poisoned.'”
So the farmer joins the trip to Evora, seeking justice for his poisoned wife. The two riders set off, with the poor brother on foot some way behind. The riders encounter a muleteer whose mule is stuck fast in the mud, but the riders do not wish to damage their clothes, ignore his pleas and ride on. Eventually the poor brother reaches the scene. As he is already entirely covered in mud, he tries everything he can to help, and he frees the mule; but in the process, he accidentally pulls off the animal’s tail.
The muleteer is outraged, and vows to seek justice at this mutilation of his animal:
“When he saw this the muleteer’s anger knew no bounds, and forgetting that without the help given him he would have lost his mule altogether, he began to abuse the poor man, declaring that he had ruined his beast, and the law would make him pay for it.”
By the time they all arrive in Evora, the older brother has given up all hope. He feels all is lost; he is sure to lose his house, and it seems he worries that the death penalty will be sought for his supposed crimes. And now we get to the part of the story that is rather shocking and difficult to read to children:
“‘I shall certainly be condemned for one or other of them,’ thought he sadly; ‘and after all, if I have to die, I would rather choose my own death than leave it to my enemies,’ and as soon as he entered Evora he looked about for a place suitable for carrying out the plan he had made. At length he found what he sought, but as it was too late and too dark for him to make sure of success, he curled himself up under a doorway, and slept till morning.'”
Yes, indeed, he seeks a high tower from which to fling himself. He jumps off the battlements of the city, but lands on a terminally ill man who is sitting at the bottom of the wall to talk to his friends as they pass by. He kills the man instantly, and is unharmed. I think we can guess what happens next:
“‘You have killed our father, do you see? Do you see?’ cried two young men, ‘and you will come with us this instant before the judge, and answer for it.'”
The judge goes through the accusations one by one. The younger brother starts off proceedings with the houses, stating that they were left to him by his father, and his borther was refusing to give them up. The older brother produces the deed of gift which made him their owner, and the judge gives his verdict:
“‘The houses shall remain the property of the man to whom they were given, and to whom they belong. And as you,’ he added, turning to the younger brother, ‘brought this accusation knowing full well it was wicked and unjust, I order you, besides losing the houses, to pay a thousand pounds damages to your brother.'”
Now we have the farmer with the poisoned wife:
“The judge could hardly conceal a smile at the story, and inquired if the wife was dead before the farmer left the house, and received for answer that he was in such a hurry for justice to be done that he had not waited to see. Then the poor man told his tale, and once more judgement was given in his favour, while twelve hundred pounds was ordered to be paid to him.”
The muleteer is quickly dealt with, informed he is mean ungrateful for the help the older brother provided, and ordered to pay him fifty pounds and keep the mule.
Finally, the much more awkward question of him accidentally killing a man whilst trying to kill himself. I was at this point not really sure whether to just wrap things up with “and then they all lived happily ever after”, but the boys were on tenterhooks. It was a strange conclusion. The judge said that the accused man should sit under the wall, and the two sons of the dead man should jump from the top. If they were not willing to do this, they were ordered to pay him eight hundred pounds for a false accusation. They promptly paid, and the older brother rode the mule home to his family, “with enough money to keep them in comfort to the end of their days”.
It makes me think, really, of how easily these family ties that bind are corrupted; by greed, money, pleasing husbands or wives; how even brothers who will need to face the loss of their parents sooner or later (even in circumstances that are not global headline news) are living in different realities, at different times in their lives. Everyone in the story is taken in by power and money, and blames the poor man, despite him having done very little wrong other than fall in love. Appearances are everything, and somehow the poor man becomes less than human to them, with no thought given to the effect of all these false accusations.
The whole point of siblings is to face the world united, with a shared history, a shared understanding of the world. It makes me a bit sad, all those brothers whose rivalry has undone the connection they could have shared; I worry about the future of my own sons when I look at other brothers’ tragic rifts, both those I know, and those I merely read about. I suppose when one will be king, the other creates a fairy tale of where they fit into the world, and he will be exploited and encouraged by those whom this suits. Who would be the judge of such a thing?