A few years ago, I was lucky enough to go on a European vacation. Before boarding the return flight from Prague, Czech Republic, I happened to notice an illustrated volume of Czech Fairy Tales. How could I not pick it up?
It turned out to be a selection of fairy tales compiled by Karel Jaromir Erben and Bozena Nemcova, who were basically the Czech versions of the Grimm brothers. One of the tales that caught my eye was The Fire Bird and Red Fox. Since native English speakers might not know Czech fairy tales, I thought for today’s post, I would recount The Fire Bird and Red Fox for anyone not familiar with the tale. Enjoy.
The Fire Bird and Red Fox
Once there was a King with a garden. In that garden was an apple tree that produced one apple of gold every day. But every night, the golden apple that had grown that day would disappear. The King promised half his kingdom to the son who could catch the thief.
His first son tried but fell asleep. The second prince also tried, but fell asleep during the night as well. The youngest prince then tried. To keep himself awake through the night, he brought along a hedgehog skin so that if his arms dropped down, the hedgehog skin would wake him up. At midnight, a golden bird was about to pluck the apple when the young prince shot his crossbow and hit the bird in the wing. It flew away but left a golden feather behind.
The golden feather shone so brightly that no lamps were needed at night, and the courtiers told the King that the feather came from the Fire Bird and was worth more than all the King’s riches. But the bird no longer came to the King’s garden, and no more apples were stolen.
The King could not quit thinking about the Fire Bird and longed to possess it. Then the King became ill. Convinced he would recover if he could hear the Fire Bird sing, he called his three sons to him and told them the one that could bring him the Fire Bird alive would be granted half his kingdom and would become his successor.
The three princes immediately set out but soon reached a crossroads with three branches. The youngest prince told his brothers to choose which roads they wanted, saying he would take the remaining road. They all agreed, but before each set out their own way, they decided to each plant a twig beside the path as a sign. Whichever twig grew, it would show what brother had been successful in finding the Fire Bird.
The first prince rode until he was hungry, so stopped to eat. Then the Red Fox approached him and asked for something to eat. The prince took out his crossbow and shot at the fox, but he disappeared. The second prince also rode until he was tired and hungry, and stopped to eat. The Red Fox also approached him, asking for something to eat. The second prince also took out his crossbow and shot at the fox, only to have him disappear. Again, the same thing happened to the third prince. The youngest prince split his food in two to share with the fox, however. When the Red Fox was finished and satisfied, he told the youngest prince he would help him get the Fire Bird.
Red Fox took the prince to the Copper Palace. There, other birds were in the first two halls, but in the third hall was the Fire Bird. The Red Fox told the prince to wait until the guards slept to sneak in and to put the Fire Bird in the wooden cage, not the golden cage, or things would go ill for him. When the young prince reached the Fire Bird, however, he couldn’t bare to see such a lovely bird in the miserable wooden cage, so he took him back out and into the golden cage. As soon as he closed the door, the Fire Bird woke up and whistled. All the other birds in the first two halls immediately woke up and began piping and screeching, which woke the guards, who arrested the prince and took him to their King.
The young prince defended himself by telling the King of his situation and asked the King to give him the Fire Bird. The King said that if the prince could bring him Golden Mane, then he would give the Fire Bird to the prince as he asked.
Leaving, the young prince found Red Fox angrily waiting outside the castle gate and asked that he not be mad, but instead help him to find the horse with the golden mane. Red Fox knew that Golden Mane was at a silver colored palace and took the prince there.
Again, Red Fox told the young prince to sneak in as the guards slept, and that the first two stables had many other horses; Golden Mane would be in the third. Red Fox warned him to put the leather halter on Golden Mane, not the golden halter. Again, the prince found everything as Red Fox said. Still, he thought the beautiful horse deserving of the beautiful golden halter. So he took off the leather halter and replaced it with the golden halter, but as soon as he did, Golden Mane reared and neighed, stirring up all the other horses, who began kicking and whinnying, which brought the guards, who took the prince to their King.
The prince recounted everything that had happened and asked the King to give him Golden Mane. The King told him he could have Golden Mane if he brought back Princess Goldilocks from the Golden Palace in the Black Sea.
Red Fox was very angry with the prince and told him, “It is a waste of time trying to help you; he who will not listen cannot be helped.”
Still, the young prince was able to convince the Red Fox to help him. Red Fox took him to the Golden Palace in the Black Sea and told him that the Sea Queen ruled here and to ask her to take one of her daughters as a wife. Red Fox instructed the prince to choose the daughter that would be dressed in plain clothes; that would be Goldilocks. This time the prince listened to Red Fox, but the Sea Queen told him to return the next day.
The next day, when he awoke, the prince went for a walk through the garden and came upon Goldilocks, who said he would be able to recognize her by the fly buzzing around her head. Then, she disappeared. Later in the day, when the Sea Queen took him to her three daughters again, the prince was able to recognize Goldilocks by the fly.
Still, the Sea Queen did not give Goldilocks to the prince. Instead, she said he must pass another test. In the morning, she gave him a small sieve and led him to a lake. She told the prince she would give him Goldilocks if he could drain the lake with the sieve by nightfall.
The prince tried, but when he realized it was hopeless, sat down on the bank to think. Goldilocks then appeared and threw the sieve into the middle of the lake. The water began to boil and formed a thick, heavy fog. Then Red Fox brought him his horse and instructed them to ride away quickly. As they did, Red Fox destroyed the path behind them.
The young prince was very happy but became sad as he realized he must exchange Goldilocks for Golden Mane. Red Fox sympathized with him and stated he knew what to do. Jumping over a log, he became a second Goldilocks. He then instructed the young prince to leave Goldilocks in the forest while the prince exchanged him for Golden Mane. The prince was to ride away with Goldilocks and Golden Mane as soon as the exchange was made.
This was done, but as the King threw a feast in Goldilocks’ honor, one of the nobles recognized the eyes of a fox in this Goldilocks. No sooner did the noble speak then Red Fox turned back into his original form and ran away. He caught up with the prince as he was coming to the Copper Palace to exchange Golden Mane for the Fire Bird.
Red Fox convinced the young prince to let him help again and took the form of Golden Mane. The prince exchanged the false Golden Mane for the Fire Bird, then quickly rode away with Goldilocks, Golden Mane, and the Fire Bird. The King was so proud of Golden Mane he had to show him off to all the nobles, but one noble noted that this horse had the tail of a fox. As soon as he pointed this out, Red Fox returned to his original form and ran away.
When he caught up with the young prince, Red Fox saw that he was no longer needed. But before he left, he warned the prince to ride home, stopping nowhere. When the prince reached the crossroads, he saw that both his brothers’ twigs were dry and brittle, while his had grown into a beautiful tree. Since both he and Goldilocks were very tired, they decided to stop and rest, falling asleep under the tree. While they slept, the prince’s brothers came upon them.
When the brothers saw the Fire Bird, Golden Mane, and Goldilocks, evil thoughts went through their heads. They decided that one brother would take Golden Mane, the other would take Goldilocks, and together they would give their father the Fire Bird. As for the kingdom, they would split it between them. Then they cut their brother’s body into pieces and threatened to kill Goldilocks if she said anything.
When the King asked if they had seen their brother, they said they had not. Their father remained low-spirited; the Fire Bird would not sing; Golden Mane refused to eat; Goldilocks wept without ceasing.
In the meantime, the Red Fox happened upon the young prince’s body. He put all the pieces back together, but could not bring him back to life. When some crows flew up to eat off the prince, Red Fox caught one. The older one begged Red Fox not to injure her child. Red Fox told her that if she brought him back both dead water and live water from the Black Sea, he would let her child live.
The old crow flew away and returned with fish bladders full of dead water and live water. Red Fox sprinkled the dead water over the prince’s body and it reformed without even a scar. Then he sprinkled live water over him and he awoke. Red Fox recounted all that had happened before disappearing.
The prince disguised himself, returned to the palace, and took a post as a stable-hand. When he went to see Golden Mane, the horse recognized his master and perked up. Word spread quickly and the King sent for him to help cheer up the Fire Bird. When the prince stroked the Fire Bird, he recognized his master and began singing. With his beautiful songs, the King’s heart became well again. Going to Goldilocks, she also recognized the young prince, cried out in joy, and embraced him.
The prince then asked his father if he did not recognize him also, and told him of how it was he, not his brothers that had procured the Fire Bird, Golden Mane, and Goldilocks. The King was enraged and had both of the older princes executed. The young prince married Goldilocks and received half of his father’s kingdom. And after his father’s death, the other half, too.