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Saga of Prince Hlini: An Icelandic Fairy Tale

Updated: Dec 1, 2021

From the book: Icelandic Fairy Tales by Mrs. Angus W. Hall, 1897

Originally published as Sagan af Hlina kóngssyni

In a far country, there once lived a king and a queen. They had an only son, called Hlini, who even as a child showed wonderful talents, and grew up the handsomest, cleverest, and bravest man in all the land.

One day, the prince went out hunting with some of the courtiers. It was a beautiful morning ; the sun shone with unusual brilliancy, birds and game of all kinds were plentiful; and, well pleased with their good day's sport, the whole party turned homewards as the afternoon shadows began to lengthen, when suddenly a thick fog arose, which soon completely surrounded them. They lost sight of the prince, and it was only with great difficulty that they made their way back to the castle.

When the king heard that his son had not returned, he became very anxious; and the fog having somewhat lifted, he at once sent out messengers to try and find him. But although they searched in all directions for three days and nights, they could find no trace of him,—no one had heard of or seen Prince Hlini.

This sudden disappearance of his son greatly grieved the king; and when, on the evening of the third day, the messengers returned without any news of him, the king retired to his room, and, throwing himself on his bed, gave way to the deepest grief. In vain the queen tried to cheer him, telling him that Hlini was so brave and clever, he would be sure to return safely. The king would not be consoled, and said he would gladly give the half of his kingdom to anyone who would bring him back his son.

Now, not far from the palace, in the middle of a wild moor, covered with yellow gorse and purple heather, there lived an old man in a little cottage with his only child, a daughter called Signy, who was both beautiful and clever. They were very poor, but lived happily and contented on wild honey and the berries that grew on the moors. When Signy heard from the shepherds that the prince had disappeared and that the king had offered the half of his kingdom to whoever should find him, she begged her father to let her go in search of him. At first he was very unwilling to part with her, dreading the dangers she might have to encounter; but Signy said she felt quite sure she would succeed in her search. All she wanted was a pair of new shoes and some food. And so, after a little more persuasion, her father gave her his blessing and started her on her journey.

Signy wandered on for several days, resting in the evenings in some sheltered nook, and ever going towards the north. It was now mid-summer, the days were long—in fact, there was scarcely any night; and on the fourth evening, just as the sun, like a huge red ball, was setting in a bed of crimson and gold, only to rise again, Signy saw some rocks in front of her, in one of which was a huge cave. Listening carefully for a few minutes and hearing no sound, Signy entered very softly, and there she saw two beds: one was covered with a beautiful blue silk quilt, embroidered with gold; the other had a crimson velvet quilt, embroidered with silver. Going cautiously forward, she saw the prince, lying fast asleep on the bed with the golden quilt.

Signy was delighted with her discovery, and went up to him to waken him ; but though she shook him, at first gently and then more roughly, she found she could not rouse him. Looking up, she saw some strange letters, or runes, cut into the wooden headboard of the bed.

Now, though her father, who was a learned old man, had taught Signy to read runes, she could make nothing of these. She therefore determined to wait and see who the owner of the cave was, and discovering a narrow recess near the opening, she crept quietly in.

Hardly had she got safely into her hiding-place, than she heard a terrible noise, like a peal of thunder. The earth began to quake, and presently two frightful giantesses entered the cave.

As they came in, the taller and elder of the two cried out angrily, "Pah! I smell the smell of a human being here!"

"Of course you do," replied her sister, "seeing that Hlini the king's son is asleep here."

They then went to the bed on which Hlini was lying, and moving the headboard, on which the wines were carved, to one side, out came two beautiful silver swans.

"Sing, my beautiful swans, sing, and waken Hlini," cried the giantesses.

'And as the swans, obeying, sang a lovely sweet song, the prince awoke.

The younger giantess then brought him a silver tray laden with delicious fruit and wine; but the prince would not touch anything.

"Will you marry me now?" then asked the giantess.

"No, no, and again no!" cried the prince.

"Then sing, sing, my beautiful swans, that Hlini may go to sleep again," she called out angrily.

And as the swans raised their voices in a sad, plaintive melody, the prince fell back on the bed, and was soon in his magic sleep again.

The two sisters then lay down on the other couch with the silver-embroidered quilt.

In the morning they again wakened Hlini in the same manner, and offered him food, which, however, he angrily refused; whereupon the younger giantess again asked him if he would marry her; and when he refused, as before, the sisters put him to sleep by the song of the swans, and then left the cave, closing it as they went out.

After waiting a little while to make sure that the wicked sisters were not coming back again, Signy came out of her hiding-place, and moving the headboard of the bed, as she had seen the sisters do, she called to the swans, and as they sang their song, the prince awoke.

He was greatly surprised to see Signy in place of the hideous giant sisters, and thanked her warmly for her help, asking how she had come there.

Then Signy told him how much his father sorrowed at his mysterious disappearance, and that she had determined to try and find him.

Hlini was very grateful, and told Signy that, after he had got separated from his friends in the fog, he had suddenly encountered the giant sisters, who, having their swans with them, put him to sleep before he had time to fight them or get away, and that they had then forcibly carried him off to their cave; and that the younger sister, as she had no doubt heard, wanted to marry him. But this he had steadily refused to do. As long as he remained firm, they could only keep him there asleep; but, he added, he would rather remain thus forever than marry the ogress.

When he had finished his tale, Signy said, "Now the first thing we must do, is to find out the meaning of the runes on the headboard. When, therefore, the sisters come in this evening, do not refuse their food (for you will want all your strength to get away), but be friendly with them, and then ask them what the letters mean, and also what they do all day while they are away."

Hlini said he would certainly follow Signy's advice. Then, finding a chessboard and some men on a shelf, they sat down and amused themselves playing and chatting, till they thought it was drawing near the time when the giantesses usually returned; then Signy called the swans and put the prince to sleep, as she had seen the sisters do, after which she hid herself in her dark corner.

Soon she heard the sisters returning, and presently they entered the cave.

"I certainly do smell' the smell of a human being," said the elder sister, sniffing angrily round the cave.

"Nonsense!" replied the younger one, who having lit the fire, was anxious to get their supper cooked. "Of course you smell it when Hlini is here."

"But this is a different smell," persisted the elder sister; and Signy, seeing her peering about, feared she would discover her.

But the younger sister, having plucked and cleaned the birds they had caught, told her elder sister she must cook them at once, as she was about to waken Hlini; and, going up to the couch with the gold embroidered quilt, on which Hlini was lying asleep, she called forth the swans, and wakened him.

By this time the birds were cooked; and when she asked him if he would take any food, instead of refusing, Hlini said he felt hungry, and would join them at their supper.

But Hlini said he must first know more about her and her sister before he could decide.

"What, for instance, is the meaning of those runes carved on the bedhead?" he asked.

"Oh," replied the giantess graciously, "the words are—

"' Fly, fly, oh bedstead mine, And carry me whither I will.'

You have only to sit down on the bed and repeat those words, and immediately you are carried to whatever place you wish to go."

The prince was delighted when he heard this, as he hoped it would enable him and Signy to escape.

"And what do you and your sister do all day when you are out?" he asked.

"Well, we roam about, looking for some man, woman, or child, for our dinner, for we always prefer them to birds or animals; and then, when we get tired, we sit down under a tree and play with our 'life egg,'" replied the giantess.

"I suppose you have to be very careful when you are playing with your life egg?" asked the prince.

"Yes, indeed we have to be," answered the giantess, "for if it were broken, we should both die. But there is no fear of that," and she gave a loud laugh, "we are much too careful; it can only be broken by a human being; and whenever one of them comes near us, we soon catch him and eat him."

The prince now declared that he felt so tired, he really must go to sleep; and though, before calling the swans, the giantess again asked him to marry her, he said he could say nothing till the morning, so he was put to sleep as before.

The next morning, after the sisters had wakened him and given him some food, they asked him if he would go to the woods with them ; but Hlini said he still felt very tired, and would prefer to rest, so the sisters put him to sleep again and went away, closing the cave after them.

Waiting a short time, so as to make quite sure that the giantesses would not return, Signy presently came forth from her hiding-place and awakened the prince.

"Get up quickly," she said, "for we will follow the giantesses into the wood. Take with you your hunting spear which stands beside the bed, and when they begin to play at 'throw and catch' with their life ball, you must throw your spear at the egg; but keep a clear eye and a firm hand, for, remember, if you miss, both your life and mine will be forfeited."

"Never fear," said Hlini; "there is too much at stake. I will be careful." Then they seated themselves on the couch, and both repeated the nine.

"Fly, fly, oh bedstead mine, And carry me whither I will."

And immediately the bed rose up, the wall of the cave opened, and passing swiftly through the air, it landed them amid the leafy branches of a huge oak tree.

Peeping cautiously down, they saw the two giantesses sitting at the foot of the tree ; one was holding the golden life egg in her hand, ready to throw it at her sister, and both were laughing loudly, as the egg flew backwards and forwards between them.

Watching his opportunity, Hlini threw his spear just as one sister was poising it in her hand, and as the point of the spear hit the egg, it broke in half.

At the same instant, both giantesses fell back dead, a stream of dark-colored poison poured from their lips, and huge deadly black and yellow fungi sprang up and speedily covered them completely.

Hlini then seated himself beside Signy on the couch, and immediately they were carried back to the cave.

Here they found, on searching round, an immense quantity of gold, silver, and jewels; and having laden both beds with these and the two silver swans, they each sat down on one, and, repeating the rimes, were speedily transported to the hut of Signy's father, who was delighted at his daughter's safe return, and made Hlini very welcome.

The next morning Signy went to the king's palace and demanded an audience, and the king, having admitted her, asked her who she was and what she wanted.

"I am the daughter of the old man who lives in the little hut on the moor near your palace," replied Signy, "and I have come to ask what reward you would give me if I bring your son back to you safe and well?"

The king laughed good-naturedly. "I do not think I need trouble to answer that," he said. "There is not much chance of your finding him, when so many others have failed."

"But if I succeed," persisted Signy, "will you give me the same reward as you have promised to others?"

"Certainly," replied the king; "if you succeed in bringing back my son safe and well, I will not go back from my word."

Then Signy returned to the hut, and begged the prince to return with her to the palace; and together they entered the great audience hall.

When the king beheld his son, whom he had mourned as dead, alive and well, he was greatly rejoiced, and made him sit. down on his right hand and relate the story of all that had happened to him since the day he became separated from his friends during the chase.

When Hlini seated himself beside the king, he begged Signy to take the seat on his other hand, and then began the relation of all his adventures— telling of his imprisonment in the cave, and how Signy had freed him, and saved his life by rescuing him from the hands of the wicked giantesses.

When he had finished, he rose from his seat, and standing before his father, asked his permission to take Signy as his wife. To this the king willingly assented, saying that no reward could be too great for her, who had restored his son to him. So orders were at once issued for the preparation of a magnificent wedding-feast; all the great nobles of the kingdom were invited, neither were the poor forgotten. There was ample provision made for all, and every one praised the king for his right royal hospitality, for each one received rich gifts ere they returned home. Signy's father was made the king's librarian, and put in charge of the royal manuscripts; and Hlini and Signy lived long and happily together, surrounded by their children and grandchildren.

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