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Peter D. A. Boyd
The Prince and the Pimpinell Rose
Peter D. A. Boyd
Web version of
Boyd, P. D. A. 2013b. The Prince and the Pimpinell Rose. Historic Rose Journal. No. 46. Autumn 2013. Historic Roses Group, Royal National Rose Society. pp. 19-23. [reformatted and slightly updated]
Fig. 1. Flowers of wild Rosa spinosissima.
I have retold this traditional folktale in my own words and with my own embellishments - in the tradition of such folktales. It is based on several different versions, originally written in French or Walloon.
Pimpinell Rose is an old English name for the Burnet Rose (R. spinosissima). These English names and the French equivalents of Rose or Rosier Pimprenelle come from the resemblance of its leaves to a Burnet (Sanguisorba).
Folklore and folktales concerning the species exist in many countries. One that has probably survived from Mediaeval times, through an oral tradition, is the story of 'La Rose Pimprenelle' from the Ardennes region of Belgium and France. Although R. spinosissima, plays a key part in the story, as the object of a quest, it is a variant of a folktale found in many different countries, known by folklorists as 'L'os qui chante' ('The singing bone') because some versions of the story feature a flute made from a human bone.
La Rose Pimprenelle seems to have been recorded in print for the first time in 1891 (Destriché, 1891; Monseur, 1891). It has been published since then in various versions, including those of Jean-Paul Vaillant (Vaillant, 1929) and René Daumal (Sigoda, 1993) who were both children in the Ardennes, a version from central France (Debiais and Valière, 1980) and in anonymous online versions. In the 'modern' versions of this story, no explanation is given of the special properties that made R. spinosissima an appropriate object of a quest. This was presumably known by children who were told the story in the past!
In a disappointing play called La Rose de Pimprenelle (Portron, 1925), written for young men and boys, the rose was replaced by a lost finger ring depicting a Burnet Rose and with the female characters and magic removed from the story!
Here is my version of the story:-
'The Prince and the Pimpinell Rose'
By Peter D. A. Boyd
Once upon a time, a long time ago, there was a king who had three sons. As the king grew older, he worried as to which of the three princes should succeed him to the throne. He did not want to divide the kingdom between his sons, as that would be bad for the stability of the realm, but decided that his successor should be the most worthy son and not necessarily the oldest. He wanted to choose the son that would make the wisest ruler. He wondered how he should make the right choice.
As the old king walked among the roses in the palace garden, an idea occurred to him - he would set his sons a quest that would test their characters and abilities.
He gathered his sons together to make his announcement:
"The first of you to bring me a Pimpinell Rose, will inherit my kingdom".
The three sons agreed, thinking that it would be a simple task to find the rose and win the crown, but the wise old king knew that it would not be a simple quest to find this special rose. They would have to search far and wide, and might only find it if they were able to get help from someone who knew where it grew.
The three young men set off from the palace in different directions. They searched far and wide for many months - without success.
The spring and summer had passed and it was now early autumn when all three princes arrived, from different directions, at the fringes of the Ardennes Forest. The first one entered the forest and met an old woman trying to carry a large load of firewood to her cottage. She greeted him and asked if he would help her to carry the wood. The young prince spoke to her rudely and refused because he was too busy searching for the Pimpinell Rose. The old woman told him that he would never find the mystical rose unaided. The young man walked on.
Sometime later, the second prince came across the same old woman - still struggling with her load of wood. She greeted him and asked him too if he would kindly help her with her load. This young man also answered her rudely and refused because he was too busy searching for the Pimpinell Rose. The old woman told him that he would never find the magical rose unaided. The young man walked on.
A little time later, the third and youngest prince entered the forest and met the same old woman struggling with her load of firewood. He greeted her kindly and offered to carry the wood back to her cottage. She thanked him, and when they arrived at her cottage, she asked him where he was going when they met. He explained that he was searching for the Pimpinell Rose to take back to his father. The old lady told him that she would show him where the rose grew because he had been so kind to her.
The old woman led the young prince through the trees to a clearing where there was a tumble of large rocks, bathed in sunshine. It was a magical place and the prince supposed that it might once have been an ancient place of worship or burial. There - growing among the stones - was the much-sought Pimpinell Rose - with a few sweetly scented white flowers shining among its autumnal black fruits!
The prince picked a sprig of the rose and pushed it into a buttonhole in his jacket. He also wanted to collect a young plant or piece of the rose so that his father could grow it in the palace garden. After asking the old woman if he could, he carefully dug up a small rooted piece of the special rose with his sword, wrapped it in damp moss and placed it in his leather bag. The young man thanked the old woman for her help. She smiled and handed him a little flute made from elder wood. The old woman told him that it would look after him on his journey. He wondered what she meant by that but he thanked her again.
As he was leaving the forest, the young prince met his two brothers and showed them the sprig of Pimpinell Rose fixed to his jacket. His two elder brothers knew that if he succeeded in returning to their father, their brother would be the one to inherit the kingdom. At first, they hid their jealousy but then they lost their self-control and killed him. They dragged his body away from the path, took the sprig of Pimpinell Rose from his jacket and covered his body and bag with leaves and tree branches.
The wicked brothers did not notice that the little flute had fallen onto the ground near where they had buried their brother. Even if they had noticed, they would not have bothered with an old wooden flute. They left the forest and made their way to their father's palace. On the way, they agreed to divide the kingdom between them when their father was dead, even though that was not what their father wanted.
When they arrived at the palace, the eldest brother showed the sprig of Pimpinell Rose to his father and claimed the right to inherit his kingdom. The brothers had claimed that they had not seen their younger brother, but the king was suspicious of their behaviour and he was worried about his youngest son, who was his favourite. He said that he could not make a decision about the throne until he knew what had happened to his third son. The two older sons were angry.
Several months later, in the following spring, a shepherd-boy called Pierre was searching for some sheep that had become lost in the Ardennes Forest. After much searching, he found his sheep deep in the forest. As he was making his way back to the path, he noticed a shaft of sunlight illuminating a little flute lying on the moss near a mound of leaves and branches. He picked up the flute, wiped it on his sleeve and put it to his lips. He blew into the flute but he was amazed to hear it 'sing' to him instead of emitting a musical note:
"Blow, blow, little Pierre.
My brothers killed me in the Ardennes Forest.
Had I not found The Pimpinell Rose?
Had I not won my father's crown?"
Pierre quickly made his way out of the forest with his sheep. He went to the palace and asked to see the king because he had news of his son. He told the king his story and handed him the flute. The king blew into the flute and it sang again:
"Blow, blow, my father.
My brothers have killed me in the Ardennes Forest.
Had I not found The Pimpinell Rose?
Had I not won your crown?"
The king called his two sons to him and asked each one to play the flute. Each time, the flute sang:
"Blow, blow, you traitor.
You killed me in the Ardennes Forest.
Had I not found The Pimpinell Rose?
Had I not won my father's crown?"
The king was heartbroken and furious. He immediately banished the wicked princes from the kingdom. Then, led by Pierre, he rode to the forest with a contingent of his men. Pierre showed the king where he had found the flute. The king's men pulled the branches and leaves away from the body of the young prince. It was miraculously preserved! Then the old lady appeared from among the trees, approached the dead prince and touched him gently with her hand. The young man started to breathe again and opened his eyes.
Through tears of joy, his father told his son what had happened. After a few minutes, the prince was able to stand up. He embraced his father and thanked Pierre for leading his father to him.
The old lady asked the prince if he still had the magical Pimpinell Rose. He picked up his bag from among the leaves, opened it and found that the young rose was not only still alive but it had sprouted in its blanket of damp moss. The prince turned to his father and said:
"Father - you see that I did find the Pimpinell Rose and earned the crown but I also brought you a new rose for your garden!"
Then he turned to the old woman.
"I could not have found the Pimpinell Rose if you had not helped me. Your flute saved me and it was your touch that brought me back to life. How can I possibly repay you?"
The handsome young prince hugged the old woman and kissed her on each cheek. There was suddenly a flash of brilliant light. Standing before the prince was not an old lady but a beautiful young princess who had been under a spell. Now the spell was broken. She told him that he had repaid her in full!
They all returned to the King's palace where the shepherd-boy Pierre was given a generous reward. He was also allowed to keep the flute. He played beautiful tunes on it but it never 'sang' again.
A few weeks later, the Prince and Princess were married and chose the Pimpinell Rose as their family emblem. When the old king died, the Prince succeeded him as a kindly and wise king - ruling with justice. Every spring (and sometimes in the autumn, too), the Pimpinell Rose bloomed in the palace garden, reminding the couple of how they had first met.
And they both lived happily ever after.
Boyd, Peter D. A. 2012. Rosa spinosissima - aspects of its natural history and associations with people from prehistory to the present day. 12th International Heritage Rose Conference, Sakura, Japan June 2012. World Federation of Rose Societies. Published on CD.
Debiais, Geneviève et Valière, Michel. 1980. Récits et contes populaires du Berry, I (recueillis dans la Brenne). Collection Récits et contes populaires, Gallimard Jeunesse. 192pp.
Destriché, Mme. 1891. Les Roseaux qui chantent. Revue des traditions populaires. VI, no. 8, p. 500.
Monseur, Eugène. 1891. Contes I: l'os qui chante. Bulletin de Folklore. Société Belge de Folklore / Société du Folklore Wallon. Vol. 1. p. 98.
Portron, Juliette. 1925. La Rose de Pimprenelle, pièce en 2 actes en prose, pour jeunes gens et garçonnets. H. Boulord. 51pp.
Sigoda, Pascal. 1993. René Daumal. Age d'Homme. Lausanne. pp. 181-183.
Vaillant, Jean-Paul. 1929. La Rose Pimprenelle. In Caruel, M. et al. 1929. Légendes ardennaises. Librairie de France. Paris.
Note: This article is based on updated extracts from Peter Boyd's 'Rosa spinosissima - aspects of its natural history and associations with people from prehistory to the present day' (2012).