Sunday, April 11, 2021

Prince Hat under the ground

There was once (a long, long time ago) a king who had three daughters, and they were all so fair that none fairer might be found, either near or far. And yet the youngest princess was the first of them, not just for her beauty but still more for her goodness and warm-heartedness. And so she came to be beloved by all the people, and the king himself loved her more than his other daughters. 

Now it happened one autumn day that there was a market in a town not very far from the king's domain, and the king himself meant to go there with his retinue. When he was about to set off, he asked his daughters what each would like as a gift from the market. At once the two eldest princesses began to list precious articles of every kind. One princess would have this, the other princess would have that. But the youngest princess asked for nothing. The king wondered at this, and he asked, would she too not like some little knick-knack or finery? She said that she already had more than enough of gold and precious things. But in the end she replied to the king's eager queries:

"I do know of one thing that I would gladly have, if I only dared ask for it!"

"What can it be?" asked the king. "Just name it, and if it lies within my power then you shall have it!"

"Well," said the princess, "I have heard people speak of the three singing leaves, and I would rather have them than anything else in the world."

Now the king smiled, because he thought it a small request, and he said:

"Well, no-one can say that you're too demanding! To be honest I'd rather you asked me for a greater gift. But you shall have your wish, even if it costs me half my land and kingdom." 

And with that he took a hearty farewell of his daughters, jumped on his horse and rode off with his followers. 

Now when he got to the town where the market was being held, a crowd had gathered from all parts, and there were many foreign traders, who offered their goods for sale in the streets and squares. Thus there was no lack of gold, silver and other precious articles, all that one could wish for, and the king shopped liberally for his daughters. But though he went round all the booths and through all the booths, and asked shopmen both from the east lands and the west lands, there was no-one who knew anything about the three singing leaves that he had promised his youngest daughter. 

He was very sad about this, for he wished to give her the same joy as the others. But when there was no help for it and dusk was falling, he saddled his horse, gathered his men together and set off home in an ill humour.  

Just as he was travelling along the road deep in thought, he suddenly heard a sound as of harps and stringed instruments, and it was so marvellously beautiful, that he had never heard its like in his whole life. He wondered greatly at this, reined in his horse and sat to listen, and the longer he listened the lovelier grew the song. 

But the evening was dark, so he couldn't see where the sound came from. He hesitated no longer but rode in to a large green meadow, from where the music was coming, and the further he went in, the clearer and lovelier the song became. 

When he had ridden in a little way he came to a hazel bush, and on the crown of the bush there were three golden leaves that moved hither and thither, and as they moved there came forth a sound and a melody that none may describe.  

Now the king was very glad, for he realized that these were the three singing leaves that his daughter had spoken of. So he wished to break them off, but as soon as he stretched out his hand they bent away from him, and a loud voice came from under the bush: 

"Let my leaves alone!"

The king was much astonished at first, but he soon collected himself and asked who it was that spoke, and if he might not buy the leaves for gold or good words.

"I am Prince Hat under the ground," replied the voice, "and you cannot have my leaves, either for evil or for good, except on the condition that you promise me the first life you meet when you return to your domain."

The king thought it a strange request, but he remembered the promise he made to his daughter, so he agreed to the prince's terms. 

Now the leaf-shoots no longer bent away, and he was able to break them off. Then he started gladly for home and for his loved ones. But all the time he was riding along the leaves continued to sing, and the horses danced for joy, and the king's homecoming resembled a victory march more than a market trip. 

During the time the king had been away the princesses had been sitting all day and sewing at their frames and talking of nothing but the precious gifts their father was bringing them from the market. Towards evening the youngest princess asked if they wouldn't walk out along the road, where their father would be arriving?

"No," replied her sisters, "why would we do that? It's already late, and the night dew would damage our silk stockings."

But the youngest princess didn't mind about silk stockings, so she told them to stay as they were, for she could go alone and meet her father. She put on her coat and went forth along the road. But she hadn't walked very far, when she heard the tramping of horses and the din of men and weapons and, amid all this, the loveliest of songs. 

Then she was very glad, for she knew that it was her father approaching, and that he had the three singing leaves she'd asked him for. Now she ran towards him and swung herself up into his arms and bade him welcome. 

But when the king saw it was her he was completely terrified, for he thought about the promise he had sworn to Prince Hat, and how he had now sworn away his own child. He could neither speak nor reply for a long while, though the princess begged and implored him to say the cause of his sorrow.

Finally he told her what had taken place, and that he had promised to give away the first life that met him in his domain. Now was a lamentation and sorrow like no other, and the king sorrowed most of all,  but the end of it was, that he turned back to the meadow and left his daughter at the hazel bush. And he thought now, that the loss he suffered could never be made good. 

Now the abandoned princess sat alone by the bush and wept bitterly. But she had not been sitting there long, before the ground suddenly opened, and she came down into a grand room under the ground, and the room was far more splendid than any she had seen, and decorated with gold and silver alike. But no-one appeared. 

The princess almost forgot her sorrow when she saw all this magnificence, and when at last she grew tired she laid herself down to rest in a bed whose cover and hangings were whiter than snow. 

But she had not lain there long before the door opened and there came in a man who walked right up to the bed and gave her a friendly and warm welcome. He it was who ruled over the room, for he was Prince Hat. He told her that a spell had been cast on him by a wicked troll-woman, which meant he could never show himself to any person. Therefore he could only visit her in the night, after it was dark. But if she would be loyal to him, it would all be good in the end. He stayed with her right through till sunrise. Then he went away, and didn't come again until late in the evening. 

Thus it went on for a long time afterwards. The princess sat in the lovely room every day, and if she felt sad, she only had to listen to the singing leaves to feel glad again. 

Before a year was past she had a little boy child, and now she felt that her life was good. All day she nursed and played with her little son and longed for her man. 

But one evening he came home later than usual. She asked him anxiously where he had been so long. 

"Well," he said, "I've come from your father's domain, and now I have something notable to tell you, for the king has found himself a new queen, and if you like, you can go home for the wedding and take our little boy with you." 

She wanted to go very much, and she thanked him sincerely. 

"But one thing you must promise me," he said, "that you never let yourself be tempted to betray your loyalty to me."

Yes, she promised him that. 

The next morning the princess got herself in order, with clothes and splendid jewels for attending the wedding. When everything was ready, there drove forth a gilded coach, and she sat herself in it with her little son. Then it bore off over mountains and dales, and she could scarcely speak a word before they arrived at their destination. 

Now when the princess stepped into the wedding hall where the guests were already assembled, you can understand what happiness there was. The king got up from his seat of honour and gathered her in his arms with great joy. Thus also did his consort and the two princesses, and everyone bade her a hearty welcome to her land again. 

Now when the first greetings were over, both the king and the queen began to ask the princess of this and that. But above all the queen wished to know about Prince Hat, who he was, and how her life with him was. But the princess replied little to this, and it was easy to see that she didn't want to talk about it. But now the queen became all the more curious. Finally the king became vexed and said:

"My dear love, what has it got to do with us? It's enough that my daughter is content and happy."

Then the queen was silent, but as soon as the king turned his back she carried on with her persistent questions. 

Now when the wedding had lasted many days, the princess started to yearn for home again. At once the coach drove forth again, and once she had said farewell to her relations she went on her way with her little son over mountains and dales, until she came to the green bush. Then she stepped out and so came down into the house under the ground. And the leaves played so beautifully, and she reckoned it was much better under the ground than in the king's domain. And she became still more glad in the evening,  when Prince Hat came home, and told her how his thoughts never left her, either by night or day. 

Some time thereafter the princess gave birth to another little son. Now she felt that she was yet more happy than before, and every day she played with her little ones. One evening the prince came home later than usual, and when the princess asked him anxiously why he'd been delayed so long, he replied:

"Well, I've come from your father's domain and can now tell you that your eldest sister's going to get married to a foreign prince, and if you like, you can go home for the wedding and take our children with you."

The princess wanted to go very much, and she thanked him sincerely. 

"But one thing you must promise me," he said, "that you never let yourself be tempted to betray your loyalty to me."

The princess promised him. 

The next morning she took her children with her and went to the king's domain. When she stepped into the wedding hall, where the guests were already gathered, there was much gladness. Everyone embraced her, and welcomed her, and they didn't cease to express their joy at seeing her again. 

Now the queen once more began to question her stepdaughter about her husband and how she got on at home, but the princess did not say much in response to her questions, and in the end the king had to ask her to leave the princess in peace, since she was content and happy, and the rest was no concern of others, he said.  

When the wedding was over, the princess yearned for home again. So she took her little ones and went from there. And she was so glad and happy, when she stood once more in the house under the ground, and she was still happier in the evening, when Prince Hat came home, and said how all his thoughts were of her. 

Some time afterwards the princess gave birth to a little daughter, the loveliest baby one could ever see. Now the princess considered her happiness so great that hardly anything was wanting. One evening, when the prince came home later than usual, he told her how he had been to her father's domain and that her other sister was now getting married to a foreign king's son. 

"If you want," he said, "you can go home and take the children with you."

The princess thanked her husband for always thinking of her happiness. Then the prince answered:

"But one thing you must promise me, not to betray your loyalty to me, for that would bring great unhappiness to both of us."

The princess promised.
The next day she travelled with her three little children to the king's domain, and when she came into the king's hall the guests were assembled and the wedding celebrations were already in full swing. There was great joy when she stepped in, and all bade her a hearty welcome. 

Once again her stepmother began questioning her about her husband, but when she saw that the princess was on her guard, she tried cunning to get at what she wanted to know. So she got on to the princess's three small children playing on the hall floor, said how nice they were, and how happy she must be to have such children. They must surely take after their father, she added, and Prince Hat must be a very handsome young man. 

Now one word led on to another, and the princess was enticed by this false speech into finally letting slip that she didn't know if the prince was handsome or ugly, for she had never seen him. 

The queen clapped her hands together in surprise, and loudly lamented over the prince and over him keeping any secret from his wife. 

"And," she said, "I must say you're very different from other women, since you haven't found out the truth of it."

Now the princess forgot all about her husband's warning and told everything she knew, and asked her stepmother for her advice, what she should do to see her husband. Then the queen promised to think of some means, before they went their separate ways.  

When the wedding was over and the princess was about to go home, her stepmother took her aside and said:

"I'm giving you this ring, and a fire-steel with a flint, and a candle. If you want to see what your husband looks like, get up in the night, make a flame through the ring and light the candle. But be very careful not to wake him."

The princess thanked her stepmother greatly for the gift and promised to do as she advised. Then she went on her way. Now when she came home she felt ill at ease, no matter how the leaves played and how beautiful everything was.

Late in the evening the prince came home, and now there was great joy, and he told her how he had longed for her. When they lay down and the prince was asleep, the princess got up, struck a flame through the ring and slowly drew near to the bed to see her beloved. And how glad she became, when she saw how handsome he was! She looked and looked, and forgot about everything else while she gazed at him.

But just as she leant over him, it chanced that a drop of hot wax ran from the candle and fell on his breast, so that he stirred. Now the princess became frightened and immediately tried to blow out the candle -- but it was too late, for the prince awoke, sprang up in terror and saw what she had done.

In the same moment the three singing leaves fell silent, the beautiful room was transformed into a den of snakes and toads, and the prince and princess remained alone with their small children in the darkness of the night. And Prince Hat was -- blind. 

Now the princess bitterly regretted what she had done, and she fell down on her knees and begged him, weeping, to forgive her. Then the prince answered:

"Poorly have you repaid all the love that I cherished for you. I forgive you in any case, and now you must yourself decide if you will follow your blind husband, or return again to your father."

At these words the princess became still more distressed, and wept so that her tears trickled down upon the earth. 

"You have not forgiven me in your heart," she said, "when you can ask if I will go with you, because as long as I live in this world I will follow you."

With that she took him by the hand, and they went away from the place that had been their home. Now the princess wandered with her three children and her blind husband, and tried to find a way through the confusing wood. 

When they had wandered a long time, they finally came upon a green path that went onward through the wilderness. Then the prince asked:

"My heart's desire, do you see anything?"

"No," answered the princess, "I see nothing, only woodland and green trees."

They went on a while. Then the prince asked again, if she saw anything.

"No," she answered as before. "Only the green wood."

After a while the prince asked for the third time, if she still did not see anything. 

"Why, yes," she answered, "I think I see a large house, and its roof gleams as if it were made of copper."

"Then we have arrived at my elder sister's farm," he said. "Now you must go in, greet her from me, and beg her to take our eldest son and foster him until he comes of age. But I myself must not come under her roof, and nor must you let her walk out to see me, for then we would be parted for ever."

The princess went into the farm and carried out her errand, though it stabbed her heart when she had to leave her little son behind. Then she parted from her sister-in-law. And though the prince's sister was eager to meet her brother, the princess didn't dare go against his word, so she had to say no. 

Now the prince and princess continued their journey across wood and waste, until they found a green path leading through the wilds. Then the prince asked, as before, whether she saw anything, and twice she had to reply that she saw nothing other than forest and green trees. But the third time she answered:

"Why yes, I think I see a large house, and its roof gleams, as if it were made of silver."

"Then we have arrived at my second sister's farm," he said. "Go in now and greet her from me, and ask her to take charge of our second son and to foster him until he has grown to manhood. But I myself may not come under her roof, and neither must you let her come here and meet me, for then we would be parted for ever."

The princess did as he said, and left her child, though it stabbed her heart to do it. And however much her sister-in-law begged to come out to her brother, the princess dared not let her. 

Now they continued on their way, until they came once more to a little green path that went through the wood. The prince asked now, as before, whether she saw anything, but it was only when he asked for the third time that she replied:

"Why yes, I seem to see a grand house, and its roof shines like pure gold."

"Then we have come to my youngest sister's farm," said the prince. "Now you must go in, greet her from me and ask her to receive our little daughter and to foster her. But I myself may not come under her roof, nor must she come out to me, for then we should be parted for ever."

Now the princess did as he said, and was given a friendly welcome by her sister-in-law. But when the time came to leave her last child, it seemed to her that her heart would burst with sorrow, and she forgot the prince's prohibition and everything else in her utter wretchedness. Her sister-in-law followed her now, without the princess recalling that she was supposed to prevent it. 

When they came out to the prince, his sister fell into his arms and wept bitterly. But when the prince understood that the princess had again broken her promise to him, he turned pale as a corpse and burst out:

"My heart's desire! This you should not have done."

In the same moment a cloud dropped down from the sky, and the prince disappeared into the air, just as when a bird flies away.

Now the princess and her sister-in-law were beside themselves with despair. The princess wrung her hands and would not let herself be comforted, for she had now lost all she held dear in this world. And the prince's sister grieved almost as much.

They soon began to confer about how they might find him again, for the princess intended to search the whole world for him.

"I can't give you any advice," said his sister, "unless it is to walk to that great mountain you can see behind the woods. Up there lives an old troll-crone whose name is Berta. She is wise in many things, and perhaps can tell you something."

Now the princess parted from her sister-in-law and started on her lone journey. 

When it got late and she could walk no further, she saw a little light twinkling on the fellside. Then she quite forgot her tiredness and made her way forward over stocks and stones, until she found a cave high on the mountain, and the cave's door stood open. Within she could see how a whole heap of small trolls, both men and women, were gathered round the fire, and at the very front sat an old, old woman tinkering with some small thing. She was frightful to behold, low of stature and very aged. The princess realized that she was the old Berta the prince's sister had spoken of. She hesitated no longer, but stepped into the cave and meekly greeted her:

"Good evening, dear mother!"

Then all the small trolls leapt up, for they were very astonished to see a Christian. But the old woman looked up in a friendly way and answered:

"Good evening to you! And who may you be who comes bringing such a fair greeting? I have been sitting here for a full five hundred years, but you are the first to do me the honour of calling me 'dear mother'."

Now the princess explained her business, and asked the old woman if she knew anything about a prince called "Prince Hat under the ground"? 

"No," answered the troll-crone, "That I don't know. But as you have honoured me by calling me 'dear mother', I will help you nonetheless, for you must know that I have a sister who is twice as old as me, and maybe she knows something." 

The princess gave her many thanks for her friendliness, and now she stayed in the mountain over night. 

The following morning at sunrise, the princess did not delay in setting forth once more, and one of mother Berta's pixies went with her to show her the way.

When she took her leave of the old woman, the latter said:

"Good luck on your journey, and I wish you all good things. And because you did me the honour of calling me 'dear mother', I pray that you will take this spinning-wheel as a remembrance. So long as you have it you will suffer no want, because it spins as much yarn on its own as nine others."

The princess thanked her sincerely for the gift, and well she might, for it was made of solid gold. So she parted from the old woman and journeyed all that day. 

Late in the evening they came again to a high fell, and towards the top there glimmered a light like a little star. 

Then the pixie said:

"Now I have shown you the way, as I promised, for here lives grandma's sister. And now it's time for me to go home again." And with that he sprinted off. 

But the princess made her way forward over stocks and stones, until she got up on the fell and found a cave whose door stood open, so that the light of the fire shone red through the darkness. 

Without hesitating she went into the mountain dwelling and saw that a great crowd of trolls, both men and women, were gathered round the fire. But at the very front sat an old, old woman, who seemed to rule over them all. She was low in stature, ugly to look at and so old that her head rocked back and forth. 

She went straight up to the old woman, who she could see was mother Berta's sister, and greeted her politely:

"Good evening, dear mother!"

The trolls sprang up, shocked at seeing a Christian, but the old crone looked at her in a friendly way and answered:

"Good evening to you! Who may you be, who comes with so fair a greeting? I have been sitting here for fully a thousand years, yet no-one before you has ever done me the honour of calling me 'dear mother'."

Now the princess told her business, but the old woman could give her no information. But because she had called her 'dear mother' she wished to help her, and would therefore direct her to a sister of hers, who was twice as old as she was. 

The princess thanked her for her friendliness and so stayed the night in the mountain.

The next day, when the princess was to go on her way, the old woman wished her luck on her journey and, in gratitude for calling her 'dear mother', gave her a yarn-winder of purest gold as a friendship gift. 

"And," said the old woman, "as long as you have this yarn-winder you need suffer no scarcity, for on its own it will skein up all the yarn that you spin on your spinning-wheel."


The first half of Prins Hatt under jorden, a folktale collected in Småland (or possibly Blekinge) and first published in Svenska folksagor och äfventyr (1844-1849) by Gunnar Olof Hyltén-Cavallius and the expatriate George Stephens (he was born in Liverpool but lived most of his life in Sweden). 

We'll see how far I get with translating it. Maybe I'll end up doing the whole lot, like I did recently with Selma Lagerlöf's The Servant-Spirit . But it's quite an epic folktale, so I'm not promising. 

The opening couple of paragraphs made me think for a moment of the folklore bedrock that underlies King Lear

The closely related Norwegian tale East of the Sun and West of the Moon (Østenfor sol og vestenfor måne) appeared in Asbjørnsen and Moe's Norske Folkeeventyr (1843-44); this is the better-known version in the English-speaking world. It was one of the tales in Andrew Lang's The Blue Fairy Book (1889). 


I found the most difficult translation decision concerned the king's home, "kungsgård". Gård on its own means a farm, though it can be a grand one, e.g. herregård -- literally gentleman's farm: a country house or country estate.  All the same, it doesn't suggest a palace or a castle. At the moment I'm using "the king's domain" but I'm not really content with it, it sounds too much like an area of land and not enough like a home. 


I'm giving you this ring, and a fire-steel with a flint, and a candle. If you want to see what your husband looks like, get up in the night, make a flame through the ring and light the candle.

This seems a bit garbled. A fire-steel (eldstål) is itself somewhat ring-shaped. This is so you can grip it with one hand and whack it down hard on the flint, held in the other hand right next to the tinder.


Various forms of eldstål

Use of the eldstål, demonstrated by a Dalarna woman in 1916

[Both images are from the Swedish Wikipedia entry on "Eldstål".]


made her way forward over stocks and stones

So far I haven't managed to talk myself out of directly transferring the expression "över stockar och stenar". I know "stocks and stones" is not a very well-established phrase in modern English, though some may remember Milton's sonnet "On the late Massacre in Piemont" -- 

When all our fathers worshipp'd stocks and stones

(see Aaron Taylor's interesting blog post on the topic). Anyway, stock (in both Swedish and English) means a tree-stump or large log. Hopefully readers will get the general feel of difficult terrain.


one of mother Berta's pixies

The word is pysslingarI think it means the same as the "small trolls" (småtrollen) previously seen round the fire. 

I'm using the word "pixies" rather loosely. (One suggestion connects the pixie of Cornwall and Devon with the Swedish dialect word pyske (=pyssling), but there is no consensus favouring this or any other theory.)



The word is härvel, which strictly speaking means a spinner's weasel, as shown in the image below. (There is a theory that this is the weasel in Pop goes the weasel.)  I'm not sure, but I think this kind of yarn-winder (with its mechanical "pop" when a skein is complete) was only invented in the 18th century. It's possible the folktale is talking about its simpler and much more ancient ancestor the niddy-noddy (härvträ). 

härvel (spinner's weasel), probably from the 19th century

A härvträ (niddy-noddy) from the 19th century

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