Fairy Tale Tuesday No.108 – The Giant Who Had No Heart In His Body

In this Norse story, taken from Ruth Manning-Sanders’ collection A Book of Giants, a king with seven sons gets suddenly terribly anxious about their marital prospects and sends the elder six off in a grand procession to seek brides. They strike gold with unexpected ease when they encounter the six daughters of another king, who is equally delighted at settling the sisters so conveniently. So swept away with their good fortune are the princes that they forget their father’s instruction, to bring back a bride for their youngest brother Halvor, who remained at home to keep the king company.

The six couples are on their way back to the princes’ kingdom when they come to a high black hill, wherein resides a giant who has a literally petrifying glare. One glower from him and the whole procession are turned to stone. Is it wrong that my first reaction is to ship him with Medusa?

Anyway, time passes and the princes’ father grows ever more anxious. Halvor wants to go look for them and at last the king has no choice but to let him go. As the older princes took all the best horses, the only one left is elderly and Halvor travels at a very restrained pace, slow enough to notice a grounded raven on the road. “Oh, dear prince,” the bird calls out, “I’m starving! Pray give me some food, and in your greatest need I will come to your aid.” Halvor doubts this, but offers his bag of supplies and the raven eats the lot.

Some way down the road Halvor encounters a salmon struggling on the riverbank. “Lift me up and put me in the water,” she gasps, “and in your utmost need I’ll come to your aid.” The prince obliges.

It turns out the horse was much too old for the trip; it falls dead and the prince has to leave its body by the roadside as he continues on foot. In this way he meets a wolf so ravenous it is pitiful as opposed to terrifying. When it asks for food, the prince has to explain he gave away everything he had to a raven, but then he remembers his dead mount. It’s terribly sad for the poor horse, but lucky for the wolf, who eats his fill then bounds back to the prince with renewed energy to offer himself as alternative transport.

With startling speed, they reach the giant’s hill and the fossilised pageant. Set into the hill is a door, through which the wolf insists the prince enter. Once inside, Halvor passes many empty rooms before eventually reaching one in which a beautiful girl is sitting. She is a princess, kidnapped by the giant, and appalled at the sight of her visitor. “You may be brave,” she says, “and think you will kill the giant, but no one can kill him, for he has no heart in his body!” When Halvor refuses to leave without rescuing his brothers and her too, the princess douses him in perfume so the giant won’t catch his scent, has him slide under her bed and covers him up with robes for good measure.

Soon after the giant comes in and the princess dances and sings for him, putting him into an amenable temper. “You have already given me everything I want,” she says, laying it on thick. “But there is just one question I should like to ask you – if I dared. Where do you keep your heart?” He tells her it’s under the doorstep. Of course, when the prince and princess dig into the doorstep with a pickaxe, there’s nothing to be found, so the princess come up with a different plan. They tidy the scene to hide traces of their search and she piles flowers all around. When the giant comes back, she tells him the flowers are in honour of his heart’s hiding place.

“Ho, you silly little bit of summer sunshine,” the giant chuckles, pinching her cheek and being generally patronising. He admits his heart is not under the doorstep; it’s in the cupboard. As soon as he’s gone the next morning, the two plotters rummage through piles of stored lumber, only to prove the giant was lying again. “I could sit down and cry!” the princess sighs, but sit she does not, nor does she cry – she shows Halvor how to make flower garlands instead and enlists his help in festooning the cupboard. “How could I help but deck the place where your heart lies hidden?” she flutters at the giant that evening. He tells her it’s not really there but is very reluctant to share its actual location, because he may be a creep but his instincts are good. The princess is more than a match for him, though. Decked out in her most beautiful clothes, she dances and plays the harp and showers her captor in praise until he’s so drunk on flattery he swears her to secrecy and tells her the truth.

“Over yonder lies a lake,” he explains, “and in that lake lies an island; on the island stands a church, and in that church there is a well; in that well there swims a duck; in that duck there is an egg; and in that egg lies my heart.” If those directions sound vaguely familiar, they are. The giant in ‘The Sun Princess and the Prince’ tried a similar trick. Giants, it would appear, have removable hearts as a rule, and like to place their trust in ducks.

The princess does not have the break her word, because Halvor was listening. Travelling on wolfback, he reaches the ‘yonder’ lake with tremendous speed. The wolf swims across still carrying the prince, but when they arrive at the church they find it locked, with the key hung in a high tower. No problem – the prince cashes in his favour with the raven, who retrieves it. He then reaches into the well, but as he picks up the duck it drops the egg, and Halvor has to call on the salmon to retrieve it.

“Now give the egg a squeeze,” the wolf prods, and Halvor does. From far away they hear the giant screaming, begging for his life. It seems that by holding his heart Halvor can communicate across great distances, or maybe he just shouts really, really loudly – either way, he dictates his terms and before long the procession are restored to life. Now the wolf wants Halvor to break the egg in half. The prince thinks this is dishonourable, which is absolutely true, but the wolf points out the giant will just go around turning other people to stone if he lives, which is sadly also true. He snatches the egg from Halvor’s hand and bites it. The giant doesn’t just die, he bursts.

Returning to the black hill, Halvor greets his brothers and their brides, then goes inside the giant’s house to look for the princess. He leads her out proudly, announcing, “Here is my bride!” He has no horse to carry her home, but who needs a horse when your bestie is an obliging wolf? The king is overjoyed at the return of all his children, and holds a seven-way wedding at once. The wolf and raven both attend, and the salmon receives an invitation too, though it’s not practical for her to accept. Halvor’s not a bad friend himself.

This is what I describe as co-operative rescue – neither the prince nor princess are capable of achieving their plans alone, but work together to overcome their common enemy. I feel quite sorry for the giant, who might not have been able to help turning people into stone if he could do it with just a glare, but he also kidnapped a princess and she had to humiliate herself flattering him to get away, so…yeah, under the circumstances, my sympathy is limited.

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3 thoughts on “Fairy Tale Tuesday No.108 – The Giant Who Had No Heart In His Body

  1. Seems to me that the best way to survive in a fairytale is to pack way more food than you plan to eat and give it away to anyone and everyone who asks. Also, lot’s of things seem to be hidden in bird’s eggs. I’ve read several stories where keys, hearts, gold, all of it, locked away in a bird egg.

    • Other survival tips would include avoiding fruit and roses, and carrying a rope ladder at all times! You’re right about the eggs – in ‘The Artful Soldier and the Czar’s Three Daughters‘, there are metal eggs that spontaneously create castles when they are opened, and I seem to recall a fairy tale in which a wizard conceals himself within an egg as part of a trick. There’s also a superstition that you must break eggshells into little pieces or the witches will come and transform them into boats. So maybe another survival tip would be, make sure to pack eggs?

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