Tuesday, 22 September 2020

Strong Fairy Tale Heroines #29: PRINCE HLINI AND SIGNY

This Icelandic tale was collected by Jón Árnason (1819 – 1888) whose six volumes of folk tales and fairy stories were edited and published in Reykjavik between 1954-61. The translation is from Icelandic Folk and Fairy Tales, selected and translated by May and Hallberg Hallmundsen, Iceland Review Library, 1987. In their introduction they comment that ‘every child in Iceland’ recognises ‘Jón Árnason’s Folktales’ – and no wonder, for they are robust and remarkable. 

‘They are written,’ say the translators, ‘in the everyday spoken Icelandic of the time when they were recorded, many of them taken down word for word as told by the storytellers – farmers, laborers, housewives, maids. … The best way to render such narratives into English, we concluded, would be in plain unadorned prose that was faithful to the meaning if not to every word of the story. So, wherever the original text is bumpy or awkward – and it is in many places – we tried to smooth it over and we did not hesitate to reshape of switch sentences around if we thought it was inducive to a clearer understanding or a more straightforward narrative.’  I have taken the occasional similar liberty with their translation: for example, sometimes changing reported speech into dialogue.

This story needs almost no introduction: it speaks for itself – but I will say that Signý’s rescue of a prince from an enchanted sleep is an interesting role reversal of the Sleeping Beauty! 

Once upon a time there was a king and a queen in their kingdom. His name was Hringur, but the queen’s name is not known. They had one son called Hlini. He was a promising lad who grew up to be a great champion, and the story has it that there was a crofter and his wife living near the palace grounds. They had a daughter named Signý

            One day the prince was out hunting with some of his men, and when they had felled a few animals and several birds and were preparing to go home, a fog descended upon them, so dense that the men lost sight of their prince. After searching in vain for a very long time they went back to the palace and told the king they had lost Hlini and couldn’t find him anywhere. This sad news greatly affected the king, and the next day he sent out a large party of men to look for his son. They searched until evening without finding him, and this went on for three days; Hlini was nowhere to be found. Sick with grief, the king took to his bed and let it be known throughout his land that whoever could find his son would be rewarded with half his kingdom.

            When Signý heard of this, she told her parents about it, asked them for food and new shoes – which they gave her – and immediately set off. She walked for the better part of a day, and towards evening she came upon a cave. Entering it, she saw two beds, one embroidered with silver and the other with gold. When she drew closer, there was the prince lying asleep in the gold-embroidered one, and she tried to wake him but she couldn’t. Then she took a better look around her and saw that there were runes scored into the wooden heads of the beds, spelling out words she didn’t understand. So she went and hid herself in the nook behind the cave door. 

            No sooner was she hidden than she heard a great rumble and saw two very large-featured jötunns, or giantesses, coming. As they stepped into their cave, one of them said, ‘Fy, fo, there’s a smell of humans in here.’

            ‘It’s only Prince Hlini,’ said the other. 

            They went up to the bed where the prince was sleeping and said, 

                        Sing, sing, my swans
                        Sing Prince Hlini awake.

            The swans sang, and Hlini woke up. The younger giantess asked him if he wanted something to eat, and he said no. Then she asked if he wanted to marry her, and he said no. Hearing that, she shouted out, 

Sing, sing, my swans
                        Sing Prince Hlini asleep.

            They sang and he fell asleep. The two giantesses then took their clothes off and went to sleep in the silver-embroidered bed. 

            When they rose the following morning, they roused Hlini and offered him food, which he rejected. Then the younger one asked again if he would marry her. He said no, and with that they put him to sleep the same way as before, and left.

            When she was sure they had gone, Signý crawled out ofher nook and said: 

Sing, sing, my swans
                        Sing Prince Hlini awake. 

            The prince woke up. He greeted her with joy and asked for the news and what was happening. She told him everything she knew and then asked what had happened to him. ‘After I was parted from my men in the mist,’ he said, ‘two giant women found me and brought me here, and one of them is trying to make me marry her.’

            Signý said, ‘You should agree to marry her on condition that she tells you what the carved runes on the beds mean, and what the two of them get up to all day.’

            The prince said he would do as she advised. Then he took a chessboard that was there, and asked Signý to play with him. They played until evening, but when dusk began to fall she told him to get back on the bed. Then she said: 

Sing, sing, my swans
                        Sing Prince Hlini asleep.

The prince fell asleep, and Signý hid herself back in her nook. Very soon afterwards, she heard the giantesses coming. They slouched into the cave, monstrous-looking as they were, and while the eldest one cooked a meal, the youngest went over to the bed, woke Hlini and asked if he would eat. This time he accepted. When he had finished his meal, the giantess asked if he would marry her. He replied that he would, provided that she tell him the meanings of the runes on the two beds. ‘Easily done,’ she said, and told him that they meant:

                        Glide, glide, my good bed,
                        Wherever I want to go.

            That was all fine, he said, but she would have to tell him one thing more – namely, what did the two of them do in the woods all day? 

            ‘We go hunting for birds and animals,’ said the giantess, ‘and when we are resting we sit beneath an oak tree and toss our life-egg back and forth between us.’

            Prince Hlini asked what would happen if it broke. That would never happen, the giantess told him, but if it did, they would both die. Hlini told her he was well pleased she had confided in him, but now, he said, he was tired and wanted to rest till morning.

            ‘As you wish,’ said the giantess.

            Next morning she woke the prince for breakfast, which he accepted. Then she offered to let him come out into the woods with them, but he told her he preferred to stay home. So the giantess put him to sleep and left with her companion.

            Once Signý was sure they had gone, she crept out of hiding to wake the prince. ‘Now let us go out into the woods where the giantesses are,’ she said. ‘Take your spear, and when they start tossing their egg, throw the spear at it and be sure not to miss, for your life depends on it!’

            The prince agreed to this plan, and they stood together on the bed, saying:

Glide, glide, my good bed,
                        Out into the woods.

            The bed took off at once and didn’t stop until they reached a huge oak tree deep in the woods. There, Signý and Hlini heard roars of laughter. Signý told the prince to climb down into the branches. He did, and there below him he saw the two giantesses, one of them holding a golden egg in her hand. She tossed it to the other, and at the same time Hlini flung his spear. It struck the egg, breaking it, and the giantesses fell to the earth and died. 

            Then the prince climbed down from the oak, and he and Signý returned to the cave. They collected everything of value, loaded it on to the beds and flew straight to Signý’s cottage with all the treasure. The crofter and his wife welcomed the couple with joy, and Prince Hlini stayed at the cottage that night.

            Early next morning, Signý went to the palace, stood before the king and hailed him. ‘Who are you?’ the king asked, and she told him she was just the crofter’s daughter from outside the grounds, and asked him what he would say if she brought back his son. The king replied that the question was not worth an answer, she would hardly be able to find his son, ‘since none of the men in my kingdom have been able to.’ Signý asked again whether he would reward her in the same way as he had promised the others, if she brought the prince home. The king said he would. 

            With that, Signý went back to the cottage and bid the prince come with her to the king’s palace, where she led him before his father. The king rejoiced to see his son, and asked what had happened to him since the time he was parted from his men. Sitting down on a throne, Hlini invited Signý to sit beside him, and told all his story just as I have done here. He added that he owed his life to Signý and he begged his father’s permission to marry her. The king gave his consent and a great feast was prepared. The wedding lasted a week, all the noblest people in the country were invited, and the prince and Signý loved each other long and well. So ends the story! 

Picture credits:

Young man and misty woods ('The Hulder That Vanished') - by Theodor Kittelsen
Signý Enters the Trolls' Cave - Artist unknown
Troll wife cooking - by John Bauer

Tuesday, 15 September 2020

Strong Fairy Tale Heroines #28: 'THE HEN IS TRIPPING IN THE MOUNTAIN'

'Will you be my sweetheart?'

This story was collected by Jørgen Moe in Ringerike, eastern Norway, and published in Asbjørnsen & Moe’s Norske Folkeeventyr in 1852; it’s a good example of ATT Type 311, Rescue by the Sister. In this type of tale, three sisters set out on some adventure, the two eldest fail and the youngest rescues them: the Welsh Romany tale, The Three Sisters, #2 in this series is a striking and unusual example. In this kind of story princes do not feature, and there is rarely any wedding at the end.

The best-known example is probably the Grimms’ tale Fitcher’s Bird (KHM 46), a dark and curious tale which goes like this: a wizard kidnaps one of three sisters to be his wife, and like Bluebeard forbids her to open a particular door in his house. He also gives her an egg which she must carry about and keep with her. When the wizard is out, the girl looks into the forbidden room and finds a basin of blood and human body parts. She drops the egg and gets blood on it which she cannot remove. The wizard returns and kills her.  

The same thing happens to the second sister; the third sister, however, is clever enough to put the egg safely away before looking into the forbidden room. There, finding her sisters dead and in pieces, she gathers the parts together and brings them back to life. The returning wizard believes he has been obeyed (seeing no sign of blood on the egg) and wants her for his bride. From now on he has no power over her. 

She tells him to carry a basket of gold to her parents’ house as a dowry, but hides her sisters under the gold (feasibility has no place in fairy tales), ordering him not to rest or sit down on the way, for she will be watching him from the window. The wizard toils under the burden, but each time he tries to rest one of the sisters calls out. Certain that his betrothed is watching him, he carries the sisters and the gold to their home. Back at his house, the girl prepares a marriage feast and invites the wizard’s friends. She sets a skull in the window, wreaths it with bridal flowers, smears herself with honey and rolls in feathers till she looks like ‘a wondrous bird’, and sets off home. On the way she meets the arriving guests who greet her in rhyme as ‘Fitcher’s Bird’ coming from ‘Fitcher’s house’; the disguised girl tells them that all is ready and the bride is peeping from the window. As soon as the wizard and all his friends are in the house, her brothers and kinsmen arrive (warned by her sisters), barricade the doors and burn it down with the wizard and his crew inside. 

The Hen Tripping in the Mountain is a lot more rustic and comical than Fitcher’s Bird, and the troll is so simple and stupid and cowardly that it’s hard not to feel a tiny bit sorry for him.

There was once an old woman who lived with her three daughters way up under a mountain ridge. She was so poor she owned nothing but a hen, the apple of her eye. It was always cackling at her heels and she was always running after it. Well one day, the hen vanished. The old woman went round and around the cottage searching and calling, but the hen was gone, and there was no finding it.

            So the woman told her eldest daughter, ‘You’ll have to go out looking for our hen. We have to get it back – even if we have to dig it out of the the hill.’

            The daughter went off looking and calling for it. She went all over, here and there, but no trace of the hen could she find, till just as she was about to give up, she heard someone calling from over by the cliffs, 

Your hen is tripping in the mountain!
Your hen is tripping in the mountain!

So she headed that way to see what it was, but right by the cliff foot she fell through a trap door, deep, deep down into an underground vault. At the bottom she made her way through many rooms, each finer than the first, but in the innermost room a big ugly mountain troll came up to her and said, ‘Will you be my sweetheart?’

            ‘No I won’t!’ she said, ‘not at any price!’ She wanted to get back above ground at once, and find her lost hen. Then the mountain troll was so angry he took her up and wrung off her head, and threw her head and her body down into the cellar.

            While this was going on, her mother sat at home waiting and waiting, but no daughter came back. She waited a while longer, and then told her middle daughter to go our and call for her sister, and, she added, ‘you can call for our hen at the same time.’

            So the second sister went out, and the same thing happened to her; she went about calling and looking, and she too heard a voice from the rock face saying, 

Your hen is tripping in the mountain!
Your hen is tripping in the mountain!

            This was very strange, she thought, so she went to see what it could be, and she too fell through the trap door, deep, deep down into the vault. Then she went through all the rooms to the innermost one, where the mountain troll came up to her and asked if she would be his sweetheart? No, she would not! All she wanted was to get above ground again and look for her hen which was lost. So the troll got angry and wrung her head off, and threw head and body down into the cellar. 

            Well, when the old woman had sat and waited seven lengths and seven breadths for her second daughter, and no sign of her was to be seen or heard, she said to the youngest, ‘Now you really will have to go out after your sisters. It was bad enough to lose the hen, but it would be much worse to lose both your sisters, and you can always give the hen a call or two at the same time.’

            Off went the youngest girl, and she went up and down hunting for her sisters, and calling the hen, but neither saw nor heard anything of any of them until at last shecame up to the cliff face and heard how something said:

Your hen is tripping in the mountain!
Your hen is tripping in the mountain!

            She too went to see what it was and fell down through the trap door, deep, deep down into the vault. When she reached the bottom she went from room to room, each one grander than the other, but she wasn’t at all scared and took good care to look around her, and she spotted the cellar door and looked through it and there were her sisters lying dead! And the moment she got the door shut, the mountain troll came up to her.

            ‘Will you be my sweetheart?’ he asked.

            ‘Yes, certainly!’ said she, for she could see quite well what had happened to her sisters. And when the troll heard that, he gave her the finest clothes in the world and anything else she asked for, he was so glad that anyone would be his sweetheart. 

            But after she’d been there for a while, there came a day when she was very downcast and silent. The troll asked why she was moping. 

            ‘Oh,’ said the girl, ‘it’s because I can’t get home to my mother. She’ll be hungry and thirsty, I’m sure, and there’s no one to stay with her either.’

            ‘Well you can’t go to her,’ said the troll, ‘but put some food in a sack and I’ll carry it to her.’

            Well she thanked him for this, and said she would. But she put lots of gold and silver at the bottom of the sack, and laid just a little food at the top, and gave the sack to the troll and told him not to look into it. The troll promised he wouldn’t, and set off, but the girl peeped after him through the trap door and saw that when he had gone just a little way, the sack was so heavy he put it down to untie the neck and look inside it.  Then she called out, 

I see what you’re up to!
I see what you’re up to!

'I can still see you!'

            ‘Those are damn sharp eyes you’ve got in your head,’ said the troll, and he didn’t dare to try it any more.             
When he reached the widow’s cottage he threw the sack in through the door. ‘Here’s some food from your daughter. She lacks for nothing!’ he said.

            Now one day, when the girl had been in the hill for a good while longer, a billy goat fell down through the trap door. ‘Who said you could come in, you shaggy-bearded beast?’ said the troll in a fury, and he took the goat and wrung its head off and threw it into the cellar. 

            ‘Oh! What did you do that for?’ said the girl. ‘I could have had that goat to play with; it’s dull enough down here.’

            ‘Well don’t sulk about it,’ said the troll. ‘I can soon bring it back to life, I can,’ and he took a flask which hung on the wall, put the goat’s head back on, smeared it with some ointment out of the flask, and up sprang the billy-goat as frisky as ever.

            ‘Oh ho,’ thought the girl, ‘that flask is worth something, it is!’ So she waited for a day when the troll was out, then took her eldest sister and put her head back on. She rubbed her with ointment from the flask, the way she’d seen the troll do to the billy-goat, and her sister came back to life at once. Then the girl stuffed her into a sack, covered her up with a layer of food, and said to the troll when he came back, 

            ‘My dear friend, it’s time to take some food to my mother again. Poor thing, she must be hungry and thirsty, and with no one to look after her! But you mustn’t look in the sack.’

            The troll was willing to take the sack, all right, but when he had got a bit on the way it was so heavy that that he thought he would see what was in it. ‘No matter how sharp her eyes are, she won’t see me from here,’ he thought. But as he set the sack down to look in it, the girl who was sitting inside called out,

I see what you’re up to!
I see what you’re up to!
            ‘Those are damn sharp eyes you’ve got!’ said the troll, who thought it was the girl in the mountain who was calling. He didn’t dare try looking inside any more, but carried it to her mother’s house as fast as he could, and when he got there he threw the sack in through the door, bawling out, ‘Here’s meat and drink from your daughter! She has everything she wants!’ 

            Well, the girl waited a while longer, and then she did the same thing with her other sister. She set her head back on her shoulders, smeared her with ointment and stuffed her into the sack along with as much gold and silver as would fit. Then she covered everything with a thin layer of food and asked the troll to take it to her mother. This time the sack was so heavy he could barely stagger along under it, so he put it down and was just going to untie the string and look in, when the girl inside shouted:

I see what you’re up to!
I see what you’re up to!

            ‘The deuce you do!’ said the troll. ‘I never knew anyone with such damn sharp eyes!’ and he dared not take another peep, but staggered along to the old woman’s house, threw the sack in through the door and roared, ‘More food from your daughter! You see – she wants for nothing!’

            A few days later when the troll was going out for the evening, the girl pretended to be poorly. ‘There’s no use you coming home any time before twelve midnight,’ she said. ‘I simply won’t be able to get supper ready till then, I’m feeling so sick and feeble.’ But when the troll had gone out, she stuffed some of her clothes with straw and stood this straw girl up in the corner by the hearth with a stirrer in her hand, so it looked as if she were standing there herself. After that she hurried off home and hired a hunter to come with her and stay with them in her mother’s cottage. 

            So when it was twelve midnight, the troll came home. ‘Bring me my food!’ he said to the straw maiden, but she didn’t move or answer. 

            ‘Bring me my food, I say!’ said the troll again, ‘I’m starving!’ Still she didn’t answer.

            ‘Bring the food!’ yelled the troll. ‘Listen to what I say and do what you’re told, or I’ll give you such a wake-up, that I will!’ But the girl just stood there. Then he flew into a terrible rage and gave her such a kick that the straw flew up to the ceiling, and he saw he had been tricked. He searched high and low until he came to the cellar and found both the girl’s sisters were gone. Now he understood what had happened and ran down to the cottage crying,  ‘I’ll pay her out for this!’ but when they saw him coming, the hunter fired. The shot banged out, and the troll mistook it for thunder. He turned in fright and ran for home as fast as his legs would carry him, but just as he reached his trap door, what do you think! – the sun rose, and he burst into pieces.  

Oh, there’s plenty of gold and silver down under that trap door still – if we only knew how to find it!

  Picture credits: Art by Theodor Kittelsen             

Tuesday, 8 September 2020

Strong Fairy Tale Heroines #27: THE TWELVE HUNTSMEN

If we approach fairy tales expecting nothing but sexist stereotypes, we will miss the irony, the inflections; we won’t get the jokes. In this tale of the Brothers Grimm, a princess dresses herself and eleven ladies-in-waiting as huntsmen and goes to work for her lover, a king who has promised his dying father to marry a different woman. 

This king has a talking lion. (As you do.) The lion suspects the twelve young huntsmen of being women. He sets traps to get them to betray themselves – such as an array of twelve spinning wheels which he assures the king these ‘women’ will be unable to resist. You have to imagine this story being told aloud in mixed company, at a time when spinning was a woman’s repetitive, endless work. It’s as if, in a modern version, the lion had set out a line of twelve vacuum cleaners! Readers who take it at face value are missing the comedy of the princess’s satirical aside to her followers as they stride past: ‘Hold back, girls, don’t give those spinning wheels a glance…’ 

It is all too easy to misinterpret a tale when it’s pinned to the page like a dead butterfly – still more so when the original transcript is over two centuries old and even the English translation was made over 130 years ago. The classic translation of the Grimms’ tales into English is the one by Margaret Hunt (published 1884), whose clear, unadorned style now unavoidably feels somewhat stiff. I’ve stuck quite closely to her version for this post, I didn’t want to change it much; but I have loosened it up a little. It’s best to regard ‘the story on the page’ in much the same way as we regard sheet-music: it requires performance – the voice of the story-teller – to bring it to multi-dimensional life. But the information on the page still has to be examined and respected. Like some others in the Grimms’ collection, The Twelve Huntsmen directs sly, subversive humour at male assumptions about female ability, and if we fail to notice when  a story is inviting us to laugh, it’s we who are naïve. 

Once upon a time, a king’s son was betrothed to a woman he loved very much. One day when they were sitting together, and very happy, news came that the prince’s father lay on his deathbed and wanted to see his son once more before the end. So the prince said to his beloved, ‘Though I have to leave you, I give you this ring to remember me by, and when I am king I will return for you.’

Away he rode, but when he came to his father’s bedside the old man was desperately ill and near death. ‘My dear son,’ said he, ‘now that I see you, promise me that you will marry as I advise,’ and he named another king’s daughter to be his bride. The son was too distraught to think what he was doing and said, ‘Yes dear father, yes, whatever you wish shall be done.’ On hearing these words the old king closed his eyes and died. 

So after the son had been proclaimed king and the period of mourning was over, he felt compelled to keep the promise he had made to his father, and he sent for permission to court the other king’s daughter’s, and permission was granted. When his lover heard of this she was so unhappy she nearly died. Her father said to her, ‘Dear child, what makes you so sad? Tell me what you want; anything in my power to grant shall be yours.’ The young woman thought for a moment and said, ‘My dear father, I wish for eleven girls just like myself in face, figure and height.’ So her father searched throughout his kingdom until eleven young women were found who were just like his daughter in face, figure and height. 

When they were assembled, the king’s daughter had twelve suits of huntsmen’s clothes made, all alike, and she and the eleven girls put them on and rode away together to the court of her former lover, where she asked if he would take twelve fine huntsmen into his service. The king did not recognise her, but the huntsmen were all such handsome fellows he said, yes, willingly he would hire them! And so they became the king’s royal huntsmen.

Now the king had a lion, and this lion knew everything. Nothing could be kept from him, and one evening he said to the king, ‘You think you have twelve huntsmen?’

Of course I have twelve huntsmen!’

‘You are wrong,’ said the lion, ‘they are twelve girls.’ 

The king couldn’t believe this, so the lion told him to throw handfuls of dried peas over the floor of the antechamber: ‘And then you’ll see! Men tread firmly, so the peas won’t move when they step on them, but girls trip and skip and slide their feet, and the peas will roll in all directions.’ The king liked this idea, so he ordered the peas to be thrown on the floor.

But one of the king’s servants who was friendly with the huntsmen had overheard what the lion said, so he ran to them with the news. ‘The lion wants to make the king think you are girls!’  The king’s daughter thanked him. When he had gone she said to her  women, ‘Time to show your strength, girls! Make sure you tread firmly on those peas!’ And next morning when the king called the twelve huntsmen before him, they walked into the antechamber with such a strong, sure tread that not a single pea rolled or even shifted.

After they had left, the king turned on the lion: ‘What you told me was false! They walk just like men.’ The lion replied, ‘They were pretending. Someone must have warned them! But here’s an idea: bring twelve spinning wheels into the antechamber. Then you’ll see! They’ll be so thrilled they won’t be able to resist going over and examining them. No man would do that!’ This advice pleased the king, and he had the spinning wheels placed in the antechamber.

But the servant who was friendly to the huntsmen told them about this plan too. ‘Hang on to yourselves, girls!’ said the king’s daughter to her eleven women. ‘Don’t give those spinning wheels a glance!’ So when the king summoned them, the twelve huntsmen strode through the antechamber without so much as turning their heads to look at the spinning wheels. And the king said to the lion, ‘You’ve been proved false again. They’re men! They showed no interest in the spinning wheels.’

‘They knew we were trying to trick them,’ said the lion, ‘that’s why they restrained themselves.’ But the king no longer trusted the lion’s opinions. The twelve huntsmen became his companions whenever he went out hunting, and he valued them more and more.

One day as they were out riding in the forest, news came that the king’s new bride-to-be was approaching with her retinue. When his true lover heard this, her heart hurt so much she fell fainting to the ground. Seeing the accident that had befallen his dear huntsman, the king ran to help him, grasped his hand and drew off the glove that covered it. Then he saw the ring he had given his first beloved, and looking again in her face, he recognised her. His heart was so touched that he kissed her, and said as she opened her eyes, ‘You are mine and I am yours, and no one in the world can change that.’ He sent a messenger to the other bride, begging her to return to her own kingdom, for he had a wife already and someone who has found an old key doesn’t need a new one. So their wedding was celebrated, and the lion was vindicated and taken back into favour – for after all, he had got one thing right.

Picture credits: The Twelve Huntsmen by HJ Ford, illustration from The Green Fairy Book.