Let’s Talk Fairytales #4: King Thrushbeard

Hello, everyone! I was recently gifted a gorgeous version of Grimm’s Complete Fairy Tales, which means that we can take a little break from mythology and go back to the best and most dubiously “moral” stories of all: German bedtime stories. Today, we start with a gem called “King Thrushbeard.” One lesson I’ve learned after reading this collection: even the Grimm brothers were antisemitic. I read “The Jew in the Thorns” and a piece of my soul crumbled away. I mean, I get that the publishers were trying to compile an authentic Grimm’s Brother collection, but was a story that ends with the townspeople celebrating the hanging of a Jewish banker really necessary?


Moving on to slightly less disturbing morals, let’s dive into “King Thrushbeard.”


We begin in a familiar place, with a King, a castle, and his beautiful beyond measure daughter. How beautiful, you ask? Beautiful enough that instead of arranging a marriage for her, the King actually gives her a selection of potential grooms. He’s truly the first progressive king in fairy tale history, but the princess is so beautiful that she turns down every single man he sends her way. And, because she’s a sassy reality TV star in the making, she has to insult them before she sends them on their way.

To every one, she had some objection to make; one was too fat, “The wine-cask,” she said. Another was too tall, “Long and thin has little in.” The third was too short, “Short and thick is never quick.” The fourth was too pale, “As pale as death.” So she had something to say about 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.


We’ve read many fairytales, so we know that rude girls are gonna learn their lesson. If they didn’t, little German children would have thought that they could mouth off too, and then Germany might have become a global disgrace and been run by fascists. But thank god fairytales stopped that from happening.


Naturally, the king decides that he will no longer tolerate his daughter’s sass mouth and comes up with the perfect plan. Since she has refused every suitor, he will marry her to the next beggar who enters the castle. Perfect! Screw alliances and dynastic successions, this princess needs to learn a goddamn lesson! A few days later, a beggar comes and the king gives him the princess for a wife. The princess tries to appeal to her father’s paternal nature, but being the good German heartless bastard that he is, he just sends her away with a random stranger and continues on like nothing happened.


The beggar takes the scenic route back to his hovel so that the princess can see all of the fields and forest that belong to King Thrushbeard, a man she disdained to marry. At each sight, she asks to whom the land belongs, and at each sight, the beggar replies that it belongs to King Thrushbeard.

Then they came to a large town, and she asked again, “To whom does this fine large town belong?”

“It belongs to King Thrushbeard; if you had taken him, it would have been yours.”

“Ah, unhappy girl that I am, if I had but taken King Thrushbeard!”

“It does not please me,” said the fiddler, “to hear you always wishing for another husband; am I not good enough for you?”

Of course not, dummy! She’s a princess, even if her father did give her away like a piece of old meat. The beggar tries to make the princess cook and clean for him, but she’s a princess, and therefore useless. The beggar is so disgusted at her lack of wifely competence that he, the man, has to cook and clean to keep the house in order. It’s hard to know who is more disappointed in this marriage; the princess who ended up with a beggar, or the beggar who ended up with a princess. But to be fair, no one said princesses could…you know…do anything. They’re raised to be chess pieces, not capable, competent women. But this marriage is no accident. It’s all part of an M. Night Shamalyan twist, Grimm Brothers style.


After Beggar Boy realizes that the princess is incompetent, he sends her out to sell crockery at the marketplace. She’s so damn beautiful that men line up to buy her cheap crockery, which shows that what’s on the outside does matter! But alas, the princess can’t keep her success alive for long.

Suddenly, there came a drunken hussar galloping along, and he rode right amongst the pots so that they were all broken into a thousand bits. She began to weep, and did not know what to do for fear. “Alas! what will happen to me?” cried she; “what will my husband say to this?”

At this point, having been forced to live in poverty and sell crockery (made in China!), I think the princess has learned her lesson. She’ll surely never be sassy again. But, she still has farther to fall. To make ends meet, the princess becomes a kitchen maid in King Thrushbeard’s palace and has to do all the dirtiest jobs. Her only pay is a jar of soup. That was the going rate for minimum wage back then: one jar of soup per day, jar not included. We can all agree that the princess has undergone a true rags-to-riches story, a reverse Horatio Algiers. She has Little Princessed herself and now is ready to be redeemed. Surely, nothing worse can happen to our poor little sass mouth?


It happened that the wedding of the King’s eldest was to be celebrated, so the poor woman went up and placed herself by the door of the hall to look on…all at once the King’s son entered…and when he saw the beautiful woman he seized her by the hand, and would have danced with her, but she refused and shrank with fear, for she saw that it was King Thrushbeard. Her struggles were of no avail, he drew her into the hall, but the string by which her pockets were hung broke, the pots fell down, the soup ran out…and when the people saw it, there arose general laughter and derision, and she was so ashamed that she would rather have been a thousand fathoms below the ground.


Too far, bitches. The princess has already lost all of her beloved crockery, and now this high school level public humiliation? Too damn far. Fortunately, it’s time for the M. Night Shamalayan twist that will magically erase all of these problems.

She sprang to the door and would have run away, but on the stairs a man caught her and brought her back; and when she looked at him it was King Thrushbeard again. He said to her kindly, “Do not be afraid, I and the fiddler who has been living with out 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 wall done to humble your proud spirit, and to punish you for the insolence with which you mocked me.”


So, it’s apparently okay for a king to take a sabbatical in order to marry a woman under false pretenses, belittle her for months, destroy her livelihood, pay her in soup, force her to dance against her will, and then make her marry him again, but it’s not okay for a princess to insult a guy’s chin one time? That’s what’s not okay?

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.”

LOL, he thinks she’s crying because she’s learned her lesson, not because she’s trapped into marrying a psychopathic king obsessed with the art of disguise. The evil times are over, he says. King Thrushbeard honestly believes that he’s done a noble thing by breaking his wife’s spirit.


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.

Well I don’t because I would’ve barfed! Don’t tell me that her father was in on this preposterous deception too! Did he help King Thrusbeard pick out his hussar costume? Notice how King Thrushbeard doesn’t even ask if the princess wants to marry him, he just assumes that she’ll fall into his arms. I, for one, think this marriage would be quite tumultuous, with lots of couple’s therapy involved, but who am I to get in the way of all the earnest joy?


The dubious moral: People are always making fun of the severity of German fairy tales, but I think in the case of “King Thrushbeard,” they’re completely right. We’ve learned that if girls are rude or insult a man’s appearance, they deserve to be disowned, sold like chattel, verbally abused, publicly humiliated, and then forced into another marriage. But boys, however, can be as horrible as they want, since it’s all for a good cause. All I can say to that is:

It’s okay, I can say that because I’m part German. 

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