Grimm’s Complete Fairy Tales: The Willow-Wren
“In days gone by every sound had its meaning and application.”
This tale has a similar premise to The Sole. In this case, we learn why the owl is only seen at night, why the willow-wren prefers hedges and undergrowth, and why the lark may be the happiest of all bird species.
I rather enjoyed the beginning of this tale (I’ve linked an online version below in EXTRAS). It starts by describing the different sounds of the human world – a smith’s hammer, a carpenter’s plane, a mill wheel – and then introduces the different sounds of birds. This leads to a realization, among the species of birds, that a bird King needs to be named. The King would be determined by which bird flew the highest during an organized time and place. I was slightly familiar with this timeline of events, as the previous story, The Sole, used an almost identical storyline (with fish).
The gathering of the birds for this competitive flight is a bit drawn out (for a short tale), but what is significant is that a small bird hides on the back of an eagle, and when the eagle flies higher than all the others, the little bird “rose up and mounted so high that he reached heaven itself.” There was almost immediate retaliation to this, with many of the other birds exclaiming that the little bird won “‘by trick and cunning!’ So they made another condition. He should be King who could go down lowest in the ground.”
Many of the birds struggled to accomplish this, and once again our little bird declared his victory after dropping down into a mousehole and crying out “‘I am King! I am King!'”
Once again, the other birds were furious. So they decided to punish the little bird by having an owl stand guard over the hole, with strict instructions to not let the little bird get out. She was able to prevent his escape for most of the night, shutting one eye at a time when she felt tired. This paid off for her once, when she was able to catch him peeking out of the mouse hole – she stepped forward and back down he went. On she went shutting one eye at a time, until “she next shut the one eye, [but] forgot to open the other, and as soon as both her eyes were shut she fell asleep. The little fellow soon observed that, and slipped away.”
It is then explained that in the aftermath, the owl never dared to go out during the day, for the other birds would chase and abuse her. Furthermore, she began to hate and target mice “because they make such ugly holes.”
And finally, the fate of our little bird – the willow-wren.
The little bird, too, is very unwilling to let himself be seen, because he is afraid it will cost him his life if he is caught. He steals about in the hedges, and when he is quite safe, he sometimes cries, “I am King,” and for this reason, the other birds call him in mockery, “King of the hedges.”
So it seems to me that the birds recognize the wren as their King, but do so in a mocking way; otherwise, no King is identified.
I like these kinds of animal tales; tales that sort of describe an animal’s origins or give a creative explanation for their real-world behavior. Oh, and I almost forgot – I mentioned the lark at the beginning of this post, and I will end the post with its lovely fate.
No one, however, was so happy as the lark at not having to obey the little King. As soon as the sun appears, she ascends high in the air and cries, “Ah, how beautiful that is! Beautiful that is! Beautiful, beautiful! Ah, how beautiful that is!”
- Read The Willow-Wren.
- Want to learn more about the star bird of this tale? Click here.
- In The Letter for the King series on Netflix (US), Prince Viridian recites the story of “The Kinglet”, which is nearly identical to this one (minus the part about the owl). It happens in Season 1, Episode 3 at about the 22:30 minute mark, if it’s accessible to you and you are interested (unfortunately I couldn’t find the clip here on the internet).
- There are various articles online that talk about an Aesop fable about this competition of birds (featuring a wren). But I can’t find the story itself with my limited resources. I say this only to reiterate that there are likely many other versions of this tale. If you are familiar with one, please share!