Story 1: The Golden Bird

I have grown old and wise since the last time I went to Heliopolis. Five hundred years have taught me many lessons, and I have imparted many of my own in turn. I was more of a trickster in my youth, impish in my boredom and impatient in my years. When the world is my playground, I abandon such concepts as time and money. My freedom is eternal, so it is of little matter if I allow myself to be in an earthly ruler’s keeping for some time. Sometimes the amusement is worth the confinement, as was the case of the golden apples.

I was returning from Heliopolis from my last rebirth when I flew over a king’s courtyard containing a golden apple tree. I was fascinated by the apples’ luminescence and I vowed to take one for my own; so I did. After all, Atalanta found them a distraction more potent than preservation of her virtue, and even the Greek goddesses esteemed such a shining apple a worthy tribute to their beauty, although Paris is not one to judge.  Kαλλίστ - to the most beautiful one - the inscription on the apple of discord never rang so true, and neither did its name, as I would come to discover.

However, even the most lustrous apple begins to lose its novelty with time, and I grew weary of only owning one when there was an entire tree of them in the king’s possession. What a selfish king, to keep his chrysocarpous glory walled up within a courtyard, a precious treasure sealed off from all! Thus, the growth of my apple collection became an adventure, much to the chagrin of the king, who sent his three sons to stand guard every night in the vain hope that they might apprehend me.

I smile at their foolishness. No mere man can vanquish me, at least not without my consent. I am a willing accomplice or a fierce avenger, little more or less where humans are concerned. I was there when spoken words became written codes and inscribed laws on scrolls of papyrus and pillars of stone. I am not bound by mortal rules; I supersede them all. Kings and rulers and emperors are all transient to me, as I watch them play out their lives in a whim and a whisper of a thought.

Nevertheless, the three sons guarded the tree upon my return. I use the word “guarding” loosely, as all but the youngest were sound asleep under its foliage. I swooped down silently, plucked the finest fruit from its slender branches and glided away gently into the night. The young one, startled, loosed his feeble arrow at me, but only succeeded in bringing a feather down with it.

I rather enjoy leaving a feather behind as a calling card of sorts, since it becomes such a sought-after memento of an adventure. Actually, the king must have thought the same thing, because he became consumed with a desire to have me for his own, and he sent all three of his sons one by one towards that end.

The first son encountered a comrade of mine, a little red fox, who bade him favor a dark inn over one full of exciting revelries. He acknowledged the advice and promptly ignored it, proceeding instead to the festive gathering. The second son followed shortly thereafter and mimicked the actions of his elder brother precisely. However, the third son heeded him, staying in the darker inn, and the fox told him to obtain me in a wooden cage.

Down the road, I had flown to a neighboring kingdom’s castle and was amusing myself in a wooden cage when the youngest endeavored to remove me and place me in a golden one. How profane! My plumage is far more glittering and vibrant than the bars of such an enclosure, and it would be a mockery for me to be contained in that fashion. I released the fiercest scream, rousing the guards, who imprisoned him swiftly. The king offered him a quest in exchange for his life: retrieve the golden horse as fast as the wind, and he would live. However, the fox warned that it could only be ridden with a wooden saddle, and again, the youngest son’s greed overwhelmed his better judgment: he attempted to use the golden saddle and was arrested once more, resulting in a life-or-death ultimatum concerning the princess from the golden castle.

The fox warned him that he must kiss her and not let her bid farewell to her family. Being the sort of imbecile that he was, he botched this opportunity as well, which led to further imprisonment, this time at the hands of the king of the golden castle. He offered him the chance to remove a mountain from his view in eight days or lose his life, and so he toiled for seven days. By the seventh he despaired, but the fox came as his salvation yet again, completing the task.

Thus, the youngest son returned along the journey, picking up each prize and escaping. By the end of his sojourn, he had amassed the princess, the golden horse, and myself. The fox asked as his reward to have his head and feet cut off, which was refused. He left with a parting warning to avoid gallowsflesh and sitting on wells.

No sooner had he disappeared than we came upon a commotion by the gallows, where the other brothers were to be hanged. He quickly ransomed them, whereupon they repaid his kindness the second he sat down on a well by pushing him in. The fox appeared, helped him out, and advised him to change his clothes with a beggar lest his brothers’ guards recognize him. Upon his return to his father, the princess, horse, and I rejoiced. He married the princess, and his brothers were killed. The fox came, begging the same request. Finally, he obliged, and the fox transformed into the brother of the princess.

Sources: Wikipedia, Grimm Stories (complete bibliography below)

Image of a Golden Apple Tree. Web Source: Alfo Art

Author’s Note: This is quite a common type of quest story, often involving three parts. Although the phoenix plays a relatively minor role in Grimm's retelling, this exemplifies how a small stimulus, such as the theft of an apple, can trigger a cascading landslide within a story. I wanted to add a lot more characterization to the phoenix, including his perspective on the events that unfold, as well as a little more background information. As this is a flashback or retrospective of sorts, I assumed he would either have heard the full story of these events once they lived happily ever after, or that he was capable of knowing what was going on at the time via some sort of omniscience. I stayed fairly true to the Grimm version of the story, sometimes omitting details for brevity, although all the characters remain essentially intact. The tripartite journey is a common mythological theme in general, as things often come in threes, but it is interesting how the phoenix sets this whole story into motion. Although he is a thief, he makes important points about the transient nature of wealth and the nature of kings to hoard their wealth. Additionally, there are other versions of stories quite similar to this one, as Wikipedia cites it as an Aarne-Thompson folktale type. Some of the other stories similar to this one include The Bird 'Grip', The Greek Princess and the Young Gardener, Tsarevitch Ivan, the Fire Bird and the Gray Wolf, How Ian Direach got the Blue Falcon, and The Nunda, Eater of People.


The Golden Bird

The Golden Bird
Household Tales
Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm
1884, 1892