I first read The Swan Maiden by Howard Pyle in those wonderful red books that I had found tucked away in my grandmama’s house. I loved the idea of a young woman who could turn into a swan, a three eyed witch who lived in a house that shone like fire and the barley woman made of honey and barley meal. For some reason, these images captured my imagination as a child, and I returned to read about them again and again. Which probably explains why this retelling, out of all the previous retellings that I have posted, comes closest to the original work. Like “Princess Golden-Hair and the Great Black Raven” it first appeared in Pyle’s book The Wonder Clock, published in 1887.
Just a quick reminder, all these tales are unedited, so there will be typos and grammatical errors. Still, I hope you enjoy reading this retelling.
The Swan Maiden
Once upon a time there grew the most beautiful pear tree. It stood in the very center of a castle garden, surrounded by high walls, and from its branches hung exactly twenty-four perfect golden pears.
The king, whose garden it was, adored this pear tree and took great delight in going out every morning to count the twenty-four golden pears that grew from it. However, one morning when he went to visit his beloved pear tree, he found only twenty-three golden pears hanging from its branches.
He spent the rest of his day questioning everyone in the castle, from the youngest scullery maid to the captain of the guard, but no one knew anything about the missing pear. The very next morning it happened again, despite the extra guards that had been set to watch over it the whole night through.
Frustrated, the king called his three sons to him and set them a challenge. Whoever could catch the thief would be given half the kingdom, and inherit the rest after the king’s death. The three princes talked amongst themselves and it was decided that the eldest would try first.
So that night, the eldest prince sat beneath the pear tree, gun in hand, and waited for the thief to show itself. But when the morning came, another golden pear was missing and no thief had been seen.
Strangely, the prince found that he could not say what had happened the night before. He swore that he did not remember closing his eyes, even for a moment and had been as surprised as anyone to wake with the morning sun on his face. Embarrassed, he urged the second prince to take his turn the following evening.
But the second prince had no better luck than the first. Bewildered, they ceded the next night to the youngest prince.
Now all three princes were handsome, brave and true, but the youngest was perhaps just a little cleverer than his brothers. While the first two princes had taken their turns, he had talked with the palace guards whom the king had first set to watch the pear tree. Most did not remember any more than the princes had, but one old soldier recalled hearing the most beautiful music for just a moment. Then the next thing the guards knew, they were waking up with the cock crowing a welcome to the silvery morn.
The story made the youngest prince wonder. So when evening came and it was his turn to watch for the pear thief, he had a plan.
He sat at the base of the tree with his gun across his knees, just as his brothers had done the nights before. But, keeping in mind what the old guard had said, he used softened wax to stop up his ears, which meant he was as deaf as a post while he kept his vigil.
Which is why when midnight came and the unearthly music began to play, the prince heard none of it. In fact, he was wide awake when a couple of hours later the branches above him began to shake. He saw among the leaves an enormous swan reaching with its beak for one of the golden pears. Slowly he raised his gun, and took aim… only to find a breath-takingly beautiful woman in his sights where once the swan had sat.
Lowering his gun, he removed the wax from his ears so that he could hear what she was saying.
“Don’t shoot, king’s son,” she pleaded in a lilting voice, as sweet as birdsong.
“I will not,” the prince promised. “Though I will admit, pretty thief, it is mostly for the chance to know you better.”
“I am not a thief by choice,” confessed the Swan Maiden. “My mistress is the witch with three eyes, and it is she who sends out me every night to bring her back a golden pear from the king’s tree. And if you want to woo me, then it is she that you will have to free me from.”
“Then so I shall,” said the prince, already quite enamored with the lovely woman sitting the branches above him.
“She lives far from here. Over seven high mountains, and across seven deep valleys with seven wide rivers running through them. Are you bold enough to go that far?” she asked.
“Oh yes,” he said confidently. “I am bold enough, for that and much more.”
“And are you clever enough, I wonder?”
“I am,” he said assuredly.
“We will see,” she said, jumping lightly from the branch to land gracefully in front of him, becoming a swan once more. “Climb on my back then, king’s son and hold on tight.”
Once he had done as she bade him, the great swan spread her wings and sprang into the air.
Through the night sky they flew, the stars a blanket above them. Below them rose seven high mountains, which fell into seven deep valleys with seven wide rivers winding through them like silver ribbons. On and on they flew until he saw, in the distance, a dark hill crowned by a house that shone like fire.
“Yonder hut is where the witch with three eyes lives,” said the Swan Maiden. “If you are bold enough, knock on her door and when she asks what you have come for, ask her to give you the one who draws the water and builds the fire, for that is myself.”
With that, the great swan landed on the top of the hill. The prince slid from her back and she flew off again, over the top of the roof.
The prince stepped boldly up to the door, as he had said he would, and knocked with a rap! tap! tap! The witch herself opened it.
“And what do you want?” she asked.
“I want the one who draws the water and builds the fire,” he answered.
The old witch scowled at him (which with her three eyes was a frightful sight indeed).
“Very well. You can have what you want, if you can clean my stables tomorrow between the rising and setting of the sun. But you should know, if you fail in the doing, then you will be torn to pieces, body and bone,” she warned him and shut the door in his face.
The brave prince would not be scared away by empty words. So, stretching out along the ground, he waited for the sun to rise.
The next morning, the witch came and led him to the stables where he was to do his task. The stable was huge! In it were at least a hundred cattle, and it looked as if it had not been cleaned in ten years.
“Here you are,” said the witch handing him a pitchfork and broom, cackling all the while. Then she left him.
The prince did not hesitate despite the impossible task, instead setting to his work with a will. But he might as well have tried to bale out the ocean with a pail. Because though he worked harder than any ten men could have, by the time the sun was high in the sky, he had made almost no headway.
At noon he was surprised to see the lovely Swan Maiden standing at the stable doors, beckoning to him. Leaving his pitchfork and broom, he went to join her.
“When one is tired, one should rest,” she said taking his hand in hers.
She led him to a sunny spot just outside the stable. There she sat and bade the prince to join her and lay his head in her lap.
So he did, happy to take her advice. After all, he had gained nothing from working so hard at his task, and perhaps if he were to take a moment, a clever solution would come to him.
The prince lay with his head quietly in the Swan Maiden’s lap, watching cloud ships sail across the sky, while she combed his hair with a golden comb. He was thinking so hard of a way to complete his task that he did not even realize that he had fallen fast asleep.
When he woke, the Swan Maiden was gone and the sun was setting. In horror, he jumped up and went to the stable, only to find it clean as a hungry man’s plate.
The prince had barely recovered from his shock, when he heard the old witch’s footsteps coming up the path. Swiftly, he set about, clearing away a straw here and a speck there, as if he was just finishing his work.
“You never did this by yourself!” exclaimed the witch, her face as dark as a thunderstorm.
“That may be so, and it may not be so,” said the king’s son. “But you lent no hand to help. So, now may I have the one who draws the water and builds the fire?”
“No,” said the witch shaking her head. “There is more yet to be done before you can have what you asked for. Tomorrow, if you can thatch the roof of this stable with bird feathers, no two being the same color, and do it between the rising and setting of the sun, then you can have your sweetheart and welcome. But if you fail, I will grind your bones finer than malt in a mill.”
That suited the prince well enough. So at sunrise, he took his gun and went into the fields. But if there were any birds there to shoot, he did not see them. By the time the sun was high in the sky, he had downed only two, and those were of the same color.
At noon, the Swan Maiden came to see him as she had the day before.
“One should not tramp and tramp about all day without any rest,” she said.
Taking his hand in hers, she led him a spot where the grass was soft and sweet smelling. There they sat and he laid his head in her lap. Again, she combed his hair with a golden comb until he was fast asleep.
He opened his eyes to see that the sun was setting, and his work was done just as it had been before. When he heard the old witch coming, he hopped up onto the stable roof and began to lay feathers here and there, for all the world as though he were just finishing his work.
“You never did that work alone!” exclaimed the witch when she saw the stable roof with its thatch of feathers.
“That may be so, and it may not be so,” said the king’s son. “But all the same it was none of your doing. So, now may I have the one who draws the water and builds the fire?”
But the witch shook her head. “No,” she said, “there is still another task for you to do. Over yonder there is a fir tree. At the very top of this tree is a crow’s nest with three eggs in it. If you can reach the nest and bring back all three eggs without losing or breaking a single one, and do it between the rising and the setting of the sun tomorrow, then you may have that which you have asked me for.”
That suited the prince just fine. So, the next morning he woke with the rising of the sun and headed off to find the fir tree.
Finding it was not hard for it was more than a hundred feet high. Climbing it proved much harder. It would take ten men, standing on each others shoulders, to reach the bottom branches. The trunk itself was as smooth as glass, from root to tip. Despite that, the prince tried his best to scale the fir tree, and for all his trouble he could only make it up a few feet before sliding right back down. He might as well have tried to climb a moonbeam.
By and by, the Swan Maiden came as she had done before.
“Are you to try and climb the fir tree?” she asked.
“Indeed,” replied the prince.
“And how are you fairing?”
“None too well,” the prince admitted, sheepishly.
The Swan Maiden smiled at him. “Then perhaps I can help you,” she said.
She unbound her braids until her golden hair hung down all about her and lay piled high on the ground around her. Then she began to sing. She sang and she sang until the wind began to blow. Catching up the maiden’s hair, the wind carried it up to the top of the fir tree and once there tied it to the upper most branches.
Quickly the prince climbed up the shining strands until he reached the very top. There was the nest with three eggs in it, just as the witch had said. He gathered them up and carefully went back down the same way that he had come up.
Once he was back on the ground, the wind came again to loosen the maiden’s hair from from the fir’s branches, and carry it back to her. She bound it up, just as it was before.
“Now listen,” said the Swan Maiden, “when the witch asks you for the crow’s eggs that you have gathered, tell her that they belong to the one who found them. Do not worry, she can not take them from you, and they are worth something, I promise you.”
At sunset the old witch came hobbling along to where the prince sat at the foot of the fir tree.
“Have you gathered the crow’s eggs?” she asked.
“Yes, replied the prince. “They are here in my handkerchief. And now, may I have the one who draws the water and builds the fire?”
“Yes,” said the witch, “you may have her, only give me my crow’s eggs.”
“No,” he said firmly. “The crow’s eggs are none of yours. They belong to the one who gathered them.”
Realizing that she would not get them that way, the witch tried another.
“Come, come now,” said the witch in tones as sweet as honey, “there should be no hard feelings between us. Before heading home with what you came for, you should have a good supper. After all, you have served me faithfully, and it is ill to travel on an empty stomach.”
So she led the prince back to the house. There she sat him down, saying that she would set the pot on to boil, before going to sharpen the bread knife on the stone doorstep.
While the prince waited for the witch, there came a tap at the door. And who should it be but the Swan Maiden.
“Come with me,” she said, “and mind that you bring the crow’s eggs. The knife she is sharpening is for you, and so is the pot on the fire. She means to cook you up this very night and pick your bones in the morning.”
The prince followed the Swan Maiden down to the kitchen, and there they fashioned a figure made up of barley meal and honey.
The Swan Maiden dressed the figure in her own clothes, and together they placed it on a stool that was sitting in the chimney corner by the fire. There it sat, soft and sticky, but looking much like Swan Maiden in the soft light.
The real Swan Maiden led the prince from the kitchen and through the front door, which was opposite the one where the witch sat sharpening her knife. Once they were out under the evening sky, she became a swan again and taking the prince on her back, she flew away.
As for the witch, she came in from sharpening her knife to find the prince gone. Try as she might, she could find no trace of him. In a rage, she stormed through the house until she came to the kitchen and saw the figure that was sitting there.
“Where is your sweetheart,” the witch asked the barley woman, thinking it the maiden herself. But of course the barley woman did not answer.
“Answer me you ungrateful creature!” she cried. “Or do you hope to protect him by staying dumb?” Raising her hand, she slapped the barley woman as hard as she could. Her hand stuck fast in the honey and barley meal.
“What! How dare you hold me!” Slap! – she struck the barley woman hard with her other hand which also sank in deep.
So there she stood, unable to get herself unstuck from the honey and barley meal, and could still be there to this day, for all we know.
As for the Swan Maiden and the prince, they flew back over the seven high mountains with their seven deep valleys and the seven wide rivers winding through them. They flew on and on until they came near the prince’s home. There the Swan Maiden landed in a great wide field that lay only a few miles from the king’s castle. It was there that she told the prince to open the first egg.
He did as she suggested, and what should he find inside but the most beautiful little castle, made all of gold and silver. He set the palace on the ground and it grew and grew until it covered a whole acre of land.
Then she bade him to break the second egg, and out came great herds of cattle and sheep, enough to cover the meadow where they stood.
Finally, she told him to break the third egg, and from it came scores of servants all dressed in gold and silver livery.
That morning when the king woke and looked out his bedroom window, there stood a splendid castle of gold and silver shining in the morning light.
The king gathered his people together and rode over to see how such a thing had come to be.
On the way, they rode through the herds of cattle and sheep, fat and content where they grazed. And past the rows of servants, dressed all in gold and silver, happily going about their labor. On they rode until they came to the castle gate, where the prince waited for his father.
Their reunion was joyful. Only his two elder brothers seemed unsure, thinking that youngest of them, having found the pear thief, was to inherit the whole of the kingdom. But he soon put their minds to rest, he had more than enough of his own and saw no need to have his father’s kingdom as well.
The youngest prince and the Swan Maiden were married and a grand wedding it was. The guests made very merry while they danced the whole night long. As the night grew older and the wedding guests began to depart, the prince sat happily with his new wife and watched them all go.
“Despite what I had promised you when first we first met, I can’t say that I did much that was very bold or clever. Save to follow your advice when you gave it,” the prince admitted to his new wife.
The Swan Maiden smiled brightly at her husband. “Some may say that is true, and some may say it’s not. As for me, I would say there is no clever thing than that.”