Tuesday 7 April 2020

Strong Fairy Tale Heroines #7: THE MASTERMAID

This fast-moving Norwegian fairy tale from Asbjørnsen and Moe was translated into English by Sir George Dasent in ‘Popular Tales from the Norse’ (1859). Nineteenth century translations can feel a little stiff nowadays and we tend to read them with too much respect. I decided to tell this story aloud a few months ago, but it came to life for me when I tweaked it a bit and told it in a strong Yorkshire accent (which is where I'm from). Traces of this should be obvious in the version below. This helped me bring out not only the Northern-ness of the tale, but also the sheer fun and naughtiness of the original, such as the bit near the end, where the Mastermaid takes various men to bed with her only to make them stand up all night gripping such suggestive items as a poker or a calf’s tail...

The story begins as if it’s all going to be about a prince, but though he’s an attractive, cheeky lad, he can’t achieve anything without the Mastermaid (the clue’s in her name)! The tale is classed as Aarne–Thompson type 313A, 'the girl helps the hero flee', a category which in my opinion ought to be renamed 'the heroine rescues the boy'. The Mastermaid saves the prince's life four separate times, provides him with invaluable advice, organises his escape, saves him from marrying a troll, and generally sorts everything out with tremendous aplomb.

There was once a king’s son who had a fancy to see the world. Off he set, and after travelling for several days he found a door that was built into the mountain. It was the door to a troll’s house; he spent the night there and hired himself out next day as the troll’s servant.

            In the morning, before the troll went out to graze his herd of goats on the mountain meadows, he told the king’s son to shovel out the stable. ‘I’m an easy-going master,’ he said, ‘when you’ve done that, you can have the rest of the day off, but do your work well, and don’t go poking into any of the other rooms in the house, or I’ll tear your head off.’ 

‘He does seem an easy master!’ said the lad to himself. He thought he’d have plenty of time, so he walked about humming, and then he thought he would take a look into some of the other rooms. What might the troll be hiding? 

In the middle of the first room a big cauldron was boiling and bubbling away with no fire under it! ‘What’s cooking?’ the king’s son wondered, and he looked in, a piece of his hair swung down into the broth and came out with each strand bright as copper.

‘Funny soup, that!’ said the lad, ‘if anyone sipped it, they’d have copper lips!’ and he went into the second room.

Here was another cauldron simmering away with no fire. ‘I’ll try this one too,’ he says and dips a second lock of hair in. Out it comes, shining silver. ‘Expensive soup!’ says he, ‘we’ve nothing like it my father’s castle, but how does it taste?’ and he went into the next room where there was a third cauldron bubbling and steaming. 

The lad dipped another lock of hair in, and this time it came out gleaming gold. ‘Anyone who drank that would get a gilded gullet!’ he said, ‘but if that’s gold, what’ll I find next?’ and he opened the door to the fourth room, and in it a girl was sitting on a bench, the loveliest lass the lad had ever seen. 

‘God in heaven,’ she says, ‘what do you want? And what are you doing here?’

‘I’ve just been hired by the troll,’ he says.

‘Have you any idea what you’ll have to do for him?’ she asks.

‘Oh he’s an easy sort of chap,’ says the king’s son. ‘All I have to do is muck out the stable, nothing hard, and then I can take time off.’ 

‘You think that’s easy? If you set about it the usual way, ten shovelfuls will fly in for every one you chuck out. I’ll tell you what to do: turn the pitchfork around and shovel with the handle, then all the muck will fly out by itself!’

He’d do that, all right, thought the king’s son, and then the two of them sat chattering away, falling in love, till as evening came the lad thought he’d better go out and do his work, and as soon as he turned the pitchfork upside down, all the muck flew out by itself to the dungheap and the stable was as clean as clean.

Troll comes back with the goats. ‘Have you shovelled out t'stable?’ he asks

‘I have that, it’s as clean as clean.’

‘I’ll see for myself!’ says the troll, and he came and saw, and he says, ‘You must have been talking to my Mastermaid! You haven’t got enough between the ears to have managed it yourself.’  

‘Mastermaid?’ says the lad, pretending to be thick, ‘what sort of a thing is that? I’d love to see it. Can I see it?’

‘You’ll see soon enough,’ says the troll. 

Next morning the troll gave the lad instructions to go up the mountain and bring down the horse which was grazing up there. ‘When you’ve done that you can take things easy the rest of the day, but don’t go into any of the other rooms, or I’ll wring your head off!’ 

‘Kind master or not,’ thought the king’s son, ‘I’ll talk to the Mastermaid all the same. Yours, is she? What if she’d rather be mine?’ and he went to see her.

‘What work has he given you today?’ she asks.

‘Nowt much,’ says the king’s son. ‘Just go up the mountain to fetch his horse.’

‘And how are you going to do that?’

‘Shouldn’t be hard, should it? I’ll bet I’ve ridden better horses than his!’

‘It won’t be as easy as you think,’ said the Mastermaid, ‘but I’ll tell you what to do. It’ll rush at you as soon as it sees you, breathing fire and flame, but if you take that bridle hanging there by the door and throw it over its head, it’ll calm down and follow you like a lamb.’

Well, the lad would certainly take her advice, and so they sat chatting and thought how wonderful it would be if they could get away together and escape the troll… and he would have forgotten all about going to fetch the horse if the Mastermaid hadn’t reminded him as evening came on, so he took the bridle and climbed the mountain, and as the horse came rushing at him with blazing eyes and flaming jaws he threw the bridle over its head, and then it was tame and followed him back like a lamb.

Troll comes home. ‘Is horse in’t stable?’

‘Oh aye,’ says the lad. ‘A nice quiet nag, I rode it back and shut it in the stall, I did.’ 

‘I’ll see for myself!’ says the troll. And there was the horse, just as the lad had said. ‘You must have been talking to my Mastermaid!’ said the troll. ‘You could never have worked that out for yourself!’

‘Mastermaid? Mastermaid? You said that yesterday, and still I don’t know what a Mastermaid is. I wish you’d show me, master, indeed I do,’ said the king’s son, thick as a brick. 

‘You’ll find out soon enough!’ said the troll. 

Next day the troll went out with his goats as before. ‘Today it’s off to hell with you, to fetch the fire-tax,’ he said to the lad. ‘You can take it easy the rest of the day! Lucky for you I’m such a kind master.’ Off he went.

‘Oh aye, very kind,’ says the lad, ‘to give me all the dirty jobs. I’d better find the Mastermaid.’ And he went to her. ‘What’ll I do? I’ve never been to hell. I don’t know the way! And I don’t know how much to ask for!’

‘Oh, I can tell you all that. Go to the cliff face below the mountain, take this club with you and knock on the wall with it. Then someone will come out with sparks flying off him. Tell him your errand, and when he asks how much you want, you say, “As much as I can carry!”’  

Well, the lad thought he could do that, and then they sat talking all day long and he would be sitting there still if the Mastermaid hadn’t reminded him to go and fetch the fire tax before the troll came home.

Off he went and knocked at the cliff with the club, and out came someone swarming with sparks, fire flying from his hair and eyes and nose. ‘What do you want?’

‘I’ve come from the troll, for the fire tax!’

‘How much?’

‘Oh, just as much as I can carry.’

‘You’re lucky you didn’t ask for more. Come with me!’ So he led the king’s son into the hill, and there were piles of gold and silver like stones in a rockfall, and the lad took as much as he could carry and went home. 

Troll comes back. ‘Where’s fire tax?’

‘In that sack by wall!’

‘I’ll see for myself!’ said the troll, and he looked in the sack and it was full to the brim with gold and silver. ‘You’ve certainly been talking to my Mastermaid – and if you have, I’ll wring your head off!’

‘Mastermaid?’ said the lad. ‘You keep talking about this Mastermaid. I wish I could see the thing. I really do!’

‘You’ll have your wish,’ said the troll. ‘I’ll take you to see her tomorrow.’

Next day troll takes the king’s son to t’ Mastermaid and says to her, ‘Get on and butcher him, and cook him up in’t big cauldron while I have a nap. When broth’s ready, call me!’ He lay down on’t bench and went to sleep, snoring so loud it shook the mountain. 

The Mastermaid takes a knife, cuts the lad’s finger and lets three drops of blood fall onto a three-legged stool. She piles up all the old rags and worn-out shoes and rubbish she can find, and drops them into the cauldron. She fills up a box with powdered gold, grabs a block of salt and a flask of water. Then she catches up a golden apple and the troll’s two golden hens, and off she goes wi’t king’s son, fast as they can, till they come to t’ sea, jump on board ship and set off over the waves. 

Back home, the troll stretches a bit and stirs.  ‘Is broth ready yet?’

‘Just started to boil,’ said the first drop of blood and the troll goes back to sleep. After a while he stirs again. ‘In’t it ready yet?’

‘Half-cooked!’ says second drop of blood. So the troll goes back to sleep. Hours later he yawns and rubs his eyes. ‘Is it done?’

‘Ready!’ says third drop of blood. So the troll got up and he couldn’t see the Mastermaid, but the cauldron was steaming, and he was clemmed. Hungry! He took the ladle and tried the soup, and it’s nothing but mashed up rags and old leather, and he was so angry he didn’t know what leg to stand on, and he set off after the Mastermaid and the king’s son as fast as he could go. Soon he comes to the edge of the fjord, and he can see the two of them far off on the ship, but he can’t cross the water. So he calls his River-sucker, and the River-sucker lies down at the fjord’s edge and sucks and sucks till the fjord’s almost dry. 

‘Throw out that block of salt!’ cries the Mastermaid, so the king’s son threw out the block of salt behind the ship, and it turned into a mighty mountain too high to climb, that blocked the way. ‘I’ll call for my Mountain-borer!’ yelled the troll, and his Mountain-borer came and bored a hole right through the mountain, but just as the troll was scrambling through it the Mastermaid cried, ‘Pour out the flask of water!’ and the king’s son did, and the tunnel filled with water and the troll was swept away and drowned.

So now the lad wants to take Mastermaid back to his father, but he wants to do it in style. ‘Just wait for me here, while I go on. There’s seven grand horses in my father’s stable, and a carriage. I’ll fettle them up and bring them for you.’

‘Oh no, don’t do that!’ said the Mastermaid, ‘if you go home without me, you’ll forget me, I know you will.’

‘How could I forget you after all we’ve been through together and when we love each other so much?’

‘All right’ said the Mastermaid, ‘go if you will, but don’t speak to anyone and whatever you do don’t have a bite to eat – if you do, it’ll be bad luck for both of us.’ He said he wouldn’t, and off he went.

But when he got to his dad’s castle, one of his brothers had just got married and they were all celebrating. They were right glad to see him and asked him to join the feast, but he wouldn’t say nowt, he brushed them off and went to t’ stables to hitch up the horses. Well, this woman comes after him, she’s the bride’s step-sister, and she chucks him an apple, ‘If you won’t stay with us, have a bite of that,’ she cries, and as he were hungry and thirsty he took a bite, and all at once he forgot the Mastermaid and all that had gone on wi’ him and her. ‘I must have gone mad. What do I want these horses for?’ And he went back into t’ castle, and no time at all he was engaged to marry the woman who gi’en him the apple, who was really a troll.

The Mastermaid waited and waited, but as king’s son didn’t come she walked along till she came to a dirty little cottage close by the king’s meadows. In she goes and lights a fire, and then she takes out the box of gold dust and chucks half of it on’t fire so it spits and splutters and gilds the whole cottage inside and out, till it shines like the sun. 

Who should come riding by but the Constable? He was so mithered by the glittering cottage and so smitten by the lovely lass sitting by t’ door, that he asks her to marry him, straight off.

‘I might, if you’ve plenty of brass,’ she says.  

Oh, he had plenty of that! So he comes back that evening with half a sackful, leans it in’t corner and they go to bed. But soon as they’re in bed, the Mastermaid sits up. ‘I forgot to stoke fire,’ says she.

‘I’ll do it!’ says Constable, and he jumps out of bed.

‘Tell me when you’re grabbed hold of poker,’ says the Mastermaid.

‘I’m holding it now!’ says he.

‘Then you hold on to the poker and the poker hold you, and you can chuck coals all over yourself till morning!’ says the Mastermaid. So the Constable stands there all night, flinging fiery coals and embers all over himself till daybreak, and then he could let the poker go and he took to his heels as if the devil was after him. And did he say a word to anyone? Not likely!

Next day an Attorney comes riding past, and when he claps eyes on t’ golden hut and the beautiful maiden, down he goes on his knees and asks to marry her. ‘I might,’ said the Mastermaid, ‘if you’ve plenty of brass, I might…’

The Attorney was rich enough, so he come back that evening with a big sackful and leans it in the corner, and they went to bed. But as soon as they lie down, the Mastermaid sits up. 

‘I forgot to shut porch door,’ said she.

‘Lord, what a time to remember that!’ says Attorney. ‘I’ll do it,’ and he jumps out of bed.

‘Tell me when handle’s in your hand,’ says the Mastermaid. 

‘I’m holding it now,’ calls the Attorney.

‘Right, well you hold door handle and door handle hold you, and rush you this way and that till morning!’ said she. Well, the Attorney never had such a night, as the door rushed him this way and that all night long, almost battering him to death, and as daybreak came he fled home, leaving his money behind. And did he breathe a word to anyone? Not likely!

On the third day, a Bailiff came by, and same thing happens. He wants to marry the Mastermaid and she says she might, if he has enough brass! Oh, the Bailiff had plenty. Back he comes that evening with an even bigger sack than the Attorney – so that was all right, and off they go to bed. But hardly did their heads touch pillow when the Mastermaid sits up.

‘I’ve forgotten to shut the calf away,’ she says. ‘I’ll have to go out and do it now.’

‘I’ll do it!’ says Bailiff, and he jumps out of bed.

‘Tell me when you’ve got hold of calf’s tail,’ says the Mastermaid.

‘I’ve got hold of it now!’ cries the Bailiff.

‘Then you hold on to the calf’s tail, and the calf’s tail hold you, and you can run over the whole world till daybreak,’ says the Mastermaid. And off goes the calf, kicking and leaping, and drags the Bailiff up mountains and down dales, and the more he yells the faster it runs, and by daylight he’s so worn out he can hardly limp home.

Now the very next day was the day of the King’s son’s wedding to the sister of his brother’s bride, the woman who gived him the apple. But when they climbed into t’ carriage to drive to the church, one of the axles broke, and it couldn’t be mended, and then Constable, who’d come to t’ wedding, said there was a lass living in a gold cottage down by the meadows, and they ought to ‘see if she’ll lend you her poker, that’ll hold all right!’ So they sent a messenger, and the Mastermaid didn’t say no, and they used poker instead of axle and it worked! 

But as soon as they got going, the floor of the carriage drops out underneath them. So the Attorney says, ‘See if the lass in the gold cottage will lend you her gilded door, I guarantee that won’t break!’

Well, the Mastermaid lends the door. So that’s fettled, but this time when they try to set off again, the horses won’t move. They hitch up six, then eight, then ten, but still the horses won’t stir, and it’s getting late. The Bailiff spoke up. ‘See if the lass in the gold cottage’ll lend you her calf. That beast’ll pull anything!’

Well, the Mastermaid lends them the calf and they unhitch the horses and put it in the traces and what did it do? It shoots away with that carriage over hill and dale, sometimes on the ground, sometimes in the air, and when it reaches the church it goes around and around the steeple like a yarn-winder, and they only just manage to get out. And on t’ way back from the wedding it does the same, only even faster. 

Now as they sat down to feast, the king’s son – the bridegroom – thought they ought to invite the lass in the gold cottage, who’d lent them her poker, her door and her calf, ‘Without her, we’d never have got to church in time!’ And the king said this was only fair, and he sent five of his best men down to the gold cottage to invite the lass to dinner.

‘If king’s not good enough to come and see me, he’s not good enough for me to come and see him,’ said the Mastermaid, so the king had to go down himself and invite her to dinner, and the Mastermaid went with him and he put her in the seat of honour, next to the bridegroom. When she’d sat down, the Mastermaid took out the two gold hens and the golden apple she had brought from troll’s house and put them on the table, and the two hens started pecking and fighting over the golden apple. 

‘By heck,’ said the king’s son, ‘look at the way them hens is struggling to get at the apple!’

‘Aye,’ says the Mastermaid, ‘That’s just the way we two struggled to get our freedom, when we were shut in troll’s house under the mountain.’

Then the king’s son remembered everything! He knew who she was, and you can’t think how happy they was, the two of them! As for the troll bride who’d given him the apple, the king told her off to be torn in twenty pieces between twenty horses, and then they could really celebrate, and Constable, Attorney and Bailiff danced all night at the wedding!

More about fairy tales and folklore in "Seven Miles of Steel Thistles" available from Amazon here and here.

Picture credits

The Mastermaid by Charles Folkard
The Prince collects the fire-tax by HJ Ford
The River-Sucker by HJ Ford



  1. Thanks for this story! A very enjoyable retelling indeed.

  2. Thankyou, Penny! It honestly didn't need much tweaking!

  3. Replies
    1. That was great - especially when I read it out loud, doing all the voices (purely for my own amusement!)

  4. - Which sounds great fun! Very glad you enjoyed it.