Grimm’s Fairy Tales: King Thrushbeard

It’s fairy tale time again!

King Thrushbeard is one of the stories I attached myself to as a young lass first reading through the Grimm’s Fairy Tales. You can read the full tale here but the basic story is this:

A king has a daughter who is very beautiful but extremely proud. The king wishes her to marry but no suitor is good enough for her. He invites princes and kings and nobles from across the land to a large banquet in hopes that she’ll find someone.

The princess finds a fault in each man. This one is too fat, this one is too skinny and so on until she comes to King Thrushbeard:

So she had something to say against every one, but she made herself especially merry over a good king who stood quite high up in the row, and whose chin had grown a little crooked. “Well,” she cried and laughed, “he has a chin like a thrush’s beak! and from that time he got the name of King Thrushbeard.

Enraged, her father declares that the princess will wed the first beggar who comes to the door. And when the beggar comes along, all he has to do is play a song and he gets a bride. They’re married and sent on their way, traveling through a beautiful forest, meadow and  town. The beggar reveals they all belong to King Thrushbeard. The princess starts to regret being so cruel to the king. Her beggar husband isn’t happy (obviously.)

The princess faces several humiliations as she tries (and fails) at different domestic tasks. Her fed-up husband sends her to work as an assistant to the palace cook to do the dirtiest tasks and take home the scraps in little crocks attached to her waist. One day, the king’s son is having his wedding (this king is different from her father). This king’s son appears in the kitchen and she recognizes him as King Thrushbeard. He drags her into the ballroom and her pots full of food fall off her waist. Food goes everywhere. As the court laughs at her, she runs. Thrushbeard catches her.

He said to her kindly, “Do not be afraid, I and the fiddler who has been living with you in that wretched hovel are one. For love of you I disguised myself so; and I also was the hussar who rode through your crockery. This was all done to humble your proud spirit, and to punish you for the insolence with which you mocked me.”

Then she wept bitterly and said, “I have done great wrong, and am not worthy to be your wife.” But he said, “Be comforted, the evil days are past; now we will celebrate our wedding.” Then the maids-in-waiting came and put on her the most splendid clothing, and her father and his whole court came and wished her happiness in her marriage with King Thrushbeard, and the joy now began in earnest. I wish you and I had been there too.

For some reason, I really liked this story when I was younger. I was drawn to the Grimm tales that weren’t familiar to me. I also think I zeroed in on “secret royalty! because he loved her!” and overlooked the fact that he put her through all these trials. As an adult, this story and its hero makes my eyebrows raise even as I maintain my soft spot for it.

Almost every folktale/fairy tale is grouped with other tales with similar elements and is categorized by the Aarne-Thompson system. (For example: The French Cendrillon and German Aschenputtel are both Cinderella type stories and are classified under tale-type 510A.)

When I looked up King Thrushbeard, it belonged in type 900 or tales about Taming the Shrewish Wife.  Other versions vary in how much they humiliate the wife but the common thread is  troublesome: If a princess is prideful (especially in Grimm’s fairy tales) she is not considered a suitable bride unless she is humbled. Pride a vice in all of the Grimms’ tales but it’s always made out to be especially horrible when displayed in a woman and their punishment is always immense. (I’d say King Thrushbear’s response shows an immense pride but that is never seen as something to be broken.)

I’ll get off my soapbox for a bit to just talk about the characters themselves, isolated from the Grimms’ mores and the tale type’s problems. The princess is not a very nice person, I will say that. I do sympathize with her though: being a royal is something that would make a person prideful. This doesn’t excuse her rude behavior to the kings and princes but I don’t think she’s the worst person. She just doesn’t know any better. My sympathy grows for her as she attempts and fails at the different trials her husband puts her through (whether because she’s too delicate for rough work or because Thrushbeard is deliberately sabotaging her attempts).

I’ll also give that a king has probably been raised to take no insult. I find it harder to sympathize with him though, maybe because the story is telling me that I should agree with what he did. Even without that moral voice, the princess’ insult did not merit as large a retaliation as Thrushbeard dished out.

In the end the story doesn’t make me swoon as much as it did when I was young and I’m left with a big frown.  But I do like talking about the lesser known fairy tales so there is a plus to all this.


Appearance: Normal king–handsome except for his beard like a thrush’s break

Personality: Proud, vengeful, eventually kinda tender?

Best Quality: In the end he restores the princess to her rank.

Worst Quality: The disproportionate revenge part.

Grade: F, despite my nostalgia goggles.




1 Response to “Grimm’s Fairy Tales: King Thrushbeard”

  1. 1 Phil May 17, 2014 at 11:51 am

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