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The Golden Key

Philip Pullman






  Published by the Penguin Group

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  First published in Penguin Books 2012

  Retelling copyright © Philip Pullman, 2012

  All rights reserved

  ISBN 978-1-101-61807-3

  No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author’s rights. Purchase only authorized editions.


  Title Page



  The Twelve Huntsmen

  The Buffalo-Hide Boots

  The Golden Key


  The Goose Girl at the Spring

  The Three Snake Leaves

  Acclaim for Philip Pullman’s Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm

  About the Author

  * * *


  * * *


  Once there was a prince who was betrothed to a princess whom he loved dearly. One day, as they were sitting together happily, a message came to say that his father was very ill, and wanted to see him before he died.

  The prince said to his beloved, ‘My dear, I’ll have to go and leave you for a while. Keep this ring to remember me by, and when I’m king I’ll come back and take you home with me.’

  Then he rode away, and when he reached his father’s palace, he found the king mortally ill: at the point of death in fact.

  The king said to him, ‘My dearest boy, I wanted to see you one more time before I die. And I want you to make a promise.’

  ‘Anything, father!’

  ‘Promise me to marry the princess I choose.’ And he named the daughter of a different king.

  The prince was so grief-stricken that he didn’t think, but said, ‘Of course, father, I’ll do whatever you want.’

  Satisfied, the king closed his eyes and died.

  His son was proclaimed king, and when the period of mourning was over, he was crowned; and then he remembered the promise he’d given his father. He sent ambassadors to the court of the other king and asked for the princess’s hand in marriage, and after a short negotiation they became betrothed.

  Naturally, news of this spread far and wide, and it wasn’t long before his first fiancée heard about it. She was shocked by his infidelity, so much so that she nearly pined away.

  ‘My darling, what’s troubling you?’ her father said. ‘Is there anything I can get to make you happier? Just name it, and you shall have it.’

  So she thought, and then said, ‘Father, what I want most is eleven girls as much like me as possible.’

  The king said, ‘I’ll get it done at once.’

  So he sent messengers to every corner of his kingdom to look for girls who resembled her. Many were found and brought to the palace, and the princess chose those who looked most like her, though there were few who were very like. Having chosen eleven of them, she ordered eleven huntsmen’s costumes to be made for them, and one more for her.

  Once all twelve girls were ready, the princess said farewell to her father, and they rode away to the court of her faithless fiancé, whom she still loved even so. There she asked if he needed any huntsmen.

  ‘My companions and I are skilled at that kind of work,’ she said. ‘You couldn’t do better than take all twelve of us.’

  The king looked at the princess without recognizing her. The twelve of them were all so good-looking in their hunting dress, though, that he said he’d take them on; so they were all engaged in his service, and were known as the King’s Huntsmen.

  Now the king happened to have a marvellous lion, far more intelligent than any lion at the court of any other king; and cleverer than many humans, in fact, for he knew all kinds of secret things that were hidden from common knowledge. One day the lion spoke to the king and said, ‘Those twelve huntsmen of yours . . .’

  ‘Splendid-looking fellows, aren’t they?’ said the king.

  ‘So they may be. But they’re not huntsmen. In fact they’re not men at all. They’re girls.’

  ‘No! I don’t believe it.’

  ‘I’m afraid it’s true.’

  ‘Prove it!’

  ‘Very well,’ said the lion. ‘Get some dried peas and scatter them over the floor of your antechamber. If they’re men, they’ll walk over them with a firm step; but if they’re girls, they’ll go on tiptoe and skitter and shuffle them out of the way. You watch – see if I’m wrong.’

  ‘That’s a good idea,’ said the king, and did exactly as the lion advised.

  However, one of the king’s servants had conceived a great liking for the twelve huntsmen, and hearing that they were going to be tested in that way, he went and told them.

  ‘Thank you!’ said the princess, then told her eleven companions: ‘Now remember, when we go into the antechamber we must walk straight over the peas as if they weren’t there.’

  And next morning, when the king summoned the huntsmen, they walked right over the peas like the manliest of men and not a pea rolled out of place.

  After they’d been dismissed, the king called the lion.

  ‘Fine adviser you are!’ he said. ‘They walked exactly like men, every one of them.’

  ‘They must have known they were going to be tested,’ said the lion. ‘I’ve got a better idea, though. This time, have twelve spinning wheels put in the antechamber. The thing about girls and women is that they can disguise their way of walking, but they can’t conceal what they really feel, and they all love spinning wheels. When they see these, they’ll go up and admire them and try them out. Mark my words, they won’t be able to resist.’

  ‘Ah,’ said the king, ‘I like that. Yes, that’s very ingenious. Well done, lion.’

  He had the spinning wheels set up in the antechamber, and once again the servant who liked the huntsmen told them what the lion had advised.

  ‘Hear that, huntsmen?’ said the princess to her companions. ‘When you see the spinning wheels, just ignore them. A cursory glance, and no more.’

>   And next morning the huntsmen strode through the antechamber without so much as a peep at the spinning wheels. The king was baffled, and sent for the lion.

  ‘I’m fed up with your advice,’ he said. ‘It’s not worth listening to.’

  ‘But they must have known!’ said the lion. ‘Someone gave the plan away.’

  ‘Oh, rubbish,’ said the king. ‘Get back to the zoo.’

  Having discarded the lion’s advice, the king continued to hunt with his twelve huntsmen, and the longer they spent together, the more fond he became of them. Now one day when they were out hunting, a messenger came galloping up to the king to say that his intended bride was on her way. The true fiancée heard this, and her heart convulsed in her breast and she fell to the ground in a faint.

  Thinking that his favourite servant had had an accident, the king rushed over and pulled off the fellow’s glove in order to feel his pulse; and there was the ring he’d given his beloved to remember him by. He looked at the huntsman’s face with astonishment, and recognized it at once.

  Helplessly he kissed the princess, and when she opened her eyes he said, ‘You are mine and I am yours. Nothing and no one can change that.’

  He sent the messenger back to tell the other princess to return to her kingdom, for, as he said, he already had a bride, and having found an old key, he didn’t need a new one.

  So their wedding was celebrated with great joy, and the lion was restored to favour, because after all he’d been right about the huntsmen, even if his advice had not succeeded in revealing their secret.


  Source: a story told to the Grimm brothers by Jeanette Hassenpflug

  Similar stories: Italo Calvino: ‘The King of Portugal’s Son’ (Italian Folktales); Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, ‘The True Bride’ (Children’s and Household Tales)

  This is not the only prince in Grimm who seems surprisingly forgetful about the beautiful girl he’s promised to marry. Whether this was a common problem among princes is not easy to say. He’s lucky to have a lion as his advisor, or he would be if the lion’s advice weren’t so idiotic. This is one of those stories in which the individual elements (the twelve pretty huntsmen, the talking lion) are more memorable than the course of the story, and in which the happy ending comes about by sheer accident. Now, if the lion had only managed to give some good advice instead of the bumbling fatuity of an elderly club bore, the prince might have found his true bride much sooner.


  No danger can discourage a brave soldier, but the fire of the enemy is not everything a soldier has to face. Once there were two brothers, the sons of a peasant. The older joined the army, fought well, and had the good fortune to find his period of service coinciding with several victories in battle. He soon became a general.

  His younger brother, however, who joined up a year or two later, was no less brave, but not so lucky. The wars were over and there was nothing for an honest trooper to do but carry out his sentry duty and march up and down looking smart; but as smart as he looked, there was no chance of promotion for him.

  One day the soldier was detailed to stand guard outside the general’s quarters while the general was giving a banquet. One of the guests going in was so struck by the disconsolate expression on the soldier’s face that he stopped and said, ‘What’s the matter, young fellow?’

  ‘It’s my brother,’ said the soldier. ‘He’s the general, but he takes no notice of me at all. It’s as if he’s forgotten I even exist.’

  The guest went inside and told the general.

  ‘Don’t believe the wretch!’ the general said. ‘He’s lying, and I’ll have him lashed.’

  The soldier was given a hundred lashes. But there was an old sergeant who felt sorry for him, and when he’d recovered from the lashing the sergeant said to him, ‘Look here, I’m going to teach you a trick. It’s a good ’un, and I haven’t told it to anyone else. You never know, you might need it some day.’

  So he taught the young man his trick, and soon afterwards, seeing that this was the only benefit his army service was ever going to bring him, the soldier took his discharge papers and went his way. He had nothing but a woollen cloak and a pair of buffalo-hide boots, and as he’d never learned a trade, he found it hard going.

  One day as he was wandering through the forest he came upon a man dressed in a smart green hunting costume and a pair of glossy boots. The hunter was sitting on a felled tree looking perplexed.

  ‘Fine pair of boots,’ said the soldier. ‘Must have taken you a fair time to shine ’em up as glossy as that. These old buffalo-hide boots of mine could never take a polish, but they’ve seen me through thick and thin, and there’s years of wear in ’em yet. Where are you off to, mate?’

  ‘I have to admit I’m lost,’ said the hunter. ‘D’you know where this road leads?’

  ‘Every road leads to a town in the end,’ said the soldier. ‘That’s all I know. What d’you say to joining up and going along together?’

  ‘I don’t mind if we do,’ said the hunter, and off they went together.

  They hadn’t walked far before night began to fall.

  ‘Well, we’re still in the woods,’ said the soldier, ‘but look, there’s a light shining over there. Let’s go and see if they’ll give us a bite to eat.’

  They came to a crumbling old stone house and knocked on the door. An elderly woman opened it and said, ‘What do you want?’

  ‘Here’s two honest men,’ said the soldier, ‘and we’re tired and we’re hungry. Can you give us something to eat and somewhere to lie down for the night?’

  ‘Oh, no,’ she said, ‘not here I can’t. This house belongs to a band of robbers, and if you know what’s good for you, you’ll scarper before they get home. If they find you here they’ll do you in.’

  ‘Frankly,’ said the soldier, ‘it’s all the same to me whether I die of hunger in the forest or from a robber’s dagger in the heart. I’ve gone two days without food already and my stomach can’t wait a moment longer. You’re a kind-looking lady – have mercy on an old soldier and his mate.’

  ‘Oh, well, I suppose . . .’ she said.

  The hunter wasn’t keen on going in, but the soldier pulled his sleeve. ‘Come on,’ he said, ‘we’ll have time to swallow something before they finish us off.’

  ‘I can hear ’em coming,’ said the old woman. ‘Quick! Get behind the stove. I’ll slip you any leftovers.’

  The soldier and the hunter had only just crawled behind the stove when twelve robbers came in. They were big fierce-looking men, bristling with weapons, and they sat down at once and banged the table for their supper. The old woman carried in a huge joint of roast beef, and the chief robber carved it up with his sword and handed it round, and they all fell to eating at once. It smelled so good that the soldier couldn’t wait.

  ‘I can’t stand it,’ he whispered to the hunter. ‘I’m going to join them at the table.’

  ‘You’ll get us both killed!’

  ‘No, you leave it to me.’

  And he clambered out from behind the stove and said, ‘Evening, all.’

  The robbers were astounded.

  ‘What are you doing here?’ roared the chief.

  ‘He’s spying on us!’ cried another.

  ‘Hang him up and cut bits off him,’ suggested a third.

  ‘Mind your manners,’ said the soldier. ‘Don’t you know you should never kill a hungry man? Move up there and let me sit down.’

  The robbers had never seen anything like it. The chief was impressed by the soldier’s coolness, though, and said, ‘All right, you come and sit down. You can have some roast beef. When you’ve had your supper, though, that’s it. We’ll make you wish you’d kept away and stayed hungry.’

  ‘All in good time,’ said the soldier, and helped himself
to a large slice of meat. ‘Hey, Shiny Boots!’ he called. ‘Come and join us. You must be as hungry as I am, and I don’t care where you come from, you won’t find a better roast than this.’

  The hunter came out from behind the stove, and the robbers cried, ‘There’s another one!’

  ‘Make yourself at home, why don’t you?’ said the robber chief. ‘Come and sit down. Join your pal. All the more fun for us later on.’

  ‘No, I’m not hungry, thank you,’ said the hunter.

  The robbers watched the soldier sharing their food, and their amazement grew as he sat there so calmly finishing his slice of beef and helping himself to another.

  ‘Food’s good,’ he said with his mouth full, ‘but I could do with a drink. Pass the bottle. Oh, look at that, it’s empty. What a shame.’

  The robber captain was enjoying the spectacle. He said to the old woman, ‘Go down to the cellar, and fetch up a bottle of the best.’

  When the wine arrived, the soldier pulled the cork with a loud pop and said quietly to the hunter, ‘Now watch. I bet you’ve never seen this before.’

  He stood up and held the bottle high, took a deep swig, and then waved it over the robbers’ heads and said, ‘Here’s to your health! Raise your right hands and open your mouths, all at once, now.’

  To the hunter’s amazement, all the robbers did exactly that. They raised their right hands and opened their mouths, and then they stuck fast just like that. They couldn’t move an inch. They were just like stone statues.

  ‘Good God!’ said the hunter. ‘How did that happen?’

  ‘Animal magnetism,’ the soldier explained. ‘It’s a little trick I learned in the army.’

  ‘That’s astounding,’ said the hunter. ‘But look, hadn’t we better make our escape?’

  ‘Not while there’s still food on the table. I haven’t seen such a feast as this for months. Come on, sit down, eat your fill. These little birds won’t move till I tell ’em to.’