Edited by D. L. Ashliman. Copyright 1996.
Once upon a time there was an old beggar woman, who had gone out to beg. She had a little boy with her, and when she had got her bag full, she struck across the hills towards her own home. When they had gone a bit up the hillside they came upon a little blue belt, which lay where two paths met, and the boy asked his mother's permission to pick it up.
"No," she said, "maybe there's witchcraft in it;" and so with threats she forced him to follow her.
But when they had gone a bit farther, the boy said he must turn aside a moment out of the road, and meanwhile his mother sat down on a tree stump. But the boy was a long time gone, for as soon as he got so far into the wood that the old woman could not see him, he ran off to where the belt lay, picked it up, tied it round his waist and lo! he felt so strong that he could lift the whole mountain.
When he got back, the old woman was very angry, and wanted to know what he had been doing so long. "You don't care how much time you waste, and yet you know the night is drawing on, and we must cross the mountain before it gets dark!" So on they tramped, but when they had got about halfway, the old woman grew tired, and said she must rest under a bush.
"Dear mother," said the boy, may I just go up to the top of this high crag while you rest, and try if I can't see some sign of folk hereabouts?"
Yes, he might do that. When he reached the top he saw a light shining from the north. So he ran down and told his mother.
"We must get on, mother; we are near a house, for I see a bright light shining quite close to us in the north." Then she got up, shouldered her bag, and set off to see. They hadn't gone far, before they came to a steep cliff, right across their path.
"Just as I thought!" said the old woman; "now we can't go a step farther; a pretty bed we shall have here!"
But the boy took the bag under one arm, and his mother under the other, and ran straight up the steep cliff with them."
"Now, don't you see! Don't you see that we are close to a house! Don't you see the bright light?"
The old woman said those were not Christians, but trolls, for she knew her way about that forest far and near, and knew there was not a living soul in it until you were well over the ridge and had come down on the other side. But they went on, and in a little while they came to a large house which was all painted red.
"What's the good of it?" asked the old woman. "We don't dare go inside, for trolls live here."
"Don't say that; we must go in. There must be men where the lights shine so," said the boy. So in he went, and his mother followed him, but he had barely opened the door before she fainted, for there she saw a great stout man at least twenty feet high, sitting on the bench.
"Good evening, grandfather!" said the boy.
"Well, I've sat here three hundred years," said the man on the bench, "and no one has ever come and called me grandfather before." Then the boy sat down by the man's side, and began to talk to him as if they had been old friends.
"But what's come over your mother?" said the man, after they had chatted a while. "I think she fainted; you had better look after her."
So the boy took hold of the old woman and dragged her up the hall along the floor. That brought her to herself, and she kicked and scratched, and flung herself about, and at last sat down on a heap of firewood in the corner; but she was so frightened that she scarcely dared to look one in the face.
After a while, the boy asked if they could spend the night there.
"Yes, to be sure," said the man.
So they went on talking again, but the boy soon got hungry, and wanted to know if they could get food as well as lodging.
"Of course," said the man, "you may have that too." And after he had sat a while longer, he rose up and threw six loads of dry pitch-pine on the fire. This made the old woman still more afraid.
"Oh! now he's going to roast us alive," she said, in the corner where she sat. And when the wood had burned down to glowing embers, the man got up and walked out of his house.
"Heaven bless and help us! You are so brave," said the old woman; "don't you see we have ended up with trolls?"
"Stuff and nonsense!" said the boy; "no harm if we have."
In a little while, the man came back with an ox so fat and big, the boy had never seen its like, and he gave it one blow with his fist under the ear, and it fell down dead on the floor. When that was done, he took it up by all four legs, and laid it on the glowing embers, and turned it and twisted it about until it was roasted brown outside. After that, he went to a cupboard and took out a great silver dish and laid the ox on it; and the dish was so big that none of the ox hung over on any side. This he put on the table, and then he went down into the cellar, and fetched a cask of wine, knocked out one end, and put the cask on the table, together with two knives, which were each six feet long.
When this was done, he asked them go and sit down to supper and eat. So they went, the boy first and the old woman after, but she began to whimper and wail, and to wonder how she should ever use such knives. But her son seized one and began to cut slices out of the thigh of the ox, which he placed before his mother. And when they had eaten a bit, he took up the cask with both hands, and lifted it down to the floor; then he told his mother to come and drink, but it was still so high she couldn't reach up to it; so he caught her up, and held her up to the edge of the cask while she drank. As for himself, he clambered up and hung down like a cat inside the cask while he drank. So when he had quenched his thirst, he picked up the cask and put it back on the table, and thanked the man for the good meal, and told his mother to come and thank him too. Afraid though she was, she dared do nothing else but thank the man.
Then the boy sat down again next to the man and began to gossip. After they had sat a while, the man said, "Well, I must just go and get a bit of supper too," and so he went to the table and ate up the whole ox--hoofs, and horns, and all--and drained the cask to the last drop, and then went back and sat on the bench.
"As for beds," he said, "I don't know what's to be done. I've only got one bed and a cradle; but we could get on pretty well if you would sleep in the cradle, and then your mother might lie in the bed yonder."
"Thank you kindly, that will do nicely," said the boy; and with that he pulled off his clothes and lay down in the cradle; but to tell you the truth, it was quite as big as a four-poster. As for the old woman, she had to follow the man, who showed her to bed, though she was out of her wits for fear.
"Well," thought the boy to himself, "it will never do to go to sleep yet. I'd best lie awake and listen how things go as the night wears on."
After a while the man began to talk to the old woman, and at last he said, "We two might live here quite happily together could we only be rid of this son of yours."
"But do you know how to take care of him? Is that what you're thinking of?" she asked.
"Nothing easier," he said; at any rate he would try. He would just say that he wished the old woman would stay and keep house for him a day or two. Then he would take the boy with him up the mountain to quarry cornerstones, and roll down a large rock on him. As they spoke, the boy lay still and listened.
The next day the troll--for it was a troll, as clear as day--asked if the old woman would stay and keep house for him a few days. Later that day he took a large iron crowbar and asked the boy if he had a mind to go with him up the mountain and quarry a few cornerstones. With all his heart, he said, and went with him; and so, after they had split a few stones, the troll wanted him to go down below and look for cracks in the rock. While he was doing this, the troll worked away, and wearied himself with his crowbar until he moved a whole crag out of its bed, which came rolling right down on the place where the boy was; but he held it up until he could get to one side, and then let it roll on.
"Oh!" said the boy to the troll, "now I see what you mean to do with me. You want to crush me to death; so just go down yourself and look for cracks and splits in the rock, and I'll stand up above."
The troll did not dare to do otherwise than the boy asked him, and the end of it was that the boy rolled down a large rock, which fell on the troll and broke one of his thighs.
"Well! you are in a sad plight," said the boy, as he strode down, lifted up the rock, and set the man free. After that he had to put him on his back and carry him home; so he ran with him as fast as a horse, and shook him, so that the troll screamed and screeched as if a knife had been run into him. When he got home, they had to put the troll to bed, and there he lay in a sad pickle.
The night wore on, and the troll began to talk to the old woman again, and to wonder however they could be rid of the boy.
"Well," said the old woman, "if you can't hit on a plan to get rid of him, I'm sure I can't."
"Let me see," said the troll; "I've got twelve lions in a garden. If they could only get hold of the boy they'd soon tear him to pieces."
So the old woman said it would be easy enough to get him there. She would pretend to be sick and say she felt so poorly, nothing would do her any good but lion's milk. All that the boy lay and listened to; and when he got up in the morning his mother said she was worse than she looked, and she thought she should never be well again unless she could get some lion's milk.
"Then I'm afraid you'll be sick a long time, mother," said the boy, "for I'm sure I don't know where any is to be got."
"Oh! if that be all," said the troll, "there's no lack of lion's milk, if we only had the man to fetch it," and then he went on to say how his brother had a garden with twelve lions in it, and how the boy might have the key if he had a mind to milk the lions. So the boy took the key and a milking pail and walked off. When he unlocked the gate and entered the garden, there stood all the twelve lions on their hind paws, raging and roaring at him. But the boy laid hold of the biggest, and led him about by the forepaws, and dashed him against sticks and stones, until there wasn't a bit of him left but the two paws. When the rest saw that, they were so afraid that they crept up and lay at his feet like so many curs. After that they followed him about wherever he went, and when he got home they laid down outside the house, with their forepaws on the door sill.
"Now, mother, you'll soon be well," said the boy, when he went in, "for here is the lion's milk."
He had just milked a drop in the pail.
But the troll, as he lay in bed, swore it was all a lie. He was sure the boy was not the man to milk lions.
When the boy heard that, he forced the troll to get out of bed, threw open the door, and all the lions rose up and seized the troll, and at last the boy had to make them leave their hold.
That night the troll began to talk to the old woman again. "I'm sure I can't tell how to put this boy out of the way. He is so awfully strong. Can't you think of some way?"
"No," said the old woman; "if you can't tell, I'm sure I can't."
"Well," said the troll, "I have two brothers in a castle; they are twelve times as strong as I am, and that's why I was turned out and had to put up with this farm. They hold that castle, and nearby there is an apple orchard, and whoever eats those apples sleeps for three days and three nights. If we could only get the boy to go for the fruit, he wouldn't be able to keep from tasting the apples, and as soon as he fell asleep my brothers would tear him to pieces."
The old woman said she would pretend to be sick, and say she could never be herself again unless she tasted those apples, for she had set her heart on them.
All this the boy lay and listened to.
When the morning came the old woman was so ill that she couldn't utter a word but groans and sighs. She was sure she should never be well again, unless she had some of the apples that grew in the orchard near the castle where the man's brothers lived; only she had no one to send for them.
The boy was ready to go that instant, and the eleven lions went with him. He came to the orchard, he climbed the apple tree and ate as many apples as he could. He was barely down again before he fell into a deep sleep; but the lions all lay around him in a ring. On the third day the troll's brothers came, but they did not come in human shape. They came snorting like man-eating steeds, and wondered who it was that dared to be there, and said they would tear him to pieces so small that there would be nothing left of him. But the lions rose up and tore the trolls into small pieces, so that the place looked as if a manure pile had been tossed about.
After they had finished the trolls, they lay down again. The boy did not wake up until late in the afternoon, and when he got on his knees, and rubbed the sleep out of his eyes, and saw the hoof marks, he wondered what had been going on. He walked towards the castle, and a girl who had seen all that had happened looked out of a window said, "You may thank your stars that you weren't in that tussle, or you surely would have lost your life."
"What! I lose my life! No fear of that, I think," said the boy.
She begged him to come in and talk with her, for she hadn't seen a Christian soul ever since she came there. But when she opened the door the lions wanted to go in too, and she got so frightened that she began to scream, and so the boy had them lie outside.
Then the two talked and talked, and the boy asked how it came that she, who was so lovely, could put up with those ugly trolls. She never wished it, she said; it was quite against her will. They had seized her by force, and she was the King of Arabia's daughter. So they talked on, and at last she asked him what he would do; whether she should go back home, and if he would take her as a wife. Of course he would marry her, and she shouldn't go home.
After that they went around the castle, and at last they came to a great hall, where the trolls' two great swords hung high up on the wall.
"I wonder if you are man enough to wield one of these," said the princess.
"Who? I?" said the boy. "It would be a pretty thing if I couldn't wield one of these."
With that he stacked two or three chairs on top of each other, jumped up, and touched the biggest sword with his finger tips, tossed it up in the air, and caught it again by the hilt; leapt down, and at the same time dealt such a blow with it on the floor that the whole hall shook. After he had thus got down he put the sword under his arm and carried it about with him.
So when they had lived a little while in the castle, the princess thought she ought to go home to her parents and let them know what had become of her; so they loaded a ship, and she set sail from the castle.
After she had gone, and the boy had wandered about a little, he remembered that he had been sent on an errand, and had come to fetch something for his mother's health. He said to himself, "After all, the old woman was not so bad, and she's probably all right by now." Still, he thought he ought to go and just see how she was. So he went and found both the man and his mother quite fresh and healthy.
"What wretches you are to live in this beggarly hut," said the boy. "Come with me up to my castle, and you shall see what a fine fellow I am."
Well! they were both ready to go, and on the way his mother talked to him, and asked how it was he had become so strong.
"If you must know, it came from that blue belt which lay on the mountainside that time when you and I were out begging," said the boy.
"Have you got it still?" asked she.
"Yes," he had. It was tied around his waist.
"May I see it?"
"Yes, you may." And with that he pulled open his waistcoat and shirt to show it to her.
Then she seized it with both hands, tore it off, and twisted it around her fist. "Now," she cried, "what shall I do with such a wretch as you? I'll just give you one blow, and dash your brains out!"
"Far too good a death for such a scamp," said the troll. "No! let's first burn out his eyes, and then turn him adrift in a little boat."
So they burned out his eyes and turned him adrift, in spite of his prayers and tears; but, as the boat drifted, the lions swam after, and at last they laid hold of it and dragged it ashore on an island, and placed the boy under a fir tree. They caught game for him, and they plucked the birds and made him a bed of down; but he was forced to eat his meat raw, and he was blind. At last, one day the biggest lion was chasing a hare which was blind, for it ran straight over stock and stone, and in the end, it ran right up against a fir stump and tumbled head over heels across the field right into a spring; but lo! when it came out of the spring it saw its way quite plain, and thus saved its life.
"So, so!" thought the lion, and dragged the boy to the spring, and dipped his head and ears into it. When he had his sight again, he went down to the shore and made signs to the lions that they should all lie close together like a raft; then he stood on their backs while they swam with him to the mainland.
When he had reached the shore he went up into a birch grove and made the lions lie quiet. Then he stole up to the castle, like a thief, to see if he couldn't lay hands on his belt. When he arrived at the door, he peeped through the keyhole, and there he saw his belt hanging over a door in the kitchen. He crept softly across the floor, for there was no one there; but as soon as he got hold of the belt, he began to kick and stomp about as though he were crazy. Just then his mother came rushing out.
"Dear heart, my darling little boy! Do give me the belt again," she said.
"Thank you kindly," he said. "Now you shall have the fate that you gave to me," and he finished the task at once. The old troll heard what was happening and came in. He begged fervently that his life might be spared.
"Well, you may live," said the boy, "but you shall undergo the same punishment that you gave me;" and so he burned out the troll's eyes, and set him adrift at sea in a little boat, but he had no lions to follow him.
Now the boy was all alone, and he went about longing and longing for the princess. Finally he could bear it no longer. He had to look for her, his heart was so bent on having her. So he loaded four ships and set sail for Arabia. For some time they had fair wind and fine weather, but after that they lay wind-bound near a rocky island.
The sailors went ashore and strolled about to spend the time, and there they found a huge egg, almost as big as a little house. So they began to knock it about with large stones, but they couldn't crack the shell. Then the boy came up with his sword to see what all the noise was about. When he saw the egg, he thought it a simple matter to crack it. He gave it one blow, and the egg split, and out came a chicken as big as an elephant.
"We have done a bad thing," said the boy; "this can cost us all our lives." He then asked his sailors if they were men enough to sail to Arabia in twenty-four hours, if they had a good wind. Yes, they would be able to do that, they said, so they set sail with a fine breeze, and got to Arabia in twenty-three hours. As soon as they landed, the boy ordered all the sailors to go and bury themselves up to their eyes in a sand hill, so that they could barely see the ships.
The boy and the captains climbed a high crag and sat down under a fir tree. In a little while a great bird came flying with an island in its claws, which it let fall down on the fleet, sinking every ship. After it had done that, it flew up to the sand hill and flapped its wings, so that the wind nearly blew off the sailors' heads, and it flew past the fir tree with such force that it turned the boy right around, but he was ready with his sword, and gave the bird one blow and brought it down dead.
After that he went to the town, where everyone was glad, because the king had got his daughter back. However, the king had now hidden her away himself, and promised her hand as a reward to anyone who could find her, even though she was already engaged. Now as the boy went along he met a man who had white bearskins for sale. He bought one of the hides and put it on. One of the captains took an iron chain and lead him about, and so disguised he went into the town and began to play pranks.
The news came to the king's ears that there never had been such fun in the town before, for here was a white bear that danced and cut capers just as it was asked. A messenger came to say that the bear must come to the castle at once, for the king wanted to see its tricks. When it got to the castle everyone was afraid, for they had never seen such a beast before. However, the captain said there was no danger unless they laughed at it. They mustn't do that, or else it would tear them to pieces. When the king heard that, he warned all the court not to laugh. But while the fun was going on, in came one of the king's maids, and began to laugh and make fun of the bear. The bear pounced on her and clawed her until there was barely a rag of her left. Then all the court began to cry, and the captain most of all.
"Stuff and nonsense," said the king; "she's only a maid, besides it's more my affair than yours."
When the show was over, it was late at night. "It's no good your going away when it's so late," said the king. "The bear had best sleep here."
"Perhaps it might sleep in the inglenook by the kitchen fire," said the captain.
"No," said the king, "it shall sleep up here, and it shall have pillows and cushions to sleep on." So a whole heap of pillows and cushions was brought, and the captain had a bed in a side room.
At midnight the king came with a lamp in his hand and a big bunch of keys, and led the white bear away. He passed along gallery after gallery, through doors and rooms, upstairs and downstairs, until at last he came to a pier which ran out into the sea. Then the king began to pull and haul at posts and pins, this one up and that one down, until at last a little house floated up to the water's edge. There he kept his daughter, for she was so dear to him that he had hid her, so that no one could find her.
He left the white bear outside while he went in and told her how it had danced and played its pranks. She said she was afraid, and did not dare to look at it; but he convinced her that there was no danger, if she only wouldn't laugh. So they brought the bear in, and locked the door, and it danced and played its tricks. Just when the fun was at its height the princess's maid began to laugh. Then the boy pounced on her and tore her to bits, and the princess began to cry and sob.
"Stuff and nonsense," cried the king; "all this fuss about a maid! I'll get you just as good a one again. But now I think the bear had best stay here until morning, for I don't want to lead it along all those galleries and stairs at this time of night."
"Well," said the princess, "if it sleeps here I'm sure I won't."
But just then the bear curled himself up and lay down by the stove. It was determined that the princess should sleep there too, with a light burning. As soon as the king was gone, the white bear begged her to undo his collar. The princess was so frightened that she almost fainted; but she felt about until she found the collar. She had barely undone it before the bear pulled his head off. Then she recognized him, and was so glad that there was no end to her joy. She wanted to tell her father at once that her rescuer had come, but the boy would not hear of it. He would earn her once more, he said. So in the morning, when they heard the king rattling at the posts outside, the boy pulled on the hide, and lay down by the stove.
"Well, has it lain still?" the king asked.
"I should think so," said the princess. "It hasn't so much as turned or stretched itself once."
When they got up to the castle again, the captain took the bear and led it away. Then the boy threw off the hide and went to a tailor and ordered clothes fit for a prince. When they were ready he went to the king, and said he wanted to find the princess.
"You're not the first who has wished the same thing," said the king, "but they have all lost their lives; for if anyone who tries can't find her in twenty-four hours his life is forfeited."
Yes, the boy knew all that. Still he wished to try, and if he couldn't find her, it would be his responsibility. Now in the castle there was a band that played sweet tunes, and there were fair maids to dance with, and so the boy danced away. When twelve hours were gone, the king said, "I pity you with all my heart. You are not very good at seeking; you will surely lose your life."
"Stuff!" said the boy. "While there's life there's hope. So as long as there's breath in the body there's no fear. we have lots of time." And so he went on dancing until there was only one hour left.
Then he said he would begin to search.
"It's no use now," said the king. "Time's up."
"Light your lamp; out with your big bunch of keys," said the boy, "and follow me where I want to go. There is still a whole hour left."
So the boy went the same way which the king had led him the night before, and he asked the king to unlock door after door until they came to the pier which ran out into the sea.
"It's all no use, I tell you," said the king; "time's up, and this will only lead you out into the sea."
"Still five minutes more," said the boy, as he pulled and pushed at the posts and pins, and the house floated up.
"Now the time is up," bawled the king. "Come here, headsman, and cut off his head."
"No, no!" said the boy; "stop a bit, there are still three minutes. Out with the key, and let me get into this house."
But the king stood there and fumbled with his keys, to draw out the time. At last he said he didn't have the key.
"Well, if you haven't, I have," said the boy, and he gave the door such a kick that it flew to splinters inwards on the floor.
The princess met him at the door, and told her father this was her rescuer, on whom her heart was set. So she got him, and this was how the beggar boy came to marry the daughter of the King of Arabia.