Once upon a time, there were three brothers, and the second brother was screwed.
Fairytales are essentially bound to invoke the Rule of Three. They have to; most fairytales are taut little constructions,. Perhaps in a detective story, if there’s a little more than you expected, it turns out to be a bit of meat hidden by the curve of a bone, or an unexpected marrow. But fairytales are very lean; if it’s a little bigger than it needs to be, most of the time, that addition is gristle. (In any weaving where two out of three brothers go out of the story, Jack Sprat’s wife has eaten them. Feel free to be aware of that, the next time a fairytale character is ‘never seen again’.)
How would it work, otherwise? “There were three Princes in a particular Kingdom. One day a Dragon threatened the Realm. The first Prince went forth and slew it, and all rejoiced, and the other two brothers said, ‘Jolly good show’; THE END.” Not much story, eh?
No—the brothers exist to build the pattern of the tale. We must establish the parameters of this world. How do we know that the path to save a Princess is dangerous? Why should we care about those who walk it? Because fairytales, in their original format (before one adopts them into novels; a perilous process in itself) give us information based on what we see.
“There were three Princes in a Kingdom, and they heard of a beautiful Princess who’d been imprisoned by an Evil Wizard. The firstborn Prince went forth and met a commoner, who begged for bread. “Out of my way, low-born scum,” said the first Prince, and he went onwards until he came to the first guardian on the path, a great and terrible Giant with a gluten allergy. Seeing that the Prince carried bread, she flew into a rage and ate assorted pieces of him, and eventually, he died.
The second-oldest walked on the same path (there was only ever one path in Kingdoms in those days; made it quite impossible to get to anything that lay at right angles and more than about a quarter of a kilometer off said path, but at least it was hard to get lost on the way to Grandma’s house) and encountered the same commoner. “Gimme bread,” said the beggar. “You seen my brother? Little taller than me, same nose, one of only six people in this kingdom who can afford to wear armor, but doesn’t do it anyway?” “Yep, stormed right past me, then I heard screaming.” “Got it,” said the second brother, tossing the beggar some bread.
The second brother encountered the selfsame Giant, who smelled less bread and just kinda waved him on. He walked until he encountered a dog who was tied to a tree, straining hard against the leash. “Free me!” said the dog. “No thanks, you might bite me,” said the second Prince. “I ain’t gonna bite you!” “And how would I know that? You could be rabid or something.”
The dog tossed his furry head. “I’m talkin’ to ya, ain’t I?”
The Prince shrugged. “You’re probably right, but I don’t want to risk it. Tell you what, when I get back, I’ll look into some legislation which calls for more humane leash laws.”
Not much farther along, the prince met up with a vast Dire Wolf. “Did you release my kin?” asked the Wolf.
“Um…yes?” said the brother.
“NOPE!” came the dog’s voice, muffled by distance, but clear. The Wolf then made short shrift of the Prince; it was bloody, so I won’t go into detail, but by “short shrift,” I mean, “killed his ass”.
The youngest Prince came along, showing kindness of spirit by giving away all his food to the beggar, thus easily passing the giant, who might have mumbled something about “showing kindness to those he met,” or maybe not; then he freed the dog who, actually, did bite him, but not terribly hard, and it accompanied him until he got to the Dire Wolf, which let them pass. They arrived at the Evil Wizard’s tower, escaped while the Evil Wizard was busy writing this story, and came back to their home kingdom, where they found the second brother, as Prince Regent, sitting on the throne while their parents were off on vacation.
“I thought you were dead,” said the youngest brother.
“Hello to you, too,” said the Prince-Regent. “Who’s your friend?”
“I’m a Princess,” said the Princess, “and I think this bloke on the floor here, the one who’s eyeing the leg of your throne in a disturbing manner, is a dog.”
“Really, though, I thought you were dead,” the younger Prince persisted.
“Are you mad that I’m not?”
The younger Prince pondered. “I wish our old philosophy professor were here. She’d yell at me, and hit me with her stick for being slow on the uptake, but he’d know what to say.”
An old woman doddered forward; the Royal Court watched carefully, because good doddering is rare these days, and you just don’t see it much in the modern world.
“Kid,” she said, ignoring, as is sometimes the prerogative of tutors, proper courtly protocol, “this is just an accelerated version of the more basic problem that you love your family, but you gain a throne if enough of them die. There are classic mixed feelings here. Traditionally, if you could pick your emotions, you should be sad about their deaths, but happy to gain the throne. Here, it turns out only one brother’s dead, and he wasn’t your favorite. It’s okay to be in a state of shock. You should process your grief at the death of one sibling, and your relief at the life of the other, at your own time; and any feelings of happiness or disappointment about the throne, you might want to consider discussing when you and your brother are alone. You’re fine, if you ask me; this is a difficult situation, and it’s reasonable to want an outside opinion.”
Then she hit the second prince with her stick. “And THAT’S for forgetting I was RIGHT THERE. I’m old, but I ain’t invisible, y’know.”
The Princess spoke up. “It’s very nice to meet you, Your Highness. I am glad that you live.”
“So you’re not mad you’re not Queen?” said the Prince-Regent.
“Mad AS HELL, but also: Not imprisoned by a Wizard; marrying a Prince. That’s not a bad day, as far as the 9th century goes.”
“Brother, I think she’s right. Let’s talk about our feelings in private. I am, of course, glad to see you alive. LONG LIVE THE PRINCE-REGENT!”
“LONG LIVE THE KIN—I mean, the Prince Regent!” shouted the court, who weren’t really used to that particular cheer, but who were pretty good at adopting to court politics.
“So how’d you survive, O Brother Royal?”
“Right. You know that squire I got, Rory?”
The youngest prince nodded. “Only guy in the Kingdom with a name. Hard to forget.”
“Well, you know how he always wanted to have adventures, whereas I always thought that risking your life for uncertain rewards seems kinda dumb?”
The Princess interjected, “I beg your pardon?”
“…of course,” the Prince-Regent said hurriedly, “in this case, the reward is a Princess who is as lovely as she is, hopefully, kind and a decent housemate, seeing as how we’ll all be living under one roof, and I’m sure we’ll get along famously, and I’m very glad you’re here.”
“Thank you.” The Princess curtsied with a certain grace which the Prince-Regent admired abstractly. He’d have to try that, sometime when he was alone; there was a certain slight raising of the head simultaneous to the backward motion of the one leg…but later.
“It thusly happened that Rory wanted to go out and find glory. I have read several histories of the Kingdom, and it’s almost never ruled by the middle child. Middle children seem to go off and get killed a lot. I wanted no part in it. I went to talk to Rory about the whole thing, and he was terribly eager to go. I pointed out that, just based on common sense and experience, he was likely to die, especially if he was taking on the role of Second Prince. I was, I hope, extremely clear on the subject. He seemed to think that he could handle whatever came his way as long as he got to wear Princely raiment.”
(Several courtiers nodded at this. The Royals pretended not to notice.)
“I told him, Lord to Squire, that I thought he would die, and that it was a suicide mission. I will simply say that, with appropriate respect, he disagreed. He went out and acted as he felt I would have, were I in his place; given what happened, I feel vaguely insulted, but also like he wasn’t wrong. I had a narrow escape there.”
The Philosophress leaned in. Everyone in the room recognized her expression; clearly, this would be on the test. “And the moral?” she asked, in a strange, resonant tone they’d never heard before.
The Second Prince looked startled, but the Princess spoke up immediately:
Always be yourself, unless you’re about to be an idiot. Then be someone else.
…and with no further warning, THEY ALL LIVED HAPPILY EVER AFTER.
My name is Jeff Mach (“Dark Lord” is optional) and I build communities, put on events, and make stories come into being. I also tweet a lot over @darklordjournal.