Eagles and Bears in a Classic Grimm Tale

Hamachidori/Creative Commons

A while back we were talking about the possibility of eagles flying away on children. Croconut mentioned a Grimm Brothers story in which that happens. I haven't found that one yet, but did come across this one, in which the eagle's prey is a dwarf. There's also a bear attack, sort of. 


by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm

A poor widow once lived in a little cottage with a garden in front of it, in which grew two rose trees, one bearing white roses and the other red. She had two children, who were just like the two rose trees; one was called Snow-white and the other Rose-red, and they were the sweetest and best children in the world, always diligent and always cheerful; but Snow-white was quieter and more gentle than Rose-red. Rose-red loved to run about the fields and meadows, and to pick flowers and catch butterflies; but Snow-white sat at home with her mother and helped her in the household, or read aloud to her when there was no work to do. The two children loved each other so dearly that they always walked about hand in hand whenever they went out together, and when Snow-white said, "We will never desert each other," Rose-red answered: "No, not as long as we live"; and the mother added: "Whatever one gets she shall share with the other." They often roamed about in the woods gathering berries and no beast offered to hurt them; on the contrary, they came up to them in the most confiding manner; the little hare would eat a cabbage leaf from their hands, the deer grazed beside them, the stag would bound past them merrily, and the birds remained on the branches and sang to them with all their might.

No evil ever befell them; if they tarried late in the wood and night overtook them, they lay down together on the moss and slept till morning, and their mother knew they were quite safe, and never felt anxious about them. Once, when they had slept all night in the wood and had been wakened by the morning sun, they perceived a beautiful child in a shining white robe sitting close to their resting-place. The figure got up, looked at them kindly, but said nothing, and vanished into the wood. And when they looked round about them they became aware that they had slept quite close to a precipice, over which they would certainly have fallen had they gone on a few steps further in the darkness. And when they told their mother of their adventure, she said what they had seen must have been the angel that guards good children.

Snow-white and Rose-red kept their mother's cottage so beautifully clean and neat that it was a pleasure to go into it. In summer Rose-red looked after the house, and every morning before her mother awoke she placed a bunch of flowers before the bed, from each tree a rose. In winter Snow-white lit the fire and put on the kettle, which was made of brass, but so beautifully polished that it shone like gold. In the evening when the snowflakes fell their mother said: "Snow-white, go and close the shutters," and they drew round the fire, while the mother put on her spectacles and read aloud from a big book and the two girls listened and sat and span. Beside them on the ground lay a little lamb, and behind them perched a little white dove with its head tucked under its wings.

One evening as they sat thus cosily together someone knocked at the door as though he desired admittance. The mother said: "Rose-red, open the door quickly; it must be some traveler seeking shelter." Rose-red hastened to unbar the door, and thought she saw a poor man standing in the darkness outside; but it was no such thing, only a bear, who poked his thick black head through the door. Rose-red screamed aloud and sprang back in terror, the lamb began to bleat, the dove flapped its wings, and Snow-white ran and hid behind her mother's bed. But the bear began to speak, and said: "Don't be afraid: I won't hurt you. I am half frozen, and only wish to warm myself a little." "My poor bear," said the mother, "lie down by the fire, only take care you don't burn your fur." Then she called out: "Snow-white and Rose-red, come out; the bear will do you no harm; he is a good, honest creature." So they both came out of their hiding-places, and gradually the lamb and dove drew near too, and they all forgot their fear. The bear asked the children to beat the snow a little out of his fur, and they fetched a brush and scrubbed him till he was dry. Then the beast stretched himself in front of the fire, and growled quite happily and comfortably. The children soon grew quite at their ease with him, and led their helpless guest a fearful life. They tugged his fur with their hands, put their small feet on his back, and rolled him about here and there, or took a hazel wand and beat him with it; and if he growled they only laughed. The bear submitted to everything with the best possible good-nature, only when they went too far he cried: "Oh! children, spare my life!

  "Snow-white and Rose-red,
  Don't beat your lover dead."

When it was time to retire for the night, and the others went to bed, the mother said to the bear: "You can lie there on the hearth, in heaven's name; it will be shelter for you from the cold and wet." As soon as day dawned the children led him out, and he trotted over the snow into the wood. From this time on the bear came every evening at the same hour, and lay down by the hearth and let the children play what pranks they liked with him; and they got so accustomed to him that the door was never shut till their black friend had made his appearance.

When spring came, and all outside was green, the bear said one morning to Snow-white: "Now I must go away, and not return again the whole summer." "Where are you going to, dear bear?" asked Snow-white. "I must go to the wood and protect my treasure from the wicked dwarfs. In winter, when the earth is frozen hard, they are obliged to remain underground, for they can't work their way through; but now, when the sun has thawed and warmed the ground, they break through and come up above to spy the land and steal what they can; what once falls into their hands and into their caves is not easily brought back to light." Snow-white was quite sad over their friend's departure, and when she unbarred the door for him, the bear, stepping out, caught a piece of his fur in the door-knocker, and Snow-white thought she caught sight of glittering gold beneath it, but she couldn't be certain of it; and the bear ran hastily away, and soon disappeared behind the trees.

A short time after this the mother sent the children into the wood to collect fagots. They came in their wanderings upon a big tree which lay felled on the ground, and on the trunk among the long grass they noticed something jumping up and down, but what it was they couldn't distinguish. When they approached nearer they perceived a dwarf with a wizened face and a beard a yard long. The end of the beard was jammed into a cleft of the tree, and the little man sprang about like a dog on a chain, and didn't seem to know what he was to do. He glared at the girls with his fiery red eyes, and screamed out: "What are you standing there for? Can't you come and help me?" "What were you doing, little man?" asked Rose-red. "You stupid, inquisitive goose!" replied the dwarf; "I wanted to split the tree, in order to get little chips of wood for our kitchen fire; those thick logs that serve to make fires for coarse, greedy people like yourselves quite burn up all the little food we need. I had successfully driven in the wedge, and all was going well, but the cursed wood was so slippery that it suddenly sprang out, and the tree closed up so rapidly that I had no time to take my beautiful white beard out, so here I am stuck fast, and I can't get away; and you silly, smooth-faced, milk-and-water girls just stand and laugh! Ugh! what wretches you are!"

The children did all in their power, but they couldn't get the beard out; it was wedged in far too firmly. "I will run and fetch somebody," said Rose-red. "Crazy blockheads!" snapped the dwarf; "what's the good of calling anyone else? You're already two too many for me. Does nothing better occur to you than that?" "Don't be so impatient," said Snow-white, "I'll see you get help," and taking her scissors out of her pocket she cut off the end of his beard. As soon as the dwarf felt himself free he seized a bag full of gold which was hidden among the roots of the tree, lifted it up, and muttered aloud: "Curse these rude wretches, cutting off a piece of my splendid beard!" With these words he swung the bag over his back, and disappeared without as much as looking at the children again.

Shortly after this Snow-white and Rose-red went out to get a dish of fish. As they approached the stream they saw something which looked like an enormous grasshopper springing toward the water as if it were going to jump in. They ran forward and recognized their old friend the dwarf. "Where are you going to?" asked Rose-red; "you're surely not going to jump into the water?" "I'm not such a fool," screamed the dwarf. "Don't you see that cursed fish is trying to drag me in?" The little man had been sitting on the bank fishing, when unfortunately the wind had entangled his beard in the line; and when immediately afterward a big fish bit, the feeble little creature had no strength to pull it out; the fish had the upper fin, and dragged the dwarf toward him. He clung on with all his might to every rush and blade of grass, but it didn't help him much; he had to follow every movement of the fish, and was in great danger of being drawn into the water. The girls came up just at the right moment, held him firm, and did all they could to disentangle his beard from the line; but in vain, beard and line were in a hopeless muddle. Nothing remained but to produce the scissors and cut the beard, by which a small part of it was sacrificed.

When the dwarf perceived what they were about he yelled to them: "Do you call that manners, you toad-stools! to disfigure a fellow's face? It wasn't enough that you shortened my beard before, but you must now needs cut off the best bit of it. I can't appear like this before my own people. I wish you'd been in Jericho first." Then he fetched a sack of pearls that lay among the rushes, and without saying another word he dragged it away and disappeared behind a stone.

It happened that soon after this the mother sent the two girls to the town to buy needles, thread, laces, and ribbons. Their road led over a heath where huge boulders of rock lay scattered here and there. While trudging along they saw a big bird hovering in the air, circling slowly above them, but always descending lower, till at last it settled on a rock not far from them. Immediately afterward they heard a sharp, piercing cry. They ran forward, and saw with horror that the eagle had pounced on their old friend the dwarf, and was about to carry him off. The tender-hearted children seized hold of the little man, and struggled so long with the bird that at last he let go his prey. When the dwarf had recovered from the first shock he screamed in his screeching voice: "Couldn't you have treated me more carefully? You have torn my thin little coat all to shreds, useless, awkward hussies that you are!" Then he took a bag of precious stones and vanished under the rocks into his cave. The girls were accustomed to his ingratitude, and went on their way and did their business in town. On their way home, as they were again passing the heath, they surprised the dwarf pouring out his precious stones on an open space, for he had thought no one would pass by at so late an hour. The evening sun shone on the glittering stones, and they glanced and gleamed so beautifully that the children stood still and gazed on them. "What are you standing there gaping for?" screamed the dwarf, and his ashen-gray face became scarlet with rage. He was about to go off with these angry words when a sudden growl was heard, and a black bear trotted out of the wood. The dwarf jumped up in great fright, but he hadn't time to reach his place of retreat, for the bear was already close to him. Then he cried in terror: "Dear Mr. Bear, spare me! I'll give you all my treasure. Look at those beautiful precious stones lying there. Spare my life! what pleasure would you get from a poor feeble little fellow like me? You won't feel me between your teeth. There, lay hold of these two wicked girls, they will be a tender morsel for you, as fat as young quails; eat them up, for heaven's sake." But the bear, paying no attention to his words, gave the evil little creature one blow with his paw, and he never moved again.

The girls had run away, but the bear called after them: "Snow-white and Rose-red, don't be afraid; wait, and I'll come with you." Then they recognized his voice and stood still, and when the bear was quite close to them his skin suddenly fell off, and a beautiful man stood beside them, all dressed in gold. "I am a king's son," he said, "and have been doomed by that unholy little dwarf, who had stolen my treasure, to roam about the woods as a wild bear till his death should set me free. Now he has got his well-merited punishment."

Snow-white married him, and Rose-red his brother, and they divided the great treasure the dwarf had collected in his cave between them. The old mother lived for many years peacefully with her children; and she carried the two rose trees with her, and they stood in front of her window, and every year they bore the finest red and white roses.


  1. :D Blancanieve y Rojaflor... yeah this one was in the same book I mentioned earlier. Brings memories. :>

    I suposse no one has ever heard of a dwarf attacked by an eagle, tho...

    That reminds me, remember that old Greek (or was it Roman?) legend about pygmies being enemies with cranes? How do you think that story came to be?

  2. I can't remember the details of that legend. May have to look it up.

    (And then there's the legend that an eagle killed Sophocles by dropping a turtle on his head. . .)

  3. @Gordon--Aeschylus, that was. The bird credited is either given as an eagle or less commonly, a vulture (the ancients very often used the same word for both in many cultures.) Lammergeiers, which are known to eat tortoises, have sometimes been cited as the bird that killed Aeschylus.

    @Croconut--yes, there was an old Greek (and later on, Roman) legend about cranes attacking the pygmies--though these weren't (at least in the fable) the Ituri rainforest tribe, but dwarves/gnomes/call them what you like (maybe inspired by tales of the real pygmies farther south.) My mind is hazy on that, but I want to say the story involves Hera sending a plague of cranes to eat the pygmies' crops--one version has her changing into a giant crane herself--because they helped Zeus with one of his affairs, somehow.

    Sarus cranes from Asia are immense birds, sometimes standing six feet high; the goliath heron from Africa (and when taxonomy was poorly understood, cranes, herons and storks were all sort of thrown together under "big tall bird") reaches a similar height; the saddlebill and marabou storks are also huge. Any of these might have been known either through travelers' tales or captured specimens traded as curiosities from Asia and Africa to the Greeks. Herons and cranes can be dangerous and have killed people before, as we've discussed; marabou storks are alleged to have killed small children in Africa. I imagine one or two garbled accounts, maybe some bad artwork, and a vivid imagination probably was enough to set this tale in motion. To a Greek seeing a giant sarus crane from India, or a goliath heron from the Nile and calculating that against the common cranes of Europe, known to raid crops, coupled with the idea that little men exist in the far-off lands these birds call home, and the story writes itself. As you yourself commented, the idea of a heron ramming its beak through an eyesocket and into the brain is a vivid one! Crudely rendered artwork from Africa via Egyptian trade of a hunter trying to bring down an ostrich, if the tale took root before ostriches were familiar to the Greeks, is another possibility. A crane's drooping tail plumage looks something like that of an ostrich to the casual eye.

    Or, to cover the cryptid angle--if any of those giant prehistoric night herons (which did inhabit North Africa) left descendants down into the modern era, which, as the birds died out, later were transmuted into the more familiar European cranes, they might account for some of the tale. :)

    1. I'll go out on a limb and suggest and even more fanciful idea... that somehow, someone traveled to the Lesser Sunda and witnessed the last Homo floresiensis being killed/eaten by the giant marabou storks that inhabited Flores and perhaps other nearby islands up until a few thousand years ago. :> The people in Flores still have stories about the smaller species of humans which they call Ebu Gogo. The remains of the giant Flores marabou were only recently described but remains of similar (and larger) marabou storks have been found in the mainland as well.

      Or maybe a long time ago there were floresiensis-like species of hominin coexisting with sapiens in Africa as well? You never know... and central Africa is not well known for its fossil record...

      To dream, is for free.

    2. Aeschylus? That gives me an excuse to post my (loose) translation of this eagle passage from Prometheus Bound:

      This eagle, the attack-dog of God,
      will redden his mouth in you,
      will come at you with wicked appetite,
      will tear you, muscle and hide, to tatters,
      will smear your human shape
      like a drawing dribbled in red.
      He'll come for you, this eagle,
      a guest that won't go away,
      the ruin of your morning and
      the hemorrhage of your night.
      He'll snake his neck to swallow
      the torn morsels of you.

    3. "The ruin of your morning and the hemorrhage of your night"... I like that. I think I'll start introducing myself like this to ppl XD

    4. That's a thought. Perhaps I've been introducing myself as "the women's pet and the men's regret" too long.

  4. Oh by the way, I found the tale I was talking about before; its called Foundling-Bird and not only does it start with a bird snatching a child, but it actually ends with another bird attack which I did not remember:


    PS- Love the last line. "If they haven´t died, they are still alive".

  5. Excellent--I'll give this a read.

  6. In the Roman arena, a favorite theme for public execution was re-enacting the Greek myths: among those recorded being Prometheus. The person used as Prometheus would be secured to some sort of set built to resemble a rock,and a trained eagle or two released to attack him.

    In World War II, Ilse Koch, the infamous "Bitch of Buchenwald" used to amuse herself by feeding prisoners in the concentration camp to animals in her private menagerie--a bear, wolves and an eagle (all animals with strong Teutonic/Nordic mythical connections, reflecting the Nazis' preoccupation with symbolism and the occult.)

    1. Seems to me these folks were missing the point of great literature. . .

    2. That bit about Ilse Koch I didn´t know...

      That puts her right there with Ivan the Terrible, Nero and Vedius Pollio in the list of "crazy historical characters who enjoyed feeding people to their pets". (James Bond villains don´t count as "historical, rite?)

  7. On the bear note--it's interesting that the bear in Snow White and Rose Red is consistently described as a black bear. As we all know, there are no black bears in Germany, where this story takes place--only browns. American black bears, of course, can be so many colors that we probably really ought to think of a new common name for them, but I've yet to hear of a brown bear being black. On the other hand, bears, like most large carnivores, were once facing desperate straits in most of Europe. In the days of higher bear populations, could an occasional melanistic brown bear or even a locale-specific population of such creatures have appeared from time to time? Or is the fact that the bear is black rather than the usual color (aside from the fact he's amazingly friendly and speaks impeccable German, apparently) meant to show that he's a magical animal, in the same way that albinos were often thought to be lucky or divine avatars, do you guys think?

    1. Odds are that most parents blithely reading the tale to children don't really think about what a grisly picture is really implied by "the dwarf never moved again" if he took a bear's paw, presumably, to the face or side of the head. (Then again, my father gave me an illustrated copy of Ovid's Metamorphoses when I was about eight. The illustration of Actaeon getting torn apart by his pack was enough to induce ecstasies of terror in a kid who already was petrified of dogs.)

    2. I think the black bear is simply black because it is more unique/frightening being black- not because the Grimm had any species in mind. Their tales are filled with white snakes, golden geese (If I well recall) etc.

    3. Croconut’s theory is probably right, but I’ll add a couple of thoughts for the sake of argument. First, I’d say colors don’t age well. Consider the word “purple,” which more or less meant red until well into the 19th century. I don’t think we could draw too much from this word choice without looking carefully at other uses of it from the same time. And perhaps translation has complicated the matter.

      Also, assuming the Grimms only knew one species of bear, it might feel natural to speak of the darker individuals within it as “black.” There is considerable variation in the colors of “brown” bears, even if they don’t compare to North American black bears on that score. This earlier post shows a fairly dark individual:


    4. Actually, come to think of it, the Grimms must certainly have been aware of black species from elsewhere in the world.


Post a Comment


Show more