Tuesday 14 July 2020

Strong Fairy Tale Heroines #21: PRINCE LINDWORM

This fairy tale is often mistakenly claimed to be Norwegian – a mistake which can be traced back to the anonymous writer of the English preface to Kay Nielsen’s ‘East of the Sun and West of the Moon’ (1920) which states that all the stories in the collection come from Sir George Dasent’s 1859 translation of Asbjørnsen & Moe’s ‘Norske Folkeeventyr’ and then adds that ‘Prince Lindworm' has been ‘newly translated for this volume' leaving the distinct impression that it too must be a Norwegian story.

But ‘Prince Lindworm’ is Danish. As ‘Kong Lindorm’ it was collected by N Levinson in 1854 from Maren Mathisdatter in Fureby by Løkken, and was published in Axel Olrik’s Danske Sagn og Aeventyr fra Folkemunde, 1913. (Thanks to Simon Roy Hughes's excellent blog 'Norwegian Folktales' for this information.)  There is also a much longer and more complicated 'King Lindorm' in the Langs' 'The Pink Story Book', translated from Swedish. 

I don’t know who made this English translation; it might have been Kay Nielsen himself, who of course was a Dane. Some lines, such as ‘the Queen wanted a dear little child to play with, and the King wanted an heir to his kingdom’ do not have the ring of authentic oral storytelling to me and are probably attempts to make the story more accessible to children. Helpful old women in fairy tales are usually just helpful old women: in this story someone, likely the translator, has decided to call her a witch and then has to explain that ‘she was a nice kind of witch, not the cantankerous sort’. I’ve deleted it. (Neither am I convinced that this old woman lives in an oak tree, but let that pass.)

In fact this fairy tale is surprisingly violent! It starts like ‘Tatterhood’(#15 in this series): a queen who longs for a child must choose one of two flowers to eat, and eats both – but it rapidly becomes splendidly sinister as the queen gives birth to twins, one of which is a malevolent lindworm.

It can be difficult to tell just from reading a fairy tale how it might come across in a live performance. The outrageous behaviour of the king and queen in this story is a good example: it’s told in a very poker-faced way on the page. But a good story teller would bring out the black comedy – the selfishness of the human prince who wants his parents to sacrifice yet another ‘bride’ to his serpent brother (with no guarantee of any more success than the last time), the increasingly desperate scheming, the fearful king peeping through the keyhole, and the surely guilt-driven ‘love and kindness’ which king and queen finally lavish upon their new daughter-in-law…  All this should be very funny. 

As for the shepherd’s daughter, by holding her nerve and following the old woman’s advice to the letter (as the queen neglected to do), she gets the better of her dangerous slimy serpent-husband, challenge for challenge. There’s a hint of ‘Tam Lin’ in the plot – you’ll remember how Janet saves her enchanted lover by holding him tight as he’s changed into all kinds of deadly forms? Unlike Janet, this girl’s actions are driven by self-preservation rather than love. In a fairy tale we can be sure that once Prince Lindworm is disenchanted, the two of them really will live happily ever after; but I’m afraid the other two princesses are simply collateral damage. As supporting cast they are expendable, like the anonymous redshirted crew of the Starship Enterprise who get blasted moments after beaming down to the alien planet. Fairy tales are more hard-hearted than you think. 

[NB:When you get to it, 'lye' is a strong alkali solution obtained by mixing water with wood ash.]

Once upon a time there was a fine young king who was married to the loveliest of queens. They were exceedingly happy, all but for one thing – they had no children. And this often made them both sad, because the queen wanted a dear little child to play with, and the king wanted an heir to his kingdom.

            One day the queen went out for a walk by herself and she met an old woman who asked, ‘Why do you look so sad, lady?’

            ‘It’s no use my telling you,’ said the queen, ‘no one in the world can help me.’

            ‘Oh, you never know,’ said the old woman. ‘Just let me hear your trouble, and maybe I can put things to rights.’

            ‘The king and I have no children, and that is why I am so distressed.’

            ‘I can set that right,’ said the old woman. ‘Listen, and do exactly as I tell you. Tonight, at sunset, take a little drinking-cup with two lugs and put it bottom upwards on the ground in the north-west corner of your garden. Go and lift it tomorrow morning at sunrise, and you will find two roses underneath it. If you eat the red rose, you will give birth to a little boy, if you eat the white rose, to a little girl, but whatever you do, do not eat both the roses, or you’ll be sorry – I warn you!’

            The queen thanked the old woman a thousand times. She went home and did as she’d been told, and next morning at sunrise she crept out into the garden and lifted the drinking-cup. There were the two roses underneath it, one red and one white. And now she did not know which to choose. 

            ‘If I choose the red one,' she thought, ‘I will have a little boy who may grow up to go to the wars and be killed. But if I choose the white one, and have a little girl, one day she will get married and go away and leave us. So whichever it is, we may be left with no child after all.’

            At last she decided on the white rose, and she ate it, and it was so sweet she took and ate the red one too, without remembering the old woman’s warning.

            Some time after this, the king went away to the wars, and while he was still away the queen gave birth to twins. One was a lovely baby boy, and the other was a Lindworm. She was terribly frightened when she saw the Lindworm, but he wriggled away out of the room and nobody seemed to have seen him but herself, so she thought that it must have been a dream. The baby prince was so beautiful and strong, the queen was delighted with him, and so was the king when he came home. Not a word was said about the Lindworm: only the queen thought about it now and then. 

            Years passed and it was time for the prince to be married. The king sent him off to visit foreign kingdoms, in the royal coach, with six white horses, to find a princess grand enough to be his wife. But at the very first cross-roads the way was barred by an enormous Lindworm, enough to frighten the bravest. He lay in the middle of the road with a great wide-open mouth, and cried, 

            ‘A bride for me before a bride for you!’

Then the prince made the coach turn round and try another road, but it was all no use. For at the first cross-ways, there lay the Lindworm again, crying out, ‘A bride for me before a bride for you!’ So the prince had to turn back home again for the castle, and give up his visits to the foreign kingdoms. And his mother the queen had to confess that what the Lindworm said was true. For he really was the eldest of her twins, and so ought to have a wedding first. 

            There seemed nothing for it but to find a bride for the Lindworm, if his younger brother the prince were to be married at all. So the king wrote to a distant country and asked for a princess to marry his son, but of course he didn’t say which son, and presently a princess arrived. But she wasn’t allowed to see her bridegroom until he stood by her side in the great hall and was married to her, and then of course it was too late for her to say she wouldn’t have him. But next morning the princess had vanished. The Lindworm lay sleeping all alone, and it was quite plain that he had eaten her. 

            A little while after, the prince decided that he might now go journeying again in search of a princess. Off he drove in the royal carriage with the six white horses, but at the first cross-ways, there lay the Lindworm, crying with his great wide open mouth, ‘A bride for me before a bride for you!’ So the carriage tried another road, and the same thing happened, and they had to turn back again this time, just as before. Then the king wrote to several foreign countries, to know if anyone would marry his son. At last another princess arrived, this time from a very far distant land. And of course, she was not allowed to see her future husband before the wedding took place, – and then, lo and behold! it was the Lindworm who stood at her side. And next morning the princess had disappeared, and the Lindworm lay sleeping all alone, and it was quite clear that he had eaten her. 

            By and by the prince started on his quest for the third time, and at the first cross-roads there lay the Lindworm with his great wide open mouth, demanding a bride as before. And the prince went straight back to the castle and told the king he must find another bride for his elder brother.

            ‘Where shall I find her?’ said the king. ‘I have already made enemies of two great kings who sent their daughters here as brides, and I have no notion how I can obtain a third lady. People are beginning to talk, and I am sure no princess will come.’

            Now down in a cottage near the wood lived the king’s shepherd, an old man with his only daughter. So the king came and asked him, ‘Will you give me your daughter to marry my son the Lindworm? I will make you rich for the rest of your life.’

            ‘No sir,’ said the shepherd, ‘that I cannot do. She is my only child and I need her to take care of me. Besides, if the Lindworm would not spare two lovely princesses, he will not spare her either. He will gobble her up, and she is much too good for such a fate.’

            But the king wouldn’t take no for an answer, and the old man at last had to give in.

            Well, when the old shepherd told his daughter she was to be Prince Lindworm’s bride, she was utterly in despair. Into the woods she went, crying and wringing her hands and bewailing her hard fate. And while she wandered to and fro, and old woman appeared out of a big hollow oak tree and asked her why she was so so sad?

            ‘Oh it’s no use telling you,’ said the shepherd girl, ‘for no one in the world can help me.’

            ‘Oh, you never know,’ said the old woman. ‘Just let me hear what your trouble is, and maybe I can put things right.’

            ‘Ah, how can you?’ said the girl. ‘For I am to be married to the king’s eldest son, who is a Lindworm, and he has already married two beautiful princesses and devoured them, and he will eat me too!’

‘All that may be set  right,’ said the old woman,  ‘if you will do exactly as I tell you.’ And the girl said she would. 

‘Listen then,’ said the old woman. ‘After the marriage ceremony is over, and when it is time for you to go to bed, you must ask to be dressed in ten snow-white shifts. And you must ask for a tub full of lye, and a tub full of fresh milk, and as many whips as a boy can carry in his arms – and have all these brought into your bed-chamber. Then, when the Lindworm bids you shed a shift, you must bid him slough a skin. And when all his skins are off, you must dip the whips in the lye and whip him; next you must wash him in the fresh milk; and lastly, you must take him and hold him in your arms, if it’s only for one moment.’

‘The last is the worst,’ said the shepherd’s daughter, and she shuddered at the thought of holding the cold, slimy, scaly Lindworm. 

‘Do as I say and all will be well,’ said the old woman.

When the wedding day arrived the girl was fetched in the royal chariot with the six white horses, and taken to the castle to be decked as a bride. And she asked for ten snow-white shifts to be brought to her, and the tub of lye, and the tub of milk, and as many whips as a boy could carry in his arms, and the king said she should have whatever she asked for.

She was dressed in beautiful robes and looked the loveliest of brides. She was led to the hall where the wedding ceremony was to take place, and saw the Lindworm for the first time as he came in and stood by her side.  So they were married, and the wedding feast was held.

When the feast was over, the bridegroom and bride were brought to their apartment, and as soon as the door was shut, the Lindworm turned to her and said,

‘Fair maiden, shed a shift!’

The shepherd’s daughter answered him, ‘Prince Lindworm, slough a skin!’

‘No one has ever dared tell me to do that before!’ said he.

‘But I command you to do it now!’ said she. Then he began to moan and wriggle: and in a few minutes a long snake-skin lay upon the floor beside him. The girl drew off her first shift, and spread it on top of the skin. 

The Lindworm said to her again, ‘Fair maiden, shed a shift.’

The shepherd’s daughter answered him again, ‘Prince Lindworm, slough a skin.’ 

‘No one has ever dared tell me to do that before,’ said he. 

‘But I command you to do it now,’ said she. Then with groans and moans he cast off the second skin, and she covered it with her second shift. The Lindworm said for the third time, 

‘Fair maiden, shed a shift!’

The shepherd’s daughter anwered him again, ‘Prince Lindworm, slough a skin.’ 

‘No one has ever dared tell me to do that before,’ said he, and his little eyes rolled furiously. But the girl was not afraid, and once more she commanded him to do as she bade.

And so this went on until nine Lindworm skins were lying on the floor, each of them covered with a snow-white shift. And there was nothing left of the Lindworm but a huge thick mass, most horrible to see. And the girl seized the whips, dipped them in the lye and whipped him as hard as ever she could. Next, she bathed him all over in the fresh milk. Lastly she dragged him on to the bed and put her arms around him. And she fell fast asleep that very moment.

Next morning very early, the king and the courtiers came and peeped in through the keyhole. They wanted to know what had become of the girl, but none of them dared enter the room. However, in the end they grew bolder and opened the door a tiny bit. And there they saw the girl, all fresh and rosy, and beside her lay no Lindworm, but the handsomest prince that anyone could wish to see.

The king ran out to fetch the queen, and after that there were such rejoicings in the castle as never were known before or since. The wedding took place all over again, with banquets and merrymakings for days and weeks. No bride was ever so beloved by a king and queen as this peasant maid from the shepherd’s cottage, and there was no end to their love and kindness towards her, because by her sense and her calmness and her courage she had saved their son, Prince Lindworm.

Picture credits:

Prince Lindworm, by Kay Nielsen from 'East of the Sun  and West of the Moon'
The Queen lifts the drinking cup, by Kay Nielsen
Prince Lindworm, by the-sly-wink at Deviant Art: click this link
The Bride and the Lindorm, by HJ Ford


  1. And then the two countries that had lost their princesses declared war on the king...

  2. Replies
    1. And that will be interesting! Of the two sons, one doesn’t strike me as the kind who could command troops and the other has spent his life as a talking snake, so the King would have to negotiate or lead his army....

      Goodness, those wedding nights would have been scary!