Sunday, 18 February 2018

The Green Knight

There was once upon a time a king who was a widower, and he had an only daughter. But there is an old proverb that says the grief of a widower is like striking your elbow: it hurts, but it soon passes; and so he married a queen who had two daughters. And this queen, she was no better than stepmothers usually are: mean and troll-like was she always towards her stepdaughter.

After a long, long time, when they were grown up, these princesses, there was a war, and the king had to go out to fight for his country and kingdom. The three daughters were allowed to to tell the king what he should buy and bring home, if he won over the enemy. His stepdaughters had to tell him first what they wanted, you know. Well, the first asked for a golden spinning wheel, so big that it could stand on a silver eight-shilling piece, and the other, she asked for a golden spinner’s weasel, so big that it could stand on a silver eight shilling piece.1 That is what they wanted; and it was for neither winning nor spinning for either of them. But his own daughter, she had nothing to ask for, but that he should greet the Green Knight.

The king went to war, and however it went, he won, and however it happened, he bought what he had promised his stepdaughters; what his own daughter had asked for, he had simply forgotten. But then he held a banquet because he had won. There he saw the Green Knight, and so he remembered, and greeted him from his rightful daughter. The knight thanked him for the greeting, and gave him a book that looked like a hymn book with a buckled cover. This the king should take with him and give to her; but he must not open it up, and neither must she until she was alone. When the king was done with the war and with the banquet, he returned home again, and had hardly come in through the door before his stepdaughters pestered him for what he had promised to buy them. Yes, he had it. But his own daughter, she kept back, and asked for nothing, and the king did not remember, either, before one day, when he would go out, he put on the tunic he had worn at the banquet, and as soon as he reached into his pocket for a kerchief, he felt the book. So he gave it to her, and said he should greet her from the Green Knight, and that she must not open it before she was alone.

In the evening, when she was by herself in her chamber, she opened up the book, and straightway she heard a beautiful melody such as she had never heard before, and then came the Green Knight. He said that the book was such that when she opened it up, he would come to her, no matter where she was, and when she closed it again, he would straightway be gone.

Yes, she often opened up the book in the evening. When she was alone, and at peace, the knight always came quietly to her. But her stepmother had her nose in everything; she understood that there was someone in with her, and she was not slow in telling the king. He did not want to believe it; they should first look to see if it was so before they came in to take her for it. One evening they stood outside, listening, and they thought they clearly heard talk from within. When they came in, there was no one.

“Who was it you spoke with?” her stepmother asked, both hard and sharp.

“It was no one,” said the king’s daughter.

“Yes, I heard it clearly,” she said.

“I was just lying, reading a prayer book.”

“Show me it,” said the queen.

Well, it was nothing other than a prayer book, and she must certainly have leave to read that, said the king. But her stepmother believed the same as before, and so she drilled a hole in the wall, and lurked there.

One evening she heard the knight was there, she tore the door open, and flew like the wind in to her stepdaughter; but she was not slow in closing the book, either, and so he disappeared very quickly. But no matter how quick she had been, her stepmother caught a glimpse of him, so she was certain that someone had been there.

Then the king had to go on a long journey; in the meantime, the queen had a deep hole dug in the earth; there they built a house; and in the wall she laid rat poison and other strong poisons, so that there should not come in so much as a mouse. The bricklayer was well paid, and he promised to leave the country, but he did not—he stayed where he was, he did. Down there the king’s daughter was put, with her maid, and then they bricked up the entrance, with nothing but a small hole left, so they could send food down to her. Here she sat, mourning, and time passed slowly, and slower than slowly. Then she felt that she had the book with her, and she took it and opened it up. First she heard the same beautiful melody she had heard before, and then a pathetic, mournful song, and just like that the Green Knight came.

“I am almost dead, now,” he said, and told her how her stepmother had laid poisons in the wall, and he did not know if he could get out again with his life. When she had to close the book again, she heard the same mournful song again.

But the maid who was with her had a sweetheart, and she had a message sent that he should go to the bricklayer and ask him to make the hole so big that they could crawl up through it; the king’s daughter would pay him so well that he would have enough for the rest of his days. Yes, he did it. They got out, and travelled far, far away to a strange country, both she and her maid, and wherever they came, they asked after the Green Knight. After a long, long time, they came to a castle that was dressed in black, and as they should go in, there came a heavy shower of rain upon them; so the king’s daughter went in to the vestibule of the church, and she would stand there until the downpour had passed. As they stood so, a young man and an old man came in, to take shelter from the rain, too; but the princess went further into the corner, so they did not see her.

“What is the meaning of this, that the king’s farm is dressed in black?” said the younger.

“Do you not know?” said the old one. “The prince here is sick unto death, he they called the Green Knight.” And then he told how it had happened. When the younger one had heard how he had got it, he asked if there was no one who could make him well again.

“No, there is no more than one piece of advice,” he said, “and that is if the maiden who sat in the house beneath the ground comes and plucks healing herbs from the mark, boils them in sweet milk, and washes him thrice with it.” And then he recounted what manner of herbs that were necessary to make him well. This she heard, and she listened carefully, too. When the rain had passed, the pair left, and she wasted no time either.

When they came home to where they were staying, they had to go out and collect all kinds of herbs in the mark and the forest, both she and her maid, and they plucked and gathered both late and early of all those she had to boil. Then she bought herself a doctor’s hat and a doctor’s coat, went up to the king, and offered to make the prince well again.

No, that would do no good, said the king; there had been so many there trying, but he had steadily grown worse rather than better. She did not give in, but promised firmly that he would get better, and that both quickly and well. Well, she would be allowed to try, then; and she came in to the Green Knight to wash him for the first time. When she returned on the second day, he was so well that he could sit in bed; the next day he was fellow enough to walk across the floor of the chamber; and the third day, he was as healthy as a fish in water. He should go out hunting, said the doctor. Now the king was as fond of the doctor as the bird is of the light of day. But the doctor wanted to go home. So she discarded the coat and hat, made herself up, and made a meal, and then she opened the book. It was the same joyous melody as before, and immediately the Green Knight came. He wondered how she had come there. But when she told him how everything had happened, and when he had eaten and drunk, he took her straight up to the castle and told the king how things had happened, from first to last.

So there was a wedding, and wedding trumpeting, and when they were finished this, they travelled home. Then there was great joy for her father. But her stepmother they took and rolled in a nail-barrel.

  1. There has never been such coin as the eight shilling piece minted in Norway; the Spanish dollar (Real de a Ocho, the Piece of Eight (Peso de Ocho), familiar from pirate tales), which was worth eight reales, fits the description nicely, however. 

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