King Thrushbeard

King Thrushbeard by Grimm Brothers and pictured by Max Wulff

King Thrushbeard is a fairy tale by Grimm Brothers with number 52. It was included in the first edition already and stayed there from there on with some minor changes from the second edition.

It’s a story about the classic quest: there’s a beautiful princess who should be married but nobody is good enough for her. She is mocking her suitors and even when one raises some sympathies she couldn’t resist noticing the bird’s beak’s shape of his beard and calling him King Thrushbeard.

Her father becomes tired of her behavior and declares that the first beggar who enters the castle should marry her no matter who he is or what she thinks about him. King Thrushbeard hears that, shaves his beard, and enters the castle disguised in dirty rags as a minstrel.

He fakes surprise when he finds out he is about to marry the princess. He even hesitates a bit looking at her and saying she doesn’t look very strong or skilled to take care of his household but concludes the beggar should not be too picky.

Then the priest comes, they marry, and the king promptly shows his daughter the door. It’s not proper to have a beggar’s wife under his roof, right?

On the journey to his home, she sees forests and meadows, and a large town, everything belonging to King Thrushbeard. She is very sorry to mock him and got a poor minstrel instead.

At his home, she had to weave baskets but can’t due to her soft fingers. Then he insisted she goes to the market and sells some of his pots. When a drunken hussar breaks them this chance of earning a living fails too.

Finally, she gets a job in the royal kitchen. She becomes a kitchen maid and was allowed to take some leftovers home. They lived from that for some time.

After a while, preparations for a royal wedding start. King Thrushbeard is about to marry!

When the wedding party starts the king himself finds her and wants to dance with her. Leftovers fall from her pockets and everybody laughs at her. She cries.

But the king takes her hand again and says she should stop crying now. She is about to celebrate her own wedding.

Only then she realizes she married a king in disguise. Her father appears there too. All of them live happily ever after.

A few words about the themes and motifs in The King Thrushbeard:

The wedding is the central element as in so many other fairy tales (The Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, The Goose Girl, …).

The king’s authority is indisputable. Even if he promises something irrational, like giving his daughter to the beggar, it’s about to happen. A nice example of the power of one’s promise can be seen in The Frog King too.

The title character has to disguise himself if he wants to achieve his ultimate goal – marry the beautiful princess. We see a similar (successful) attempt in Cinderella, but she has to dress up, not down. The Goose Girl, on the other hand, where a servant dresses up, fails miserably. There is a lesson to learn – don’t play a role if you don’t deserve it by your origin. Or is it? The Valiant Little Tailor does exactly that – and succeeds.

Let’s take a closer look at the last paragraph with all three examples of climbing up the social ladder and/or achieving some personal goals with trickery. There are actually two major patterns for fairy tale structure: the raise story and the restoration story.

While The Valiant Little Tailor and Rumpelstiltskin belong to raise stories, the restoration pattern is much more frequent. Cinderella, The Goose Girl, The Beauty and the Beast, and King Thrushbeard are all restoration stories.

Another noticeable theme is the humiliation of the princess. We can see it in The Frog King, The Goose Girl, and in King Thrushbeard too.

A similar idea of ‘breaking’ the girl before she is ready for marriage can be found in Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. Hans Christian Andersen rewrote King Thrushbeard as The Swinheard.

All illustrations are done by Max Wulff (1871-1947), a painter, an illustrator, and a graphic designer.

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