Photo: GETTY IMAGES

Okay, today’s tale does not star a rabbit, but there is a herd of them that figure prominently and the story made me laugh. Variations of The Rabbit Herd are found throughout Europe and the Americas, although I have never heard it. This version is retold by D. L. Ashliman on his site, Folklore and Mythology.

Once upon a time there was a king who had a daughter that would not laugh. His jugglers, clowns, and jesters performed for her, but she could not, or would not, even break a smile. Finally the king proclaimed that whatever man — rich or poor, young or old, strong or frail — could break his daughter’s spell should take her as his wife, and receive half the kingdom as well. Men and boys came from every direction to try their luck but no one was successful.

Finally, the news reached a remote corner of the kingdom where a poor peasant lived with his three sons. The youngest — we’ll call him Hans (although some say that his name was Jack, or Ivan, or Juan) — decided that he too would try his luck at winning the hand of the princess. It’s always the youngest who gets to be the hero. He was a droll sort — some called him silly, others just plain stupid — whose capers often brought the villagers to laughter. Yes, he would give it a try. And he set forth, pursued by the jeers of his older and wiser brothers, on the path that led to the king’s palace.

At midday he was looking for a shady spot where he could rest and eat the crust of bread he had brought, when suddenly he came upon an old man by the side of the road.

“Would you share your bread with a weary traveler?” asked the stranger.

“Half a dry crust is quite as good as a whole one,” replied Hans, and broke off a piece for the old man. As we know, it’s always a good idea to help strangers, especially old ones.

“Bless you, my son,” responded the stranger. “I cannot reward you with gold, but this whistle will lead you to that, and more.” So saying, he offered Hans a tiny silver flute. I’m sure the flute will come in handy.

Hans put the flute to his lips, and it began to play, first a marching tune, then a cheerful air, and then a pensive hymn. Before he knew it, Hans had arrived at the palace, and the guards, charmed by his tuneful music, let him pass. His heart leapt for joy, and the flute broke into a lusty jig. The princess, hearing the tune, opened her window and looked out. She nodded her head to the beat, then gave a cautious grin, and then an open smile. She chuckled softly to herself, then broke into a happy laugh.

The king, hearing her joyful laughter, was beside himself with glee, until he saw the lad who was playing the flute. Hans, you see, did have the look of a peasant and of a simpleton, and the king, in spite of his promise, was hoping for a finer man.

“That is all well and good,” said the king to Hans, “but before you can receive the princess, there is yet another task that you must fulfill.” He then had one hundred wild rabbits set loose in a nearby forest. “Keep these animals together in a herd,” said the king, and in three days the princess and half the kingdom shall be yours. But if you lose a single rabbit, you shall forfeit everything.”

Even as he spoke the rabbits ran to the four winds, but Hans did not despair. He blew a few notes into the silver flute, and as if by magic, the hundred rabbits assembled at his feet. Reassured, he made himself comfortable in the shade of a large tree, and waited for the three days to pass.

The king, seeing how easily Hans kept the herd together was filled with worry and anger. No other solution presented itself, so finally he sent his daughter into the woods, telling her to do whatever was necessary to get a rabbit away from the peasant herdsman.

The princess presented herself to Hans, and asked him ever so politely if she might not purchase one of his rabbits. His answer made her blush. “You don’t mean that I would have to …,” she said, and didn’t know whether to pout or to smile.

No, he would accept no other offer, said Hans. “Take it, or leave it.”

And so she took it. Hmm – wonder what she did? In some versions, it’s exactly what you’re thinking, in other’s it’s kidding a donkeys rear or “cuddling and kissing” for a while.

The princess left the woods carrying a rabbit in her basket. But well before she arrived home, Hans put the magic flute to his lips, and in an instant the rabbit jumped from her basket and raced back to the herd.

The next day the king, ever more desperate, sent his own wife into the woods with instructions to bring home a rabbit, whatever the cost. When Hans named his price, the queen, like the princess before her, first pouted, then smiled, and then gave in. But she too lost her rabbit when Hans called it back with his magic flute.

On the third day the king himself went into the woods to bargain for a rabbit. Hans, as before, was willing to trade, but this time the price — no, I cannot bring myself to say more than that it involved a mare that was grazing in a nearby clearing. 🙂 Red with shame, the king took his rabbit and started off for home, but again the flute called the rabbit back into the herd.

The three days had passed, and the rabbit herd was still intact, but now the king found yet another task that Hans would have to fulfill before he could claim the princess and half the kingdom. “A trifle,” explained the king. “Just sing three bags full.”

“I can manage that,” said Hans. “Bring me three empty bags, and I’ll sing them full to the top, but only in the presence of the finest lords and ladies of the kingdom.

The king, believing that at last he would be rid of the peasant lad, assembled the lords and ladies in a great hall, then brought in Hans and three empty bags. Hans picked up a bag and started to sing:
“Our princess went into the woods;
She thought she’d try her luck,”

“Stop!” called out the princess. That bag is full!” Hans obligingly stopped singing, tied a string around the mouth of the bag, picked up the next one, and started a new song:
“Our queen she went into the woods;
She thought she’d try her luck, ”

“Stop!” shouted the queen. That bag is full!” Hans stopped, tied this bag shut, picked up the last one, and commenced singing:
“Our king he went into the woods;
He thought he’d try his luck, ”

“Stop!” bellowed the king. The last bag is full!” With that, the king proclaimed that Hans had won the princess’s hand in marriage and half the kingdom.

The wedding was celebrated that same day. All the lords and ladies attended the great feast that followed.

Funny little story, don’t you agree? Not exactly child friendly though. I’m not sure how I would feel if I was the princess, and maybe I shouldn’t find it funny. Hans did intimidate the three of them into sexual acts, even if he didn’t use violence. But fairy tales are not supposed to be politically correct.

Thursday’s Tales is a weekly event here at Carol’s Notebook. Fairy tales, folktales, tall tales, even re-tellings, I love them all. Feel free to join in.