Icelandic Fairy Tales
A Legend from Iceland: The King’s Three Sons
In olden days there once lived a king and a queen; they were wise and good, and their kingdom was known far and near as the happiest and best-governed country in the world. They had three sons—Osric, Edric, and Frithiof,—all handsome and brave and greatly beloved by their parents; but, having no daughter, the king had adopted his little orphan niece Isolde. She grew up with his sons, and was their best-loved playfellow, both the king and queen making no distinction between her and their own children.
As the princess grew older, she also grew fairer, till when she was sixteen years old there was no maiden in the land so beautiful and sweet as Isolde. All three brothers fell in love with her and wanted to marry her, each in turn asking his father for her hand in marriage.
Now the king was greatly puzzled what to do, for he loved his sons all equally well, so at length he decided that the princess should choose for herself, and select the one she liked best. He therefore sent for her, and told her that she was herself to choose as a husband whichever of his sons she liked best.
“It is my duty as well as my pleasure to obey you, dear father,” said Isolde; “but when you tell me to choose one of the princes as my husband, you give me a very difficult task, for they are all equally dear to me.”
When the king heard these words, he saw that his troubles were by no means at an end, so he thought for a long time how he could best find a way that would satisfy all parties, and at last decided to send all three sons away for a year. At the end of that time they were to return, and whoever had succeeded in bringing back the most precious and valuable thing from his travels should receive the hand of Isolde as his reward.
The three princes were quite willing to accept these terms, and arranged among themselves that at the end of the year they would all meet at their hunting-lodge and thence go together to the king’s palace with their gifts; so, bidding farewell to their parents and Isolde, they started off on their different journeys.
Osric, the eldest son, travelled from city to city, and explored various foreign countries, without finding anything precious enough to take home. At last, when he had almost given up all hope, he heard that, not very far from where he then was, there lived a princess who possessed a wonderful telescope, which was so powerful that one could see all over the world with it. No country was too distant, and not only could one see every town, but also every house and tree, and even people and animals inside the houses.
“Surely,” thought Osric, “no one could find a more precious or valuable thing than this glass, for nothing is hidden from it.” So, having arrived at the castle where the princess dwelt, he told her the object of his journey, and asked whether she would sell him her telescope.
At first the princess said she would not part with it, but when Osric told her how much depended on his taking back so valuable a gift, she consented to let him have it for a very large sum of money.
The prince did not mind this; he only thought the gold well spent, and hastened homewards, full of hope that he would secure the hand of Isolde.
Prince Edric fared much the same as his elder brother. He also travelled about in distant countries, seeking in vain for something rare and precious to bring home. At last, when the year was nearly at an end, he reached a large and populous town, and in the inn where he lodged he met a man who told him that in a cave outside the town there lived a curious little dwarf called Völund, who was famed for his rare skill in all kinds of metal-work.
“Perhaps,” thought the prince, “he might be able to make me some rare and costly article worthy to take back.” So he went to the dwarf, but when he told him what he wanted, the dwarf said he was very sorry, but he had quite given up working in metals.
“The last thing I made was a shield,” he continued, “but that is many years ago now. I made it for myself, and am unwilling to part with it, for not only is it almost the finest bit of work I ever did, but it has also some very special properties.”
“And what are these special properties?” asked the prince.
“Well,” replied the dwarf, “it is not only a perfect safeguard in battle, as no ordinary sword or arrow can pierce it, but if you sit on it, it will carry you all over the world, through the air as well as across the water. But there are some old runes, or ancient letters, carved on the shield, which he who guides it must be able to read. But I will show it you.”
So saying, he went to the back of the cave and brought forth a beautiful shield, worked in gold, silver, and copper, the runic letters being all formed of precious stones.
When Edric saw the shield and heard of its wonderful properties, he thought it would not be possible to find anything more rare or valuable. He therefore told the dwarf how much depended on his bringing back so precious a gift, and entreated him to let him purchase it; and he was so importunate and urged him so strongly that, although loth to part with it, when the dwarf heard how much depended on his securing so rare a gift, he agreed to sell it him for a large sum of money.
He also taught him how to read the runes, and Edric, thanking him for consenting to part with his shield, started on his homeward journey, filled with hope and confidence that he must win the princess’s hand.
Frithiof, the youngest son, was the last to start. He determined to travel through his own country first, so he wandered about from place to place, stopping in this town and that village, and wherever he met a merchant, or hoped to find anything rare or beautiful, he made most searching inquiries. All his efforts, however, proved fruitless. The greater part of the year had already passed, and he was still as far as ever from his goal, and he almost began to fear that no success would crown his efforts.
At length he arrived at a large and populous town, where a big market was being held, and numbers of people from all parts of the world came thronging in, some to buy and some to sell. So he followed the crowd, and then went on from stall to stall, and from one merchant to another, inspecting their wares and chatting and asking for news. But though there were many beautiful and many curious things, nothing specially struck his fancy.
At length, tired and thirsty, he sat down beside a large fruit stall. The merchant, seeing, as he thought, a likely customer, came forward asking if he would not buy something—offering him grapes, peaches, pineapples, and melons in turn.
But Frithiof shook his head; none of these tempted him, for on the very top shelf he saw a magnificent crimson apple, streaked with green and gold, lying on a bed of soft moss.
“I should like that apple,” said the prince, “and do not mind what I pay for it. It is the only thing that I fancy, though all your fruit is splendid.”
The merchant smiled, but shook his head.
“You have a quick eye,” he said to the prince, “for that apple is indeed the rarest and most valuable thing I have. But it is not for sale. It was given to one of my ancestors, who was a great doctor, by a geni, and has the peculiar power, that if it is placed in the right hand of any one who is sick, no matter how dangerous the illness, they recover at once—ay, even if they are at the point of death—and many a life it has saved.”
When the prince heard this, he wished more than ever to possess the apple. He felt he could not possibly find anything that the princess, who was so kind-hearted, would value more than the possession of this apple, which would enable her to do good to others. He therefore entreated the merchant to let him buy the apple, and when the man had heard his tale, and all that depended upon his bringing back such a rare and precious gift, he sold the apple to the prince, who, filled with hope, now wended his way homewards.
And so it happened that, as they had arranged, the three brothers arrived at the hunting-lodge, outside the capital, and after they had related their adventures, Osric, the eldest, said, “Now let us hasten to the palace, but before starting I should like to see what the princess is doing.”
He thereupon drew forth his telescope and looked in the direction of the palace, but no sooner had he done so, than an exclamation of terror escaped his lips, for there on her couch lay the princess, white and still as the driven snow, while beside her stood the king and queen and the chief of the courtiers in a sorrowful group, sadly awaiting the last breath of the fair Isolde.
When Osric beheld this grievous sight he was overwhelmed with grief, and when his brothers heard what he had seen, they too were overcome with sorrow. Gladly would each have given all they possessed to be back in time, at least to bid her farewell.
Then Prince Edric remembered his magic shield, which would at once carry them to the king’s palace, and, bringing it forth, the three brothers seated themselves on it, and the shield rose up in the air and in a few seconds they had reached the palace, and hastened up to the princess’s chamber, where they found all the court assembled, sadly awaiting the end.
Then Frithiof remembered his apple. Now was the time to test its power. Stepping softly up to the couch, he bent over the still white form of the princess and gently placed the apple in her right hand. Immediately a change was visible, it seemed as if a fresh stream of life passed through her body. The colour returned to her lips and cheeks, she opened her eyes, and after a few minutes she was able to sit up and speak.
The general rejoicing at the princess’s wonderful and unexpected recovery, and at the happy and opportune return of the three princes, can be better imagined than described.
But as soon as she was quite well, the king, mindful of his promise, called together a great “Thing,” or national assembly, at which the brothers were to exhibit the treasures they had brought back, when judgment would be pronounced.
First came the eldest brother Osric, with his telescope. This was handed round for the people to see, while he explained its strange and marvellous properties, stating how by means of this glass he had saved the princess, for he had been able to see how ill she was. He therefore considered that he had earned the right to claim the princess’s hand.
Then Edric, the second brother, stepped forth and showed the beautiful shield he had got from the dwarf, and explained its peculiar power. “Of what use would have been my brother’s glass,” he asked, “without this shield, which carried us hither in time to save her life? I claim, therefore, that it was really due to the power of my shield that the princess is not dead, and that I ought therefore to possess her hand in marriage.”
And now it was Frithiof’s turn to come forward with the apple. He said, “I fear that neither the telescope which first showed us that the princess was ill, nor the shield which so quickly brought us hither, would have sufficed to restore the Princess Isolde to life and health, had it not been for the magic power of my apple. For what good could our mere presence have done her? Our seeing her thus and unable to help her, would only have added to our grief and pain. It is due to my apple that the princess has been restored to us, and I therefore think my claim to her hand is the greatest.”
Then there arose much questioning and reasoning in the “Thing” as to which of the three articles were of the greatest value, but as they could come to no satisfactory agreement, the judges declared that all three articles were of equal value, for they had all equally contributed to restore the princess to life and health, for if one had been missing, the other two would have been valueless. So judgment was pronounced that, all three gifts being equally valuable, neither of the brothers could claim the princess’s hand.
Then the king happily hit upon the idea of allowing his sons to shoot for the prize, and whoever was adjudged the best shot should wed the princess.
So a target was set up, and Osric, armed with bow and arrow, stepped forth first.
Taking careful aim, he drew his bow, and the arrow sped forth, but it fell some distance short of the mark.
Then Edric stepped forth. He too took careful aim, and his arrow fell nearer the mark.
And now it was Frithiof’s turn. He too took a very careful aim, and all the people said his arrow went beyond the mark, and that he was the best shot, but when they came to look for it, behold, it could nowhere be found. In vain search was made in all directions, no sign of the arrow could be found.
The king therefore decided that Edric had won the princess’s hand. The wedding forthwith took place amid great splendour and rejoicing, and the princess and her husband then went to her own country, where they reigned long and happily.
The eldest brother, Osric, greatly vexed that he had not been successful, started off on a long journey, and nothing more was heard of him. So only the youngest brother was left at home. But he was not at all satisfied with the way matters had turned out, for he had always been considered by far the best shot.
He therefore searched every day in the field where the trial had taken place, looking for his arrow. At length, after many days, he found it lodged in an oak tree, far beyond the mark. He brought witnesses to attest the truth of this, and though there could be no question that his arrow had gone the furthest, the king said it was now too late to go into the matter, for the princess was married and gone away.
Then Frithiof grew very restless. He thought he had been unfairly treated, and at length decided to go away, so he packed up his belongings, and, bidding his parents farewell, started off in search of adventures.
After passing along the wide plains that surrounded the capital, he climbed a high range of mountains, and from thence descended into a great forest. Here he wandered about for several days, but whichever way he turned, he could see nothing but trees all around him. The small store of food he had taken with him when he started was exhausted, and tired, hungry, and footsore, he sat down to rest on a large flat grey stone, unable to proceed any further. He thought the end of his days had surely come, when suddenly he heard the noise of horses’ feet, and looking up he saw ten men mounted on horseback coming rapidly towards him. They were all richly dressed and well armed, the last one leading a finely caparisoned palfrey.
When they came to the prince, the leader dismounted, and, bowing low before him, begged him to honour them by mounting the steed they had brought with them.
Frithiof gratefully accepted this offer, and, mounting the horse, the party turned back the way they had come, riding rapidly on till they arrived at a large town. Before entering the gates they dismounted, the prince alone remaining on horseback, and then led the prince in state to the palace.
Now, it happened that a most beautiful young queen reigned over this province. She had been left an orphan at an early age, her father entrusting his chief ministers with the care and responsibility of looking after her and finding her a worthy husband. Queen Hildegard received the prince with much friendliness. She told him that her fairy godmother had bestowed on her the gift of seeing, whenever she wished, what happened in other countries.
“A wandering minstrel came here and told us of the wonderful journeys you and your brothers had made, and also of your sorrow at your failure in the shooting competition for the Princess Isolde’s hand, though you were the best shot of the three.
Then a great wish seized me to try and make you happy, so I followed your wanderings after you left your father’s palace, and when I saw you, sad and tired, resting on the great stone in my forest, I sent forth some of my knights to meet you and bring you back, and now, with the consent of my ministers, I invite you to remain here as my husband. You shall rule over my kingdom, and I will try, as far as lies in my power, to make you forget all the trouble and anxiety you have gone through.”
Frithiof was charmed with the beauty and kindness of the maiden, and gladly consented to share her throne, and very happy days followed for both of them. The wedding was on the most magnificent scale, and after they were married, Frithiof, according to the custom of the country, took the reins of government in his hands, amid the general rejoicing of the people.
And now we must return to the old king. Soon after his youngest son had gone away the queen died, and the king, well advanced in years, felt very lonely and dull. One day, while seated beside the great open hearth, in the big audience hall, a pedlar woman entered and displayed her wares before him. She told him her name was Brunhilde—she had evidently travelled much—and amused the king with tales of where she had been and what she had seen.
When she was going away, the king told her she might come again, which she did, day after day, till the king got so interested in her talk, that he never was happy unless Brunhilde was with him, and at length he asked her to marry him and be his queen.
In vain the chief ministers and courtiers dissuaded him from taking this step. The king was determined, and the wedding took place.
No sooner had Brunhilde gained her object, than she showed that she meant to be a real queen, not merely one in name. She always sat beside the king in council, and interfered in all State matters. He would do nothing without consulting her, and no matter how wrong or unfair it might be, he always did whatever she wished.
One day she said to him, “It seems very strange to me, that you have never made any attempt to recall your son, who went away. Why, only the other day we heard that he had become king of a neighbouring country. You may depend upon it that, as soon as he has got a sufficiently large army, he will come back and attack you here, in order to revenge himself for the fancied wrong he imagines was done him, in the trial of skill for the princess’s hand. Now, take my advice, call out your army, attack him first, and so ward off the danger that threatens your country.”
At first the king would not listen to what the queen said; and declared she was only frightening herself for nothing. But Brunhilde brought forward fresh arguments each day, till at length the king thought she must be right, and asked her what he had better do, so that the prince should not suspect anything.
“You must first send messengers to him with presents,” said the queen, “and invite him to come and see you, so that you may arrange with him about his succession to the throne after your death, and also to strengthen the friendship and neighbourly relations between your two countries. After that we will consult further.”
The king thought her advice very good, and at once sent messengers laden with presents to his son.
When they arrived at Prince Frithiof’s court, they told the young king how anxious his father was to see him, and hoped he would make no long tarrying in coming to visit him.
Frithiof, greatly pleased with the handsome gifts his father had sent him, at once agreed to go, and hastened to make all preparations for his journey. But when Queen Hildegard heard of it she became very anxious, and entreated her husband not to leave her.
“I feel that some danger threatens you, and that you may even lose your life,” she said.
But Frithiof laughed at her fears. “Surely you do not think my father would entreat me to come to him if he meant to deal wrongly with me? No, no, dear wife; set your heart at rest, and have no fears. I will make but a short stay;” and so saying he bade her a fond farewell and started off with the messengers, arriving after a short journey at his father’s court.
But instead of the warm greeting promised him, to his surprise the king received him but coldly, and began to reproach him for being so undutiful as to go away.
“It was most unfilial behaviour,” broke in the queen, “and caused such grief to your father that he was nearly at death’s door; and had anything happened to him, your life would have been forfeited, according to the laws of the land. As, however, you have given yourself up willingly, and have come here when he sent for you, he will not condemn you to death, but he gives you three tasks to perform, which you must accomplish within the year.”
It was in vain that Frithiof declared he never meant to vex his father. The queen would not let the old king speak, and said the only way Frithiof could save his life was to carry out the tasks his father had set him, which were as follows:—
“First, you must bring back a tent large enough to seat a hundred knights, and yet so fine and thin that you can cover it with one hand; secondly, you must bring me some of the famous water which cures all sicknesses; and, thirdly, you must show me a man who is utterly unlike any other man in the whole world.”
“And in what direction must I go to find these rarities?” asked Frithiof.
“Nay, that is your affair,” said the king; when Brunhilde, taking his arm, led him away into his own chamber; and Frithiof, without other farewell, sorrowfully returned to his own kingdom.
On his arrival, Queen Hildegard hastened down to meet him, and seeing him looking sad and silent, asked him anxiously how he had fared at his father’s court.
At first Frithiof, not liking to frighten her, tried to put her off, and made light of the scant courtesy shown him; but Hildegard, kneeling down beside him, and taking his hand in hers, entreated him to conceal nothing from her.
“I know you have had some difficult tasks given you, which will not be easy to perform. But do not lose heart, dear husband. Tell me all, and then we will see if some way cannot be found to carry them out. A thing bravely faced is half accomplished, and it is not at all impossible that with my kind godmother’s help I may be able to aid you. Tell me, therefore, what makes you so anxious.”
Then Frithiof, taking heart, told Hildegard of the difficult tasks that the queen had given him to do. “And if I fail to accomplish them within the year I must forfeit my life,” he concluded.
The Three Tasks
“This is surely your stepmother’s doing,” said Hildegard. “She is a jealous and, I fear also, a wicked woman. Let us hope she is not planning any further mischief against you. She evidently thought these tasks she gave you would be more than you could accomplish; but, fortunately, I can help you in some of them. The tent your father wants I happen to have; it was given me by my godmother, so that difficulty is disposed of.
Then the magic water which you are to bring is not far from here. Nevertheless, it is not easy to get, for it is in a deep well, inside a dark cave, which is guarded by seven lions and three huge snakes. Several persons have tried to get in and fetch some of the water, but no one has ever yet come back alive. I might give you some poison to kill these monsters, but, unfortunately, the water loses all its healing power if it is taken after the animals are dead. But I think I may nevertheless be able to help you to get it.”
Queen Hildegard then sent for her cowherd, and he and his two assistants drove seven oxen and three great boars to the mouth of the cave. Here the animals were killed, and the carcases thrown down before the lions and snakes. Then, while the monsters were gorging themselves with the carcases of the dead animals, the queen told Frithiof to lower her quickly down the well. She had provided herself with a large crystal jar; this she immediately filled with the water, and when Frithiof drew her up again, so exactly had she timed it, that they both reached the mouth of the cave just as the lions and snakes were finishing the last morsels of their meal. Thus the second task was safely accomplished, and Frithiof and Hildegard hastened back to the palace.
“The two first tasks are happily ended,” said Hildegard; “but the third and most difficult one still remains to be done, and this you must carry out by yourself. All I can do is to tell you how best to set to work about it.
You must know that I have a half-brother, called Randur. He lives on an island not very far from here. He is nine feet high, has one big eye in the middle of his forehead, and a black beard thirty yards long, and as hard and stiff as pigs’ bristles. He also has a dog’s snout instead of a mouth and nose, and a pair of green cat’s eyes. In truth, it would be impossible to find another creature like him. When he wants to go from one place to another, he swings himself along by means of a great pole fifty yards long, and in this way he almost seems to fly through the air like a bird.
The island on which he lives forms about one-third of my father’s kingdom, and my brother thought he ought to have had a larger share. Then, also, my father had a wonderful ring which my brother wished to keep, but this also fell to my share, and since then my brother has shut himself up in his island.
Now, however, I will write to him, enclosing the ring he always coveted. Perhaps that may dispose him to be more friendly to us, and we may get him to go to the king’s court; for I know no one else who could so well fulfil the third task given you. Now, therefore, you must go to him, accompanied by a large following of knights and squires, for that will please him. When you come near his castle, take off your crown, and approach his throne bareheaded. He will then stretch forth his hand, and you must bend your knee and kiss it, and then hand him my letter and the ring. If after reading it he tells you to rise and seat yourself beside him, we may hope that he will aid us. And now, good luck attend you!”
Frithiof followed the queen’s instructions exactly. When he arrived at the three-eyed king’s palace, both he and his attendants were greatly startled at the frightful ugliness of the three-eyed monarch; but quickly recovering himself, Frithiof handed him Hildegard’s letter and the ring. When the giant saw the ring he seemed greatly pleased, and said—
“I suppose my sister wants my help in some important matter, that she sends me so valuable a present?”
He then bade Frithiof sit down beside him, and, having read his sister’s letter, he said he was quite ready to help and carry out her wishes.
He then stretched out his hand, grasped the long pole that always rested near him, and in an instant he had swung himself out of sight.
The king feared at first that Randur had gone away altogether and left them, but a loud shout told them he had only gone in advance. And thus they went on, the giant waiting for them every now and then, and when they reached him scolding them well for being so slow and dilatory; in this way they at last arrived at the queen’s palace, and Randur at once asked Hildegard what it was she wanted him to do.
The queen then told him what Frithiof’s father had required of her husband, and begged her brother to accompany Frithiof back to his father’s court. Randur, greatly pleased at having at last got the ring he so much coveted, declared himself quite ready to do as she desired. So they started off at once for the old king’s palace, which they reached without any further adventures.
Frithiof announced his arrival to his father; but though he informed him that he had obtained the three things required of him a year ago, he carefully kept Randur in safe hiding till his presence should be required, and asked that a “Thing” might be called together, in order that he might show the people how he had succeeded in carrying out the tasks assigned him.
So the old king issued a proclamation all through the land, and on the appointed day so great was the interest and curiosity of every one, from the king and his courtiers down to the very poorest labourer and herdboy, that there was hardly standing-room in all the great “Thing” valley.
Queen Brunhilde was furious at the thought that Frithiof should have been successful, but she still hoped that, when the things were brought to light, it would be found that he had failed in something.
The tent was produced first. When it was fairly set up, it was so large and roomy that a hundred knights and squires easily found room inside, yet it was so finely wrought, that when closed any one could cover it with their hand. So all the people declared Prince Frithiof had fully acquitted himself of his first task.
Then the prince brought forth the crystal jar with the healing water, and handed it to his father. Queen Brunhilde, who was getting quite yellow with anger, insisted upon tasting it to see whether it was the right water and taken at the right time, so as not to lose its healing qualities. But as she was quite well, no sooner had she tasted the healing water, than she felt very ill, and had to take a second taste ere she was well again. So the second task was pronounced to have also been successfully accomplished.
“Now,” said the king, “there only remains the third and last task, and that was the most difficult one. See that you have not failed in that”
Then Frithiof sent for the three-eyed giant, whom he had kept in safe hiding till now.
When Randur appeared before the “Thing,” springing into their midst by means of his long pole, everyone, but especially the old king, started back in fear; they could not imagine how he had got there, and thought he must have flown down from the skies. Never before had they seen so hideous a creature. But, not taking any notice of the crowd, Randur walked up to the queen, and placing the point of his long pole against her chest, he raised her up in the air, and then hurled her to the ground, when she fell down dead, and was immediately transformed into the hideous old giantess she really was. Having accomplished this, Randur made his way out of the “Thing,” and returned to his island.
Frithiof devoted all his efforts to restore and nurse the old king, who, through anxiety and fright, had nearly been at death’s door. But a few drops of the healing water sprinkled over him quickly restored him, and being freed by the queen’s death from all her wicked enchantments, he speedily recovered his former good sense, and found that all the faults he had thought his son guilty of, were only the inventions of wicked Queen Brunhilde.
He therefore called Frithiof to his bedside, and begged him to forgive him all the injury he had tried to do him.
“I am only anxious now to make up to you, my dear son, for all you have suffered, and beg you never to leave me again. I will gladly hand over the kingdom to you, and live beside you in peace and quiet for the rest of my days.”
So Frithiof was reconciled to his father, and at once sent messengers to Hildegard, telling her what had happened, and begging her to hasten to him. Queen Hildegard, when she received her husband’s message, decided to give up her small kingdom to her brother, as a reward for all he had done for them; and then, accompanied by some of her husband’s ablest courtiers and friends, she rejoined Frithiof, and the old king, happy at having his son again, lived to a good old age, surrounded by his grandchildren and great-grandchildren.