The king and queen in some far-off kingdom longed for a baby. As often happens in such stories they were without luck. The queen walked one day in the palace garden nursing her sorrow when she met an old and ugly woman who asked what was wrong.
The queen said, ‘It’s nothing anyone can do anything about.’ But the old woman said, ‘You never know. Try me.’
So the queen told her story and the old woman told her to fetch a cup from the kitchen and take it into the garden, turn it upside down and leave it out overnight.
In the morning she would find two flowers, the old woman said, one red and one white. Red for a boy, white for a girl. The Queen was to eat one of these flowers and in time her hopes would be fulfilled.
Only one flower, mind. Not two.
The queen did as the old woman urged and sure enough in the morning she found two flowers in her garden.
But which to take? If she had a boy, he’d grow up, go off to wars and likely be killed. A girl, on the other hand, once she grew would likely marry and leave her parents all alone. Abandoned.
The Queen gobbled down the red flower first, which was sweet and in its taste she forgot the old woman’s injunction and then ate the white.
Soon enough a handsome baby prince was born but before he arrived the queen gave birth to an ugly, scaley Lindworm. The creature shocked her but slid off and disappeared soon after birth.
The years rolled by, the boy grew into adulthood and in time the king and queen decided he should have a wife.
The king sent his son across the countryside to places foreign to find his wife but when the prince came to a crossroads, his brother the Lindworm with gaping mouth ready to swallow, stopped him and said,
‘I’m the older brother. I marry before you. Find me a wife or die.’
So the prince went back to the king and told him the story. And the king called upon his fellow royals in search of an eligible match.
In time a suitable princess was dropped off. They did not let her see her groom until the wedding and that night the Lindworm ate her.
This happened three times before the king ran out of royal friends willing to pass over their daughters. His friends whose daughters had disappeared were angry with the king.
Each time the prince went out onto the road he met his gaping mouthed brother who said, ‘I marry first.’
Eventually, in desperation the king asked one of his servants to hand over his beautiful servant daughter in return for wealth. At first the man refused but the king insisted, and in time the servant relented.
When she arrived at the palace, the servant’s daughter knew of her betrothal to Prince Lindworm and was sad and scared. Like the queen before her she wandered into the garden crestfallen.
Sure enough, she soon encountered the same old woman. And as before, the old woman asked, ‘Why so sad?’
The young girl said there was nothing for it. The old woman said, ‘You never know.’ And so, the young girl told her story. The old woman then instructed her:
‘When you go to the prince’s bed chamber after your wedding wear ten shifts, one on top of the other and when he asks you to remove the shift, command him to remove one of his skins first.’
The old woman also urged the young woman to take a bucket of pickling solution, a switch (a thin flexible piece of wood used for whipping people or animals) and a tub of milk.
And so, it transpired. When the Lindworm told the girl to take off her shift, she insisted he do likewise with his skin. If the Lindworm refused to remove a skin, the young girl insisted and soon all ten layers of shift and skin were laid out before them.
The Lindworm stood before his bride, a skinless blubbering mess, at which the young girl took the switch and beat him with the pickling solution as the old woman had instructed. Then as he was quaking in horror, she completed the old woman’s last command and bathed the Lindworm in milk. Finally, she held him.
The young girl completed all the instructions and as she held the Lindworm in bed that night after the removal of skins and her shifts, the flailing and the milk soak, she fell asleep.
In the morning in her arms she saw the most handsome of princes.
Everyone was happy and the girl became a treasured member of the royal household.
My friend told a truncated version of this story, and I enjoyed it for the images it conjured in my mind and the wit of the young girl who was able to command the Lindworm to shed its skin.
When I read the original version later I found myself pining for the three princesses who died for the sake of the story. No men were lost and although the queen ate two flowers, one red one white, in the end she wound up with two sons and two daughters in law.’
While the feminist inside me railed against the unfairness of it all.