Once upon a time there was a man who had three sons: Per, Pål, and Espen Askeladd; but aught other than the three sons he had not, either, for he was so poor that owned not a pin on his body, and therefore he often said to them that they should go out into the world and see to earn their bread; at home with him there was nothing but starving to death, in any case.
A good distance from his cabin lay the king’s farm, and right outside the king’s windows had grown an oak that was so big that it blotted out the light on the king’s farm. The king had promised much, much money to the one who could fell the oak, but no one was good to do it, for as quickly as one cut a splinter from it, then two grew in its place. The king also wanted to dig a well that would hold water all the year, for all his neighbours had wells, but he had none, and this the king felt the shame of. To the one who could dig such a well that could hold water the whole year, the king had promised both money and more. But there was none who could do it, for the king’s farm lay high, high up on a hill, and before they had dug more than a few inches, then they reached the hard rock. But now that the king had it in his head to have these works done, he had it pronounced in all the churches, both far and wide, that the one who could cut down the great oak on the king’s farm and dig such a well as held water all the year, he would have the king’s daughter and half the kingdom.
There were enough of those who would try, you know, but for all their hewing and chopping, and for all their clearing and digging, nothing helped. The oak grew stouter and stouter with every chop, and the rock grew no softer, either.
After a while the three brothers wanted to set off to try their luck, too; and with this their father was well satisfied, for even if they did not win the king’s daughter and half the kingdom, then they might find a position in service somewhere with a good man, their father thought, and for more he could not wish; and when the brothers lit upon going to the king’s farm, their father said yes on the spot, and so Per, Pål, and Espen Askeladd set off.
When they had gone a distance, they came to a slope of spruces, and just above it lay a steep moor; and they heard someone chop-chopping up on the moor.
“I wonder what the chopping is, up on the moor,” said Espen Askeladd.
“You are always so wise in your wonderings, you are,” said Per, said Pål; “it certainly is something to wonder at, that a wood cutter is chopping up on the moor!”
“I will have fun going to see what it is, anyway,” said Espen Askeladd, and with that, off he went.
“Oh well, are you such a child, so it will do you good to learn to walk!” his brothers called after him; but he cared not about that, did Espen, he set off up the hill to whence he heard the chopping, and when he got there, he saw that it was an axe that stood chopping on a pine log.
“Good day,” said Espen Askeladd; “are you here, chopping?”
“Yes, I have been standing here chopping for many long times, waiting for you,” replied the axe.
“Yes, yes, here I am,” said Espen. Taking the axe, he knocked it off its shaft, and stuffed both into his knapsack.
When he came down again to his brothers, they began to laugh and make fun of him. “What strange thing did you see up on the moor?” they said.
“Oh, it was just an axe we heard,” said Espen.
When they had gone a distance more, they came below a crag. Above it they heard some hacking and digging.
“I wonder what it is that is hacking and digging on this crag, I do,” said Espen Askeladd.
“You are so wise to wonder!” said Per, said Pål again. “Have you never heard the birds hacking and digging in the trees before?”
“Yes, but I will have fun seeing what it is, anyway,” said Espen, and he did not care about all their laughing and making fun of him; he set off up the rocks, and when he came close by, he saw it was a hoe that stood hacking and digging.
“Good day,” said Espen Askeladd; “do you stand here, hacking and digging, all alone?”
“Yes, I do,” said the hoe, “now I have stood here, hacking and digging for many long times, waiting for you,” it said.
“Yes, yes, here I am,” replied Espen. He took the hoe, knocked it off its shaft, and hid it in his knapsack, and then he went down to his brothers again.
“It was certainly something terrible you saw there by the crag,” said Per, said Pål.
“Oh, it was nothing really; it was just a hoe we heard,” said Espen.
Then they went a good distance again, until they came to a brook; thirsty were they, all three, now after they had gone so far, and so they laid themselves down by the brook to take a drink.
“I wonder terribly where all this water comes from,” said Espen Askeladd.
“If you are not mad, then you will soon wonder yourself mad. Where does the brook come from? Have you never seen water running from a source in a field before?”
“Yes, but I want to see where it comes from, anyway,” said Espen; he went off upstream, and however much his brothers called for him and laughed at him, it did not help—he went on his way.
When he came far upstream, the brook grew smaller and smaller, and when he came even further, he saw a large walnut, and out from it the water poured.
“Good day!” said Espen again. “Do you lie here, pouring and running, all alone?”
“Yes, I do so,” said the walnut; “I have been lying here, pouring and running for many long times, waiting for you.”
“Yes, yes, here I am,” said Espen; he took a patch of moss, and pressed it into the hole, so that the water could not come out, and then he laid the walnut in his knapsack, and went off down to his brothers again.
“Now I suppose you have seen where the water comes from; it looked terribly strange, I imagine,” teased Per, teased Pål.
“Oh, it was just a hole it ran out of,” said Espen, and then the other two laughed and made fun of him again, but Espen Askeladd did not care about it; “I had fun looking for it, anyway,” he said.
When they had gone a distance more, they came to the king’s farm; but as everyone in the kingdom had heard that they could win the king’s daughter and half the kingdom if they could chop down the great oak, and dig a well for the king, there were so many who had tried their luck that the oak was twice the size and girth now than it was to begin with; for two splinters grew in place each time they cut one out with an axe, if you remember. The king had therefore set a punishment, that the one who tried and failed to cut down the oak should be set out on an island, and have both ears cut off.
But the two brothers did not let that scare them; they thought they would bring the oak down, and Per, who was eldest, would now try first. But things went with him as they had with all the others who had chopped the oak; for each splinter he cut, two grew out instead, and so the king’s folk took him, and cut off both ears, and set him out on the island. Now Pål would have his turn; but things went the same way with him: when he had chopped one–two–three chops, and they saw that the oak grew, the king’s folk took him too, and set him out on the island, and they cut his ears off even more snugly, for they thought he should have learned his lesson.
Then Espen Askeladd would have his turn.
“If you really want to look like a marked sheep, we can just as easily cut off your ears right now, to save you the trouble,” said the king. He was angry with him on account of his brothers.
“I would have fun trying first,” said Espen, and thus he was allowed to.
He took his axe out of his knapsack, and hafted it on its shaft again. “Chop by yourself!” said Espen to the axe, and it chopped so that the splinters flew, and so it was not long before the tree had to fall. When that was done, Espen took the hoe, and put it back on to its shaft. “Dig by yourself!” said Espen, and the hoe began to dig so that the earth and the stones flew, and so there was a well, as you can imagine. When he had it as deep as he wanted, Espen Askeladd took out his walnut and laid it in one corner of the bottom, and took out the moss. “Pour and run!” said Espen, and it began to run so that the water poured out of the hole, and in a little while, the well was completely full.
So Espen had chopped down the oak that had cast its shadow across the king’s windows, and made a well on the king’s farm, and so he won the king’s daughter and half the kingdom, as the king had said. But it was good that Per and Pål had lost their ears, else they would have heard—all the time, at every hour—what everyone said: that Espen Askeladd had not wondered himself so badly, yet.