This Icelandic story comes from Fairy Tales from Around the World by Andrew Lang. It begins by introducing us to handsome Prince Sigurd, who is being sent out into the world to get married to his father’s pick of a princess. Unusually for a prince in a fairy tale, he is entirely amenable to the plan. He travels to the kingdom in question to make his proposal, and unusually for a wedding in a fairy tale, the whole business goes off without a hitch, at least from Sigurd’s perspective. The princess’s father consents to the match; she is completely silent. Sigurd is asked to stay and help govern his elderly father-in-law’s kingdom, and agrees to do so until his own father’s death, whereupon he’ll have to return to the kingdom of his birth and rule there instead.
Years pass and he continues to live the silver spoon life, with a happy marriage and an adorable baby son. When word comes that Sigurd’s father has died, he and his wife and their toddler all set off to claim Sigurd’s new throne and that is when their first problem occurs: they lose the wind and instead of reaching Sigurd’s kingdom within a day, as expected, their ship is stuck on calm seas. Sigurd retires to sleep. The sailors sleep too. The queen remains alone on deck, playing with her little boy.
She notices a shape approaching the ship. As it grows closer, she sees it is a boat made of stone, rowed by a very ugly witch. Who’s willing to lay odds that physical appearance will be an indicator of moral virtue in this story?
The queen is frozen in terror with her son in her arms, watching as the witch climbs aboard. The witch pulls the child away and sets to undressing the queen, taking the clothes as her own and in so doing stealing the queen’s appearance. Then she places the queen in the boat. “This spell I lay upon you,” the witch says, “that you slacken not your course until you come to my brother in the underworld.” Always here for large witch families, not so into the intense creepiness of this entire situation. Having assumed the queen’s identity, the witch picks up the crying baby that comes part and parcel with the crown, but the queen’s son is not fooled by her. She is not his mother and he continues to cry.
Sigurd is fooled, though very surprised to be woken by an angry wife who scolds him for the carelessness of leaving her alone on deck. The woman he married does not talk like that; still, he accepts her point and wakes the sailors. A wind springs up and soon enough the ship is sailing into harbour. Sigurd is crowned king and everyone seems very pleased to see him, but he is not at ease at all. His son is distraught, only calming when taken from the false queen and given into the care of a lady of the court. Sigurd’s marriage is also on the rocks, and he cannot understand why.
A pair of young courtiers share a room close to the queen’s. They are sitting together playing chess one day when they hear her talking to herself. “When I yawn a little,” she says, “then I am a nice little maiden; when I yawn half-way, then I am half a troll; and when I yawn fully, then I am a troll altogether.” She proceeds to yawn widely and transforms into a literal troll, because this story is wearing its misogyny on its sleeve. The floor opens and a three-headed giant emerges, this being the witch’s brother. He offers the witch a huge trough of meat and she devours the lot. The shocked courtiers listen in as the giant retreats and the witch transforms back into a human woman.
They do literally nothing with this revelation.
Meanwhile, the little prince’s nurse is having her own unsettling encounters. One evening while she’s holding the little boy, the floor of the room opens up and a woman in white rises from it, wearing an iron belt with a long chain that vanishes into the dark behind her. She takes the child from the stunned nurse, holds him close, then hands him back and disappears underground again. The same thing happens the next night. The nurse is not alarmed by this mystery woman so much as by her melancholy; she fears that there is a danger looming over the little boy in her care. She decides to take the problem to Sigurd. He comes into the room that night and stands watch with his sword drawn, ready for action, only to realise as the woman emerges from the floor that she is in fact his wife. He hacks the chain apart and there is a terrible crash, as if an earthquake is shaking the palace apart.
As the shock of sound fades away, the queen tells her husband the full story of her capture. As instructed, the ship took her to the three-headed giant, who hoped to marry her. It would appear bigamy is okay in witch and/or giant culture? Or maybe kidnapping and identity theft counts as a divorce? Informed and enthusiastic consent is definitely not a thing for them – when the queen flatly refused to consider remarriage, the giant locked her up.
She came up with a strategy: in return for three nights visiting her son, she would marry the giant, who agreed to the terms but insisted upon actually physically chaining her to him first. By cutting the chain, Sigurd accidentally sent the giant falling down the stairs of his palace and the crashing was the sound of his death. That is called karma. As for the witch, well, Sigurd is not a very merciful king. He has her stoned to death and then torn apart. The nursemaid, on the other hand, is showered with all the rewards that grateful royalty can bestow: an advantageous marriage, all sorts of gifts, and lifelong friendship.
It should be pointed out that there is still a giant’s lair hidden underneath the palace. Hopefully someone gets a handle on that situation before another fairy tale villain moves in, because frankly that is the type of real estate situation that ends with princesses dancing underground and heads on spikes. No one say you weren’t warned.