Today's classic tale was from Fairy Tales of the Slav Peasants and Herdsmen, written by Alexander Chodsko and translated by Emily J Harding, published in 1896.
There was once a king so wise and clever that he understood the language of all animals. You shall hear how he gained this power.
One day an old woman came to the palace and said, “I wish to speak to his majesty, for I have something of great importance to tell him.” When admitted to his presence she presented him with a curious fish, saying, “Have it cooked for yourself, and when you have eaten it you will understand all that is said by the birds of the air, the animals that walk the earth, and the fishes that live under the waters.”
The king was delighted to know that which every one else was ignorant of, so he rewarded the old woman generously, and told a servant to cook the fish very carefully.
“But take care,” said the monarch, “that you do not taste it yourself, for if you do you will be killed.”
George, the servant, was astonished at such a threat, and wondered why his master was so anxious that no one else should eat any of the fish. Then examining it curiously he said, “Never in all my life have I seen such an odd-looking fish; it seems more like a reptile. Now where would be the harm if I did take some? Every cook tastes of the dishes he prepares.”
When it was fried he tasted a small piece, and while taking some of the sauce heard a buzzing in the air and a voice speaking in his ear.
“Let us taste a crumb: let us taste a little,” it said.
He looked round to see where the words came from, but there were only a few flies buzzing about in the kitchen. At the same moment some one out in the yard said in a harsh jerky voice, “Where are we going to settle? Where?”
And another answered, “In the miller’s barley-field; ho! for the miller’s field of barley.”
When George looked towards where this strange talk came he saw a gander flying at the head of a flock of geese.
“How lucky,” thought he; “now I know why my master set so much value on this fish and wished to eat it all himself.”
George had now no doubt that by tasting the fish he had learnt the language of animals, so after having taken a little more he served the king with the remainder as if nothing had happened.
When his majesty had dined he ordered George to saddle two horses and accompany him for a ride. They were soon off, the master in front, the servant behind.
While crossing a meadow George’s horse began to prance and caper, neighing out these words, “I say, brother, I feel so light and in such good spirits to-day that in one single bound I could leap over those mountains yonder.”
“I could do the same,” answered the king’s horse, “but I carry a feeble old man on my back; he would fall like a log and break his skull.”
“What does that matter to you? So much the better if he should break his head, for then, instead of being ridden by an old man you would probably be mounted by a young one.”
The servant laughed a good deal upon hearing this conversation between the horses, but he took care to do so on the quiet, lest the king should hear him. At that moment his majesty turned round, and, seeing a smile on the man’s face, asked the cause of it.
“Oh nothing, your majesty, only some nonsense that came into my head.”
The king said nothing, and asked no more questions, but he was suspicious, and distrusted both servant and horses; so he hastened back to the palace.
When there he said to George, “Give me some wine, but mind you only pour out enough to fill the glass, for if you put in one drop too much, so that it overflows, I shall certainly order my executioner to cut off your head.”
While he was speaking two birds flew near the window, one chasing the other, who carried three golden hairs in his beak.
“Give them me,” said one, “you know they are mine.”
“Not at all, I picked them up myself.”
“No matter, I saw them fall while the Maid with Locks of Gold was combing out her hair. At least, give me two, then you can keep the third for yourself.”
“No, not a single one.”
Thereupon one of the birds succeeded in seizing the hairs from the other bird’s beak, but in the struggle he let one fall, and it made a sound as if a piece of metal had struck the ground. As for George, he was completely taken off his guard, and the wine overflowed the glass.
The king was furious, and feeling convinced that his servant had disobeyed him and had learnt the language of animals, he said, “You scoundrel, you deserve death for having failed to do my bidding, nevertheless, I will show you mercy upon one condition, that you bring me the Maid with the Golden Locks, for I intend to marry her.”
Alas, what was to be done? Poor fellow, he was willing to do anything to save his life, even run the risk of losing it on a long journey. He therefore promised to search for the Maid with the Golden Locks: but he knew not where or how to find her.
When he had saddled and mounted his horse he allowed it to go its own way, and it carried him to the outskirts of a dark forest, where some shepherds had left a bush burning. The sparks of fire from the bush endangered the lives of a large number of ants which had built their nest close by, and the poor little things were hurrying away in all directions, carrying their small white eggs with them.
“Help us in our distress, good George,” they cried in a plaintive voice; “do not leave us to perish, together with our children whom we carry in these eggs.”
George immediately dismounted, cut down the bush, and put out the fire.
“Thank you, brave man: and remember, when you are in trouble you have only to call upon us, and we will help you in our turn.” The young fellow went on his way far into the forest until he came to a very tall fir tree. At the top of the tree was a raven’s nest, while at the foot, on the ground, lay two young ones who were calling out to their parents and saying, “Alas, father and mother, where have you gone? You have flown away, and we have to seek our food, weak and helpless as we are. Our wings are as yet without feathers, how then shall we be able to get anything to eat? Good George,” said they, turning to the young man, “do not leave us to starve.”
Without stopping to think, the young man dismounted, and with his sword slew his horse to provide food for the young birds. They thanked him heartily, and said, “If ever you should be in distress, call to us and we will help you at once.”
After this George was obliged to travel on foot, and he walked on for a long time, ever getting further and further into the forest. On reaching the end of it, he saw stretching before him an immense sea that seemed to mingle with the horizon. Close by stood two men disputing the possession of a large fish with golden scales that had fallen into their net.
“The net belongs to me,” said one, “therefore the fish must be mine.”
“Your net would not have been of the slightest use, for it would have been lost in the sea, had I not come with my boat just in the nick of time.”
“Well, you shall have the next haul I make.”
“And suppose you should catch nothing? No; give me this one and keep the next haul for yourself.”
“I am going to put an end to your quarrel,” said George, addressing them. “Sell me the fish: I will pay you well, and you can divide the money between you.”
Thereupon he put into their hands all the money the king had given him for the journey, without keeping a single coin for himself. The fishermen rejoiced at the good fortune which had befallen them, but George put the fish back into the water. The fish, thankful for this unexpected freedom, dived and disappeared, but returning to the surface, said, “Whenever you may need my help you have but to call me, I shall not fail to show my gratitude.”
“Where are you going?” asked the fisherman.
“I am in search of a wife for my old master; she is known as the Maid with the Golden Locks: but I am at a loss where to find her.”
“If that be all, we can easily give you information,” answered they. “She is Princess Zlato Vlaska, and daughter of the king whose crystal palace is built on that island yonder. The golden light from the princess’s hair is reflected on sea and sky every morning when she combs it. If you would like to go to the island we will take you there for nothing, in return for the clever and generous way by which you made us stop quarrelling. But beware of one thing: when in the palace do not make a mistake as to which is the princess, for there are twelve of them, but only Zlato Vlaska has hair of gold.”
When George reached the island he lost no time in making his way to the palace, and demanded from the king the hand of his daughter, Princess Zlato Vlaska, in marriage to the king his master.
“I will grant the request with pleasure,” said his majesty, “but only on one condition, namely, that you perform certain tasks which I will set you. These will be three in number, and must be done in three days, just as I order you. For the present you had better rest and refresh yourself after your journey.”
On the next day the king said, “My daughter, the Maid with the Golden Hair, had a string of fine pearls, and the thread having broken, the pearls were scattered far and wide among the long grass of this field. Go and pick up every one of the pearls, for they must all be found.”
George went into the meadow, which was of great length and stretched away far out of sight. He went down on his knees and hunted between the tufts of grass and bramble from morning until noon, but not a single pearl could he find.
“Ah, if I only had my good little ants here,” he cried, “they would be able to help me.”
“Here we are, young man, at your service,” answered the ants, suddenly appearing. Then they all ran round him, crying out, “What is the matter? What do you want?”
“I have to find all the pearls lost in this field, and cannot see a single one: can you help me?”
“Wait a little, we will soon get them for you.”
He had not to wait very long, for they brought him a heap of pearls, and all he had to do was to thread them on the string. Just as he was about to make a knot he saw a lame ant coming slowly towards him, for one of her feet had been burned in the bush fire.
“Wait a moment, George,” she called out; “do not tie the knot before threading this last pearl I am bringing you.”
When George took his pearls to the king, his majesty first counted them to make sure they were all there, and then said, “You have done very well in this test, to-morrow I will give you another.”
Early next morning the king summoned George to him and said, “My daughter, the Princess with the Golden Hair, dropped her gold ring into the sea while bathing. You must find the jewel and bring it me to-day.”
The young fellow walked thoughtfully up and down the beach. The water was pure and transparent, but he could not see beyond a certain distance into its depths, and therefore could not tell where the ring was lying beneath the water.
“Ah, my golden fishling, why are you not here now? You would surely be able to help me,” he said to himself, speaking aloud.
“Here I am,” answered the fish’s voice from the sea, “what can I do for you?”
“I have to find a gold ring which has been dropped in the sea, but as I cannot see to the bottom there is no use looking.”
The fish said, “Fortunately I have just met a pike, wearing a gold ring on his fin. Just wait a moment, will you?”
In a very short time he reappeared with the pike and the ring. The pike willingly gave up the jewel.
The king thanked George for his cleverness, and then told him the third task. “If you really wish me to give the hand of my daughter with the golden hair to the monarch who has sent you here, you must bring me two things that I want above everything: the Water of Death and the Water of Life.”
George had not the least idea where to find these waters, so he determined to trust to chance and “follow his nose,” as the saying is. He went first in one direction and then in another, until he reached a dark forest.
“Ah, if my little ravens were but here, perhaps they would help me,” he said aloud.
Suddenly there was heard a rushing noise, as of wings overhead, and then down came the ravens calling “Krâk, krâk, here we are, ready and willing to help you. What are you looking for?”
“I want some of the Water of Death and the Water of Life: it is impossible for me to find them, for I don’t know where to look.”
“Krâk, krâk, we know very well where to find some. Wait a moment.”
Off they went immediately, but soon returned, each with a small gourd in his beak. One gourd contained the Water of Life, the other the Water of Death.
George was delighted with his success, and went back on his way to the palace. When nearly out of the forest, he saw a spider’s web hanging between two fir trees, while in the centre was a large spider devouring a fly he had just killed. George sprinkled a few drops of the Water of Death on the spider; it immediately left the fly, which rolled to the ground like a ripe cherry, but on being touched with the Water of Life she began to move, and stretching out first one limb and then another, gradually freed herself from the spider’s web. Then she spread her wings and took flight, having first buzzed these words in the ears of her deliverer: “George, you have assured your own happiness by restoring mine, for without my help you would never have succeeded in recognising the Princess with the Golden Hair when you choose her to-morrow from among her twelve sisters.”
And the fly was right, for though the king, on finding that George had accomplished the third task, agreed to give him his daughter Zlato Vlaska, he yet added that he would have to find her himself.
He then led him to a large room and bade him choose from among the twelve charming girls who sat at a round table. Each wore a kind of linen head-dress that completely hid the upper part of the head, and in such a way that the keenest eye could not discover the colour of the hair.
“Here are my daughters,” said the king, “but only one among them has golden hair. If you find her you may take her with you; but if you make a mistake she will remain with us, and you will have to return empty-handed.”
George felt much embarrassed, not knowing what course to take.
“Buzz, Buzz, come walk round these young girls, and I will tell you which is yours.”
Thus spoke the fly whose life George had saved.
Thus reassured he walked boldly round, pointing at them one after the other and saying, “This one has not the golden hair, nor this one either, nor this….”
Suddenly, having been told by the fly, he cried, “Here we are: this is Zlato Vlaska, even she herself. I take her for my own, she whom I have won, and for whom I have paid the price with many cares. You will not refuse her me this time.”
“Indeed, you have guessed aright,” replied the king.
The princess rose from her seat, and letting fall her head-dress, exposed to full view all the splendour of her wonderful hair, which seemed like a waterfall of golden rays, and covered her from head to foot. The glorious light that shone from it dazzled the young man’s eyes, and he immediately fell in love with her.
The king provided his daughter with gifts worthy of a queen, and she left her father’s palace in a manner befitting a royal bride. The journey back was accomplished without any mishaps.
On their arrival the old king was delighted at the sight of Zlato Vlaska, and danced with joy. Splendid and costly preparations were made for the wedding. His majesty then said to George, “You robbed me of the secret of animal language. For this I intended to have your head cut off and your body thrown to birds of prey. But as you have served me so faithfully and won the princess for my bride I will lessen the punishment—that is, although you will be executed, yet you shall be buried with all the honours worthy of a superior officer.”
So the sentence was carried out, cruelly and unjustly. After the execution the Princess with the Golden Hair begged the king to make her a present of George’s body, and the monarch was so much in love that he could not refuse his intended bride anything.
Zlato Vlaska with her own hands replaced the head on the body, and sprinkled it with the Water of Death. Immediately the separated parts became one again. Upon this she poured the Water of Life, and George returned to life, fresh as a young roebuck, his face radiant with health and youth.
“Ah me! How well I have slept,” said he, rubbing his eyes.
“Yes; no one could have slept better,” answered the princess, smiling, “but without me you would have slept through eternity.”
When the old king saw George restored to life, and looking younger, handsomer, and more vigorous than ever, he too wanted to be made young again. He therefore ordered his servants to cut off his head and sprinkle it with the Life-Giving Water. They cut it off, but he did not come to life again, although they sprinkled his body with all the water that was left. Perhaps they made some mistake in using the wrong water, for the head and body were joined, but life itself never returned, there being no Water of Life left for that purpose. No one knew where to get any, and none understood the language of animals.
So, to make a long story short, George was proclaimed king, and the Princess with Hair of Gold, who really loved him, became his queen.