Recently rediscovered amongst a pile of manuscripts, this Fairy Tale was recorded by Franz Xaver Von Schönwerth in northern Bavaria during the 1850s…and is not quite like anything you’ve heard before.
In the distant mountains, where the mist hugs the trees like a bear and the animals of darkness gather to whisper of magic, there was a mighty kingdom. The king was wise and his queen was kind. Their son, the prince, was sometimes wise, sometimes kind and sometimes both, or neither. In short, he was pretty much like the rest of us. Not great, not terrible.
One day the prince took his horse for a ride out into the woods alone, even though his dad, the King, had told him it was a Really Bad Idea. A Creeping and Crawling Thing, which the prince did not quite see, shot out in their path and made the horse rear up, as horses do when they see a Creeping and Crawling Thing (and me too, quite honestly), and the prince was thrown to the ground. Dazed and shaken, the prince came round just in time to see his horse disappear around a bend, far too far ahead to catch it or call it back, however much he shouted and bellowed and said words that his parents would be ashamed that he even knew.
With darkness approaching and big drops of rain falling on his head, the prince started to look for shelter and found a cave, deep, deep in that forest. Shivering, now with cold as well as with the ache in his bones from the fall, he stumbled in the semi-dark and soon fell asleep in the dank, dripping wetness of that dismal place, blood and water mingling by his head. Things are, indeed, looking bad for the prince, aren’t they?
When morning came, an old woman was hovering over him and cleaning his wounds. She fussed about him and made him comfortable, making sure his cuts were dressed and he was well. Woozy headed and unsteady, his eyes slowly adjusted to the dim light in the cave, but he could see that the old woman was incredibly ugly. She was so ugly that if he wasn’t already feeling ill already, he’d have fainted. As he was ill, he fainted anyway.
Later on, the prince woke up and saw the old woman again, with the enormous dog at her side. However, now that his eyes were adjusting to the gloom, he slowly began to realise that the animal she was treating as dog was in fact a bear. Yes, really. Well, it was a cave.
Yet that’s not the end of the terrors of the cave. The old woman continued to potter around him and treat him like the prince he was, and that was just as he expected. And then…she started getting just that little bit too close. Well, he was a prince and all that, and he’d been used to some of the more handsome maids at the castle being friendly and he hadn’t minded that, but the old and crusty ones had known better than to go round being all flirty and… you know… making kissy noises and pouty faces…and all that. It is not right and is plain unseemly in any woman with hairy nose warts and greenish skin, breath so stinky it kills rabbits at forty paces, and mousetrap hair.
What was obvious though were two things – the old woman wanted the prince to stay and to be her husband, and that although he wanted neither of things, he was somehow unable to leave. Even when he was fit enough to go, his legs wouldn’t carry him away. And he tried. Boy, did he try.
Finding himself alone with the bear one day, the prince was a bit surprised to hear the bear say: “If you pull that rusty old nail out of the wall, I will be set free. Then take the nail and put it under a turnip out in the meadow. Your reward will be a beautiful wife”. It didn’t take the prince long to think about that, so he got going on working on the nail, but it wasn’t giving up easily. He pulled and pulled at the nail this way. Then that way. He tried waggling it about a bit. He even gave up and sat down and read an article about ‘The Way to A Man’s Heart is Through Turnip Stew’ in Witch Monthly before having another try. Nothing worked. Then he thought of the old woman and one more night looking of her stinky breath, the hairy warts and the prospect of sitting in the cave forever with her pouty lips heading towards him instead of a beautiful wife. With renewed energy, he attacked the nail. An almighty pull on the nail, and it came away in his hand. The cave started to tremble and shake, and with a huge clap of thunder, out came the nail. The bear slowly began to move to its hind legs and stretched up with a roar that echoed in the prince’s bones, it slowly, painfully turned into a man. Standing in front of the prince was the most handsome and glorious specimen of manhood he’d ever seen – a tall, strong, bear of a man, with a long, thick beard, and a mighty crown on his head. “Thanks, mate,” said the Bear man, “but why are you still here? Run, mate, go now, quick!”
“Right, yeah, wow, I’d better be off to find that beautiful maiden, then,” said the prince, as he ran out of the cave, finally free of his curse, and thankfully, the witch.
Before long, the prince, somewhat miraculously found a field of turnips almost straightaway and was just about to hide the nail, when he heard a roar behind him. Turning around he was aghast. There before him was a huge, ugly monster, even uglier than the old woman in the cave, something he thought was impossible until that moment. It had the breath of rotten cabbages, the tongue of a sweaty bull, the teeth of a crocodile, the eyes of an angriest teacher, the claws of cockerel. The nail from the cave flew out of the prince’s hand and he ran to the thick hedge to hide from the hideous beast. Underneath him, his legs were shaking, and he stumbled and shook over the uneven ground to find the protection he so desperately needed. The rhythm of heart beat thrummed in his ears, the chest bursting and burning, his throat running dry, he gasped for the air. Behind him, he could feel the hot breath of the beast prickle his back and its sharp claws grasp the increasing darkness of his dusk. By pushing himself through bushes and hedges and trees, his already torn clothes and skin were caught by shredding thorns, and he collapsed to the ground, unconscious.
When he awoke this time, the prince was somewhere entirely new. Feeling his face, he found that he grown a blond beard. That’s how he knew he’d been asleep for a long time. Standing up and crossing the meadow, he staggered back towards the woods that had saved him from the beast to search for the turnip meadow and the nail. However hard he searched though, he found nothing.
Days, weeks, months might have gone by, he did not know and neither do I, but one night he decided to rest for a while on some grass by a small tree. He let his eyes dance over the beautiful white blossoms smothering the blackthorn tree, until he spotted that one branch had blossoms the colour of deep red blood. Snapping off that branch, the prince placed it in his hat and went on his way. I am sure his parents could have passed by him and not recognised him, thinking him to be some tramp or lost soul. What they thought had become of their own, only son, I dare not imagine.
Finding a turnip field, again almost straightaway, the prince was overjoyed, but, alas! He still didn’t have the nail. Frustrated and tired, so tired, he stuck the red blossomed branch right through the heart of a turnip and fell to his knees in tearful desperation and sobbed himself into an angry sleep.
As he slept, the prince had a delirious and strange dream, which is understandable in the circumstances. In his dream, the red blossomed turnip had turned into a cup, and in that cup, he saw something miraculous – a vision of the most perfect, beautiful woman he had ever seen. When he awoke, he knew exactly what to do, he had a new purpose.
Running all the way back to the cave, the bushes and trees and hedges opening up and moving aside to show him the way, the prince found the rusty nail on the floor. Picking it up and hammering it back into the wall, the old woman and the bear suddenly reappeared before him. “Tell me now, and I’ll know if you lie to me, what have you done to the beautiful maiden” the prince shouted at the old woman.
The old woman walked right up to him, looked at him with loving eyes and said “I’m here right now. Why do you keep turning me away?”
The bear nodded and looked at the nail in the wall. The prince knew the bear was honest, but really wasn’t sure about the old woman. I mean, she was, you’ll remember, really ugly. “Just pull on the nail,” the bear growled.
Tugging on the nail was harder this time, and the prince had to stop halfway through. Turning around, he saw the bear was partly human and the old woman was half ugly and half beautiful. He put more effort into pulling out the nail then, surprisingly, and it came out pretty quickly.
There before the prince stood the glorious man again, and a very beautiful maiden, completely unharmed and overjoyed that all curses were lifted and that everyone was free once more. After a moment of hesitation. the prince, ran into the arms of the maiden, and for being mean to her earlier when she was the old woman, and they kissed. Taking up the nail from the floor, the three in the cave delighted in destroying it forever.
The prince and his bride were guided home by the forest. The king and his queen were delighted to find their lost son and his beautiful girl. There was much feasting and celebration for the couple, and they lived and loved, wisely and happily for their rest of their days.
What happened to the Bear Man is unrecorded. I hope he was happy ever after too. Somehow, I think he might have been.
[From the translation by Maria Tatar, edited by Erika Eichenseer]