The Swedish Tale of the Wolf and the Nightingale By Anthony Reubens Montalba 1850
In ancient times, when matters went on in the world very differently from what they now do, there reigned a king in Scotland who had the loveliest queen that ever graced a throne. Her beauty and amiability were such, that her praise was sung by every minstrel and tale-teller, and they called her the Scottish phœnix. This fair queen bore to her husband two children, a son and a daughter, and then died in the prime of her youth.
The king mourned for her many years, and could not forget her; he even said that he would never marry again. But human resolutions are unstable, and can never be depended on; and after the lapse of years, when the children were already grown up, he took to himself a second wife. The new queen was an evil-disposed woman, and made indeed a step-mother to the king's children. Yet the prince and princess were mirrors of grace and loveliness, and this was the cause of their step-mother's hatred of them; for the people, who loved the memory of the former queen, were constantly praising the young people, but never said anything about her; and whenever she appeared in public with the young princess, they always applauded and welcomed the latter, exclaiming, "She is good and fair like her mother." This roused her jealousy; she was full of spite towards them, and pondered how she might play them some evil trick; but she concealed the malignity of her heart under the mask of friendliness, for she dared not let the king perceive that she was ill-disposed towards them, and the nation would have stoned her and torn her in pieces if she had done them any harm.
The princess, who was called Aurora, was now fifteen years of age, blooming as a rose, and the fairest princess far and near. Many kings' sons, princes and counts, courted her and sought her hand; but she replied to them all, "I prefer my merry and unfettered girlhood to any lover," and thereupon they had nothing to do but to return from whence they came.
At last, however, the right one came. He was a prince from the East, a handsome and majestic man, and to him she was betrothed with the consent and approbation of the king and of her step-mother. Already the bridal wreath was twined; musicians were hired for the dance, and the whole nation rejoiced at the approaching nuptials of the fair Princess Aurora. But far other thoughts were in the queen's heart, and with threatening gestures she said to herself, "I will hire musicians who shall play a very different tune, and those feet shall dance elsewhere than in the bridal chamber. For," continued she, "this throws me quite in the shade, and my sun must set before this Aurora; especially now that she is going to have such a stately man for her husband, and will give descendants to her father, for I am childless. The nation, too, delights in her, and receives her with acclamation, but takes no note of me. Yet I am the queen: yes, I am the queen, and soon all shall know that it is I who am queen, and not Aurora."
And she meditated day and night how she might ruin the princess and her brother; but not one of her wicked plans succeeded, for they were too well guarded by their attendants, who valued them like the apple of their eye, and never left them day nor night, because of the dear love they bore to their mother, the departed queen.
At length the bridal day arrived, and the queen having no more time to lose, bethought herself of the most wicked art she knew, and approaching the young people in the most friendly way possible, begged them to go with her into the rose-garden, where she would show them a wonderfully beauteous flower which had just opened. Willingly they went with her, for the garden was close to the palace, and no one suspected any evil, for it was only mid-day, and the king and the grandees of the land were all assembled in the great hall of the palace where the nuptials were to be solemnised.
The queen led her step-children to the furthermost corner of the garden where grew her flowers, till they came beneath a dark yew tree, where she pretended to have something particular to show to them. Then she murmured to herself some words in a low tone, broke off a branch from the tree, and with it gave some strokes on the backs of the prince and princess. Immediately they were transformed. The prince, in the shape of a raging wolf, sprang over the wall and ran into the forest; and the princess as a grey bird, called a nightingale, flew into a tree and sang a melancholy air.
So well did the queen play her part, that no one suspected anything. She ran shrieking to the castle, and with rent clothes and dishevelled hair sank on the steps of the hall, acting as if some great disaster had befallen her, and by the king's command her women carried her to her chamber. A full quarter of an hour passed ere she came to herself. Then she assumed an attitude of grief, wept, and exclaimed, "Ah, poor Aurora, what a bridal day for thee! Ah, unfortunate prince!"
After repeatedly exclaiming in this manner, she at length related that a band of robbers had suddenly burst into the garden, and had forcibly torn the royal children from her arms, and carried them off; that they had struck herself to the ground and left her half dead; and she then showed a swelling on her forehead, to produce which she had purposely hit her head against a tree. They all believed her words, and the king commanded all the great lords, and counts, and knights, and squires, to mount their horses and pursue the robbers. They traversed the forest in all directions, and visited every cave, and rock, and mountain, for at least three miles round the palace, but they could not find a trace of either the robbers or the prince and princess. The king, however, could not rest, and caused further search and enquiries to be made, for weeks and months; and he sent messengers into all the countries he could think of; but all was in vain, and at length it was as if the prince and princess had never been in existence, so entirely had they disappeared.
The old king, however, thought that the robbers had been tempted by the fine jewels that the prince and princess wore on the wedding day, and that they had stripped them of those and then murdered them, and buried their bodies in some secret place: this so grieved him that he shortly after died. On his death-bed, as he had no children, he bestowed his kingdom on his wife, and besought his subjects to be true and obedient to her as they had been to him. They gave their promise, and acknowledged her as queen, more out of love for him than for her.
Thus four years passed away, when, in the second year after the king's death, the queen began to govern with great rigour; and with the treasures the king had left behind him, she hired foreign soldiers whom she brought over the sea to guard her and to keep watch over the palace; for she knew that she was not beloved by her subjects, and she said, "That they should now do out of fear what they would not do for love."
And so it came to pass, that from day to day she became more hated by every one, but nobody durst show his hate, for the slightest whisper against her was punished with death. Nevertheless, the murmurs and whispers still went on; and it was commonly said among the people, that the queen had a hand in the children's disappearance; for, in truth, there were plenty of persons who, on account of her sharp eyes and her affected love for the children, suspected her of evil practices against them. These murmurs, so far from dying away, went on increasing; but the queen cared not for them, and thought "they will remain the brutes into which I have transformed them, and no one will deprive me of the crown." However, things turned out otherwise than she expected.
Meanwhile the poor royal children led a sorry life. The prince had fled to the forest as a grey wolf, and was obliged to conduct himself like a wolf, and howl like one too, and by day to wander about in desolate places, and to prowl about at night like a thief; for wolfish fear had also sprung up in his heart. And also, he was obliged to live like other wolves, on all sorts of prey—on wild animals and birds, and in the dreary winter-time he was often obliged to content himself with a mouse, and live on very short commons, and with chattering teeth, to make his bed amongst the hard cold stones. And this certainly was very different from the princely mode of life to which he had been accustomed previous to his being driven into this wild savage misery.
He had, however, one peculiarity, which was, that he only destroyed and devoured animals, and never desired to take human blood. Yet there was one after whose blood he did thirst, and that was the wicked woman who had transformed him; but she took very good care never to go where she might be within reach of that wolf's teeth. It must not, however, be supposed that the prince, who was now a wolf, still preserved human reason. No; all had grown dark within him, and under the form of the beast as which he was condemned to scour the forest, he had also very little more than brute understanding. It is true, a dim instinct often drew him towards the royal residence and its gardens, as though he had cause to expect that he should find prey there; but he had no clear remembrance of the past: how indeed should it have lasted under a wolf's skin? At those moments when he felt the impulse, he was always also seized with unusual fierceness; but as soon as he came within a thousand paces of the spot, a cold shudder passed through him and compelled him to retire. This was the effect of the queen's magic art, which enabled her to keep him banished from her to just that distance, and no further.
She, however, did all in her power to destroy him, and caused her attendants to hunt very frequently in the forest which surrounded the castle, thinking that it was most probable that he was still there. On this account, twice in almost every week, she caused noisy hunts and battues after wolves and foxes to be held there; and, as a pretext for these, she kept a great many pretty deer there, of which our royal wolf did not fail to devour as many as he could catch. He, however, always contrived to escape the danger, although the dogs often had their claws in the hair of his back, and the hunters aimed many a shot at him. He concealed himself for the moment, and when the noise ceased and the bugles no longer resounded, he returned to the thicket, which was close to the castle, and lay in the sunny spots where, as a boy and youth, he had often played. Still he knew nothing of the past, but it was a mysterious love that drew him thither.
The Princess Aurora as we have said had flown up into a tree, being transformed into a nightingale. But her soul had not become dark beneath its light feathery garb, like the prince's within the wolf's hide; and she knew much more than he, both of her own self and of men, only she was deprived of the power of speech. But she sang all the more sweetly in her solitude, and often so beautifully, that the beasts skipped and leaped with delight, and the birds gathered round her, and the trees and flowers rustled and bent their heads. I think the very stones might have danced had they but had the power to love, but their hearts were too cold. Men would soon have remarked the little bird, and much talk would have arisen about her, but some secret power withheld them from entering the wood, so that they never heard the nightingale sing.
I have already related how the queen persecuted the poor royal wolf with hunts and battues, so that he was the innocent cause of great trouble and inconvenience to the whole wolvine family. As great evil too befel the little birds, and in those days of tyranny, it was a great misfortune to be born either a thrush, a linnet, or a nightingale, in the neighbourhood of the castle. For the queen, after the death of the king had thrown all the power into her own hands, suddenly pretended to have an illness of so peculiar a kind, that not only were the cries, cawing, and chattering of birds of prey insupportable to her, but even the sweetest twittering and warbling of the merry little birds affected her unpleasantly; and in order to make people believe this, she fainted on two occasions when she heard them sing.
This, however, was only a deception; her wicked aim was to kill the little nightingale, if by chance it should still frequent those groves and gardens. She knew full well that the little bird could not approach within a hundred paces of the castle, for she had cast her witch-spell upon her, as well as upon her brother. Under the pretext of this nervous sensibility to tender and delicate sounds, war was waged, not only against the pretty little royal nightingale, but against all the warblers in the vicinity. They were all proscribed and outlawed, and the queen's foresters and gamekeepers received the strictest orders to wage war against every feathered creature, and not to spare even the robin: no, nor the wren, at whom no sportsman ever before fired shot.
This terrible hatred of the queen's was a misfortune for the whole feathered race, not only for those which lived at large in the woods and groves, but even for those which were kept in the court-yards and houses. No feathered creature was to be found in the capital city, nor in the vicinity of the royal residence; for the people thought to pay court to the queen, and to win her favour, by imitating her caprices. There was a destruction of the feathered tribe, like another slaughter of the innocents. How many thousand canaries, goldfinches, linnets, and nightingales; nay, even how many parrots and cockatoos, from the East and West Indies, had their necks wrung! Discordant, or melodious throats, the chattering, and the silent, were all menaced with one fate; it became a crime to be born either a goose, or a turkey, or a hen; and the common domestic fowls grew as scarce as Chinese golden pheasants. If the queen had waged such war against the feathered race for another ten years, they would have quite died out of the country. Indeed, not only were all the birds murdered, but scarcely did a human being now take a walk in the wood, for fear of being suspected of going thither in hopes to hear the song of a bird.
And thus it was, that no one ever heard the wondrous song of the little nightingale, except here and there a solitary sportsman, and these never spoke of it, lest they should be punished by the queen for not having shot it. And indeed, to the honour of the foresters it must be said, that most of them followed their own good disposition, and seldom shot any little bird, but they were obliged to fire through the forest till it rang again. And this prevented any singing, and indeed many birds withdrew from it altogether, on account of the incessant noise, and never returned. The little nightingale, however, whom heaven especially protected, so that she escaped all the plots against her life, could not forsake the green forest behind the castle, where, in her childhood, she had played, and skipped about, so that although she flew away as soon as the bugles sounded, and the halloos and hurrahs echoed through the wood, she always returned again. And although her little songs, as coming from a sad heart, were, for the most part, melancholy and plaintive, still it was pleasing to her to live so amongst the green trees, and gay flowers, and to sing something sweet to the moon and stars; and she was unhappy only during a few months in the year. This was the season when autumn approached, and she was obliged to go with the other nightingales into foreign climes until the return of spring.
The little feathered princess confined herself then mostly to the trees and meadows where she had sported as a child; or in later years, with companions of her own age, had twined wreaths and garlands; or in the happiest days of her life, had wandered in those solitudes with her beloved. Her favourite haunt was a spot where grew a thick green oak, which spread over a murmuring rivulet, and which served as a covert for the soft whispers of their love. In this place she often saw the wolf, who was also led thither by a dim feeling of the past, but she knew not that it was her unfortunate brother. Yet she grew attached to him, because he so often lay down and listened to her song as though he understood it; and she often pitied him for being a harsh and wild wolf, that could not flutter from bough to bough, like herself and other little birds. But now I must also tell of a man, who, in that solitary forest, was often a listener to the little nightingale. This man was the eastern prince, her destined bridegroom when she was yet a princess.
Whilst the old king yet lived, he loved this prince beyond all other men, because of his virtues and valour, and on his death-bed had recommended him to the queen as her counsellor and helper in all difficulties and dangers, and especially as a brave and experienced warrior. On this account, after the king's death, he had remained about the queen, solely for love of the departed. But he soon perceived that the queen hated him, and was even plotting against his life, so he suddenly withdrew from her court, and left the country. She, however, caused him to be pursued as a traitor and a fugitive, and sent forth a decree, proclaiming him an outlaw, by which every one was empowered to slay him, and bring his head, on which a high price was set, to the royal castle. But he escaped to his father's land, which lay many hundred miles to the east of the queen's palace, and there dwelt with him. Still in his heart, he found no rest, and his grief for his vanished princess never subsided. A wonderful thing also came upon him, for once every year he disappeared, without any one being able to discover whither he went. He then saddled his horse, clad himself in obscure-looking armour, and rode off so that no one could trace his path. He felt himself impelled to enter the country of the queen who had outlawed him, and to visit that forest wherein the princess had disappeared. This powerful impulse seized him annually, just before the time when the princess had vanished, and he rode through wild, desolate, and remote places, until he reached the well-known spots, where he had once wandered with his betrothed. The green oak by the rivulet, was also his favourite place. There he passed fourteen nights in tears, and prayers, and lamentations for his beloved; by day, however, he concealed himself in the neighbouring thicket. There he had often seen and heard the little nightingale, and taken delight in her wonderful, and almost bird-surpassing song.
Yet they knew nought of each other; and although the little bird always felt sadness, and longing in her heart, when the knight had ridden away, still she knew not wherefore, and her deep and languishing Tin! Tin! still resounded in his heart when he had returned to his father-land. It was, however, with him, as with most other men who love, or do something mysterious, which puzzles all around them, he was not conscious of his own secret. That he was impelled each year to ride stealthily away he knew full well—but wherefore he was so impelled, he knew not at all.
Now a long time had passed since the death of the king, and it was already the sixth year since the royal children had disappeared, and the queen lived in splendour and enjoyments, and caused the beasts to be hunted, and the birds to be shot, and was no less harsh and cruel to her subjects than to the wild inhabitants of the woods. She fancied herself almost omnipotent, and thought her good fortune and power would have no end. Still, ever since that day, she had never entered the forest, a secret terror had always withheld her. She, however, did not allow herself to dwell upon it, nor did she perceive that a magic spell was the real cause.
Now it came to pass that she had appointed a grand festival and banquet, to which were invited all the princes and princesses of the kingdom, and all the nobles and all the principal officials. In the afternoon a grand wolf hunt was to take place in the forest, at which the princes intreated her to be present. She hesitated a long while under all kinds of pretences, but at last she allowed herself to be persuaded. She, however, placed herself in a very high chariot, and bade three of her bravest warriors, completely armed, to seat themselves beside her. She also commanded several hundred armed outriders to keep before and behind and by the side of the chariot, and a long train of carriages, full of lords and ladies, followed. The wolf was never out of her thoughts, but she said to herself: "Let the wolf come; nay, let a hundred wolves even come, this brave company will soon make an end of them." Thus does providence blind even the most far-seeing and cunning when they are ripe for punishment; for it had been foretold to her by other masters of her godless art, that she must beware of the sixth year. But of that she thought not then.
And it was a fair and cheerful spring day, and they went out into the forests with trumpets and horns, and the steeds neighed and the arms clashed, and the naked swords and spears glittered in the sun; but the queen outshone them all in her most splendid attire and all her jewels, as she sat enthroned in her high chariot. Already the chase had commenced with loud huzzas and hurrahs, and the clanging horns of the hunters and the baying of the dogs. Then a lion rushed before them followed by a boar; but they did not fear, and every man stood firm at his post, and they struck down the monsters. But ere long came a still more dreadful beast, which filled them all with alarm. A tremendous wolf rushed from the thicket upon the green plain, and howled so awfully, that hunters, dogs, and riders, all took flight. The wolf ran like an arrow from a bow; nay, he did not run, but flew between the men and horses, and not one of these remembered that he was armed with a bow, and a spear, and a sword, so dreadful was the aspect of the monster, and so terrifically did he open his foaming jaws. The queen, who saw him making towards her chariot, shrieked "Help! help!" The women screamed and fainted, many a man cowardly did the same. No one thought of obstructing the wolf's course, and with one spring, he threw himself on the chariot, tore from it the proud woman, and dyed his teeth and jaws in her blood. All the rest had fled, or stood at bay.
And oh, wonder! when they endeavoured to rally their courage in order to attack, the wolf was no more to be seen, but where he had just stood appeared the form of a handsome and armed young man! The men were astonished at the magic change, but some brandished their weapons as though they would attack him as a second monster. Then suddenly an ancient lord came forward from among them, the chancellor of the kingdom, and forbade them, crying aloud, "By my grey hairs I charge you, men, hold off! You know not whom you would strike;" and before they could collect their thoughts he lay prostrate on the ground before the young man and kissed his knees and hands, saying, "Welcome, thou noble blossom of a noble sire, who again art risen in thy beauty! And rejoice, oh nation; the son of thy lawful king is returned, and he is now your king!"
At these words many hastened round and recognised the prince, and hailed him as their lord, and then the rest followed their example. They were full of terror, and astonishment, and joy, all at once, and thought no more of the demolished queen nor of the wolf; for that the prince had been the wolf they had no idea.
The young king desired them all to follow him to his father's castle; he also stopped the chase, and the horns and trumpets which just before had disturbed the woods, now resounded before him to celebrate his happy return. And when again he was within, and looked down from his father's turrets, tears filled his eyes, and he wept both in joy and sorrow; for he remembered now all his trouble and thought of the bitter past, which lay upon him like a heavy dream. Then suddenly all grew clear in his mind, and he was able to relate to the chancellor and the nobles of the kingdom what had befallen him, and that only by the heart's blood of the old wicked witch, who was called his step-mother and their queen, could he be restored to his own form. The report of this astonishing wonder immediately circulated through the city and amongst the whole nation; and they all rejoiced that their beloved king's son was restored to them, and that the queen, whom they hated, had been torn in pieces by the fangs of the wolf which she herself had created.
But as the prince gradually came to himself, and bethought himself of all that had occurred, it lay heavy on his heart where his beloved sister, the Princess Aurora, might be, and whether she also were concealed within the skin of some animal, or feathery covering. Then he remembered her melancholy bridal day. And he enquired of every one about her; but all were silent, for none could give him any information. Then he again became sad and full of care, but this care and sadness were soon changed into joy.
For when all the noise of the wolf-chase took place, the poor prince from the East was just then lying concealed in his thicket, and the charming little nightingale was silent, and hidden amongst the green leaves of her oak. But a mysterious sensation shot through her little heart as soon as the thirsty fangs of the wolf, her brother, were bathed in the queen's blood.
Now when the chase was over, and the forest again was still, and the sun had set, the prince came out of his dark recess, and leant sadly against the stem of the green oak, wetting the grass with his tears, as was his nightly custom; and his heart seemed more than usually oppressed with sorrow. The little bird in the branches, however, began to sing to him, as was her wont, and he fancied that she sang differently from before, and with more enigmatical significance, and almost in a human voice. And a shudder came over him, and in great agitation he exclaimed, looking up amongst the branches:—"Little bird, little bird, tell me, canst thou speak?"
And the little nightingale answered yes, just as human beings are wont to answer, and wondered at herself that she was able to speak, and for joy she began to weep, and for a long time was silent. Then again she opened her little beak, and related to the man, in an audible human voice, the whole history of her transformation, and that of her brother, and by what a miracle he had again become a man. For in a moment all had become clear in her mind, as if a spirit had whispered it all to her.
The man exulted in his heart when he heard her tale, and he reflected much within him, and revolved many a plan; and the little bird frolicked and flew confidingly around him; yet although she now knew her own history, and what had occurred so well, she knew not in the least who he was. And he enticed the little bird, and caressed it, and fondled it, and intreated it to come with him, and he would place it in a garden where bloomed eternal spring, and where no falcon ever entered, and no one ever fired a shot. That would be far pleasanter than to flutter about in wild thickets, and have to tremble at the thought of winter, and of hunters and birds of prey. But the little bird would hear nothing of it, and praised freedom and her green oak, and twittered, and sang, and fluttered round the man, who took no heed, for he seemed plunged in other thoughts.
But see what were his thoughts! For before the little bird was aware, the man had caught her by her little feet, and hastily made off, threw himself on his horse, and flew full gallop as if pursued by a tempest to an inn which he knew in the city, not far from the castle, took there a solitary chamber, and shut himself up in it with his little bird. When the little bird saw him take out the key, and give other signs of its being her prison, she began to weep bitterly, and to implore him to let her fly; for she felt quite oppressed and wretched in the closed room, and could not but think of her green trees, and her cherished liberty. But the man took no notice of her tears and supplications, and would not let her fly.
Then the little bird grew angry, and began to transform herself into various shapes, in order to terrify the man, that he might open the doors and windows, and be glad that she should fly away. So she became in succession a tiger and lion, an otter, a snake, a scorpion, a tarantula, and at last a frightful dragon, which flew upon the man with poisonous tongue. But none of these frightened him in the least, but he kept his determination, and the little bird had all her trouble for nothing, and was obliged to become a bird again.
And the man stood in deep thought, for something he had read in ancient tales came into his mind. So he drew a knife from his pocket, and cut a gash in the little finger of his left hand, where the heart's blood flows most vigorously. And he smeared the blood on the little head and body of the bird, which he had no sooner done than the miracle was completed.
That very moment the little bird became a most lovely maiden, and the prince lay at her feet and kissed her hand, respectfully and submissively. The nightingale had now become the Princess Aurora, and recognised in the man her bridegroom, the prince from the land of the East. She was quite as young and beautiful as she was six years before, at the time of her transformation. For it is a peculiarity of transformations that the years during which persons are transformed do not add to their age, but a thousand years do not count for more than a second.
It is easy to imagine the joy of the pair; for when two loving hearts which have remained faithful to each other, meet again, after a long time, that is truly the greatest joy on earth. But they did not linger long together, but caused the king to be informed that two foreign princes from a distant land had arrived at his court, and requested his royal hospitality. Then the king went out to welcome them, and recognised his beloved sister Aurora, and his dear friend the prince from the land of the East, and was overjoyed; and the nation rejoiced with him, that all was restored as before, and that the kingdom no longer belonged to strangers.
After a few days he set the royal crown upon his head, and began to govern in his father's stead. He celebrated his sister's nuptials with the greatest magnificence, and there was dancing and feasting and knightly games. She and the prince also received from him a noble establishment both of land and attendants, so that they were able to live almost like kings. Aurora had, however, begged her brother to give her the wood, wherein as a bird she had fluttered through so many cheerful, and also sorrowful days, and this he willingly granted her. She built there a stately royal castle by the stream where she had so often sat and sung, and the thick green oak came into the centre of the palace-garden, and flourished yet many a year after her, so that her posterity still played beneath its shadow. She, however, caused a command to be issued that the wood should to all times be left in its natural majesty; she also gave peace to all little singing-birds, and forbade, in the strongest manner, traps or snares to be set within those sacred precincts, or that the little creatures should be molested in any way. And her brother reigned as a great and pious king, and she and her brave husband lived in happy love till they arrived at a snow-white age, and saw their children's children around them, till at length, accompanied by the blessing of God and men, they sank softly to sleep. It has been a custom ever since, amongst their children and descendants, that the eldest prince of their house should be christened Rossignol, and the eldest princess Philomela; for she desired to establish a pious recollection through all times of the marvellous misfortune that befel her when she was transformed into a nightingale. For Rossignol means, in fact, Rose-bird—the nightingales sing chiefly in the rose season—and Philomela, friend of song. The word nightingale means, however, songstress of the night, and this is the best of all.