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The Fairy Tales of Joseph Jacobs

The Clever Lass

Return to European Folk and Fairy Tales by Joseph Jacobs

NOW there was once a farmer who had but one daughter of whom he was very proud because she was so clever. So whenever he was in any difficulty he would go to her and ask her what he should do. It happened that he had a dispute with one of his neighbours, and the matter came before the King, and he, after hearing from both of them, did not know how to decide and said:

"You both seem to be right and you both seem to be wrong, and I do not know how to decide; so I will leave it to yourselves in this way: whichever of you can answer best the three questions I am about to ask shall win this trial. What is the most beautiful thing? What is the strongest thing? and, What is the richest thing? Now go home and think over your answers and bring them to me to morrow morning."

So the farmer went home and told his daughter what had happened, and she told him what to answer next day.

So when the matter came up for trial before the King he asked first the farmer's neighbour, "What is the most beautiful thing?"

And he answered, "My wife."

Then he asked him, "What is the strongest thing?"

"My ox."

"And what is the richest?"

And he answered, "Myself."

Then he turned to the farmer and asked him,

"What is the most beautiful thing?"

And the farmer answered, "Spring."

Then he asked him,

"What is the strongest?"

"The earth."

Then he asked, "What is the richest thing?"

He answered, "The harvest."

Then the King decided that the farmer had answered best, and gave judgment in his favour. But he had noticed that the farmer had hesitated in his answers and seemed to be trying to remember things. So he called him up to him and said,

"I fancy those arrows did not come from your quiver. Who told you how to answer so cleverly?"

Then the farmer said, "Please your Majesty, it was my daughter who is the cleverest girl in all the world."

"Is that so?" said the King. "I should like to test that."

Shortly afterwards the King sent one of his servants to the farmer's daughter with a round cake and thirty small biscuits and a roast capon, and told him to ask her whether the moon was full, and what day of the month it was, and whether the rooster had crowed in the night. On the way the servant ate half the cake and half of the biscuits and hid the capon away for his supper. And when he had delivered the rest to the Clever Girl and told his message she gave this reply to be brought back to the King:

"It is only half-moon and the 15th of the month and the rooster has flown away to the mill; but spare the pheasant for the sake of the partridge."

And when the servant had brought back this message to the King, he cried out,

"You have eaten half the cake and fifteen of the biscuits and didn't hand over the capon at all."

Then the servant confessed that this was all true, and the King said,

"I would have punished you severely but that this Clever Girl begs me to forgive the pheasant, by which she meant you, for the sake of the partridge, by which she meant herself. So you may go unpunished."

The King was so delighted with the cleverness of the girl that he determined to marry her.

But, wishing to test her once more before doing so, he sent her a message that she should come to him clothed, yet unclothed, neither walking, nor driving, nor riding, neither in shadow nor in sun, and with a gift which is no gift.

When the farmer's daughter received this message she went near the King's palace, and having undressed herself wrapped herself up in her long hair, and then had herself placed in a net which was attached to the tail of a horse. With one hand she held a sieve over her head to shield herself from the sun; and in the other she held a platter covered with another platter.

Thus she came to the King neither clothed nor unclothed, neither walking, nor riding, nor driving, neither in sun nor in shadow.

Now when she was released from the net and a mantle had been placed over her she handed the platter to the King, who took the top platter off, whereupon a little bird that had been between the two platters flew away. This was the gift that was no gift.

The King was so delighted at the way in which the farmer's daughter had solved the riddle that he immediately married her and made her his Queen. And they lived very happily together though no children came to them. The King depended upon her for advice in all his affairs and would often have her seated by him when he was giving judgment in law matters.

Now it happened that one day at the end of all the other cases there came two peasants, each of whom claimed a foal that had been born in a stable where they had both left their carts, one with a horse and the other with a mare. The King was tired with the day's pleadings, and without thinking and without consulting his Queen who sat by his side, he said,

"Let the first man have it," who happened to be the peasant whose cart was drawn by the horse.

Now the Queen was vexed that her husband should have decided so unjustly, and when the court was over she went to the other peasant and told him how he could convince the King that he had made a rash judgment. So the next day he took a stool outside the King's window and commenced fishing with a fishing-rod in the road.

The King looking out of his window saw this and began to laugh and called out to the man,

"You won't find many fish on a dry road," to which the peasant answered,

"As many as foals that come from a horse."

Then the King remembered his judgment of yesterday and, calling the men before him, decided that the foal should belong to the man who had the mare and who had fished in front of his windows. But he said to him as he dismissed them,

"That arrow never came from your quiver."

Then he went to his Queen in a towering rage and said to her,

"How dare you interfere in my judgments?"

And she said, "I did not like my dear husband to do what was unjust." But the King said,

"Then you ought to have spoken to me, not shamed me before my people. That is too much. You shall go back to your father who is so proud of you. And the only favour I can grant you will be that you can take with you from the palace what ever you love best."

"Your Majesty's wish shall be my law," said the Queen, "but let us at least not part in anger. Let me have my last dinner as Queen in your company."

When they dined together the Queen put a sleeping potion in the King's cup, and when he fell asleep she directed the servants to put him in the carriage that was waiting to take her home, and carried him into her bed. When he woke up next morning he asked,

"Where am I, and why are you still with me?"

Then the Queen said, "You allowed me to take with me that which I loved best in the palace, and so I took you."

Then the King recognized the love his Queen had for him, and brought her back to his palace, and they lived together there forever afterwards.

Jacobs' Notes and References

The Clever Lass is of exceptional interest to the student of the Folk-Tale because of its exceptionally wide spread throughout Europe and Asia, and also because it is one of those tales which have been made the basis of the theory of the Eastern origin of all Folk-Tales. Bolte, in his elaborate monograph on the formula ("Anmerkungen," ii., 349-73), enumerates no less than eighty-six variants, twelve in Germany, six in other Teutonic lands, thirteen in Romance countries, no less than thirty-seven in Slavonic dialects, seven in Finnish, Hungarian and Tartar, six in the Semitic tongues, and also five in India, though there the parallelism is only partial. But in the European variants the parallels are so close and the riddles answered by the Clever Lass are in so many cases identical, and the order of incidents is so uniform that none can doubt the practical identity of the story throughout the Western area. There occurs some variation in the opening which, at times, takes the form of the father of the Clever Girl finding a golden mortar and giving it to the King, against the advice of his daughter who foresees that the monarch will demand the accompanying pestle. This seems however to be confined to the Teutonic lands or those in immediate cultural connection with them. The riddles about strongest, richest, most beautiful, form the opening elsewhere, and I have therefore chosen this alternative. The variations, both in questions and answers, are many, as is perhaps natural considering the popularity of the riddle in the folk mind, which would make it easy for a storyteller to make changes.

The King or Prince, in some of the variants, discovers the cleverness of the farmer's daughter on a visit to the farmer, when he elaborately carves and divides a chicken on a method which the Clever Lass discerns. This however does not occur so frequently except in Italy, and I have therefore omitted it. The discovery of the theft by the King's messenger is much more widely spread. (See Crane, 382, and compare "Gobborn Seer," in More English Fairy Tales.)

The Grimms, in their notes, point to a remarkable parallel in the Saga of Aslaug, the daughter of Brunhild and Sigurd. Here the King Ragnar demands that Aslaug should come to him naked yet clothed, eating yet not eating, not alone but without companion. She uses the fish-net as in the Folk-Tale, bites into an onion, and takes her dog along with her. From the last incident some of the Folk-Tales have possibly taken the awkward attitude of limping along with one of her feet on the back of a dog. But the first incident, being dragged along in a fish-net, is so unlikely to occur to anybody's mind without prompting, that one cannot help agreeing with the Grimms that the incident was taken into the Folk-Tale from the Saga, or that both were derived from a common source. On the whole subject of the curious ride, R. Kohler has an elaborate treatment in his Gessammelte Schriften, i., 446-56.

The attraction of the riddle for the folk mind is well known, and before the spread of cards appears to have been one of the chief forms of gambling in which even life was staked, as in the case of Samson or the Sphinx. In the Folk-Tale it often occurs in the form of the Riddle-Bride-Wager, in which a princess is married to him that can guess some elaborate conundrum. The first two of Child's Ballads deal with similar riddles, and his notes are a mine of erudition on the subject: on the Clever Lass herself see his elaborate treatment, English Ballads, i., 485 seq.

It is perhaps worthy of note that the questions as to the strongest, most beautiful, and richest occur in Plutarch's Symposium, 1 52 a, and it is a striking coincidence that, in the same treatise, 151 b, occurs another practical riddle, how to drink up the ocean, which occurs in several variants of the Clever Lass. But there is no evidence of any story connection between the two riddles in Plutarch, and one can easily imagine this sort of verbal amusement spreading from the learned to the folk.

The plan by which the Clever Lass becomes reconciled to the King, by carrying off what is dearest to her, is found in the Midrash probably as early as the eighth century. A still more remarkable parallel is that of the True Wives of Weinsberg who, when that town was invested, were allowed by the besiegers to carry off with them whatever they liked best. When the town gate was opened they tottered forth, each of them carrying her husband on her shoulders. But whether the incident ever really occurred, and if it occurred, whether the ruse was suggested by the Folk-Tale, cannot now be ascertained.

Benfey, in an elaborate dissertation, first communicated to "Ausland" in 1859, but now included in his Kleiner e Schriften, ii., 156-223, argues for the Eastern origin of the whole cycle, which he traces back to the "Seventy Tales of the Parrot" (Suka Saptati) probably as early as the sixth century. Here the vizier Sakatala of the King Nanda is released from prison in order to determine which of two identical horses is mare and which is foal, and which part of a truncated log is root or branch. Benfey traces this and similar riddlesome difficulties to a good deal of Eastern literature in Tibet, Mongolia and Persia, and Arabia. But he fails to find any very exact parallels in the European area which, at that time, was very little explored. He finds the nearest parallel in Wuk, No. 25, but this is by no means a full variant of the other European tales and may have even been "contaminated" from the East. Benfey notices the Saga parallel but goes so far as even to claim this as being influenced by Eastern stories. Since his time a much closer parallel has been found in Kashmir by Knowles' Folk Tales of Kashmir, pages 484-90, repeated in Indian Fairy Tales, No. xxiv., "Why the Fish Laughed." But the parallelism here extends only to the cleverness of the girl and the ingenuity of her answers to the riddles, not to the actual plot of the story which is so uniform in Europe. Altogether we must reject Benfey's contention, at any rate for this particular story.

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