Wagner - The Hero Who Knew No Fear
( Originally Published 1894 )
" DON'T you think the fire is very good tonight ? " the little girl asked.
" Yes, it is certainly very good indeed," I admitted.
" I should think," she said, " that anybody that could see things in fires might see very nice things in this one."
When she who might command deigns thus delicately to make a mere suggestion, it is the part both of chivalry and of loyalty to obey. I should feel that having my head chopped off was altogether too good for me if I hesitated at such a time. " Come," I said, "and let us see what the fire really looks like. What does it look like to you ? "
" Oh, it doesn't look like anything at all to me, only just the fire. What does it to you ? "
" It looks like a fire to me too, but it is the fire of a smith's forge. The place where it is looks half like a room and half like a cavern. It is all of rocks, but there is the forge and there are the chimney and the anvil and the bellows and all sorts of smith's tools."
" You can see things all around the fire, just the same as in it, can't you ? " said the child.
"Oh, to be sure ; when I want to see these things that make themselves into stories, I can see them almost anywhere, only I think the fire is a particularly good place. And who do you think is working at the forge? It is an ugly little dwarf, the very one whom we saw the other night, who made the magic helmet, the brother of the one who stole the treasure from the river nymphs. You remember he was a clever smith, else he never could have made that wonderful helmet. Now he is at work here trying to make a sword. And he does make a sword too, but he does not seem pleased with it when it is finished, and he leaves off his work and sits down, with a very dissatisfied, sulky, ugly look in his face.
" It would be hard for anybody to look more unlike the dwarf than the person I see now coming into the cave. He is a boy, or perhaps he would rather be called a young man, and I shall be glad to call him whatever he likes. He is dressed in skins and wears a little silver horn at his side. If the dwarf is short and ugly, he is tall and handsome ; if the dwarf's face has a scowl of wicked hatred and cunning, his has a smile that beams with kindliness and candor; if the dwarf is old and crooked and rough and hairy, he is young and straight and graceful and fair. In short, you surely never saw a young man who looked more free, happy, generous, noble, strong, and bold than he. It makes one more good-humored to look at him, and the sunlight follows him straight into the cave. Something else follows him too, for he is leading a big brown bear by a cord twisted around its neck. He sends the bear at the dwarf, who screams and runs away in terror. The young man seems to have caught the bear in the woods just to frighten the dwarf, and he lets it go again when the dwarf tells him that the sword is finished and ready for him. He takes the sword and looks at it scorn-fully. It is good for nothing, he says. He strikes it upon the anvil and breaks it into a dozen pieces. He is a little particular about his swords ; he does not like them unless he can chop anvils with them.
" Before we try to see any more, perhaps I ought to tell you something about this wonderful youth and why he lives here in the cave with the dwarf. He was born here. This is the forest where the treasure is hidden that was paid to the giants for building the castle of the gods. It is guarded, as you know, by the giant who killed his brother so that he might have the whole of it, and he has changed himself into a horrible dragon, by the magic helmet, so that he may guard it better. The young man's mother was the woman whom the Daughter of the God sent away into this forest to save her from the anger of the Father of the Gods, as you remember. She took refuge here in the dwarf's cave and she died soon after her son was born, and then the dwarf kept the boy and brought him up. But it was not because he cared for him at all or had the least kindly feeling for anybody. It was just because he wanted, as so many others wanted, that rich treasure and the magic helmet and the magic ring with the curse upon it.
" Now, you see, the boy's mother gave him the pieces of the broken magic sword and told him to keep them for the boy. He knew some-thing about the sword and so he got it into his head that this was the very sword that would sometime kill that dragon. And since this boy was to have the sword, he thought, too, that he might very likely grow up to be the man who would kill the dragon. Do you see, then, why he has kept him and fed him and brought him up so carefully ? It was just because he was so cunning and cruel and selfish that he took good care of the boy. He knew very well that he himself would never dare to go near enough to that dragon for it to breathe on him, but he thought : ' Some day I will give this boy the magic sword and make him go and kill the monster with it, and then I will kill him and get all the treasure, with the helmet and the ring, and then I shall be the ruler of all the dwarfs, of men, of the gods themselves, and of the whole world.'
" So the baby that the dwarf took and tended at first has grown to be this noble, brave, generous young man, and he hates the dwarf as anyone as good and strong as he must hate anything so cowardly and mean and wicked. All these years the dwarf has never told him anything about his mother or how he came to be living with him here in the cave. But now of a sudden the young man asks the dwarf some questions and shows that he means to treat him very roughly if he does not answer them. So the dwarf tells him a little of what I have told you, and to prove that what he says about his mother is true he shows him the pieces of the broken sword.
" The young man gets interested in these at once, you may be sure. ` That was a good sword,' he cries ; ` that is the sword I must have ; mend it for me, dwarf, and mend it quickly. I will go into the forest, and, if it is not done when I come back, you shall be sorry that you worked so badly.'
" Then away he goes to play with the bears, perhaps, in the forest. Now you can be quite sure that the dwarf has not kept that broken sword all these years without ever trying to mend it. He has tried many times, and he can no more put the pieces together than he can look as handsome as the fiery youth who has just left him here frightened half to death. So he simply sits down and lets himself get more frightened till he looks up and finds that he has a visitor.
" The visitor is a tall old man whom he does not know, but I know him ; he is the Father of the Gods. He asks the dwarf to let him sit down and rest, but the dwarf is even more ill-natured than usual and bids him go away and not trouble him. The Father of the Gods re-plies that he might perhaps tell the dwarf something that would be of use to him if he would let him stay. Now you see what a good chance this would be for the dwarf to ask how to mend the broken sword, but he is so cross and surly that he thinks of nothing but how to be as disagreeable as possible, so he says that he knows all that he needs to know and does not care to learn from anybody. But the Father of the Gods persists ; he will give the dwarf his head, he says, if he cannot answer any three questions that he may ask him. This pleases the dwarf, for he thinks it would be a pleasure to him to cut off somebody's head.
What people, then,' he asks for his first question, ' live under the ground ? '
" ` The dwarfs,' says the stranger ; ` one of them had a ring once, by which he ruled all the others.'
"` And what people,' asks the dwarf, `live upon the mountains?'
"` The giants; one of them, in the form of a dragon, has the ring now.'
"' And who live up among the clouds? '
" ` The gods,' says the stranger, ` and the Father of the Gods has a spear with which he rules the world.'
" As he says that, he lets the end of the spear which he carries drop upon the ground and instantly there is a peal of thunder.
" ` Now,' says the stranger, ` as I have saved my head, you must pledge me yours to answer the three questions which I shall ask. Who is the strongest of heroes whom the Father of the Gods loves ? '
" The dwarf answers that he thinks it must be the son of the woman who died long ago in the forest, who will kill the dragon and win the treasure. This is a good answer, and the stranger asks again : `What sword must he use to kill the dragon ?'
" What easy questions these are, to be sure ! The dwarf says at once: ' The magic sword that the Father of the Gods made.'
"Now the stranger looks stern and says : 'But who shall mend the sword that it may be fit for the fight?'
" At this the dwarf is frightened indeed. He cries out in terror that he cannot do it, he knows no better smith than himself, and he does not see how it can be done. ` Then you should have asked me that,' says the stranger, ' instead of foolish questions about things that you knew already. Yet I will tell you : as none but the best of heroes could pull that sword out of the tree where it once stuck, so now none but a hero who knows no fear can put its broken pieces together. Your poor head, which be-longs to me, I will leave to the same hero, and so good-by.'
" The dwarf falls upon the ground in a trembling heap, and so the young man finds him when he comes back to ask if he has yet mended the sword. ` 1 can never mend it,' he cries. Have you ever known fear?'
` Fear ?' he answers ; ' no, what is fear ? Is it something I ought to know how to do, some-thing you ought to have taught me and have not ? Is it a pleasant thing to have or to know or to do ? What is it like? '
" ` I cannot teach you fear,' says the dwarf, but I know one who can, or else you never can learn it. It is the dragon that lives in the cave at the end of the wood. I will take you to him and if he will not teach you fear then you may kill him.'
Very well,' says the young man,' I will go;
The Hero Who Knew No Fear 59 but first mend the sword for me ; I shall need
" 'I cannot mend it for you,' the dwarf answers; ` only one who does not know how to fear can do that.'
" ` Then I must do it myself,' says the young man, and he sets about it at once.
" The fire on that forge has never been so hot and the fire here on our hearth has never been so bright as now when the young man who knows no fear blows the bellows. While the coals under that eager blast shine redder and redder and then whiter and whiter he begins filing the pieces of the sword to powder. The dwarf cries out to him that that is not the way to mend a sword ; but this is not a common sword, and the dwarf has shown well enough al-ready that he knows nothing about mending it. So the young smith pays no attention to him, but goes on with his work. In mending magic swords, just as in some other things, knowing how at the start does not count for so much as not knowing any fear.
" So without any fear the young man melts the filings of the sword with the splendid fire which you can surely see just as well as any-body, and pours the melted metal into a mould of the shape of a sword blade. By this time the dwarf has found that it is of no use to interrupt him and has begun to think about his own work. When the dragon has been killed, he thinks, the hero will be hot and tired, and then he will offer him something to drink. It will be poison, the hero will die, and then he, the poor dwarf, who has worked and waited all these years for this day, will have all the treasure, with the magic helmet and the ring. So he sets himself to brewing the poison by the very same fire that the young man is using to forge his sword.
" And now the young man has heated the sword again and shaped it with hammers and cooled it with water, he is sharpening and polishing the blade and fitting it to the hilt, and now at last he holds it in his hand and it is done. He has forged the magic sword and has proved his right ; he is the true hero, the hero who knows no fear. And is there anything that such a hero loves better than a good sword ? Yes, to be sure ; but to this hero the time for that has not come yet, and he has never felt such delight as fills him now when he looks along the bright, smooth, keen edge of this blade. Oh, the sword was not like this before it was broken. Some-times people say that beautiful polished things are like mirrors, but this sword is like a flame. It burns and twinkles as he holds it and turns it in his hand. I can scarcely see of what shape it is, for now it shines like a straight beam of light, now, as he twists it, there is a flash in a half circle, like a scymitar, and again the point alone gleams out and flashes, as if it would find its own way to the heart of a foe, with no hand to guide it. He swings the sword above his head, as he did the other that the dwarf made for him, and strikes it upon the anvil. And this time the anvil falls in two as if it were made of paper, and the sword glitters and shines and shimmers in the joy of its magic sharpness and strength.
" Now that the sword is ready, the dwarf leads the young man away through the woods, a long journey, to a place where he has never been before, to find the dragon. You see that deep, dark hole under the sticks ; that is the dragon's cave in the side of the mountain. Just a little light shines at the very bottom of it, where the dragon is resting and breathing out fire. ` There is his hole,' says the dwarf ; ` just wait here till he comes out and then kill him. Look out for his teeth or he will catch you and eat you ; be careful about his breath, for it is fiery and poisonous ; beware of his tail, for he may wind it around you and crush you.'
" ` I do not care for his teeth or his breath or his tail,' says the young man ; ` I only want to find his heart. Leave me here, and never let me see you again.'
" The dwarf goes away and the young man sits down on the grass to wait for the dragon.
You see, since he knows nothing at all about fear it does not seem to him such a great thing to kill a dragon. He does not care much whether he kills it or not, and he is in no hurry about it. So he sits on the grass and looks at the gray old rocks and the bright young flowers about him, sees the golden sunlight falling in little spots and flecks through the branches, feels the cool, fresh morning air, and hears the soft rustle of the trees and the singing of the birds. Most of all, he listens to the birds that flutter about in the branches above him, as the sparks hover over the fire there, before they fly away up the chimney, and in particular to one bird, right over his head in the tree. It sings so loudly and so clearly that it seems to be talking to him, only, of course, he cannot understand what it says. He has wished for a long time that he might have some better company than the ugly dwarf, and he thinks now that he should like to talk with the bird.
" If he cannot understand the bird, perhaps the next best thing would be to make the bird understand him, so he makes a pipe out of a reed and tries to play upon it something like the bird's song. I don't know what he thinks he is saying to the bird with his reed, and he seems not much pleased with it himself, for he throws it away and blows a ringing, echoing blast on his horn instead. And now he gets an answer, for this time he has awakened the dragon, and it comes out of its cave to see what is making so much noise so early in the morning.
" Oh, but it is an ugly-looking monster ! It is something like a snake, but more like a giant lizard. It has scales all over its body and it has a long, shiny tail. It walks clumsily, be-cause its legs are too small for it, and writhes and wriggles itself along, raising its head now and then to look about, and breathing out red fire and black smoke like a blast from a furnace. When its poisonous breath has blown this smoke away for an instant, it shows two rows of teeth like knives and a long forked tongue like a snake's, and its jaws are opened wide enough to take the young man into them and bite him into a dozen pieces at one snap. Surely if he is ever to learn what fear is now is his chance.
" He sees all this just as plainly as I see it here in the fire ; but do you think he is afraid ? Why, he simply laughs at the monster. ' A pleasant-looking fellow you are,' he says ; ` can you teach me what fear is? If you cannot, I shall prick you with my sword to make you think about it.'
" Now, this dragon can talk just as well as it could when it was a giant, so it begins to get angry and tells the impudent young man to come on and see what he can do with his little tailor's needle of a sword. He does not have to be asked twice, and in a minute there is just as lively a fight as you ever saw. The dragon tries to breathe fire upon the hero and scorch him up to a black cinder, but he does not want to be a cinder and he runs around to the dragon's side. Then the dragon tries to catch him with its long slimy tail, so that it may crush him to a jelly, but he does not want to be a jelly either, so as soon as the tail comes near enough he gives it a terrible wound with his sword, and then runs back in front of the dragon. The monster gives a dreadful roar as it feels the wound, and raises its head and breast high up in the air, striking at the hero with its long, sharp claws and trying to throw the whole weight of its body upon him. This is just what he has been watching for, and as the dragon lifts itself before him he drives his sword clear through its heart.
" Then he springs lightly away again, as the dragon, with another horrible bellow, falls down and rolls over upon its side. ` It is the curse of the ring that has killed me,' says the dragon, as it dies; ` my treasure is there in the cave; you can take it now, bold boy, but the curse of the ring will bring death to you, as it has brought it to me.'
" So the dragon lies dead. The young hero seizes the hilt of the sword to draw it from the dragon's body, and as he pulls it out the blood from the wound spurts upon his hand. It burns as if it were the fuel of the creature's fiery breath. As he feels its heat he puts his fingers into his mouth, and the instant that he tastes the blood the most wonderful thing of all happens to him. He understands the songs of the birds. The one that he tried to talk with before sings to him again, and now he knows every word. It tells him that in the cave are gold and jewels untold, that with the magic helmet he can do wonderful things, and that with the magic ring he can rule the world. He thanks the bird for telling him such good things, and goes to find the helmet and the ring. In a minute he comes back with them ; he does not want the rest of the treasure, for he knows nothing about gold and cares nothing about it.
" Now the bird sings to him again. ` Be-ware of the dwarf,' it says, ` he means to do you harm. But when he speaks to you the blood of the dragon which you have tasted will help you to understand the meaning that is in his heart instead of the words that he says.'
" So the dwarf comes back, with a drinking-horn in which he has poured the poison, and he offers it to the hero to drink. But with all the friendly words that he tries to speak, he can hide nothing from the young man, who reads his heart and knows that he has kept him and fed him all these years only that he might kill the dragon, and that now he means to poison him and get the gold for himself. There is only one thing to be done with such wickedness as this. He raises his sword and with one blow strikes the dwarf dead.
" You can guess how the bird is delighted at this. It sings to him again : ` I know where you could find the loveliest woman in the world. There is fire burning all around her, and if you could only pass through that you could win her for your wife.'
" `But could I pass through the fire?' he asks.
" ` Only the hero who knows no fear can do that,' sings the bird.
"` Very well, then, I know no fear,' he answers ; `the dragon could not teach it to me; lead me to this woman ; perhaps I may learn it from her.'
"The bird flutters down a little from the tree and then flies away. Did you see the big, bright spark that flew up the chimney?
"Away runs the hero too, following the bird. It is a long journey, through the forest and over the rocks and the mountains, but he is young and eager, and his light heart makes the way almost as easy for him as it is for the bird. Yet the bird is the faster, and by and by it flies so far ahead that he cannot see it at all, and then his way is barred by a mighty form that stands before him. It is the Father of the Gods. The young man does not know what a terrible person he has met, though it is fair to say that if he did know he would not care, and he asks him if he knows where he may find the beautiful woman with the fire all about her.
" The Father of the Gods asks him in turn how he heard of this woman, what taught him to understand the song of the bird, who forged the sword with which he killed the dragon. All these things he answers, and the Father of the Gods is sure that the hero who knows no fear has come at last. Yet one test remains for him. ` There is the place you seek,' he says, as he points to the mountain-top, where the bright flames are whirling and dancing and leaping up into the very sky, ` there is your way, yet not another step upon it shall you go,' and he stretches his spear across the path to keep the young man back.
" Ah, once before that spear was raised against this magic sword. It was a mighty arm that swung the sword then, the arm of the best of heroes living, but the hero had done a wrong, he had helped to break a promise, and he who breaks promises can never break the spears of the gods. His arm had not the young strength of that which masters the sword to-day. Fierce and brave and noble was he, yet he had seen many sorrows, and he knew what fear was ; the glad, free hope of the new hero was not his. The sword then was true of temper, bright and sharp, but the heat and the light of the fire of a new manhood had not been forged into it then, and it was not aflame with the glory of youth and the promise of love. And so, with a sweep and a flash as of lightning, the magic sword cuts through the spear that no other sword ever dared even strike, and as the fragments fall upon the ground, the mountain shakes and shudders, and the thunder rolls and rumbles about its top. The young man is again upon his way. Half sadly and half gladly, the Father of the Gods looks after him. He has come and has passed, the hero who knows no fear; he has not even feared the spear that ruled the world, and now that spear is broken. The time of the gods is near.
"Again I see the whole fire streaming up fiercely and joyously, as it did when the Father of the Gods kissed his daughter to sleep. The winds are still hushed around the mountain top, the flowers in the grass and on the rock still droop with folded petals, and the horse still sleeps upon the ground, for there, in the midst of the fire, on the bank of moss still lies the Daughter of the God, her form covered with her shield, and her face hidden by her closed helmet. Through all these years nothing has changed or stirred in this magic circle except the changing, stirring, restless, watchful fire that rings it around. Now, the time for life has come again. Up from the mountain side comes a ringing horn note, and in a moment the hero strides through the flames that dart and flicker and lick at him, but cannot harm him, and stands in the magic circle gazing in wonder upon its strange sleep.
" ` Who is that,' he thinks, ` covered with the shield ? It must be a knight, but is it not hard for him to lie there all dressed in armor?' He gently takes off the helmet and starts back in surprise as he sees the lovely face and the soft spun gold that falls out upon the moss as he lifts the helmet away. Now he raises the shield and tries to open the armor in front, that the knight may breathe more freely. He cannot unfasten it, and at last he cuts it with his sword, and then he starts again as he sees the light, snowy folds of the garment underneath. This can be no knight, this is a woman. What has he done? What shall he do ? He stands and looks at her ; he has never seen any-thing half so beautiful, and as he looks he trembles ; he fears to wake her and he fears to leave her asleep. Yes, the hero who knew no fear trembles. He has learned to fear from this woman. Not by anything that she has done has she taught him, for she still sleeps.
It is only because she is a woman that he fears. He is no less a hero for that. A man who lived long and never feared at all would be no hero. The time has come to him, as it must come to every man, when it is braver to fear.
" Yet, though he fears, he does not hesitate. He does just the only thing that he possibly could do. He kneels beside her and kisses her lips. Then she awakes. She opens those eyes that are blue with the depth of the sea and the light of the sky. She gazes around her at the rocks, at the trees, at the sunlight, at her hero, and her face is filled with joy. And what a face it is ! No longer as it was before. At her father's kiss the goddess slept ; her hero's kiss awoke the woman. Her face is as clear, as pure, and as radiant as before, but soft and gracious and gentle ; her eyes are as full of light as they were, but there is tenderness in them too ; her lips are as calm and beautiful, but they are all sweetness ; what was still and stern and placid is full of sympathy, kind, and loving.
"The flowers lift up their heads and open to look at her ; the horse neighs to say that he is awake again and knows her ; the little winds come back and murmur softly at first among the leaves ; then they get bolder and kiss her cheek and lift her hair and shake it out to the light, and whisper to her hero and ask him if he saw any gold like that in the dragon's cave. He has never seen any woman before, yet he knows that in all the world there cannot be another such as this. She has seen many he-roes, yet this is he for whom she has waited so long. Each knows all the depth of the other's thoughts, and so they stand and gaze each into the other's eyes and into the other's heart."
" And is that all ? " said the child. " It ends just like ` The Sleeping Beauty,' doesn't it ? "
"No ; just here it is like ` The Sleeping Beauty,' but we shall see more some other time. This is the end for the night."