Heroine’s Journey: The Goose-Girl

The next step on our fairytale heroine’s journey is “The Goose-Girl,” from the Brothers Grimm (as translated by Margaret Hunt, 1884). You remember the steps, right?

1. The heroine receives gifts.
2. The heroine leaves or loses her home.
3. The heroine enters the dark forest.
4. The heroine finds a temporary home.
5. The heroine finds friends and helpers.
6. The heroine learns to work.
7. The heroine endures temptations and trials.
8. The heroine dies or visits the dead.
9. The heroine finds her true partner.
10. The heroine is revived or revives another.
11. The heroine enters her true home.
12. The heroine’s tormentor is punished.

Something like that. So what happens to our heroine, the goose-girl?

There was once upon a time an old Queen whose husband had been dead for many years, and she had a beautiful daughter. When the princess grew up she was betrothed to a prince who lived at a great distance. When the time came for her to be married, and she had to journey forth into the distant kingdom, the aged Queen packed up for her many costly vessels of silver and gold, and trinkets also of gold and silver; and cups and jewels, in short, everything which appertained to a royal dowry, for she loved her child with all her heart. She likewise sent her maid in waiting, who was to ride with her, and hand her over to the bridegroom, and each had a horse for the journey, but the horse of the King’s daughter was called Falada, and could speak. So when the hour of parting had come, the aged mother went into her bedroom, took a small knife and cut her finger with it until it bled, then she held a white handkerchief to it into which she let three drops of blood fall, gave it to her daughter and said, “Dear child, preserve this carefully, it will be of service to you on your way.”

And there are Steps 1 and 2: the heroine receives gifts, and she leaves her home. The gifts are the talking horse Falada and the handkerchief with her mother’s blood. If your mother gives you a handkerchief with drops of her blood on it, don’t lose it. Just don’t.

So they took a sorrowful leave of each other; the princess put the piece of cloth in her bosom, mounted her horse, and then went away to her bridegroom. After she had ridden for a while she felt a burning thirst, and said to her waiting-maid, “Dismount, and take my cup which thou hast brought with thee for me, and get me some water from the stream, for I should like to drink.” “If you are thirsty,” said the waiting-maid, “get off your horse yourself, and lie down and drink out of the water, I don’t choose to be your servant.” So in her great thirst the princess alighted, bent down over the water in the stream and drank, and was not allowed to drink out of the golden cup. Then she said, “Ah, Heaven!” and the three drops of blood answered, “If thy mother knew, her heart would break.” But the King’s daughter was humble, said nothing, and mounted her horse again.

This happens a second time, with the maid refusing to serve the princess and the drops of blood opining that her mother’s heart would break.

And as she was thus drinking and leaning right over the stream, the handkerchief with the three drops of blood fell out of her bosom, and floated away with the water without her observing it, so great was her trouble. The waiting-maid, however, had seen it, and she rejoiced to think that she had now power over the bride, for since the princess had lost the drops of blood, she had become weak and powerless.

And there you go: I told you not to lose the handkerchief with the drops of blood, didn’t I? Without the drops of blood, the princess has lost a source of possible help, and is now in the maid’s power. Notice that we are in the middle of Step 3: we have been riding through the dark forest. The dark forest is where the princess loses her power, and more than that.

So now when she wanted to mount her horse again, the one that was called Falada, the waiting-maid said, “Falada is more suitable for me, and my nag will do for thee” and the princess had to be content with that. Then the waiting-maid, with many hard words, bade the princess exchange her royal apparel for her own shabby clothes; and at length she was compelled to swear by the clear sky above her, that she would not say one word of this to any one at the royal court, and if she had not taken this oath she would have been killed on the spot. But Falada saw all this, and observed it well.

She also loses her identity. The dark forest is where you lose who you are: Snow White loses her identity as princess when she runs away into the forest. Instead, she becomes the dwarves’ housekeeper. The other day, I had a revelation which I’ll write about more later. I thought about friends of mine who were going through metaphorical dark forests of their own, and suddenly it came to me: the heroine never dies in the dark forest. Seriously, never. The dark forest may be where she feels most alone and afraid. But she doesn’t die until later in the story. The dark forest is where she loses herself in a process of transformation. The princess is no longer herself, which is confusing and scary.

Here, the maid pretends to be the princess, and the princess has to act as maid. They come to the royal palace, and the maid is greeted as the prince’s bride.

Then the old King looked out of the window and saw her standing in the courtyard, and how dainty and delicate and beautiful she was, and instantly went to the royal apartment, and asked the bride about the girl she had with her who was standing down below in the courtyard, and who she was? “I picked her up on my way for a companion; give the girl something to work at, that she may not stand idle.” But the old King had no work for her, and knew of none, so he said, “I have a little boy who tends the geese, she may help him.”

So the princess becomes the goose-girl. And here we are at Steps 4 and 6: the heroine finds a temporary home, and she learns to work. The princess lives in the castle, but not in the right way, not in the way she should. The temporary home sometimes takes that form: it’s the true home, but not inhabited in the right way. And the princess learns to tend geese. Learning to work often involves menial work. I think this is an important step in the heroin’s journey, but one I could not see until I started this project. I did not realize how important it was, how many heroines have to clean (Cinderella), cook (Donkeyskin), tend geese. I think there’s something quite positive about it. We have a sense that princesses sit around waiting for princes to rescue them, but that’s not what happens in fairytales. No, princesses sit around tending geese. In other words, they get jobs.

The maid realizes that Falada poses a danger to her, so she orders the horse killed. Perhaps I should have called Falada a friend and helper? Yes, I think that’s what we see here: Step 5, the heroine finds friends and helpers. That’s where Falada fits. And she has to work for him, too: the princess promises the knacker a piece of gold if he will do her a favor.

There was a great dark-looking gateway in the town, through which morning and evening she had to pass with the geese: would he be so good as to nail up Falada’s head on it, so that she might see him again, more than once. The knacker’s man promised to do that, and cut off the head, and nailed it fast beneath the dark gateway.

Notice that she has her own money: did she earn it herself?  The maid took everything she had, so there’s a chance that it’s her own money, earned by her own work.  Which is also important, the possibility that she is saving herself through her own labor.

Early in the morning, when she and Conrad drove out their flock beneath this gateway, she said in passing,

“Alas, Falada, hanging there!”

Then the head answered,

“Alas, young Queen, how ill you fare!
If this your tender mother knew,
Her heart would surely break in two.”

So you see, Falada sounds a lot like the drops of blood. The princess made a mistake: she lost the handkerchief, which was a gift. But she can rectify that loss: she gave the gold coin for Falada’s head, and it will help her, speaking with the voice of the gift, speaking for her mother. Now the princess is about to endure Step 7, the temptations and trials. The greatest trial is having to be goose-girl. The lesser trial is having to deal with Conrad.

Then they went still further out of the town, and drove their geese into the country. And when they had come to the meadow, she sat down and unbound her hair which was like pure gold, and Conrad saw it and delighted in its brightness, and wanted to pluck out a few hairs. Then she said,

“Blow, blow, thou gentle wind, I say,
Blow Conrad’s little hat away,
And make him chase it here and there,
Until I have braided all my hair,
And bound it up again.”

The wind blows Conrad’s hat away, so that he has to run after it. I’m not sure why this is such an important part of the narrative? I think it reveals a sort of danger to the princess: the danger that a rough servant boy, like Conrad, could become enamored of her. Could perhaps insult or assault her? The golden hair is also important: it signifies her value, her purity. Conrad is attracted to it, but it has to be preserved for someone else, for the true partner, which Conrad most definitely is not. This scene happens again the next day, and Conrad starts to complain.

But in the evening after they had got home, Conrad went to the old King, and said, “I won’t tend the geese with that girl any longer!” “Why not?” inquired the aged King. “Oh, because she vexes me the whole day long.” Then the aged King commanded him to relate what it was that she did to him. And Conrad said, “In the morning when we pass beneath the dark gateway with the flock, there is a sorry horse’s head on the wall, and she says to it,

“Alas, Falada, hanging there!”

And the head replies,

“Alas, young Queen how ill you fare!
If this your tender mother knew,
Her heart would surely break in two.”

And Conrad went on to relate what happened on the goose pasture, and how when there he had to chase his hat.

Hearing this, the king decides to spy on the goose-girl. He sees everything that happens, and in the evening, he calls the goose-girl to him, asking her why she speaks to Falada in that way.

“I may not tell you that, and I dare not lament my sorrows to any human being, for I have sworn not to do so by the heaven which is above me; if I had not done that, I should have lost my life.” He urged her and left her no peace, but he could draw nothing from her. Then said he, “If thou wilt not tell me anything, tell thy sorrows to the iron-stove there,” and he went away. Then she crept into the iron-stove, and began to weep and lament, and emptied her whole heart, and said, “Here am I deserted by the whole world, and yet I am a King’s daughter, and a false waiting-maid has by force brought me to such a pass that I have been compelled to put off my royal apparel, and she has taken my place with my bridegroom, and I have to perform menial service as a goose-girl. If my mother did but know that, her heart would break.”

This is a step I’m not quite sure about: Step 8, in which the heroine dies. You see, the goose-girl does not die, in any ordinary sense. Snow White dies, and Sleeping Beauty sleeps for a hundred years, which is the next best (or worst) thing  to death. But the goose-girl just crawls into the iron-stove. Isn’t that strange? It reminds me of Cinderella sleeping on the hearth, among the ashes. And that, for me, is an image of death, because we associate ashes with the dead. So perhaps there is a whisper of death here: a whisper of crawling into a small space, a space like a tomb or womb, like the belly of the wolf in “Little Red Riding Hood.” This is the only space in which the princess can whisper her secret, reveal her true identity. Over and over again, in fairy tale journeys, we see this crawling into or lying in a small space: a coffin, a tower room. The heroine has to go in, and when she comes out, it’s to transform into her true self.  Like a caterpillar becoming a chrysalis becoming a butterfly.

The aged King, however, was standing outside by the pipe of the stove, and was listening to what she said, and heard it. Then he came back again, and bade her come out of the stove. And royal garments were placed on her, and it was marvellous how beautiful she was!

So there she is: her true identity is revealed. Again we have two steps: Step 10, the heroine is revived, and Step 9, she finds her true partner.

The aged King summoned his son, and revealed to him that he had got the false bride who was only a waiting-maid, but that the true one was standing there, as the sometime goose-girl. The young King rejoiced with all his heart when he saw her beauty and youth, and a great feast was made ready to which all the people and all good friends were invited. At the head of the table sat the bridegroom with the King’s daughter at one side of him, and the waiting-maid on the other, but the waiting-maid was blinded, and did not recognize the princess in her dazzling array.

Step 11 is the heroine enters her true home, and here the princess has entered her true home, which is the same home, but she now enters it through a different door and as a different person. She is no longer in the kitchen but in the banquet-hall. And finally we see Step 12: the heroine’s tormentor is punished.

When they had eaten and drunk, and were merry, the aged King asked the waiting-maid as a riddle, what a person deserved who had behaved in such and such a way to her master, and at the same time related the whole story, and asked what sentence such an one merited? Then the false bride said, “She deserves no better fate than to be stripped entirely naked, and put in a barrel which is studded inside with pointed nails, and two white horses should be harnessed to it, which will drag her along through one street after another, till she is dead.” “It is thou,” said the aged King, “and thou hast pronounced thine own sentence, and thus shall it be done unto thee.” And when the sentence had been carried out, the young King married his true bride, and both of them reigned over their kingdom in peace and happiness.

We even have the words “true bride” here: the princess is the true bride, as the prince is her true partner.

What can we learn from “The Goose-Girl”? First, that you should not lose your gifts, but if you do, all is not lost. You may still have friends and helpers, and they will save you when your gifts cannot. Second, that even if you have to work as a goose-girl for a while, you are still a princess. You still retain your value, even if you have to hide it away from the Conrads of the world.  Third, that you must reveal your secret self in order to become it, even if it’s only to an iron-stove pipe. And then somehow, the secret will out. Your true self will be revealed. You can’t find your true home, your true partner, without revealing it.

I think there’s a final lesson here, which has to do with the violent ending of some of these tales. The maid dies a horrible death, and yet she created it herself. It reminds me of Madame de Beaumont’s “Beauty and the Beast,” in which the selfish sisters are turned to stone statues. They have the power to save themselves: all they have to do is become unselfish. Their final state is a literalization of what they were all along: statutes, cold and lifeless. In “Snow White,” the wicked queen dances to death in red-hot iron shoes, but she has been burning up all along. Her jealously is what ultimately kills her. So perhaps there’s a reason that the violent ends of the antagonists are often determined by their own words, or described as though they were acts of Fate even though someone had to heat up the iron shoes. There’s a sense in which the ends are always created by the antagonists themselves.

What shall I talk about next? Probably the need to leave home and venture into the dark forest . . .

The Goose Girl by Jessie Wilcox Smith

This image is “The Goose-Girl” by Jessie Wilcox Smith.

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5 Responses to Heroine’s Journey: The Goose-Girl

  1. sarah says:

    Maybe the stove is a resonance of the cauldron of rebirth from the old Celtic tales.

    • I like that! I should look into myths, legends, and traditions that have to do with the hearth, cauldrons, stoves . . . places to cook. Whatever that history is, it will resonate through fairy tales, because that seems to be the way it works. 🙂

  2. Nicole Tilde says:

    I love this whole post! But the work, the cleaning… this rings out for me. It also appears in the story of Vasilisa and Baba Yaga. As Vasilisa had to complete many chores for Baba Yaga as part of her initiation. Clarissa Pinkola Estes states that through the work ‘we are feeding the relationship between oneself and the wildish nature.’ Vasilisa had to separate the mildewed corn from the whole corn and poppy seed from dirt. Estes goes on to write that we are learning about the life/death/life cycle through this work. As though it is something unique to the heroine’s journey to learn about this these cycles.

  3. Rita J King says:

    Hi Theodora! I wanted to leave a comment but comments were closed. I love this series of posts a lot and I really appreciate you sharing them. My comment is a quick one. The heroines, I would argue, need to learn empathy before occupying their true home. By becoming “workers” they can occupy the role of “master” without becoming monsters themselves.

    PS. Your curtains and tree are in the Pantone color of the year: burgundy!


    • Rita, that’s a terrific point. I’ve actually just been asked to write an article on the fairytale heroine’s journey, so I’ll be thinking more about this stuff in the next few weeks. 🙂 And I did not know about the color: one of my favorites!

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