Sophia, the Goose-Girl

The following story was told by its author Sebastian Hayes on December 30th 2006 in the ‘yurt’ at Jonathan Clunies-Ross’s extraordinary landscaped domain, ‘Willow’, near Gillingham, Dorset. It was followed by a performance of the Traditional Mummers’ Play given by the Child Okeford Mummers, and then by food and drink and general socialising. Many thanks to all concerned, to Jonathan for giving us the use of ‘Willow’, to the Mummers who arrived in full regalia and last but not least the audience who had to wade torch in hand through mud and pools of water to reach the locale. Despite the weather the ‘yurt’ (made of wood but in the style of a Mongolian yurt) was filled to bursting and the atmospherics added to the ambiance.

Sebastian Hayes aims to give a performance or host a celebration of some kind at ‘Willow’ around each solstice and equinox, as he did this year. On Saturday March 24th 2007 there will be an open air performance of Stephen, the Lead King, probably starting around 5 p.m., and a Midsummer Celebration on Saturday 23rd June starting around 7.30 p.m. Details will be posted nearer the dates both on this site and on the website, section Events. All performances/celebrations are free followed by food and drink brought by those attending.

It should be stressed that Sebastian Hayes’ stories are not rehashes of Grimm but wholly original tales though they employ traditional motifs and techniques. The folk tale or saga is essentially an oral rather than a written genre but some of these tales have been collected together in The Foundling and other Stories which is available via the Brimstonepress website, or directly from the author.
Sophia, the Goose-Girl

There was once a king who collected strange fish and other water creatures, and gave fishermen a good reward whenever they brought him anything unusual. One night, when two fishermen hauled in their nets from a lake, they saw by the light of the moon a strange creature lying amongst the fish.

It had very thick bony arms, the body of a toad, but the face of an old man with long dripping hair. They took it at once to the King, who gave them a great deal of money for it, and he put it in a big pond at the bottom of the palace gardens where it was chained by the right wrist to an iron ring projecting from a rock within the pond.

Now the King had only one child, a daughter called Sophia, and she was a very lovely child and the apple of his eye. Almost every day she spent some time sitting by the pond at the bottom of the palace gardens, singing to herself, playing with her long hair and admiring her own reflection in the water, and very often the monster would be half-hidden in the bulrushes, looking up at her with big mournful eyes. And every time she caught sight of him she would sing out loud to herself:

So beautiful am I

The daughter of a king,

Even the monsters of the deep

Come forth to hear me sing.

One day, when Sophia was sitting as usual by the side of the pond, an enormous black dog who had escaped from his kennel came up behind her and was about to jump on her and tear her to pieces. ‘Beware! Beware of the dog!’ cried the water monster, and with one of his long thick bony arms he seized Sophia by the waist and placed her out of reach in the branches of a willow tree. The hound ran round the tree, barking and leaping up and trying to seize Sophia until twelve palace attendants armed with nets and spears managed to overcome it and chain it up once more. Then Sophia knew that the monster could speak and had saved her life.

The very next day, Sophia returned to the pond and when she caught sight of the monster she thanked it and asked it what she could do in return. ‘There is a spring,’ said the monster, ‘high up between the Two Teeth which for a long time was dried up but is now overflowing with water. I require a jugful of this water collected by yourself by the light of the moon.’ And before she could say anything in reply the water monster dived down into the pond and was seen no more.

The Two Teeth were a pair of jagged mountains many miles away, and since Sophia had no desire to go there, she returned the next day with a jugful of water from the palace well. The monster tasted it, and said at once that it had not come from the spring as he had asked. So Sophia went away and ordered two serving girls to bring her a jugful of this water. The girls were not at all eager to go to this spot by night, since it was of ill repute, but they had no choice but to obey because Sophia was the King’s daughter.

The following day Sophia handed the monster the jugful of water and once he had tasted it he said that it was indeed from the spring he had mentioned. ‘But,’ he added, ‘you did not get it yourself and the water only has miraculous properties if it is collected by the light of the moon by the daughter of a king.’ ‘In that case, you’ll have to stay as you are,’ said Sophia, and walked away. For some days she tried to forget about the monster and stopped going down to the pond, but she could never avoid the thought that it had saved her life.

At the next night of full moon Sophia stole out of the palace and, full of fear, walked to the Two Teeth. She found the spring which was flowing abundantly just as the monster had said and she brought back a jugful of water, taking care not to spill it on the way back. This time the monster tasted the water and then emptied it down at one gulp. At once he took on the form of a beautiful young boy with long flowing blonde hair, much to Sophia’s astonishment, and as his arm was now thinner he managed to slip it through the iron ring.

‘I must not stay here any longer,’ said the boy. ‘For I can easily be discovered — and besides, I can only keep this form for a little while. I shall go back to live in the lakes where I was born, but I shall not forget what you have done for me. If ever you are in need of assistance and you see a plant like that one’— and he pointed to a plant somewhat like a water lily with three white flowers on it — ‘take one of the leaves in your fingers and say out loud, ‘I am Sophia who once helped the lake-man Damiron to freedom’. Then one of us will emerge from the bottom of the lake to help you.’

The blonde boy ran off down the path, climbed a tree overhanging the wall that enclosed the gardens, and was soon lost to sight in the dense woods beyond.

The King soon found out that the water monster had escaped, and he was very angry with his attendants for allowing this to happen. He took a solemn oath that whoever was responsible, whether he be of high or lowly birth, would be bound hand and foot and left to die in the forest. Suspicion fell on a foreign girl recently arrived in the palace, and one morning the whole court was ordered to assemble in the palace courtyard to see her bound hand and foot and taken away to her death. ‘This will teach you all to be more careful in future with my possessions,’ said the King.

But when Sophia saw what was happening, she took pity on the girl and came forward to declare in front of the whole court that the girl was innocent and that it was she who had helped the monster to escape.

Now although Sophia was the King’s only daughter, he was afraid to go back on his word since he had taken a solemn oath in public that he would punish the person responsible whoever it was, and he felt that if he did nothing his authority would become of no worth. And so with a heavy heart, he ordered his servants to take Sophia and bind her hand and foot and leave her in the forest to perish. All this was done as he commanded, and at this time Sophia was just thirteen years old.

The sun was a great orange ball peering through the trees at Sophia, when she was abandoned that evening by the shores of a lake in the middle of the forest. ‘Alas!’ she cried aloud. ‘Beautiful though I am and the only daughter of a king, yet I have been left to die here in the forest.’ And Sophia wept and wept, but that night the wild beasts did not touch her, and the first rays of the morning sun found her in the same condition as before.

As Sophia looked across the shining expanse of water, she suddenly caught sight of the plant from the pond somewhat like a water lily with flowers opening to the sunlight floating to and fro. She crawled to the water’s edge and, as well as she could with her hands and feet tied, she got onto a log, pushed herself off and, using a branch as a paddle, she came as close as she could to the water lily. Sitting on the log, she reached over and gripped the green surface of the enormous leaf of the plant with her two hands and called out, ‘I am Sophia and it was I who helped the lake-man Damiron to escape.’

Soon afterwards a tall lake-man emerged from the water, and he carried Sophia to the shore in his arms and untied her. ‘I cannot help you more at the moment’ he said. ‘But if ever again you are in need and you see this plant with three white flowers on it opening to the sunlight, call out, and one of us will come to your aid.’ Then the lake-man swam out from the shore and dived down into the depths of the lake.

Sophia wandered about by the shores of the lake until she was half dead with hunger. At night she tied herself up in the branches of a tree to sleep, for fear of wild beasts, and by day she grubbed about on the forest floor looking for edible roots and acorns. ‘Alas! Alas!’ she cried, ‘I am a king’s daughter and was once as beautiful as a lily, and now I crawl across the ground like a wild animal and my hair is full of earth and my nails have become as long as the claws of a cat.’

But then one evening Sophia saw a light coming from a cave beneath a big rock, and went towards it. ‘Surely they will pity me, whoever they are,’ she said to herself, and she stepped at once into the cave. In front of her were seven robbers roasting a sheep over a wood fire and drinking wine out of leather bottles. ‘Have pity on me,’ she said, ‘for although I am a king’s daughter, I was left to die by the side of the lake in the forest.’

One of the robbers seized her at once by the wrist and examined her. ‘A king’s daughter you certainly are not,’ he said taking in her filthy and dishevelled appearance. ‘But we can perhaps get something for you at a fair,’ he added. So the robbers chained Sophia up like a dog at the back of the cave, and there she stayed alone all the day while the robbers were out waylaying travellers, but at night they fed her well enough, putting the food down on a plate and the water in a bowl on the floor so she had to lap it up like an animal since her hands were tied. ‘Alas! Alas!’, she cried to herself. ‘I am a king’s daughter and was once as beautiful as the day, yet now I am chained up like a dog at the back of a cave, and am to be sold at a fair. And who knows what sort of master I shall have?’

But when the robbers took Sophia to the fair at first no one wanted to buy her, as she did not look strong enough to make a good servant girl, and her appearance was so wild and dishevelled that many prospective buyers turned away with disgust. But in the end a farmer bought her because he had twelve geese that attacked everyone who worked on the farm, and he could never get any girl to stay with him.

So Sophia was lodged in a shed behind the pigsty, and each day she cleaned the yard, and fed the pigs, and drew water from the well. And all the while the twelve geese followed her about and pecked at her legs until they were red and bleeding, so that she did not get a moment’s peace. ‘Alas! Alas!’, she cried to herself, ‘I was born a king’s daughter but now I would gladly exchange my life for that of one of these geese.’

One day Sophia was sent out to bring back the cows from the meadow, but she lost her way and ended up by the shore of a big lake that she had never seen before. Even here the geese followed her, and their cackling accompanied every step she took. So she waded out into the water to escape for a moment from the geese, and all of a sudden she saw not far away floating on the water the plant from the pond at the bottom of the palace gardens.

She swam out to the plant and touched one of the leaves with her hand, calling out, ‘I am Sophia who and I once helped one of your people to escape. If you hear me, pity me and come to my aid.’ Soon afterwards a tall lake-man emerged from the water and looked at Sophia in astonishment. Then he turned to the geese who were setting up a great cackling on the shore, and whistled to them in a strange way and within moments they were quiet.

‘Your geese are bewitched young men and maidens,’ said the lake-man. ‘And in their foolishness they peck at your legs to show their affection for you. But I have told them to stop doing this.’ Then Sophia turned round and she saw that the geese were as motionless as if they had been made of stone. ‘How can they be released from the spell?’ asked Sophia. ‘They may be released,’ said the lake-man, ‘only when the girl who tends them is married to the son of the King of the Glass Mountain, and each of these twelve is seated as a guest at the wedding-feast.’ ‘If that is so’ said Sophia, ‘I shall never rest until what you say comes about.’

From that moment onwards the geese stopped tormenting Sophia and followed her about as meek as lambs, and she slept with them all around her on the straw. But a few days later the farmer ordered her to cut the heads off two of them the next morning and prepare them for the kitchen. Sophia said that she would do as he said, but that night she stole off with the twelve geese following her, and by morning she was very far away.

Sophia walked on and on not knowing where she was going. She sold the eggs of the geese to get money to live and no one dared approach her because she was protected by the geese night and day and she became known far and wide as the mad goose-girl of Bohemia. And each night she lay down with the geese around her and took them in her arms, and said to them each night before she went off to sleep, ‘Do not fear! If only I can find the Glass Mountain, you will be released.’

Sophia was now fully grown, and had become tall and strong and would have been considered handsome except that her blonde hair was full of straw and earth, and her eyes had a wild look, and the geese were always about her feet. And wherever she went she always asked if anyone had heard of the Glass Mountain, but everyone said they had never heard of such a place. But then one morning she came across an old shepherd who had in his youth travelled a great deal and he said that he knew it, but that it was very far away. ‘No matter,’ said Sophia. ‘Even if the Glass Mountain is as far as China I and my beloved geese will walk to it.’ And the shepherd gave her instructions on how to reach the Glass Mountain, and he made her repeat them until he was sure she knew them all off by heart.

So Sophia and the geese set out cheerfully and when they came to mountains she and the geese climbed them, and when there were rivers she swam across them with the geese around her. And in the end, just as the shepherd had said, she came to the foot of a high mountain on which there was not so much as a blade of grass and the sides of the mountain were as smooth as ice. And at the top, very far away, she could make out the walls and turrets of a castle. Then she knew that she was at the end of her travels and that night, before she lay down to sleep, she said to the geese, ‘Do not fear, for we are now at the very foot of the Glass Mountain, and very soon you will all of you be released.’

Then Sophia made a hut out of logs at the foot of the Glass Mountain and lived there with the geese, but she could not so much as take two steps up its sides without falling back because the sides were so smooth and slippery. Day after day Sophia kept watch but never once did she see anything come or go, and the far away castle remained silent and still and even the birds of the forest avoided flying over it.

But one day, at noon, as she watched from her hut, Sophia saw the gates of the castle suddenly open and a great troop of horsemen rode out, all of them in full armour, riding jet-black horses and bearing lances with purple pennants flying. And in the midst of them was a beautiful unarmed youth on a snow-white horse, dressed in a white cloak and with long flowing blonde hair. They rode at full gallop down the side of the Glass Mountain, and at midnight the same troop returned, the men-at-arms holding flaming torches before them. And so it was for many days following.

Yet still, whenever Sophia tried to climb the sides of the Glass Mountain, she fell back after only one or two steps. Then one day the geese began once more to grow excited and started to peck at her legs again. She frowned and told them to stop but realised that they wanted to attract her attention and lead her somewhere. She followed them until she came to a lake hidden in the forest, and in the middle of the lake there was the same large plant like a water-lily with three white flowers wide open.

As soon as Sophia touched the plant and called for aid, a lake-man emerged in answer to her summons. ‘The horses from the castle have special hooves,’ he said to Sophia, ‘and none but they can climb the sides of the Glass Mountain. You must capture one of these horses as the troop passes by. But the lord of the castle is a powerful wizard and until you overcome him, your quest will be fruitless. However, he is mortally afraid of the leaves and flowers of this plant so you should always have something of it about you.’ Then he dived back down into the water. Before she left Sophia took away a portion of the lake-plant and put it in a jar of water where it took root at once.

The next day at noon Sophia and the geese stood by the side of the path, and as the band galloped past with lances upheld and pennants flying, the geese attacked the legs of the last of the horses. It reared up in fright and, seizing the man-at-arms by the waist, Sophia threw him violently to the ground while holding fast to the bridle of the horse with her other hand. The troop galloped on regardless and the knight lay still on the ground as if dead.

When Sophia unlaced his helmet, she found that inside there was nothing but straw. So she tied the horse to a tree and put on the knight’s armour, mounted the horse, closed the visor and rode straight up the side of the Glass Mountain holding before her the knight’s lance. And when she reached the top, the gates of the castle swung open before her, and she galloped into the courtyard without meeting anyone opposing her.
The great courtyard of the castle was empty and still, except for an old man dressed like a servant. He asked what she wanted, staring in fear at her helmet for there attached to its crest there was one of the white flowers of the lake plant. Sophia said in a loud voice that she had come to ask for the hand of the son of the King of the Glass Mountain, in the name of the lady she served.

‘The Prince is not here at present,’ said the old man. ‘But I will tell the King what you have said.’ Then he disappeared up a crumbling flight of steps, and returned in a little while to say that the King agreed to the request, and that the lady was to come in ten days’ time to solemnise the wedding.

‘I have one further request to make,’ said Sophia. ‘The lady whom I serve will bring with her twelve wedding guests, and they must sit at the right hand and the left hand of the bridal pair.’ The old man disappeared once more, and came back to say that the King agreed to the second request. Then Sophia turned her horse and galloped out of the castle and down the side of the Glass Mountain.

On the appointed day Sophia rode up the side of the Glass Mountain holding her lance and hanging from the saddle of the horse were twelve baskets, one for each of the geese. At the castle gates Sophia was met by a band of maidens, who took her away to prepare her for the wedding. They washed her and combed her long hair and clothed her in her wedding dress. And all the while Sophia made sure she had one of the flowers of the lake plant in her hand and when she was ready she had it stitched onto the front of her dress. In the chapel the priest and bridegroom awaited her. And the bridegroom was the beautiful youth with the long fair hair that she had seen with the troop, but he could only nod in assent to the priest, for he was dumb.

Then the bridal pair went to the hall prepared for the wedding feast, and Sophia led in the twelve geese and lifted each one onto a chair, six to the right of the places set for the bridal pair, and six to the left. And as soon as they were all in place and the bridal pair was seated, the twelve geese instantly became young men and maidens. And, turning to the King at the far end of the table who was none other than the the old man in disguise, they said that he had bewitched them many years ago because they knew his secret which was that he had killed the true King. And they said that the blonde youth was not his son, but the son of the true King, and thus the rightful present King.

At this the King tried to flee, but the twelve young men and maidens caught him and threw him off the battlements, and he was killed at once. Then the bridegroom, too, was released from his spell and was able to speak once more, and he embraced warmly the twelve young men and maidens who had once been his attendants. And when Sophia looked out over the sides of the Glass Mountain, she saw that it was covered in grass and shrubs. And there she lived in happiness with the new King, and the twelve young men and maidens watched over them both to see that no harm would ever again befall them.

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