Or: How to become Pope in three easy lessons.
Our tale begins in Switzerland where we are told there was an old count who had an only son who was quite stupid. Believing that the best way to solve a problem is to throw money at it, and the best way to raise a child is to send it to boarding school, the old count sends his son away to the care of a famous master to see what can be done.
The boy returns a year later having learned how to understand the barking of dogs.
Despite this the father sends his son off to work with another master, in the hope that something might take. Another year passes and the boy returns having learned the language of the birds.
Gott in Himmel! the father laments. Is this boy hopeless? He sends him off for a third course at the feet of a master and this time, this time he comes back knowing the language of frogs. The father calls his men to have his useless son taken out to the woods and killed but his men are forgiving (they probably don't like their employer all that much anyway) and set the boy free, bringing back the eyes and tongue of a deer as "proof" of having killed the boy.
We now shift scenes and watch as the boy drifts across the countryside until he inquires about lodgings at a castle. The lord of the castle being no more reasonable than his father agrees to let the boy stay if he can stay the night in the old tower. The hitch? The tower is full of wild, snarling curs who have been known to devour human visitors. No sweat, replies talks-to-animals, just give me something to feed them and it'll all be jake. The lord agrees, the boy feeds the dogs, and instead of being eaten they tell of being under a curse to snarl and snap and protect the great treasure that is buried their. The lord, suddenly keen on the boy at the mention of the word treasure, agrees to adopt the boy as his own (no marriage necessary!) if he'll get the treasure. No sweat, the dogs help, the treasure is retrieved, the boy has a new father, happy ending.
Not quite. After a while this idiot son-of-a-count decides he's going to take a trip to Rome. He's in the Alps, wants the traipse through the countryside, makes perfect sense. Along the way he hears the lamentation of the frogs. Oh! Do they have a story to tell, and it wears heavily upon the boy because he not only understands them but has learned that the pope has died. More, the cardinals have been waiting for a sign from heaven before anointing a new pope. Alas, the boy knows more than he shares, for when he appears at the Vatican two doves swoop down and land on his shoulders. A blessing from the lord! The cardinals have their sign and offer the boy a popeship. Undecided at first, feeling a bit unworthy, the doves persuade him to take the job and he agrees. He's anointed, consecrated, thus fulfilling the prophecy of the frogs he heard along the way. When it comes time for him to perform the mass the boy doesn't know the words but he doves are there to whisper in his ear (so in addition to speaking bird he can also understand when they speak Latin?) and all was good and right in the world.
Wait. Is this a mocking of the Catholic church, that they would promote an idiot-heathen who speaks to the animals as their Holiness? Is this another version of the "be kind to idiots, for they shall have the Earth as their possession" kind of story that appears in every culture? Since he speaks to the animals and later becomes pope is this a folk version of the St. Francis story?
It's interesting that the tale has a classic three-act structure but that each act serves as its own mini story. It's also very tidy in it's knowledge gained, knowledge used balance and doesn't hint at just how far his knowledge will take him. Almost as if there was a mythical quality to the idea of being sent away to a "great master" (i.e. university) returns a child smarter than their parents who are too stupid to value the accomplishment. Perhaps the Grimm-era equivalent of telling kids that anyone can become president.