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Literature / The Goose Girl

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"Alas, poor Falada, hanging there!"

The Goose Girl is a German Fairy Tale collected by The Brothers Grimm.

The beautiful only child of a widowed queen is sent off to marry the prince to whom she is betrothed. Before she leaves, her mother presents her with a small token; some versions say it is a lock of the mother's hair, others have it as a handkerchief with drops of the mother's blood. In any case, this token provides her with magical protection. She is also presented with Falada, a magical horse with the ability to speak.

However, the maidservant who accompanies the princess treats her very brutishly, and when circumstances cause the princess to lose her token, the maid seizes the opportunity to force the princess into trading places. She makes the princess switch clothes with her, and tries to ride Falada, though in most versions he refuses and the maid has no choice but to continue riding her ordinary horse. The maid further extorts a vow from the real princess that she will never tell a living soul what has happened, on threat of death.

Once they arrive in the prince's kingdom, the false princess says that Falada was a very ill-tempered mount and demands that he be executed (so he can't speak up and reveal the truth). She also wants the true princess nowhere near her, and says that the king can make her whatever sort of servant he pleases. The true princess, grieving for Falada's death, manages to persuade the groom to have the horse's head mounted above one of the palace gates where she can still see it every day.

The true princess is so lovely and delicate that no one can bear to give her hard work, so they send her out with the goose boy. In the morning and in the evening, she sighs to her horse's head and it responds. During the day, she lets down her hair to comb it, but it looks so much like gold that the goose boy tries to grab it; she uses a little rhyme to ask the wind to blow his cap away, making him run after it so she can comb her hair in peace.

After two days of this, the goose boy complains about these bizarre incidents, and his report catches the ear of the king (who is not at all impressed with the false princess). He spies on her and sees it happen for himself, then approaches the goose girl to learn the truth. She is bound by her promise not to speak of her misfortunes to any living creature, so he kindly suggests that she unburden herself to the iron stove in the palace kitchen — where the king can discreetly overhear. Now aware of the deception, the king sends her to the royal household to be dressed properly, and then he brings her to a great banquet. She makes so fine an appearance that even the false princess does not recognize her.

The king asks the guests what sort of punishment would be fitting for someone who has deceived everyone around them, and proceeds to describe the situation in a way that does not reveal anyone's identity. He turns to the false princess for her opinion, and she recommends an exceptionally cruel and gruesome style of execution. He then condemns her to the very death she has suggested and introduces his son to the true princess. The young couple are delighted with each other and marry the next day.

In some versions, the princess is the daughter of a fairy or other magical being, who restores all her fortunes once she is married, including bringing the dead horse back to life.

A Gender Flip is found in both the Chivalric Romance Roswall And Lillian and the Child Ballad "The Lord of Lorn and the False Steward". The Romanian fairy tale "Harap Alb" ("White Slave") by Ion Creanga also has the prince/evil servant switch as its main plot.

In 2003, Shannon Hale wrote a young adult novel retelling of the story, which was so successful that she ultimately wrote three sequels, creating the Books of Bayern series.

It can be read here. Andrew Lang's version, found in The Blue Fairy Book, can be found here.

Tropes found in this story include:

  • Amateur Sleuth: The king, who personally finds out what the deal is with the new goose girl.
  • Barefoot Poverty: The real princess and Conrad the goose boy.
  • Beauty Equals Goodness: The princess.
  • Bride and Switch: The central plot. Fortunately, everything is cleared up before the actual marriage.
  • Cruel and Unusual Death: What the chambermaid brings upon herself: dragged to death in a barrel studded with nails.
  • Damsel in Distress: The real princess.
  • Dead Guy on Display: Falada.
  • Entitled Bitch: The maid, who is all too happy to push the princess around and make them swap places (threatening to murder the poor girl if she doesn't).
  • Exact Eavesdropping: Deliberately engineered by the king; he persuades the princess to speak to the stove so that he could secretly listen in.
  • Exact Words: She promised not to tell a single living creature. The stove didn't count.
  • Extreme Doormat
    • The princess is too humble to reprimand her maidservant for disobeying her, even when she has her mother's protective charm still in her hand. She eventually shows a little more agency, if only to save her hair from the goose boy's grabby hands.
    • Falada, despite being a talking horse, says and does nothing when the servant usurps the princess's role. He also (apparently) does not speak up to save his own life. He speaks more when dead than alive!
  • Fallen-on-Hard-Times Job: Subverted with the title job: going out with the goose boy is easy work compared to what the princess could have been saddled with, but she never expected to have to take a job at all.
  • Family-Unfriendly Death: The maid's — specifically, she is put stark naked into a barrel lined with nails, which is then dragged about the streets by two white horses until she is dead.
  • The Good King: The prince's father is the one who resolves the story, first by listening to the goose boy's story, then by verifying that the strange girl is the real princess and the other is an imposter.
  • Hair Memento: The story revolves around a princess betrothed to a distant land, and carrying with her a charm from her mother the queen as a safety amulet, only to lose it halfway in her journey and have her servant take advantage of her helplessness. Depending on the version, the amulet is either a talisman, a napkin with drops of the queen's blood, or a lock of the queen's hair.
  • Hair of Gold, Heart of Gold: The princess's hair is such a bright color that the (rather dim) goose boy thinks it's actual gold.
  • Happily Ever After: Implied by the ending.
  • The High Queen: The princess's mother seems to be this.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: The chambermaid. After the king asks what punishment she thinks would be most fitting for someone who has committed the crime she (doesn't realize he already knows she) has committed, it's carried out forthwith. See Family-Unfriendly Death.
  • Honor Before Reason: The princess still honors the oath she made under duress, even if speaking up would solve all of her problems.
  • Horrible Judge of Character: The princess's mother somehow does not realize that she has sent her daughter off with a woman with only the worst intentions.
  • I Gave My Word: The princess.
  • Interspecies Friendship: The princess and Falada.
  • Iron Maiden: A variant provides the Family-Unfriendly Death of the false princess.
  • Kick the Dog: The none-too-bright goose boy not only thinks it's a great idea to try and rip out some of his coworker's hair, but he gets terribly offended when she casts a magic spell to stop him.
  • Leonine Contract: The princess agrees to switch places with the maid in order to keep the maid from killing her.
  • Long Hair Is Feminine: Suggested, given that it evidently takes some time for the true princess to take down, comb, and braid up her golden hair.
  • Nice Job Fixing It, Villain: Downplayed in the case of the goose boy. While he's not an out-and-out villain, he's still a moronic Jerkass who complains to the king that the titular goose girl won't let him tear out her hair. This causes the king to question her, which ultimately leads to her happy ending.
  • Oblivious to His Own Description: Upon hearing her own crimes described, the false princess fails to make the connection and suggests a harsh sentence, which is then inflicted on her.
  • Off with His Head!: Poor Falada is killed by decapitation. The true princess bribes the knacker to nail his head over a certain gate, so she can still speak to him.
  • Original Position Fallacy: The false princess fails to realize that the horrible death she orders will happen to her.
  • Perfectly Arranged Marriage: They never set eyes on each other until the king explains everything to his son, but once they meet, the prince and princess are very satisfied by the setup.
  • Pride: The haughty maid refuses to serve the princess and attempts to usurp her place as the prince's bride.
  • Royals Who Actually Do Something: The king alone notices something off about his son's supposed bride and the goose boy's story about the insubordinate goose girl, so he takes it upon himself to find out what happened (rather than sending a servant to it for him) and resolves the whole story's conflict single-handedly.
  • Rags to Royalty: Inverted with the true princess, then played straight when her status is restored in the ending.
  • Rule of Three: The mother gives the princess a handkerchief with three drops of blood as magical protection. There are three days of the princess's servitude as a goose girl, or at least three incidents of talking-horse-head and cap-blowing-wind-incantation, before the truth comes out.
  • Rule of Two: The princess loses her protective item the second time she dips down to the stream to get some water.
  • Spared by the Adaptation:
  • Surrogate Soliloquy: Talk to the stove.
  • Talking Animal: Falada. Even after getting beheaded!
  • Too Dumb to Live: The maid. How often do servants impersonate their employers, that she didn't get suspicious when the king asked her to name the punishment for her exact case?
  • Unusually Uninteresting Sight: If Falada being a talking animal wasn't this already, then his severed head somehow talking while nailed to a public gateway seems to be this for the townsfolk. Only the goose boy complains, and only after the second time this happens.
  • Victoria's Secret Compartment: The aforementioned handkerchief is kept in the princess' bosom.