The Golden Bird

ONCE there lived a young prince who everyone agreed was a royal meatball. His two older brothers were intelligent young men, but the youngest was a dreamer. He liked to go out wandering in the woods for days at a time, and often didn’t even bring along his bow. And when he was at home sometimes he would stay up all night and sleep right through the day.

The king had a tree that grew golden apples, which he was very protective of. The gardener had to count the apples every morning, to make sure they were all still there. One morning the gardener informed the king that an apple had gone missing. The king ordered him to stand guard by the tree that night, but the gardener fell asleep, and while he was asleep, another apple went missing. The next night the king ordered his eldest son to stand guard along with the gardener, but both men fell asleep, and another apple went missing. On the third night, the second eldest joined them, but all three men fell asleep, and another apple went missing.

Finally the youngest prince asked to try. The king let him, to shame the other princes for failing. The youngest prince was used to getting day and night confused, so he hurried to bed as the sun was rising, woke up at sunset, and went out alone to guard the tree. A few hours before dawn, a beautiful bird with shimmering golden feathers swooped down, pecked an apple from the tree, and took off with it. The youngest aimed his bow, and shot, and he just managed to graze the bird. It flew away but a single golden feather drifted down.  The next morning, the youngest prince took the feather to his father and told him what had happened. The King said, “This feather is worth my whole kingdom. I must have that golden bird!”

The eldest prince set out immediately to find the golden bird. He hadn’t gone far when he crossed paths with a fox. “Please don’t shoot at me.” It said. “I can help you.” But the eldest was no fool- he knew very well that foxes can’t talk. He drew out his bough to shoot the fox, but it got away. A year later the eldest still hadn’t returned, so the middle son went off to find his brother and bring back the golden bird. Same thing happened. He met the fox…tried to kill it…it got away…and a year later neither prince had returned. The king was heartbroken to have lost his two eldest sons. When the youngest prince asked to go seek his brothers and the golden bird, the king refused.  He didn’t want to lose his last child, even if he was a dimwit. But finally, after much pleading, the king relented and allowed the youngest prince to go.

He hadn’t travelled far when he met up with the very same fox. “Please don’t shoot at me.” It said, “I can help you.”And being a simple, good-natured soul the prince replied, “I won’t harm you.”                                                                                                                                                “You won’t regret your kindness.” Said the fox. “Now hop on my tail. I know what you’re seeking and I can bring you where you need to go.” So the youngest hopped on the fox’s tail and sped off so quickly the prince felt like he was riding on the wind.

After a time they stopped and the fox said. “Now listen, and I’ll tell you what you need to do. Follow this road and this very night you’ll come to a castle.  A whole troop of guards has been set in front to guard it. Pay them no mind. Every one will be asleep. Just walk right through the midst of them and straight into the castle. In the farthest corner you’ll find a chamber where the golden bird is resting. Place it in the wooden cage and you can take it away without discovery. But WHATEVER YOU DO DON’T PUT IT IN THE GOLDEN CAGE that’s also hanging there. If you do you’ll be in for big trouble.”

The youngest followed all the fox’s instructions carefully. He walked very bravely straight through all the sleeping soldiers and into the castle, and found the room. But when he saw the beautiful golden bird he was so excited he forgot which cage he was supposed to choose. ‘It couldn’t be that old wood one,’ he thought, so he put the bird in the golden cage, upon which it immediately let out a piercing screech. The soldier’s awoke and came running, and the next morning the king sentenced the prince to death. But he said, “Since you’re a competent thief, I will spare your life if you can steal the golden horse from my enemy and bring it to me. If you can do this, I will give you the golden bird as your reward. You have a month. If you fail to return, I will send out a party of my best soldiers to hunt you down and kill you.”

The prince accepted the king’s offer and set out. But the prince was awful at following directions, so although he had been told how to get to the city where the horse was kept, he soon got lost, and after wandering around for a long time he felt so tired and hopeless he sat down and cried. Suddenly there was his old friend the fox, standing before him. “You should have listened to my advice.” It said. “But cheer up, I’ll tell you how to get the golden horse.”

So the prince hopped up on the foxes tail, and they travelled a long ways as fast as the wind. After a time the fox stopped and said, “Now go straight ahead and by midnight you’ll come to a castle. The golden horse will be standing in the stable, and the groomsmen will be sleeping. Put on the plain leather saddle, and lead it outside, and all will be well. But whatever you do, don’t try to put on the golden saddle that’s also hanging there. If you do you’ll be in for it.”

The prince was determined to follow the fox’s instructions, but when he saw the horse, he got so excited he completely forgot which saddle he was supposed to take. ‘He can’t have meant me to put that ugly leather saddle on this beautiful golden horse!’ he thought. So he took the gold one down and as soon as he put it on the horse it whinnied loudly and the groomsmen awoke. And so, the next morning the prince was again sentenced to death. The king of that place said he would spare the prince’s life if he could bring him the beautiful princess from the golden castle. But he only had 30 days to do it, otherwise, he would be hunted down and killed.

The prince set out with a heavy heart. Soon he would have the armies of two kingdoms hunting him down. And although he was given careful directions, before long he got lost, and his fear and despair were so great he sat down and cried. And when he’d had a good long cry the fox appeared and said, “Why couldn’t you simply follow my instructions? Alright, I’m probably wasting my time with you but I’ll try to help you one more time. Hop on.”

So the prince got on the foxes tail and they flew off and before long the fox set him down and said, “Okay, chowderhead. Now listen carefully…please! Follow this trail and it’ll bring you to the golden castle. At night, when everything is quiet, the princess will go to the bathhouse to bathe. Before she goes in, you must present yourself to her and say, “Princess, it is time now. I have come for you. Then you must step up and give her a kiss. She’ll come with you then. But whatever you do, don’t allow her to go take leave of her parents. If you do, you’ll be sunk.”

The prince followed the trail to the golden castle and watched outside by moonlight until he saw the beautiful princess emerge and go towards the bath house. Then he presented himself to her and said, “Princess, it is time now. I have come for you.” And then he stepped up and gave her a kiss.” The princess seemed to know him, and said she would come with him, but said she must first take leave of her parent’s. The prince was so happy to have won her heart it was very difficult for him to refuse her. He tried to remain steadfast, but when she begged and cried and fell at his feet he relented, and when they went inside he was immediately seized and thrown in prison.

The next morning he was brought before the king. The king said, “What kind of prince are you, who would steal my daughter away from me in the night? I would have you put to death this morning, but my daughter has begged me to give you a chance to demonstrate that you are a man of quality. So, if within eight days you can completely remove the mountain that’s blocking the view from my window you shall have my daughter. Otherwise, your life is forfeit.”

The prince was set on the side of the mountain with a shovel and began to dig, and for seven days he dug and dug until his body ached and his blisters had blisters. On the morning of the seventh day he had hardly made a dent in that mountain. Then he dropped the shovel and lay in the dirt feeling completely exhausted and depressed. When it grew dark the fox appeared and said, “Stop torturing yourself you fool, and go to sleep. I’ll take care of it.”

The next morning, when the king looked out his window the mountain was gone, as if it had never been there, and because the king had made his bargain with the prince before his entire court he had no choice but to keep his word. So the prince and the beautiful maiden set off, and before long the fox joined them. Then the fox said to the prince: “Until the golden horse is yours your princess and your father’s kingdom will not be safe.”

“But how can I get it without giving up my beloved?” asked the prince.

“Bring the princess to the king that sent you to the golden castle. There will be great rejoicing, and they will gladly give you the horse. Then you must mount the horse right away and shake hands with everyone and say goodbye. Leave the princess’s hand for last, and when you shake her hand, clasp it and swing her up onto the horse with you and gallop away. The golden horse runs so fast that no one will be able to catch you.”

This time the prince followed the fox’s instructions exactly, and before long he was riding on the golden horse with the princess riding behind him, and the fox trotting along beside. “Now I’ll help you get the golden bird.” Said the fox. “Leave the princess with me and bring the golden horse to the king who asked you for it. But tell them you will not dismount until they bring you the golden bird. And when you have it in your hands you must race away and come back to us.” And again, the prince followed the fox’s instructions, and before long he stood before the fox and the maiden on the golden horse with the golden saddle, and the golden bird in its golden cage!

“Now, prince,” said the fox. “I have given you everything, you must give me my reward. When we come to the forest, you must shoot me in the heart and cut off my head and feet.”

“But you are my dearest friend! I can’t kill you, dear fox!”

“Then I must leave you. But I will give you one last piece of advice: Don’t buy flesh that’s bound for the gallows, and don’t sit on the edge of a well.” And saying this, the fox ran off into the forest.

“What a strange animal!” Said the prince to his maiden. “What does that even mean- “flesh bound for the gallows?” The two continued on their way back towards the prince’s kingdom. Eventually they passed through a village where a great commotion was happening. They went closer and the prince saw his two brothers, standing before the gallows. They had squandered their wealth, wasted themselves in pursuing pleasure, and were about to be hanged for their many bad deeds. The prince asked the people if his brothers could be pardoned and the people said, “You can buy their freedom. But why waste your money on evil criminals? Why set them free?”

However, the prince purchased his brothers’ freedom, and he and the princess continued their journey with the two brothers following behind. After awhile they came to the place where all three brothers had met the fox. A well stood there in a shady place inside the wood, and the eldest brother said, “Let’s rest here awhile, brother, so we can thank you properly for saving us before we return home.” The youngest prince was glad to have his eldest brother address him with so much respect, and he completely forgot the fox’s advice and sat down, when his brother invited him, on the edge of the well. But as soon as he did his brothers pushed him so he fell backwards into the well, and took the maiden, the horse, and the bird back home to their father.

When they arrived they told their father they had never met with their younger brother, and made up a story about how they found the maiden, the horse, and the golden bird. There was great rejoicing at their victorious return, but the horse refused to eat, the bird hung its head and would not sing, and the maiden sat in silence and wept.

The youngest brother had managed to survive, but was stuck in the well for several days until he saw his friend the fox looking down at him from the top of the well. The fox let down it’s tail and pulled the prince up. “You’re not out of danger yet. If you’re brothers see you they will surely have you killed.” So along the way home the prince exchanged his clothes with a poor man, and by this means he managed to steal into the castle, and the great thrown room. The beautiful maiden was supposed to marry the eldest brother that very day. The king had been watching her curiously and concernedly from the time she arrived. In all that time she had never uttered a word and never stopped crying. And then all of a sudden, he looked down into the courtyard and saw the golden horse begin to eat, and looked over to the window and saw the golden bird lift its head and begin to sing. And when he looked back at the maiden she had stopped crying and had begun to smile.

Then the king approached her and said, “Maiden, why have you been crying all this time. And why haven’t you spoken a word? And why now are you suddenly smiling?” The maiden replied, “I am crying because the two elder princes have killed the youngest prince, who was my true bridegroom. I haven’t spoken a word because they threatened to kill me if I revealed what they had done. And I am smiling now because even though it can’t be true, I feel that my true bridegroom has returned and is here with me.” Then the king ordered everyone in the thrown room to gather around him, and the princess recognized the prince despite his disguise and embraced him. Then the two eldest brothers were seized and executed, and the youngest married the beautiful princess and became his father’s heir.

The day of their wedding, although the bride glowed with happiness, at one moment the prince noticed her shed a tear. When he asked her about it, she said that she wished her brother might share her happiness, but he had disappeared long ago and she was missing him.

The next day the prince went back to the well to see if he could find his friend the fox. The fox was there and said to the prince, “Now you have everything you desired, but my imprisonment continues, even though it’s in your power to free me.” Then the prince felt he could no longer deny his friend’s request, as horrible as it seemed. He drew out his bough and shot the fox in the heart, and drew his knife and cut off it’s head and it’s paws, and no sooner was it done than a young man clawed his way out of the fox’s skin. It was none other than the beautiful maiden’s brother, finally released from a magic spell. And so they returned together to the castle, and now their happiness was complete.

The Golden Bird, by Brothers Grimm
(This abbreviated version by Lee.)

Lee Scher facilitates a monthly fairytale study group in Portland, OR. For more info visit: or email: For more info on Lee’s psychotherapy practice please visit:


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