Thanks to a tireless awareness campaign on behalf of folklorists everywhere, the dangers of your standard wishes are well-known these days. In the wrong hands, we all know, a wish can go terribly wrong. Now, fictional characters are less likely than ever to lose their temper with talking animals, or accept the gift of a disembodied monkey paw preloaded with three freebies.
Then again, even if the wishes go right, things can get pretty odd.
The history of supernatural requests is a storied one, but some wishes are stranger than others. These bizarre boons are off the beaten track—or, in some cases, flat-out head-scratchers. (Don’t worry; we’ll work out the moral of the story; no self-respecting fairy tale leaves the house without one!)
1. Horticulture Begins at Home
In the German tale “The Carnation,” a queen gives birth to a son with the power of wishing. A palace cook steals the kid and frames the Queen for criminal negligence. While she lingers in a tower prison with only angels to feed her, the cook makes the kid his ward, and the kid grows up making his fake dad’s every wish come true, like a palace (sure) and a young girl as a companion (huh).
As the years pass, the cook gets paranoid that the kid will someday wish to see his true parents and spoil the game. Like any dad would, he tries to get the young woman to murder her “brother”; instead, she does the old Snow White kill-a-hind fake-out. The young man, remarkably slow on the uptake until that moment, begins to suspect foul play, so he turns the cook into a dog (sure) and the frightened young woman into a carnation (huh) and heads back home. He goes to work for his real father the King until he’s summoned for his good work (sure). There he turns the dog and the carnation into humans, and after the cook is murdered, the King sanctions the marriage of the erstwhile brother and sister. He also frees the Queen, who doesn’t want any part of this reunion; she invokes God and dies (huh).
It’s the Platonic ideal of the wish story—someone with unlimited wishes and the uncanny ability to deploy them without unpleasant side effects. And yet, even though nothing spins out of control for the wisher, the wishes get weirder as he executes his revenge plan (which largely hinges on the cook/dog somehow not thinking he’s in trouble until the last second—only in a fairy tale). As usual, no bones are made about the multiple kidnappings, imprisonments, and unwilling sororal shapeshifts, since it’s a Grimm Brothers tale, and they always enjoyed a little intrafamily terrorism.
Weird Wish: Turning someone into a flower against their will so you can cart them home to Daddy.
Moral of the story: Don’t stick your neck out for your jerk brother or he’ll just turn you into a carnation every time he’s pissed at you, and then marry you.
2. All Creatures Great and Small
Another Grimm picking with an odd and roundabout wishing system is the tale of The White Snake (rock horns!). A kitchen servant in the King’s hall steals a piece of white snake from the King’s secretive nightly supper. Turns out the flesh of the snake gives the young man the ability to speak to animals. He harnesses this neato gift to locate a missing jewel of the Queen’s in a goose’s throat, and then uses his reward money to travel the countryside, helping a series of animals—fish, ants, and ravens—who are all in dire straits, and who all promise to return the favor.
Since this is a fairy tale, they all do! (Fairy tale creatures rarely pretend to be out of town when you call in a favor.) Our young hero falls head over heels for a princess, and when he’s tasked with fetching a magic ring at the bottom of a lake, those fish come in handy. The princess, not satisfied, casts a sack of grain into a field and orders him to gather it, which is where the ants repay their debt. Finally, the princess tasks him with picking the apple of life, and the ravens deliver. Having run out of ways to tell him she’s not interested, the princess marries him and he lives happily ever after (no word on how the princess resigned herself to it all).
Aside from the fact that he might have been pretty unpleasant if the princess was constantly setting him impossible tasks to put off marrying the guy, here’s another young gent making the best of his powers, even though this time the wishes are made independent of the power itself; I guess we can take comfort knowing that he performs some good deeds before cashing in on his wishes, which is more than we can say for Boutonniere Jack up top.
Weird Wish: The wishes themselves are pretty standard, if you can look past the fact that nobody whatsoever wanted this guy to marry the princess; the baffling bit is that for a genre that delights in punishing people, this seems like an implicit endorsement of palace embezzlement.
Moral of the story: If you don’t feed your waiters a shift meal, they’ll just take it off the back end.
3. Don’t Go Changing Just to Please Me
The 17th-century Italian fairy tale “Peruonto” follows the travails of a very well-meaning young man who’s roundly chastised for being the stupidest man in all creation by a bunch of villagers who probably have not had a lot of experience with politicians. On his way to get wood for the fire, he sees three men sleeping under a burning sun, and builds a shelter for them. When they wake, they thank him for his kindness and reveal that, since they’re the sons of a fairy, they bestow the power of wishing on him.
Peruonto’s first wish is to ride his firewood home (sure), which brings him to the attention of princess Vastolla, who laughs at his antics. She tells her father she’ll marry only the man who rode the wood (oh, fairy tales, you and your symbolism). Once her dad is done threatening to kill her, he throws a feast at the palace, and Peruonto appears! Then the King seals them both into a wine barrel and throws them into a river (huh).
They’re done for, until Vastolla finds out Peruonto can wish for things, at which point she suggests that maybe he might want to wish them safely on a ship or something. That works, and so the princess has him wish them into a palace, and then has him wish himself handsome and personable (awkward). They live happily ever after, with a brief appearance by a penitent father whom everyone forgives for the Wine Barrel Incident.
This is another story in which kindness is rewarded with wishes, though none of our other heroes has had to suffer the indignity of being asked to wish himself more socially-acceptable. It’s also worth noting that even though we have yet to see a single woman being gifted with wishes herself, Vastolla worked that ability like rent was due.
Weird Wish: “Wish yourself to be less terrible” is pretty much the harshest wish we’ve ever heard.
Moral of the story: All the wishes in the world won’t make you any smarter (unless you wish yourself smarter, in which case, best to do that before your wife brings it up).
The power of wishes in fairy tales is a potent one, beyond the obvious plot-enhancing opportunities (and the universal satisfaction of turning an annoying family member into a dog). It’s worth noting the subtext of all these wish-centric stories; the protagonists are usually from a humble beginning, and the clout of their wishes allows them to escape their social status, triumph over their enemies, or internalize the qualities of royalty. In that case, a wish is never just a wish, which makes the origins of these stories a little clearer, even though the execution sometimes veers into the realm of sororal horticulture.