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It takes insight to understand the suffering of wild or strange creatures.
The hero of this tale is a boy who takes pity on a Wild Man kept in a cage in the courtyard of a castle. He risks his life to set him free, only to meet him later on, alone, in the woods.
This story has been told many times, in slightly different ways. The Brothers Grimm called their version “Iron Hans” and and Andrew Lang called his “The Hairy Man”. This is Bertie’s version, which follows the original plot, but which puts a little more emphasis on the themes – such as the indignity of the captive Wild Man, and the boy’s initial panic at the moment of success.
Read by Elizabeth. Version by Bertie. Duration 18.43.
Proofread by Claire Deakin.
There are many curious things in nature, and outside it too. Take for example the wild man of this story – the scientists said he was a relic of a past age, the soothsayers that he was the creation of an evil wizard, but the peasants saw him simply as a devil. He was kept in the courtyard of the prince’s castle. The people from the towns and villages around about came to see him. Some bad boys prodded him through the bars of his cage with sticks, but the wild man was no longer ferocious. He sat in a daze, with his back straight, and his great hairy arms hanging by his side. He did not even snarl as he used to, he merely grunted when he was particularly bothered by flies or fleas, or the poking of sticks. One or two ladies of the court remarked how strange it was that his dark, deep-set eyes seemed almost thoughtful at times.
He had not always been held captive in a cage. He had lived in the forest, where even the wolves were wary of him. He ate berries and fish, and never harmed a human being, except when he accidentally scared the wits out of a poacher, or when he was attacked. His harmlessness did not stop the rumours about him. The villagers claimed he stole their goats and hens, and even that he took babies from their cribs. At first the prince dismissed these reports for what they were – the superstitions of the simple-minded. But then one day a royal huntsman cornered the wild man in a cave. Instead of killing his quarry, the hunter received a terrible mauling with tooth and claw. He barely made it back to the castle alive. After that, the prince had to believe in the wild man.
The prince offered a fair reward to anyone who might capture the creature, dead or alive. Many tried to trap, shoot, or spear him, but for a long time no one met with success. Eventually, one night, the ferocious fugitive fell by chance into a bear pit. It had been dug a long time before by a circus performer, who had hoped to capture a cub and train it for his act. The wild man hurt his ankle in the fall, was caught up in the net at the bottom of the pit, and struggled in vain to climb up its steep walls. He remained there for several days, while he grew weak and weary. Eventually he was found by an old peasant, who immediately called his four sons. They hurled rocks at the wild man to make sure that he behaved, and then they hauled him up in the net, before binding him further with rope. That was how this curious captive came to be caged in the courtyard of the prince. The old man’s family received a rich reward, though it brought them no happiness, as they quarrelled violently over how to divide it among themselves.
Few took pity on the wild man. Why should they? Most found their own lives to be hard enough, without worrying about a devil in a cage. Besides, it is not natural to pity what you fear. But a boy who worked in the palace kitchens looked into the eyes of the beast and saw sadness there. He could not read, and therefore did not understand the sign that warned, “Keep back or be bitten.” He reached through the bars of the cage and held out a piece of sweet meat. The wild man, who had seemed almost asleep, immediately seized the boy’s hand, and yanked his arm until his shoulder was hard up against the bars. But his grip, although firm, did not crush the boy’s bones as it could have done, and his claws did not break his fair skin. His powerful jaw swivelled, his thick black lips curled, and the boy saw his yellow teeth and fat red tongue far closer than he might have wished.
Then, the wild man said, in a low rough voice, “You are the only one with a heart. You are my only hope. Bring me the key to this cage.”
The boy could do barely more than nod, and was immensely relieved to receive his hand back. He ran off, not knowing what he intended to do. He had heard it said that the key to the cage was kept under the pillow of the princess. He could not imagine an opportunity to steal it from such a place, until a few days later when he was sent on an errand to the private quarters of the castle. As he passed the royal bedroom, he decided to sneak inside. If by chance he was caught, he would say that he had a message for the chambermaid. He was in luck as nobody was in the room. He slid his grubby hand beneath the silken pillow, and felt the key.
This is how the boy freed the captive: He walked by the cage in the courtyard with his hands behind his back tightly holding the key, and making sure that nobody was looking, he turned around and dropped it through the bars onto the straw. In the morning, the wild man was gone.
The boy had not anticipated the scandal and the furore that the wild man’s escape would unleash. Everyone in the castle was gossiping about who might have been the thief and the traitor who had stolen the key from under the pillow of the princess. The prince announced that each and everyone of the servants would be questioned by the soothsayers, and if their magic suspected a lie, there would be a further test by torture. The boy grew greatly afraid for his life, and at the first opportunity, he ran away to the forest.
The dark forest was hardly a less threatening place than the castle, however. If the wolves did not make short work of the boy, then the cold and the rain would surely do for him before too long. He crawled into a hole between some boulders for shelter, and in the morning he awoke to find that entrance to his cave was being watched over and guarded by none other than the wild man himself.
“Friend,” said the beast. “You have helped me, and now I shall help you. I have a store of secret treasures, and I shall give freely from them. First you must pass a test to prove that you are pure of heart.”
He led the boy to a spring, and told him that he must spend the day sitting by it. On no account, no matter how hot or thirsty he became, should he touch the water in the spring. Anything that came into contact with the liquid would turn instantly into gold. When he had given these instructions, the wild man left him.
For most of the day, the boy did exactly as he was told. But towards evening, as he placed a berry in his mouth, a wasp stung him on his finger. The bite burned like fire, and the boy instinctively dipped it into the cooling water. That instant, his finger became gilded with gold. In panic, he ran his hand through his long hair, and some drops sprinkled it, and that too turned to gold.
When the beast returned, he saw instantly that the boy had broken his word.
“I am disappointed,” he said. “You must go out in the world by yourself; but if after a year has passed, you are in need of my help, you may call for me.”
The following morning, the wild man escorted the boy to the edge of the forest and set him on his way along the road. The boy tramped on wearily but safely until he reached another castle. There he applied for work and was granted a job in the garden.
The boy always wore a bandage on his hand, and a scarf around his head to cover his gilded affliction. One day, the daughter of the prince of this castle was passing through the garden, and said to him, “Do you not know that you should take your hat off in my presence?”
The boy bowed and apologised to the princess, saying that he could not bare his head because it was scabbed terribly.
“Never mind,” said the princess. “Bring me flowers to my room every morning.”
Every day, the boy chose the most beautiful flowers from the garden and delivered them to the room of the princess. He had special dispensation not to remove his head gear as he entered her room.
A year went by, and the princess viewed the boy with great favour, and thought it a pity that his head and hand were so afflicted that he did not dare show them to the world. The boy with the golden hair beneath his scarf began to regret that he was too lowly to befriend this beautiful young woman.
At that time, a war broke out with the neighbouring princedom, which happened to be where the boy had come from originally. Now he saw his chance to distinguish himself, and to advance his position. One day, at sunrise, as he stood alone in the garden, he called out, “Wild man, if you can hear me now, help me as I once helped you.”
In an instant the boy saw that a dark horse was chomping the grass on the lawn. As he lifted his foot to walk towards it, his leg felt stiff and heavy, and he realised that he was wearing a suit of black armour.
In this guise, the boy fought with the prince’s army, and distinguished himself in battle for his conspicuous valour. When the fighting was over, the prince commanded the mysterious black knight to come forward and to receive a great reward. He had in mind the hand of his daughter, the princess, in marriage. But when the opportunity for honour arose, the boy felt shy and afraid. He could not believe that such good luck should happen to him. He felt a terrible foreboding that he would be exposed as a lowly gardener and punished, and with sudden panic in his heart, he dug his spurs into the side of his charger and rode off. He returned to his station in the garden. Only the Princess noticed that he had ever been away.
The prince celebrated his victory with a great banquet for the knights who had fought for him. At the height of the feasting, he called all to order. He announced that he was about to throw a golden arrow up into the air, and any bachelor who caught it would win the the hand of his daughter. It so happened that the boy was helping the servants at the table, for they were especially busy that evening. When the prince threw the arrow, it flew over the heads of all the knights, and straight towards the boy and he caught it. He only intended to be helpful, but in doing so, he committed a grave offence.
The prince bellowed, “How dare such scum lay claim to the hand of my daughter,” and the guards came forth to seize him.
The boy called out, “Oh wild man, help me now as I once helped you,” and that instant he was again clothed in the black armour of the knight who had won the battle. His horse came into the the banqueting hall, and the boy climbed up onto the table, and mounted his charger. He took up the reins and was about to clatter out of the castle and to make his escape, when the prince called out, “Wondrous and mysterious knight, do not leave, stay and marry my daughter.”
This time the boy did not run away from good fortune. The guards helped him down from his charger, and he knelt before the prince and his daughter, removed his helmet, and his long, glittering hair fell down over his shoulders. The wedding was announced for the following day. The boy did not forget his wild and strange helper. He called out to him, “Wild man. Come now and be a guest at my wedding, for it is to you that I owe all my happiness.”
An hour before the wedding, a strange, hairy and ferocious beast turned up at the gates of the castle. The boy gave orders that he was to be treated as his best man and guest of honour. For the rest of his life, good fortune smiled upon the boy, who later became the prince of that land, and who lived and reigned in great happiness along side his wise and fair princess.