Last night, as part of the Norwegian-American Literary Festival, four Norwegian writers—Gunnhild Øyehaug, Lars Petter Sveen, Kjersti Annesdatter Skomsvold, and Carl Frode Tiller—spoke at New York’s 192 Books. James Wood, who moderated, asked them to address the question of perceived Norwegian literary tropes like solitude and loneliness. Sveen pointed out another: the shared cultural knowledge of fairy tales.
Of course, you’ll find solitude and loneliness there, too. Norwegian fairy tales are, even by the genre’s grim standards, dark, thematically and often literally, too (e.g. “East of the Sun, West of the Moon”). For an American audience, accustomed to tall tales that focus on the heroic, and devils who rarely do anything worse than argue with sharp-witted Yankee lawyers, Norway’s fairy tales are downright scary.
“The Lindworm”—also translated, when it is, as “The Lindworm Prince”—is a story with variations across Scandinavia. The version anthologized in the seminal Asbjornsen and Moe collection goes thus:
A good king and his lovely queen long for a child. One day the queen goes out walking and runs across a crone—a benign sorceress who instructs the queen to place a two-handled chalice in the corner of her garden. Come morning, she will find two roses, red and white. Should she eat the red rose, she will give birth to a prince, while the white will guarantee a princess. But the witch is clear in her warning: under no circumstances must the queen eat both!
Well, you can guess what happens. In the tradition of such things, the queen is overcome with greed, and finding the white rose to her taste, devours the red, too. When her time comes, the queen is delivered of an heir … but also—and, importantly, first—a serpent-like monster. This lindworm slithers away, and the panicked queen convinces herself the horror was a figment of her imagination—and says nothing.
Time goes by, and the prince comes to manhood, growing handsome, brave, and wise. In due course, he decides to seek a suitable bride, but no sooner has he started his quest when his path is blocked by a monstrous lindworm, who hisses the menacing oath, “A bride for me before a bride for you!”
The prince rides on, but at each crossroads, the same thing happens. “A bride for me before a bride for you!” Fearful and confused, the prince confronts the queen, who confesses to her secret. The lindworm, as the elder twin, is entitled to the first marriage. And so, in order to dispatch the obstacle, the king sends messengers far and wide in search of a princess for their son. The poor bride, ignorant of her bridegroom’s identity, is imported, and duly married to the monster. Come morning, she is gone; the lindworm has eaten her.
The prince sets out once again; once again his path is blocked by his brother. “A bride for me before a bride for you!” cries the lindworm. Once more, the king sends for a far-off bride; once more, she meets her end on the wedding night.
Lacking for willing princesses, the king now turns to his own kingdom. Coming across a poor shepherd, he orders the man to give up his own daughter as a bride to the serpent prince. With heavy heart, the shepherd delivers the news to his beautiful, clever daughter, who is terrified. Wandering in the woods, she encounters the good witch who first prophesied the queen’s pregnancy. And much as before, she tenders mysterious advice.
Marry the lindworm, she instructs, but here is your price: ten white dresses, a tub of lye, one of milk, and a vast array of whips. Come the wedding night, here is what you do: order the groom to shed his skin. Then another, and another, until all the skins are shed. At which point, she is to whip him soundly with a lye-soaked lash, bathe him in milk, and embrace him.
All goes according to plan. When the monster has shed his last skin, the bride finds before her a handsome prince. In the morning, the apprehensive court opens the door of the bedchamber to find the pair sleeping in each other’s arms. There is great rejoicing, another wedding is held, and the two live happily ever after.
(That was a slightly abbreviated version; more details—which is to say, translation—may be found here.)
It is foolish to make sweeping generalizations about a people, a literary culture, or a national psyche. I will not try to, except to say that, here we have no such stories. And I would wager that—however bronzed, sociable, and jolly we may seem—we are the poorer for it.
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.