Ludwig Bechstein: “What Made A Princess Laugh”

Excerpt:  “As Pretty As Seven and Other Popular German Tales.” Collected by Ludwig Bechstein, with One Hundred Illustrations by Richter:  A Companion to Grimm’s German Popular Stories.  London: 1873.

Once upon a time there lived three brothers. Godfrey was the youngest, and the brunt of all his brothers’ mischievous tricks. When anything thwarted them, Godfrey was made to pay. Weaker than his brothers, he never dared refuse to do as he was told. Miserable, he dreamed of an opportunity to change his life. One day while cutting wood in the forest, and lamenting his hard lot, an old woman appeared who inquired the cause of his tears.  He told her of his troubles. “Ah, my lad,” said she, “the world is wide; why do you not try your fortune somewhere else?”

These words never left him and early one fine morning he set off to find his way. Ascending the hill which led from his village, he gained the peak. Settled upon a log, he wished farewell to his native place, remembering at least a happy childhood. Suddenly, the woman once again tapped his shoulder.  “You have done well so far, my boy. But what will you seek now?”

Godfrey was startled, for, in fact, he had commenced his journey with no idea where he should go.  He thought luck would follow his way. His companion sensed his puzzlement. “I will help guide your path,” she promised; “and why? Because I have regard for you, and I believe you will not forget me when good fortune comes your way.” Godfrey promised he would not forget her kindness.

“This evening,” she said, “take your way to that old oak tree that shades the cross-way. Beneath it you will find a man lying fast asleep, and tied to the tree will be a beautiful swan. Be there at sunset, and take care not to awaken the man.  Untie the swan and lead it away. Soon everyone you pass will wish to have a feather from such a fine bird, and you may allow them to pluck one. But if the swan cries out, you must say, “Swan, hold fast!” Immediately anyone who touches the swan will find himself it’s prisoner, who will not be able to get away until you tap him with this little wand, which I now offer to you. Then, when you have collected behind you a train of human birds, go straight forward, and you will arrive at a certain city where a princess dwells who has not been seen to laugh for many years. If your procession causes her even so little as a smile, your fortune is made.  Then mind you well that you do not forget me.”

Godfrey promised he would not. At sunset, he arrived at the tree. Finding the sleeping man, he took care not to waken him as he loosed the swan and led her away.  Soon he came to a building-yard where he found men with trousers rolled up to their knees, tramping on lime. They all admired the beauty of Godfrey’s swan, especially one young man besmeared all over with lime. “Oh,” he exclaimed, “how I should like to have a feather!”

“Pull one out,” urged Godfrey; and when the boy seized hold of the swan’s wing, she screamed. “Swan, hold fast!” said Godfrey; and the lad was caught and forced to follow. When he cried out to his companions for help, they only laughed. A girl washing linen at a stream nearby ran to assist and caught the boy by the collar to pull him away. When the swan screamed, again Godfrey said, “Swan, hold fast!” and the girl was compelled to follow. Soon they passed a chimney-sweep, who chuckled at the comical train.

“Alas, my good Hans,” she cried, “give me a hand here, and free me from this horrid wretch.”

“I will,” declared the chimney-sweep, catching her hand.

“Swan, hold fast!” shouted Godfrey, as the bird screamed, and the dusty sweep was caught as well. Entering a village, they passed a church in festival where a company of rope-dancers performed on the green. As a clown repeated jokes, he grinned at the three who hung onto the swan’s tail. “Are you turned fool?” he demanded of the sweep.

“There is nothing to laugh at,” cried the sweep; “the girl clasps my hand so tightly, it seems nailed to hers. Loose me, clown, and I will assist you when you need.”

Grabbing the sweep’s neck to pull him away, the clown found himself bound as well; for when the swan screamed, Godfrey again said, “Swan, hold fast!”

The stately mayor of the village was foremost among the spectators of this strange scene. “To the beadle with you!“ he cried, so incensed at the folly before him that he grabbed onto the clown. But “Swan, hold fast!” said Godfrey a fifth time, as the bird screamed; and the angry mayor was made prisoner with the rest. The lady mayoress, a tall, thin dame, was horrified at seeing her lord in this evil plight; and she yanked his pigtail to pull him away from his companions. “Swan, hold fast!” exclaimed Godfrey; in spite of her cries, the lady mayoress had to follow in the train.

The towers of the city were in sight when Godfrey and his human train finally met a carriage, in which sat a lovely but sedate-appearing young lady. Observing the motley crew, she burst out laughing, which her servants joined in spite of themselves. “The princess laughs!” exclaimed all. Observing the strange procession and its still stranger evolutions, the princess laugh some more. As the carriage turned round, Godfrey followed it slowly into the city. When the king heard the good news that his daughter had laughed, he went to see the cause. At the sight of Godfrey and his train, the king laughed till tears ran out his eyes.  “You silly fellow,” said he to Godfrey, “Do you know what I promised to whomever should make my daughter smile? A thousand gold dollars or a fine estate: choose between the two.”

Joyfully, Godfrey chose the estate.  With his wand he touched the boy, the maiden, the sweep, the clown, the mayor and his lady, and set them all free. Liberated, they ran away as if a wild bull was at their heels; while those who witnessed this burst out in peals of laughter.

The princess herself took a fancy now to stroke the swan, and to admire its feathers; but it screamed at her touch, and Godfrey cried, “Swan hold fast!”  Thus he won the king’s daughter; but the swan rose in the air and disappeared from sight. Godfrey received a duchy for himself; and when he went to reside on it, he remembered the old woman who had been the origin of his good fortune, and brought her to live out her life in his noble establishment.