08 July 2011

Icelandic folktale: The Farmer's Daughters

Here is an interesting thing – of the three young people in this story, only the girl is nameless, and guess who the hero of the story is? Tsk-tsk.

Once upon a time there was a well-to-do farmer who had three daughters and lived a little way off from the castle of the king of his country. The eldest of these girls was twenty and the others were younger, but all three were of marriageable age. 

One day the girls were walking outside their father’s farm-house they saw the king riding past with two of his men. One was a scribe and the other a shoemaker.
The eldest sister spoke: “All I wish for is to marry the shoemaker.”
The middle sister then spoke, saying: “I would have the scribe.”
Then the youngest sister said: “And I wish I could have the king himself.”

The king had heard them talking but had only heard a little of what was said. He became curious and said to his men: 
“Let us go to these women and hear what they have been discussing. I thought I heard one of them say “the king himself”.”

The men replied that they had probably not been discussing anything important, but the king insisted they go and talk to the girls, and so they all rode together towards them. The king asked what they had been talking about and the girls told him. He was a whimsical man and those were pretty girls and so he said that what they had wished for should become true, and so it became.
But when the youngest sister was queen the other sisters became resentful and envious of her and plotted to take away her title and glory any way they could.

The queen became pregnant and when her time was almost come her sisters arranged it so that they would serve as her midwives. When the baby was born they arranged for it to be taken away, intending for it to be thrown in a ditch outside the city where all the ordure and filth from the city was dumped. But the person they sent to do the deed couldn’t bring himself to drown the baby in the muck and left the baby on the bank of the ditch, where it was found by an old man who was passing by. He took the baby home with him and brought it up as his own.
 
The sisters replaced the baby with a puppy they smeared with blood and said the queen had given birth to it and not to a baby. This very much saddened the king, but he was able to stay his grief and treated the queen just as well as he had always done. 

The same thing happened when the queen gave birth for the second and third time, and both those babies ended up with the same old man, altogether two boys and one girl. He named them and called the older boy Wilhelm and the younger Sigurd, but the name of the girl is not known. However, since she has a part to play in the following events, we shall call her Helga.

When the queen had apparently given birth to a puppy for the third time, the king could no longer contain his grief and anger and ordered for her to be thrown into a house where a lion was kept, intending for the lion to eat her. But the lion must have sensed that she was an innocent, because instead of making a meal of her, it did her no harm and always shared its food with her. In this way she was able to survive without anyone knowing she was alive.

Meanwhile the old man who had taken in the babies would ask everyone he met if they knew anything about these babies, but no-one knew anything. 

The children grew up and all showed good promise, but the old man was becoming decrepit with age. Before he died, he advised them to do as he had done and ask everyone they met if they knew ought of their provenance, and so they did.

Once an old man came to them and they asked him the same questions they had asked everyone else. He said he did not know who they were or where they came from, but he knew who could. 
He told them that some distance away there was a large rock and on top of the rock there was a bird which both understood and spoke human language. He thought they would be best served by seeking out this bird, but there was a problem: many people had gone to find the rock, but none had ever returned. Among those who had gone there to find out what the future held in store for them were princes and princesses, but none of them had had what it took to do so. Anyone who wanted to climb the rock would have to be so steadfast that they would not look back during the climb, no matter what they heard, because they would be turned to stone along with everything they had with them. This, he said, had been lacking in all those who had previously tried, but anyone who was determined enough could easily make it to the top. But should someone reach the top of the rock, they would be able to bring back to life everyone and everything that had previously been petrified. On top of the rock there was a well with a lid on top, on which the bird sat, and the bird would allow anyone who came to it to take some water and sprinkle it on all those who had been petrified and thus bring them back to life.
This did not seem like much of a challenge to these brave royal children, especially the two brothers, who boasted they could easily do this. 

They thanked the old man for what he’d told them and shortly thereafter the eldest brother, Wilhelm, set off to find the rock. Before he left, he told his brother that should three drops of blood appear on his knife when he was eating his meal, then he should come to the rock, for this would mean that he had failed like the others. 

He set off, following the route the old man had described, but after about three days, which was about how long it took to reach the rock, Sigurd saw the blood on his knife. He was shocked and dismayed, but told his sister Helga that he must be off and told her to watch for blood on her knife just as Wilhelm had told him. 

He then set off, but three days later Helga saw the blood appear on her knife, so she set off. In three days’ time she arrived at the rock and looked around. She saw an immense number of smaller rocks of all shapes and sizes, some shaped like travelling chests, others like wardrobes, and so on. She started climbing the rock and soon she heard many human voices behind her, among them those of her brothers. But she was steadfast and did not look back and finally made it to the top of the rock.

The bird congratulated her in the warmest terms for her determination and promised to tell her everything she wished to know. Before hearing the bird she wished to bring the rocks back to life, and this it granted. It especially pointed out one rock and told her that if she knew who this was, she would especially want to bring him back to life. Then she sprinkled the water over all the rocks and everyone was very glad to be free of the spell and thanked her for saving their lives. 

Her next move was to ask the bird where she and her brothers came from and who their parents were. The bird replied that they were the children of the king and told her how the aunts had acted when they were born. He also mentioned that their mother was still alive in the lion’s den, but that she was near death from grief and want of good food. 

The rock the bird had especially pointed out to Helga turned out to be a splendid young prince who immediately fell in love with his rescuer and she with him. The chest- and wardrobe-shaped rocks turned out to be boxes full of treasure he had brought with him. 

Whe the bird had told them all they wanted to know, the siblings and the prince set off towards the royal city. Once they were there, they looked for and found the house where the lion was kept and broke a hole in one of the walls. Inside they found their mother. She had fainted with fear whe she heard the noise of the wall breaking. They were able to bring her to her senses, brought her nice clothes and then all five of them went to the palace and asked to see the king. This was granted, and they came before him and the siblings told him they were his children, come to see him after rescuing their mother from the lion’s den. They then told him all the bird had told them.

The king ordered his sisters-in-law brought to trial, where the truth came out. Their judgement was to be thrown in with the lion, which tore them apart and ate them. 

The queen was reinstated on her throne beside the king, princess Helga married the prince she had saved and they became king and queen of his country when his father died. Wilhelm took a wife and ascended to the throne after the death of his father, and Sigurd married a princess from another kingdom and became king after her father had died. 

And they all lived happily ever after.

Copyright notice: The wording used to tell this folk-tale is under copyright. The story itself is not copyrighted. If you want to re-tell it, for a collection of folk-tales, incorporate it into fiction, use it in a school essay or any kind of publication, please tell it in your own words or give the proper attribution if you choose to use the wording unchanged

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