Unfinished and Endless Stories

folktales of Aarne-Thompson-Uther types
2250, 2251, 2260, 2271, 2300, and 2301
translated and/or edited by

D. L. Ashliman

© 2000-2010


  1. Three Wise Men of Gotham (England).

  2. The Tail (Scotland).

  3. The Chest With Something Rare In It (Norway).

  4. The Little Story (Poland).

  5. The Golden Key (Germany).

  6. Jack a Nory (England).

  7. Mary Morey (USA).

  8. The King and His Storyteller (Petrus Alphonsi, Disciplina Clericalis).

  9. The Narrow Bridge (Germany).

  10. The Story That Never Ends (Czechoslavakia).

  11. A Storyteller of Messer Azzolino (Italy).

  12. The Treasure (Italy).

  13. The Shepherd (Italy).

  14. The Endless Tale (England).

  15. Sancho's Story from Cervantes' Don Quixote (book 2, chapter 20).

Return to D. L. Ashliman's folktexts, a library of folktales, folklore, fairy tales, and mythology.

Three Wise Men of Gotham


Three wise men of Gotham,
Went to sea in a bowl:
And if the bowl had been stronger,
My song would had been longer.

The Tail


There was a shepherd once who went out to the hill to look after his sheep. It was misty and cold, and he had much trouble to find them. At last he had them all but one; and after much searching he found that one too in a peat hag [bog] half drowned. So he took off his plaid, and bent down and took hold of the sheep's tail, and he pulled! The sheep was heavy with water, and he could not lift her, so he took off his coat, and he pulled!! But it was too much for him, and he spit on his hands, and took a good hold of the tail and he PULLED!! And the tail broke! And if it had not been for that, this tale would have been a great deal longer.

The Chest With Something Rare In It


Once upon a time a little boy was walking down a road. After he had gone a piece he found a chest. "For sure there is something rare in this chest," he said to himself. But however he examined it, he found no way to open it. "That is very strange," he thought.

When he had gone on a piece he found a little key. So he stopped and sat down, and he thought it would be good if the key fit the chest, for there was a little keyhole in it. So he put the little key into his pocket. First he blew into the key's shaft. Then he blew into the keyhole. Then he put the key into the keyhole and turned it around. "Snap!" went the lock. And then he took hold of the lock, and the chest opened.

And can you guess what was in the chest? --

It was a calf's tail.

And if the calf's tail had been longer, this tale would have been longer as well.

The Little Story


A peasant plowed once around, and he found nothing at all. Then he plowed around again, and he found a chest. Then he plowed around once again, and he found a key to the chest. He opened the chest and found nothing but mouse tails in it. And if the mouse tails had been longer, my story would have been longer.

The Golden Key

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm

Once in the wintertime when the snow was very deep, a poor boy had to go out and fetch wood on a sled. After he had gathered it together and loaded it, he did not want to go straight home, because he was so frozen, but instead to make a fire and warm himself a little first. So he scraped the snow away, and while he was thus clearing the ground he found a small golden key. Now he believed that where there was a key, there must also be a lock, so he dug in the ground and found a little iron chest. "If only the key fits!" he thought. "Certainly there are valuable things in the chest." He looked, but there was no keyhole. Finally he found one, but so small that it could scarcely be seen. He tried the key, and fortunately it fitted. Then he turned it once, and now we must wait until he has finished unlocking it and has opened the lid. Then we shall find out what kind of wonderful things there were in the little chest.

Jack a Nory


I'll tell you a story
About Jack a Nory,
And now my story's begun.
I'll tell you another
About Jack and his brother,
And now my story is done.

Mary Morey


I'll tell you a story
About Mary Morey,
And now my story's begun.
I'll tell you another
About her brother,
And now my story's done.

The King and His Storyteller

Petruse Alphonsi, Disciplina Clericalis

A certain king had a storyteller who told him five stories every night. It happened once that the king, oppressed by cares of state, was unable to sleep, and asked for more than the usual number of stories. The storyteller related three short ones.

The king wished for more still, and when the story-teller demurred, said, "You have told me several very short ones. I want something long, and then you may go to sleep."

The storyteller yielded, and began thus: "Once upon a time there was a certain countryman who went to market and bought two thousand sheep. On his way home a great inundation took place, so that he was unable to cross a certain river by the ford or bridge. After anxiously seeking some means of getting across with his flock, he found at length a little boat in which he could convey two sheep over."

After the storyteller had got thus far he went to sleep. The king roused him and ordered him to finish the story he had begun.

The storyteller answered, "The flood is great, the boat small, and the flock innumerable; let the aforesaid countryman get his sheep over, and I will finish the story I have begun."

The Narrow Bridge


Once upon a time there was a shepherd who had a large, large herd of sheep which he was moving over hill and dale, far out into the world. They came to a deep body of water, over which there was fortunately a bridge. However, the bridge was tiny and narrow, so that only a single sheep could go across it. And another sheep could not even step onto the bridge until the sheep in front was all the way across, or the bridge certainly would have broken. Just think how long it will take until all of the many, many sheep have crossed over.

So, you see, we must wait until they are all on the other side with the shepherd, and that will take a while yet, and then I will continue with my story about the shepherd and his large, large herd of sheep.

The Story That Never Ends


(To be told very seriously)

Once upon a time there was a shepherd who had a great flock of sheep. He used to pasture them in a meadow on the other side of a brook. One day the sun had already set before he started home. Recent rains had swollen the brook so that he and the sheep had to cross on a little footbridge. The bridge was so narrow that the sheep had to pass over one by one.

Now we'll wait until he drives them all over. Then I'll go on with my story.

(When children grow impatient and beg for a continuation of the story, they are told that there are many sheep and that up to this time only a few have crossed. A little later when their impatience again breaks out, they are told that the sheep are still crossing. And so on, indefinitely. In conclusion:)

In fact there were so many sheep that when morning came they were still crossing, and then it was time for the shepherd to turn around and drive them back again to pasture!

A Storyteller of Messer Azzolino


Messer Azzolino had a storyteller whom he made tell him tales during the long nights of winter. It happened that one night the storyteller had a great desire to sleep, while Azzolino urged him to tell tales.

The storyteller began a tale of a countryman who had a hundred byzantines [ancient coins] of his own which he took with him to the market to buy sheep at the price of two per byzantine. Returning with his sheep he came to a river he had passed before much swollen with the rains which had recently fallen. Standing on the bank, he saw a poor fisherman with a boat, but of so small a size that there was only room for the countryman and one sheep at a time. Then the countryman began to cross over with one sheep, and he began to row. The river was wide. He rowed and passed over.

And here the storyteller ceased his tale.

Azzolino said, "Go on!"

And the storyteller replied, "Let the sheep cross over, and then I will tell you the tale."

Since the sheep would not have crossed in a year, he could meanwhile sleep at his ease.

The Treasure


Once upon a time there was a prince who studied and racked his brains so much that he learned magic and the art of finding hidden treasures. One day he discovered a treasure in a bank, let us say the bank of Ddisisa: "Oh," he says, "now I am going to get it out."

But to get it out it was necessary that ten million million ants should cross one by one the river Gianquadara (let us suppose it was that one) in a bark made of the half shell of a nut. The prince puts the bark in the river and begins to make the ants pass over. One, two, three, and he is still doing it.

Here the person who is telling the story pauses and says, "We will finish this story when the ants have finished passing over."

The Shepherd


Once upon a time there was a shepherd who went to feed his sheep in the fields, and he had to cross a stream, and he took the sheep up one by one to carry them over....

What then? Go on!

When the sheep are over, I will finish the story.

The Endless Tale

England (Nottinghamshire)

Once upon a time there was a king who had a very beautiful daughter. Many princes wished to marry her, but the king said she should marry the one who could tell him an endless tale, and those lovers that could not tell an endless tale should be beheaded.

Many young men came, and tried to tell such a story, but they could not tell it, and were beheaded. But one day a poor man who had heard of what the king had said came to the court and said he would try his luck. The king agreed, and the poor man began his tale in this way:

"There was once a man who built a barn that covered many acres, and that reached almost to the sky. He left just one little hole in the top, through which there was only room for one locust to creep in at a time, and then he filled the barn full of corn to the very top. When he had filled the barn there came a locust through the hole in the top and fetched one grain of corn, and then another locust came and fetched another grain of corn."

And so the poor man went on saying, "Then another locust came and fetched another grain of corn," for a long time, so that in the end the king grew very weary, and said the tale was endless, and told the poor man he might marry his daughter.

Return to D. L. Ashliman's folktexts, a library of folktales, folklore, fairy tales, and mythology.

Revised July 13, 2010.