Resources on poetry by the poets themselves

Toby and the Wolf

The traditional tale retold

A young miller hereabouts had a dog called Toby, passed down from his father. The old hound was getting long in the tooth, and had grown hard of hearing, so he couldn’t guard the house as well as he used to. The miller neglected Toby, and the servants behaved as their master did. They gave Toby some shoe-leather whenever they passed him, and as often as not forgot to feed him. Toby had such a grim time of it, that he made up his mind to turn his back on the mill and chance his luck in the woods. On the way, he bumped into a wolf, who greeted him, “Nazdar! Comrade Toby! Where are you heading?”

The dog told him what he had to put up with back at the mill, and swore he would stick it no longer.

“Brother Toby,” said the wolf, “you’ve got plenty of years, but precious little nous. Why leave the mill now, in your old age, and scrape a miserable existence in the woods? Twice, when you were young, you saved the mill from bandits, and now I’m hearing how disgracefully you’ve been treated! Take a tip from Wolfie, and go back to the mill and see to it that the miller feeds you properly.”

“Comrade Wolf,” said Toby, “I would rather die of hunger than crawl back there.”

“Don’t be so headstrong, Brother Toby,” said the wolf. “Between us we’ll find the answer to your problems! Now- tomorrow, when the nursemaid comes out to the field that the miller is harvesting, she’ll be carrying his baby son. The moment she puts him down, I’ll sneak up and make off with him. Your job is to sniff out my trail and follow it. I’ll drop the brat in the grass beneath the great oak tree for you to find. Pick him up, take him back to the miller, and he’ll greet you like a hero!”

The next day, the nursemaid went up to the field with food for the harvesters, and in one arm she was carrying the miller’s baby son. When she reached the field, she laid the baby down on a sheaf and started up joking and flirting with the reapers. The wolf crept up, seized the infant, and sped away into the woods.

When the maid saw the wolf running for the trees with the baby in its jaws, she chased after it, sobbing and screaming for help, and too afraid to go home without her master’s child. In the meantime, the harvesters had sent a lad sprinting back to the mill to tell the miller what had happened. Half out of his mind with distress, the miller rushed to fetch the hunter, and the pair of them legged it into the woods. But before they’d got very far, Toby appeared back at the mill, carrying the baby safely in his mouth. The miller’s wife came running out, crying with joy, and she scooped up the baby and lay him in his cot. Then she patted and stroked Toby’s head and ordered that bread and milk be set down before him at once.

When the miller came back and was told how Toby had saved his son, he felt so ashamed that he had neglected the old dog that he swore Toby would have nothing but the best from that day forward. And as the tale of the rescue spread, Toby was given a hero’s welcome wherever he went.

One day, the wolf turned up to see Toby as he lay in the sun at the back of the mill. “Admit it, Brother, how sound my advice was,” began the wolf. “You live in the lap of plenty now, so don’t forget! One good turn deserves another! I haven’t eaten for a week and I need you to help me.”

Toby nodded. Then he said, “No problem, Brother Wolf. One of the maids is to be married tomorrow and the pantry is stuffed full of meat and pastry and other good scoff for the wedding feast. Let’s wait till dark: then we can get into the pantry through the back window and have a feast all of our own!”

So that evening, when darkness fell, the two cronies climbed through the pantry window. They stuffed and supped all night until the wolf grew reckless. “Brother Toby!” he yelled. “I’m so happy, I feel like a good old singsong!”

“You’d better shut up and get out of here quickly,” warned Toby, “or we’ll both be discovered and beaten!”

But the wolf had lost the plot and threw back his head with a wild wolf howl, and his racket could be heard all over the house. The miller woke up and searched every room in the mill before he remembered that the food for the wedding banquet was laid out in the pantry. He went to look and found Toby and the wolf. He snatched up a stick and laid into the two thieves, beating them until the hair flew from their pelts.

The wolf finally managed to escape, but the miller collared Toby and chained him up. In the morning, the miller’s wife pleaded with him to let Toby off the chain, insisting that he must have been led astray by the wolf. So the miller removed the chain but warned Toby to keep well clear of the wolf.

Time passed, and late one night the wolf crept into the mill to persuade Toby to take revenge on the miller for the beating. Toby pointed out that the miller owned a powerful shotgun and could easily shoot them dead. But the wolf wouldn’t be put off, and bragged of his strength and cunning.

“Ach, Brother Toby,” sneered the wolf, “you’re talking like a coward. I’m not going to leave this place with an empty belly. The miller owns a fat old ram. For old times sake, I want you to drive it out of the flock for me. That way, I can kill it easily and eat my fill without any bother.”

Toby remembered the miller’s warning about the wolf. Toby enjoyed his life at the mill now, and he had no desire to chuck it all away. But when he saw how angry the wolf was becoming, he grew scared of him and said, “Brother wolf, the ram would be certain to bleat and the miller will come running. You must stand in front of the sheep pen with your mouth open. When I drive the ram out, you must seize him by the head to stop him bleating and drag him off to the woods sharpish.”

The wolf was all for this and took up position outside the sheep pen. Toby jumped inside and drove the big strong ram towards the eager wolf. But the ram butted the wolf’s butt and the wolf turned a somersault and crashed down in the yard, unable to move. He moaned and groaned, and wheezed, “Brother Toby, the ram has knocked the breath out of my body! Keep him away from me!”

The miller heard the wolf crying. He saw the ram out in the yard and the wolf there too. He snatched up his shotgun and fired at the wolf. But although he hit him in the rear, the wolf managed to drag himself away.

Toby stretched out in his kennel, well pleased at the way matters had turned out. He told himself that he would never listen to the wolf again. But a few days later, what happened but the wolf turned up again at the mill to see Toby. ‘We have to make the miller suffer for shooting at me,” he said. “I have three pellets lodged in my arse. To get even with him, I’m going to destroy his favourite colt.”

Toby pleaded with the wolf not to do this, and said he would have no part in such a revenge. But the wolf bared his fangs at Toby. “I will pin you down and sink my teeth into your scrawny throat if you refuse to help me,” he snarled. “Do what I say this instant or you won’t move from here alive. Drive the colt out of the stable so that I can fall upon it.”

The yard was deserted and Toby knew that he could never outwit the wolf or fight him off on his own. So he went into the stable and untied the colt. Then he called quietly to the wolf, “Brother wolf, make sure you bite the hind legs first!”

The wolf obeyed Toby, and the young horse kicked out at him with all its strength, which was exactly what Toby had planned. The wolf leaped to one side, howling and yowling in pain and rage, for the colt’s hooves had knackered him badly. He made such a row that the miller heard him, and grabbing his shotgun, he rushed out into the yard and blasted the wolf dead.

Toby sighed with relief as he came out of the stable unharmed. The wolf could lead him into mischief no more and would never trouble him again. For the rest of his puff, Toby could look forward to living happy ever after in the sunshine.

FROM BEASTS AND BEAUTIES (DUFFY/SUPPLE/STILL; FABER 2004, ISBN 0-571-22669-8)

© copyright Carol Ann Duffy