German Fairy Tales: Fundevogel – Female Stars, Shapeshifting and Growing Up

Ferdinand Fellner (1799–1859), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

FEMALE STARS AND SHAPESHIFTING

There are many heroes in folk and fairy tales but not so many heroines. Nevertheless, they are often intense, bold, or intelligent characters or have magical qualities when they do appear. The German fairy tale “Fundevogel,” also known as “Foundling-Bird,” has one such female star playing an essential role in the development and dénouement of the adventure. Presented here is a retelling of tale 51, “Foundling-Bird (Fundevogel)” from, “Household Tales,” translated by Margaret Hunt and compiled by the Grimm Brothers, followed by a brief discussion of the heroine and the magical shapeshifting acts by the children in their attempts to escape.

THE STORY OF FUNDEVOGEL, OR FOUNDLING BIRD

One day a poor woman carrying her baby son went out foraging for food in the forest. She had found a few nuts, berries, and mushrooms, and because she was also carrying her baby boy, she grew tired and sat down for rest and refreshment. She soon began to feel sleepy, so she lay down under a tree and fell asleep, leaving the child resting beside her. An eagle seeing the baby, swooped down and carried him far away and placed him on the highest branch of a tall tree.

Otto Ubbelohde, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

A forester who lived in the woods, on hearing a child crying, was concerned and following the sound came to a tall tree. Looking up to its topmost branches, he saw a young boy. The poor boy was sobbing and wailing and terrified of falling. So, the forester, being kind-hearted, climbed up the tree and carried him down to safety.

There was no sign of a parent, guardian, or companion of any kind. Knowing the perils of the woods, he feared to leave the little boy alone with so many dangerous animals around. Furthermore, he had a young daughter named Lina, about the same age as the boy. Her mother had passed away when she was very young, and living deep in the forest, she rarely saw other children. Therefore, he decided to take him home as a companion and playmate for his daughter and bring them up together. He did not know the boy’s name and called him “Fundevogel,” which means “foundling bird” in his language.   The two children soon made friends and grew up happily together, becoming very close and attached, and when apart, even for a short time, they became sad, pining badly for one another.

OLD SANNA

The forester had no wife but employed an elderly woman named Old Sanna to cook meals, keep house and supervise the servants. One day Old Sanna spent a lot of time going in and out to the kitchen fetching and carrying water to fill a vast pot she had hanging over the fire. Seeing this, Lina asked her what she was doing.

Old Sanna replied she would tell her if she promised never to reveal the answer to anyone. Lina, being very curious, agreed. The old cook replied she would light a fire under the pot very early in the morning while the forester was hunting in the forest. Then, as soon as the water was bubbling hot, she would throw Fundevogel in the pot, boiling him alive.  That night Lina lay in bed horrified at the thought of poor Fundevogel, her best friend, being boiled alive. She decided she could not keep such a terrible secret despite her promise.

The forester got up very early the following day and left the house while the Old Sanna was still asleep. Lina had not slept all night worrying about what to do. She knew that she would be devastated if anything happened to her beloved Fundevogel and miss him terribly. Then, finally, it dawned on her that the old cook wanted to cook him for a meal and was appalled at the thought.   She wondered how he felt about her and decided she would try and save him but give him a little test.

LINA

Quietly rousing him, she whispered in his ear that she had something of the utmost importance to tell him. “Be sure I will never leave you if you will never leave me!

Fundevogel replied sleepily, “Be sure I will never leave you, now or ever!

So, Lina told him, “Last night, Old Sanna carried many buckets of water into the house, much more than usual. Being curious, I asked why she needed so much water. Sanna made me promise not to pass it on and told me that early tomorrow morning, when father was out hunting, a fire would be lit under the pot and heat it until the water boiled. Then she would throw you in and boil you alive. We cannot let her do this. Therefore, we must quickly dress and run away together before she awakens.”

Quickly and quietly, they dressed, and while the old cook was still snoring, quietly tiptoed from the house and ran into the forest.

As soon as Old Sanna awoke and had dressed, she kindled a fire under the pot, and while it was heating up, she made herself breakfast. By this time, the two children were long gone and far away. After a while, the water boiled, and she went into the children’s bedroom intending to catch hold of Fundevogel and throw him in the pot. On discovering both children gone, she flew into a rage and grew afraid.

She feared when the forester returned, she would have to explain their absence, and her wicked plot to boil Fundevogel revealed. She decided the children must be brought back and ordered three servants to find them and bring them back without delay. Unfortunately, the servants were all fast runners, and as the two children were resting just outside the forest, thinking it safe, they saw them fast approaching.

THE ROSE TREE AND THE ROSE

The children were horrified, and Lina turned to Fundevogel and said, “Be sure I will never leave you if you will never leave me!”

Fundevogel replied, “Be sure I will never leave you now or ever!”

So, Lina said, “You become a rose tree, and I will become the rose that grows upon it!”

When the servants arrived at where the children had been sitting, they saw a rose tree with a single rose upon it. They looked all around, but there was no sign of the children. Thinking they had escaped and not knowing what direction to go, they decided to return to the forester’s house.

Seeing they had not brought the children back, the old cook furiously demanded to know why. The servants told her they had run to the forest edge fast and seen the children a little way off resting. However, when they arrived in that place, only a rose tree with a single rose growing upon it could be seen.

THE CHURCH AND THE CHANDELIER

The old cook was livid and told them they should have cut down the rose tree, cut the rose from it, and brought them both back to her. Then, angrily, she ordered the three servants to go back and find the children carrying them straight back to her.

Meanwhile, the children had put further distance between them and the forest and stopped to rest. The servants returned to where they had seen the rose upon the bush, but it was gone. Then, finding the children’s trail, they quickly began to gain upon them. 

As they were resting, the children saw the servants coming, and Lina turned to Fundevogel and said,

“Be sure I will never leave you if you will never leave me!”

Fundevogel replied, “Be sure I will never leave you, now or ever!”

Otto Ubbelohde, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

So, Lina said,  “Then become a church, and I’ll become the chandelier within it.”

When the servants arrived expecting to find the children, they found a church with a chandelier inside and nothing else. Having found no sign of the children and not knowing what else to do, they returned to face the wrath of the old cook.

She was livid and demanded to know what they had seen. They told her that they had almost caught up with the children and had seen them in the distance. However, when they came to the place, they had seen them; all they saw was a church with a single chandelier inside but could find no sign of the children and so returned home.

The old cook was furious, telling them they should have taken the church down and brought that and the chandelier back to her. Then, angrily, she told them they were too stupid to be trusted and would accompany them, ordering them to take her to the place of the church and chandelier. 

THE POND AND THE DUCK

By this time, the children had moved on and were some distance away. However, their pursuers picked up their trail, and looking over their shoulders, the children saw them coming after them and were terrified to see the wicked old cook among them. The children were growing tired and realized they could not outrun them. Lina turned to Fundevogel and said, “Be sure I will never leave you if you will never leave me!”

Fundevogel replied, “Be sure I will never leave you now or ever!”

So Lina said, “Become a pond, and I will become a duck upon it.”

Their pursuers arrived and saw nothing but a pond with a duck upon it, but the old cook was with them this time. Lying down before the pond, she began to drink the pond dry. But the duck seized her head in its beak and dragged her into the water drowning her. In fright, the servants ran off, and the children skipped home hand in hand as happy as any children could be, and to this day, they are still alive and living if they have not yet passed away.

The End

DISCUSSION

Central to the action in these tale types are a series of shapeshifting transformations proposed by the heroine over the need to escape capture.  In other tales the pursuers responds by transforming themselves into something more powerful than what their quarry transforms into each time. In the case of the Fundevogel tale, it is just the children who change. In this case, instead of a contest of power, their transformations appear innocuous, simply throwing their pursuers off their trail, at least until the final change.

Old Sanna, the cook’s evil designs on the boy, is the catalyst for the beginning of the transformation of the children. She makes them bring forth their magic and transform themselves to deal with the situation.  Through the threat of Old Sanna and the prompting of Lina into different transformations, Fundevogel learns how to use his inner power, or magic for his benefit.

The story shows the maturation of Fundevogel from when he had been weak, vulnerable, and powerless into someone who, through adversity and a good mentor, has learned how to use his inner power. Through this process, he has learned evil exists in the world and overcome it with his power and it was Lina who teaches him to use his personal power to counter the evil intentions of those who would hurt him. Athough the children defeat their adversary, in killing her they lose a certain part of their innocence yet gain much in personal power, and in life many ways, that is what happens as we grow up.

© 09/02/2022 zteve t evans


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Copyright February 9th, 2022 zteve t evans


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Wishes, Curses and a Sister Saves her Brothers: The Tale of the Seven Ravens

We all have dreams that we wish would come true.  Sometimes we make a wish and that wish is granted but what we actually get may be the result of how we have made that wish. If we make a detrimental wish against someone or something that wish becomes a curse.  Sometimes unforeseen consequences may be unleashed that affect others who have to pay some kind of a price even though they were not the ones who did the wishing.  The following is a retelling of a folktale called The Seven Ravens and explores how wishes are made and how they are fulfilled and what can happen when wishes are made in haste or anger.   It appeared in  Household Tales by Brothers Grimm by Jacob Grimm and Wilhelm Grimm and is classed as Aarne-Thompson type 451, The Brothers Who Were Turned into Birds tale type.  Similar tale-types are found throughout Europe and other parts of the world. It has a female protagonist who sets out to rescue her brothers who were inadvertently turned into ravens by their father in anger.  Other tales with similar themes and a female protagonist are The Twelve Brothers, Brother and Sister, and The Six Swans.

The Tale of the Seven Ravens

This story begins with an old married couple who had seven sons.  Although the old man loved each son dearly he still he wished for a daughter.   After many years his wife again fell with child and to the great joy of the old man a baby girl was born but she was a very small and very weak and prone to illness and he thought she might die.  On account of this he decided to baptize her and told one of his sons to run to a nearby well and bring back water for the task.  His six brothers all ran with him for they were all greatly excited by having a baby sister and each wanted to be the one to fill the jug. In the tussle that followed for the task the jug was dropped down the well and could not be retrieved.  The boys were all aghast and stood staring at each other not knowing what to do.

Back home there father was waiting for the water and when they did not return he began to grow impatient and angry saying,  “Wherever can they be?  I bet they have begun some silly game and forgotten the task I set them.” Then he began worry about the health of his daughter and became frightened she would die without being baptised and he grew fearful. In his fear he grew angry and he cursed them crying, “I wish my sons to be turned to ravens.”

The Truth is Revealed

Then to his surprise he heard the whirring sound of wings overhead.  Looking up he saw seven jet black ravens fly quickly across the sky. Of course, the father was sad and angry with himself for making the rash curse and devastated at the loss of his sons.  Nevertheless, life went on and he and his wife now had a baby daughter who they gained great joy from. With lots of tender loving care and devotion she shook off her fraily and began to grow hale and hearty and very, very beautiful.  Her parents never once spoke of their seven sons and she grew up thinking she was an only child not knowing she had brothers. Then one day she overheard her neighbours saying, “She such is a lovely girl but It is her fault about the terrible curse that fell upon her seven brothers.”

This both shocked and worried the girl who went to her parents and asked them if it was true she had brothers and wanted to know where they were now.  Now that the truth was out her parents felt they could no longer keep secret what had happened to her brothers. They explained how her birth had innocently and unwittingly caused the sequence of events that had caused her father to curse her brothers and how they had been turned into ravens.  Although they tried to reassure her by saying that it was the will of God and not her fault at all the news had a profound effect on her.

She would have loved to have had brothers and was shocked to find out she had seven of them.   Furthermore, she took it to herself that she had been the cause of their being turned to ravens and thereafter was constantly fretting and worrying about them.  She felt a great sense of guilt and could not get them off of her mind. Secretly, she wished that she would find them and resolved to bring them home no matter what danger or hardship she had to face.

The Ends of the World

Early one morning before the sun was up she stole quietly out of the house taking nothing but a ring that her parents owned, a loaf of bread, a jug of water and a small chair that she could sit upon when she grew tired on her journey.  She walked on and on for many, many days and at last came to the very ends of the world where she looked up and saw the sun.  However, the sun was too hot and scorched and burnt terribly so she ran away from it and came to the moon. The moon was cold and nasty and when it saw her said, “I smell the people flesh,” and she ran away from that and came to a place where she saw the stars.   The stars were all sat on their own chairs and twinkled kindness towards her so she sat on her own chair and told them about her quest for her brothers.  Then the morning star rose in the sky and gave her a drumstick of a chicken telling her, “This drumstick will open the door to the Glass Mountain and in that mountain and through that door you will find your brothers!”

The Glass Mountain

Thanking the morning star she took the drumstick and carefully wrapped it up in cloth and placed it in her pocket and off she went to find the Glass Mountain.  She walked and walked and walked and at last she came to the mountain but found the door shut. Thinking she would use the drumstick to open it she looked in her pocket but discovered it had gone.  Greatly disappointed she sat down and thought about what to do. At last she made a decision. She wished to find her brother so much she took out a little knife she carried and despite the pain cut off one of her own fingers and tried it in the keyhole.  To her delight and relief the door opened and she went inside. As soon as she entered a dwarf appeared who greeted her in friendly way asking what she sought.  “I seek my seven brothers who are the seven ravens,” she told him.

“The Raven lords are not at home at the moment but you can wait until they return,” the dwarf told her and led her to a chamber where a large table was placed in the middle.  Then the dwarf busied himself bringing seven plates of food and seven goblets of wine which he told her were the raven lord’s dinner.   The girl took a bite of food from each plate a sip of wine from each goblet but in the last she dropped the ring that had been her parent’s.

The Return of the Ravens

Suddenly, the air was filled with the sound of whirling and flapping wings and the dwarf said, “The Raven Lords are nearly home,”  and the girl quickly hid behind the door just as the ravens arrived.  They were hungry and looking forward to a meal but they looked at their plates and said, “What is this?  Someone has been eating from my plate! Look, someone has drunk from my goblet and it was a human mouth!”  Then one of the ravens looked into his goblet and saw at the bottom their parent’s ring and said, “The ring of our parents lies in my goblet.  Please God we wish it be that our sister has arrived to free us!”

When their sister heard this wish she was full of joy and stepped out from behind the door to the great surprise and delight of the ravens who were instantly returned to their human form again.  Great was all of their joy and they went home to their parents and lived happily as a family together for the rest of their lives.

The End

A Curious Tale

It is indeed a curious tale but what does it all mean? There is a school of thought, but not universally accepted, that this type of tale maybe an echo from a time when young men and boys were called upon to serve their king and country.  They were sent to fight an enemy and their sister’s desperately wanted to free them and return them to the family. One of the consequences of the draft was that females, although made the heirs to family fortunes or estates when their brothers never returned, were subject to greater degree of personal control and especially over who they married.  Apart from sisterly love for her brother rescuing and returning them would also release her from this strict management of her life. The problem with this idea is that the conditions it springs from are not found in every country that the story appears in though it is possible it could have been transported either orally, or in written form and adapted.

Themes and Motifs

There are a number of common folklore motifs such as the old couple, seven brothers, there is the quest the girl embarks on, the Glass Mountain and  human transformation to birds. There is also a Goldilocks-type scene where she eats food from the plates of the brothers while they are absent and the ring of her parents.  All these and more are woven into several themes to create a story with hidden meaning some of which religious in nature.

There is the importance of baptism that Christians believe washes away original sin.  It is not only a symbolic burial and resurrection but also a supernatural transformation.  Its purpose is not just to cleanse or purify but also symbolic of dying and rising in Christ and was necessary for the cleansing of original sin.  This is why it is a common Christian practice to baptize children and babies though it can be done at anytime in life.

It may be that the father believed that if his daughter died without baptism she would not receive these perceived benefits of it, which may explain his fear and urgency, but not excuse his anger and hasty wish. Curiously, despite the importance her father attached to it, we never learn if she was actually baptized but we are told she grew into a strong, healthy and beautiful girl.

Wishes

The thing about wishes is that although they can be beneficial they can also be dangerous when done in haste.   The story begins with an old man wishing he had a baby daughter and eventually this wish is fulfilled. He then hastily wishes his sons were ravens and this wish is granted.  However, because it was invoked in haste and anger it turned into a curse and his sons were transformed into what he wished for. Why did he wish they were ravens? It is not certain but one possible answer could lie in the story of Noah who sent out a raven first to see if the floods had abated and it did not return and like the raven the boys did not return.

The girl, on learning of the fate of her brothers, though it could not have been any fault of her own, had experienced great, though unnecessary guilt at her father’s hasty wish. To a  lesser extent her brother’s childish behaviour arguing about who would fill the jug with water for her baptism was also to blame, being the trigger for her father’s anger.

On hearing the news she had seven brothers who had been turned to ravens at her birth the girl blamed her own entry into the world for an event she could have had no control over.  To rid herself of the guilt she erroneously experienced, she wished to find and rescue her brothers and in the process of doing that wished entry into the Glass Mountain. Both these wishes were granted but not without a long arduous journey to the end of the world and the painful cost of her finger.  As well as a physical transformation the seven brothers appear to have been elevated to lords, but despite this change in status they wished she would come and find them and take them home.  That wish was granted and the story ends happily.

© 07/03/2017zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright February 7th, 2018 zteve t evans