The Green Knight

A Cinderella Story from Denmark

edited by

D. L. Ashliman

Return to:

The Green Knight

Denmark (Svendt Grundtvig)

Once upon a time there were a king and a queen and they had but one little daughter, and when she was very young her dear mother became sick unto death. When the queen knew that she had only a short time to live, she called the king and said, "My dear lord and husband! in order that I may die in peace you must promise me one thing, and that is, that you will never refuse our child anything that she may ask of you if it be possible to grant her wish." That the king promised her and she died soon afterward.

The king's heart was nearly broken for he loved his wife devotedly, and his little daughter alone could comfort him. The princess grew up, and the fulfillment of the promise was indeed easy for the king; he never refused her a request. That spoiled her a little, but otherwise she was a dear, good child who only needed a mother to understand and love her; for the lack of this she was often moody and melancholy. The princess did not care for games and amusements like other children, but instead she liked to wander alone in the gardens and woods, and above all she loved flowers and birds and animals, and she was also fond of reading poetry and stories.

Not far from the palace there lived the widow of a count, who had a daughter a little older than the princess. The young countess, however, was not a good girl, but was vain, selfish and hard-hearted; on the other hand she was clever, like her mother, and could dissimulate when she thought it would serve her ends. The countess cleverly devised ways so that her daughter was often thrown together with the princess, and both mother and daughter spared no pains to please her. They did everything in their power to give her pleasure and cheer her, and soon she always had to have either one or the other by her side.

Now that was just what the countess wanted and had been working for; so that when she saw that she had brought matters to that point, she made her daughter tell the princess, amid tears, that they must now separate because she and her mother had to go far away into another country. Then the little princess ran at once to the countess and told her that she must not leave with her daughter, for she could not live without her and would grieve to death if she left her. Then the countess pretended to be deeply moved and told the princess that there was only one way that she could be persuaded to stay in the country, and that was for the king to marry her. Then both mother and daughter could always stay with her, and they painted in glowing colors the joys that would be hers if that should come to pass.

Then the princess went to her father, the king, and begged and implored him to marry the countess, for otherwise she would go away and his poor little daughter would lose her only friend and grieve to death.

"You would certainly repent of it, if I were to do it," said the king, "and I should also, for I have no desire whatever to marry, and I have no confidence in the deceitful countess and her deceitful daughter."

But the princess did not cease crying and imploring him until he promised to grant her wish. Then the king asked the countess to marry him and she at once consented. Soon after that the wedding ceremony took place and the countess became queen and was now the stepmother of the young princess.

But after the marriage all was changed. The queen did nothing but tease and torment her stepdaughter, while nothing was too good for her own child. Her daughter did not pay any attention to the poor princess, but did everything she could to make her life miserable.

The king, who could see all this, took it very much to heart, for he loved his daughter deeply; so he said to her on one occasion, "Alas, my poor little daughter, you are having a sad life and must certainly have repented many a time of that which you asked of me, for it has all turned out as I foretold. But now, unfortunately, it is too late. I think it would be better for you to leave us for a time and go out to my summer palace on the island; there you would, at least, have peace and quiet."

The princess agreed with her father, and although it was very hard for them to be separated, it was nevertheless absolutely necessary, as she could no longer endure her wicked stepmother and her malicious stepsister. So she took with her two of her ladies in waiting to live in the summer palace on the island, and her father came from time to time to visit her; and he could see very plainly that she was much happier here than she would have been at home with her wicked stepmother.

So she grew up to be a lovely maiden, pure, innocent and thoughtful, kind to both men and beasts. But she was never really happy, and there was always an undercurrent of sadness in her nature, and a longing for something better than she had hitherto found in the world.

One day her father came to her to bid her farewell, for he had to go on a long journey to be present at a gathering of kings and nobles from many lands, and would not return for a long time. The king wanted to cheer his daughter, so he said to her jestingly that he would look carefully among the princes to see whether he could not find one among them all who would be worthy to become her husband. Then the princess answered him and said, "I thank you, dear father; if you see the Green Knight, greet him and tell him that I am waiting and longing for him, for he alone and no other can free me from my suffering."

When the princess said that, she was thinking of the green churchyard with its many green mounds, for she longed for death. But the king did not understand her and wondered much at the strange greeting to a strange knight whose name he had never heard of before; but he was accustomed to grant her every wish, so he only said he would not forget to greet the knight as soon as he met him. Then he bade his daughter a tender farewell and started on his journey to the meeting of the kings.

There he found many princes, young nobles and knights, but among them there was no one called the Green Knight, so that the king could not deliver his daughter's message. At last he started on his homeward journey and had to cross high mountains and wide rivers and to go through dense forests. And as the king one day was passing through one of those great woods with his train, they came upon a large open space where thousands of boars were feeding. These were not wild, but tame, and were guarded by a swineherd in the garb of a huntsman who sat, surrounded by his dogs, on a little knoll and had a pipe to whose notes all animals listened and were obedient.

The king wondered at this herd of tame boars, and had one of his retainers ask the swineherd to whom they belonged. He answered that they belonged to the Green Knight. Then the king remembered what his daughter had asked him, and he himself rode up to the man and asked whether the Green Knight lived in the neighborhood.

"No," he replied, "he lives far from here, towards the east. If you ride in that direction you will meet other herdsmen who will show you the way to his castle."

Then the king and his men rode eastward for three days through a great forest, until they came again to a large plain surrounded by great forests, on which immense herds of elks and wild oxen were grazing. These also were guarded by a herdsman in hunter's dress, accompanied by his dogs. And the king rode to the man, who told him that all these herds belonged to the Green Knight, who lived further eastward. And again after three days the King came to a great clearing, where he saw great herds of stags and does, and the herdsman, in answer to his question, said that the Green Knight's castle was but a day's journey distant. Then the king rode for a day on green paths, through green woods, until he came to a great castle which was also green, for it was entirely covered by vines and climbing plants. When they rode up to the castle, a large number of men dressed in green like hunters, appeared and escorted them into the castle, and announced that the king of such and such a kingdom had arrived and desired to greet their master. Then the lord of the castle came himself -- a tall, handsome, young man, also clad in green -- and bade his guest welcome and entertained them in a lordly manner.

Then said the king, "You live far away and you have so great a domain that I had to go much out of my way to fulfill my daughter's wish. When I rode forth to attend the gathering of the kings, she asked me to greet the Green Knight for her, and to tell him how she longed for him, and that he alone could free her from her torment. This is a very strange commission that I have undertaken, but my daughter knows what is right and proper, and moreover I promised her mother on her deathbed that I would never refuse our only child a wish; so I have come here to deliver the message and keep my promise."

Then the Green Knight said to the king, "Your daughter was sad, and was certainly not thinking of me when she gave you her message, for she can never have heard of me; she was probably thinking of the churchyard with its many green mounds, where alone she hoped to find rest. But perhaps I can give her something to alleviate her sorrow. Take this little book, and tell the princess when she is sad and heavy-hearted to open her east window and to read in the book; it will gladden her heart."

Then the knight gave the king a little green book, but he could not read it, because he did not know the letters with which the words were written. He took it, however, and thanked the Green Knight for his kind and hospitable reception. He was very sorry, he assured the knight, that he had disturbed him, as the princess had not meant him at all.

They had to remain overnight in the castle, and the knight would gladly have kept them longer, but the king insisted that he must leave the next day; so the following morning he said goodbye to his host, and rode back the way he had come until he came to the clearing where the boars were, and from there he went straight home.

The first thing the king did, was to go to the island and take the little green book to his daughter. She was astonished when her father told her about the Green Knight, and gave her his greetings and the book, for she had not thought of a human being, nor had she the faintest idea that a Green Knight existed. But that very evening, when her father was gone, the princess opened her east window and began to read her green book, although it was not written in her mother tongue. The book contained many poems, and its language was beautiful. One of the first things that she read began as follows:

The wind has risen on the sea,
And bloweth over field and lea,
And while on earth broods silent night,
Who, to the knight, her troth will plight?

While she was reading the first verse she heard distinctly the rushing of the wind over the water; at the second verse she heard a rustling in the trees; at the third verse her ladies in waiting and all those in or near the palace, fell into a deep slumber. And when the princess read the fourth line, the Green Knight himself flew through the window in the shape of a bird.

Then he resumed his human form, greeted her kindly, and begged her to have no fear. The knight told her that he was the Green Knight whom the king had visited, and from whom he had received the book, and that she herself had brought him thither by reading those lines. She could speak freely to him, and this would relieve her sadness. Then the princess at once felt a great confidence in him, so that she told him her inmost thoughts; and the knight spoke to her with such sympathy and understanding that she felt happy as never before.

Then he said to her that every time she opened the book and read those first verses, the same would come to pass that had happened that evening; everybody on the island would fall asleep except the princess, and he would come to her immediately, although he lived far from her. And the prince also told her that he would always gladly come to her if she really wanted to see him. Now, however, she would better close the book and betake herself to rest.

And at the very moment that she closed the book, the Green Knight disappeared, and the court ladies and all the attendants awoke. Then the princess went to bed and dreamed of the knight and all that he had said to her. When she awoke the next morning she was light-hearted and happy as she had never been before, and day by day her health improved. Her cheeks grew rosy and she laughed and jested, so that all about her were amazed at the change that had taken place in her.

The king said that the evening air and the little green book had really helped her, and the princess agreed with him. But what nobody knew was, that every evening when the princess had read in her book, she received a visit from the Green Knight, and that they had long talks together. On the third visit he gave her a gold ring, and they became betrothed. But not until three months had elapsed could he go to her father and ask her hand in marriage; then he would take her home with him as his beloved wife.

In the meantime the stepmother learned that the princess was growing stronger and more beautiful, and that she was happier than ever before. The queen wondered at this and was vexed, for she had always believed and hoped that the princess would waste away and die, and that then her own daughter would become princess and heiress to the throne.

So one day she sent one of her court ladies over to the island to pay the princess a visit, and to try to find out what was the cause of this remarkable improvement. On the following day the young woman returned and told the queen that it seemed to be particularly helpful to the princess to sit at an open window every evening and read in a book that a strange prince had given her. The evening air had made her drowsy and she had fallen into a deep sleep; the same thing, she said, happened every evening to the court ladies who complained that it made them ill, while the princess became rosier and happier every day. The next day the queen sent her daughter to act as a spy, and told her to pay careful attention to all that the princess did.

"There is some mystery about that window; perhaps a man comes in by it."

The daughter came back the next day, but she could not tell any more than the maid, for she, too, had fallen into a deep sleep when the princess seated herself at the window and began to read.

Then on the third day the stepmother went herself to call on the princess. She was as sweet as honey to her, and pretended to be delighted to see how well she was. The queen questioned her as much as she dared, but could learn nothing from her. Then she went to the east window where the princess was in the habit of sitting and reading every evening, and examined it carefully, but could discover nothing special about it. The window was high above the ground, but vines grew up to it, so that it might have been possible for a very active person to climb up. For that reason the queen took a small pair of scissors, smeared them with poison, and fastened them in the window with their points turned upward, but in such a manner that no one could see them. When evening came and the princess seated herself at the window with the little green book in her hand, the queen said to herself that she would take good care not to fall asleep as the others had done. But her resolve did not help her in the least, for, in spite of herself, when the princess began to read, the queen's eyelids fell and she slept soundly as did the others. And at that same moment the Green Knight in the form of a bird came in through the window, unseen and unheard by all except the princess. They talked of their love for each other and how there remained only one week of the three months, and then the knight would go to her father's court and ask for her hand in marriage. Then he would take her home, and she would always be with him in his green castle, which lay in the midst of the great woodland realm over which he ruled, and about which he had told her so often.

Then the Green Knight bade his betrothed a tender farewell, resumed the form of a bird, and flew out of the window. But he flew so low that he grazed the scissors that the queen had fastened there, and scratched one leg. He uttered a cry, but disappeared quickly. The princess, who had heard him, sprang up; but in so doing, the book fell from her hand to the floor and closed, and she also uttered a piercing cry which awoke the queen and all the court ladies. They rushed to her and asked what had happened. She answered that nothing was the matter, but that she had only dozed a little, and had been awakened by a bad dream. But that very hour she became ill with a fever and had to go to bed at once. The queen, in the meantime, slipped to the window to get her scissors, and when she found that there was blood on them, she hid them under her apron and took them home.

The princess, however, could not sleep the whole night, and felt miserable all the next day; nevertheless towards evening she rose in order to get a little fresh air. So she seated herself at the open east window, opened the book and read as usual:

The wind has risen on the sea,
And bloweth over field and lea,
And while on earth broods silent night
Who to the knight her troth will plight?

And the wind soughed through the trees, and the leaves rustled and all slept, except the princess -- but the knight came not. And so the days passed and she waited and watched, and read in her little green book and sang -- but no Green Knight came. Then her red cheeks again became pale and her happy heart, sad and heavy; and she began to waste away, to the sorrow of her father, but to the secret joy of her stepmother.

One day the princess walked feebly alone through the castle garden on the island, and seated herself on a bench under a high tree, and there she remained a long time plunged in sad and gloomy thoughts; while she was there two ravens came and perched on a branch over her head, and began to talk together.

"It is pitiful," said one, "to see our dear princess grieving to death for her beloved."

"Yes," said the other one, "especially as she is the only one who can cure him of the wound inflicted on him by the poisoned scissors of the queen."

"How so?" asked the first raven.

"Like cures like," replied the other one. "Over yonder, in the courtyard of the king, west of the stables, there lies, in a hole under a stone, an adder with her nine young. If the princess could get these and cook them, and give three young adders every day to the sick knight, he would recover. Otherwise there is no help for him."

As soon as night came the princess slipped out of the castle, went down to the shore where she found a boat, and rowed over to the palace. She went straight to the stone in the courtyard and rolled it away, heavy as it was, and there she found the nine young adders. These she tied up in her apron, and went forth on the way that she knew her father had taken when he returned from the gathering of the kings.

So she traveled on foot for weeks and months over high mountains and through dense forests, until she came at last upon the same swineherd that her father had met. He pointed out to her the way through the woods to the second herdsman, who in turn showed her the path to the third man. At last she reached the green castle where the knight lived, and lay sick with the poison and a fever, so ill that he recognized nobody, but only rolled and tossed in anguish and pain. Physicians had been called from the ends of the earth, but no one could procure for him the slightest relief.

The princess went into the kitchen and asked whether they could not give her some employment; she would wash the dishes, or do anything they asked her to, if only they would allow her to stay. The cook consented, and because she was so neat and quick and willing at every kind of work, he soon found her a valuable helper, and let her have her own way in many things.

So one day she said to him, "Today you must let me prepare the soup for our sick master. I know very well how it ought to be cooked, but I want to be allowed to cook it alone, and no one may look into the pot."

The cook was willing, and so she cooked three of the young adders in the soup, which was carried up to the Green Knight. And when he had eaten the soup, the fever went down so much that he could recognize those about him and speak intelligently; then he called the cook, and asked him whether he had cooked the soup that had done him so much good. The cook answered that he had done so, as no one else was allowed to prepare the food for his master. Then the Green Knight bade him make more of the same kind of soup on the morrow.

Now it was the cook's turn to go to the princess and beg her to prepare the soup for the knight; and as before, she cooked three young adders in it. This time, after partaking of it, he felt so well that he could get up out of bed. At this, all the doctors were amazed and could not understand how it happened; but, of course, they said that the medicines they had been giving him were beginning to have an effect.

On the third day, the kitchen maid again had to prepare the soup, and she cooked in it the last three young adders. And as soon as the knight had eaten it he felt perfectly well. Then he jumped up and wanted to go down to the kitchen himself to thank the cook, for, after all, he was certainly the best physician.

Now it happened that when he entered the kitchen there was no one there except a maid who was wiping dishes; but even as he looked he recognized her, and it suddenly dawned upon him what she had done for him. He folded her in his arms and said, "It was you then, was it not, who saved my life and cured me of the poison that penetrated into my blood, when I scratched myself on the scissors that the queen had put into the window?" She could not deny it; she was overjoyed, and he also. Soon after that their wedding was celebrated in the green castle; and there they are probably still living together and ruling over all the inhabitants of the green forests.

Return to

Revised April 29, 2009.