There was an era when no information other than the author and publisher was considered necessary for inclusion on the inside of a book. I therefore have no idea when my Abbey Classics Grimms Fairy Tales was printed, but let me put it this way, it was probably before sexual emancipation. This is one of the few children’s editions I have encountered which contains ‘King Thrushbeard’, which sucks, frankly, as I think I’ve said before. Fortunately for the book, it also contains ‘The Golden Bird’.
Apples are fairy tale fruit. In this story, a royal pleasure-garden has managed to acquire a tree that bears golden apples, a specimen of which the king is understandably possessive. When the apples begin to mysteriously disappear he posts each of his three sons to guard the tree on a different night. It is of course only the youngest son who manages to stay awake long enough to see the thief: a magnificent golden bird. The prince attempts to shoot it, but the bird is too quick for him and all he gets is a feather. When he shows it to his father in the morning the king is instantly smitten. Like most fairy tale royals, he has a thing for gold and decides he must have the whole bird, but instead of going to find it himself he sends his sons.
The eldest prince sets off first. On the way he meets a helpful fox who advises he take quiet lodgings in the next village. Instead of listening the prince tries to shoot him (what is it with these princes and shooting miraculous wildlife?), then heads straight for the local hot spot, disappearing without a trace. The same thing happens to the second prince, who gets called into the black hole of a tavern by his elder brother and likewise loses himself in the revelries. By the time the third prince is due to depart, the king is having second thoughts. His youngest son is, however, determined to prove himself and is finally allowed to try his luck. Unlike his brothers, he doesn’t try to kill the talking fox and is rewarded with a lift to the village, where he takes shelter in the boring alternative tavern. He emerges in the morning to find the fox waiting for him with astonishingly detailed advice on where to find the golden bird and how to steal it. You can’t help feeling he’s given this an awful lot of thought for a random fox by the roadside…
Reaching the castle in question, the prince loses all his brownie points by ignoring the fox’s very sensible advice and transferring the bird from its ugly wooden cage to an ornate golden one. The bird shrieks, the prince gets caught and sentenced to death. He is offered a last-minute second chance by the bird’s owner, another king with a mild obsession where gold is concerned. Demanding the theft of a neighbouring monarch’s remarkable golden horse, he is prepared to throw in the golden bird should the prince succeed. Why he thinks that’s likely when the prince has already proven himself to be a rubbish thief, I’ve no idea, but it’s faith that is not rewarded. The prince once more forgets sound advice from the long-suffering fox and replaces the golden horse’s old saddle with a fancy one, waking the beast and summoning the guards. Luckily this king also mistakes the prince for a professional thief and offers another swap, his golden horse for the beautiful princess of the nearby golden castle.
The fox is pretty fed up by now but agrees to help one last time. The prince is sent in to kidnap the princess, who convinces him (how thick is he?) to let her bid farewell to her parents, who automatically kick the prince into prison. The fourth king of the story is less charmed by gold than the others, possibly because his house is made of the stuff. There is a mountain spoiling his view – if the prince can’t level it in eight days, it’s curtains. The prince hasn’t a hope, but on the seventh day the fox shows up and works its magic. The mountain disappears, the king is delighted and lets the prince leave with his daughter – because obviously getting rid of pesky mountains makes you perfect husband material. The fox then arranges a neat con to trick the golden horse and bird out of their respective owners without losing the princess or the prince’s life. For once the prince actually listens and they ride away triumphant.
When the fox is asked what reward he desires for his faithful assistance, he asks for the prince to chop off his head. The prince can’t do it and the fox decides to leave, offering one last warning as he goes: do not buy gallows-meat. The prince agrees without having a clue what his friend means. When he sees his older brothers about to be hung, he doesn’t make the connection, coming to the rescue and paying off the angry villagers. He’ll regret it, of course. On the way back to their father’s castle they throw him into a brook and return home with bird, horse and broken-hearted princess, claiming all the glory for themselves.
Little do they suspect their younger brother has not only survived, he has been rejoined by the rather wonderful fox, who pulls him free of the brook and dresses him up as a beggar to elude the wicked brothers’ attention on the way into the palace. None of his family recognise him, but the princess does. Finally acquainted with the truth, the king puts both elder princes to death and names his only surviving son as heir, providing the youngest prince and his golden bride with a happy ending, if you really can be happy after half your family has tried to kill you and then been executed for attempted murder.
There is a still a surprise in store, however, for the young king-in-waiting. Walking in the forest where he first met the fox, he runs into his old friend and is reminded of an old favour that was never paid. The prince is an unwilling executioner, but to his amazement the dead fox transforms into a man – the princess’s long-lost brother, no less, an altogether better species of relative than the deceased princes (although helping in the kidnap of your sister is slightly dubious, I should think). There is much happiness all around and even the golden bird who started the whole mess seems content. Possibly because it is now within very easy reach of a certain golden apple tree…
There are variations of this story in which there is no helpful fox and a much more manipulative princess, but I can’t help liking this one just for that weird twist at the end. I wonder what the fox’s sister made of his restoration. I hope he moved into the castle and took over management of the country’s affairs. Don’t you think he’d make a better ruler than his hapless friend? He might even be able to sort out the world’s gold crisis.