The Three Wishes
From Victorian Literature
Howitt, Mary. “The Three Wishes.” The New Year's Gift and Juvenile Souvenir 3.1 (1831): 1-12. Google Book Search. Web. 17 Mar. 2010.
Mary Howitt was born March 12, 1799, into a strict Quaker household. Growing up as a Quaker in the dawn of the nineteenth century, Mary's early literary influences were limited. To compensate for her lack of books, she gathered inspiration from the household servant's stories and spent her time and thought making up stories of her own. She received formal education for only four years, between the ages of ten and thirteen, when she cultivated a passion for natural history and literature. Soon after, she met William Howitt, who shared her interests and encouraged her involvement in the literary world; they married in 1821, just three years after they had met. Together they had five children who reached adulthood, and six who died at infancy, all of whom influenced her fascination with children's literature.
Although her translations provided the majority of her fame, she successfully wrote fiction as well. Most of her fiction was geared towards a younger audience. These works of fiction involve heavy religious undertones, qualifying them for a position within The New Year's Gift and Juvenile Souvenir--a journal which sought to teach young people moral thought and behavior. In this periodical her works were featured repeatedly in more than one issue.
Howitt's short story "The Three Wishes" is included in the third issue of The New Year's Gift and Juvenile Souvenir. This story places a high value on intellect. "The Three Wishes" challenges traditional images of heroes, glorifying the intellectual rather than the soldier or the orator. Regardless of the childlike simplicity of the story, the importance of the moral lesson extends to all ages. Likewise, this moral proves valuable beyond the Victorian era, even into modern morality.
The Three Wishes
Original Document 
“WELL,” said George, “if I might choose, I’d rather be Julius Caesar than any man that ever lived! He was a fine fellow! He conquered all the then known world—from the pyramids of Egypt, to the Island of Thule—from the most remote provinces of Asia Minor, to the western shores of the Peninsula : in ten years only, he took eight hundred cities, subdued three hundred nations, and left a million of enemies dead upon his fields of battle! Now, he was a hero! And what a glorious thing it must have been, after subduing Britons, Gauls, Germans, and Russians, to return with his triumphant legions, laden with spoil, and leading kings captive, a conqueror through the streets of Rome! I never think of Julius Caesar without longing to be a soldier. ‘He came—he saw—he conquered!’ How famous that was ! I wish I had lived in his days; or, better still, I wish there was another world to conquer, and I were the Julius Caesar to do it!”
“Upon my word,” said Charles, “very well spoken ! but if I might choose, I’d rather be Cicero. I’d rather be an orator, ten thousand times, than a warrior, though he were Julius Caesar himself. Only think, George, when you came to die, how should you like to have the blood of a million of men on your conscience? Depend upon it, it’s not such a fine thing to be a conqueror, after all! But an orator ! his is a glorious character indeed. He gains victories over millions without shedding one drop of blood! Now let us match ourselves, one against the other: you a warrior, I an orator—each the most accomplished in the world. What can you do without your legions and your arms?—With ten thousand men at your back, armed at all points, where, pray, is the wonder that you take possession of a city or a country, weakly defended perhaps, both by men and means? But place me among Savages (provided only I can speak their tongue)—give me no arms—no money; nay, even strip me of my clothes, and leave me, a defenceless solitary being among thousands, and what will follow? I draw tears from the eyes of the stoniest-hearted among them;--they shall give me bread to eat, clothing to wear,--they shall build a house to cover me,--and if my ambition extends so far, they shall choose me for their king; and this only by the words of my mouth! Now who, I ask you, is most powerful, you or I? You think it was a glorious thing for Julius Caesar to pass with his captives through the streets of Rome. I think it was glorious too for Cicero, when, after having exposed and defeated the horrible conspiracy of Cataline, and driven him from Rome, he was borne by the most honourable men of the city to his house, along the streets crowded with thousands of the inhabitants, all hailing him father and saviour of his country! I wish I could be a Cicero, and you might be a Julius Caesar and an Alexander the Great, for me! But come, William,” said he, addressing his older brother,—“who would you choose to be? and what arguments can you bring forward in favour of your choice?”
“I,” replied William, “would choose to be John Smeaton.”
“John Smeaton?” questioned Charles, “and pray, who in the world was John Smeaton?”
“Bless me!” said George, “not know John Smeaton? he was a cobbler, to be sure, and wrote a penny pamphlet to prove how superior wooden shoes are to Grecian sandals!”
“Not he, indeed!” interrupted William, indignantly; “he built the Eddystone Light-house.”
“Oh! yes—yes—to be sure he did! I wonder I should forget it,” replied George. “He was a stone-mason, and had the honour of building a wall!—Upon my word, William, yours is a noble ambition! Why Smeaton only did what any man might do!”
“Not so, either, my good Julius Caesar! There are not ten men in England that could have built that Light-house as well as Smeaton did. It will stand while the world stands! It is a noble proof of the power and ingenuity of man. It defies the almost omnipotent ocean itself, and the other elements can never affect it.
“And now, George, consider Smeaton’s case without your soldierly prejudices. Independently of his work being a masterpiece of human skill, its importance will not be lessened by time. Your conquests, most potent Caesar! are wrested from you in your lifetime, and your successor will hardly thank you for exhausting your country’s treasure and reducing its population, for distant empire, which, as soon as you have left it, rises in insurrection, and almost needs reconquering. Every year makes that work of Smeaton’s additionally valuable; and as the commerce of the country increases, the importance of that wall, as you are pleased to term it, increases also. There’s not a ship that comes into that sea but owes its preservation, in great measure, to that Light-house. Thousands of lives depend upon it; and, when I think of it on a tempestuous night, as I often do, shining out like a star when every other star is hidden, a blessing springs into my heart on the skill and service of that man who, when the endeavour seemed hopeless, confidently went to work, and succeeded.
“But I’ll tell you a story now, about neither Julius Caesar, Cicero, nor John Smeaton, and yet that is quite apropos:—
“There was a certain little city, formerly, that stood by the sea. It was very famous at that time; it had abundance of treasure—twenty thousand soldiers to defend its walls—and orators the most eloquent in the world. You may be sure it could not exist without enemies: its wealth created many, and its pride provoked more. Accordingly, once upon a time, it was besieged. Twelve thousand men encamped round its walls, which extended on three sides, and a powerful fleet blockaded its fourth, which lay open to the sea. The inhabitants of this little city felt themselves, of course, amazingly insulted by such an attack, and determined immediately to drive their audacious enemies like chaff before the wind. They accordingly sallied out, but, unfortunately, were driven back, and obliged to shelter themselves behind their walls. Seven times this occurred, and the enemy had now been seven months encamped there: it was a thing not to be borne, and a council was called in the city. ‘Fight! fight!’ cried the orators; ‘fight for your homes—for the graves of your fathers—for the temples of your gods!’ But in seven defeats, the soldiers had been reduced to ten thousand, and they were less enthusiastic about fighting than the orators expected. Just then, a poor man came forward, and stepping upon the rostrum, begged to propose three things: first, a plan by which the enemy might be much annoyed; second, a means of supplying the city with fresh water, of which it began to be much in need; third—but scarcely had he named a third, when the impatient orators bad him hold his peace, and the soldiers thrust him out of the assembly, as a cowardly proser, who thought the city could be assisted in any way except by the use of arms. The people, seeing him so thrust forth, directly concluded he had been proposing some dishonourable measures—perhaps been convicted of a design to betray the city; they therefore joined the outcry of the soldiers, and pursued him, with many insults, to his humble dwelling, which they were ready to burn over his head.
“Now this poor man, who had never in his life wielded a sword, and who had no ambition to do so, and who was but an indifferent speaker, was, nevertheless, a wise mathematician, and had wonderful skill in every mechanical science then known, which he had the ability, as is common in such cases, to apply admirably to every emergency. But he might as well have had no science at all, for the respect it won him; and though he was a little chagrined that his well-meant proposition had met no better reception, he shut to his doors, sat down in his house, and turned over his schemes in his head, till he was more sure than ever of his success. In the meantime the enemy brought up monstrous battering-rams, crow-feet, ballistae, and all kinds of dreadful engines for the demolishing of the walls, setting fire to the houses, and otherwise distressing the inhabitants. A thousand men were dispatched to cut down a neighbouring forest, out of which they began to build immense wooden towers, from which they began to build immense wooden towers, from which they could sling masses of rock into the city. There was a deafening noise all day and all night without the walls, of deadly preparation. The distress of the besieged was now intolerable, and a truce was eagerly desired. A deputation, therefore, of the most honourable citizens, headed by the most eloquent orators, and preceded by a herald bearing a white flat, went to the camp of the enemy. The orators addressed them in their most powerful, and, as they thought, most soul-touching words; they craved only a truce for seven days; but their words fell like snow-flakes upon a rock,—they moved no hear to pity, and the orators were returned to their city with many marks of ignominy. ‘Go back,’ said they, ‘and our answer shall reach the city before you do.’ Accordingly, every machine was put in motion; arrows, hurled by the ballistae, fell into the streets like hail, and ponderous stones, falling upon the buildings, threatened the destruction of all. The rest of that day, the inhabitants all kept within their houses, for there was no security in the streets, nor, it must be confessed, much within doors. The next day, when the enemy a little relaxed their efforts, the people ventured out—but nothing was heard save lamentations and murmurs. ‘We have no bread,’ said the people; ‘we are dying of thirst; the little corn that remains and the few skeleton cattle, are reserved for the soldiers, while we are perishing in the streets! We will open the gates to the enemy, rather than see our children die thus before our eyes!’ Upon this, the orators again came forth. It was no use mounting the rostrum, the people were sullen, and would not assemble to hear them; they therefore came into the streets, and poured forth their patriotic harangues to the murmuring thousands that stood doggedly together. ‘Will ye,’ they exclaimed, ‘give up the city of your fathers’ glory to their bitterest enemies? Speak!—will ye, can ye do it?’ And the people held up their pale and famishing children, saying ‘These are our answers—these shall speak for us!’ Just at this moment, the poor man, filled with compassion for his townspeople, and suffering, as well as they would, stepped forward. ‘Fellow townsmen,’ said he, ‘listen! There is no need for us and our children to die of hunger;—there is no need for us to deliver up the city. Only do as I say, and we shall have plenty of provision, and may drive our enemies to the four winds.’ ‘What would you have us do?’—said the people. ‘Why,’ said he, ‘for every engine that the enemy bring out, I will bring out one also. We can defy their battering-rams—we can disable their crow-feet—we can sing a shaft to the river, and have water in plenty! Give me also but seven days, three brave men, and the means I shall ask, and I will pass through the enemy’s fleet, visit the cities which are friendly to us, and return with provision to stand out the siege yet ten months longer!’
“‘Try him! try him!’ said they; ‘we cannot be worse than we are!’
“Accordingly, all fell to work at his bidding;—every smith’s shop rung with the sound of hammers;—carpenters worked all day and all night constructing machines which were enigmas to them. There was such a hum of business for two whole days, that the enemy could not imagine what was going forward. Presently, all was ready;—a huge machine, the height of the walls, was raised, furnished with a tremendous pair of iron shears; and no sooner had the enormous crow-foot of the enemy reared itself to pull down a part of the wall, than the shears, catching hold of it, snapped it in two! What a roar of applause there was in the city! and this first successful effort assured them all. The poor man at once obtained the confidence of the city;—all their deadly machines he counteracted; their immense wooden tower he set fire to, by balls of inflammable matter, which he flung in at night; these, exploding suddenly, with horrible cracking and hissing, terrified the enemy almost out of their senses, and, bursting up into volcano-like fires, threatened to consume not only the tower, but the very camp itself. Whilst this was doing, the poor man and his three colleagues passed through the fleet in the twilight, in a small vessel constructed for the purpose, which, floating on the surface of the water, looked only like a buoy loosened from its hold. No sooner were they outside the fleet, than, cutting away one of the enemy’s large boats that lay moored on the shore, and hoisting full sail, by the help of a favourable wind and good rowing, they arrived, by the end of the next day at a friendly city. Here they soon obtained supplies—corn, salted meat, fresh-killed cattle, and everything of which they stood in need. A large vessel was immediately stored and properly manned; her hull was blackened, so were her masts and sails, and, being a good sailer, she reached the outside of the harbour by the next evening. Here they waited till it aws quite dark. Every oar was muffled, and silently as the fall of night, yet swiftly as a bird, they passed through the midst of the fleet, and by the morning they had moored the vessel upon the quay of the city. What a triumph this was! Men, women, and children, thronged down in thousands;—food was abundant;—they ate and were satisfied. But the extent of the poor man’s service was not known when they merely satisfied their hunger;—he had engaged the friendly city to send yet further supplies, with a fleet, which should not only attack the enemy’s ships, but land a body of soldiers to fall suddenly upon the camp in the rear, while the soldiers of the city made a sally on the front. Accordingly, the next day, the sea outside the harbour was covered with vessels. The enemy was in great consternation; all fell out as the poor man had forseen. After very little fighting, the enemy had permission to retire, leaving as hostages three of their principal men, till an amount of treasure was sent in, which quite made up the losses of the siege.
“As you may be sure, nobody after this thought they could honour the poor man sufficiently;—his deed were written in the annals of the city, and ever after he was universally called, ‘The Saviour of his Country!’
“Well,” said William, “what do you think of my story? You see, the poor man, by hi science and skill, could do more for his city than either orators or soldiers.”
“Upon my word,” said both his brothers, in the same breath, “there’s something in it!”
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- ↑ Original document misspelled sat with sate.
- ↑ A military engine used in ancient times, resembling a giant crossbow stretched with cords and thongs, and used to propel heavy bolts and other missiles (OED).
- ↑ A platform, stage, stand, etc., adapted for public speaking (OED).
- ↑ A man-made bank or landing stage, typically built of stone, lying alongside or projecting into water for loading and unloading ships (OED).
Edited by: Call, Ashley section 1, Winter 2010