The Snow, the Crow, and the Blood

A Folktale from Donegal, Ireland
told by
Seumas MacManus
and edited by

D. L. Ashliman

Return to:
One day in the dead of winter, when the snow lay like a linen tablecloth over the world, Jack, the King of Ireland's son, went out to shoot. He saw a crow, and he shot it, and it fell down on the snow. Jack went up to it, and he thought he never saw anything blacker than that crow, or redder than its blood, nor anything whiter than the snow round about.

He said to himself: "I'll never rest till I get a wife whose hair is as black as that crow, whose cheeks are as red as that blood, and whose skin is as white as that snow."

So he went home, and told his father and mother this. He said he was going to set off before him and look for such a girl.

The King and Queen told Jack that it would be impossible ever to get a girl that would answer that description, and tried to persuade Jack from setting out, but Jack wouldn't be persuaded.

He started off with his father's and his mother's blessing, and a hundred guineas that his father had given him in his pocket. He traveled away and away very far, and about the middle of the day on the second day out, passing a graveyard, he saw a crowd there wrangling over a corpse. He went in and inquired what was the matter, and he found there were bailiffs wanting to seize the corpse for a debt of a hundred guineas. Jack was sorry for the poor corpse, so he put his hand in his pocket, took out the hundred guineas, and paid them down; and then the friends of the corpse thanked him heartily and buried the body.

That very same evening Jack was overtaken by a little red man who asked him where he was going.

Says Jack: "I'm going in search of a wife."

"Well," says the little red man, "such a handsome young fellow as you won't have to go far."

"Far enough," says Jack, "because the girl I want must have hair as black as the blackest crow, cheeks as red as the reddest blood, and skin as white as the whitest snow."

"Then," said the little red man, "there's only one such woman in the world, and she is the Princess of the East. There's many a brave young man went there before you to court her, but none of them ever came back alive again."

"For life or for death," says Jack, "I'll never rest until I reach the Princess of the East and court her."

"Well," said the little red man, "you'll want a boy with you. Let me be your boy."

"But I have no money to pay you," says Jack.

"That will be all right," says the little red man. "I'll go with you."

That night late they reached a great castle.

"This castle," says the little red man, "is the castle of the Giant of the Cloak of Darkness."

"Oh," says Jack, "I've heard of that terrible giant. We'll pass on, and look for somewhere else to stop."

"No other place we'll stop than here," says the little red man, knocking at the gates.

Jack was too brave to run away, so he stood by the little red man till a great and terrible giant came to the gates and opened them, and asked them what they wanted.

"We want supper and a bed for the night," says the red fellow.

"That's good," says the giant. "I want supper and bed too. I'll make my supper off you both, and my bed on your bones." And then he let a terrible laugh out of him that made the hair stand up on poor Jack's head.

But in a flash, the wee red fellow whips out his sword and struck out at the giant, and the giant then pulled out his, and struck out at the wee red man. Both of them fell to it hard and fast, and they fought a terrible fight for a long time; but in the end the wee red man ran the giant through the heart and killed him.

Then he took Jack in, and they spread for themselves a grand supper with the best of everything eatable and drinkable, and had a good sleep, and in the morning they started off, the wee red fellow taking with him the Cloak of Darkness belonging to the giant he had killed.

They traveled on and on that day, and at night they reached another castle.

"What castle is this?" says Jack.

"This," says the wee red man, "is the castle of the Giant of the Purse of Plenty."

"Then," says Jack, "I've heard of that terrible giant. We'll push on and look for somewhere else to stop tonight."

"Nowhere else than here we'll stop," says the wee red man. "No danger ever frightened me in all my life before, and it's too late to begin to learn fright now."

And before Jack could say anything he had knocked at the gates, and a giant with two heads came out roaring, and asked them what they wanted and what brought them there.

"We don't want much," says the little red man, "only what every traveler expects -- a sweet supper and a soft bed."

"I want both myself, too," says the giant, "and I'll make a sweet supper off you both, and a soft bed of your bones."

Then he laughed an awful laugh that shook the castle and made the hair stand up on poor Jack's head.

But that minute the wee red man whipped out his sword and made at him, and the giant whipped out his and made at the wee red man; and both of them fell to and had a fight long and hard, but at length the wee red man ran his sword through the giant's heart and killed him.

Then they went in, and spread for themselves a grand supper and a fine bed, in which they slept soundly till morning. And in the morning they went off, the little red man taking with him the Purse of Plenty.

All that day they traveled on before them, and when night fell they came to another great castle.

"What castle is this?" says Jack.

"This," says the little red man, "is the castle of the Giant of the Sword of Light."

"Oh," says Jack, "I've heard of that terrible giant and his awful sword, and," he says, "I want to get out of his neighborhood as fast as possible."

"Fear never made me turn my back on man or mortal yet," says the little red man, "and I don't think I'll begin this late in life. As we're here, we'll lodge here this night."

So on the gates he rattled, and out came a frightful giant, with three great heads on him, and he roared so that the hills shook; and he asked them what they were doing here and what they wanted.

"We are two poor travelers on a journey," says the little red man, "and as night fell on us we thought we would ask you to give us bed and board for the night."

"Ha! Ha!" says the giant, laughing a terrible laugh. "I'll board myself on you two this night, and I'll bed me on your bones."

And at that he drew from his scabbard the terrible Sword of Light, whose flash traveled thrice round the world every time it was drawn, and whose lightest stroke killed any being, natural or enchanted.

But that instant the little red man drew around him the Cloak of Darkness, so that he should disappear from the giant's eyes, and drawing his own sword he began whacking and hacking, hewing and cutting the giant, while the giant couldn't see him to strike him in return, and in two minutes the wee red man had run his sword through the giant's heart and killed him.

He and Jack went into the castle, and they made a hearty supper and slept soundly in the softest beds they could get, and in the morning they went off again, the wee red man taking with him the Sword of Light.

Having the Purse of Plenty, they could not know want from this forward. So they went on their journey right merrily. They traveled far and long until at length they came into the East, and pushed on for the castle of the Princess. And when they came to where the Princess lived, they took their horses (for they were now riding two beautiful steeds) to a blacksmith's forge and had them shod with gold. And when they had had them shod, they rode up to the castle. By the wee red fellow's order, they didn't wait to knock at any gates, but put their golden spurs to their horses and leaped them over the castle walls.

When the servants and soldiers saw the pair come bounding over the castle walls upon horses shod with gold, they ran out in wonder. From the Purse of Plenty the red fellow, as Jack's servant, pulled out handfuls and handfuls of silver and of gold and scattered them among the crowd.

Then the servants quickly brought word to the Princess of the East of the beautiful and rich gentleman who had come, with his servant, to court her. They told her how they had both leaped the castle walls on horses shod with gold, and that they threw away their gold in handfuls.

She sent word for Jack to be brought to her, and when Jack came into her presence, he was enchanted with the look of her; for her hair was so black, her cheeks and lips were so red, and her skin was so white, he had never seen in all his life anyone so beautiful.

"I understand you have come to court me," says she.

"That I have," says Jack.

"Well," says she, "to everyone that comes to court me, I give three tasks. If anyone performs the three tasks I give him he will win me; but if he fails in any one of the three, he will lose his head. Are you willing to try on such conditions?" says she.

"I'll try," says Jack, "upon any conditions." She took him out then into the Garden of Heads, and showed him three hundred and sixty-five rose bushes, and for every flower there was a man's head on every one of three hundred and sixty-four of the bushes.

"There's one bush without a flower yet, Jack," says she, "but in less than three days I hope to see your head flowering on it."

Then she took him into the castle again, and treated him to a fine supper. And when they had finished supper and drunk their wine and chatted, she got up to bid him good-night.

She took out of her hair a gold comb, and showed it to him. "Now," she says, "I will wear that golden comb all night, and I'll spend this night from midnight to cockcrow neither on the earth nor under the earth. Yet you must have that comb for me in the morning, and it must be taken from my head between midnight and cockcrow." Then she stuck the comb into her hair again and went off.

Poor Jack acknowledged to himself that he had a task before him which he couldn't do. He wandered down the stairs and out of the castle, and went meandering into the garden in low spirits.

The wee red man soon came to him and asked him what was the matter.

"Oh, matter enough," says Jack, and commenced telling him all.

"Keep up your heart," says the wee red man, "and I'll see what I can do for you."

So the little red man went and got his Cloak of Darkness, and then watched till midnight outside the Princess's door.

Just one second before the stroke of midnight, the Princess came out of her room with the golden comb in her hair, and went off to Hell. The little red man threw his Cloak of Darkness around him, and followed her.

She didn't stop till she came to Hell, where she went in, and the little red man went in after her.

The Devil was very glad to see her, and he kissed her, and the two sat down side by side and began to chat. And as they couldn't see the wee red man for his Cloak of Darkness, he came up behind and snatched the gold comb out of her hair, and went off with it; and when he came to earth, he gave the comb to Jack.

In the morning when the Princess of the East appeared at breakfast, Jack handed her her gold comb across the table. She was furious, and the eyes of her flashed fire. That night she showed him a diamond ring on her finger, and she said she would not be on earth or under the earth between midnight and cockcrow, yet he must get that ring between those two times, and have it for her in the morning.

And when she went away, Jack went down to the garden, and was wandering about there when the wee red man came up to him and asked him what was the matter, and he told the wee red man.

"Well," says the wee red man, "I'll try what I can do." And so he took his Cloak of Darkness and watched for her that night again, and just before midnight, she came out and went off. He followed her, and she didn't stop till she was in Hell, where the Devil was very glad to see her and kissed her, and they sat down side by side to chat.

The little red fellow, with his Cloak of Darkness, came up beside her and waited, and the first opportunity he got, he snatched the ring off her finger, and went off and gave it to Jack.

So when she came down to breakfast the next morning Jack handed her over the table her diamond ring; and this morning she was doubly as furious as on the morning before. "Well," she said, "you've done two of the tasks, but the third you never will do."

So that night she told him: "I will spend all the time between midnight and cockcrow neither on the earth nor under the earth; and I want you to have for me in the morning the lips I shall have kissed while I have been away. Your head I'll surely have now, for the sword was never yet made by mortal man that can cut those lips."

Then she went away.

Poor Jack, he wandered out into the garden very down-hearted at this, and sure and certain that he would lose his head in the morning.

The little red man came up to him and asked him what was the matter. Jack told him, and the red fellow said: "Keep up your heart, and I'll see what can be done." And he reminded Jack that he had the Sword of Light, which was never made by mortal man.

He threw his Cloak of Darkness about him, took the Sword of Light with him, and watched by the Princess's door. Just before midnight she came out and went off, and he followed her to Hell, where the Devil welcomed her with a kiss, and as he did so the little red man raised the Sword of Light and cut the lips off of him and went off as fast as he could.

So in the morning Jack handed them across the table to the Princess, who was shaking with rage, and then he demanded her hand in marriage. And she had to consent.

As soon as they were married, the little red man said to Jack: "I have a wedding present for you." So he have him ten blackthorns and told him to break one of these blackthorns on his wife every morning for ten mornings, and if he followed out his instructions faithfully, he would have a good wife on the tenth day.

Seeing the little man had been such a good friend to him, Jack consented to do this. He broke a blackthorn on her every morning for ten mornings, and for every blackthorn he broke on her she was dispossessed of a devil. And on the tenth day she had lost all her rage and all her fury and all the devils, and she was the best and most perfect girl, as well as the most beautiful one in all the world.

Revised November 27, 1997.