Sunday, November 08, 2009

The Princess on the Glass Hill

Having read some novelistic fairy tales lately (Tam Lin by Pamela Dean and Snow White and Red Rose by Patricia Wrede), I've been rereading some of my own favorites. One I come back to again and again is the strange tale, The Princess on the Glass Hill. In my old Blue Fairy Book, it's attributed to the Norwegians. The imagery of the glass hill always fascinated me. The story seems to be divided, in very Greek or Latinate fashion, into elements of three. But it is the story of the princess, a lone figure, that especially interests me: she is not a member of a trio.

There is a threat to the three brothers: a monster devours their father's meadow of grass year after year on St. John’s Eve, the festival of John the Baptist's birth, distinguished by prayers for God's blessing on the crops. The farmer has little hay and cannot afford to lose more grass. So the oldest son goes to guard the meadow on St. John’s Eve. In the middle of the night, however, the terror of an earthquake, apparently caused by a monster, scares the oldest son away.

The next year the same thing happens. The second son goes to guard the field. He also runs away in terror of the earthquake.

Then we learn the story of the greatly underestimated third son. Everyone laughs at Cinderlad when he says he'll watch (he is not a stepchild like Cinderella, we learn few details about him, and we do not know what his name means).

“Well, you are just the right one to watch the hay, you who have never learned anything but how to sit among the ashes and bake yourself!” (Lang’s The Blue Fairy Book). Cinderlad comfortably retires to the barn. He is fearless, but in the middle of the night he is aroused by the rumbling of the first earthquake. Then there's a second earthquake. Then a third very violent one. When the earthquakes stopped, he hears what sounds like a horse eating grass. And indeed it is. He goes outside and sees a giant horse: “...a saddle and bridle lay upon it, and a complete set of armour fit for a knight, and eerything was of copper...” He rides the horse away to a place no one knows and then rides homes again. And they have hay for the year.
The next year, he guards the field of grass again. A horse bearing silver armour appears. And they have hay. And the next year, ibid: a horse bearing golden armor appears.

Then the third and most interesting part of the story: A king, for whatever reason, commands his docile daughter to sit on a glass hill (and where does the glass hill come from?). Suitors must ride up the glass hill and take the three golden apples she holds.

Day 1: only Cinderlad (disgused in his copper armor) rides 1/3 of the way up the hill. The princess throws a golden apple which rolls into his shoe (how? Is it extremely small?).

Day 2: Cinderlad (disguised in his silver armor) rides two-thirds of the way up the glass hill. Another golden apple is thrown at him.

Day 3: he wears his gold armor and wins the princess.

Poor princess. We know little about her. How did it feel to sit on the glass hill? Foolish? She throws the golden apples, so isn't shy, but how can she know that the man in the most expensive armor is for her? (Suddenly I don't like her.)

Motifs: The youngest son takes the trick (succeeds). Tthis is definitely a folk tale motif. It occurs in The Frog Princess, Hop o’ My Thumb, The Golden Bird, The Singing Bone, The Grateful Beasts, The Crystal Ball, Prince Ivan and the Grey Wolf, and many other fairy tales. What does it mean? A tale of the weak (the last) overcoming strength (the first)? Encouraging people with low expectations? Appearance and position don't mean success?

Then there are the golden apples, particularly common in myth. Atalanta loses the race when Hippomenes distracts her with three golden apples. Hercules must steal golden apples from Hera’s orchard. In The Judgment of Paris, Eris (Discord), throws a golden apple at the wedding of Peleus and Thesis, inscribed with “for the most beautiful.” Paris must decide between Juno, Venus, and Diana.

Golden apples are irresistible, but not to Cinderlad, who waits till the third day to claim his prize.

And then on the glass mountain. Why on earth are they connected with marriage here?

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