The Golden Blackbird

The Golden Blackbird. Mats Winther, 2004
“The Golden Blackbird”. M. Winther (2004).

The following fairytale is drawn from the collection by Andrew Lang, The Green Fairy Book (1892, here). 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. Accordingly, the hero’s misfortunes become 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 travails are not to be viewed as neurotic complications. Instead, they are better seen as expressions of typical difficulties and hazards that people encounter in life. According to von Franz, in a personalistic interpretation, the very healing element of an archetypal narrative is nullified (cf. von Franz, 1996, Preface). See also my alternative interpretation of this fairytale (Winther, 2014, 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, and asked:

‘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 of gold.

‘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 exchange.’

‘You have not followed my advice,’ said the little hare. ‘And you have put the Golden Bird into the fine cage.’

‘Alas! yes!’

‘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 you there.’

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 young man:

‘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 it.’

‘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 for joy.

‘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 wedding-feast.


An interpretation

The king is ailing. 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, while Yin is astray, it means that masculine collective consciousness has ousted the feminine life-giving principle, abandoned it to oblivion in the collective unconscious. The old king would represent an outworn and petrified collective conscious system. There is no lifeblood, anymore, in our collective ceremonials and beliefs. This is characteristic of 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, as well as the realm of instinct, capable of relating to life as a whole.

But this realization doesn’t come easy. It’s like the Dummling hero must go back in history to an earlier epoch, back to another kingdom, where they still possess 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 were dead. The movement from the base cage to the golden cage suggests redemption, going from a dormant condition in the unconscious to a place of worship in the 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 face 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.

Premature realization is an important problem in psychoanalysis. Sometimes consciousness is not yet ripe to integrate the content. Therefore 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 underestimated region of 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 of Celtic heritage and speak Gaelic. As such he represents a pre-Christian element, aptly compensating 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. What illustrates this is how the warrior Celts used to paint their naked bodies with blue arabesques.

The wonderful bird is both black and golden, a creature of both night and day. This seems to 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, [3] a new way of relating to the unconscious. In terms of analytical psychology the Porcelain Maiden would signify the anima, [1] a personification of the collective unconscious. When the anima is integrated with consciousness, a new function surfaces that will mediate between conscious and unconscious. This explains why the Golden Blackbird, as the transcendent function, appears together with the Maiden.

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 obsolete consciousness is inapt to relate to the precious elements that have emerged from the unconscious. Nor can it relate to the invaluable 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, [2] 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, may the stable boy come 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 and has recovered to good health.


© Mats Winther, 2004.


1. Anima/Animus. The inner opposite gender side of a man and woman respectively. The anima and the animus is both a personal complex and an archetypal image of the opposite sex. The anima is not the soul in the dogmatic sense, but a natural archetype that satisfactorily sums up all the statements of the unconscious, of the primitive mind, of the history of language and religion (cf. Sharp, 1991).

2. Self. The Self is the archetype of wholeness and the regulating center of the psyche; a transpersonal power that transcends the ego. It is the telos (teleological purpose and end) of individuation. The Self appears in dreams, myths, and fairytales in the figure of the ‘supraordinate personality’, such as a king, hero, prophet, saviour, or in the form of a totality symbol, such as the circle, square, cross (cf. Sharp, 1991).

3. Transcendent function. A psychic function that supports the union of consciousness and the unconscious. Its development depends on becoming aware of unconscious material. Since dreams are so difficult to understand, one may instead consciously give form to dreams and fantasies. The transcendent function is an aspect of the self-regulation of the psyche. It is experienced as a new attitude toward oneself and life (cf. Sharp, 1991).


Franz, M-L von (1996). The Interpretation of Fairy Tales. Shambala.

Lang, A. (1892). The Green Fairy Book. (here)

Sharp, D. (1991). Jung Lexicon: A Primer of Terms & Concepts. Inner City Books. (here)

Winther, M. (2014). ‘Complementation in fairytales’. (here)