Tuesday's Tale - from Italy

Crab

There was once a king who had lost a valuable ring.  He looked for it everywhere but could not find it.  So he issued a proclamation that if any astrologer could fathom its location, he would be richly rewarded.  A poor peasant, who could neither read nor write, heard of the proclamation.  Then and there he decided, not only would he be an astrologer, but he would be the astrologer who would find the king’s ring.

Making himself presentable, the peasant, who went by the name of Crab, presented himself to the king, and said, “Your Majesty, I beg your forgiveness for coming before you so poorly dressed, but I am an astrologer.  I have heard that you have lost a ring, and I will try, by study, to find out where it is.”

“Very well,” said the king, “and when you have found it, what reward will you seek?”

“That is at your discretion, your Majesty.”

“Go then, study, and we shall see how good an astrologer you are.”

Crab was conducted to a room, which contained only a bed and a table.  On the table were a large book and writing materials.  He seated himself at the table, and proceeded to turn over the pages of the book, and scribble on the paper.  So studious did he look that the servants who brought him his food thought him a great astrologer indeed.

In truth, the servants were the ones who had stolen the king’s ring, and they began to fear that the astrologer would find them out.  And so they treated him with the utmost reverence.

Crab, although an illiterate peasant, was as cunning as they come, and suspected that the servants must have some knowledge about the ring.  He thought long and hard about how he might have his suspicions confirmed.  It happened, that a month later, his wife came to visit him.  He said to her, “Hide under the bed, and when a servant enters, say, ‘That is one’.  When another servant comes, say, ‘That is two’, and so on.”

His wife hid herself.  It wasn’t long before the servants came with the dinner.  The first one entered and a voice from under the bed said, “That is one.”  When the second servant entered, the voice said, “That is two”, and so on.  The servants, on hearing the voice, were frightened, and hurriedly left.

Taking refuge in their rooms, one of them said, “We are discovered!  If the astrologer denounces us to the king as thieves, we are lost.”

“There is only one thing we can do,” said another.

“What is that?”

“We must go to the astrologer and confess to him that we stole the ring.  We must beg him not to betray us, and present him with a purse of money.  Are you willing?”

They all agreed.

So they returned together to the astrologer, and bowed as low as they were able.  One of them stepped forward.  “Mr Astrologer, you have discovered that we stole the king’s ring.  We are poor people, and if you reveal our theft to the king, we are undone.  We beg you not to betray us, and to accept this purse of money.”

Crab took the purse and said, “I will not betray you, but you must do what I tell you, if you wish to save your lives.  Take the ring, and get the turkey in the courtyard to swallow it, and leave the rest to me.”

The servants seemed happy enough to do this, and quickly left.

The next day, Crab went to the king and said, “Your Majesty must know that after having toiled over a month I have succeeded in discovering the location of the ring.”

“Where is it, then?” asked the king.

“A turkey has swallowed it.”

“A turkey?  Very well; let us see.”

The hapless turkey was captured, butchered and opened to reveal the ring.  The king, amazed, presented the astrologer with a large purse of money, and invited him to a banquet.  Among the dishes was a large plate of crabs.  Crabs must have been rare indeed in that kingdom, for only the king and a few others knew their name.

Turning to the peasant, the king smiled and said, “You, who are an astrologer, must be able to tell me the name of these things here on this dish.”

The poor astrologer, puzzled indeed, muttered to himself, but loud enough that those close to him heard.  “Ah!  Crab, Crab, what a plight you are in.”

Having called him ‘astrologer’ all this time, none had thought to ask him his name, and so it was that all present believed he had just named the dish.  They rose and proclaimed him the greatest astrologer in the world.

 

It’s the simplicity of the tale that I, yet again, find appealing.  That, and the cleverness of Crab – what an inspired name!  I like how the tale emphasises his cleverness, at the same time highlighting his illiteracy, making the point that the inability to read and write doesn’t negate being clever.  And I love how he suddenly decided that he would be an astrologer, despite his inability to read and write; talk about ambitious!

Tuesday's Tales - back to Iceland

The Shepherd of Silfrunarstadir

Once upon a time, there was a man called Gudmundur who lived on his farm in the bay of Skagafjörður.  The farm was called Silfrunarstadir, and the farmer, rich in flocks, was held in high esteem by his neighbours.  Though he was married, he had no children.

One Christmas Eve night, Gudmundur’s herdsman failed to return home.  Gudmundur caused a search to be made, but the man was not in the fields, nor was he in the sheep-pens.  It was as if the man had simply vanished.

The following spring, Gudmundur hired another shepherd, by the name of Grimur.  He was tall and strong, and boasted that he was able to resist any who wished to threaten him.  Still the farmer warned him to be careful and not take any risks.  On Christmas Eve, Gudmundur told Grimur to drive the sheep into the pens early, and to return to the farm while it was still daylight.  But evening came, and there was no sign of Grimur.  Again, Gudmundur caused a careful search to be made, but Grimur was nowhere to be found, and Gudmundur was full of grief.

Unable to find anyone willing to act as his shepherd, Gudmundur finally went to Sjavarborg.  A very poor widow lived there, who had several children.  Her eldest was a boy of fourteen, named Sigurdur.  Gudmundur offered the widow a large sum of money if she would allow her son to act as his shepherd.

Before his mother could answer, Sigurdur declared that he was willing to be the farmer’s shepherd, for he knew how good the money would be for his mother and the children.  So Sigurdur went with Gudmundur.  He proved to be very good as a shepherd, and during the summer did not lose one sheep.

As the year went on, the farmer made a present of a wether (a male sheep castrated before sexual maturity), a ewe, and a lamb to Sigurdur, and the youth was very pleased.  Gudmundur had become attached to Sigurdur, and on Christmas Eve, begged him to return home before sunset.

All day long, Sigurdur watched the sheep, and as the sky darkened, he heard the sound of heavy footsteps echoing down from the mountains.  Turning towards the sound, he saw a huge and terrible troll coming towards him.

“Good evening, my Sigurdur,” she said.  “I have come to put you into my cook pot.”

Sigurdur stared at her.  “Are you mad?  Can you not see how thin I am?  Surely I am not worth any effort.  But I have a sheep and a fat lamb here which I will give you for your pot.”

He gave her the sheep and the lamb, which she threw on her shoulder, and returned to the mountain.  Then Sigurdur went home, and Gudmundur, overjoyed to see him, asked if he had seen anything.

“Nothing,” said Sigurdur.  “Nothing that I do not always see.”

After New Year’s Day, the farmer checked his flock, and noticed that the sheep and lamb he had given to Sigurdur were missing.  When he asked what had become of them, the youth replied that a fox had killed the lamb, and that the wether had fallen into a bog.  He said to Gudmundur, “I do not think I will be lucky with my sheep as you are with yours.”

Still, the farmer gave him one ewe and two wethers, and asked Sigurdur to continue as his shepherd for another year.  Sigurdur agreed to do so.

The following Christmas Eve, Gudmundur again begged Sigurdur to be cautious, and not run any risks, for he loved him as his own son.  Sigurdur said, “You need not fear, there are no risks to run.”

When he had got the sheep into the pens near nightfall, the same troll came along, declaring that, this time, Sigurdur would not escape being boiled in her pot.

“I am at your service,” said Sigurdur, boldly.  “But, as you can see, I am still thin, and cannot even be compared to one wether.  However, for your pot, I will give you two old and two young sheep.  Will you be satisfied with this offer of mine?”

Hooking them together by the horns, she threw the sheep on to her shoulder, and ran off up the mountain.

Sigurdur returned to the farm to Gudmundur’s relief.  When questioned, the youth said, as before, that he had seen nothing unusual.  “But, as I said, I have been very unlucky with my sheep.”

Sigurdur then agreed to remain in Gudmundur’s service for another year.  When the summer came, the farmer gave Sigurdur four more wethers.  On Christmas Eve, as before, the troll came to Sigurdur as he was putting the sheep in their pens, and, again, she threatened to take him away with her.

He offered her the four wethers, which she took, throwing them over her shoulder.  But this time, she seized Sigurdur, tucked him under her arm and took them all to her cave in the mountains.  She flung the sheep down and ordered Sigurdur to kill them and shave their skins.  He did so with no argument, and when he was done, asked her what task he was to perform next.

“Sharpen this axe,” she said, “for I intend to cut off your head with it.”

Again, with no argument, he sharpened it well, and handed it to the troll.  She told him to remove his neckerchief, which he did with no hesitation.

Instead of cutting off his head, the troll lay the axe on the ground.  “Brave boy!  I never intended to kill you, and you shall live to a good old age.  It was I that caused you to be made herdsman to Gudmundur, for I wished to meet with you.  Listen well, and I shall tell you the way you shall arrive at good fortune.  Next spring you must leave Gudmundur, and go to the house of a silversmith, there to learn his trade.  When you have learned it well, you shall take some of your silver-work to the farm where the dean’s three daughters live.  It is the youngest who is the most promising maiden in the whole country.  Her elder sisters are fond of dress and ornaments, and will admire what you bring them, but Margaret will not care for such things.  When you leave the house, ask her to accompany you as far as the door, and then as far as the end of the field.  There you shall give her these three precious things – this handkerchief, this belt, and this ring.  She will then be your love.  But when the time comes that you see me in a dream, you must return here.  You will find me dead.  Bury me, and take for yourself everything of value that you find in my cave.”

Thanking her for her kindness, Sigurdur bade her farewell and returned to the farm, where Gudmundur welcomed him most joyously, for he had believed him to be forever lost.  Again, he asked if Sigurdur had seen anything.

“No,” replied the boy, but he did say that he could now answer for the safety of any future herdsmen.  No more would he say, even though he was asked many questions.

The following spring, he left Gudmundur’s service and went to a silversmith’s house to learn the trade.  In two years, he had made himself master of the trade.  He often visited Gudmundur, and was always welcome.

There came the day when he did as the troll had told him.  He chose a variety of glittering silver ornaments and took them to where the dean’s daughters lived.  As the troll had said, the two elder sisters were most taken with the ornaments, and they bought many trinkets.  But the youngest, Margaret, did not even look at them.

When it came time for him to leave, Sigurdur asked Margaret to accompany him as far as the door, and then to go with him as far as the end of the field.  Shocked at his request, she asked him what he wanted, for she had never seen him before.  But Sigurdur would not relent, and continued to entreat her until she finally consented.  At the end of the field, he gave her the belt and the handkerchief, and put the ring on her finger.

“I should not have taken these gifts, for I cannot now give them back to you,” said Margaret.

Sigurdur then took his leave and returned home.  But by the time she walked back into her own house, Margaret found that she had fallen in love with him, and told her father that she could not live without him.  Her father told her to cease such mad thoughts, and declared that she should never marry the youth as long he lived to prevent it. 

But Margaret began to pine for Sigurdur and became so thin that her father finally relented, and, with some reluctance, consented to her request.  Going to the farm where Sigurdur lived, he hired him as his silversmith.  And soon after, Sigurdur and Margaret were betrothed.

One day, Sigurdur dreamed that he saw the old troll.  On awakening, he remembered that she’d said this would mean her death.  He asked the dean to accompany him to Gudmundur’s farm. 

Once there, they told Gudmundur that Sigurdur was betrothed to Margaret.  On hearing this, the farmer was very pleased.  He told them that it had long been his intention to leave Sigurdur his property, for he was the son he did not have.  He then offered Sigurdur the management of his farm the following spring.  The youth thanked him heartily, and the dean was glad, for this meant his daughter would be well provided for.

Next day, Sigurdur asked Gudmundur and the dean to go with him to the mountain.  At the troll’s cave, he bade them follow him in without fear.  Inside they found the troll lying dead on the floor.  Then Sigurdur told them all that the troll had done, and all that she’d told him.  He asked them to help him bury her.  When they had done so, they returned to the cave, and found there as many precious things as ten horses could carry, which Sigurdur took back to the farm.

Not long after, he married Margaret, and prospered to the end of his life, which, as the old troll had prophesied, was a long one.

 

I love that, what is essentially a fairy godmother figure is, in fact, an ugly old troll ... though this 'godmother' has more than a few rough edges - she's 'huge and terrible'; she constantly threatens him with her cook pot; and makes him sharpen the weapon of his own death.  Again, there is no backstory or explanation, just the troll’s statement that she wanted to meet Sigurdur – why?  And that she wished for him to have good fortune – again, why?  Maybe there is no reason, maybe she was the loveliest troll ever, who was looking out for one poor, good-hearted boy.

 

Tuesday's Tales - a Norse tale

The Seven Foals

Once upon a time, in a wretched hut, far in the woods, lived a poor couple.  They had three sons, the youngest of which was called Boots.  He did little but lie in the ashes all day.  One day, the eldest son said he would go and earn his bread, and set forth.

He walked the whole day, and as evening drew in, he came to a palace.  Standing on the steps was the king, and he asked the boy where he was going.  The boy answered that he was in search of a way to earn his bread.

“Will you serve me?” asked the King.  “I require someone to watch my seven foals.  If you can watch them one whole day, and tell me at night what they eat and drink, you shall have my daughter, the princess, to wife, and half my kingdom also.  But if you fail, I will cut three stripes off your back.”

Believing this to be the easiest task he had ever been told to do, the boy agreed.

The next morning, the king’s coachman let the seven foals out, and away they ran, with the boy after them.  They raced over the hills, and through bushes.  It wasn’t long before the boy grew weary, but still he tried to keep the foals in sight.  Stopping a while, he came to a cleft in a rock where sat an old hag, spinning with a distaff.  The moment she spied the boy she cried out, “Come, come hither, my pretty son.  Let me comb your pretty hair.”

Tired out from running after the foals, the boy was happy enough to oblige.  He sat down beside the hag, laid his head on her lap, and stretched out while she combed his hair.

When evening approached, the boy said, “I may as well go on my way now for its no use returning to the palace.”

“No, no,” said the hag.  “Stop a while.  The king’s foals will pass by here again.  Then you can run home with them, and no one will know that you have been lying here all day instead of watching the foals.”

When the foals trotted past, the hag gave the boy a flask of water and clod of turf, telling him to show that to the king, and say that was what his seven foals ate and drank.

The king met the boy at the palace steps, like before.  “Have you watched well and true the whole day?” asked the king.

“Yes,” said the boy.

“Tell me then, what did my seven foals eat and drink?”

The boy pulled out the flask of water and the clod of turf, and said, “Here you see their meat, and their drink.”

In an instant, the king turned wrathful and ordered his men to chase the boy home.  But first, as the king had promised, the boy had three stripes cut out of his back.  When the boy returned home, he was in a fine temper, resolving never to leave to find a place to earn his bread ever again.

Next day, the second son decided he would go out into the world and try his luck.  His father and mother pleaded with him not to go, after what had befallen his brother.  But the boy would not be dissuaded, and set off.

Like his brother before him, he too walked the whole day before he came to the king’s palace.  Like his brother before him, he saw the king on the palace steps.

The king asked him where he was bound, and the boy said he was after trying his luck in the world, to earn his bread.  The king asked the boy for his service, to watch his seven foals.  But, like before, the king laid down the same reward and the same punishment.  Like his brother, the boy also believed this to be the easiest task he had ever been given, and readily agreed.

In the grey of the morning, the coachman let out the seven foals, and they raced away over the hills and through the bushes, with the boy running after them.  But the same thing happened to him as had befallen his brother.  After growing weary from running after the foals, he passed by the cleft in the rock, where the same old hag sat, spinning with a distaff.  She called out to the boy, “Come, come hither, my pretty son.  Let me comb your pretty hair.”

Thinking no harm could come from sitting a while, the boy laid his head on the hag’s lap while she combed his hair.  When the foals passed by them at nightfall, the hag gave him a flask of water and clod of turf to show the king.

At the palace, the king asked the boy, “Can you tell me what my seven foals had to eat and drink?”

In reply, the boy showed him the flask and the clod.  “Here you see their meat, and their drink.”

Like before, the king turned wrathful and ordered his men to cut three stripes out of the boy’s back and chase him home.  And when the boy returned home, he lamented his fate and swore never to go out into the world again.

The next day, Boots decided he wanted to try his luck watching the foals.  His brothers laughed at him.  “We fared so ill, but you think you can do better.  A fine joke.  You, who have never done anything but lie in the ashes.”

“I don’t see why I shouldn’t go,” said Boots.  “The more I think on it, the more I have to do it.”

In spite of his brothers’ taunts, and the pleadings of his parents, Boots set out.  He walked the whole day, and come the evening, he arrived at the palace, where he found the king standing on the steps.

When the king asked him where he was bound, Boots said he was after trying to earn his bread.

This time, the king thought to question more.  “Whence do you come?”

Boots said whence he came, and that he was brother to the two who had watched the king’s seven foals, and that he wished to watch the foals.

“Pah!” said the king, the very mention of Boots’ brothers making him cross.  “If you are brother to those two, I’ll wager you’re not worth much.”

“Perhaps,” said Boots, “but I have come so far already, may I not try?”

“Oh, very well,” said the king.  “If you wish to have your back flayed, you are quite welcome.”

“I’d rather have the princess,” said Boots.

The next morning, at dawn, the coachman let the seven foals out again, and away they raced, as they always did, this time with Boots behind them.  Like his brothers before, he too passed by the cleft in the rock where the hag sat, spinning, and, again, she cried out, “Come, come hither, my pretty son.  Let me comb your pretty hair.”

But Boots didn’t stop.  He continued to run after the foals, and managed to grab the tail of one, the youngest foal, which turned to him and said, “Jump on my back, boy.  We still have a long way to go.”

Boots jumped on the foal’s back.  And they raced on and on.

“Do you see anything?” said the foal.

“No,” said Boots.

And they raced on for many miles before the foal asked again, “Do you see anything now?”

“Yes,” said Boots.  “I see something white, like a tall trunk of a birch.”

“That is where we are going,” said the foal.

When they got to the trunk, the eldest foal pushed it to one side to reveal a door.  Inside the door was a little room, with barely anything but a little fireplace, and a bench.  But behind the door, hung a great, rusty sword, and a pitcher.

“Can you brandish the sword?” asked the foals.

Boots tried, but couldn’t.  They urged him to drink from the pitcher, and when he’d taken three gulps, he could wield the sword with barely any effort.

“You may take the sword with you now,” said the foals.  “With it, you must cut off all our heads on your wedding day, and we will be princes once again.  An ugly troll changed our shapes.  We are the sons of the king, and brothers of the princess whom you are to marry when you can tell our father what we eat and drink.  Remember, when you have hewn off our heads, to take care to lay each head at the tail of the body which it belonged to before, and the spell will cease to have power over us.

Boots solemnly promised to do so.  Then they continued on their way.

They travelled for a long way, for many miles, before Boots finally said, “I see something like a blue stripe, far away.”

“That is a river we must cross,” said the foal.

They crossed the river, and still their journey continued.  Boots said he could see something black, which he thought looked like a church steeple.

“That is where we are going,” said the foal.

When the foals stepped into the churchyard, they turned into young men, and, indeed, looked like princes, with their fine clothes.  They went into the church, and took the bread and wine from the priest.  Boots watched as the priest blessed the princes, after which they went out.  Boots followed them, but first took with him a flask of wine and a wafer.  By the time he stepped out of the church, the princes were foals again.

Boots got on the back of the youngest, and they went back the way they had come, only this time they went much, much faster.  They crossed the river, and raced past the birch trunk.  When they passed the old hag, they went by so fast, Boots couldn’t hear what the old hag screamed after him, but he could tell she was in a terrible rage.

Night had almost fallen when they got to the palace, where the king waited on the steps.  “Have you watched well and true the whole day?” he said to Boots.

“I have done my best,” replied Boots.

“Then tell me what my seven foals eat and drink.”

Boots pulled out the flask of wine and the wafer.  “Here is their meat, and their drink.”

“You have indeed watched true and well.  You shall have the princess, and half the kingdom.”

So the wedding feast was made ready, for the king said it should be a grand one.

When they sat down to the feast, the groom got to his feet, saying he had forgotten something in the stables and had to go and fetch it.  In the stables, he went to the foals, and did as he’d promised.  He hewed off their heads, the oldest first, and the others after him, taking care to lay each head at the tail of the foal to which it belonged.  As he did this, they became princes again.

Boots went back to the hall with the seven princes, and the king was so overcome with happiness, he kissed Boots on both cheeks, and patted him on the back.  The bride, reunited with her beloved brothers, was now happier with her husband than she had been before.

 

I like the simplicity of this one, in that there is no backstory; we don’t know why the princes were cursed – had they done something, or was it to punish the king?  Who was the ‘old hag’?  Did she have something to do with the ‘ugly troll’ who had cursed the princes?  Who knows?  I wonder, though, if Boots had invited his family to his wedding ;)

Tuesday's Tales - Iceland again

This is the story explaining the meaning of the symbols depicted in the Seal of Iceland.  The symbols show the four guardians of Iceland – the Dragon represents the East, the Bird the north, the Bull represents the West, and the Rock Giant the south.

According to legend, King Harold Gormsson of Denmark decided to expand his kingdom by invading Iceland.  He sent one his court magicians to explore that mysterious country, to determine how easy or difficult the task might be.

The magician, taking the form of a whale, swam to Iceland.  When he reached it, he spied countless spirits, large and small, inhabiting the hills and mountains of the country.  Making his way to the east coast, he reached Vopnafjörður (‘Fjord of Weapons’).  There he was met by a huge dragon.  The beast was accompanied by many reptiles, worms and lizards.

Turning away, the magician quickly swam north to Eyjafjörður (‘Fjord of Isles’), only to be stopped by a bird so immense, its wings touched the mountains on either side of the valley.  Accompanying the bird were myriad other birds of various sizes, large and small.

Frustrated, the magician journeyed west and south, and came to Breiðafjörður (‘Wide Fjord’).  Here he was approached by a massive bull.  With deafening bellows, and with a vast host of spirits following, the bull waded into the sea.

The magician turned and swam south, hoping he would be able to come ashore at Víkarsskeið (‘The Sands of Vikar’).  But it was not to be, for a colossal rock giant, towering over the mountains and wielding an immense iron staff, blocked his way.  And the giant was not alone, for behind him were even more giants.

Left with only one option, the magician swam east along the south coast, determined to find a landing place for his king’s fleet.  But there were none.  He had no choice but to return to King Harold to tell of his failure.  And the invasion plans of the King of the Danes came to naught, thanks to the Guardian Spirits of Iceland.