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Literature / The Nine Peahens and the Golden Apples

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"The dragon catching the queen" by Arthur Rackham (1916)

The Nine Peahens and the Golden Apples (Zlatna jabuka i devet paunica) (also translated as The Golden Apple-tree, and the Nine Peahens or The Seven Golden Peahens) is a Serbian Fairy Tale and epic poem. It has been published in several fairy tale collections, including Andrew Lang's Violet Fairy Book. There is also a Bulgarian version translated as The Golden Apples and the Nine Peahens, and a similar Czech tale titled Berona.

A king owns a fruit tree which bears golden apples every night. However, all apples are stolen every night. The king orders his three children to investigate the matter, but the youngest son is the one who manages to solve the mystery: nine peahens descend upon the tree every night, eat its apples and fly away just before dawn. He also finds out one of the peahens can turn into a beautiful woman, and the prince and the lady start meeting every night under the apple tree. Unfortunately, his older brothers are jealous of his success, so they hire a witch to sabotage their nighttime dates.

The witch succeeds in scaring the peahens forever, and the prince sets off on a journey to find his lover. After a long quest, he finds her again and finds out she rules over her own kingdom. The prince and the empress get married, and he moves to her palace, but he is warned against going into the twelfth cellar. During one of her absences, the prince investigates the cellar, and he finds one cask bound with iron hoops. Someone has been imprisoned in the cask and is thirsty, so the prince takes pity on it and gives him water. When its thirst is quenched, the prisoner bursts out of the casket and reveals to be a dragon; then it kidnaps the empress and flies away.

The prince sets off on another journey to find his wife. After a while, he meets the dragon's lair and attempts to make off with his wife, but he is quickly caught by the dragon thanks to its impressive horse. The dragon decides to spare his life just this once, but the prince concludes that he needs a horse who can outrun the dragon's steed.

The empress subtly goads the dragon into revealing his horse was given by a witch, so the prince travels to the witch's mountain, saving several animals on the way, and requests one of her horses. The witch promises to give him any horse of his choice if he takes care of her mare for three days. The prince accepts, but the wild, sapient mare runs away and transforms into a different animal every time his back is turned. Nonetheless, the animals whom he previously saved help him find her and carry out his task, whereupon the witch reluctantly lets him pick one horse.

Once again, the prince makes off with his wife, and the dragon gives chase. Though, the prince's horse talks the dragon steed's into turning against his master. The dragon is kicked off his mount, falls on a rock and breaks in pieces.

The fairy tale can be read in Andrew Lang's Compilation, the SurLaLune site, here, here or here. The Bulgarian version can be read in the SurLaLune site and here.

It is classified as Aarne-Thompson type 400, "The Swan Maiden", and ATU 400, "The Quest for the Lost Wife". It also shares some elements with "East of the Sun, West of the Moon" and "The Death of Koschei the Deathless".


  • Androcles' Lion: As looking for his wife, the prince throws a fish back into the river to save it from suffocating and frees a fox and a wolf from a trap. In return, the three animals help him carry out the old witch's impossible task.
  • Animorphism: The main character's love interest can transform into a peahen.
  • Big Bad: The dragon in the cellar kidnaps the prince's wife after being freed.
  • The Bluebeard: Subverted, as usual in Eastern European tales. It is the wife who tells the husband to not go into one room, and the husband's curiosity frees a monster.
  • Dragon Rider: Inverted. It is the dragon who rides a horse.
  • Dragons Prefer Princesses: The prince rescues a princess from a dragon. When it chases after them, their horses talk, and the dragon's horse is persuaded to throw and kill it.
    And for the third time the voice still called for water; and when water was given it the last hoop was rent, the cask fell in pieces, and out flew a dragon, who snatched up the empress just as she was returning from her walk, and carried her off.
  • Forbidden Fruit: The hero opens the twelfth door his wife had forbidden, and accidentally releases a dragon.
  • Green-Eyed Monster: The prince's brothers become so jealous when their sibling not only solves the vanishing apples' mystery, thus earning their father's approval, but also meets a beautiful woman, they seek a witch's help to sabotage their brother's nightly meetings with his lover.
  • Heroic BSoD: The prince "went nearly mad" with grief when he freed a dragon which kidnapped his wife.
  • I Gave My Word: Whatever you say about the old mountain's murderous witch, she promised the prince she would give him any of her horses if he fulfilled her (impossible) task, and she (grudgingly) kept her promise.
  • Impossible Task: The mountain's old witch tasks the prince with taking care of her mare for three days in exchange for one of her horses. However, the witch mare is sapient, untamable and a shape-shifter. As soon as the prince gets tired and looks away, the mare slips away and hides away by turning into a different animal.
  • Karma Houdini: The older princes go completely unpunished after trying to destroy their brother and his lover's relationship out of jealousy and spite.
  • Mook–Face Turn: The dragon's horse turns against its master after being talked down by the prince's horse.
  • Nameless Narrative: The characters are the king, the young prince, his brothers, the empress, the old witch, the old servant...
  • Off with His Head!: The mountain's witch warns the prince she will cut his head off if he fails to take care of her mare.
  • Only Known By His Nickname: As a result of having no name given, the characters are only referred to as the prince, the empress, the old witch...
  • Our Dragons Are Different: The empress-kidnapping dragon can fly, but he only does so once. He is also small enough to ride a horse, and fragile enough to break in pieces when he falls off his horse.
  • Rule of Three: Three times three apples, three royal brothers, and the third brother spends three nights.
  • Sealed Evil in a Can: The empress had gotten a dragon locked up in a cask bound with iron hoops and hidden away in a cellar under her palace.
  • Sapient Steed: Every time the prince attempts to rescue his wife, the dragon asks his horse if he should chase after them now or after getting dinner and a good night's sleep.
  • Shapeshifting Lover: The hero's wife can transform into a peahen.
  • Solitary Sorceress: In order to get a horse who can outrun the dragon's steed, the prince meets an old witch who lives alone in a mountain.
  • Talking Animal: All animals in the tale can talk: the fish, fox and wolf who help the prince, the horse who advises the dragon, the old woman's mare...
  • Voluntary Shape Shifting: The mountain witch's mare can change herself and her foal into animals like fishes, foxes and wolves.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: The prince's family are quickly forgotten after he meets again with the empress.
  • Wicked Witch: A witch prevents the prince and his love from meeting a second time.
  • Youngest Child Wins: The main character is the king's youngest son, who solves the mystery of the vanishing golden apples and gets married to the empress.