This is a fable that I'm kind of hoping might become a children's book for me sometime soon. It's based very loosely on what I think is a traditional tale that I heard some years ago, although the details are all mine. If anyone knows of a story like this written down, please let me know, so I can compare it. It is aimed at quite young children, so don't expect any great sophistication, but I hope you enjoy it. (have fun with the pipelinks, too)
Long, long ago
, before computer games and cars, before T.V. and trains, there lived a man called Joe.
Joe was the unluckiest man alive. His parents had left him an orphan before he was full-grown, when illness had struck the village, and since they died, everything Joe did went wrong. His crops died in the field because they dried out, or because they got drowned in rain. When the winds blew, it was Joe's roof that came off, and it was always Joe who got stuck in the snow and caught a cold. All the people in the village where he lived called him "Poor, unlucky Joe" and just thanked goodness that they weren't him.
One day, Joe went to the village Headman
. "What can I do?" he asked. "Nothing goes right for me! I have
to change my luck."
The Headman sat silently for a while, thinking and scratching his head. He thought that most of Joe's bad luck was his own fault, because he was always daydreaming
when he should have been working, but he was a kind man so he didn't say so. "I can't help you," he said, finally, "but I think I know who can. What you have to do, Joe, is go to the hermit
who lives on the highest peak of the great grey misty mountains
. They say he knows everything, I'm sure he'll be able to help you."
Joe thought about it. "The great grey misty mountains
are an awfully long way away," he said.
"They are," replied the Headman, "but you have an awfully big problem
. You'll have to decide for yourself if it's worth going, Joe. But you asked my advice, and that's it."
Joe sat and thought some more. "I'll go!" He said. He thanked the Headman, and went home to pack for his journey. When he had crammed everything into his bag, he set out. He had to walk, because he'd lost his horse in a card game the week before - it had looked like he was winning, but then with the turn of the last card, he'd lost everything. He supposed he should have known better than to bet, the way his luck was.
The villagers waved him goodbye, and as he passed the Headman's house, the Headman called out "Be careful, now!" Joe raised his hand, and called back "I will."
Joe walked and walked and when he had walked for half a day towards the great grey misty mountains
he found himself in a forest
. There was something strange about it, he thought, but he was a long way inside before he realised what it was. There were no birds singing in the treetops, no rustlings of small animals in the leaves of the forest floor.
As he walked on, he wondered what had happened to scare away the birds and the animals. Suddenly he heard a crashing and cracking. A huge brown bear
lunged out of the trees at him, waving its huge front paws with their huge sharp claws
and snarling and growling
at Joe. The forest was too dark and thick for Joe to run, and anyway the bear was faster than him.
Joe thought about climbing a tree, but he knew the bear would just follow him, or wait at the bottom until he had to come down.
So he sat on the floor and cried. "This is typical!" he wailed. "I decide to do something to put my life right, and head for the highest peak in the great grey misty mountains
to ask the hermit who knows everything how to change my bad luck to good, and I wind up as lunch for a bear, still in sight of home. It's not fair!"
But the bear had stopped snarling
at Joe, and instead, he was looking at the man with interest, dropping to all four paws
so that it could look into Joe's face.
"Did you say the herrrmit knows everrrything?" the bear asked Joe, his deep voice rumbling
over the 'r's in the words in a growly kind of way.
." Joe replied, nervously. He was surprised to find the bear could talk, but it didn't seem a good idea to ask how that came to be. He thought it was probably best just to be polite
"If I let you go, will you ask him a question forrr me?"
"Of course!" Joe nodded his head quickly.
"I have hunted all the animals in this forrrest," the bear said, "and if I don't find some morrre food beforrre winterrr I will starrrve. If you prrromise to ask the herrrmit what I must do, I will let you go frrree."
"I can do that. I will
do that!" Joe jumped up. "I'll go right now!"
The bear lowered its shaggy
head. It knew that there was a risk that the man would never return, but on the other hand, if it ate him now, it could be exchanging lunch
today, when it wasn't really hungry, for food for the whole winter.
"Go then," it rumbled.
Joe picked up his pack and hurried away, as fast as his legs would carry him.
Joe walked and walked, up hills and down into valleys
, past churches
and mansion houses
, on roads and tracks, in the direction of the great grey misty mountains
. He slept in inns
and barns, and once by the side of the road, and when he'd been walking a week, he came upon a pretty little cottage
surrounded by a beautiful garden, some miles from any town.
The night was growing dark, and Joe thought it might rain, so he knocked on the door to ask if he might have a bed for the night.
When the door opened, a lovely
lady stood there. She had hair as dark and shiny as polished oak, big eyes as blue as the sky after a storm and soft red lips like raspberries
. When Joe asked her if he could stay, she smiled at him sweetly, and welcomed him in.
She fed him a delicious
meal of bread and eggs and good sharp cheese, hot vegetable
soup and fruit smothered in rich, thick cream, and when he had eaten his fill, she asked him where he was going, and what he was doing.
"I'm traveling to the highest peak of the great grey misty mountains
," he told her, "to seek out the hermit who knows everything, and to ask him how I can change my terrible bad luck
The lady nodded, solemnly. "That seems a very important quest
," she said. "I wonder…" her voice trailed off into silence.
"What do you wonder?" Joe asked her.
"When you find the hermit, would you ask him a question for me?"
Joe thought of the bed she offered him and the fine meal she had served. It seemed the least that he could do.
"I will," he replied, "what do you want to know?"
"I have everything here that I need," the lady told him, "I have fruit on the trees, vegetables in the garden, a well
that's full of clear fresh water. I have the chickens to give me eggs, and the cow
to give me milk I can drink and use to make my good cheese, and butter and cream. The sheep gives me wool
for winter, and the silkworms
in the mulberry
bushes give me fine thread for fine gowns. When my father was here with me, I was completely happy, and everything seemed perfect. But since he went to sea, I have felt a strange sadness, as if there is something missing in my life
. Would you ask the hermit for me what this sadness is, and how I can make it go away?"
Joe agreed, and she gave him another soft smile and led him to a guest room where there was a deep feather bed, covered with warm woolen blankets. In the morning, when he woke, the lady served him a breakfast of creamy porridge
and saw him on his way with a cheerful wave.
Joe walked on, well rested, full and happy.
Joe walked and walked, through towns and villages, past rivers and lakes, along beaches and pathways, getting closer to the great grey misty mountains
When he was a week away from the lovely lady's cottage and a fortnight away from home, he heard thunder crash above him and big fat raindrops began to fall.
He looked around for shelter, but the rain stung his eyes and he couldn't see anything.
"O-oover here," he heard a hooting voice, "this way"
Joe followed the sound which kept calling him "O-oover here, o-oover here" until he found himself in the shade of a large tree, with so many branches covered by so many leaves that it was as good as any roof - and quite a bit better than Joe's roof at home.
Perched in a branch nearby was a large tawny owl
, which was staring at Joe.
"Whoo-who are you-whoo," it asked, in the same hooting voice that had guided him to shelter, "and why are you traveling in such ho-horrible weather?"
"I'm just poor, unlucky old Joe," Joe answered. After the talking bear, a talking owl
seemed quite a normal thing to him, and he had no hesitation in talking back to it. "I'm two weeks away from home, traveling to the highest peak in the great grey misty mountains
to ask the hermit who knows everything how I can change my bad luck for good."
The owl twisted its head right round, then back to face Joe, so that it could stare
at him again.
"Is this her-hermit really so very wise
?" it asked.
"The Headman said that he knows all there is to know, and the Headman is the cleverest person in our village," Joe replied.
"Do-whoo you-whoo think that he could help me with a little difficulty?"
"I'm sure he could."
"Would you-whoo be so kind as to ask him a question on my behalf, when you see him?"
Joe looked at the owl and nodded his head. "One good turn deserves another
," he answered, "what would you like me to ask?"
"My mate has laid eggs, and in three weeks, our chicks will be born. I need to return to the tree where she nests, so that I can feed the youngsters, but my way leads through-whoo a narrow passage of trees, and every time I fly that way, a flash of light blinds me so I can go no further. I would ask the her-hermit how I can bypass that flash, and get ho-home to my mate and chicks."
"I'll ask," Joe agreed. "I'm sure he'll have an answer for you." Then as the owl thanked him, he settled down to sleep out the storm under the fine roof of leaves and branches. In the morning, he took a polite leave of the sleepy owl and started to walk again.
Still Joe walked and walked, through fields and woods, past windmills and wishing-wells, crossing streams and gates, till he was a week away from the owl, and a fortnight from the lovely lady, and three weeks from home, and he stood in the shadow of the great grey misty mountains
As he sheltered his eyes to look up the towers of rock, trying to pick out the highest of all the peaks, an old man leant on the gate to a fine farm and greeted him.
"Good day to you, son," he said, "are you thinking of climbing?"
"I have to reach the highest peak," Joe told him. "I've walked for three weeks through forests and farmlands and cities and hamlets, passing meadows and mineshafts and smithies and sheds, on every kind of road, to reach the great grey misty mountains
, so that I can ask the hermit who knows everything how I can change my luck from bad to good."
a long journey, and an adventure
too," the old man said, "but you'll never reach the top of the mountains without a strong walking stick to help you along the steepest parts. I used to climb up there myself, when I was a lad, and I know what it's like."
Joe felt like he'd been hit. To come all this way, and fail when the end was so near seemed - well it seemed like just his luck, but that didn't mean he had to like it.
The old man saw the look on his face, and smiled at him. "Now, lad," he said, don't you despair. I have a stout hazel
stick that I will be happy to lend you, if you'll ask the hermit up top a question for us in return."
One more question didn't seem that much to Joe, if it would get him where he was going, so he agreed happily.
"Certainly, Farmer," he replied, "just tell me what it is you want to know, and bring me your stick, and I promise I'll ask the hermit your question before my own."
The old man spoke as he guided Joe towards the farmhouse
, where the walking stick was kept.
"My wife and I were never blessed with children
," he said. "We kept thinking that maybe later we would have a son, or take a partner into the farm, but later never came. We're old now, and last year my wife got sick. I can't keep running the place on my own. We can't even get into the town to market anymore, since it takes me all my time to plough and sow, and my dear Betsy isn't fit enough to drive the cart. Ask the hermit, if you would, how we are to survive and enjoy the easy old age
we've earned all these years, with no child to follow us and keep the farm running."
Joe patted the old man's hand and promised that he'd ask.
When he left, swinging the farmer's stout hazel stick in his hand, his pack was full of fresh bread, cheese and apples
that the old man and his wife had pressed on him to keep him going.
The way up the mountains was steep and rocky, and often Joe's feet slipped on loose stones so that he thought he might fall and roll all the way back to the bottom, but he kept on going.
Up he went, past where the trees stopped growing
, but the path kept climbing.
Up he went, into the clouds
, but still he didn't reach the top.
Up he went back into the sun, leaving the clouds like puffs of mashed potato
behind him, but still the highest peak seemed a long, long way off.
He stopped there for a while and ate half of the food the farmer had given him, enjoying the tang of the cheese on the crunchy
bread and the sweet juiciness of an apple. When he was full, he packed up the rest of the food, and pulled himself to his feet and set off again for the top.
Up he went, digging the hazel stick into the stony ground, while around him the air got thin and weak, and he had to gasp
for every breath.
Suddenly, he raised his eyes from the path and saw that there was nowhere 'up' left to go. The great grey misty mountains
were all below him and he was on the highest of all the high peaks.
In front of him, he saw a cave and in the mouth of the cave sat an old, old man with the longest, whitest hair and beard
that Joe had ever seen.
The man was scowling.
"What do you
want?" he snapped.
"Are you the hermit?" Joe asked, knowing as he said it that it was a stupid question, because who else would live all the way up here?
"I am, and I'm a hermit because I like to be left alone
! Do you think I live on the highest peak of the remotest mountains in the whole world for fun
? What do you want?"
"I have walked here through…" Joe began in a wheezy
voice, but the hermit raised a hand to cut him off.
"I don't want to know how you got here. Just tell me why you came and leave!
"I have questions for you, Mr Hermit."
"I only answer one question per person. Choose one, ask it, and go away with your answer." The hermit really didn't look friendly
, and Joe was worried that if he carried on, the old man might refuse to answer anything. But he had promised the people he'd passed, and he couldn't break a promise.
"Oh but they aren't all mine - there is the bear's question, and the lovely lady's and the tawny owl's and the old farmer's, and then
The hermit scowled and sighed and tapped his fingers, but in the end he said, "Well I suppose that you won't leave otherwise. Ask then, and when you've been answered, go."
So Joe asked the bear's question, and the lovely lady's and the tawny owl's and the old farmer's. The hermit told him that the answers were private and secret
, and could only be told to the people who had asked the questions, and Joe carefully wrote them down and put them in his pack. Finally he asked his own question.
"I have such terrible bad luck, Mr Hermit. Ever since my parents died, nothing has gone right for me. How can I change my bad luck into good?"
The old, wise hermit shrugged his shoulders.
"Nothing could be simpler. All you have to do is open your mind and your eyes and really look
, carefully. Good luck
is there for the taking, luck beyond you wildest dreams, and all you have to do is recognise it and reach for it. Now, go. And don't come back!"
"Thank you," Joe called over his shoulder "I shall tell everyone I meet how wise you are, and how you know everything!"
The hermit glared at him. "Now, I'll have people up here all the time," he muttered, and went into his cave, slamming the round of tree-trunk he used for a door into the hole.
Joe walked down the rocky mountain to where the air got thicker and easier to breathe
He walked down into the puffy
, mashed potato clouds out of the sun.
He walked down out of the other side, where the clouds were dark and heavy behind him, and the wooded slopes were green beneath.
Tired now, Joe stopped. It was still a long way to the bottom of the great grey misty mountains, and he felt that he needed to rest a while, and refresh himself, so he sat with his back against the pine tree that grew furthest up the path and ate the rest of the food that the old farmer and his wife had given him. As he sat, he thought about the hermit's words "Good luck is there for the taking, luck beyond your wildest dreams
." It sounded wonderful. From now on, he knew, everything would be so much better and his life would turn out right. At last, he stood up, knowing that if he wanted to reach the bottom of the mountains before dark, he would have to hurry.
He walked quickly down the steep path through the pinewoods, swinging his stout hazel stick, careful not to slip on the stones underfoot, down, down, down to the farm that nestled in the mountains' shade. He arrived at the gate as the sun began to sink into the west.
He walked to the door, and tapped at it with a brisk rat-a-tat-tat. The old farmer shuffled to the door.
"Welcome, lad," the old man said. "Come in, eat with us, rest for the night and tell us all about the hermit, and what he told you."
Joe ate with the farmer and his wife, then sat with them, in front of a fire, and told them all about the climb, the rocks and the trees, and the sun and the thin weak air. He told them about the hermit, and what he'd had to say about Joe's luck. He didn't tell them the bear's answer, or the lovely lady's or the owl, because those things were secret and private, but at the last, he told them the answer the hermit had for them.
"The hermit who knows everything says," said Joe, "that you must adopt an orphan
boy, an older boy, a big lad, as your son, and teach him how to run the farm
. While he is learning, he can take your goods to market, and once he knows what to do, he can marry, and his wife can do what your wife has done up till now. He'll work hard for you, because he'll be working for himself too, and you can live out your days in comfort, and watch your grandchildren running and playing, happy and content."
The old man gave his wife a beaming smile and the old lady beamed right back at him.
"That's fine advice," he said. As he showed Joe to a bedroom, he said, "No doubt your mother and father will be glad to see you home."
Joe smiled and shook his head. "No sir, my parents died in a plague
some years ago, that's when my bad luck started. But goodnight to you, and thank you and your wife for the fine food, the fire and this bed."
He slept like a log, and when he awoke in the morning, he found the old farmer waiting for him.
and I have been talking, lad," he said, "and we'd like to invite you to stay with us and be our son. It would be the perfect answer. Of course, it'd be hard work, but this is a fine farm, and a good living."
Joe thought, but only for a second or two. "That's very kind of you, sir," he said, "but I have to keep traveling to look for my good luck, the luck beyond my wildest dreams."
The old man sighed sadly. "In that case, I wonder, when you pass through town, would you call at the orphanage
and ask them to send us a likely lad?"
Joe agreed, and he waved merrily as he left the farm and set off to look for his good luck, but the first town he reached, he called at the orphanage
That afternoon, a tall skinny boy called Tom
was packed off to the farm, to be a son to the old farmer and his wife, and Joe walked on.
Joe walked and walked, crossing gates and streams, past wishing-wells and windmills, through woods and fields, till he was a week away from the farm and the great grey misty mountains
behind him, a week away from the lovely lady, and two weeks from home, ahead.
Here, he stopped and called out.
"Owl! Owl I'm back, and I bring you an answer from the hermit who knows everything who lives at the top of the great grey misty mountains
The Owl swooped down, eager to hear his adventures, and once again, Joe settled under the tree with the roof of branches and leaves. Joe told the owl about the farmer and his wife, and how happy they had been with their answer - though not what it was, because that was private and secret, like the bear's and the lovely lady's, and he told him how the hermit had said that Joe would find luck for the taking, luck beyond his wildest dreams.
The owl listened and hooted and congratulated Joe, and at length he asked, "Friend, did the hermit have an answer for me?'
"Oh yes!" cried Joe. "He says that the flash is a magic mirror
, caught high up in one of the trees, dropped there by a magpie, who stole it from a witch. It is reflecting the light from the lighthouse
out at sea, and that is why it's so bright."
"What does this mirror do-whoo, and ho-how can I get past it?" the owl asked.
"The mirror will reflect the person who looks into it as they want to be, and when they turn away, everything they have imagined will be true," Joe replied. "and to get past it, you simply have to find someone who will climb the tree, and bring it down, out of your way."
"Then climb for me, friend! Take the mirror
, and let me return to my mate
and eggs, to be there when they ha-hatch!"
Joe thought, but only for a second or two. "I can't, friend owl," he said, "I can't waste any time before looking for my good luck, the luck beyond my wildest dreams. But I'm sure now you know what the problem is, you can find someone who will get the mirror down for you."
The owl spun its head around, then inclined its body forward in a bow. "You are right, friend Joe. Thank you-whoo for my answer, and I wish you -whoo well with finding your wonderful good luck.."
And the owl flew off and found a boy named Dick
, who climbed the tree for it and claimed the magic mirror
, as Joe walked on.
Joe walked and walked, along pathways and beaches, past lakes and rivers, through villages and towns, getting further from the great grey misty mountains
. When he was a week away from the owl and the tree and a fortnight from the old man's farm, behind him, and just a week from home ahead, he came to the pretty cottage in the beautiful garden, and he went to knock on the lovely lady's door.
She greeted him with smiles, happily, and invited him inside. Once again, she fed him a supper that was cooked to perfection, of pumpkin soup, and scones and butter, and the lightest, fluffiest cake that was ever baked by human hands. He sat at the table after, drinking a glass of cold frothy milk, and told her of the hermit on the high peak, and the old farmer and his wife, and the owl. He didn't tell her their answers, because they were private and secret, like the bear's, but he told her his own, of the luck that was there for the taking, luck beyond his wildest dreams.
She nodded, and told him how happy
she was for him, and then, blushed and asked, "And what about me? Did the hermit have an answer for my sadness?"
"Oh yes!" Joe replied. "He says that the name of your sadness is loneliness
, and it is the easiest thing in the world to overcome. But there is bad news too. He says that your father is lost at sea
, and will never come home."
Joe took the lovely lady's hand, and held it while she wept for her father. When the weeping was past, she lifted her face again, lovelier than ever with her big blue eyes full of tears, and said, "And what did the hermit say I should do to overcome this 'loneliness'?"
"He says you should find a husband
, ma'am, and bring him here, so that the two of you can live happily ever afterwards
." Joe replied.
The lady smiled at Joe. Then she leant forward, and gently kissed
him with her raspberry-red lips, and it was the sweetest of kisses
"Will you stay with me Joe? Will you be my husband, and share my cottage and my garden, my fruits and vegetables, my chickens and my cows, my wool and my silks?" she asked. "Will you live happily ever afterwards
Joe thought, and this time he thought for much longer than a second or two. He looked at the lady and the cottage and the garden, but finally he shook his head.
"I'm sorry, lovely lady," he told her, "but I must go and look for my luck, the luck beyond my wildest dreams."
The lady sighed
, but said, "You will take a room for the night though, won't you?"
Joe agreed, and in the morning, he set off with another wonderful breakfast inside him, while the lady put on a bonnet
and her finest gown, and drove her buggy
into town where she saw a man called Harry and the pair fell in love at first sight
. That night, while Joe slept at the side of the road, Harry slept in the cottage beside his new wife
Joe walked and walked, on roads and tracks, down into valleys and up hills, past mansion houses and churches, away from the great grey misty mountains
. After he slept at the side of the road, he found beds in barns and inns, and when he'd been walking a week, and he was three weeks from the farm, a fortnight from the owl and a week from the cottage of the lovely lady, when he could walk to his own dear home in less than half a day, he came again to the forest.
The great brown bear was looking scraggy and starving
, and it could barely wait for Joe to describe his adventures, to talk about the farmer and the owl and the lady and the wise old hermit on the highest peak. It hopped from foot to foot, as Joe told it about his own wonderful luck, luck beyond his wildest dreams, before it roared.
"What about me? Did the herrrmit have and answerrr forrr me, to stop me starrrving in the long cold winterrr ahead?"
"Oh yes," said Joe. "He says that there is another forest, three days to the south, which is bursting with game, enough to keep you for the rest of your life."
"Thrrree days?" growled the bear. "I am too weak to walk forrr thrrree days."
Joe nodded. "The hermit knows that," he said. "He says you should get enough energy for the journey by eating the first stupid man to come alone into the forest."
So the bear lifted its huge paws, with the huge claws, and did.
After a couple of months, the Headman of the village began to get worried that Joe hadn't returned. He sent a search party into the woods and they found Joe's bones. They could see by the state of his boots that he'd walked for many, many miles, but everyone agreed that it was just Joe's luck to get all the way to the highest peak of the great grey misty mountains
unharmed, and then get killed just half a day from home.
They buried his bones and forgot about him.
The bear reached his forest to the south, became sleek, and lived for many years.
In the pretty cottage in the beautiful garden, the lovely lady had lots of lovely children, and her husband, Harry, grew fat on the fine food she fed him, and they lived happily ever afterwards.
The owl got home to his mate in time to see his chicks break the shell, and Dick used the magic mirror to make himself into a prince and married a beautiful princess
On the farm in the mountains' shadow, Tom cheerfully worked the land with a plump, jolly wife, and the old farmer and his missus grew older in peace and prosperity
, listening to the sound of their grandchildren's joyful laughter.
And on the highest peak of the great grey misty mountains
, the hermit sat alone, and nobody ever bothered him again, so he was the happiest of them all.