Themes and motifs in folk and fairy tales are devices that help to enrich the story. They are not the story-line but are woven into the narrative to enhance and highlight certain parts, or points the narrator wishes to make, or to provide an overall meaning, which is sometimes deliberately hidden. Presented here is a retelling of a Swedish fairy tale called The Bird “Grip” whose song was said to cure blindness of kings. This tale is classified as Aarne-Thompson folktale type 550, “The Golden Bird”, a Supernatural Helper in the Aarne–Thompson–Uther classification system and it also involves the Grateful Dead (type 505). This is followed by a brief discussion about some of the motifs and themes that appear in the story and what they may mean.
The Quest for the Bird “Grip”
This tale begins with a great king who ruled a great kingdom. However there are some things in the world that do not recognize greatness in either kings or kingdoms and this king was afflicted by a condition that closed both of his eyes tragically leaving him blind. All of the great physicians in his entire great kingdom could not bring back the sight of the king no matter what they tried. Many great physicians from many other great countries also tried to cure him but to no avail. At last a poor old woman came to the palace and asked to see the king because she thought she could help him. Out of desperation he agreed and let her examine him. She told him that although she could not cure him herself his only hope was to seek out the bird “Grip” whose song alone brought light and vision to all who heard it, even the eyes of the king.
The bird Grip was kept by another king in distant realm in a golden cage. This king thought the bird was beyond price and he kept it closely guarded at all times. How he would possibly seek out this rare and treasured bird the blind king did not know and fell into despair. Now, the king had three sons. When the eldest of these heard this he offered to go and seek out the bird Grip and bring it back to his father so he could listen to its song and it would open up his eyes.
The Eldest Son
This greatly pleased his father and he agreed to this proposition. He gave his son plenty of food supplies, a good horse, and a big bag full of gold coins. So the prince began his journey with the intention of finding and bringing back the bird Grip to cure his father’s blindness. He rode many miles though woods and dales until he came to an inn. Feeling tired and in the need of refreshment he placed his horse in the stables and went into the inn. As he entered he became aware of many people all drinking and chatting happily. Seeing him enter they all greeted him cordially making him feel very welcome. A drink was thrust in his hand and soon he was laughing and chatting, playing dice and singing and he began to feel very jolly. He was enjoying himself so much that he decided to stay for just a bit longer. Indeed, he was enjoying himself so much he kept putting off his departure. In fact, he was having such a good time he completely forgot about his poor blind father and his quest to bring back to him the bird Grip and there he stayed enjoying the company and revelry of the inn.
While the eldest prince was making merry his poor blind father was sitting at home waiting patiently and hopefully for his son’s return with the bird Grip to cure his blindness. The more days that passed by with no sign of him the more he began fretting about where his eldest son had got to. His second eldest son saw his father’s worry and went to him seeking permission to go and look for his brother and search for and bring back the bird Grip to cure his poor blind father.
The Second Eldest
The King agreed and furnished his second eldest son with a plentiful supply of food, a good horse and a big bag of money. The prince set out following the same road as his brother and after many days arrived at the inn where he found his brother drinking and making merry. His elder brother welcomed him warmly and introduced him to his friends who made a great fuss of him. Soon he was chatting and singing and playing dice and having such a wonderful time that he clean forgot about his poor blind father and his promise to bring back to him the bird Grip to cure his blindness.
Back at the Palace
Back in his palace the king waited in hope that his sons would safely return to him not just to cure his blindness but because he loved them dearly and was genuinely concerned for their welfare. When his youngest son saw how worried his father was he felt so sorry for him. He went to him and asked him for permission to go and look for his brothers and to search out and bring back the bird Grip to cure his blindness. He told him he was certain that he would succeed in finding them and also be able to bring back the bird. However, having lost two son the king was reluctant to give permission to his youngest son for fear of losing him too. Nevertheless, his youngest son was adamant that he should go and continued to beg his father’s permission until he eventually reluctantly agreed. The young prince was given a fine horse and provisions of food and a big bag of money to help him on his way.
The Youngest Son
He took the same road as his two brothers had taken and after many days of traveling came to the inn where they had stopped. Just as they had been, he was tired and in need of refreshment so he took his horse to the stable and went inside the inn. There he found both his brothers drinking and making merry in the bar. As soon as they saw him they made a great fuss of him and entreated him to join them but refused to go back to their father or join him on the quest for the bird Grip.
However, as tired and in need of refreshment as he was the young prince refused to stay. As he had now succeeded in finding his brothers and was sure of their safety he continued alone on the quest not wanting his poor blind father to suffer longer than he needed to. Bidding his brothers farewell he went off alone looking for another inn in which to spend the night further on along the road.
He rode on and came to a dark tangled forest and he followed the road on through the trees which took him deep into the woods. Just as the sun was going down he came to an inn. Now feeling very tired and in need of refreshment he thought he would knock on the door and ask politely for board and lodging for the night as he still had all of the money that his father had given him. So he knocked on the door. It was opened and he was greeted by the innkeeper in the most friendly and sociable way possible which put him at ease. The innkeeper told him he would be pleased to put him up for the night and invited him in. He told a servant to take the horse to the stable while he showed the prince to his room. He called for a maid who came in and promptly lay a table cloth over a table and brought in dishes and plates of different food and goblets of wine for him to enjoy for his supper.
Inside the Inn
Outside the sun had now gone down and it was very dark in the forest and the prince was glad he was now inside eating heartily by a warm fire. As he was enjoying his supper he suddenly heard the most terrible screaming and wailing coming from the room next door. Jumping up in fright he called to the maid who came running in. “What in the world is that terrible screaming and wailing?” he asked anxiously.
Looking terrified the maid told him
“Those are not the shrieks of this world, they are from the next! They come from a dead man who was murdered by the master because he could not pay for the board and lodging he had taken. Furthermore, because the man had not enough money to pay for a funeral either the master refused to give him one. Every night he goes into that room where the dead man lays and whips and scourges the corpse. Those shrieks you hear come from the man who is now in the place of the living dead. There he must remain until his debts are paid.”
As she finished speaking she quietly lifted the cover of a large dish on the table. Lying on that dish there was an axe and a sharp knife and as he looked in horror upon it he knew that the master of the inn was going to offer him the choice of his own death unless he paid a ransom. Therefore, he called to the master and gave him a large sum of money in ransom for his own life. Then he paid him what the dead man had owed him and then gave him more money to ensure the deceased at last had a proper burial, which to his credit at least, the murderer did arrange.
Despite having paid the ransom the prince still feared for his life and asked the maid to help him escape in the night. She agreed but only on the condition that he take her along with him telling him she was a prisoner and also feared for her own life. Then she told him the master kept the key to the stables under his pillow at night and if he would keep watch she thought she could take it. In the dead of night she bravely crept into the room of her sleeping master while the prince stood ready to aid her in case he woke and managed to take the key without disturbing him.
The two quietly saddled his horse and with her seated behind the prince they rode off into the night leaving the master of the house still sleeping peacefully. They rode through the night and for many days thereafter until at last they came to an inn where they rested. The innkeeper agreed to take on the maid as a servant and the prince left her there while he rode on in search of the bird Grip.
He continued long the forest road for many days until one morning as he was riding along he came across a fox sitting in the middle of the road as if waiting for him.
“Good morning,” said the fox, “and where are you going this fine sunny morning?”
“It so happens,” said the prince, “that I am on a quest that is too important to tell to any stranger that I may meet along the road.”
“Yes, indeed,” said the fox, “your quest for the bird Grip is far too important to tell to any old strange fellow you meet on the way. Of course you must never tell how you hope to find it and take it home to cure your poor blind father, the King. If you like I can help you to complete your task, but in return you must follow my instructions and my advice to the letter.”
The prince was astounded that the fox seemed to know all about his quest, nevertheless he realized he had no idea where to find the bird Grip and so he agreed.
The Castle of the Bird Grip
The fox told him that the bird Grip sat in a golden cage in a castle and that he would lead him there. Then he told him when they arrived he would then tell him exactly what he must and must not do. So after a few days of traveling the fox led the prince to the castle. The fox then gave the prince three grains of gold and told him that he must throw one grain into the guardroom as he passed by. Another grain must thrown into the room where the bird they called Grip sat in his golden cage before he entered it. The last grain of gold was to be thrown into its cage. When that had been done it would then be safe to open the cage and take the bird but he must not on any account stroke the stroke the bird Grip or disaster would follow.
So the prince crept into the castle and as he tiptoed past the guard-room he threw a grain of gold inside and all of the guards fell asleep. When he came to room where the bird Grip was kept he threw in another grain of gold and all those whose duty it was to guard and take care of it fell asleep. Then he went to the cage and threw the last grain of gold inside and the bird Grip fell asleep. The Prince opened the cage door reached in had gently took hold of the bird and brought it out. As he looked at it admiringly he was struck by how beautiful it was. Gently he caressed its neck with his finger but as he did so the bird immediately awoke and began to screech. All the people in the room awoke and the guards in the guard-room awoke and ran to the room and taking him prisoner threw him into jail.
In his small bare cell the prince thought how foolish he had been to ignore the advice of the fox. His disobedience it had brought him to this miserable jail but worse it had destroyed any chance his father had of regaining his sight. As he was lamenting his own stupidity the fox suddenly appeared before him. The prince was delighted to see him and took his reproaches meekly promising that in future he would obey his instructions to the letter, if the fox would only get him out of the dreadful fix he was in now.
The fox nodded and told him he had indeed come to help him. He told the prince that when he was brought to trial the judge would ask him questions and that he must answer “yes” to all of them. If he did that the fox promised everything would be alright. So when the prince was brought before the judge, the judge asked him directly if he had come to steal the bird Grip.
The prince said, “Yes.”
Then the judge asked him if he was a master-thief.
The prince said, “Yes.”
The king who was attending the trial heard this and said he would forgive the prince and would pardon him for trying to steal the bird Grip. However there was a catch, The King told him to earn forgiveness and a pardon he would have travel to a neighboring kingdom and steal a princess who was the most beautiful woman in the world and bring her back to him.
The prince, as before said, “Yes.”
So he was set free and taking his leave set off along the road to the neighboring kingdom to steal the princess who was the most beautiful woman in the world. As he walked along the fox appeared next to him and showed him the way to the castle where she resided. When they arrived outside the fox gave the prince three grains of gold. He told the prince to throw one into the guard-room, one into the chamber of the princess and the last one into her bed. Then he gave him a stern warning telling him that he must not kiss the princess.
With that he prince crept into the castle. When he came to the guard-room he threw a grain of gold inside and the guards all fell asleep. When he came to the chamber of the princess hr threw in a grain of gold and all of he maids-in-waiting fell asleep. Then he threw a grain of gold on the princess’s bed and she fell asleep. He went to her and as he lifted her in his arms he noticed how beautiful she was and he could not help but steal a kiss as she slept. As he did so she immediately awoke and so did her maids-in-waiting who screamed and woke the guards who ran up and arrested the prince and threw him into jail.
As the prince was lamenting his foolishness the fox appeared in front of him and sharply rebuked him off for his stupidity in not obeying his instructions. Nevertheless, he promised to help him on condition that when the judge questioned him he would answer “yes” to all his questions to which the prince agreed. When he was brought to trial the judge asked him if he had meant to steal the princess. The prince replied “yes.” Then the judge asked if he was a master-thief and the prince said, “yes”.
The king was attending the trial and when he heard this he told the judge that he would pardon the prince if he would but go into the next kingdom and bring back for him the horse with the four golden shoes. To this the prince said “yes” and he was set free to go and steal the horse with the four golden shoes for the king.
The Horse with the Four Golden Shoes
He had not gone far along the road when the fox appeared next to him as he walked along. This pleased and comforted the prince and he asked the fox the way to find the horse with the four golden shoes. The fox told him he would take him there and after a few days of journeying they arrived outside the castle where the fox said the horse with the four golden shoes was kept in a stable.
For the third time the fox gave the prince three grains of gold. One to make the guards in the guard-room sleep, one to make the stable boys sleep and the third to throw into the stall where the horse with the four golden shoes was kept. The fox told him that on the wall behind the horse there was a hook with a beautiful saddle made of gold was hung. He warned him that on no account should he touch it or worse would befall him than had already befallen him and he would no longer be able to help him.
So the prince did exactly as he was told and when he threw the last grain of gold into the horse’s stall he noticed the beautiful golden saddle hung on a hook in the wall. He thought how splendid it would look upon the horse with the golden shoes. Although he fought the urge he found himself reaching out and was just about to touch it when something suddenly knocked his hand away. With that sharp shock he quickly recovered his senses and led the horse quietly out of the castle while everyone still slept soundly.
Along the road the fox appeared next to him as he led the horse along. “I almost touched the saddle,” said the prince.
“Yes, it is a good job I jumped up and knocked your arm or you would have been beyond my help,” said the fox.
They traveled on taking the horse with four golden horseshoes back to the castle of the king where the princess was. The prince told the fox that he could not get the beautiful princess out of his mind and that she was his heart’s desire. He asked the fox if he thought it would be a good idea for him to ride home to his poor blind father on the horse with four golden shoes with the princess sitting behind him and with the bird Grip on his arm. The fox agreed that would be something quite special and when they arrived at the castle he gave the prince three grains of gold with the exact instructions he had previously given him.
This time the prince did exactly as the fox had instructed and carried off the princess while she slept without kissing her. As he set her upon the horse with the four golden horseshoes she woke up and smiled at him and together they rode happily along their way with the fox trotting alongside. Eventually, they came to the castle where the bird Grip sat in its golden cage. The fox gave the prince three grains of gold and the exact instructions he had previously given him and this time while everyone was asleep the prince resisted the urge to stroke the bird and carried it back to where the princess, the horse with the four golden shoes and the fox were waiting for him.
Parting of Ways
The prince was now very happy as he would be able to return to his father with the bird Grip and restore his sight. He also had the horse with the four golden horseshoes and the beautiful princess who he had fallen in love with and who now loved him. So they all traveled together until at last they came to the place in the forest where the prince had first met the fox who turned to him and said,
“This is the place where you found me and I can go no further. Now you have obtained your heart’s desire it is time for us to part. Listen well! I will tell you that you will have a good and safe journey back to your father, but do not on any account pay a ransom for the life of anyone. Do not forget!”
The prince was sorry they were parting ways. He had come to rely on the wisdom of the fox but he thanked him for all of his help and promised that he would note his warning after all that had happened to him. The fox vanished before his eyes and the prince rode on chatting happily to the princess and on his arm he carried the bird named Grip back to his poor blind father.
Return to the Inn
After a few days they arrived back at the inn where he had found his brothers merrymaking with their quest forgotten. However, he was now struck by how grim and glum it seemed and there was no merrymaking now. As he drew neared he was chilled to see two gallows standing upright in the yard. He noticed all of the windows had been covered by black curtains and there was a sorrowful and depressing atmosphere hanging over the inn, where once it had been bright, warm and cheery.
Feeling concerned, he asked what had happened to bring such changes to the place. He was told that everyone was sad and gloomy because two princes were to be hanged that day. They told him that they had spent all their money drinking and merrymaking. Instead of stopping when their money ran out they had run up a massive bill with the innkeeper which they could not pay. It was the law in these parts of the world that those who were in debt and could not pay must be hanged unless someone was prepared to pay a ransom for their lives.
Immediately the prince realized it was his two brothers who were to be hanged having spent all the money their father had given them and run up debt merrymaking. Despite their foolishness he was sorry that they should come to such an ignoble end. Therefore, as he had enough money he settled the ransom by paying off all their debts and saving their lives.
The Lion’s Den
Of course, his brothers were relieved and grateful to begin with but when they saw that he had a princess along with, the horse with the four golden shoes and the bird Grip their gratitude turned to jealousy and resentment. They began to plot to kidnap the princess, and steal the horse with the four golden shoes and the bird Grip. They wanted to ride back to the castle with these treasures and present them to their grateful father who would be cured of his blindness and heap rewards upon them.
After much thought they at last agreed on a strategy to be rid of him forever and take his prizes for themselves. They lured him to a den where a pride of lions lived and pushed him into it and left him thinking they would eat him leaving no trace. Then they took the princess on the horse with the four golden shoes and the bird Grip. They told the princess to say nothing of their younger brother and if anyone asked she was to say that it was they who had brought her here or they would kill her.
The two brother rode proudly back to their father at his palace in triumph. He was delighted at their return and ordered great feasting and celebrations and praised them for their courage and dedication to him. Then their father asked if they had seen anything of their younger brother. They told him that they had found him merrymaking at the inn and had spent all of the money he had been given. He had run up a great debt with the innkeeper and because he could not pay had been hanged as was the law.
This news greatly upset the king as his youngest son was his favorite and furthermore the happiness for the treasures that the two brothers had brought back faded. The princess cried bitterly day and night and would speak to no one. The horse with the golden shoes turned vicious and could not be approached so no one could see its golden shoes. The bird Grip, whose sweet voice could cure blindness would not sing.
The Return of the Fox
It so happened that when the young prince was flung to the lions he had closed his eyes expecting the worst. When nothing happened he opened them and saw the fox sitting before him with the pride of lions all friendly and docile towards him. The fox was not angry that he had forgotten his warning. All he would say was that brothers who would forget their poor blind father while making merry were nothing but a disgrace to their royal blood. As such he was not surprised that they would cruelly betray their younger brother. Then he led the prince out of the lion’s den and gave him instructions to follow that would return to him all that had been lost. The prince was truly grateful and thanked the fox for all of his help and for being a true friend. The fox replied that it was the prince that had he had been of service to him he would now ask for a service in return. The prince told him he would do anything that was possibly in his power and asked him what he could do for him. The fox became deadly serious and told him sternly.
“I have but one thing and one thing only that I ask of you. To be of service you must take your sword and cut off my head,”
This greatly shocked the prince who insisted he could never do such a thing to his good friend. The fox was adamant that it must be done. He insisted he would be doing him a great service but the prince continued to refuse. At last the fox hung his head in sorrow and told the prince that if he would not comply with his request he would have to do a terrible thing himself and that was to kill the prince. At this the prince realized the fox meant what he said and he took out his sword and cut off the head of his friend but as he did so a handsome youth sprang up from out of the fox and stood before him smiling.
“From the bottom of my heart I thank. You have broke the spell that even death could not undo. You should now know that I am the dead man who lay so long without burial and rites who was murdered by the innkeeper. You paid my debts, ransomed me and gave me a proper funeral and because of this I have helped you gain your heart’s desire!”
Then he took his leave and left the prince vanishing before his eyes. Now, although the prince was on his own he knew just what to do without the help of the fox.
The Return of the Prince
He disguised himself as a blacksmith and went to the palace of his father to offer his services. The King’s servants opened the door and told him that there was a horse that needed his shoes looked at but it would not let anyone near it. Although many had tried, no one had been able to complete the job. The prince told them he was confident he could do the job so they took him to the stable where the horse with the four golden shoes was angrily stamping the ground whenever anyone went near it. As soon as it saw the prince its demeanor changed. It stopped stamping and took on a docile and friendly manner and was obedient and calm as the prince lifted its hooves one by one to reveal its golden shoes.
The King’s servants were very impressed and told the prince about the bird Grip and how it would not sing no matter what was tried. The prince told them he knew the bird very well for he had attended to it when he had visited another King who had kept it in a golden cage. He told them he knew more about its ways than anyone else and if it would not sing it was because there was something that it did not have. If they took him to see it he was sure he would be able to tell what was amiss and provide what was missing so that it would sing.
The King is Cured
The servants decided they would go and ask the poor blind king for his permission as the bird was kept in the same room where he would sit along with the princess who would not stop crying floods of bitter tears. The king was desperate and readily agreed and the prince was led into the room. As soon as the princess set eyes on him she stopped crying and began smiling radiantly and the bird Grip began to sing. It sang and it sang and the darkness that had blighted the king’s eyes were driven away and he could see everything. He looked at the blacksmith and saw through his disguise recognizing his youngest son and he embraced him happily. Then he saw through the lies that his two sons had told him about his youngest son and he banished them from his kingdom.
As for the young prince, he married the princess and his father gave him the horse with the four golden shoes and half of the kingdom. From then on peace and happiness flooded into the the king’s court which was filled with the wonderful singing of the bird Grip.
There are several curious recurring patterns or motifs throughout the story that are also found in folktales around the world. The number three has a special role. The king has three sons. There are three brothers. There are three tasks. Three grains of gold. The prince fails three times then has three successes and wins the three prizes; the princess, the horse with the four golden horseshoes and the bird Grip. An exceptionally curious motif and perhaps the grimmest of all is the decapitation of the fox. Decapitation is found in many folktales around the world. In this case, it seems to be a device to reveal the identity of the magical fox who turns out to be the soul of the dead man whose ransom was paid by the prince. Perhaps understandably, it also often represents a change in the nature of a person from the physical plane to that of the spiritual.
The appearance of the dead man, whose burial the prince had paid for, as a magical fox is unusual. In most folktales involving the Grateful Dead – those of the dead who return to repay the living – usually appear as human or a ghost. The Grateful Dead theme explores the Law of Spiritual Reciprocity, which is also known as the Law of Sowing and Reaping, but there are two aspects of this presented in the story. The Prince’s two older brothers would have reaped the grim consequences of their bad behavior and were only saved from the gallows by the intervention of their younger brother. Yet still, they did not change their wicked ways and ended up banished from the kingdom by their father when the bird Grip finally sang and cured his blindness to see through them. The young prince who keeps true to his purpose is helped find his heart’s desire by the magical fox which was an incarnation of the soul of the dead man’s whose burial and ransom he paid.
There is also the blindness of the king who despite his own greatness and that of his kingdom succumbs to a natural tragedy that could just as easily have afflicted anyone one of his subjects from the highest to the lowest, but in this story it afflicts the greatest. Great though his physicians are they cannot help him and it is only through the advice of a poor old woman that the cure he seeks is eventually found, thus greatness is humbled and the quest to cure the king’s blindness is born.
The theme of the quest for a special bird is also found in many other folktales around the world and often involves an animal or supernatural helper. During the quest, the young prince undergoes a coming of age through which he is offered the good advice of the fox but does not follow it. It is only when he learns to follow the advice of the fox that his own personal growth begins until he can, at last, be confident enough to follow his own animal instincts which the fox perhaps may represent. Of course, all stories are very much open to interpretation and the one that matters is always your own.
© 27/02/2018 zteve t evans
References, Attributions and Further Reading
Copyright February 27th, 2018 zteve t evans