This Icelandic fairy tale comes from Ruth Manning Sanders’ 1978 reprint of A Book of Ogres and Trolls. I have amassed a considerable collection of folklore and mythology over the years – enough to spill off my bookshelves, lurking in dark cupboards instead and hiding behind things – but this book must be one of my most treasured. Because every time I feel disheartened with the world of fairy tales, every time I’ve spent too long with Perrault and the Grimms and am beginning to see everything through a lense of 21st century cynicism, I think of this story and I feel better straight away.
Once upon a time, the king was happy. He had a queen he loved and a baby son called Sigurd. Then, when Sigurd was still very young, the queen died, leaving her husband broken-hearted and lost in mourning. Eventually his people become so concerned that they urge him to consider his duty and take another wife. In theory, the king understands, but when it comes to actually choosing a new wife, he can’t make himself do it. He takes to wandering the woods alone and it is there he sees an astonishingly beautiful woman, the first woman he’s met since the death of his queen who can penetrate his grief. In true fairy tale king fashion, he proposes on the spot. She turns him down. Her name, she tells him, is Ingeborg, and if he marries her he will regret it. She is a troll’s daughter.
The king doesn’t care. He pleads with her over and over again and eventually she agrees to be his wife and queen. The people of the kingdom are delighted with her and none more so than little Sigurd, who follows his stepmother about like a second shadow. When his father proposes a hunting trip, Sigurd flatly refuses to go, insisting he stay with Ingeborg. She, however, has problems of her own. Hiding the little prince underneath a sofa, she turns around to say hello to her sister, an enormous troll wife who has just waded up through the floor as if it’s no thicker than water. Her first question is the whereabouts of young Sigurd. Ingeborg lies without hesitation and distracts her sister with a magnificent meal. When the troll wife finally departs, Ingeborg calls Sigurd out from under the sofa and makes him promise not to tell anyone what he has seen.
The next day the king goes hunting again, and once again Sigurd refuses to go, despite his stepmother’s urging. So she hides him under the table and spreads out a second feast for her sister, who once again asks after the whereabouts of the young prince and once again goes away without finding out the truth. The whole room heaves with her footsteps as she sinks away through the floor, but Sigurd refuses to be frightened. Actually, Ingeborg is panicking enough for the two of them. On the third day of the king’s hunt she puts Sigurd on his pony herself and sees them right out of the courtyard, but she’s barely set foot inside the palace when guess who’s back? Persistence, it would seem, runs in the family. Ingeborg quickly hides him away in a cupboard and just in time, too, because the floor heaves, the door flies open, and there’s her sister come for a third and final visit. She is not in such a good temper this time. When Ingeborg insists that Sigurd is away hunting with the king, her sister shouts out that it is a lie – but Ingeborg distracts her with another extravagant meal and for a little while it seems she might just pull it off. Then, as the troll wife is leaving, she lashes out with the final word in a sisterly squabble. If Sigurd is close enough to hear her, she declares, there will be a curse upon him: he shall become a cockerel and not regain his own shape until he comes to her to claim it.
With that, she leaves, and Ingeborg flies to the cupboard to find a cockerel where her stepson used to be. His shape might have changed, but his personality certainly hasn’t – he tosses back his head defiantly and crows like he doesn’t care. He will need that stubborn will, because there is no way now to get his own shape back except by the troll wife’s hand. Ingeborg does her best. She gives Sigurd a ball to roll before him, that will lead him to her sister, and a ring to put her in a better temper when he gets there. That is all she can do to keep him safe.
When Sigurd does arrive, the troll wife’s first inclination is to cook him up for a stew, but some flourishing good manners and Ingeborg’s ring soften her up enough to delay the matter for seven troll days, which in human terms is seven years. So basically she brings him up while she’s deciding whether or not he’ll make a good dinner. In the end she decides against it, having taken a fancy to the boy, and instead gives him a magical wine that bolsters his strength so much he can beat her to the ground when they wrestle. That’s when the troll wife is finally so pleased with him she lets him go, with a special stone that can manipulate the weather as his parting gift. And then she pushes him off her cliff.
That’s all right, though – Sigurd is quite tough by now and not hurt at all. He lands beside a lake where a little girl is playing in a canoe. Her name, she tells him, is Princess Helga, and she has been forcibly adopted by a troll who makes her call him Father. Having concluded their introductions, she then teaches him how to row. Helga likes her new friend so much that at the end of the day, when she has to go home to Father Troll, she doesn’t want to let him go. Having a personal philosophy running eerily similar to that of Ingeborg’s sister, she turns Sigurd into a ball of wool so she can take him inside with her. It’s actually a sensible precaution. When Father Troll gets home, he smells strange human on her, but as he can’t eat wool he leaves her alone. The next day is the same; Sigurd is transformed back into a boy, the children spend the day playing, and when night comes Helga turns him back into wool. Father Troll, bad-tempered about the enticing smell, throws the wool outside, then storms off in the morning to a troll meeting in the mountains.
Sigurd spent the night dreaming of flying. Helga dreamed of a detailed escape plan involving a magic carpet hidden in the troll’s attic. They go with her dream. The magic carpet, rolled up in the dust and cobwebs for who knows how long, does not look especially promising, but when Sigurd commands it to take them to Helga’s home, it promptly soars up into the air and out the nearest window.
Which is wonderful and all, but they’ve forgotten about Father Troll. When he gets back from his meeting to find his not-actually-daughter missing, he heads straight after them in seven league boots. It doesn’t take long for him to start catching up. The children have no intention of giving in, however. Sigurd takes out the troll wife’s parting gift and conjures up the night, a darkness so deep that all they can see is the troll’s eyes blazing behind them. You see, unfortunately, trolls can see in the dark. He keeps gaining on them. But then Sigurd calls up a rain of hail that hammers Father Troll back to earth and leaves the children safe on their carpet, speeding away to Helga’s home. Her real parents are so overjoyed to see with their lost little girl that they sort of adopt Sigurd too, in the hope that he’ll stay and grow up and get married and the two kids will live happily ever after.
But then Sigurd wakes up one morning to find Ingeborg’s little dog outside his door, tears streaking down its face, and knows something terrible has befallen his stepmother. The only person he tells where he’s going is Helga, and she doesn’t have the chance to even answer before he’s gone, flying away on the magic carpet to his own home, where an enormous crowd is gathered around a stake – and the queen tied to it, about to be burned. Her husband is just standing there, unable even to look. Sigurd has no such uncertainty. He descends like an avenging angel, throwing the guards out of his way, jumping onto the pyre and shouting out his fury to the dumbstruck crowd.
Well, it has been seven years. With Sigurd’s unexplained disappearance came rumour, and from rumour, violence. Who else would wish the little boy harm but an evil stepmother? The king never really believed it, but was given no choice in the matter. The execution turns into a party, Ingeborg is rethroned and the battered little family are at last reunited.
I can’t even express how much I love this story. It subverts everything you think you know about fairy tales. The stepmother is a lovely woman who is wrongly accused, the monster (well, one of them) turns out to be a crazy aunt instead, and it’s the maiden in the tower who comes up with the escape plan – and as for Sigurd, what a wonderful hero! He’s stubborn, he’s resourceful, he’s happy for a princess he’s only just met to teach him how to row, and he’d really rather spend time with his stepmother than go off killing things with his father. Why do we not see more princes like this in folklore? Or maybe they do in Iceland.
I need to find out now.