“A certain country was greatly troubled by a wild boar that attacked workers in the fields, killed men, and tore them to pieces with its terrible tusks.”
This fairy tale is even darker than the first sentence lets on, so let’s get into it!
Two brothers are put to task by the King to kill the boar, and whichever brother does it gets to marry the King’s daughter. The younger brother is kind and innocent, and on his journey into the forest comes upon a fairy who gives him a special spear with which to kill the boar. When this brother sees the boar, and vice versa, the boar runs at the brother who stands his ground and puts up the spear, impaling the boar. The brother returns to the town where the older brother is “making merry”, and when the older brother sees the dead boar, he gets extremely jealous. That night, he takes his younger brother for a walk through the woods (randomly), and decides to whack his brother over the head, killing him. And just to make sure he’s dead, the older brother throws him into the river.
Can you guess what happens next? The older brother returns to the town and takes credit for killing the bear. He then marries the King’s daughter, and the tale ends.
Just kidding! About the tale ending, anyway. In a rare-up-to-this-point-in-this-anthology moment, a lesson bridges the gap between two points of time in the story.
After this wicked deed [the older brother] ran home quickly, took the dead wild boar on his shoulders, and carried it to the king, with the pretense that he had killed the animal, and that therefore he could claim the Princess as his wife, according to the King’s promise.
But these dark deeds are not often concealed, for something happens to bring them to light. Not many years after, a herdsman, passing over the bridge with his flock, saw beneath him in the sand a little bone as white as snow, and thought that it would make a very nice mouthpiece for his horn.
The herdsman fashions the bone into a mouthpiece and blows his horn. He is surprised at what sound he hears: not just a sound, but a song.
“Ah! dear shepherd, you are blowing your horn
With one of my bones, which night and morn
Lie still unburied, beneath the wave
Where I was thrown in a sandy grave.
I killed the wild boar, and my brother slew me,
And gained the Princess by pretending ’twas he.”
The herdsman, of course, thinks this is such a fantastic occurrence, finding this singing bone for his horn, that he takes it to show the King. After hearing the song, the King recognizes the situation and has the rest of the bones of the younger brother dug up. He sentences the older brother to death by drowning him, and then buries the younger brother’s remains “in a beautiful grave.”
Graham Anderson, in his book Fairytale in the Ancient World, identifies the inspiration behind this fairy tale, or at least offers it as a variant to an ancient Greek story. If you are familiar with ancient Greek myths and monsters, you may recognize the similarities between The Singing Bone and the story of Meleager and the Calydonian boar. The biggest difference, is that in the former, there is no explanation as to why the boar is in the town; in the latter, it’s all set up by Artemis to take revenge on King Oeneus.
There is a recent variant to The Singing Bone, but I’m leaving it below under EXTRAS. Also, as this fairy tale is one I had never read or heard of, I wonder if you have read or heard of it? It apparently was deemed too dark to be retold as a lighter story for children – or maybe it wasn’t? Have you heard of any other variants to this fairy tale, or any of the others I’ve covered so far?
I’ve been slowly getting into The Brothers Grimm: From Enchanted Forests to the Modern World (Second Edition) that I mentioned in my last post. Slowly not because of the book itself, but because I’m reading a bunch of other books, too. Maybe I ought to add Graham Anderson’s book to my TBR list too…
- Maid Maleen