Elowen and the Bramble Bush

View over the rooftops of Liskeard

Bran Dhu, King of East Cornwall, was an outspoken and competitive man with thick, dark hair. He was used to getting what he wanted and wasn't shy to tell a lie or two to get it. He had twin daughters Elowen and Gertha. Elowen was fair and timid, Gertha was dark and vivacious. They grew up very close. Everyone thought Elowen was the fairest princess in all Cornwall; but their father favoured Gertha, and planned a great marriage for her.

One day the son of the High King of all Cornwall came to visit Bran Dhu's castle, which stood on a hill in Liskeard. The prince was presented to the King and his daughters. Each girl offered him a drink and after a pause the prince accepted the cup from Elowen. The young prince told Bran Dhu he would visit his fair daughter once more and rode off into the woods.

Now Bran Dhu had schemed for this high prince to wed Gertha, and would not stand by while his plans for his favourite daughter were thwarted. Angry at Elowen's good fortune, he acted immediately. He arranged for Elowen to be taken away to the moors to lodge with a herdsman and his witch wife. When the prince returned there was no sign of Elowen anywhere. Instead, Gertha was waiting for him in a stunning dress of crimson silks. The prince made polite excuses to the insulted Gertha and her red eared father, and then he rode away.

Many times the prince came by Liskeard, and many times its fairest princess was not home. The High King of Cornwall asked his son where he kept riding off to, and when the prince admitted his love for the fair princess Elowen and his distaste for her brash sister, the High King sent a summons for Bran Dhu to bring Elowen to court.

Bran Dhu arrived with Gertha and a ready string of lies.' My daughter Elowen has sadly died,' he told to the court. 'She fell whilst walking on the moors.' Then he offered his assistance, 'I will gladly take you to the place of Elowen's burial mound so the young prince may pay his respects. It is a great pity she lost her life with such a fortunate future ahead of her.' The king accepted this offer and the courtly party set out for the herdsman's modest hut. The witch heard them coming, and turned Elowan into a bramble bush. The supposed grave was close to the herdsman's hut, and a bramble bush with white flowers blooming all over grew nearby. The prince knelt beside the grassy mound, and although he had only known Elowen for a brief time felt a great sense of loss wash over him.

Observing the prince's devotion, Bran Dhu ordered the witch to turn Elowen into a bramble bush whenever the prince chanced to visit her grave. The prince rode by often and on his approach a bramble bush grew by the grave and was always in bloom whatever the season.

News of the mysterious bramble, always blooming, began to spread until it came to the attention of the court magician, the oldest and wisest man in Cornwall. The magician, or Peller, questioned the coincidence of the bramble at Elowen's grave and sent his spies to find out more. The bramble only bloomed when the prince was visiting, and at other times a ragged maid traipsed about the yard carrying out chores. The magician suspected Bran Dhu of lying and concealing his daughter. To confirm his suspicions he changed the young prince into a chough and instructed him to fly to the moor to identify the ragged maid. Sure enough, as the red beaked chough perched on the fence, Elowen came out of the house and went to the pig shed with a fork and a pail. Despite her lowly task and dirty clothes, the prince saw only the loveliest girl in the land, and stayed all day hopping about and pecking at the crumbs she threw to him.
The Peller quizzed the prince as to what he had seen. The prince was very relieved to have seen Elowen alive, but he was not happy.

'I can return often as a chough and watch her, but I cannot talk with her as she doesn't know me. What kind of a romance is that?' The chough prince sulked. The magician quite understood the young prince's frustration, and he taught him how to change himself back from a chough into a man so he might reveal his identity and speak to Elowen. The prince was very excited by the magician's plan; he flew back to the hermit's hut the next day and sat on the wall until Elowen went out to the woods with a basket. She sang sadly as she gathered flowers from the woodland floor. Hearing a twig crack Elowen looked up, and gasped in delighted surprise for there stood her prince. Sitting on a mossy log they chatted for hours enthralled by one another, and enjoying every minute of their secret time alone together.

So long did they chatter, the hermit's wife became suspicious and observed Elowen and the prince together. The witch hastened down the hills to Bran Dhu and told him what had happened. Bran Dhu was very angry indeed; he still hoped the prince might grow tired of sitting by a grave and offer his hand to Gertha. In his anger he instructed the witch to conjure a stronger spell and turn Elowen into a bramble bush for ever. When next the prince flew to the hermit's homestead, Elowen was nowhere to be seen. The bramble was full of delicate white flowers. The prince told the magician of Elowen's permanent transformation, but the Peller gravely informed him of the strength and finality of the spell the witch had cast on poor princess The prince was very sad, as he had fallen even more deeply in love with Elowen during the time they spent in the forest.

Observing the depth of the prince's love for this one fair princess, the wise man resolved to combat the spell and set about finding a spell of his own to undo the witch's dark magic. It is the job of a Peller to undo dark magic with good. The magician changed the prince once more into a chough and ordered the prince to touch the brambles' fruit with his beak each day until it tasted as sweet as he wished it. The young prince thought this very strange indeed, but knowing his court magician to be the oldest and wisest man in Cornwall, he did as he was told. For many weeks he touched the berries when they were green, orange, red and black. The black berries tasted sweet and he picked as many as he could stuff in his big red beak and flapped off across the moors to his castle.

A cup of the ripest blackberries were stewed in the magician's cauldron. The prince tried the syrup and it was the sweetest fruit he had ever tasted. He poured the syrup onto the bramble bush. Princess Elowen slowly emerged from the thicket and ran into his arms. The young happy couple ruled over Cornwall for many years. Their subjects were delighted to find the bramble bush to be a source of the sweetest berries that could be made into the most delicious jam, the tastiest crumble, the wildest wine. The bramble spread and bloomed all over the land, but nobody minded invasion of prickles as the prince and his princess held such a happy kingdom.

retold by Anna Chorlton

  • Liskeard