I am currently developing stories for MiM’s upcoming Experience Scandinavia event on December 5 and 6. This will be another wonderful weekend of music, art, food, dance, and STORIES! I tell at 10:15 both mornings. So I am looking at all kinds of Finnish – Danish – Swedish – Norwegian – Icelandic folktales. And I have noticed something. The man who wins a princess as his bride must often pass some kind of test. What role does the princess herself play in this process?
There are at least four Scandinavian folktales where the princess does a lot more than passively wait for the guy who can win her father’s approval.
In the Norwegian story of Haakon Grizzlebeard, the beautiful princess is the test. In his English translation George Webbe Dasent calls her a “wicked hussy.” This sounds a bit Victorian but the Norwegian “det leie trollet” seems to mean “rent troll.” Clearly I have fallen into the land of idiom and would welcome information from anybody who actually knows the language.
“Rent troll” or “hussy,” this princess rejects suitor after suitor until she finally angers Haakon so much that he resolves to teach her a lesson. Haakon and his princess learn a lot about each other during this lesson. They have passed each other’s test.
Shortshanks, another Norwegian hero comes across a princess who is in danger of being carried away by a series of ogres. The test is provided by external forces – the ogres – rather than the king. The princess takes an active role in ensuring that her father recognizes Shortshanks as the man who has truly won the right to marry her in spite of his questionable origins (he arrived on the scene in a flying golden boat).
The test in the Icelandic tale of The Cottager and the Cat also involves external circumstances. When the hero and his cat reach the king’s palace, they are looking for a job, not a princess. It is the cat who deals with a plague of rats and the king offers the cottager a choice – either become prime minister or marry the princess. The young man takes the princess. (Her opinions on the subject are not included in the story.)
The Danish tale of Jesper the Hare Herder, Jesper deliberately takes on the challenge set by the king, that of successfully herding a herd of fifty rabbits. In this story, the princess actively assists her father in testing her unlikely suitor. Jesper must outwit both father and daughter to win his prize. This story ends with what is described as a merry wedding, although nothing is said about the “ever after” part.
All four of these rather active princesses remind me of women in both the Icelandic Family Sagas, the Íslendingasögur and the Völsunga Saga. In their oral form, both these narratives were developed by and for the same audience – the Icelanders whose ancestors had left Scandinavia to settle on an island in the north Atlantic.
The family Saga of Burnt Njál includes the story of Hallgerda, daughter of Hauskild. When Thorwald asks Hauskild for his daughter in marriage Hauskild warns the young man that the girl has a hard temper, but nobody thinks to ask Hallgerda what she thinks of the match. Even before the wedding, she expresses her displeasure and the marriage does not last long. Bride and groom quarrel, he slaps her face and is soon dead at the hands of her murderous foster-father.
Signy, one of the murdering mothers in the Völsunga Saga, outright informs her father that her marriage to the Siggeir, King of the Gauts, will end in disaster. His refusal to listen to his own daughter leads to death – starting with his own plus those of ten of his sons followed by those of four of Signy’s sons, her husband and herself.
So, in folktale, men who pass the tests that are actually set more by the princesses than their fathers manage to make it to some form of happily ever after. The Icelanders learned from their Family Sagas and wove into the great narrative of their heroes, the flip side of the lesson: if she does not want to marry you, it is not going to turn out well.
Attila. Bronze medal after an antique original.
Reading Mary Stewart’s historical novel The Crystal Cave, introduced me to the idea of building a completely believable world on the foundations of history, legend and myth. For me, her Merlin became the Merlin and her Britain the Britain. As I now craft my own tales from similar material, I try to reach that same level of believability.
Stewart placed her stories against the background of the Arthurian history of Britain in the Dark Ages. I am working with the Völsunga Saga. These two sources share a common historical theme -- the battles between migrating tribes of barbarians and the Late Roman Empire. In Stewart’s world, the Romanized Britons fight the Saxons. In the world of the Saga, the invading Germanic Tribes fight for their places in the empire.
The history is similar but the word “historical” can be misleading. Long after I first read Stewart, I learned that the British chroniclers of the era made little if no mention of Arthur and the legends of Camelot were not recorded until several hundred years later. In the same way, the Saga material is also only loosely connected with the records of its time. I suspect that the stories of the British Arthur, the Germanic Gundahar, and the Hunnish Attila all followed the same path from the actual event to the stories told about the event in gossip, legend, epic, and fiction.
A British leader bearins some form of the name Arthur could well have fought the invading Saxons. Slightly more than a century earlier, Gundahar, the leader of a Germanic tribe known as the Burgundians, established his people on the Roman side of the Rhine River. He acquired this territory by supporting the local would-be emperor. A Roman general loyal to the legitimate emperor hired an army of Hunnish mercenaries to fight the Burgundians and Gundahar lost his life in the subsequent battle.
Attila, the most famous of the Huns, took no part in that battle. His formidable army did not enter the empire until some years later when he swept through Roman Gaul into Italy where he was defeated. During his retreat, he took a bride but suffered a nosebleed and drowned in his own blood on his wedding night. That has got to be one of the most unexpected and dramatic deaths in all of history! Apparently Attila was in a drunken stupor at the time.
The separate fates of Gundahar and Attila were recorded in the chronicles of the time. The information is also compiled by later Roman historians who drew from those chronicles. Those historians and chroniclers shaped the material to fit their needs. One chronicler, writing eighty years after the death, reported that Attila had been stabbed to death by his bride whose name, Ildico, indicates that she might have been Germanic.
Historians and chroniclers were not alone in reporting and repeating the stories of what happened. Somebody shaped the set of Arthurian legends that finally appears in the writings of Geoffrey of Monmouth. Somebody turned Gundhar’s death in battle into the scene in the Völsunga Saga where Gunnar lies in the snake pit, charming the serpents by playing his lyre with his toes. He died when the instrument broke, the music ended, and the snakes woke up.
Somebody crafted Attila's rather unusual death into his murder at the hands of his wife, Gunnar's vengeful sister Guðrún.
All these stories probably grew in the hands of the wandering merchants who carried gossip from place to place, the storytellers, and the praise-poets, the crafters of tales told to and about kings. Everybody from earliest chronicler to historical fiction to storyteller is doing the same work – taking what seems to have happened and shaping it into a believable compelling world. That is the work I saw when I read Mary Stewart’s book. That is the work I try to do.