Hans Christian Andersen

The Corpse, a Funen Folk Tale

“Mährchen noch so wunderbar,

Dichterkünste machen’s wahr.”


As a boy it was my greatest joy to listen to fairy tales. A great number are still quite vivid in my recollection and some of these are only little known or not known at all; here, I have retold one and if it is received with applause I will do likewise with more and at some point deliver a cycle of Danish folk tales.

The author

About five miles from Bogense, in a field close to Elvedgaard, one can find a hawthorn that is remarkable for its size and can even be seen from the coast of Jutland. In the old days there are said to have been two, and it is claimed that Frederik II visited this place to see this remarkable sight, and that on this occasion they were trimmed in the shape of two crowns.

When quite young shoots, these hawthorns grew in a small garden that lay behind a poor farmer’s cottage; at that time, Elvedgaard was a nunnery surrounded by moats, a large number of which are still preserved.

It was a lovely August evening, the mosquitoes were dancing their airy quadrilles, and the frogs were sitting like tipsy musicians, croaking a merry chorus in their deep-pitched orchestras, the nuns had just concluded their devout evensong and each was on her way to her cell. Fringed by the wood, the small inland lake lay so still and glassy beside the nunnery – only when a fish rose was the calm surface disturbed – but among the brushwood one could see by the bright sheen of the full moon the elf girls dancing merrily like light mists, and the elf king standing by with a silver crown on his head that gleamed with a bluish tinge in the moonlight; deep down in the bog the jack o’lanterns were playing a game of tag around a small barrow where once a holy monk had exorcised a night-time spirit, but it was unclear if he had complete mastery of the art, for the being flew every midnight, in great circles, like a jet-black raven and frightened the local inhabitants with its hoarse cries.

It was already quite dark in the nunnery, but from the small croft in the garden of which the hawthorns had been planted the light of a lamp still flamed through the small window-panes. Inside the bare mud walls an old farmer was lying on his death-bed; his son Johannes sat at his bedside with him and pressed the cold, clammy hand of the dying man firmly to his lips. The cricket chirped so ominously in the corner, the lamp had almost burnt down; the old man fixed yet again his wide-eyed, stiff gaze on his son, clenched his hand convulsively and passed away into the Lord’s keeping.

Johannes wept aloud, now he felt completely alone in the world; he admittedly had many people of his own age and acquaintances in the local neighbourhood, but there was no one he felt really attached to, no one in whom he could confide his feelings.

Daylight was already entering the cottage, and it found Johannes sleeping at his father’s death-bed; he was still clasping the hand of the dead man, and lovely colourful images were flitting past his soul as he dreamed. He saw his father hale and hearty; everything was bright and lovely round about, and a lovely girl, though pale and clad in grave clothes, was placing a garland on his head; his old father placed the hand of the girl in his; – he woke up, and now felt the cold, dead hand of his father and saw the corpse’s glazed look that stared at him unseeing.

It was a Friday morning when they took the dead man to his final resting place; Johannes followed slowly behind the black coffin which hid his dear father; the monk read a prayer in Latin and threw dirt upon the coffin; it was then as if his heart would break, but when the choir-boys sang and swung the censers, so that the bluish smoke swirled up among the green hedges, he melted into tears; in the young voices he seemed to hear God’s angels singing their greeting to his father. He looked up towards the sky, looked around him; everything was breathing the full life of summer; then it became clear to his soul that death could not mean annihilation; the birds sang so sweetly round about in the tall chestnut trees, and high up beneath the blue heavens the light clouds sailed far away to foreign lands. He then felt a tremendous longing to see the world. The procession went back to the house of mourning, where a fine spread had been laid out for them; the praises of the dead man were sung as well as of his well-brewed cider, and the more they drank for the dead man, the livelier they became; a well-gorged monk, like the one by Hogarth, had assumed the merry role of a Harlequin, drank and made stupid jokes as well as any monarchist schoolmaster, but Johannes slid away from the cheerful company; he had carved and joined together a big wooden cross – this he took with him to the graveyard and placed on his father’s grave, which some of the local girls had already strewn with sand and flowers.

Early the following morning, he packed a small bundle, hid in his belt his entire inheritance, which was 50 thalers, and with this and a small purse in which there were a few silver coins, he left the house to set off out into the wide world. – This took him past the graveyard, where he first said farewell to his father’s grave – a lark was sitting on the wooden cross singing, but it immediately fluttered away between the fragrant elders when Johannes approached.

It was a beautiful morning, the cornfield, still wet with dew, gleamed like a sea of gold in the morning sun, and mists were slowly rising from the meadow, with all the flowers nodding in the fresh morning breeze, as if they wanted to welcome Johannes to nature. He turned round yet again on the hill, so as to see the old church where he had been christened, where every Sunday he had gone to church with his father and prayed to Christ and all the saints; then, high up in one of the holes in the tower, he saw the church pixie standing there with his little red pointed cap, he was shading his eyes with one arm as the sun would otherwise blind him. Johannes nodded goodbye to him, and the little pixie waved his red cap, placed his hand on his heart and kissed his fingers many times, to show him he wished him well, and that he was to have a really fine journey.

With his head full of all sorts of dreams about the great, wonderful world he was really going to see for the first time, he drew further and further away from the dear home of his childhood. Soon things seemed newer to him and he was greeted by unfamiliar faces. He spent the first night in a haystack in a field, there he slept like a Persian prince in his magnificent bedchamber. The green field was his carpet, the elder bushes and the wild hedgerows of roses were his vases of flowers, and as a washbasin he had the entire river with its clear running water. The moon hung like a huge Argand lamp, up beneath the vaulted ceiling and burnt with a steady flame. Without fearing that the light there would burn down or fall over and set light to the blue ceiling and the light cloud-curtains, Johannes slept until a choir of winged musicians woke him the following morning.

From the nearby village the bells were ringing, it was Sunday; people were going to church and all of them greeted in a most friendly fashion the unknown wanderer with the open, honest face; soon the chanting of the Mass could be heard, and the candles were burning on the altar, but Johannes stood alone in the graveyard, saw the many sunken graves that were overgrown with tall grass – and that made him think of his father’s grave, which soon enough would also sink and collapse likewise, since he was not there to adorn and weed it. He sat down in silence and pulled grass up from one of the nearest graves, raised the black crosses that had fallen down, and replaced in position the wreaths that the wind had blown away from the recently dug graves, hoping to himself that a loving hand would also take care of his father’s grave, now that he was unable to.

At the lychgate there stood an old beggar with a pious, venerable face, leaning against his crutch. He shared with him what few silver coins were still left in his purse, and then calmly and contentedly set out further into the wide world.

Down by the shore he found a skipper whose boat was ready to sail, and for the small remainder of his silver coins he persuaded him to take him as a passenger. Soon the white sails were billowing in the fresh sea breeze; the lovely Danish coastline with its woods and hills faded further and further into the distance; the waves broke with white foam against the bows of the ship, and as light as a bird it flew over the sea to foreign lands; towards evening a new scene of nature showed itself to him. The sea suddenly fell calm and its surface was as smooth as a mirror, but far off there was a rushing in the air, like an omen of the approaching storm; heavy black clouds piled up on the horizon, and the white gulls fluttered anxiously with hoarse cries towards the coast, which could be made out at some distance. Before the boat even reached land, the storm had come nearer; Johannes stood by the mast and gazed enthralled out into raging nature. The sun was just setting, large and round, in the sea and all the waves shimmered with a wondrous mixture of red and green. Above the sea a lovely rainbow arched and beneath it stood the great storm cloud, not black and menacing but coloured with a soft pink tinge by the sinking sun, and in the midst of this pale redness there was a playing of blue-white streaks of lightning. Filled with quite strange emotions Johannes went ashore; he was now standing in a foreign country, and the sea lay between him and his home. But soon the sight of all the new things dispelled his brief despondency; the storm seemed to move off across the sea, the evening was so cool and beautiful, so he decided to walk further; but after a few hours the storm turned, and our dear young man had to quicken his pace to get a roof over his head before the rain started to pour down. It soon grew darker and darker around him; at last he saw a solitary church that lay on a wooded hill; he struggled towards it and found the door of the porch was ajar. On entering, he admittedly felt his heart tug at him on seeing he was now in the company of a dead man; for on the couch lay the body of a middle-aged man with folded hands and a sudarium covering his face.

‘I do not wish to disturb the peace of the dead man,’ he thought, ‘only borrow a roof over my head until the storm has passed over.’ He sat quietly in the corner, and had almost fallen asleep, but when the rain stopped and the storm abated he heard a very strange rustling sound over by the door and two dark figures entered, approached the dead man and gave a horrible laugh as they seized him violently.

‘In Jesus’s name, who are you!’ Johannes cried out and stepped forwards towards them. ‘Why do you wish to disturb the dead man’s peace?’

The men gave a start, but after a few moments one of them started to laugh quite hideously and said in a rough voice:

‘Revenge, brother! Revenge! This dead man owes us 50 thalers that we lent him some days ago; it was a form of speculation, and he was as fit as a fiddle, but yesterday he went and pulled a shabby beggar-boy out of the river that he had fallen in, and happened to stay in it a bit too long himself. And now we can whistle for our money! He has fooled us and all the old women now regard him as a man of God, but when we’ve scratched him a bit, they’ll sing another tune, and shake their heads and whisper about Satan and all his minions – you get my meaning!’

‘But if I step forward tomorrow,’ Johannes replied, ‘and tell them what you so unreservedly have said to me, what then?’

‘What then!’ the man answered, ‘well, if we were afraid of that, we’d grab you by the throat till your eyes were popping out of your head like those of a boiled lobster! But we’re not afraid of that; for it can’t benefit you in any way, and you’d be sure of meeting up with a nasty accident!’

So did the man speak and then grabbed the corpse once more to maltreat it; but Johannes stepped boldly between them and tried with all his eloquence to prevent this happening, but to no avail.

‘I am off into the wide world,’ he said finally, ‘I have neither father nor mother, and my entire fortune is 50 thalers – doesn’t the dead man owe you thereabouts? If you will swear to me by God and all the saints not to disturb his peace any more, I am willing to give you the little I possess!’

‘You are prepared to pay the dead man’s debt?’ one of them asked, his eyes wide open.

‘Yes,’ Johannes answered, ‘if you can convince me that you will leave his poor body in peace, and not try to harm his honest reputation. Here is the money, but swear first over the dead man’s body, and place you hand on his cold head!’

The men obeyed and were soon on their way home, content with the money; but Johannes re-arranged the dead man on the couch once more and folded his cold hands before picking up his staff and bidding the dead man farewell.

‘Well, now that burden has been taken from me!’ he thought, ‘no robber will try to kill me for the sake of my money any more, and I have paid honestly for my night’s shelter; the Lord God will take care for what is now to come!’ Calmly and contentedly he left the church porch; the storm had passed and the full moon shone white and clear from the blue sky. The night was so mild and cool and all the bushes and trees in the wood he was walking through had so fresh and refreshing a scent; the small elves were playing merrily in the brushwood and took no notice of the stranger who was passing by, watching their games, since he was a good, innocent man. – Some of the elves were no larger than a finger and had put up their long blond hair with a golden comb; others were only a thumb in height, probably the infant elves, and they amused themselves by sailing in large flower petals rocking on the dew in the tall grass; if one such boat tipped over, the elf would fall head downwards and disappear into the grass, with all the other small creatures noisily laughing. – From hedge to hedge large multi-coloured spiders with gold crowns on their heads had to weave for them yard-long suspension bridges and palaces which, sprinkled with fine drops of dew, looked as if they were inlaid with diamonds. Whole hosts of airy elves now leapt around on these bridges and castles until the morning, when they all vanished, and the wind blew away all their lovely buildings, which now only fluttered in the wind like large cobwebs and then completely disappeared when the sun rose in the sky. As Johannes was walking on in vivid dreams, he heard a strong man’s voice call out behind him: ‘Hey there, comrade! Where are you off to?’ He turned round and saw a hale and hearty man about 30 years old, well-dressed, with a small knapsack on his back and leaning on a large knobbly stick.

‘I’m off into the wide world,’ Johannes said, ‘my father is dead and I am only a poor lad, but the Lord God, I think, will help me even so! The bird sings and yet has neither corn nor money – and the same applies to me.’

‘My path is also out into the wide world,’ the stranger said; ‘Shall we then not keep each other company? Two heads are always better than one!’ The words rolled easily off his tongue, Johannes felt strangely attracted to him, and soon they were well acquainted and quite familiar with each other.

The stranger possessed rare knowledge, had taken a good, long look at the world; Johannes listened and marvelled at what he said, for a whole new world opened up for him, and everything he already knew now took on a new and greater clarity. He described to him so vividly the endless, high mountains with their eternal ice and snow; how the clouds hung deep below the wanderer; how pure the air was there, so the vault of the sky was of the deepest blue, and the sun stood without dazzling rays in the brightest fiery red. How beautiful it was among these mountains where ice-pyramids alternate with carpets of flowers and golden cornfields; and where from the highest peaks one gazes out into infinity; and where the lower mountains with their glaciers and snow look like a rough sea which in a trice has stiffened into immense waves. He also told him about the interior of the mountains, where the gleaming ore wound like streams and rivers in never-ending curves; about the great oceans with their coral reefs and huge monsters; and about the endless kingdoms and lands to be found on this earth.

Johannes had never imagined that the world was so big; the more the stranger told him, the larger it became to him; but just as he was marvelling most about its greatness, the stranger pointed to the sky, showed him the sun, and explained how every star that twinkled to him at night like a tiny pin-point was a planet possibly larger and maybe more beautiful that this earth; then Johannes felt giddy at the thought of the vast infinity of space, but then he shook his head and took the stranger’s hand with a smile while thanking him for the lovely fairy tale, for it could not, of course, be anything else. –

The sun was already high in the sky when they paused to rest under a large tree; the stranger shared his scanty provisions with him, which consisted of bread and wine; such a drink he had never tasted before; it was quite a fine outdoor lunch they had. The wood arched up above them like a banqueting hall, and high up in the gallery, which was clad in real green that did not come out in the wash, the birds, like the greatest singers, sang everything at sight and without one false trill among them.

Our wanderers had almost consumed their lunch when an old woman, bent with age, approached them; on her back she was carrying a truss of firewood that she had gathered in the wood, and she supported herself by one hand on a crutch-handled stick, but in the other she held three large bundles of ferns and willow twigs. Slowly and with much groaning she struggled forwards, but just when she was close up to them both she sank to the ground and let out a cry of pain; they immediately leapt up to help her, but in her fall she had broken a leg. She moaned aloud with pain, and asked them to lead her to her hut, which lay not far away. Johannes immediately took her in his arms, but the stranger told him to lay her down in the grass, then took a jar out of his knapsack and explained that it contained a precious ointment that not only could mend her broken leg immediately but even make that leg far healthier than it had been before, but as a reward he demanded the three bundles she was carrying. The old woman looked at him in amazement, and muttered strangely with her toothless gums:

‘Cold and white, hot and red,

Royal crown or death ahead.’

and handed him the three bundles. Scarcely had he smeared the miraculous ointment on her leg before the old woman got up, and assured him that she had never been so light on her feet before, and asked him if he would not smear a little on the other leg too, so that she would not have to start limping but have two healthy legs to go on; scarcely had he fulfilled her wish before both her pins started to go back and forth like drumsticks, she curtseyed and disappeared into the green wood.

‘What do you want those bundles for?’ Johannes asked the stranger, who was carefully concealing them in his knapsack.

‘Use them when I become a page and am to accompany my Lady,’ he answered, ‘oh, that was really a magnificent catch!’

Towards evening they came out of the wood, and a vast wide view lay before them.

‘What black clouds are massing up out there!’ Johannes said, ‘we’re surely in for a storm tonight.’

‘Black clouds,’ the stranger interrupted, ‘no, those are mountains, we’ll be able to reach them tomorrow.’

How longingly Johannes gazed out towards them and wished that they could be there that very evening, but the stranger felt the best course of action was to get some rest at the inn close by, so that with renewed strength they could start their mountain journey the following day.

There was a large, mixed gathering at the inn, for a puppet player had set up a small theatre on some barrels and wanted to present the lovely story of Queen Esther. Johannes and the stranger took seats among the other onlookers, some of who were smoking tobacco and others chatting away merrily. A fat butcher who appeared to be the finest member of the company sat closest to the theatre with his large fierce dog by his side, which stared along with the rest of those present at the royal entertainment that was now enacted.

King Ahasverus had already elevated Esther to the rank of queen, Mardocheus had been led around on a beautiful white horse and Haman hanged; now came the last act where the Jews were to slaughter all their enemies: ooh! what destruction; the king and Queen Esther sat in the middle of the square on a lovely throne, both wearing a golden crown and long red cloaks that the small Jewish boys bore the trains of. Each time a regiment of heathens fell, Esther nodded and jumped up and down on her seat, which was a sight to see, but suddenly, goodness knows what the large fierce dog was thinking when the fat butcher became so gripped by the play that he forgot to hold onto him, he gave a mighty leap up at the theatre, overturned all the halberdiers and seized Queen Esther by her slender waist. “Knick, knack!” how she was bitten to pieces, and the poor puppet player moaned terribly, for the dog had bitten the head off his first prima donna. The play was over for now, and everyone went their separate ways; then the stranger took the poor Queen Esther in his hands and smeared her with the precious ointment he owned, and immediately she was whole again, and what was even more remarkable, she could now move her own limbs, and gave a deep curtsey and threw out both her arms and legs. Then the puppet player was truly glad, for now she could move of her own accord and he no longer needed to pull the strings, and all she lacked was a voice to be a perfect Lady.

After having eaten a frugal evening meal, they lay down to rest, but were unable to sleep because of a strange sighing and moaning that seemed to come from the theatre; the puppet player lifted the curtain aside and there lay all the knights and ladies, the king and the guardsmen among each other and sighed so it pained his heart, they stared at him with their big glass eyes, and it was as if they were asking to be smeared with a little ointment, like the queen, so that they too could move of their own accord. Queen Esther also knelt down and held out her golden crown, as if to say: ‘take it! but smear my husband and my courtiers!’ then the puppet player could not resist any longer, he promised the stranger he would give him the entire takings for that evening and more besides if only he would also smear some of the other puppets, but all the stranger demanded in return was the large broadsword he carried at his side, and when he had received it, he soon rubbed life into the finest of the wooden figures.

When dawn came, they left the inn to start their mountain journey; they climbed upwards the whole time, through brushwood and bushes; soon everything around them started to look wilder; high sections of rock hung menacingly out above their heads; the footpath was so narrow that Johannes swooned and would have plunged down into the terrible ravine below them had it not been for the support the stranger gave him. The view now became more open, the sun rose and shone with its red rays over the white summits, but far below them the valley lay in a bluish haze that dissipated in the morning sun. Johannes was absorbed in the contemplation of this splendour; he saw and sensed only God in the great infinity. Then he heard very wondrous, heavenly notes above his head; they strangely mingled with the feelings he had in his heart; he looked up, a large white swan was hovering in the air, its song died down in melting harmonies and, as if borne by the wind, the bird sank down with bowed head at his feet and was dead; then the stranger took the large broadsword that he had been given by the puppet player and now wore at his side and with two strong blows struck off the swan’s large wings and concealed them under his knapsack.

Johannes was so amazed at all the new things he saw and heard that he was unable to speak a word, but the stranger seized his hand and said: ‘Look! didn’t the sword come in handy at the right moment? for these wings we shall get gold, and for the gold a merry meal!’

They then walked on among the mountains, ‘How large and delightful everything is,’ Johannes said, ‘I wonder what delightful lands can lie on the other side of the mountains.’

‘There lies the world of imagination!’ the stranger said, ‘I expect we shall see its glittering diamond mountains tomorrow!’

When they had travelled many more miles, they saw deep down in a valley between the mountains a great city, with many towers that glinted wonderfully in the clear sunlight, and in the middle of the city there lay a magnificent marble palace covered with silver and gold, where the king resided. About six miles from the city lay a large inn, and here everyone was busy raising a celebration archway that the girls were hanging with flowers and garlands. From the innkeeper our wanderers heard that they were in the kingdom of the King of Hearts, an excellent monarch and closely related to Silvio, the King of Diamonds, quite well known from Carlo Gozzi’s dramatic fairy tale ‘The Love for Three Oranges’.

‘Alas!’ the innkeeper said, ‘our most gracious King of Hearts is an excellent man, truly a man of the heart, and that is why he is always portrayed with two hearts, but his daughter – alas! alas!’

At this point, the good old man started to weep so bitterly that he was unable to speak a word more; when he had composed himself, they were told that the king’s daughter was as beautiful as the sun, but was also an evil, spiteful witch who had caused the death of many fine princes and manly knights. Anyone, from prince to pauper, was allowed to woo her, but if he was not able to answer the three questions she posed him, or rather, guess three things, then she, like some Turandot, had him executed without either mercy or pity. The old king was almost ripe for the grave because of his ungodly daughter and because he had sworn a holy oath to her not to interfere in her love dealings. A decree had even been issued that once a year there was to be a Great Prayer Day, when the king and all his people kneeled down and prayed that the princess might return to the true path and gain a new and better heart; the sorrow was so great that even the old women in the city coloured their snaps black, so that even in that way they could express their sadness.

‘But is she really that beautiful?’ the stranger asked.

‘Ah yes,’ the innkeeper answered, ‘the Lord God has given her a beautiful form! but what is the use of that? A donkey is still a donkey, even with a golden coverlet on its back! and nobility without virtue is a lamp without a light! Alas, all this to-do will only come to an end when they pat the earth flat on her grave with a shovel; then she will sleep in red sheets where the beds are hot without a warming pan! May God preserve us all! – She will be passing here presently, so I have had to raise this gate of honour; she is to inspect the new marble baths! Oh, may God allow her to drown in them, the nasty devil! But she will not drown, she will not drown!’

Johannes and the stranger had meanwhile sat down at the table in the guestroom to enjoy a little food, when suddenly they were interrupted by loud cries of hurrah; they went over to the window; there stood the innkeeper outside waving his white cap, and the maidens and youths held garlands in the air for the princess, who with her suite rode through the gate of honour adorned with flowers and greenery. In front one could see two young squires, dressed exactly as the Jack of Hearts in a pack of cards; her handmaidens rode on black horses and wore red and blue dresses, each holding a lovely golden tulip in her hand, but the princess herself sat on a white Arab horse, and her sky-blue cloak fluttered in the breeze; on her head she wore a crown of precious jewels, and her brown locks cascaded down in large, full rings over her bosom and the thin, white belt that betrayed the lovely shape of her body. Her brow was high and noble, and under the finely drawn eyebrows there glittered two large, black eyes that could certainly shoot arrows through even the hardest heart; her mouth, cheeks, neck... already she had passed by the house, but her gaze had rested on Johannes, who stood there transfixed staring out at the princess, in whom he seemed to see the lovely dream figure that had appeared to him at his father’s death bed.

He told the stranger his dream, how his father had placed the beautiful girl’s hand in his, how happy he had felt, and how vivid the whole scene was to him still when he woke up and, instead of the girl’s hand, found himself holding the ice-cold dead hand of his father in his own.

‘But,’ the stranger said, shaking his head, ‘take heed of the unhappy warning, wake up in time from this unfortunate slumber of love, and not later, when death’s cold hand grabs hold of you! Think of the many fine princes and manly knights that have been killed before you, and let me not lose so early – and in such a way – a dear travelling companion!’

Johannes, though, threw himself on his chest and melted into tears; he could not tear himself away from his lovely dream image, which he had now seen glide past as large as life; it was as if invisible powers pulled him off with them, he had to see and speak with the lovely princess; what more beautiful could he find anywhere in the world? It was as if he recently had read Werther and Siegwarth – he could only love and die.

After having brushed his shoes and his dress coat, washed his hands and face and combed his blond hair to one side, he went off into the city alone, up to the great palace that glinted silver and gold in the sunlight. He knocked loudly on the copper door, but nobody opened; he knocked again, but it was only when he banged the knocker a third time that the door creaked on its massive hinges; it was the King of Hearts himself who came to open it; he was in his dressing gown and slippers, but on his venerable head, round his silver-white locks, he was wearing his heavy golden crown and was holding his sceptre and orb under his arm while he opened the door with a large golden key.

When he heard that Johannes was a new suitor for his royal daughter, the old man burst into tears, so that his sceptre and orb fell to the ground; he raised both arms heavenward and dried his eyes on his costly dressing gown. After that, he took Johannes by the hand and led him into the princess’s flower garden. In every tree hung three or four royal suitors, whose dangling skeletons rattled their dry bones and scared all the songbirds away from the garden. The flowerbeds consisted of human bones, and horrible skulls grinned all round the terraces, and in the marble pool the fish played with the bleeding hearts of those who had been killed.

‘Alas, my son,’ the old king said, ‘here you can see what awaits you! Do not heap more blood on my and my daughter’s head, turn back or you will soon forfeit your young life!’

Johannes reverently pressed the old king’s hand to his lips, but at the same time assured him that his decision was irrevocable. Then there was a noise in the palace garden; the princess returned, dismounted from her horse and was soon in the garden with both of them. Johannes spoke, but he was not even aware of what he said, for the princess smiled so blithely to him and stretched out her lily-white hand for a kiss; his lips were on fire, and he felt quite galvanised, he was completely unable to enjoy any of the refreshments the pages came with, all he could see was his lovely dream image, and all that he could hear was that she asked him to present himself at the palace the following morning, when the judges and the council would be assembled for his first trial.

Beside himself with joy, he returned to the inn, put his arms round the stranger’s neck and told him of his happiness; the latter shook his head a little, but then smiled in a fairly contented way, took Johannes in a firm embrace, and said: ‘You poor, dear lad! I really ought to weep at losing you in this way, but I will refrain from disturbing you on this the last day you have to live in; let us make a merry day of it! I will hold your funeral feast this evening, but let us pretend it is your marriage acceptance! – Tomorrow there will be time enough for me to weep over you!’

The rumour had, however, spread like wildfire in the city, that a new suitor had come for the princess; the playhouse had been closed; the king had ordered the court to go into mourning, and in all the churches the clergymen were praying for the new suitor.

When the sun had set, both our wanderers were sitting in the small room in the inn; two candles were burning in candelabra, and a large bowl of punch was steaming on the table. The stranger was immensely cheerful, almost elated; with thousands of amusing whims he shortened the time to be spent waiting and kept on urging Johannes to empty the filled glass. The strong drink, to which he was quite unaccustomed, soon had its effect; Johannes’ head started to nod and he fell asleep. The stranger gently put him in bed near midnight, took out his knapsack, tied the two large swan’s wings onto his back, took one of the bundles in his hand, opened the window and now flew out across the city to the royal palace, where he squatted behind a pillar outside the princess’s bedroom window.

Everything was so quiet in the city; only a single time could the snoring of the sentries and night watchmen be heard; the clock struck a quarter to twelve; then the window of the princess’s bedroom opened, and she floated lightly out in a large white robe and a pair of large eagle’s wings, out over the city to the nearby mountain; but the stranger made himself invisible, flew after her and whipped the princess quite gleefully with his bundle, so that her red blood fell like dewdrops onto the grass and flowers of the meadow. Ooh, what a strange trip it was through the sharp night air! The wind caught her long white robe, and the moon shone through it.

‘How hard it’s hailing! how hard it’s hailing!’ the princess sighed at every blow she received from the bundle. At last she reached the mountain, and knocked on it; there came a strange crashing noise from inside, as if thousands of iron chains had fallen into an abyss; the rock face split, and the princess with her invisible escort stepped into the deep, vaulted passage. The mountain shut again with the same crashing sound, and a host of small pixies that served the mighty troll who lived here, bore the lovely princess into the large throne room. More than a thousand colonnades stretched away from here through the mountain, and all of them gleamed with ore and glittering stones, the rays of which were refracted into the loveliest colours; an artificial sun and moon shed light from high-up beneath the vault, and the floor was inlaid with a diversity of stones and flowers. High up on a throne of pure gold sat the king of the mountain with a crown on his head that consisted of a single ruby; his black, tangled elflocks hung down over his disfigured, violet-blue face; he kissed the princess on the forehead and let her take a seat beside him; soon there was much merriment, the troll’s entire court started to move; what a great buzzing and humming there was! small maidens, hardly a cubit tall, danced with fine warriors who could not have been much taller either, so one would have thought that the uniform, the sabre and the small hat with the waving feathers, everything, was merely a masquerade. No one saw the stranger, who had placed himself behind the throne, but he heard and saw everything even better for that. In that way he discovered that most of the gentlemen in waiting and those who opened the doors were not real trolls but only blocks of wood that their mighty lord, the troll, had enchanted into life and let them have those magnificent costumes to wear. A bel esprit of the court was leaping around, but if one looked at him closely, one could see it was only a broomstick with a cabbage stuck on one end that they had made their genius and hung with a suit of golden cloth. When the dancing was over, and in particular many stupid things had been said, the princess wanted to leave, but first she told the troll that a new suitor had turned up, and she therefore wished for his advice as to what she ought to think of that night, so as to present it to the suitor when he came to the palace the next morning.

‘Listen,’ the troll said, ‘the simpler the thing is, the harder it will be for him to guess; so think of your shoes – I hope we will see each other again tomorrow night, and a far more glittering party than this one will be waiting for you.’

The princess curtseyed, and all the small gentlemen in waiting bore her on their hands to the exit from the mountain, from where her own gentleman in waiting, as before, accompanied her to the palace, where she climbed in through the window, complaining about the violent hailstorm.

When the stranger got back to the inn, Johannes was still asleep; he hurriedly took off his wings, and lay down beside him. At dawn, Johannes woke up, the stranger also leapt out of bed, and told him he had had a very strange dream about the princess and her shoes that night, and therefore he earnestly begged him to ask the princess if she perhaps had been thinking of her shoes!

‘I can just as well ask her that as anything else,’ Johannes said, ‘for I haven’t a clue myself. I know that I must die; but at least get to see her one more time, dare to speak to her once more!’ Oh, it was so moving to hear! the poor young fellow who had previously been so natural, so lovable, now sounded exactly like a Claurenesque book – but what can love not do to a man?

He threw himself in tears round his friend’s neck, bequeathed him his few possessions, and now went up to the palace, his heart beating wildly. The hall was already full of people, the judges were enthroned, and the old king stood drying his eyes on a white handkerchief. The princess soon entered; oh, she was even more beautiful than the day before! The trumpets sounded, the princess waved to Johannes, who now came forward and knelt down at the foot of the throne. With a gracious, royal smile she asked him what her thoughts had lingered on the previous night; oh, that smile, that smile could have been a success both in a novel and on the stage, but it vanished the moment the word ‘Shoes’ came from his lips; she bit her own, went as pale as a corpse and quivering with rage she admitted that he had guessed correctly. Goodness gracious! how happy the old king then was; he hopped around the hall on one leg, while the entire people clapped their hands for him and the lucky suitor, who had now guessed correctly first time round.

Rejoicing, Johannes threw himself round the stranger’s neck when he got back to the inn; told him how strangely heaven, by his dream, had saved and aided him; and with a childlike trust he also relied on the Good Lord helping him again the next two times – he was to appear at the palace again the following morning. The evening passed in almost the same way as before. When Johannes had fallen asleep, the stranger strapped on his wings once more and accompanied the princess to and from the mountain, but this time he used both the bundles, so her lily-white back was marked by them. This time she thought of her glove, and Johannes, instructed by the stranger, who once more pretended to have dreamt it, guessed correctly, to the joy of the king and the entire people. The king was already beginning to get back a little of his colour, and the old women no longer coloured their snaps, for they were almost certain that the golden-locked young man, whom they called Johannes, was sure to be victorious and gain the princess’s hand. But now the third and deciding trial was approaching. As soon as Johannes had fallen asleep that night, the stranger once more strapped the wings onto his back, took all three bundles in his hand and hung the large broadsword at his side. It was a dark and stormy night; the princess soared high up into the air, her long, black hair streaming behind her in the wind, the lightning flashed constantly around her, and one could see that she was as pale as death, but she laughed out loud, and her laughter mingled strangely with the storm; three times she swooped over her flower garden, where the skeletons of the many suitors hung in the trees – and seemed to dance to the merry music of the wind. Exhausted, she arrived at the mountain and almost fainted into the arms of the small pixies, who immediately carried her to the hall of the troll, their king.

‘Such a night as this,’ she said, ‘I have never experienced before in my life; it is hailing and storming, and the whole sky is afire!’

The partying and dancing began inside the mountain, but she was unable to take part; she stared fixedly in front of her, then seized the troll’s hand and told him how the new suitor had also guessed correctly the second time, and she feared that he would be just as lucky the third time, and that she would never again be able to come out here to the mountain, that her power would gradually dwindle away and finally disappear.

‘Oh no, that shall not be!’ the troll said, ‘what I will now give you to think of will be impossible for him to guess, unless he is a far greater man than all of us put together; but we will be merry until midnight and frisk about for a while in the vaulted mountain halls!’ And now he seized her by the hand, and both of them whirled off into merry dances; but when the time came that she had to return home if she was not to be missed at the palace, the troll decided that he would accompany her himself.

The stranger wore out his three bundles on them, and the troll had to admit that he had never been out in such a hailstorm as this one. When they came to the palace, he kissed her on the lips and whispered: ‘Think of my head!’, but the stranger heard it, and when the princess had slipped through the window into her bedroom and the troll was about to return to the mountain, the stranger grabbed hold of his black tangled elflocks and, with a single blow of his broadsword, separated his ugly head from his body, which he flung down into the pitching sea, but the head he took home with him, washed the blood off it and then bound it in a large, blue-chequered handkerchief that he gave to Johannes the following morning, with the strictest instructions not to open it before the princess asked him what she had been thinking of the previous night. There was not enough room at the palace for the vast crowd of people that amassed there, many of them were half-squeezed to death, and most of them had their corns trampled on. The council was assembled; the old King of Hearts was arrayed in all his splendour, with the orb and sceptre in his hand, and the heavy gold crown on his old head. The princess sat there, pale as a corpse and in a jet-black dress, and beckoned with great seriousness to Johannes; he approached the throne, there was a deep silence in the hall; he swiftly opened the kerchief, and with a shriek the princess fell back; everyone was horror-struck, for in death the head was even uglier than before, Johannes dropped it, and in silence bent down over the princess; she slowly raised herself up, stretched out a hand to him, and with a quivering voice declared that he was now her chosen bridegroom, since he had so successfully completed his three trials.

Oh, what joy there now was in the entire city, and in the old king’s heart as well. – Everywhere music and celebrations could be heard, three whole-roasted oxen stuffed with geese and chickens were given to the common people; on the squares expensive wines spurted in the specially prepared fountains. The theatre was opened and a completely new play presented that had been waiting to be performed for six years until such a fitting occasion came about – its subject was nothing at all, so everyone could understand it at once, people were in a good mood and it proved a tremendous success. In the evening, the whole city was lit up; dancing and celebrations took place at the palace, and the bridal chamber was decorated with floral wreaths and garlands; the old king embraced Johannes, placed his daughter’s hand in his and immediately gave him half the kingdom. But the princess was still a witch, of course, and did not love Johannes; all of this the stranger had thought of and had therefore given him three feathers from the swan’s wings and a bottle with some precious drops of liquid, and he also told him to place beside the bridal bed a large tub full of water; and when the princess wished to climb into bed, he was to give her a little shove so she fell into the water, where he was to plunge her under the water three times after having thrown the feathers and sprinkled the drops in it, and then she would be completely freed from the troll’s spell and quickly come to love him just as much as he loved her. Johannes did precisely what the stranger had prescribed; the princess screamed aloud when he plunged her under the water, and squirmed beneath his hands like a jet-black swan the eyes of which emitted glowing sparks; but when she came up to the surface a second time, the swan was white except for a single ring round its neck, and when he – with a fervent prayer to God – let the water swirl up over her a third time, she quickly rose up, her swan’s guise fell off her, and he was holding the princess in his arms. She was far more beautiful even than before, and thanked him with tears in her lovely eyes because he had broken her spell. –

The next morning the old king came with all the royal household, and congratulations lasted until well into the afternoon; but it was not until everyone had paid their compliments that the stranger appeared on the scene. He was dressed for travelling, had his stick in his hand and his knapsack on his back. Johannes threw himself in his arms, and begged him not to leave, but to stay and share his good fortune, for which he was solely responsible. But he shook his head with a smile and said: ‘No, now my time is over! I have paid an old debt; do you recall that night in the church porch? the dead man you saved from being mishandled? I am The Corpse!’

Johannes was taken aback, wanted to speak to him, but he had disappeared.

The wedding feast lasted another whole month, and the old king now enjoyed many a happy day and rejoiced at the happiness of his children; soon there were small jacks and queens of hearts being dandled on his knee, and he let them play with his sceptre, and told them many delightful fairy tales during the long winter evenings, until his own fairy tale was finished.



Henvis til værket

Hans Christian Andersen: The Corpse, a Funen Folk Tale. Translated by John Irons, edited by , published by The Hans Christian Andersen Centre, University of Southern Denmark, Odense. Version 1.0. Published 2024-04-01[INFO OM 18-binds-udgaven 2003-2009...] for Det Danske Sprog- og Litteraturselskab. Digitaliseret af Holger Berg til sitet hcandersen.dk

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