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Folktales on being helped by animals, as fronted by François-André Vincent (1746-1816). The Ploughing Lesson
François-André Vincent. The Ploughing Lesson. 1798. Section

You may want to understand what many fairy tales really are about at bottom. Here is a helping hand. In the twenty-four tales that are summed up below, being served by animals plays a big part of the action, and thus may be called central to the plot (action) in any of the tales.

  • On the previous page is a good look into humans being assisted by good tools
  • This sample deals with being helped by animals.
  • On the next page the overarching topic is about healing remedies as central to the plot

Hence, being assisted by tools, animals, and medicine forms significant parts of some well-known Norwegian folk tales. And how would mankind have fared without gearm animals, and medicine? Many tales serve to socialise children into accepting and establishing that domestic animals can be used big time and slaughtered after their services, and so on. There is a strain of cruelty in such schemes.

As with the previous and next page, The tales referred to on this page are described briefly in various versions and adaptations of the International Folktale Catalogue by Ørnulf Hodne (1984) and Ashliman (1987), Aarne and Thomson (1961), and Hans-Jörg Uther (2004). Uther's work is best. You will find the titles and classification numbers of the tales in them, and described with nuances that differ slightly too. That hardly matters. I have added a few comments for the sake of indicating many practical uses of folk tales. The presentation is pragmatic.

Help by animals form part of the plots of many fairy tales

Why did ancients, old Norse people, and Norwegians (and Danes, Fins, and Swedes, etc.) tell tales about being helped by animals?

They wanted help from animals, they enforced their ways and plans on many animals, and learnt to make use of animals and live in close contact with them too. Most people on our altitudes survive through domesticated animals and maybe wild animals too. Many helping animals were slaughtered when they have "served their turn" - just as in many fairy tales.

In such ways many tales tell us between the lines how to treat animals, then, they tend to help in socialising young ones. At first it is a friendly contact where the animal helps a lot, whether it is ploughing, transporting people, or scaring off unwelcome visitors. Farm dogs may be for that - too. But finally the time has come to make do without the animal - it is not as long-lived as humans. And so we may ascertain that many tales give nudges about old attitudes about how to treat animals: Be friends first, get helped a lot, and then discard them - it is a part of the plot of many tales where animals are helpers. The Grimm tale, The Bremen Town-Musicians and other tales go against the final phase of such a basic plot. See for example the Norwegian [The Sheep and the Pig Who Set Up House]

In earlier times people lived much closer to farm animals than today, where most people live in urban settings (cities, towns and villages), walk the dog and pick up strongly smelling things that come out of its rear - where many people feel lonely, isolated, and miss good company. But some are happy owners of cats - Nowadays many citizens are thankful for the company of pets, and some even bury them in pet churchyards - as if that helps the animals. "Give me a flower when I'm alive rather than when I'm dead" contains a lesson for that. Give pussy a hug before it is too late.

In earlier times farm people depended on animals more directly and acutely than in the modern, much more alienated society. To have a cow that gave milk, was a great help.

Even in Viking times animals were great helpers and tended to by Norse gods. Many a god had helping animals. How could Thor have travelled across the sky if he did not have had two goats to pull his wagon (or pull his trick)? How could Freya have travelled about if two (remarkably strong and willing) cats had not pulled the wagon? The point is: Even in Norse times people envisioned help from animals, even gods had such (remark)able helpers.

In former times some animals got an undeserved bad reputation due to gross superstitions. Gentle goats, too, for example. The superstitions differed from country to country, though. Suffice to say that in England it is good luck if a black cat crosses the road in front of you. It is good luck for the cat too if he makes it across the road and is not run over. (Source: Den lille overtro).

In many fables and animal tales the animals speak and teach one another - they instruct us through that. We have not included such animal tales here because they are so many. Our focus has been miracle tales, wonder tales, and then we have added the other tales where animals are helpers in the chain of action (plot). The overarching point is that animals in very many tales have helped humans conduct themselves.


Twenty-Four Types of Tales on Being Served by Animals

AT 300: The Dragon-slayer (Drakedreparen)

RESUME: A boy with three dogs kills a monster (sea-troll, ogre, dragon) that a king has promised his daughter to. Another man (Riddar Raud) claims to be her rescuer and wins the princess. By means of the dogs the hero gains admittance to the wedding table, produces his proofs (a ring, comb, the dragon's tongue) and is recognized. The false hero is punished.

  • To get a wife and marry well one needs a dog's assertiveness - few think of that.

AT 302: The ogre's (devil's) heart in the egg (Guten som gjorde seg til løve, falk og maur)

RESUME: A boy helps some animals to divide a meal in a fair manner, and is rewarded with the ability to transform himself into their shapes. He finds a bewitched princess in a mountain, and she tricks the ogre into revealing his life-secret (where his heart is, how he can be killed etc.). The boy finds the hiding-place by means of his supernatural powers/animal helpers, and kills the ogre in the prescribed manner.

  • Some animals have the heart-powers needed to reach stiffened humans.
  • Some animals have what it takes to get to their owners' hearts.

AT 312: The giant-killer and his dog. Bluebeard (Svarteliten)

RESUME: A boy is seeking his sister, who is captured by a troll. In company with many animals he reaches the ogre's/witch's house. Instead of scratching the troll, the animals tear it to pieces. Some variants begin with a daughter who goes into the forest to look for her father's jacket.

  • In folk tales the troll or witch happens to be a neighbours or an outsider that prefers a different lifestyle - or somebody who lives alone, unshielded, and is easily looted and even killed. There could be a hidden lesson in that somewhere, at least in Norway.
  • To rob a bad neighbour - or a loned that was labelled bad and grim - was great in the old days, at least in Norden.
  • Those who are stiffened and bad (the witch, the troll), may be torn by the natural animals.
  • The strong may conquer.
  • Strong animals may serve as helpers.

AT 314: The youth transformed to a horse (Guten og trollhesten)

RESUME: A boy becomes a servant in a devil's/ogre's house, and is forbidden to enter certain chambers. The boy disobeys and discovers curious things: a stick, a bottle of water, a stone, etc. In the last chamber he finds a magic horse/donkey, which helps him to flee. The devil pursues them, but as he approaches the boy throws the magic objects behind him. They become obstacles and stop the devil. The boy covers his golden hair with a wig, saying he has a scald head, and takes service at a king's court as a gardener. The princess falls in love with him, and they are punished. With the magic horse's help he displays his prowess in battle to the king, but remains unknown until after the third day. He marries the princess, the horse begs to be decapitated, and is transformed into a prince.

  • Animals help their owners in battles and all over the earth.
  • A tamed horse or donkey may help his owner on and up remarkably well.

AT 511A: The little red ox (Guten og oksen)

RESUME: A poor boy finds a caterpillar on his parents' grave and feeds it. It grows to become an ox, which carries him out into the world. They come to woods with leaves of brass, silver, and gold, and at each place the ox must fight against an ogre because the youth breaks a taboo against touching. Finally the ox wants to be killed, and is transformed to a prince. The youth marries his sister and divides the kingdom with him.

  • Great things have small beginnings; a caterpillar grew into an ox.
  • Animals fight stone-hearts or trolls for the human they like.
  • He who breeds an ox, needs much space in relation to neighbours and other sorts of "trolls".

AT 530: The princess on the glass mountain (Kongsdottera på glasberget)

RESUME: Three brothers are one after another sent to guard a barn/meadow which is devastated at night by a monster. The elder brothers are frightened away, but the youngest succeeds and secures horses and armour. By means of them he rides up incognito and brings down golden apples/chains from a princess, installed on the top of a (glass-)mountain. All the suitors are summoned, but only the hero can verify that he is the winner. He marries the princess.

  • Great horses must be well shod, is a former teaching.
  • The route to get married may be rough and steep, and there may be much competition for the great bride too.
  • Good horses may greatly assist one's ascent in life. And "Bra hest veit vegen best (The able horse knows the way best) (Norwegian proverb)".

AT 531: Ferdinand the true and Ferdinand the false (Grimsborken)

RESUME: The hero obtains/inherits a supernatural horse. He is in service at a king's court, where envious fellow-servants are falsely asserting that he can rescue the princess. He succeeds, assisted by the horse. To win the princess he is, however, assigned new dangerous tasks, e.g. to remove a mountain for the king and fetch from hell a magic horse like his own. On the way he saves himself by throwing his supply of meat to the animals that try to stop him, and captures the magic horse assisted by his own, which fights against the other. Then the hero and the princess compete in transforming and hiding themselves from each other, and he wins. Finally he obtains her, and the magic horse changes himself into a prince.

  • Horses in the wild fight greatly. Many fairy tale horses do likewise.
  • Really helpful horses help their owners transmute themselves to get acceptable in high places (castles, and the like)
  • Horses help their owners to hide.

AT 545B: The cat as helper (Herreper)

RESUME: The youngest of three brothers inherits a cat, which becomes his true helper. It catches and sends various fine animals as gifts to a king's court, dresses up the boy and introduces him to the king. It forbids him to be impressed, and the king is provoked into visiting the boy's palace. The cat goes ahead and has herdsmen say that they are working for his master. It goes to a giant's castle and through trickery kills the giant and takes possession of it for his master. Then the cat's head is cut off and it becomes a prince/princess.

  • The cat who kills the stony heart (troll) for the sake of its owner, has come a long way from killing mice in "my home is my castle".
  • Pussy can bring a surplus to the home.

AT 550: Search for the golden bird (Gullfuglen)

RESUME: A golden bird (which steals apples from the king's orchard at night) drops a feather, and three brothers/sons of the king go on a quest for the bird. The two elder remain in an inn, the youngest goes further in company with an animal (fox, wolf), which he has helped. He reaches the tree/the cage of the golden bird, but breaks some taboos and must undertake further quests. The fox helps him and tricks the pursuing ogres by transforming or disguising itself. When he meets his brothers again, they rob him of the bird, horse and maiden he brings back, and try to kill him. But he is helped and has his gains restored by his animal helper. The fox/wolf is decapitated and becomes a prince. The hero marries the maiden, and the evil brothers are punished.

  • There may be a connection between finding the golden bird and marry a virgin.
  • He who means to fool the tyrant (troll), has to be good at cheating and fast escapes.

AT 551: The sons on a quest for a wonderful remedy for their father (Ungdomslandet)

RESUME: An old king has heard about the land/book of youth, and sends out his sons to find it. The two elder stop at an inn, the youngest is helped to the goal by a witch, whale, bird, horse, etc., and finds the elixir of life in a distant castle. On his way home he makes his old helpers young again. The brothers rob him and present themselves as true heroes. The swindle is cleared up when the princess in the land of youth arrives to marry the prince she has fallen in love with/to search for the father of her child.

  • To find the elixir of youth in the country of youth you need to employ animals in quite unheard-of ways, to be true.
  • Marrying a princess may be finally accepted for the sake of the baby.
  • Great pangs of fatherhood are acceptable -
  • Thoughts of fatherhood seldom appear without a reason.

AT 552: The girls who married animals (Dyresvograne)

RESUME: A bankrupt man promises his daughters in marriage in return for money to three animals, which sometimes are human beings. Their brother goes in search of them and is recognized. The animals help him to free a princess from an ogre.

  • Animals may free a princess (good girl) from a stony heart (troll)
  • Quite animalistic people may help halfway frozen women. (Trolls turn human hearts into stone, is a basic, phenomenolical interpretation)

AT 554: The grateful animals (Hjelpa frå dyra)

RESUME: A poor boy going on a quest for a princess rescues on his way many animals (ducks, flies, mole, mouse, etc.), and in gratitude they help him to win the princess by performing various difficult tasks: choosing her from others identically dad, building a magic palace, bringing a ring from the bottom of the sea, etc.

  • Special knowledge of tests may help some on an up, and make it possible to win a princess (good girl)
  • Who wants to win the heart of a princess, may need some tricks to resort to.

AT 559: Dungbeetle (Guten med musa og loppa)

RESUME: A youth gets in exchange a magic mouse and a flea, which do all he commands. He proposes in vain to a proud princess. By means of the animals he makes his rich rival behave in such a way in the bridal bed that the princess chooses him instead.

  • No tricks are too mean and small for the sake of winning a princess and beat competing rivals, is a lesson.
  • In order to beat one's rivals, some use dirty tricks. One has to be prepared for it.

AT 566: The three magic objects and the wonderful fruits. Fortunatus (Underepla)

RESUME: A boy with magic objects he has obtained/inherited (a self-filling purse, wishing hat, horn that furnishes soldiers) wishes himself a princess/ proposes to her. She steals the objects from him and disappears. He finds and eats an apple that causes horns to grow on his head, or gives him a long nose. Later he finds another that removes them. He returns to the court and succeeds in causing the princess to eat the first apple. In payment for curing her he receives back the magic objects.

  • Wonderful fruits do not help everybody.
  • In order to do (accomplish), there may be an equal need to undo.

AT- - The saving blood (Bergande blod)

RESUME: A poor girl sacrifices her blood to defend a kitten she is fond of, and thus she rescues a bewitched princess. In the same way the princess restores her brother in the shape of a bear to human shape by smearing blood from her thumb on the face of the bear.

  • The bear is the brother of the cat because it is a fairy tale . . .

AT- - The shepherd boy and the bear (Gjætarguten og bjørnen)

RESUME: A shepherd boy and a bear become good friends. The boy obeys the bear in all things. Finally it is transformed into a fine girl. The boy marries her.

  • When the bride is a transformed bear, reckon with deep desperation there.
  • If things are to go well when you marry a bear, it probably needs to be transformed first -

AT- - The white-bear that dug up the boy (Kvitebjørnen som grov opp guten)

RESUME: An evil stepmother tricks her stepson to a desolate island and buries him alive. The boy is rescued by the same white-bear he once released from a trap. The bear brings him back and kills the stepmother. Finally the boy must slay it, and it is transformed into a prince.

  • The polar bear that killed the mother-in-law, indicades a deep wish to get rid of her for some reason or other.
  • There are some who desire to get rid of a tormenting nuisance in order to put an end to being a klutz.
  • The stepmother has to be ununsually unpleasant where the one who kills her is called a prince.

AT 1161: The bear trainer and his bear (Kjetta på Dovre)

RESUME: A wayfarer with a (white) bear has a night's lodging with a farmer who is much troubled by ogres. When the ogres come and discover the bear, they think it is a cat and try to feed it. The bear gets angry and chases them all off. Later they ask the farmer whether he still has the big white cat. He answers that it now has many kittens. The ogres then promise never to come again.

  • Those without means to shoo interlopers from one's property, are in for trouble.
  • Both fierce, big bears and dogs may give unwelcome visitors some shocking experiences.

AT 1651: Whittington's cat (Den rettferdige firskillingen)

RESUME: A poor lad goes abroad on a merchant's ship accompanied by a cat he has inherited, or has got in exchange for his only property: a righteous coin (a 'fourpenny'). They arrive in a mouse-infested land where cats are unknown, and he sells it three times for a fortune. When the merchant claims all the money for himself, they get into trouble, and he must promise the boy the whole profit. They return and the hero marries the merchant's daughter.

  • The cat is for wealth, tales suggest.
  • The claws of cats assist the farm and home quite a lot by killing mice and rats.

AT- - The queen and the calf (Dronninga og kalven)

RESUME: An exiled queen has a calf as her only company. She carries it up and down the stairs every day until it is fully grown. Then she has become so strong that the king shows her mercy.

  • To build strength, do it slowly and regularly, is the lesson.
  • To be well trained is a boon.

AT 325: BIRD: The magician and his pupil (Bonde Verskjegg)

RESUME: A man gives his son to a magician/troll to be taught. He keeps the boy, and the father sets out to find him. Three old women act as guides, and by means of a great bird (eagle) he sets free his son, who is transformed to an animal. They escape the magician by throwing behind them magic objects in their flight. The son transforms himself to an animal (horse, ox), and begs the father to sell him to the magician without a halter. The third time the father forgets this, but the boy nevertheless gets rid of the halter and overcomes the magician in a transformation competition.

  • The helpful birds made the boy an animal (he developed id sides of himself, is a take).

AT 326: FISH: The youth who wanted to learn what fear was (Hans Uredd)

RESUME: A boy sets out in the world to learn what fear is. He tries various frightful experiences without becoming afraid: he plays cards with the devil, files the devil's nails, stays among the dead in the churchyard, under a gallows in a ghost-chamber, etc. He learns what fear is when cold water is thrown on him or eels are put down his back while he is asleep.

  • Where the aim is fear, to get slippery, cold fish in one's bed at night may serve its turn. (The tale is humorous).

AT 328: PLANT: Jack and the beanstalk (Guten og bønnestengelen)

RESUME: A beggar-boy gets a bean from a witch in exchange for a lump of gold. He cultivates the bean so that it grows into a lofty tree, which he climbs up straight to heaven. From there he steals a hen that lays golden eggs, a willow-shrub, and a magic harp, which tells him what to do. Finally he cuts down the tree so that the witch falls down and is fatally injured. The harp is transformed to a princess.

  • A magical bean grew into heaven where all the main action took place.
  • If you have found a princess harp and the hen that lays gold eggs, it is good to keep both of them.

AT- PLANT: The man who wanted to hang himself on Wednesday evening (Mannen som ville henge seg på onsdagskvelden)

RESUME: A ruined peasant tries to hang himself from the old oak on the farm, but the branch breaks on three successive Wednesday evenings. The last time the oak tells him that it hides a money-box guarded by a dragon, and explains how the man can get hold of it. He gets the box and regains his wealth.

  • If the old tree tells of treasures, listen well yourself.
  • Get rich and thus happy is a fine goal. (Better be rich and glad than ruined and suicidal . . .)

24 Norwegian Fairy Tale Types Containing Animal Helpers - Norwegian Titles

  • "Drakedreparen" (AT 300)
  • "Guten som gjorde seg til løve, falk og maur" (AT 302)
  • "Svarteliten" (AT 312)
  • "Guten og trollhesten" (AT 314)
  • "Guten og oksen" (AT 511A)
  • "Kongsdottera på glasberget" (AT 530)
  • "Grimsborken" (AT 531)
  • "Herreper" (AT 545B)
  • "Gullfuglen" (AT 550)
  • "Ungdomslandet" (AT 551)
  • "Dyresvograne" (AT 552)
  • "Hjelpa frå dyra (AT 554)
  • "Guten med musa og loppa" (AT 559)
  • "Underepla" (AT 566)
  • "Bergande blod" (AT-)
  • "Gjeterguten og bjørnen" (AT-)
  • "Kvitebjørnen som grov opp guten" (AT-)
  • "Kjetta på Dovre" (AT 1161)
  • "Den rettferdige firskillingen" (AT 1651)
  • "Dronninga og kalven (AT-)
  • "Hans Uredd" (AT 326) FISK
  • "Bonde Verskjegg" (AT 325) FUGL
  • "Guten og bønnestengelen" (AT 328) PLANTE
  • "Mannen som ville henge seg på onsdagskvelden" (AT -) PLANTE
Main source: Tyno (see below).


Marriages Too

Comment on winning-a-woman tales
THINKING: "All these folksy tales about winning a well shaped or well off girl suggest indoctrination. Could manipulation be into the "game" too when it comes to values? Hope to adjust to higher motives also - what are they?"

Many folk tales where animals help persons, end in marriages. Implied: Being animalistic - getting down to the animal or Eden plane, taking clothes off and kiss and so on - could be of help in finding the "true love", soul-mate, whatever.

But I would not count on it: not all marriages end well.


Folktales on being served by animals, classifications, comments, Literature  

Aarne, Antti. The Types of the Folktale: A Classification and Bibliography. Translated and Enlarged by Stith Thompson. 2nd rev. ed. Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia / FF Communications, 1961.

Ashliman, D. A Guide to Folktales in the English Language. New York: Greenwood, 1987.

Hodne, Ørnulf. The Types of the Norwegian Folktale. Bergen: Universitetsforlaget, 1984.

Uther, Hans-Jörg. The Types of International Folktales: A Classification and Bibliography Based on the System of Antti Aarne and Stith Thompson. Vols 1-3. FF Communications No. 284-86, Helsinki: Academia Scientiarum Fennica, 2004.

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