Back when I reviewed ‘Farmer Weathersky’, I mentioned a story that featured transformation as an intentional growth experience, like a gap year from humanity. Readers of my vignettes may also remember I quite like this idea. I promised at the time to follow up on that reference, so here we are, with this Danish fairy tale from Ruth Manning Sanders’ A Book of Ogres and Trolls.
It begins when a boy in search of a job meets a troll in search of an employee. The boy doesn’t see this coincidence as especially fortuitous, but trolls are not the sort of people you say no to, and when the troll starts talking about bushels of gold the boy’s attitude takes a definite upswing. They go home to the troll’s mound, which is populated by a menagerie of caged creatures. The boy’s task is to feed them. It takes him all day to do it, and by the time they have all been tended he is so exhausted he flops down on a pile of straw to sleep.
The troll is pleased with his work. “You’ve done well, my lad,” he says, over breakfast the next morning. “My creatures won’t need feeding again for a while. So in the meantime I’ll allow you to play.” With a single word – and without the slightest warning – he turns the boy into a hare. As you do.
Actually, the boy quite likes being a hare. He’s light footed and free and the forest is his for the exploring. Unfortunately, as a consequence of the troll catching and locking up every other creature in the woods, the sight of him brings on a frenzy of hopeful hunters. The boy-hare is forced to run for his life, learning how to trick dogs off his trail and dodge the bullets of his pursuers, but he’s resourceful enough to manage it, and reckless enough to enjoy it.
His ‘holiday’ comes to an end one day when he hears the troll calling and is whisked back to the mound to be restored to his proper shape with the same word said backwards. The troll presents him with his first bushel of gold and the boy, having stumbled into a life of adventure and fortune, is more than happy to stay on. He feeds the animals for a second time, and this time is rewarded with a word that turns him into a raven. Wings! Flight! A wide open sky! The boy-bird is ecstatic. Of course he’s no sooner spotted than the hunters return in full force with their guns, but none ever manage to injure him.
In time the troll’s voice summons him back to the mound and the raven is returned to the shape of a boy. Two bushels of gold are handed over and another year of service agreed upon, though really all he does is feed the animals for a third time before the troll releases him into the forest as a fish.
Being a fish is pretty excellent. For one thing, the hunters don’t realise he is there, so he doesn’t have to worry so much about just staying alive. For another, EXPLORING. He follows the forest stream until it meets with the sea, and keeps swimming until he comes upon the strangest thing – a palace all made of glass on the ocean floor, so clear that he can see right inside to where a beautiful girl is wandering in quiet misery. The boy-fish is troubled by her sadness. He swims around the palace in increasing frustration, wondering how to speak to her, then remembers the troll’s word. Having heard it once, he tries saying it backwards, as the troll does, and takes his own shape. At the bottom of the sea, mind you, but he quickly lets himself into the palace, where there is air. And of course the girl.
Her astonishment at the sight of him quickly turns to delight. He’s company, and what’s more, a sympathetic ear to her problems. “It was the troll who put me here,” she explains. “He calls me his little daughter. But I am not his daughter. I am not! I am the daughter of a king, and the troll stole me away, and brought me here so that none should find me. But you have found me, dear, dearest lad, and now I am not lonely any more!” The boy is more than happy to agree with this sentiment. For a whole year they live together in the underwater palace, and when his time as a fish is nearly up, he doesn’t want to leave her.
“Ah, but you must,” the princess tells him. “And I have thought of a plan by which you may rescue me, if you will do exactly as I tell you.” She lays out her plan in detail and has barely finished speaking when the sound of the troll’s call reaches them. Even after agreeing to do as she says, the boy resists changing shape; the furious princess slaps him for threatening to screw up her shot at escape and at last he turns back into a fish.
The troll is, as usual, waiting by the mound. He pays the boy with three bushels of gold and offers another year of employment, but the boy has other plans. He tells the troll he wants to see something more of the world. What he doesn’t say is that there’s a very specific part of the world he has in mind, i.e. the kingdom of the princess’s father. Once he gets there, he takes up service as a groom, literally currying favour by looking after the king’s favourite stallion.
The king has it pretty rough. Not only has his daughter been kidnapped, he owes the troll six bushels of gold and though the time for payment is fast approaching, he hasn’t got the money. So he is in a decidedly receptive mood when his new groom reveals himself to have All the Answers, even if the boy’s plan – or more correctly the princess’s – is to dress up as a clown and do crazy stuff. The boy’s cause is probably assisted by the fact he can lend all the required gold.
So they travel to the troll’s mound together, where they find an enormous brand spanking new palace. The boy promptly starts smashing windows. The troll is outraged; the old debt has no sooner been paid than a new one of equal weight is incurred, and unless it can either be paid on the spot (impossible) or the king and his bizarre friend can answer the troll’s three questions, they will lose their heads.
This is all going perfectly to plan. The first question, “Where is my daughter?”, is easily answered, as is the second: “Would you know her if you saw her?” Or so the boy thinks. The troll summons out a procession of identical girls from inside the palace, all dressed exactly alike, and demands for the boy to choose the real princess from the line-up. Of course, he doesn’t have a clue, but this is an eventuality the princess can handle. As he passes her, she smooths back her hair. The boy pounces. “This is the princess!” he declares, correctly.
The troll is not pleased. As his final question, he asks, “Where do I keep my heart?” “In a mouse,” the boy replies, but of course it isn’t as simple as that. With a whistle the troll summons millions of mice from which the boy must choose. Again, he couldn’t possibly guess on his own; it is the princess who spots it and nudges him.
He seizes a little grey mouse from the throng and squeezes it violently. The troll screams. This is a rather disturbing means of gaining control, but I forgive the boy for that because his first demand is for the troll to release all the animals back into the forest (where they can eat more than ONCE A YEAR.) He then reveals himself to be the troll’s former employee. The troll rightly points out that he never did the boy any harm; the boy retorts, also not unreasonably, that he wants a horse for the princess before he even thinks about letting that heart go.
When they are very, very far away from the troll’s mound, at the edge of the king’s lands, the boy dismounts and releases the mouse, allowing his hold over the troll to vanish into the world. After all, a bargain is a bargain.
Which leads me to several important conclusions. Firstly, if I had my way, transformational gap years would be mandatory. It would, I think, have an excellent influence on human empathy. Secondly, this is an excellent example of co-operative rescue, an aspect of fairy tales that deserves better recognition. The knight in shining armour wouldn’t get very far without the imprisoned girl feeding him instructions. Just because you can’t get out on your own does not make you helpless.
Thirdly, this kingdom really needs an official adoption agency. The troll seems to mean well, but he has the same parenting philosophy as Rumplestiltskin and I can’t help feeling most of this mess could have been avoided if someone had given him a few key tips – like that coercion and abduction are not appropriate ways of obtaining a child. Actually, given his obvious talents with the whole transformation thing and that affinity with glass, they could have trained him up as a fairy godmother. I’d want him on my side.