The Moral of the Metalmancer

One chilly Autumn’s day, the Metalmancer was busily at work crafting things in his dark laboratory deep underground, when the noise of a great weeping and lament from someplace not very far away, yet not very near, began to disturb him at his work. It was the fairies who lived in the woods that grew above him, lamenting the coming of winter, as was their yearly custom. The Metalmancer did not know this, however, for he lived deep underground, where it was always warm because of the fires of his forges, and he had no windows and so took no notice of day and night, nor kept a calendar to mark the passing of seasons; he just worked, ever busy, inventing things and copying things and making still other things, all to sell to the men in the towns nearby. All he knew about the fairies was that, from time to time, they made a great fuss and wept and wailed and played mournful tunes on their pipes and fiddles, which distracted him and kept him from working as he liked.

Well, on this day, he got full fed up with their noise. Sighing many an exasperated sigh, he set his tools and his work aside and went and fetched his domesticated mantis and hitched her to his chariot (pausing, of course, to consult his enchanted mirror about the weather, to make sure it was well and truly cloudy outside, for he was very allergic to direct sunlight and would turn to rusted iron wherever it touched him). Then he rode forth from his laboratory, passing through each of his three gates in turn. His first gate had once been covered in glittering copper, but had turned green and blue with time, for he had no-one to polish it. The second gate had once been sheathed in baleful bronze, but was now dark and brown, for he had no-one to burnish it. And the third gate, highest up and closest to the world, was made all of steel, and it was dull and cold. Through each of these the mantis pulled his chariot, up and up and up the long dark tunnel and out into the forest above.

The first people he met was a troop of little elves, crying and singing farewell to a flock of red-breasted robins that was departing for warmer lands. These fairies were dancing somberly upon the green hill among tufts of tall grass, or flitting up on clear wings to throw big wreaths woven of chrysanthemums as high into the air as they could. If they managed to throw a wreath just so, one or another of the robins would dive down towards it and shoot through it with his wings held against his body, just like a dart, and then fly back up to join the main procession.

“Confound it all!” grumbled the Metalmancer, driving up to to them in his chariot which the mantis drew, “what is the reason for all this terrible noise?”

tck, krick, krrrr!” said the mantis, turning its head around in funny ways so as to examine the elves with both its enormous multifaceted eyes.

Then of course all the elves stopped their songs and cries in fright. But when they saw that the mantis was harnessed securely, and the servant of a grumpy bearded gnome not much bigger than themselves, they were at last persuaded to exclaim in many voices:

“Can’t you see we are lamenting that our friends are flying away south for the winter!”

“Is that all!” answered the clever Metalmancer. “That can be easily mended!” And standing up to his full height, all four inches of it, he waved his magic walking stick – which was all made of knobbly iron, just like a real walking stick – and three of the robins passing overhead were instantly transformed by his art into perfect little metal figurines, exactly like robins. Their backs and wings were made of darkest bronze, feather upon feather, and their speckled breasts were gleaming copper. Their yellow beaks were changed to gold and their black eyes to flecks of iron. But of course they could no longer fly, but fell; and the Metalmancer urged his mantis to raise itself on its four hind legs and catch them as they fell. The mantis, being an excellent hunter, lunged upwards and caught all three – one in his fearsome mandibles and one in each great claw. But mantises, I am sorry to say, are not very good at catching things gently. Misjudging her own strength, she shattered all three figurines.

At once the elves began to wail twice as loudly as ever. Casting themselves down upon the earth, they wept bitter tears for their friends, the robins, who had just been killed.

“Why, o why did you not leave them alone!” they rebuked the Metalmancer. “They would have come back to us in the spring, but now they will never more chirp sweetly or fly freely or hatch chicks from blue-shelled eggs!”

At that he grew very indignant and purple in the face. “Well! I’m sure I’m very sorry that they broke,” he said, in that tone of voice that is used only when one is not sorry at all, but feels one should apologize anyway, “but you can’t pretend you told me they’d be coming back, and anyway I was only trying to help!”

But, as he could barely make himself heard over the noise of the fairies crying, he gave up and went on his way, shaking his head and more irritable than before.

Soon he came upon another troop of fairies, all joining hands in a long line and marching solemnly around a pond. They looked at one another with big, sorrowful eyes, and took turns uttering loud sighs filled with longing.

“What is the problem here?” demanded the Metalmancer, reigning his mantis to a halt. “I see no birds flying south!”

tck, krick, krrrr!” said the mantis, settlings its wings.

At first the fairies only blinked at him, then at last one said: “O! We are lamenting about our friends the fishes and the turtles, who will go to sleep on the bottom of the pond and the mud and the water will freeze and we will not be able to see one another, or even our own reflections, because of the cloudy ice!”

At this the Metalmancer actually laughed. “Is that all!” he said, chuckling cleverly. “What a silly thing to care about! But fear not, and cease your solemnities! I can enchant the water so it will be clear through and through!” And, taking a piece of silver from his purse, he sent it skipping deftly across the pond with a flick of his fingers. One, two, three times it skipped! At each spot where it struck the water’s surface, the ripples spreading out gradually to the edge of the pond transformed all the water to mirrored glass. The fish and turtles, which had risen near the surface to bid farewell to their friends the fairies, were caught fast and could not move in the slightest.

Immediately when they realized what had been done, the fairies sent up a howl of grief and began crying twice as loudly as the others had been about the metal robins.

“Why, o why did you not leave the pond alone!” they exclaimed. “In the spring it would have thawed, and our friends would have woken up and swum about and played games with us again! But now they cannot even move, and we can never drink from the pond or swim in it!”

At this pronouncement the Metalmancer rolled his gnomish eyes, and shrugged his arms with an air of long-suffering. “Foolish people! How was I to know that all would be made right again in the spring, the way you were carrying on? After all, I only meant to help!”

With that he climbed back into his chariot and slapped the reigns upon the mantis’ back and drove off in a glowering fury.

Before long he came upon the largest group of fairies of all, singing and playing farewell songs, and making toasts with mugs of foaming beer, and reciting poems and chants and odes more loudly than any of the others had been. They were arrayed all up and down an enormous old oak tree that grew there in the deeps of the wood, wearing acorn-caps for hats that were too big for their heads and darting here and there among the branches. Its large leaves had just begun to turn orange and brown, but had not yet fallen to the forest floor.

“What can it be this time!” exclaimed the Metalmancer, leaping from his chariot and tossing the reigns aside impatiently. “Why do you make such a noise!”

tck, krick, krrrr!” agreed the mantis, stamping her four barbed legs as if she wished she might be turned loose to catch one of the fairies for her dinner.

It was some time before the old gnome could make himself understood, for the fairies nearest the ground were mostly drunk, and at least half asleep. Meanwhile the fairies higher up were loudly reciting poems of lament and not keeping to one place for scarcely more than a minute. At last the Metalmancer gathered that they were having this solemn party in honor of the old oak, whose leaves must soon fall and who must shiver through the cold winter, naked and alone, while the fairies sought shelter from the snow among the hemlocks. Upon hearing this, the Metalmancer actually bent double from laughing at them, so that his long beard almost touched the loam, and slapped his hands upon his knees.

Before he had quite recovered himself, he managed to gasp, “Fear not, o people who weep at the silliest things! I, the Metalmancer, know how to prevent the old oak from losing its leaves ever again!”

(You see, he had quite forgotten how disastrously his other attempts to interfere had turned out.)

He stomped over to where a root of the oak protruded from the ground, and stamped upon it. Once, twice, thrice he stamped; at the first stamp the oak’s wood was turned to steel, at the second its bark became scales of brass, and at the third its leaves changed to beaten copper and its acorns to bronze.

The faeries’ wits were rather clouded with drink, but even so it did not take them long to realize what the Metalmancer had done. At once they cried out in rage and grief and shame, and shouted with anger: “How dare you lay a hand upon Grandfather Oak!” (for so they called him), “In the spring he would have flowered, and budded, and put forth new leaves and clad himself in a green robe more splendid than this year’s was, and grown taller than he or any tree in the forest has ever stood before! But now he will be colder than ever all winter, and so hot in the summer that neither bird nor fairy will be able to set foot on him, and so smooth and hard that no squirrel will be able to climb him. And he will produce no more acorns, and raise no more children, and feed no more creatures in all the merry woodland!” And so saying, they snatched up the bronze acorns and began throwing them at the Metalmancer. They were deadly shots, even when drunk, and he was obliged to wave his iron walking stick over his head to fend off the well-aimed missiles and run home as quick as ever he could; for the fairies made certain that his mantis was squashed by falling acorns, and so she was killed without having any dinner, and he had to be quick on his feet and let his beard flap behind him in a most undignified fashion, and so he left in a foul mood and was not even able to argue in defense of his action.

He went straight back to his laboratory, slammed to all the gates behind him, and fashioned himself a pair of earplugs first thing, to block out the noise of the fairies’ lament, which was now thrice as loud as it had been before his misdeeds. Then, safe (as he thought) from the fairies he had angered, he set about fashioning a very grand new chariot, and a marvelous clockwork mantis to draw it. The work took many months, and he did not even get to finish it, and I shall tell you why:

In the spring the earth thawed, and the rains came and made the ground soft, and the storms came and rushed passionately throughout the forest. But the old oak which the gnome had changed to metal could no longer sway in the wind, and its roots could no longer grip the ground the way it had been able to before, and were brittle; and so the great tree fell, and destroyed many smaller trees that were still alive and happy, but unlucky enough to be growing where it had to fall. One of its branches smashed the glass pond to bits no bigger than fairy-tears, and one of its long, long roots pulled out of the ground and tore open the earth above the Metalmancer’s laboratory. Then, before he could get further underground, the sun came out and he was caught in its rays and turned all to rusty iron, and flaked apart in little orange pieces whenever it rained, until there was nothing left of him. So in the end he was paid out for his unneighborly ways, and the fairies danced spitefully around the edge of the pit that had his ruined laboratory at its bottom. But the robins and the pond and the oak did not become unshattered, and every year at Autumn’s end the fairies mourned their memory with a different sort of mourning than that with which they mourned their friends whom they would see again in the spring.

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