The Golden Blackbird
“The Golden Blackbird”. M. Winther (2004).
The following fairytale is drawn from the
collection by Andrew Lang: “The Green Fairy Book” (1892). I first
retell the fairytale and afterwards try an interpretation (here), which essentially follows Marie-Louise
von Franz’s non-personalistic method of interpretation. Fairytales
reveal much about our human nature and the nature of the unconscious. There are
many experts in the field, such as Max Lühti, M-L von Franz, and Bruno Bettelheim. A common
approach is to look upon the hero or heroine as a normal human ego, and the hero’s
misfortunes then becomes an image of his neurosis. But von Franz’s
non-personalistic method implies that the figures are seen as abstractions, that is, as
archetypes. It means that their fates are not neurotic complications, but
ought to be viewed as expressions of the difficulties and hazards that people
typically meet in life. According to von Franz, in a
personalistic interpretation, the very healing element of an archetypal
narrative is nullified (cf. “The Interpretation
of Fairy Tales”, Preface). See also my alternative interpretation of this fairytale (‘Complementation in fairytales’, here).
Once upon a time there was a great lord
who had three sons. He fell very ill, sent for doctors of every kind, even
bonesetters, but they, none of them, could find out what was the matter with
him, or even give him any relief. At last there came a foreign doctor, who
declared that the Golden Blackbird alone could cure the sick man.
So the old lord despatched his eldest son to look for the wonderful
bird, and promised him great riches if he managed to find it and bring it back.
The young man began his journey, and soon arrived at a place where
four roads met. He did not know which to choose, and tossed his cap in the air,
determining that the direction of its fall should decide him. After travelling
for two or three days, he grew tired of walking without knowing where or for how
long, and he stopped at an inn which was filled with merrymakers and ordered
something to eat and drink.
‘My faith,’ said he, ‘it is sheer folly to waste more time hunting
for this bird. My father is old, and if he dies I shall inherit his goods.’
The old man, after waiting patiently for some time, sent his second
son to seek the Golden Blackbird. The youth took the same direction as his
brother, and when he came to the cross roads, he too tossed up which road he
should take. The cap fell in the same place as before, and he walked on till he
came to the spot where his brother had halted. The latter, who was leaning out
of the window of the inn, called to him to stay where he was and amuse himself.
‘You are right,’ replied the youth. ‘Who knows if I should ever find
the Golden Blackbird, even if I sought the whole world through for it. At the
worst, if the old man dies, we shall have his property.’
He entered the inn and the two brothers made merry and feasted, till
very soon their money was all spent. They even owed something to their landlord,
who kept them as hostages till they could pay their debts.
The youngest son set forth in his turn, and he arrived at the place
where his brothers were still prisoners. They called to him to stop, and did all
they could to prevent his going further.
‘No,’ he replied, ‘my father trusted me, and I will go all over the
world till I find the Golden Blackbird.’
‘Bah,’ said his brothers, ‘you will never succeed any better than we
did. Let him die if he wants to; we will divide the property.’
As he went his way he met a little hare, who stopped to look at him,
‘Where are you going, my friend?’
‘I really don’t quite know,’ answered he. ‘My father is ill, and he
cannot be cured unless I bring him back the Golden Blackbird. It is a long time
since I set out, but no one can tell me where to find it.’
‘Ah,’ said the hare, ‘you have a long way to go yet. You will have to
walk at least seven hundred miles before you get to it.’
‘And how am I to travel such a distance?’
‘Mount on my back,’ said the little hare, ‘and I will conduct you.’
The young man obeyed: at each bound the little hare went seven miles,
and it was not long before they reached a castle that was as large and beautiful
as a castle could be.
‘The Golden Blackbird is in a little cabin near by,’ said the little
hare, ‘and you will easily find it. It lives in a little cage, with another cage
beside it made all of gold. But whatever you do, be sure not to put it in the
beautiful cage, or everybody in the castle will know that you have stolen it.’
The youth found the Golden Blackbird standing on a wooden perch, but
as stiff and rigid as if he was dead. And beside the beautiful cage was the cage
‘Perhaps he would revive if I were to put him in that lovely cage,’
thought the youth.
The moment that Golden Bird had touched the bars of the splendid cage
he awoke, and began to whistle, so that all the servants of the castle ran to
see what was the matter, saying that he was a thief and must be put in prison.
‘No,’ he answered, ‘I am not a thief. If I have taken the Golden
Blackbird, it is only that it may cure my father, who is ill, and I have
travelled more than seven hundred miles in order to find it.’
‘Well,’ they replied, ‘we will let you go, and will even give you the
Golden Bird, if you are able to bring us the Porcelain Maiden.’
The youth departed, weeping, and met the little hare, who was
munching wild thyme.
‘What are you crying for, my friend?’ asked the hare.
‘It is because,’ he answered, ‘the castle people will not allow me to
carry off the Golden Blackbird without giving them the Porcelain Maiden in
‘You have not followed my advice,’ said the little hare. ‘And you
have put the Golden Bird into the fine cage.’
‘Don’t despair! the Porcelain Maiden is a young girl, beautiful as
Venus, who dwells two hundred miles from here. Jump on my back and I will take
The little hare, who took seven miles in a stride, was there in no
time at all, and he stopped on the borders of a lake.
‘The Porcelain Maiden,’ said the hare to the youth, ‘will come here
to bathe with her friends, while I just eat a mouthful of thyme to refresh me.
When she is in the lake, be sure you hide her clothes, which are of dazzling
whiteness, and do not give them back to her unless she consents to follow you.’
The little hare left him, and almost immediately the Porcelain Maiden
arrived with her friends. She undressed herself and got into the water. Then the
young man glided up noiselessly and laid hold of her clothes, which he hid under
a rock at some distance.
When the Porcelain Maiden was tired of playing in the water she came
out to dress herself, but, though she hunted for her clothes high and low, she
could find them nowhere. Her friends helped her in the search, but, seeing at
last that it was of no use, they left her, alone on the bank, weeping bitterly.
‘Why do you cry?’ said the young man, approaching her.
‘Alas!’ answered she, ‘while I was bathing someone stole my clothes,
and my friends have abandoned me.’
‘I will find your clothes if you will only come with me.’
And the Porcelain Maiden agreed to follow him, and after having given
up her clothes, the young man bought a small horse for her, which went like the
wind. The little hare brought them both back to seek for the Golden Blackbird,
and when they drew near to the castle where it lived the little hare said to the
‘Now, do be a little sharper than you were before, and you will
manage to carry off both the Golden Blackbird and the Porcelain Maiden. Take the
golden cage in one hand, and leave the bird in the old cage where he is, and
bring that away too.’
The little hare then vanished; the youth did as he was bid, and the
castle servants never noticed that he was carrying off the Golden Bird. When he
reached the inn where his brothers were detained, he delivered them by paying
their debt. They set out all together, but as the two elder brothers were
jealous of the success of the youngest, they took the opportunity as they were
passing by the shores of a lake to throw themselves upon him, seize the Golden
Bird, and fling him in the water. Then they continued their journey, taking with
them the Porcelain Maiden, in the firm belief that their brother was drowned.
But, happily, he had snatched in falling at a tuft of rushes and called loudly
for help. The little hare came running to him, and said ‘Take hold of my leg and
pull yourself out of the water.’
When he was safe on shore the little hare said to him:
‘Now this is what you have to do: dress yourself like a Breton
seeking a place as stable-boy, and go and offer your services to your father.
Once there, you will easily be able to make him understand the truth.’
The young man did as the little hare bade him, and he went to his
father’s castle and enquired if they were not in want of a stable-boy.
‘Yes,’ replied his father, ‘very much indeed. But it is not an easy
place. There is a little horse in the stable which will not let anyone go near
it, and it has already kicked to death several people who have tried to groom
‘I will undertake to groom it,’ said the youth. ‘I never saw the
horse I was afraid of yet.’ The little horse allowed itself to be rubbed down
without a toss of its head and without a kick.
‘Good gracious!’ exclaimed the master; ‘how is it that he lets you
touch him, when no one else can go near him?’
‘Perhaps he knows me,’ answered the stable-boy.
Two or three days later the master said to him: ‘The Porcelain Maiden
is here: but, though she is as lovely as the dawn, she is so wicked that she
scratches everyone that approaches her. Try if she will accept your services.’
When the youth entered the room where she was, the Golden Blackbird
broke forth into a joyful song, and the Porcelain Maiden sang too, and jumped
‘Good gracious!’ cried the master. ‘The Porcelain Maiden and the
Golden Blackbird know you too?’
‘Yes,’ replied the youth, ‘and the Porcelain Maiden can tell you the
whole truth, if she only will.’
Then she told all that had happened, and how she had consented to
follow the young man who had captured the Golden Blackbird.
‘Yes,’ added the youth, ‘I delivered my brothers, who were kept
prisoners in an inn, and, as a reward, they threw me into a lake. So I disguised
myself and came here, in order to prove the truth to you.’
So the old lord embraced his son, and promised that he should inherit
all his possessions, and he put to death the two elder ones, who had deceived
him and had tried to slay their own brother.
The young man married the Porcelain Maiden, and had a splendid
The king is ailing and his kingdom is in
trouble because the feminine element is missing. The queen is conspicuous by her
absence. So this is essentially a tale about the redemption of the feminine, in
the form of the Porcelain Maiden. She must be retrieved from the farthest
regions of the unconscious, the far-away woodlands, where she has been consigned
to oblivion. There she rises naked from the lake in a symbolic act of rebirth.
In her virginal whiteness she bears resemblance to the Holy Virgin.
When there is only Yang, but no Yin, this means that the masculine
collective consciousness has ousted the feminine life-giving principle and
abandoned it to oblivion in the collective unconscious. The old king represents
an outworn, petrified, collective conscious system. There is no lifeblood,
anymore, in our collective ceremonials and beliefs.
This is typical for the Western hemisphere where we rely too much on
our conscious capabilities, our established mores and rules. Thus, we tend to disregard the inner spirit, capable of relating to life as a whole, which includes the realm of instinct.
But this realization doesn’t come easy. It’s like the Dummling hero
must go back in history to an earlier epoch, to another kingdom, where they
still were in possession of such unbelievable things as golden blackbirds.
Contrary to his brothers, the hero is naive and inspired enough to believe in
such an older region of the psychic landscape. In this older, perhaps medieval,
stratum they still believed in the Virgin. That’s why they are able to reveal
her whereabouts to the boy.
The golden blackbird is locked up in a base cage, where he is in a
dormant state, stiff and rigid as if he was dead. The movement from the base
cage to the golden cage implies a movement from a dormant condition in the
unconscious to a redeemed state in the conscious sunlit world.
But the conscious realization is premature. What lies embedded in the
unconscious must wait and bide its time. Consciousness is not yet prepared to
integrate the unconscious content. The boy, of course, thought he had solved the
problem when he had found the bird. But he was impelled to travel even farther
away to solve the problem.
This kind of premature realization is an important problem in
psychoanalysis. Sometimes consciousness is not yet ripe to integrate the content, and one cannot recklessly expose the predicament to the patient. This cautious movement is
also reflected in the way the hero is employed as a stable boy in the king’s
castle. He cannot go directly to the king, but must bide his time in the stable
(the unconscious) until time is ripe. Step by step the realization takes place.
Brute force is generally not how we relate to the unconscious.
The hero appears as a lowly Breton. The Bretons are from a Celtic
tribe that speaks Gaelic. As such he represents a pre-Christian element, aptly
compensating the petrified Christian consciousness. Obviously, we lost something
of our lifeblood when we emerged in modern times. For all their primitiveness, the
spirit of nature was closer then, as was instinct: the warrior Celts with
painted blue arabesques on their naked bodies.
The wonderful bird is both black and golden, he is a creature of both
night and day. This might imply that he has access to both regions and can
travel between them, like a messenger of the gods. Thus, he represents the
transcendent function, a new way of relating to the unconscious. In
terms of analytical psychology the Porcelain Maiden would be a personification
of the collective unconscious. This personification is named anima. When
the anima is integrated with consciousness, a new function surfaces
that will mediate between conscious and unconscious. This is the transcendent
function, and this is presumably why the Golden Blackbird appears together with
Although the Porcelain Maiden and the Golden Blackbird
have now been brought to the king’s castle the matter is still not settled. The
Porcelain Maiden scratches everyone that approaches her. This is because the
obsolete consciousness is inapt to relate to the precious elements that have
emerged from the unconscious. Nor can it relate to the instincts in the form of
the horse. It kicks to death everybody that tries to groom it.
But the coming king, in the form of the stable boy, represents the
new self, a new way of relating to the unconscious and its contents. With this
new attitude the horse is appeased and the feminine spirit finally finds the one
with whom she can unite. Only at this stage, when the outworn old king has
realized that there is no hope for the traditional ways of consciousness
anymore, can the stable boy emerge on the scene and inherit all the king’s
possessions. Both logos and eros are now represented in the kingdom, in the form
of the young king and queen. It means that collective consciousness is redeemed. It has recovered to good health.
© Mats Winther, 2004