(Illustration Tatjana Hauptmann, Das Grosse Maerchenbuch, Diogenes Verlag)
Grimm’s Fairy Tale No. 65:
There once lived a king, whose wife had golden hair. She was so beautiful that her equal could not be found in all the world. When she lay ill and knew she would soon die, she called the king and said to him
“When you wish to marry again after my death, do not choose anyone who is not as beautiful as I am and who does not have golden hair like I have; this you must promise me.” When the king had promised it to her, she closed her eyes and died.
For a long time the king was inconsolable and didn’t think about taking a second wife. But finally one of his advisors spoke “Nothing else can be done. The king must marry again so that we have a queen.” Messengers were now sent out far and wide to find a bride who equaled the beauty of the dead queen. But no one in the entire world could be found. Even if she could have been found, there was no one who had such beautiful hair. The messengers returned without having accomplished anything.
Now the king had a daughter who was as beautiful as her dead mother and also had beautiful golden hair. When she was grown, the king gazed upon her and saw that she was similar to his deceased wife in every way and suddenly felt a burning love for her.
He spoke to his advisors “I will marry my daughter because she is the image of my deceased wife and otherwise I will not be able to find a bride her equal.”
When the advisors heard this, they were terrified and said “God has forbidden that a father marry his daughter. Nothing good can spring from this sin and the kingdom shall fall into ruin.” The daughter was even more terrified when she heard the decision of her father. But she held out hope that he would be dissuaded from his intent. She said to him “Before I fulfill your wish, I must first have three dresses. One, as golden as the sun. One as silver as the moon. And one that shines like the stars. Moreover I shall require a coat made from thousands of little pieces of fur and pelt. Every animal in your kingdom must provide a piece of his hide.” She thought to herself “It is quite impossible to do this and I will then bring my father away from his evil thoughts.” But the king did not relent and the cleverest maidens in his kingdom had to weave three dresses: one as golden as the sun, another as silver as the moon and another as shiny as the stars. His hunters had to catch all the animals in his entire kingdom and have a piece of their hide pulled off; from this, a coat was made from the thousands of little pieces of their rough skins. Finally it was all finished. The king had his servants bring him the coat, spread it before his daughter and said “Tomorrow will be the wedding.”
When the king’s daughter saw there was no more hope of turning her father’s heart, she decided to flee. In the night when everyone slept, she got up and took three things from her treasures: a golden ring, a golden spinning wheel and a golden bobbin; she placed the three dresses of the sun, moon and stars into a nutshell, put on the coat made of many hides and blackened her face and hands with soot. Then she commended herself to God and went out. She walked the entire night until she came to an enormous forest. And because she was tired, she crawled into a hollow tree trunk and fell asleep.
The sun went up and she kept on sleeping. She was still sleeping and half the day had passed. Now it happened that the king who owned the forest was hunting there. When his hounds came running up to the tree, they sniffed around it and barked. The king said to his hunters “Go see, what kind of wild animal is hidden there.” The hunters followed the command and when they returned they said “A strange animal is lying in the hollow tree, the likes of which we have never seen before. There are thousands of pieces of fur on his skin. But the animal itself is lying there sleeping.”
The king said “See if you can catch it alive. Then tie it to the wagon and bring it along.” When the hunters touched the maiden, she awoke full of fear and called out “I am a poor child, abandoned by my father and mother. Have pity on me and take me with you.” They replied “A l l e r l e I r a u h, you are good enough for the kitchen. Come along, you can sweep the ashes.” So they placed her on the wagon and drove home to the king’s castle. Once there they gave her a little stall under the stairs where the light of day did not penetrate. They said “You rough little animal, here you can live and sleep.” When she was sent into the kitchen, she had to carry wood and water, make the fire and pluck the feathers from the fowl, prepare the vegetables, sweep the ash and do every manner of lowly work.
For a long time Allerleirauh lived quite pitifully. Oh, you beautiful king’s daughter, what shall become of you! But it happened that a festival was celebrated in the castle. She spoke to the cook “May I go up and watch a little while? I will stand outside the door.” The cook replied “Yes, go ahead, but you must return in a half-hour and carry out the ashes.” She took her little oil lamp, went into her little stall and took off her coat of fur and washed the soot from her face and hands so that her full beauty came to light again. Then she opened up the nutshell and pulled out her dress, the one that shone like the sun. And when she had done all this, she went up to the celebration and all moved out of her way because no one knew her. Everyone thought that she was a king’s daughter. The king approached her, extended his hand out toward hers, and danced with her. He thought deep in his heart “I have never seen one more beautiful.” When the dance was over, they both bowed. When the king looked around, she had vanished. No one knew where she had gone. The guards standing before the castle, were called and questioned, but no one had seen her.
She had run back to her little stall, quickly removed her dress and blackened her face and hands. She put on her coat of pelts and fur again and once more she was Allerleirauh. When she returned to the kitchen and resumed her work of gathering up the ash, the cook said “Leave it be until morning. Cook me now a soup for the king, I want to go upstairs and watch a while.” But make sure you don’t let a single hair fall into the soup. If you do, you shan’t receive any more to eat!”
The cook left and Allerleirauh cooked the soup for the king and made a bread soup, as good as she could. When she was finished, she took from her little stall the golden ring and placed it in the bowl, in which the soup was prepared. When the dance was over, the king had his soup brought to him and ate it. It tasted so good he thought no one had ever made such good soup. But when he got to the bottom of the bowl, he saw a golden ring lying there and could not understand how it came to rest there. He commanded the cook to come before him. The cook was terrified when he heard the order and spoke to Allerleirauh “You must have let a hair fall into the soup. If it’s true, you shall be beaten.” When he came before the king, he asked who had cooked the soup. The cook replied “I cooked it.” But the king answered “That is not true, because it was a different kind and cooked much better than usual. The cook replied “I must admit I did not cook it, instead the rough little animal did it.” The king answered “Go and bring it to me.”
When Allerleirauh came, the king asked “Who are you?”
“I am a poor child, who no longer has a father or mother.”
He asked further “Why are you in my castle?”
The girl replied “I have no skills except for boots to be thrown at my head.”
He asked further “Where did you get the ring, which was in the soup?”
She replied “I know nothing about the ring.” So the king could not find out anything and sent the girl away again.
Some time passed and there was another celebration. Allerleirauh asked the cook as before for permission to gaze on the festivities. He replied “Yes, but come back again in a half hour’s time and cook a bread soup for the king, which he likes to eat.” She ran to her little stall, washed herself quickly and took the dress out of the nutshell, the one that was as silver as the moon, and put it on. Then she went up to the ball and looked like a king’s daughter. The king approached and was happy to see her again and because a dance was just starting, they danced together. But when the dance was over, she disappeared again so quickly that the king could not notice where she went. She jumped back into her little stall, turned herself into the rough little animal and went into the kitchen to cook bread soup. When the king was upstairs, the girl fetched the golden spinning wheel and placed it in the bowl so that the soup covered it. This was then brought to the king, who ate it and it tasted as good as before. He had the cook brought before him and he had to admit that Allerleirauh had cooked the soup. Allerleirauh came once again before the king but she answered, she was only there so that boots could be thrown at her head and that she knew nothing of the little golden spinning wheel.
When the king prepared a feast for the third time, the same thing happened. The cook spoke “You are a witch, a rough little animal who always puts something in the soup so that it tastes so good and the king likes it better than what I cook.” But because the girl requested it, the cook gave her permission to watch the celebration for a certain amount of time. Now the child pulled on the dress that shone like the stars and entered the hall. The king danced again with the beautiful maiden and thought she had never been more beautiful. While they danced, he placed on her finger the golden ring, without her noticing it and he ordered the dance to be quite long. When it was over, he wanted to hold onto her hand firmly, but she tore loose and ran quickly among the guests and vanished before his eyes. She ran as fast as she could back to her little stall under the stairs and because she had stayed too long, far longer than half an hour, she could not take off the dress. Instead she threw the fur coat over it. In her haste, she could not entirely blacken herself. One finger remained white. Allerleirauh ran into the kitchen and cooked the king a bread soup and placed the golden bobbin in the bowl when the cook was gone. When the king saw the bobbin lying in the bottom of the bowl, he had Allerleirauh called. He saw the white skin on her finger and the ring he had placed there during the dance. He seized the hand and held it fast. When the maid wanted to free herself and jump away, the fur coat opened a bit and the dress of stars shone out. The king grabbed the coat and pulled it off. Her golden tresses now fell out and she stood there in full splendor and could no longer hide herself. When the soot and ash had been washed from her face, she was more beautiful than anyone else on earth. The king said “You are my dear bride and we shall never more leave each other.” The wedding was then celebrated and they lived happily until their death.
In August 2009 my husband and I visited one of the prettiest little patches of land (should I say water) near our farmhouse. Some see only a dismal pond, paved over by intersecting roads. But we see a marsh filled with waterfowl, waders and exotic birds. We like this swampy spot because it attracts a variety of wildlife, mainly cranes, herons, different duck species and egrets. On that particular August evening we felt ambitious and not only remembered to take our binoculars but also a spotting scope. The scope turned out to be entirely unneeded because the primary attraction that evening, a family of trumpeter swans (father, mother and two fledglings), was resting at the side of the road. But since we had dragged the scope along, we set it up cattycorner to the birds. The two elder birds soon lifted their heads and began a melancholic song. We watched for some moments in silence, completely engrossed. Lost in the moment, we didn't even notice when a huge yellow Hummer SUV pulled up alongside us. It rolled down the window and yelled out “Get a life!” The tires then screeched and we heard laughter as the vehicle sped off. We packed up the spotting scope and chuckled; we must have looked ridiculous using a telescope-like contraption when we could have driven the car right up to the birds.
But that’s not the end of the story. Several days later when we returned to this favorite spot, instead of finding the swan family, we found swan effigies, that is, numerous stuffed animals in swan shape, hand-drawn signs, pictures and photos at the spot the swans had once frequented. The posters reported that two swans had been killed, even suggesting the birds had been viciously murdered. A $5,000 reward was offered to find the swans’ slayer. It was believed the cygnets had first been lured into the road and then shot by someone. The next morning the adult male was found alive, however because of broken wings and severe injuries this third swan also had to be euthanized.
Township residents went into mourning for their swans and the authorities promised a prompt investigation that would surely lead to prosecution of the culprit(s). But amidst the outcry, some criticism could also be heard. One of the more interesting comments posted on the annarbor.com website was this by a contributor named Jordan: “Raise your fist in anger, but I'm going to say it: They're just swans. They're animals. Yes, it is sad that they won't be there anymore. And if the swans were maliciously killed by people, which seems to be the general, albeit unproven, consensus, then it was a disgusting act. But when I saw that a group had already managed to raise $5,000 for information on the "slaying of the swans," I couldn't really believe it.”
Jordan put it all in perspective: the local food bank was experiencing a critical shortage of food. As more and more people lost their jobs, they were relying on this support and local agencies had reported an increase in demand and ever-diminishing resources to meet the need. Now that was truly something you could get angry about. But the passionate and spontaneous response to an attack on birds was startling.
Most people seemed to believe the swans were intentionally killed. Later the Michigan Department of Natural Resources reported they hadn't died from gunshot wounds but rather from blunt trauma, consistent with having been hit by a car or truck. Regardless of how they received their injuries, the act was premeditated in the mind of the public. The outpouring of grief for the birds was swift. A makeshift shrine appeared on both sides of the road. People brought stuffed swan animals, posted pictures, wrote little prayers, and erected crosses. I guess I had always thought few people actually paid any attention to the birds. But as it turned out, I was only one of many swan-admirers. Many local residents had been following the swan family saga: they watched as the adults first built their nest in the marsh, they looked on as the parents patiently sat on their eggs, and when the eggs finally hatched they saw the nestlings’ heads peeking out from matted straw. Soon carloads of people were stopping to watch the swan family and some even photographed them on their way to work. The swans had become an important part of people's every-day routine, an important element of their landscape.
But what does all this have to do with fairy tales? Folk tradition often likens the swan to an immaculate or faultless person. In folklore the creature is often described as one without blemish, and is often associated with bards or poets. (How sinful then to kill such a creature!) According to myth, the swan portends its own death when it sings its famous swan song. German mythology is filled with swan lore, ascribing magical properties to them (see Swan Mythology on this website). When carefully read, many of the fairy tales presented on this website seem to offer a distinct "fairy tale attitude" toward the natural world and toward animals in particular. A good example of these "fairy tale values" is provided by the stories The Little Ringed Snake and The Fairy Tale of Horse and Fox. Here an inherent respect for animals is evident. This appreciation of nature, some would even say fervent love of the landscape and all it contains, is matter-of-fact in fairy tales. Often there is an invisible inter-connectedness between people, place and thing, which is the whole point of the story. These unseen links are often interpreted as mere dramatic devices, a bit of curious magic or silly enchantment, but actually reflect a much deeper fairy tale ethos (perhaps one might even call it "moral imagination").
Here is one example of what I mean: In popular German folklore, the snake often represents a house spirit or ancestral ghost. Jakob Grimm has suggested these spirits were probably linked to popular notions about ancestors or even ancestor worship. House-snake-as-ancestral ghost would have been understood by the original audience of the tale (just like today most Americans would readily know what is meant the words cellphone or McMansion). Similar to a Tomte, this spirit lived alongside the family, frequently enjoying a separate parallel existence but not perceived by all family members. (In the tale of the Little Ringed Snake, the creature appears as companion to a lonely child but the mother is unaware of its existence). Folk belief emphasized that such beings were actually the heart of the household. Should this creature be harmed, the family, its security and livelihood would also be threatened. In the world of the fairy tale, a thoughtless act of violence toward a helpless being is tantamount to bringing about one's own sudden (and usually dramatic) demise.
So a year later what is the status of the swan controversy? No swan-killers were ever identified. The little shrine at the side of the road has vanished. And I wrote out a check to the local breakfast program for the homeless.
Grimm’s Fairy Tale No. 105, The Little Ringed Snake Version II
An orphan child sat at the city wall spinning. The girl saw a little snake sliding on its belly along the stone wall. Quickly the child spread out her blue-silk kerchief, a thing little snakes love with all their heart (and the only thing to which they are irresistibly drawn). As soon as the creature saw the cloth, it turned around and slithered toward that patch of blue carrying a small golden crown, which it placed there. Then the little snake wriggled away. The girl picked up the glittering crown and saw it was spun from the finest and most delicate golden thread. Soon the snake returned a second time: but when it no longer saw the crown, it crept away along the city wall. It beat its head against the stone until it no longer had the strength to continue. Finally it lay there dead. If the girl had left the crown lying in its place, the little snake surely would have brought even more treasures to her from out of its crevice.
To read more fairy tales, click on the link below:
(Illustration by Tomi Ungerer, Das Grosse Liederbuch)
Fairy Tale of the Little Ringed Snake, Grimm's Fairy Tale No. 105 Version I
There once lived a little child and every day its mother gave it a small bowl with milk and broken pieces of bread. The child always took the little bowl and went out into the yard, sat down and ate.
But when the child began to eat, a house snake would often creep out of a crack in the wall. It lowered its little head and lapped up the child’s milk, eating right along. The child was pleased with its companion and if it sat alone with its little bowl and the snake did not appear immediately, it cried out:
“Snake, come fast, come swift, Come here you little thing, Take from me these crumbs, And lick the milk refreshing.”
The snake came slithering out and enjoyed the refreshing milk. It also showed its gratitude by bringing the child secret treasures, all manner of pretty things, sparkling stones, pearls and golden toys. But the snake only drank the milk and left the crumbs alone.
Once the child took its little spoon and rapped the snake’s little head and said “You silly thing, you must eat the crumbs too!” When the mother, who was standing in the kitchen, heard the child talking and when she saw that it was hitting a snake with its spoon, she ran out with a piece of firewood and killed the goodly animal.
From that time forward there was a change in the child. The child had grown big and strong as long as the snake had eaten beside it. But now it lost its rosy cheeks and became thin. It wasn’t long until the bird of death appeared at the child’s window one night and began to cry. And the robin gathered leaves and twigs and wove a funeral wreath and soon thereafter the child lay on the bier.
In the year 1686, on June 8, two persons of noble birth made their way to Chur, Switzerland. On the road they found a small infant lying near a bush. It was swaddled in linen. One nobleman took pity on the child and ordered his manservant to climb down from the carriage and pick up the babe so that it could be taken to the next village and arrangements made for its care. When the servant had dismounted, he seized hold of the child and wanted to lift it up, but found he didn’t have the strength to do it. The two noblemen sitting in the carriage were amazed and ordered the other servant to help him. But the men using both their hands could not budge the child from the spot where it lay. After some time had passed and the servants were tired of lifting and pulling, the child began to speak and said: “Leave me lying here. You won’t be able to move me from this spot on the earth. But I want to tell you, this will be a delicious and fruitful year, but few people will experience it.” As soon as the child had spoken these words, it vanished. Both noblemen and their servants appeared before the city council in Chur and had their sworn statements entered in the public record.