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.