The Three Princesses in the Blue Mountain

Your Norse folk tale this Sunday is The Three Princesses in the Blue Mountain and you can read it here. 1. The Story The tale starts, as it often happens, with a king and queen who can have no children. The king is out on his porch, one day, brooding over the matter, when a […]

Your Norse folk tale this Sunday is The Three Princesses in the Blue Mountain and you can read it here.

1. The Story

The tale starts, as it often happens, with a king and queen who can have no children. The king is out on his porch, one day, brooding over the matter, when a beggar woman approaches, inquiries after his troubles and grants a blessing.

“Very little is wanted when luck is in the way. The King is thinking that he has no heir to his crown and kingdom, but he need not mourn on that account,” she said. “The Queen shall have three daughters, but great care must be taken that they do not come out under the open heavens before they are all fifteen years old; otherwise a snowdrift will come and carry them away.”

And so it happens: one year after the other, the queen has three beautiful daughters.

The three girls become fairer every day, but they grow up in sorrow, because they are not allowed to go out and play, no matter how much they try and convince their parents, no matter how much they beg the sentinel. Until one day, a beautiful summmer day not long before the fifteenth birthday of the youngest Princess, the girls are able to convince the soldier.

He could see for himself how warm and pleasant it was; no snowy weather could come on such a day.

Of course there’s nothing like wondering what could go wrong: the girls step out in the garden and start collecting flowers, but upon trying to reach the most beautiful rose a sudden snowdrift comes and carries them away.

The three princesses are taken away by the snowdrift in an illustration by Kay Nielsen.

The king and queen are inconsolable and, of course, the king promises half his kingdom and the hand of one daughter to whomever might be able to find them and bring them back to the palace safe and sound. Lots of people try and fail. The king and queen grow more desperate. Until, after everyone of high station in the kingdom had had their turn, three soldiers decide to face the quest: a captain, a lieutenant and a simple soldier who had premonitory dreams about finding the lost princess. The captain is equipped with gold and the lieutenant is equipped with silver, but the King is all out of money when the simple soldier arrives, so he requests a drop of wine and some food for the journey.

So he set off, and he had not gone many miles before he overtook the captain and the lieutenant.
“Where are you going?” asked the captain, when he saw the man in uniform.
“I’m going to try if I can find the Princesses,” answered the soldier.
“So are we,” said the captain, “and since your errand is the same, you may keep company with us, for if we don’t find them, you are not likely to find them either, my lad,” said he.

The three face many challenges together: starting with a bridge guarded by a bear and a lion, who they are able to tame with meat and bacon from the soldier’s supply, and following with an old man who pretends to be a cripple and is able to beat up both the liutenant and the captain. As it happens, the soldier outsmarts the cripple and, by holding him for his beard, he forces him to tell where the Princesses are. If you ever get tricked by an old cripple with a long beard in a Norse folk tale, just remember that the old bastard knows stuff.

“Spare my life, spare my life, and I’ll tell you!” said the old man. “To the east of the house there is a big mound; on top of the mound you must dig out a square piece of turf, and then you will see a big stone slab. Under that there is a deep hole through which you must let yourself down, and you’ll then come to another world where you will find the Princesses. But the way is long and dark and it goes both through fire and water.”

The three rejoice, take food and rope with them, and they set off to climb up and down the designated mound. They dig out the turf and underneath they found a stone slab, which it took the strength of all three to turn over. The pit appears bottomless and they are only able to measure it once they join all the ropes they could find, both coarse and fine. There has to be a metaphor in there somehow.

Since there’s no rope for all three of them to climb down, they have to try in turns and the captain is the first to go, but when he hears the sound of water he gets frightened and asks to be pulled up. The same happens with the lieutenant, who gets pulled up after seeing a blaze of fire. The soldier is again the one to succeed and goes through fire and water, until he reaches the pitch black bottom of the pit. He wanders around, until he catches a glimpse of light and follows it.

When he had gone a bit it began to grow light around him, and before long he saw a golden sun rising in the sky and everything around him became as bright and beautiful as if in a fairy world.

He then arrives at a beautiful castle and finds the eldest princess, sitting at a spinning wheel, in a room all made of copper. She tells him she’s the prisoner of a three-headed troll and together they devise a plan for the soldier to kill the monster. They succeed and then they go to save the middle princess, who is spinning silver in a silver room. The story repeats also for the youngest, who is in a golden room, spinning gold.

“But come and lie down and I’ll scratch your heads,” said the Princess, which is not creepy at all.

All three times and after trying three times of weapons, the soldier beheads all the three three-headed trolls (that’s nine heads, if I’m not mistaken) and brings the three princesses to the pit in order to signal his comrades to pull them up.

The three-headed Troll in an illustration by Kay Nielsen.

The youngest sister is particularly taken with him, and gifts him a golden ring before saying goodbye for the supposedly brief ascension. Alas, the soldier sends the princesses up before he goes.

As soon as they tugged at the rope the captain and the lieutenant pulled up the Princesses, the one after the other. But when they were safely up, the soldier thought it was foolish of him not to have gone up before the Princesses, for he had not very much belief in his comrades. He thought he would first try them, so he put a heavy lump of gold in the basket and got out of the way. When the basket was half-way up they cut the rope and the lump of gold fell to the bottom with such a crash that the pieces flew about his ears.

Dude, you go up and then you pull up the treasure: you never send up the treasure first. Everyone knows that.

The two bastards threaten the princess to kill them if they speak the truth and they bring them back to the palace, where they can collect their reward. The agreement was that they should each have whichever of the Princesses they liked and half the kingdom between them, but they both wanted the youngest Princess and that’s something you can’t divide. Yet. They pray and threaten her, but she still refuses and of course the two are able to convince the king that she’s depressed borderline on crazy, because men like those will always think you’re mad if you don’t want them. They asked the King to have twelve guards to watch over her, stating they were afraid she might do something to herself, when in fact they were probably worried she was going to spill their dirty secret. Then they begin to prepare for the wedding with the two other sisters because hey, eventually, one equals the other.

Meanwhile, the solder wanders around in the fairy-world below the well. He searches the palace, opens all the drawers and cupboards, rummages about through the shelves and eventually he comes across a golden key, hidden in the drawer of a table. He tries every lock and eventually he finds out it opens a little cupboard over the bed of the last troll, and in that cupboard an old rusty whistle.
It turns out that the whistle is a magic whistle, of course, and playing summons a large flock of young eagles who call him “master”.

Illustration by Kay Nielsen.

There’s nothing like birds when you’re trying to escape from a pit, especially when their mother is willing to carry you if you slay twelve oxen for her. The oxen meat is used as fuel and the eagle carries the soldier back to earth.

When she had sat and rested a while at the top of a large pine-tree she set off with him again at such a pace that flashes of lightning were seen both by sea and land wherever they went.

Meanwhile in the palace everything is getting ready for the two sisters’ wedding and it’s not like the girls are much happier than their younger sibling. The king is insisting to know what’s the matter with them, but they are too afraid to speak up, therefore the eldest makes up a story: she says they’ll never be happy until they’ll get checkers like they had in the blue mountain, therefore the king summons all goldsmiths in the realm in order to find one who’ll be able to manufacture such checkers. They all fail, until the apprentice of an old goldsmith appears at court and promises he’ll be able to deliver. The apprentice is, of course, the soldier in disguise.

“That’s well!” said the King. “Here is the gold to make them with; but if you do not succeed you will lose your life, since you have come and offered yourself, and they must be finished in three days.”

The soldier then prepares some meat, blows the whistle and asks his friend the eagle to go down to the Blue Mountain and bring back the original checkers.
When he arrives at court and presents the work, the young Princess recognises him immediately. She runs up to him, takes his hand, reveals the golden ring she had gifted him and finally tells the truth.

“Good day, and many thanks for all you have done for us. It is he who freed us from the trolls in the mountain,” she said to the King. “He is the one I will have!”

The captain and the lieutenant are then executed, the soldier gets the golden crown and half the kingdom, he marries the youngest Princess and the two other sisters live happily ever after as single ladies.
So you might say that the moral of the tale is: if you liked a thing you should have put a ring on it.

Oh, oh, oh

2. Illustrations

Kay Nielsen did a lot of illustrations for this tale, all of them you can find accompanying in the story, except for this one. I had no room for this one, so I’ll put it here.

The soldier beheads one of the trolls, by Kay Nielsen.


Some exquisite illustrations were featured in Fairy Tales from the Far North (you have a beautiful edition here). Among the three illustrations, Erik Theodor Werenskiold was particularly fond of illustrating trolls and, according to his grandson and this blog, he was also very critic of other people illustrating trolls. He worked on the Norse tales around 1887 and this blog collects some of his works: you can recognize stuff from The Blue Belt, one from Soria Moria (one of the tales I have yet to tell you about) and some three-headed troll who might or might not come from this tale.

This Studies of Troll Heads, (1886) is a testimonial of his attention and care.

You can find a complete illustrated version at this address and his work is mostly collected in the National Museum of Norway (here) including the captain, the lieutenant and the soldier meeting, the soldier and his friend the eagle, a beautiful cover for the collected tales.

“Just as it was, the troll came, so fast that it whizzed by.” An illustration by Erik Werenskiold (1895-1910)

Werenskiold was a big fan of realism and put a lot of effort into his illustrations: he allegedly was the first to turn the castles of Norwegian folk tales into traditional, he extensively studied the Norwegian countryside and his kings were dressed like farmers, closely connecting the tales with the national identity that they strived to contribute in forming.

This sketch from 1908 is titled “Milkmaid and the three-headed troll” and thus has probably little to do with our tale, but still the scene is the same.

“You cannot draw trolls, Erik, you haven’t even seen a troll!”
Theodor Kittelsen to his friend and colleague Erik Theodor Werenskiold

The other artist working on the same edition was Theodor Kittelsen, another Norwegian artist: his style is even darker and gloomier, albeit less rural, and he made a point of illustrating trolls as dark forces of nature. You can read about him here and here. He’s a beloved figure in Norway, he has a museum in his name and archistar Snohetta produced a feasibility study for a National Center in his name and you can see it here. In the National Museum archives you can find beautiful works of Soria Moria, to White-Bear-King-Valemon, the three princesses begging the guard and a scene that might come from this tale: the princess scratching the troll’s head.

Painting by Theodor Kittelsen


The third artist who worked on that edition was Otto Ludvig Sinding, who authored amazing stuff like this mermaid, these three children playing with snakes or this beautiful desperate wanderer for Curse of the Troll (another Norse folk tale in the same collection). His page on the National Museum is this one and over there you can also find a take on the castle for East of the Sun, West of the Moon.

3. Themes

3.1. The Blue Mountains

The Blue Mountains are pretty much like the glass hill of one of the previous tales: they’re everywhere. The most famous tale featuring them is probably the homonymous Scottish tale, included by Andrew Lang in The Yellow Fairy Book (1894), in which the three soldiers are a Scotsman, an Englishman and an Irishman, deserters all three of them, and in running away from the army they arrive at a castle. Both the Scotsman and the Englishman fall prey of the resident lady’s charm, but the Irishman refuses to eat until she tells him who she is, and she reveals she’s an enchanted princess, who might be free if a man stays in a specific room from ten until midnight for three nights in a row. The story also features an enchanted whistle which summons birds and a helping eagle (but more on that later).

Most importantly, at least for me, the Blue Mountains are a thing in Tolkien’s Middle-Earth.

The Blue Mountains (S. Ered Luin), also known as the Ered Lindon, was the mountain range at the far west of Eriador.

For those nerds among you, Ered Luin is a Sindarin name, consisting of ered (“mountains”) and luin (“blue”). Noldorin alternative names are Lhúnorodrim and Lhúndirien (“Blue Towers”).

They are on the western borders, left of the map below, cut across by the River Lhûn. If you listen to the Simlarillion and stuff, they were created after the fall of the Two Lamps when the Valar widened the Great Sea and literally pushed the Middle-Earth towards the East, to get it away from Valinor. Which is another way of looking at terraforming.

The Tolkien Gateway describes the history of these mountains much better than I could (I can never take seriously anything that comes from the Silmarillion: too much Christopher going on).

Sometime during the Years of the Trees two Dwarven Fathers awoke under Mount Dolmed and founded the two westernmost houses of the Dwarves (the Firebeards and Broadbeams). They subsequently built two great city-states, Nogrod and Belegost.

In the First Age, the Blue Mountains were an unbroken line separating Eriador from Beleriand. Seven rivers flowed from its western side, and the land these rivers flowed through was known as Ossiriand. Later, when the Green-elves settled there, the land was called Lindon, and the mountains sometimes referred to as the Ered Lindon. Wandering Elves would also hunt in the Blue Mountains.

The Blue Mountains were ruined during the War of Wrath at the end of the First Age, and in the south central end of the range the sea broke through. The River Lhûn now flowed through the mountains to the Gulf of Lune. On the western side a small section of Lindon remained, and here the retreating Elves built the kingdom of Lindon, ruled by Ereinion Gil-galad, last High King of the Noldor.

The Dwarven cities of Nogrod and Belegost were also ruined when the mountains were broken, causing most of the Dwarves to migrate east to Khazad-dûm, leaving a remnant behind. However, there remained some Dwarves on the eastern side of the Blue Mountains in days afterwards.

During the Third Age, which is the Age that concerns us, the southern portion of the Blue Mountains is home to many Dwarves of Durin’s Folk, the Longbeards, one of the seven kindreds of Dwarves, when they were evicted from their halls in Erebor by Smaug, and boy did they walk to get there. The events are narrated in what eventually will become the tale narrated in The Hobbit. If you want to see their journey, I suggest you consult this beautiful interactive map.

Since the Blue Mountains are marking the border ot Middle-Earth, their being blue is a way of expressing the notion of something far, far away. A concept used again for Mirkwood in the farewell Bilbo bids to adventure upon returning to the Shire after the events of The Hobbit.

They came to that high point at morning, and looking backward they saw a white sun shining over the outstretched lands. There behind lay Mirkwood, blue in the distance, and darkly green at the nearer edge even in the spring. There far away was the Lonely Mountain on the edge of eyesight. On its highest peak snow yet unmelted was gleaming pale.

They are also very rarely illustrated and they are often confused with the Misty Mountains (all on the opposite side of Eriador, if you take a look at the map) but you can almost always see them in the depictions of the Grey Havens. The most famous illustration is probably Alan Lee’s departure from the Grey Havens. And you can always count on Alan Lee’s for some Blue Mountains: all his mountains are blue.

The Grey Havens by Alan Lee

As it often happens, Alan Lee had a deep impact on other artists’ imagination and it’s difficult to find something that is radically similar from this.
My favourite deviations are this beautiful painting by David Wyatt, who also did one of the most famous covers for The Hobbit, and this work by Matthew Steward.

The Grey Havens by David Wyatt.
The Grey Havens by Matthew Steward.

The mountains themselves, however, are rarely depicted, but I found this beautiful illustration for an Inktober in 2017, by John A. Cockshaw and I wanted to share it with you.

Ered Luins, however, are not the only situation in which Tolkien uses the concept of Blue Mountains to express something far away, across which mysterious things happen.

They were firstly mentioned in his The Dragon’s Visit, a humorous poem written around 1928 in his series Tales and Songs of Bimble Bay and first published on February 4th, 1937 in The Oxford Magazine. A new version of the poem, with a different ending, was also printed in Winter’s Tales for Children 1 (1965) and in the anthology The Young Magicians (1969) edited by Lin Carter, but you can find the original version, without having to go crazy, in The Annotated Hobbit.

The dragon lay on the cherry trees
a-simmering and a-dreaming:
Green was he, and the blossom white,
and the yellow sun gleaming.
He came from the land of Finis-Terre,
from over the Blue Mountains,
Where dragons live, and the moon shines
on high white fountains.

3.2. Trolls

Three-headed trolls are also a serious thing, and not just because they have three times the means to eat you than a normal one.
In Norse mythology, Trolls are a kind of jötunn, a generic hostile being, and the very word is also something generic for “fiend, demon”, sometimes also used to indicate more specific things like a werewolf. Proto-Germanic languages borrow it and uses it pretty much in the same way, as a synonym of “fiend”. To troll is also a verb, as it happens in the internet days, only in a rather different way: the Old Norse verb trylla means “to enchant into a troll”, where the Middle High German verb trüllen means flutter and now I can’t help but imagining these German trolls fluttering around. They trolls of the Old Norse Edda (1220) are first mentioned as monsters with many heads, so we might as well say that the original trolls are polycephals and all other trolls are but imitations. Within these tales, the troll in Soria Moria has three heads and plays a big part in the story, so maybe I’ll talk about trolls next time. So do the trolls in The Three Princesses of Whiteland, another beautiful story in the same collection.

Should you be in such a sore need of trolls that you can’t wait, I suggest you take a look at Among Gnomes and Trolls, especially in the version illustrated by John Bauer.

“Look at them”, mother Troll said. “Look at my sons! You won’t find more beautiful trolls on this side of the moon”. (1915)

3.3. Eagles

The presence of an eagle is another thing storytellers are obsessed with. It even has its Aarne-Thompson index, 537, “Flight with the Eagle”, “The escape on the grateful eagle” or “The Eagle as helper: hero carried on the wings of a helpful eagle”. It also has a specific nuance to that type, which is the escape from the Underworld in eagleback (can you say “eagleback”? I just did). A particularly interesting version of this is in the French folktale Jean de l’Ours, a tale with its own Aarne-Thompson Index (301B) in which, however, the hero (half-bear, half-human) bands up with three companions, goes down a hole, defeats a monster in a castle, rescues three princesses, is tricked by his companions and eventually escapes with the aid of an eagle to find his revenge. I don’t know if this sounds familiar. Apparently it’s one of the most popular tale-types in French language.

Bears and ladies go along well in French folk tales.

According to Douglas A. Anderson in his Annotated Hobbit, Tolkien’s use of this trope is however to be traced back to Chaucer’s unfinished The House of Fame, a poem probably written between 1374 and 1385 narrating a dream vision in which the poet finds himself in a glass temple and, with the guidance of an eagle, he wanders the halls and reflects upon issues such as fame, glory and the role of the poet in narrating the lives of other people. It is frankly an utter bore, but the opening scene, where the eagle takes the poet and brings him up in the sky, is bearable. You can read it here (The Dream section). It becomes more understandable if you read it aloud.

An illustration to The House of Fame (author unknown: help appreciated).


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