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Thursday, 10 March 2016

The King of Ekeberg

In my childhood, it became a habit for me and a few friends to walk to Ekeberg of a Sunday afternoon. The whole week long we looked forward to the afternoon that we would spend in the fresh air – to the fragrant hackberry branches we would pick, the pussy willow flutes we would twist, the sparkling rock crystals we would find, and the sweet strawberries we would gather.

When we grew older we left the pussy willow and hackberry in peace, but would still, once in a while, go out in the fields of Ekeberg Farm, and take up the cheerful hunt for the Apollo butterfly, with its beautiful wings, or tumble gladly with the butterfly net in the wild meadow around the ruined beacon trying to catch the noble swallowtail, which, with its skittish flight, more than once sorely tested our patience. However, what especially made these meadows so appealing to me was neither the fragrant hackberry nor the melancholy pussy willow flute, neither the purple-spotted Apollo nor the sulphur-yellow swallowtail, but the romantic mystery that from my earliest childhood memories called to me from these places: the desire to experience something fantastic, the thought of all the majesty and glory that is hidden in the raw rocks, and of the mysterious creatures that according the legends place in the depths of the mountains.

The legends of the King of Ekeberg, the subterraneans, and their mountain castle have grown ever quieter, but certain things of what I heard in my childhood live on in my remembrance. These I have tried to refresh in these lines.

* * *

Half a century ago, Ekeberg was not as cultivated and populous as it now is.1 It was overgrown with forest and thicket, and from the city one could see no human dwellings other than the old buildings of Ekeberg farm up on the plateau, against the gleaming sun in the morning sky or before driving clouds, and a small red cabin at the bottom of the hill, on the left-hand side of the road, where it turns up to the right towards Ekeberg farm. It was called “The Turn.” These days, one may see a finer building in this place, which is a summer dance salon and a hostelry for the “young gentlefolk” who enjoy walking, and who in the early summer evenings go out “to listen for the cuckoo.”2

Here in The Turn – in the small red cabin on the left-hand side of the road – lived, in the olden days I am speaking about, a poor woman, a basket seller who scarce made her living in the world. Once, when she’d been to fetch some water, a large fat toad sat in the path before her.

“Move out of my way, and I shall be your midwife when you are ready to deliver,” she joked with the toad, which straightway began to leave the path, as quickly as it could.

Some time later, when the basket woman had returned home from the town one autumn evening and sat spinning before the hearth, there came a strange man in to her.

“Listen, now,” he said. “My wife will soon be confined – she hasn’t long left. If you will help her when she is to deliver, as you have promised, you won’t regret it.”

“May God truly help me,” said the woman, “for I cannot do it – I don’t understand anything at all about it.”

“Oh yes, you shall do it, for you promised her you would,” said the man.

The woman could not remember at all that she had promised to be anyone’s midwife, and she told the man so, and the man replied:

“Yes, you surely have promised, for the toad that sat in the path before you when you went for water, that was my wife. If you will help her,” continued the man, whom she understood could be none other than the King of Ekeberg, “then you shall never regret it, for I shall recompense you well. But you must not fritter away the money I give you – you must not give it away, if anyone asks from you. And you must never speak of it, not even hint at it to another person.”

“No, cross my heart,” she said. “I can keep my silence. Just tell me when your wife goes into labour, and I will help, as well as I am able.”

Some more time passed, and the same man came in to the basket woman one night and bade her to go with him. She rose and dressed, and he led and she followed, and before she knew where they were or how it happened she was in the mountain, where the queen lay in labour in bed. It was a glorious chamber and the basket woman considered that she had never been anywhere so beautiful.

But when they were in place the man sat on a chair and folded his hands in his lap, and when a man sits like this a mother cannot be delivered. The basket woman knew this very well. Therefore, both she and the queen tried to give him many errands, and bade him first to fetch this, and then that. But he sat where he sat, and he didn’t move a whit. Finally, the midwife had an idea.

“She is delivered,” she said to the man.

Confounded, he released his grasp and asked how that had happened. In the same moment, the Christian woman laid her hand on the queen, and straightway she was delivered.

While the man was out fetching some warm bathwater for the child, the delivered woman said to the basket woman:

“My husband suffers you well enough, but when you go he’ll be sure to shoot after you anyway, for he cannot contradict his nature. That’s why you must hurry to jump behind the door as soon as you leave, so he won’t hit you.”

When the child was tended to, washed, and clothed, the queen sent her out to the kitchen to get a jar of liniment to sooth its eyes. But such a kitchen and such kitchenware had she never seen the like of! The finest platters and plates were set up in rows, and beneath the roof hung pans and pots and churns, all of pure silver, and polished so that they gleamed around the walls.

However, no one can imagine how confounded she was when she saw her very own maid standing there, grinding meal in a hand quern. She took some shears and clipped off a fold from her skirt without her knowledge, and hid it.

When she was done, and should leave, she remembered well what the delivered woman had said, and jumped behind the door. At that moment, the king shot a glowing besom after her, the fire trailing behind it.

“Did I hit you?” he cried.

“Oh no,” the woman answered.

“That is well,” he called.

The sun shone far into the room by the time the basket woman returned home, but the girl, who always complained of how exhausted she was and how she ached across the small of her back, lay groaning, dozing still. She wakened her and asked:

“Where were you last night?”

“Me, mother?” said the girl. “I have been nowhere, as far as I know, except here in bed.”

“Well then, I know better,” said the woman. “I clipped this fold from your skirt in the mountain last night. You see how it fits? This is how young people are these days. In days past, people recited their evening prayers, and sang a hymn before they went to bed, so that such enchantments should have no power. I shall teach you to hold our Lord before your eyes, for you must understand how you grew exhausted, and why it aches down your back, and how little use I have for you when you serve them during the night and me during the day.”

From the time the basket seller had been the queen’s midwife, she found a pile of silver coins before her door every morning, and her circumstances improved so that she was soon a well-to-do woman. But it happened one day that a very poor woman carried on and complained to her of her need.

“It’s nothing!” she said in her pride. “It can’t be that difficult for me to help you, ‘for whatsoever a man sows, that shall he also reap’, and I always help those who come to me.” But from that day, she found not even a shilling before her door, and the money she had received was as if blown away, and she again had to walk to the town in fair weather and foul with her basket on her arm.

The King of Ekeberg did not always run errands for his wife. Sometimes he ran his own, seducing the girls from the city, who on Sundays and holidays walked in the thickets and ravines, or went colectimg berries in the forest. Most often he appeared as an ugly, withered old man with red eyes, but when he wanted success he took Bernt Anker’s form, and showed himself as a handsome, aging man with a star on his breast.3 But this was only appearance; he was and remained the ugly old red-eyed troll. It showed in his matrimonial relations, for as far as we know his wife always bore the meanest, abominable troll spawn: incorrigible screamers with big heads, red eyes, and insatiable greed, of whom their parents sought to rid themselves as soon as possible – and to this end the subterraneans, the worthy royal couple’s obedient servants and minions, were sent out.

In fact, at that time the subterraneans had a wicked reputation for stealing good and beautiful human children in Grønland, Enerhaugen, and particularly from Gamlebyen, and laying such changelings in their place.4 This child swapping and child theft went on to such a degree that they could not even nurse them themselves, so they also kidnapped wet nurses for them, and often kept them forever.

A girl from Gamlebyen, whom they had taken in, was luckier, however. She had been beneath the mountain for a year, nurse for a beautiful human child that the subterraneans had stolen, but then she escaped. Whether it was because they had rung the church bells for her, or because she had placed her shoes backwards, or she spoke out of turn, or she found a sewing needle in her tunic, I don’t remember. It is enough that she escaped.

And afterwards she told far and wide of how stately and grand it was in Ekeberg, how kind the people there had been to her, how well they had spoken to her – to pursuade her to stay – and how sweet the child she had nursed was. Every morning, the subterraneans told her to anoint the child’s eyes with a liniment that she should fetch from a jar that hung in the kitchen, but they added that she should take care not to come near her own eyes with it. She could not understand why, for the child had the most beautiful eyes anyone could ever see, so once, when the wife was not in the kitchen, she took some liniment and rubbed a little on her right eye.

Half a year after she had returned from the subterraneans, she went to buy something from Bjerkenbusch’s store at the corner of Storgate and the square. And there stood the wife she had lived with as a wet nurse, standing at the counter, stealing rice from the drawer. And it appeared that no one noticed or saw her.

“Good day, mother. Imagine that I should meet you here,” said the girl in greeting. “How does the child fare?”

“Can you see me?” the woman asked, astonished.

“Yes, shouldn’t I be able to see you?” said the girl.

“Which eye can you see me with?” asked the subterranean woman.

“Wait a little – it’s my right eye,” replied the girl as she winked her eyes in turn.

With that the subterranean woman spat in her eye, and from that moment, the girl could not see her. Nor could she see anything else with it, for she went blind in her right eye.

Even though there is still no shortage of thick-headed youngsters both in Grønland and in Gamlebyen, the subterraneans of Ekeberg are no longer blamed. First, the enlightenment has reached so far that instead of whipping changelings for three Thursday evenings on the midden, or pinching their noses with glowing fire tongs, as the custom was in days of old, they now let Mother Torgersen, or another insightful woman, cast metal for the child suffering from rickets, enchantments, and devilry.5 Or they send one of the child’s nappies to Stine Bredvolden, who is so wise that she reads the child’s sickness and fate, and thereafter determines how it will fare. And secondly, both the King of Ekeberg and the subterraneans have moved; the ceaseless drumming and cannon fire of the military during the last war, the clattering of the great magazine and baggage carriages that thundered down the road, over the King of Ekeberg’s roof, shaking his house so the silverware rattled on the walls, caused him to despair of his life there.

A man met him one night in 1814, with a diverse load of personal belongings and a great herd of muley and branded cattle.6

“Goodness! Where are you off to so late in such a dangerous time as this – with so much to move, and with such a large herd?” said the man.

“I am moving to my brother at Kongsberg, for I cannot stand all this shooting and roaring,” replied the King of Ekeberg.

And since that day, he has neither been seen nor heard of.


  1. Ekeberg is a steep hill on the east side of Oslo, above the district of Gamlebyen. 

  2. To listen for the cuckoo: the so-called gauketur on Saturday evenings was a regular pastime for working-class people and petty craftsmen from the city. 

  3. Bernt Anker (1746–1805): a well-known merchant and farm owner. He eventually became known as the richest man in Norway. 

  4. Grønland and Enerhaugen: area on the eastern edge of Oslo, then outside the city. 

  5. Dropping molten metal into water and interpreting the form of the casts to diagnose illness was an established practice in folk medicine. Rickets, which we usually understand as juvenile vitamin D deficiency, has formerly been used to denote any number of diseases that cause weakness in children. The Norwegian word, “svekk,” which also has been used to denote rickets, has a similar history. 

  6. Muley cattle have no horns. 

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