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Prince Lindworm


Retold by Gwyn Jones. From Scandinavian Legends and Folk-Tales, London: Oxford University Press, 1956. Illustrations by Joan Kiddell-Monroe

LONG long ago, in the green morning of time in the Northlands, there lived a handsome young King who had to wife a lady who was loveliest of all the queens of the world. Her hair was fine gold and her eyes were cornflower blue; the throat on her was whiter than new milk in a silver pail, and the red of her lips was like the blood of the wild swan that falls on fresh snow at Christmas. No happiness ever known was equal to theirs, but for one thing: they had no children. Hardly a day went by without their sorrowing at this, for the Queen wanted a golden-haired daughter to cherish and play with, and the King needed a son and heir to the kingdom.

One day when the Queen was out walking she came to the house of an old crone who lived near the forest. She went inside, and there was the crone, without a tooth in her head, sitting over the fire. ‘Tell me, my Queen,’ said the crone, ‘why, when an old crone like me finds the world so sunny, a lady like you wears a cloud on her brow?’

‘Alas,’ answered the Queen, ‘our miseries are always our own. There is no one in the world can help me.’

‘Tell me, even so,’ the crone advised her. ‘I have helped those who were not less unhappy than you.’

Almost against her wish, the Queen told her her troubles. ‘We have no children, the King and I: that is why you see me with a cloud on my brow.’

‘No ill is without its remedy,’ answered the crone. ‘Do exactly as I tell you, and that will be a wrong soon righted. Listen! Tonight, at the reddest glow of sunset, take a small two-handled goblet and place it upside down on the ground in the north-west corner of your garden. To­morrow, at the palest gleam of sunrise, raise it again, and underneath you will find two roses on a single stalk, one white and one red. Then you must choose: for if you eat the red rose, a little boy will be born to you; but if you eat the white rose, a little girl. But whatever you do, and whichever you choose, on no account must you eat both the roses—for disaster will surely follow if you do. You understand me?’

‘I understand,’ cried the delighted Queen. ‘Kind crone, name your reward!’

But the old woman would not accept even the gold ring off her finger. ‘It is too soon to talk of reward,’ she told her. And: ‘Remember, Queen: one rose, no more!’

The Queen returned home in great excitement and did exactly as she had been told. Next morning at sunrise she stole out into the garden and lifted up the goblet from the ground, and to her surprise and joy there were the two roses growing on a single stalk, exactly as the crone had said : one white, one red. But no one was ever more puzzled than the Queen found herself now. Which one should she choose to eat? ‘For if I choose the red,’ she told herself, and have a son, when he grows up he will only follow the wars, and lose an arm, and perhaps be killed.’ And, as mothers will, she wept a little for the son that was still un­born, lamenting how cruel the world can be to those we hold dearest and best. ‘On the other hand, if I choose the white, and have a daughter, when she grows up she is sure to get married and go away to a far country and leave us.’ And a second time she wept, as mothers will, to think on time, the amender and marrer of all.

However, as she saw the sun’s light grow clearer, she de­cided on the white rose. Quickly she plucked it and ate it, and of all the fruits and confections that had passed her lips before, there was none that did not taste harsh and sour compared with those scented petals. ‘Surely,’ she told her­self, ‘if the white rose is good, the red rose must be better!’ And quite forgetting the old woman’s warning, she plucked that and ate it too.

The golden days of summer wore on to the silver of Yule, and soon it was spring again, and the King went off to the wars. It was now, while the new lambs cried from the pastures and the curlews wailed in the dunes, that the Queen gave birth to twins. Of these one was a boy more handsome than his father, but the other was a Lindworm or serpent, and it was he that was born the first. His mother was terribly frightened when she saw him, but with one quick lithe movement he snaked out of sight, so that no one save she had a chance to notice him; and such was her joy, and such the rapture of the ladies at her other fine son, that she soon came to think it all a dream. He was so strong, so loving, and so handsome, that she could think of little else; and once the King came safely home again her happiness was complete. Not a word was spoken by anyone about the Lindworm, and the Queen lived her life as though he had never been.

The days became months and the months grew to years, and sooner than seemed possible the child with a toy was a Prince with a sword. ‘Son,’ said his father one day, ‘you are of an age to take a wife.’ ‘What wife shall that be?’ asked the Prince in reply. ‘That is for you to find out,’ his father told him, and when the royal coach was new-painted in scarlet and blue, and the manes and tails of the six royal coach-horses had been plaited with thread of gold, off he drove to look for her. But if he set off at an amble he came back at a gallop, for what should they encounter at the very first cross-roads but an enormous Lindworm tail-anchored to a neighbouring oak, and with fangs more deadly than the lightning. He clashed his scales in the middle of their path, and his wide black mouth opened against them. ‘A bride for me,’ he hissed, ‘before a bride for you!’ The horses reared, then stood trembling and sweating, and as soon as the grooms could turn them they dashed for the stables as though that great forked tongue was flickering just one inch from their gold-threaded tails. Great was the surprise at their hurried return, and greater still the con­sternation at Court when the Prince recounted the reason for it. The King instantly threatened to march out against the Lindworm with ten champions, so the Queen thought it time to confess that what the Lindworm had claimed was no more than his due. For he was as much their son as the Prince himself, and moreover the elder of the twins, so it was only right and proper that he should marry before his brother.

Needless to say, this began a nine days’ wonder and a ten-day debate, but all that emerged at the end of it was that if the Prince was to get married at all, it would be necessary first to find a bride for the Lindworm his brother. This was not so easy as it sounds, but what the King did was this: he sent an embassy to the most distant country he could think of asking for a Princess to marry his son; and since he was careful not to mention which son he had in mind, sure enough a Princess arrived—and a very nice Princess she was too. Even so, she was not introduced to her bridegroom till he suddenly appeared alongside her in the great hall of the palace, all glittering and lithe. What could she do? The meats were baked and the wedding-ale brewed, and the guests had spent a fortune on their robes and mantles—and home was a long way off. ‘I will!’ said the Princess bravely, and that was the end of her. For in the morning, when they went to investigate, the Princess was nowhere to be found, and the Lindworm had the look of one sleeping off a very good meal.

When a short but respectful period had elapsed (and the Lindworm had slid stealthily off on his own business), the Prince his brother decided it would be safe enough now to go seeking a wife of his own. So once more he started out in the royal coach drawn by the six royal coach-horses­and once more he returned at the gallop. At the very first cross-roads what should they see but the Lindworm, draped from the overhanging branch of an oak, and his fangs busier than forked lightning. Again his wide black mouth opened against them. ‘A bride for me, brother,’ he hissed, ‘before a bride for you!’ And though the Prince expostulated, while the horses stood trembling and sweat­ing, that he had already been supplied with a bride, he just went on hissing till they turned tail and drove all of a lather to the palace. Again the King sent an embassy to a far-off country, asking for a Princess to marry his son, and again a Princess arrived, if anything still nicer than the first. She too was not permitted to see her bridegroom till it was too late: she too made the best of a bad business. In the morning she too had disappeared, and the Lindworm had the look of one sleeping off if anything a still better meal.

A short time later, but with no notable confidence, the Prince his brother started out yet again to find himself a bride. Sure enough, at the first cross-roads, there was the Lindworm coiled about an oak, his scales going chirm-chirm and his fangs flashing. ‘A bride for me, brother—’ But that was as far as he got, for the Prince was already on his way home to tell his father that he must find the Lind- worm a third bride.

For a while the King stood shaking his head and stroking his beard. ‘I don’t know, to be sure,’ he said at last. ‘These mishaps win a country a bad name. I already have two wars on my hands because of him, and it is his father who must do the fighting while he just eats and sleeps. You know how it is once people begin to talk: it won’t be so easy this time, and we may as well face it.’

However, not far away, in a tumbledown cottage near the forest, there lived an old man, the King’s shepherd, with his two daughters. Of the elder of these it was re­ported that there was no girl in the kingdom so gentle, so good, and so lovely as she. She was not a Princess, true, but to the King it seemed no time to stick at trifles, and that very same day he walked down to the cottage and asked the old man to give his daughter in marriage to the Lindworm. ‘In return,’ he promised, ‘I will wrap you in riches for the rest of your life.’

The old shepherd shook his head. ‘I have lived well enough without them so far. Besides, I don’t like what I hear about this Lindworm of yours—of ours,’ he corrected himself quickly as he saw the King frown. ‘Is it true that lie swallowed down his first wife with her slippers for sauce?’ The King mumbled that this might be considered an exaggeration. ‘And that he gobbled up the second, nightshirt and all?’ The King muttered that rumour, like fame, was a lying jade. ‘Well, my daughter is neither lying nor a jade,’ said the shepherd. ‘She is my wild rose, my linnet, my lambkin, and there is no Lindworm alive going to eat her.’

‘You may tell that to the merinos,’ the King replied rudely, for to tell the truth he was much upset. ‘I am every inch a king, and never take No for an answer.’ And so it proved, for he did not return to his palace till the shepherd had been forced to say yes.

But when the old shepherd told his daughter that he had promised her in marriage to Prince Lindworm, her grief was pitiful to see. Tears rained from her eyes and she wrung her fingers till the nails bled, while as for her voice, it grew harsh, and then hoarse, and then silent through lamenting the fate that threatened to destroy her, and she so young and tender. Nor could she stay one minute in­doors, but must run through the copses and briars till her clothes were in shreds and her flesh a criss-cross of scratches. It was as she wandered to and fro in this desolate fashion that she passed a huge hollow oak, and inside the bole whom should she see sitting but an old crone without a tooth in her head. ‘Tell me, my child,’ said the crone, ‘why, when an old crone like me finds the world so sunny, a girl like you wears despair on her brow ?’

‘Alas,’ answered the shepherd’s daughter, ‘it would be useless my telling you. There is no one in the world can help me.’

‘Tell me, even so,’ the crone advised her. ‘I have helped those who were not less unhappy than you.’

Only too willingly the girl now told her her troubles. ‘I am to be married to the King’s elder son, Prince Lind- worm, and everyone knows what that means. He has already married two lovely Princesses and eaten them, ankles and all. Now he will eat me too.’ And she cried out: ‘Who will have pity on me?’

‘Is that all?’ asked the crone. ‘Dry your eyes, my child, and promise to do exactly as I tell you, and that will be a wrong soon righted. Listen! When the wedding is over, and it is time to seek your rest, you must ask to be attired in ten snow-white silken shifts. When this is granted you, as granted it will surely be, you must ask for a bath-tub full of lye, and another full of fresh milk, and the third thing you must ask for is as many whips as a ten-year-old boy can carry in his arms—and he well-grown for his age—and all these things must be set down in your bed-chamber. Then, when the Lindworm bids you shed a shift, you must hid him cast a skin. And when all his skins are cast (they may be nine or they may be ten, but more they cannot be), you must dip the whips in the lye and whip him soundly. Next you must wash him all over in the fresh milk, and lastly you must take him in your arms and hold him close, if only for one brief moment.’

‘Ugh!’ cried the shepherd’s daughter. ‘I can never do that !’ And her heart turned right over inside her as she thought how cold and wet and slimy the Lindworm must he, and how horrible it would feel to embrace him.

‘It is that or be eaten,’ chided the crone, and without waiting for thanks or even an answer, she disappeared up­wards into the oak tree.

All too soon the wedding-day arrived, and by the King’s command the girl was fetched in the royal coach (new-painted scarlet and blue) by the six royal coach-horses (their manes and tails plaited with thread of gold). At the castle she was taken upstairs to be arrayed as a bride. No sooner was she in her room than she asked to be attired in ten snow-white silken shifts, and when these had been brought in to her, she demanded the bath-tub full of lye, and another full of fresh milk, and as many whips as a well grown ten-year-old boy could carry in his arms. These seemed strange requests to her attendants, but, ‘Give her everything she can ask for,’ ordered the King, who felt his determination broidered with pity and remorse.

Quickly she was arrayed in a shimmering robe of cloth of gold and conducted to the great hall of the palace. A sudden silence fell upon the assembly, there was a movement at her side, and it was now that she saw the Lindworm for the first time, his tapering tail and scaly sides, and the horror of his face, half man, half snake. But she was at least as brave as any Princess, and ‘I will!’ she said firmly, while every lord present blew with relief, and every lady sighed with thankfulness. In this fashion they were married, and from the hall were conducted to the banquet, and from the banquet to their own apartment, and always with music and torches and a gallant procession as escort, until at last the door was shut behind them, the noise of fiddle and flute died slowly away, and silence and the night spread their hands over the sleepy palace.

The moment the door was shut, the Lindworm turned his face to her, and the forked tongue flashed from his black mouth. ‘Fair maiden,’ he ordered, ‘shed a shift!’

‘Prince Lindworm,’ she retorted, though her heart beat fast, ‘cast a skin!’

‘No one has dared tell me to do that before,’ he hissed angrily.

‘But I am telling you now!’

For a moment she thought he would swallow her down, but instead he began to moan and to groan, to writhe and to wriggle, and all at once a long, strong snake-skin lay upon the floor beside him. She drew off her first shift and spread it on top of the skin.

Again the Lindworm turned his face towards her. ‘Fair maiden, shed a shift!’

‘Prince Lindworm, cast a skin!’

‘No one has dared tell me to do that a second time,’ he hissed furiously.

‘But I am telling you now!’

For a moment she thought he would gobble her up, but instead he began to rail and bewail, to rustle and wrestle, and in no time at all the second snake-skin lay upon the floor beside him. Instantly she covered it with her second shift.

A third time his black mouth opened. ‘Fair maiden, shed a shift!’

‘Prince Lindworm, cast a skin!’

‘No one has dared tell me to do that a third time,’ he hissed madly.

‘But I am telling you now!’

A third time she thought he would kill and devour her, but instead he began to slobber and sob, to coil and to moil, and there was the third strong snake-skin lying upon the floor beside him; and this too she covered with a silken shift.

So it continued, each calling upon the other, till nine cast snake-skins were lying upon the floor, each of them covered with a snow-white shift. And with each skin he cast the Lindworm grew more loathsome to look upon, until in the end he was a raw, thick, slimy mass, now rear­ing, now rolling, now slithering all over the floor. Then the shepherd’s daughter reached for the whips and dipped them in lye, and whipped him with all her might and main. And when her arms were two long aches she washed him from head to tail in fresh milk; and then, when she was too exhausted even to shudder, she took him groveling in her arms and held him close for one brief moment before she fell helplessly asleep.

Early next morning, at the first gleam of sunrise, the King and his courtiers came in sorrow to Prince Lindworm’s room, to learn what had happened to the shep­herd’s daughter. They listened, but there was silence; they peeped through the keyhole, but saw nothing. They stood outside, afraid to enter, but at length the King opened the door, first one inch, and then two. And then they saw her, the wild rose, the linnet, the lambkin, all fresh and dewy with the dawn. And in her arms they saw lying no Lindworm, but a quicksilver Prince as handsome as the grass is green.

‘Oh, son,’ cried the King; ‘Oh, daughter!’ Then tears of happiness choked his voice. Attendants ran to fetch the Queen and the old shepherd and his other daughter, and the palace walls and rafters rang to such rejoicing as was never known before or since. Everyone agreed there must be a second wedding, and a proper one this time, with games and pipes and dancing, and feasting for a week. And so there was, and so there were, and the revelry spread to the furthest verges of the kingdom. Then the King had the splendid idea of marrying his second son, Prince Lindworm’s brother, to the shepherd’s younger daughter, so the fun and feasting started all over again, with new gowns, new cakes, and new games. No princess from a royal court was ever so dear to a king and queen as the shepherd’s elder daughter from the tumbledown cottage; nor was any so deserving of love and esteem. By her wisdom and calm and her courage she had saved her own life and that of Prince Lindworm their son. In later days, when the King and Queen were dead of old age, she and her husband succeeded to the kingdom, and their rule was so peaceful and prosperous that the Northlands rejoice still in their memory—and so, if we are wise, will we.