In this adventure story, a beggar woman and her son discover a magic Blue Belt. In possession of this talisman, the boy has superhuman strenght, and outsmarts his attackers again and again. In the process, he becomes engaged to the daughter of the King of Arabia. Brave and unrelenting in this fantastical world full of […]
In this adventure story, a beggar woman and her son discover a magic Blue Belt. In possession of this talisman, the boy has superhuman strenght, and outsmarts his attackers again and again. In the process, he becomes engaged to the daughter of the King of Arabia. Brave and unrelenting in this fantastical world full of Trolls and magic, the son loses and regains much that is vital to him, along the way, including his bride-to-be, before his fortune changes.
The Blue Belt is one of the longest folk-tales in the book I bought, named after its most prominent tale East of the Sun, West of the Moon. The original Aarne-Thompson index was putting it under Tales of Magic – Magic Object (571B – 649) and specifically had a category for this tale, AT 590 Magic Belt, but the new ATU Index (I talked about it when I talked about the tales the first time) changed the name from Magic Belt (neutral, mysterious) to Faithless Mother. Well, thank you for the spoiler, dude.
Anyway, I swear the story is fucking weird and goes pretty much like this: a boy and his mother, an old beggar, find a blue belt while they are returning from when they had gone to beg: the boy picks it up eventually, even if the mother is against it, and find that the belt grants him tremendous courage and strenght. Unfortunately, his first act of courage is finding shelter for him and the mother, and this shelter happens to be at an Ogre’s house, who seems hospitable enough until he sleeps with the mother and starts plotting with her to get rid of the son.
“We two might live here so happily together, could we only get rid of this son of yours”.
The story then sets off to lay a set of tasks in front of the lad, each task devised by the Troll in order to kill the boy.
The first day, the Troll asks the lad to go up the hill with him to quarry cornerstones and attempts to trick him to go downhill, so that he can squash him under a big rock from above. But the belt is giving him invulnerability and grea strenght, therefore the boy is able to lift the stone and roll it on the side.
“Oh!” said the Lad 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 after the cracks and rifts in the rock, and I’ll stand up above”.
Of course the Lad rolls down a stone and the Troll and breaks his leg, but then proceeds to save him and carries him home to safety.
But this is not enough to stop the Troll and the mother’s plotting and they come up with another plan.
The next morning, the mother pretends to be sick and apparently everyone knows that the right think when you’re feeling sick is lion’s milk. And of course the Troll owns a beautiful garden with twelve lions in it, because who doesn’t?
The lad goes to the garden and immediately subdues the biggest lion: this tames the eleven left and not only he’s able to milk them (they must have been really scared, since they’re always illustrated as male lions) but they also become faithful to him and they start following him everywhere. Which I bet can be inconvenient, from time to time. When the Troll doesn’t believe that milk to be lion’s milk, the boy drags him outside to take a look at the eleven lions that followed him, and again he has to be the one to save the mischievious Troll.
But, regardless of this, the Troll goes back plotting with the old woman in order to get rid of the lad.
“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 round it there is an orchard with apples in it, and whoever eats those apples sleeps for three days and three nights. If we could only get the Lad to go for the fruit, he wouldn’t be able to keep from tasting the apples, and as soon as ever he fell asleep my brothers would tear him in pieces”.
So of course the mother just has to have those apples and of course the Lad agrees to go. Only, this time the eleven lions follow. For some reason, the two trolls have the brilliant idea of showing themselves as men-eating steeds, if there ever is such a thing, and of course the lions take good care of them.
Now the problem is that the castle is guarding a different kind of apple: a maiden is looking out of the window and she turns out to be the King of Arabia’s daughter, whom the two trolls had kidnapped. The two walk around and talk and at last the princess asks him whether she should go back home or he would take her as his wife. Because if you don’t take matters into your own hands these men will never resolve to anything. The two starts living in the castle (well, the two and the eleven lions), until the lad remembers that he came to do something in the first place.
“Fuck, my mum! I knew I had forgotten something.”
He then goes back and finds that the troll and the old woman are still living their happily ever after.
But since the belt had given him strenght and also a fair amount of stupidity, not only he invites them to go and live with him in his castle, but he also tells his mother the secret of his strenght: the blue belt.
It’s all downhill from here: the old lady snatches the belt from him and the troll burns out his eyes before setting him adrift on a small boat.
But the boy still have the lions: they follow him, they drag the boat ashore and place the lad under a tree: they make him a bed there, a shelter, and they gho hunting for him.
One day, the biggest lion is chasing a blind hare, which is a little bit unsporty if you ask me, and the hare falls into a river. That river turns out to be magical, so the lion takes the lad to the same spot and dips him into the water, curing him. And then, like Jack Sparrow, the lad makes a rafter by trying together his lions and drifts back home, where he takes back the belt, kills his mother, blinds the troll and sets him adrift, with no lions to follow him.
He then sets off to look for his lost bride. I’ll spare you a weird part with sailors and a giant chicken: long story short, he arrives in Arabia, where the daughter of the king had returned.
Disguised as a bear, he roams the town and attracts the king’s attention.
At last the news came to the King’s ears that there never had been such fun in the town before, for there was a White Bear that danced and cut capers just as it was bid.
Of course the king sends for him and he’s really pleased with his performance, particularly the part where the bear lashes off at a maid who laughed at him, and eats her. No, I’m not kidding. The King literally says ‘Who the fuck is supposed to care about a maid and anyway she was my maid so, if any, I should be the one angry and I’m not: good bear’. The bear is invited to stay and sleep in the castle and after several options it’s decided that he should sleep in the Captain’s room (the one who had complained more about the maid).
During the night, the King takes the bear and brings him to the hidden room where his daughter is secluded, along with her maid. And yeah, you guessed where I’m going with this, because the taste of maid is probably delicious and this maid laughs again and the bear eats her again and the king really couldn’t care less. What’s important is that all of a sudden he doesn’t want to take the bear back and suggests he sleeps into the princess’ room. You can guess how that turns out.
The night goes well, the King doesn’t suspect a thing, the bear is taken back.
As soon as he’s free and out of sight, the Lad takes off the bearskin, goes to a tailor, buys rich clothes (probably with all the money he made as a bear) and comes back to the palace, this time as himself. He challenges the King and the challenge pretty much goes like this for everybody: the princess is hidden and whoever can find her will be allowed to marry her.
But of course the Lad already knows where the princess is. He fools around a bit and, when the time is almost over, he points to the right door.
At the door, the Princess met him, and told her father this was her deliverer, on whom her heart was set. So she had him; and this was how the beggar-boy came to marry the daughter of the King of Arabia.
Well, didn’t I tell you the story was fucking weird?
There’s a lot of stuff going on in this tale: you have a magical object that gives strenght and invulnerability, the loss and recovery of that object and a treacherous mother who married an ogre and is plotting against the son. And if both folklore and literature are filled up to their ears with magical object, this last thing is a little less obvious. I mean the ogre-marrying part. The mother wanting to get rid of the sonis fairly normal in folk-tales and lots of the “stepmothers” we have come to know as our fairy-tales’ villain were in fact biological mothers (first of all, Snow White’s Evil Queen). There are striking similarities with a Danish folk-tale, The Prince and the Princess in the Forest, collected by Andrew Lang in his Olive Fairy Book, which also has the strength-giving objects, the treacherous mother, the find and loss of a wife who happens to be the princess of Arabia. Only this time, the hero already is a prince. I guess the Danish didn’t believe in social climbing.
You also have a set of tasks, assigned in order to get rid of the hero, particularly the magic apple, and the theme of the feigned illness is also recurring in lots of folk-tales.
The whole bunch with the lions (super-weird, if you ask me) also is showing recurrent themes: the quest for lion’s milk and the helpful lion are both tropes, particularly the medicing indicated by a helpful animal.
And then of course you have the bearskin.
The idea of a man turning into a bear when he weas a bearskin is particularly dear to Old Norse mythology and, even if the tale never goes so far as to saying that the lad actually turns into a bear, we have a choice in front of us: we can either see it that way, or we can merrily accept the fact that our hero is a cannibal. I don’t know about you, but I prefer the Berserserker angle.
If you don’t pay attention to Snorri Sturluson, author of the Prose Edda, the term berserker literally means bear-shirt and was meant to indicate warriors fighting with tremendous strength and very little self-control.
The idea closely relates to the idea that when you hunt certain animals (wolves and bears in Norway, lions in Central-Eastern Africa: it really makes no difference) you gain their strength if you wear their skin and/or if you consume certain organs. There are traces of these bear-warriors all around the world and their account vastly trascends Norway (if you’re curious about it, see for instance here).
In old legends, you just have to take your pick. There are twelve berserkers in the Icelandic Saga of King Rolf Kraki, a late elaboration on Scandinavian legends, in which you find characters like Bǫðvarr Bjarki, literally Warlike Little-Bear, a shapeshifter who arrives at the Danish court to kill a monster not unlike Beowulf. He plays also a role in Bjarkamál, an Old Norse poem, in which his shapeshifting ability is depicted more like what we would call the astral projection of a bear, what Norse mythology calls fylgja and a concept you’ll find strikingly similar to Philiph Pullmann’s dæmons.
The earliest surviving reference to the term “berserker” is in Haraldskvæði, a skaldic poem composed by Thórbiörn Hornklofi in the late 9th century in honor of King Harald Fairhair, as ulfheðnar (“men clad in wolf skins”).
Beowulf is often debated to be or not to be a shapeshifter. Scholars are really passionate about it. A little too passionate, if you ask me, as if some of them were afraid of finding themselves to be scholar of a fantasy novel. It happens much more often than you might expect. As we have seen in The Blue Belt, if it walks like a bear, it dresses like a bear and it east maidens like a bear, it’s safe to assume it’s probably a bear. Among the Scholas who have defended the identity of Beowulf as a berserker, Friedrich Pazer’s Studien zur germanischen Sagengeschichte, who in 1910 collected over 200 bear-related tales and sougt to prove their connection with Beowulf. The thesis was supported by W. W. Lawrence and R. W. Chambers, but most importantly (ad least to me) J.R.R. Tolkien expanded on the theory, analyzing the text and pointing out the several references to Beowulf’s shape-shifting nature. The main text, should you wish to expand on it, is his Translation and Commentary on Beowulf, although it was edited by his son Christopher so we have no way of knowing what’s really original and what has been patched up and added in the attempt of having something that was going to sell. Yes, my opinion on Christopher hasn’t changed.
Tolkien himself gives us a shape-shifting hero in Beorn, the host giving shelter to Bilbo and the dwarves in The Hobbit, both referring to Beowulf and to the Hrólfr Saga which Tolkien knew very well (there’s a whole back story about the scholar who translated the poem in English, Stella Mills, and you can read about it both in Tom Shippey’s Road to Middle-Earth and in D.A. Anderson’s Annotated Hobbit).
Tolkien doesn’t give us an illustration of Beorn (probably because bears are difficult and, let’s face it, Tolkien wasn’t that much of an artist), but both the description and the illustration of Beorn’s house are a clear reference to the longhouse. The illustration is available in different versions, including one colored by H.E. Riddett.
The Bear’s Son Tale is generally traced back to stories like Jean the Bear, a French fairy-take, or Grimm’s Strong Hans. However, in these kind of tales, the hero is either raised by or descends from a bear, hence his bear-like strength.
In The Blue Belt, however, the theme is slightly different: the possibility of transforming into ino a bear, if we accept that the hero is not all of a sudden into human flesh, is not inherited, but it’s granted by putting on a bearskin. We have similar themes in the French fairy-tale Bearskin by Marie-Madeleine de Lubert.
The last theme which I have always found particularly odd is the orientalistic thouch: the Arabian princess. If I can understand having a Sultan’s Daughter in H.C. Andersen’s The Flying Trunk, when the influence of the newly translated Arabian Nights was at its peak, I’m havin a hard time grasping how it’s possible to have such a figure in a folk-tale. If you’re interested in the role played by orientalism in Norse and German mythology, I suggest you take a look at:
- The Wondrous Orientalism of Lord Dunsany: Traditional and Non- traditional Orientalist Narratives in The Book of Wonder and Tales of Wonder (by Alyssa House-Thomas, Signum University and the Mythgard Institute, here);
- Romanticism, Orientalism, and National Identity,
- Nordic Orientalism: Paris and the Cosmopolitan Imagination 1800-1900 by Elisabeth Oxfeldtor,
- or, for a more modern angle on the topic, chapter 10 of The Routledge Companion to Media and Fairy-Cultures.