The Singing Bone (Germany)

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm (From Dortchen Wild)

sérigraphie by Howell Golson

sérigraphie by Howell Golson

IN a certain country there was once great lamentation over a wild boar that laid waste the farmer's fields, killed the cattle, and ripped up people's bodies with his tusks. The King promised a large reward to anyone who would free the land from this plague; but the beast was so big and strong that no one dared to go near the forest in which it lived. At last the King gave notice that whosoever should capture or kill the wild boar should have his only daughter to wife.

Now there lived in the country two brothers, sons of a poor man, who declared themselves willing to undertake the hazardous enterprise; the elder, who was crafty and shrewd, out of pride; the younger, who was innocent and simple, from a kind heart. The King said, "In order that you may be the more sure of finding the beast, you must go into the forest from opposite sides." So the elder went in on the west side, and the younger on the east.

When the younger had gone a short way, a little man stepped up to him. He held in his hand a black spear and said, "I give you this spear because your heart is pure and good; with this you can boldly attack the wild boar, and it will do you no harm."

He thanked the little man, shouldered the spear, and went on fearlessly.

Before long he saw the beast, which rushed at him; but he held the spear towards it, and in its blind fury it ran so swiftly against it that its heart was cloven in twain. Then he took the monster on his back and went homewards with it to the King.

As he came out at the other side of the wood, there stood at the entrance a house where people were making merry with wine and dancing. His elder brother had gone in here, and, thinking that after all the boar would not run away from him, was going to drink until he felt brave. But when he saw his young brother coming out of the wood laden with his booty, his envious, evil heart gave him no peace. He called out to him, "Come in, dear brother, rest and refresh yourself with a cup of wine."

The youth, who suspected no evil, went in and told him about the good little man who had given him the spear wherewith he had slain the boar.

The elder brother kept him there until the evening, and then they went away together, and when in the darkness they came to a bridge over a brook, the elder brother let the other go first; and when he was half-way across he gave him such a blow from behind that he fell down dead. He buried him beneath the bridge, took the boar, and carried it to the King, pretending that he had killed it; whereupon he obtained the King's daughter in marriage. And when his younger brother did not come back he said, "The boar must have killed him," and every one believed it.

But as nothing remains hidden from God, so this black deed also was to come to light.

Years afterwards a shepherd was driving his herd across the bridge, and saw lying in the sand beneath, a snow-white little bone. He thought that it would make a good mouth-piece, so he clambered down, picked it up, and cut out of it a mouth-piece for his horn. But when he blew through it for the first time, to his great astonishment, the bone began of its own accord to sing:

"Ah, friend, thou blowest upon my bone!
Long have I lain beside the water;
My brother slew me for the boar,
And took for his wife the King's young daughter." 

"What a wonderful horn!" said the shepherd; "it sings by itself; I must take it to my lord the King." And when he came with it to the King the horn again began to sing its little song. The King understood it all, and caused the ground below the bridge to be dug up, and then the whole skeleton of the murdered man came to light. The wicked brother could not deny the deed, and was sewn up in a sack and drowned. But the bones of the murdered man were laid to rest in a beautiful tomb in the churchyard.


From Lower Hesse, whence also, though from two different places, we have two other stories. They begin like the story of The Water of Life,No. 97. An old King becomes ill and wants to give away his crown, but does not know to which of his three (or two) sons. At length he decides that it shall fall to the one who can catch a bear (or wild boar) with a golden padlock. The eldest goes out and has a horse, a cake, and a bottle of wine to take with him on his way. A little dwarf is sitting under a tree in the forest who asks kindly, "Whither goest thou?" and begs for a little piece of cake. The prince answers haughtily, gives him nothing, and is therefore "ill-wished" by the dwarf, that he shall seek the bear in vain. So he goes home again having done nothing. The second is sent out, but has no better success; and now it is the turn of the youngest, the simpleton, who is ridiculed, and who receives a stick instead of a horse, bread instead of cake, and water in place of wine. In the forest the little man speaks to him also; he answers civilly, and shares his food with him. Then the little man gives him a rope with which he catches the bear, and brings it home. The other story briefly relates that the second son slays the wild boar the eldest brother sees him coming, goes to meet him, and kills him. The rest of the story is the same. For a fourth story, see Colshorn, No. 71. A fifth from Switzerland is communicated by Wackernagel in Haupt's Zeitschrift, 3. 35, 36. A boy and a girl are sent into the forest to seek a flower, the one who finds it is to have the kingdom. The girl finds it and falls asleep. The brother comes up, kills the sleeping girl, covers her with earth, and goes away. Afterwards a shepherd-boy finds a little bone, and makes a flute of it. The little bone begins to sing, and gives an account of everything that has been done. A sixth is in Mullenhoff, No. 49.

The same saga occurs in an old Scotch ballad, a harper makes a harp of the breast-bone of the drowned sister, which begins to play of its own accord, and accuses the guilty sister (Scott's Minstrelsy, 2. 157-162). In the Faroese ballad on the same subject, we have the incident of the harp-strings being made of the murdered girl's hair; see Schwedische Volkslieder, by Geyer and Atzelius, 1. 86. In Polish, see Lewestam, p. 105. See also The Esthonian Tales of H. Neus, p. 56. In a Servian story in Wuk, No. 39, an elder-tube used as a flute reveals the mystery. The Bechuanas also, in South Africa, have a similar story.

Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm. Household Tales. Margaret Hunt, translator. London: George Bell, 1884, 1892. 2 volumes.