Monday, 16 April 2018

The Twelve Wild Ducks

There was once upon a time a queen who went out driving; it was in the winter, and fresh snow had just fallen. When she had come a distance on her way, her nose began to bleed, and she had to leave the sleigh. While she stood up against the fence, looking at the red blood and the white snow, she began to think that she had twelve sons and no daughter, and so she said to herself: “Had I a daughter as white as snow and as red as blood, then my sons may as well not matter.” This was barely said before a witch came to her.

“A daughter you shall have,” she said, “and she shall be as white as snow and as red as blood, and then your sons shall be mine; but you may have them with you until the child is Christened.”

When the time came, the queen had a daughter, and she was as white as snow and as red as blood, as the witch had promised, and so they called her Snow-White and Rose-Red. There was great joy on the king’s farm, and the queen was happy beyond measure; but when she remembered what she had promised the witch, she had a silversmith make twelve silver spoons, one for each prince, and then she had him make one more, and that she gave to Snow-White and Rose-Red.

Just as the princess was Christened, the princes were transformed into twelve wild ducks and flew away, and they saw no more of them; they were gone, and remained gone. The princess grew up, and she became both big and beautiful, but she was often so strange and sorrowful, and no one could understand what was the matter with her.

But then there was an evening when the queen was sorrowful, too, for she had just as many strange thoughts, when she thought of her sons; then she said to Snow-White and Rose-Red: “Why are you so sorrowful, my child? If something ails you, then say so. If there is something you want, you shall have it.”

“Oh, I think it so lonely,” said Snow-White and Rose-Red; “everyone else has siblings, but I am so alone; I have none; it is this I grieve for.”

“You have also had siblings,” said the queen; “I have had twelve sons, who were your brothers, but I gave them all away, to have you,” she said, and then she told her how everything had happened.

When the princess heard it, she had no peace; no matter how the queen wept and carried on, it did not help; she wanted to go away and she thought everything was her fault; and at last, she also left the king’s farm. She walked and she walked, so far out into the wide world that you would not think that such a fine maiden would manage to walk so far.

Once she walked for a long time in a great big forest. Then there was a day she grew tired and sat on a tuffet, and there she slept. Then she dreamed that she walked farther into the forest, to a small log cabin, and there were her brothers. Straightway she woke up, and right before her she saw a worn path in the green moss, and that path went farther into the forest. She followed it, and after a longer than long time, she came to a small log cabin like the one she had dreamed of.

When she came into the cabin, there was no one in; but there stood twelve beds and twelve chairs and twelve spoons and twelve of everything there was. When she saw it, she grew as happy as she had never been for many years, for she soon understood that her brothers lived there, and that it was they who owned the beds and the chairs and the spoons. She lighted a fire, and swept and made the beds and cooked food and ordered and tidied as best she could; and when she had cooked and prepared for them all, then she ate—but her spoon she forgot on the table—and then she crept under the bed of the youngest brother and slept there.

She had hardly lain down before she heard a rushing and whistling in the air, and then came all twelve wild ducks in; but as they crossed the threshold, they became princes.

“Oh, so good and warm it is here!” they said. “God bless the one who has made the fire and cooked such good food for us!” And then each took his silver spoon and would eat.

But when each had taken his, there was one left behind, and it was so like the others that they could not tell the difference. Then they looked at one another and wondered: “It is our sister’s spoon,” they said, “and if her spoon is here, then she cannot be far away, either.”

“If that is our sister’s spoon, and she is here, then she must be killed, for she has a share in the cause of the evil we suffer,” said the eldest of the princes, and she lay beneath the bed, listening to this.

“No,” said the youngest, “it would be shameful to kill her for it; it is not her fault that we suffer evil; should anyone be at fault, then it would have to be our own mother.”

They began to search for her, both high and low, and finally they all looked beneath their beds, and when they came to the bed of the youngest prince, they found her and pulled her forth.

The eldest prince would again that she should be killed, but she wept and pleaded so beautifully for herself: “Oh dear me, do not kill me,” she said, “I have walked for many years, looking for you, and if I could save you, then I would willingly give my life.”

“Well, if you will save us,” they said, “then you shall live; for if you will, then you will be able.”

“Yes, just tell me how it can happen, and I shall do it, whatever it is,” said the princess.

“You shall gather cottongrass,” said the princes, “and you shall card it and spin it and weave a weave from it, and when you have done that, you shall cut and sew twelve caps and twelve shirts and twelve kerchiefs from it, one for each of us; and while you do this, you shall neither speak nor laugh nor weep. If you can do this, we shall be saved.”

“But where shall I find cottongrass for so many kerchiefs and shirts and caps?” said Snow-White and Rose-Red.

“We shall certainly show you,” said the princes, and then they took her to a great big moor; there it was full of cottongrass, swaying in the wind, and gleaming in the sun, so that it shone like snow, from a great distance.

Never had the princess seen so much cottongrass before; and that very hour she began to pluck and gather, as best and as quickly as she could, and when she came home in the evening, she began to card it and spin yarn from the cottongrass. So it went both well and long; she gathered cottongrass and carded it; and in between it all, she tidied for the princes; she cooked and made their beds; in the evening they came rushing and whistling home as wild ducks, and at night they were princes, but in the morning, they flew off again, and were wild ducks the whole day.

But then it happened once, when she was on the moor, gathering the cottongrass—and if I am not mistaken, then I think it was the last time she should go there—that the young king who ruled the kingdom was out hunting, and came riding to the moor and saw her. He stopped and wondered who the gorgeous maiden could be, who walked up on the moor, gathering cottongrass. And he asked her, too, and when he received no answer, he wondered even more. And he thought so well of her that he would take her with him home to the castle and marry her. So he said to his servants that they should take her and lift her on to his horse. Snow-White and Rose-Red, she wrung her hands and gestured to them and pointed at the sacks she had all her work in, and when the king understood that she would have them with her, he said to his servants that they should take and load up the sacks, too. When they had done so, the princess eventually began to make herself agreeable, for the king was both a kind man and a handsome man, and he was as happy and friendly towards her as if she were a toy.

But when they came home to the king’s farm, and the old queen, who was his stepmother, saw Snow-White and Rose-Red, she grew so angry and envious of her beauty that she said to the king: “Can you not understand that the one whom you have brought with you, and whom you will marry, is a witch; she neither speaks nor laughs nor weeps.”

The king paid no mind to what she said, but held a wedding and married Snow-White and Rose-Red, and they lived in great joy and glory; but she did not forget to sew the shirts, for all that.

Before a year had passed, Snow-White and Rose-Red had a little prince, and the old queen grew even angrier and more envious on his account. And when night came, she crept in to Snow-White and Rose-Red while she slept, took the child and threw it into the pit of serpents; then she cut the queen on her finger and smeared blood around her mouth, and then went to the king.

“Come and see now,” she said, “what manner of queen you have taken; now she has eaten up her own child!”

Then the king was so ill that he almost wept, and said: “Well, it must be true, since I can see it with my own eyes; but I do not suppose she will do it again. This time I will spare her.”

Before a year had passed, she had a son again, and it went the same way with him as with the first. The king’s stepmother grew even angrier and more envious, so she crept in to the queen during the night, while she slept, took the child and threw it into the pit of serpents, cut the queen on her finger and smeared blood around her mouth, and then she told the king that she had eaten up this child, too. Then the king grew as sorrowful as you never could believe, and then he said: “Yes, I suppose it must be true, since I can see it with my own eyes; but she will certainly not do so again, so I will spare her on this occasion, too.”

Before a year had passed, Snow-White and Rose-Red bore a daughter, and she too the old queen took and threw into the pit of serpents. Whilst the young queen slept, she cut her on her finger and smeared blood around her mouth, and then went to the king and said: “Now you may come and see if it is not true, what I say, that she is a witch, for now she has eaten up the third child, too.”

Then the king grew so sorrowful that there was no end to it, for now he could not spare her any longer, but had to command that she should be burned alive on a pyre. When the pyre stood afire, and she should be put on to it, she made gestures to them that they should put twelve boards around the pyre, and on them she laid the kerchiefs and the caps and the shirts for her brothers, but the shirt of her youngest brother lacked its left arm; she had not managed to have it finished. Hardly had they finished doing this, before they heard a rushing and whistling in the air, and then came flying twelve wild ducks over the forest, and each of them took his clothing in his bill, and went off with it.

“Do you see now?” said the bad queen to the king. “Now you can properly see that she is a witch; hurry now and burn her, before the wood burns up.”

“Oh,” said the king, “we have enough wood—we have the forest to take from; I will tarry a little yet, for I want to see what the end of this will be.”

Straightway came twelve princes riding, as handsome and well-grown as one would expect, but the youngest prince had a duck’s wing instead of his left arm.

“What is going on?” asked the princes.

“My queen shall burn, for she is a witch and has eaten up her children,” replied the king.

“She has not eaten up her children,” said the princes. “Speak now, sister; now you have saved us, save yourself!”

So Snow-White and Rose-Red spoke, and told how everything had happened, that every time she had been delivered, the old queen, the king’s stepmother, had crept in to her in the night, taken the child from her, and cut her finger and smeared the blood around her mouth. And the princes took the king and led him to the pit of serpents; there lay the three children, playing with serpents and toads, and more gorgeous children you could not imagine.

The king took them with him, and carried them to his stepmother, and asked her what manner of punishment she thought the one should receive, who had the heart to betray an innocent queen and three so blessed children.

“They ought to be tied between twelve unbroken horses, so that each has its portion,” said the old queen.

“You have passed judgement yourself; you shall suffer it, too,” said the king, and so the old queen was tied between twelve unbroken horses, and each took its portion of her. But Snow-White and Rose-Red took the king and his children and the twelve princes, and then they travelled home to her parents and told them what had happened to them, and now there was great rejoicing and joy across the whole kingdom, for the princess was saved, and had saved her twelve brothers, too.

 

Norwegian source: De tolv villender.

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