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The Fairy Tales of Joseph Jacobs

The Language of Animals

Return to European Folk and Fairy Tales by Joseph Jacobs

THERE was once a man who had a son named Jack, who was very simple in mind and backward fl his thought. So his father sent him away to school so that he might learn some thing; and after a year he came back from school.

"Well, Jack," said his father, "what have you learnt at school?"

And Jack said, "I know what dogs mean when they bark."

"That's not much," said his father. "You must go to school again."

So he sent him to school for another year, and when he came back he asked him what he had learnt.

"Well, father," said the boy, "when frogs croak know what they mean."

"You must learn more than that," said the father, and sent him once more to school.

And when he returned, after another year, he asked him once more what he had learnt.

"I know all the birds say when they twitter and chirp, caw and coo, gobble and cluck."

"Well I must say," said the father, "that does not seem much for three years' schooling. But let us see if you have learnt your lessons properly. What does that bird say just above our heads in the tree there?"

Jack listened for some time but did not say any thing.

"Well, Jack, what is it?" asked his father.

"I don't like to say, father."

"I don't believe you know or else you would say. Whatever it is 11 shall not mind."

Then the boy said, "The bird kept on saying as clear as could be, 'the time is not so far away When Jack's father will offer him water on bended knees for him to wash his hands; and his mother shall offer him a towel to wipe them with.'"

Thereupon the father grew very angry at Jack and his love for him changed to hatred, and one day he spoke to a robber and promised him much money if he would take Jack away into the forest and kill him there and bring back his heart to show that he had done what he had promised. But instead of doing this the robber told Jack all about it and advised him to flee away, while the robber took back to Jack's father the heart of a deer saying that it was Jack's. Then Jack travelled on and on till one night he stopped at a castle on the way; and while they were all supping together in the castle hall the dogs in the court-yard began barking and baying. And Jack went up to the lord of the castle and said, "There will be an attack upon the castle tonight."

"How do you know that?" asked the lord.

"The dogs say so," said Jack.

At that the lord and his men laughed, but never- the-less put an extra guard around the castle that night, and, sure enough, the attack was made, which was easily beaten off because the men were prepared. So the lord gave Jack a great reward for warning him, and he went on his way with a fellow traveller who had heard him warn the lord.

Soon afterwards they arrived at another castle in which the lord's daughter was lying sick unto death; and a great reward had been offered to him that should cure her. Now Jack had been listening to the frogs as they were croaking in the moat which surrounded the castle, So Jack went to the lord of the castle and said, "I know what ails your daughter."

"What is it," asked the lord.

"She has dropped the holy wafer from her mouth and it has been swallowed by one of the frogs in the moat."

"How do you know that?" said the lord.

"I heard the frogs say so."

At first the lord would not believe it; but in order to save his daughter's life he got Jack to point out the frog who was boasting of what he had swallowed, and, catching it, found what Jack had said was true. The frog was caught and killed, the Wafer got back, and the girl recovered so the lord gave Jack the reward which was Promised, and he went on further with his companion and with another guest of the castle who had heard what Jack had said and done.

So Jack, with his two companions travelled on towards Rome the city of cities Where dwelt the Pope, in those days the head of all Christendom. And as they were resting by the road Jack said to his companions, "Who would have thought it? One of us is going to be the Pope of Rome,"

And his comrades asked him how he knew.

And he said, "The birds above in the tree have said so."

And his Comrades at first laughed at him, but then remembered that what he had said before of the barking of dogs and of the croaking of frogs had turned out to be true.

Now when they arrived at Rome they found that the Pope had just died and that they were about to select his successor. And it was decided that all the people should pass under an arch whereon was a bell and two doves, and he upon whose shoulders the doves should alight, and for whom the bell should ring as he passed under the arch was to be the next Pope. And when Jack and his companions came near the arch they all remembered his prophecy and wondered which of the three should receive the signs. And his first comrade passed under the arch and nothing happened, and then the second and nothing happened, but when Jack went through the doves descended and alighted upon his shoulder and the bell began to toll, so Jack was made Pope of all Christendom, and he took the name of Pope Sylvester.

After a while the new Pope went upon his travels and came to the town where his father dwelt. And there was a great banquet held, to which Jack's father and mother were invited at his request. And when they came he ordered his servants to give to his father the basin of water, and to his mother the towel, wherewith the Pope would wash his hands after dinner. Now this was, in those days, a great honour, and people Wondered why Jack's father and mother should be so honoured. But after Jack's father had offered him the basin of water, and his mother the towel, Jack said to them, "Do you not know me, mother? Do you not know me, father?" and made himself known to them and reminded his father of what the bird had said, So he forgave his father and took him and his mother to live with him ever afterwards.

Jacobs' Notes and References

Source. Sir J. G. Frazer, in Archaeological Review, i., 81-91, 161-81, who made an attempt, the first of its kind, to restore the original archetype of the story of "The Boy Who Became Pope," on the same principle as classical scholars restore readings from families of MSS. He uses Grimm, xxxiii.; Crane, xliii.; Sebillot, 2d series xxv.; and Fleury, 123 seq. I have, on the whole, followed his reconstruction, but have introduced, from the version in the "Seven Wise Masters," the motive for the father's anger when learning that he would have, some day, to offer his son water to wash in; Sir James, in a private communication, concurs in the insertion. The folk versions are, in this instance, peculiarly poor, and I have therefore had largely to rewrite, preserving, however, the common incidents.

Formula. The following formula gives the common elements of the four parallels used by Sir James Frazer, with my insertion of the bird prophecy (father-water, mother-towel):

Simple Boy Sent to School--Learns Language of Dogs, Frogs and Birds--Bird Prophecy (Father-Water, Mother-Towel) --Hero Exposed--Intended Murderer Brings Back Deer's Heart--Three adventures on Road--Dogs Warn Burglary--Frog Restores Host to Sick Girl--Bird Prophesies Papacy (one of three companions) --Pope Election--Heavenly Sign (dove and bell) --Bird Prophecy Fulfilled--Father Repentance.

Parallels. Besides the four sources used by Sir James Frazer, he gives two variants of the Breton from Melusine, i., cols. 300, 374, and the "Seven Wise Masters" version, with six variants: Russian, Masurian, two Basques, and a Turkish one. In the Russian version the father-water, mother-towel prophecy occurs, which could not have arisen independently. In the Masurian version the prophecy is more primitive ("Your mother will wash your feet, and your father will drink the water"). In the remaining versions the prophecy is more vague, that the parents shall be the son's servants. In the Pentamerone there is a story in which a father has five simple sons whom he sends into the world to learn experience. The younger returns with a knowledge of the language of birds. But the rest of the story is not of our type.

Remarks. In his second paper (Arch. Rev. i., 161 seq.) Sir James Frazer has many interesting remarks upon the folk conception of the means of acquiring a knowledge of the language of animals. This is generally done by a gift of magic rings, or by eating magic plants (mainly fern) or eating serpents (generally white). Sir James Frazer connects the rings with serpents by suggesting that serpents are supposed to have stones in their head which confer magic powers (As You Like It, iv., 2.) He further connects the notion of eating serpents with acquiring the language of birds by referring to the views of Democritus that serpents are generated from the mixed blood of diverse birds and are therefore in a strict sense blood relations of them; this idea, he suggests, may have arisen from the fact that serpents eat birds' eggs. It would be an easy transition in folk-thought to consider that serpents would understand the language of the birds they ate and that persons eating serpents would understand the language of both. So Sigurd understands the language of birds, after eating the blood of Fafnir the Worm. But all this throws little light upon the story itself.

Bolte gives, i., 323-4, many folk-tales in which the hero becomes not a pope but a king and compares the story of Joseph in the Bible as possibly a source of the Prophetic Dream of the father and mother waiting upon the son. The transference to the pope may have been influenced by the tradition given by Vincent of Beauvais (Spec. Hist., xxiv., 98) that Sylvester II. learned at Seville the language of birds. There was also the tradition that at the election of Innocent III., 1198, three doves flew about the cathedral, one of which, a white one, at last settled down upon his shoulder. Raumer. Gesch. d. Hohenstaufen, ii., 595.

Jacobs, Joseph, ed. European Folk and Fairy Tales. New York: G. P Putnam's Sons, 1916.

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Page created 4/15/05; Last updated 10/22/07