The Crimson Fairy Book
The Language of Beasts
Once upon a time a man had a shepherd who served him many years faithfully and
honestly. One day, whilst herding his flock, this shepherd heard a hissing sound, coming
out of the forest near by, which he could not account for. So he went into the wood in the
direction of the noise to try to discover the cause. When he approached the place he
found that the dry grass and leaves were on fire, and on a tree, surrounded by flames, a
snake was coiled, hissing with terror.
The shepherd stood wondering how the poor snake could escape, for the wind was
blowing the flames that way, and soon that tree would be burning like the rest. Suddenly
the snake cried: 'O shepherd! for the love of heaven save me from this fire!'
Then the shepherd stretched his staff out over the flames and the snake wound itself
round the staff and up to his hand, and from his hand it crept up his arm, and twined itself
about his neck. The shepherd trembled with fright, expecting every instant to be stung to
death, and said: 'What an unlucky man I am! Did I rescue you only to be destroyed
myself?' But the snake answered: 'Have no fear; only carry me home to my father who is
the King of the Snakes.' The shepherd, however, was much too frightened to listen, and
said that he could not go away and leave his flock alone; but the snake said: 'You need
not be afraid to leave your flock, no evil shall befall them; but make all the haste you
So he set off through the wood carrying the snake, and after a time he came to a great
gateway, made entirely of snakes intertwined one with another. The shepherd stood still
with surprise, but the snake round his neck whistled, and immediately all the arch
'When we are come to my father's house,' said his own snake to him, 'he will reward you
with anything you like to ask--silver, gold, jewels, or whatever on this earth is most
precious; but take none of all these things, ask rather to understand the language of
beasts. He will refuse it to you a long time, but in the end he will grant it to you.'
Soon after that they arrived at the house of the King of the Snakes, who burst into tears of
joy at the sight of his daughter, as he had given her up for dead. 'Where have you been all
this time?' he asked, directly he could speak, and she told him that she had been caught in
a forest fire, and had been rescued from the flames by the shepherd. The King of the
Snakes, then turning to the shepherd, said to him: 'What reward will you choose for
saving my child?'
'Make me to know the language of beasts,' answered the shepherd, 'that is all I desire.'