Looking into Prince Lindworm
The story of "Prince Lindworm" or "Kong Lindorm" is ATU 433B, related to the Animal Bridegroom tale family. Many variants of the Animal Bridegroom story feature serpents, but this one is rather unique. And upon researching it, I soon learned that pretty much everything I knew about this story was wrong.
A lindworm is a dragon usually shown with just two legs, often seen on coats of arms. Although the stories are very different, "Prince Lindworm" begins with a scene almost identical to the start of "Tatterhood." In both, a queen who wants a child encounters an old woman who gives her instructions on getting one. Tatterhood's mother pours water beneath her bed, and the next morning finds a lovely flower and an ugly flower there. Lindworm's mother places a cup upside-down in her garden, and the next morning finds a white rose and a red rose underneath.
In both cases, there's a warning. Tatterhood's mother is instructed not to eat the ugly flower, while Lindworm's mother is told to pick only one (red for a boy, white for a girl). But both are overcome by temptation, because the first flower "tasted so sweet" - the same reason in both versions.
This hunger and greed symbolizes sexual temptation. It also hearkens to myths that blamed women for birth defects - like "maternal impression," the idea that the mother's thoughts or surroundings could influence her unborn child.
For Tatterhood, a connection seems clear: Tatterhood's pretty twin is created by the beautiful flower, and the outwardly repellent Tatterhood by the foul-looking plant. The twins are fundamentally opposite, yet love each other deeply. The same motif drives "Biancabella and the Snake," an Italian tale by Giovanni Francesco Straparola, where a woman gives birth to a baby girl with a snake around her neck. The snake, Samaritana, serves as a supernatural helper to her human sister, Biancabella. She eventually doffs her serpent skin and becomes a woman without explanation. (Italo Calvino collected a folktale, "The Snake," with the same story - except that the snake is merely a helpful animal, not an enchanted sibling.)
In the opposite of these tales with diametrically opposed siblings, there are stories where two women eat of the same food and bear identical children. You find this in the Italian "Pome and Peel" and the Russian tale of "Storm-Bogatyr, Ivan the Cow's Son." In "Ivan the Cow's Son," rather than a woman giving birth to an animal, a cow gives birth to a human.
But Prince Lindworm apparently follows a different internal logic. The queen is hoping to have both a son and a daughter when she eats both roses; this makes sense, even though it's incredibly stupid to disobey instructions in a fairytale. In fact, she eats the white rose first, so you would think she would have a daughter first. However, what she gets is a male lindworm and a baby boy - twins, as in "Tatterhood" or "Biancabella," one perfect, the other monstrous.
The lindworm baby escapes and is not seen again until, years later, the second prince prepares to marry. The lindworm returns; as he is firstborn, he says he should get married first. The royal family obtains a bride for him, but the lindworm eats her on their wedding night. Before you know it, we're on Bride #3, and she quickly deduces that this isn't going to end well for her. However, an old woman gives her advice. Bride #3 is savvier than the queen and follows the instructions exactly. On her wedding night she wears ten white shifts and tells the lindworm to shed one skin every time she takes off a layer of clothing. Once he's removed nine skins, there's nothing left of him but a mass of bloody flesh. She beats him with whips dipped in lye, then bathes him in milk, and finally takes him in her arms. When people come to check on them the next morning, they find her sleeping beside a handsome human prince.
Marie-Luise von Franz interpreted the lindworm as a "hermaphrodite": “a masculine being . . . wrapped up in the feminine or the dragon skin. . . . Prince Lindworm is also a man surrounded by the woman, but he is in the form of a lump of bleeding flesh surrounded by a dragon skin, a regressive form of the union of the opposites.” In alchemy, according to von Franz, hermaphrodites are closely connected to dragons and serpents.
This explanation fails for me. The white rose was eaten first. Surely the feminine element should be at the center of the lindworm's being? What makes scales feminine and blood masculine? The biggest stumbling block is the existence of the twin brother. Why wasn't he affected? Going by the opening scene, it seems to me, the lindworm should either be a princess or have an older sister.
Taking a step back: the motif of the enchanted prince removing his animal skin is familiar. In "Hans My Hedgehog," a couple wishes desperately for a child, but their son is born as (wait for it) a hedgehog. He tries several times to take a bride, but the first girl is unwilling and he stabs her with his prickles. The second is willing, and on their wedding night he removes his hedgehog skin to become a handsome man. The same thing happens in the Italian "The Pig King." Both stories are Aarne Thompson type 441, the hog bridegroom. Very often this tale includes a number of false starts to marriage, where the enchanted bridegroom turns horrifyingly violent towards the maidens who reject him.
The removable skin seems more appropriate for serpents, which really do shed their skin, and which in many cultures are symbols of rebirth and transformation. And there is a widespread tale type of snake and serpent husbands, type 433C. Prince Lindworm is unusual in that he must remove multiple skins. His transformation is more involved than these other examples. He must also be whipped and bathed.
The act of bathing suggests baptism, and thus forgiveness of sins and rebirth. (And he needs that forgiveness of sins after all that snacking on maidens.) It's a little more odd that he is bathed in milk. However, there's a widespread tradition of offering milk to snakes. In Hinduism, milk is offered to snake idols, for instance on the feast of Nag Panchmi. So you get Indian folktales like "The Snake Prince," where in order to restore her husband from his serpent form, the heroine must put out bowls of milk and sugar to attract all the snakes and gain an audience with their queen. According to Arthur Evans, a similar tradition of milk offerings for "household snakes" existed in Greece, Dalmatia and Germany. Marija Gimbutas said that this practice persisted in Lithuania up into the 20th century. Snakes actually can't digest dairy products and do not drink milk unless suffering from dehydration.
In the Turkish tale of "The Stepdaughter and the Black Serpent," the heroine serves as a nursemaid for the serpent prince. When he's an infant, she keeps him contained in a box of milk. When he leaves the box, she beats him with rose and holly branches to deter him from hurting her. He eventually wants to take a wife, but kills forty (!) brides one after another. The heroine, chosen as his bride, wears forty hedgehog skins and asks the snake to remove one skin every time she does. After removing forty snake skins, he is left as a human and they burn the snake skins.It's the same tale as Prince Lindworm, except that the order of events is different. There's also no twin brother to complicate things.
"The Stepdaughter and the Black Serpent" was recorded long after Prince Lindworm, but what if it's closer to the original form of the story? I began to wonder if the opening scene and the twin brother were foreign to the essential tale. They certainly do not appear in most variants of the tale type. The Animal Bridegroom, which often begins with the desire for a child, could easily have been combined with similar stories like Tatterhood or Biancabella. The twin brother/missing sister problem would then exist because that element was added later.
Soon after, I learned Prince Lindworm's true origins. Most modern sources call it Norwegian, but it's actually Danish. It was collected in 1854, and the original version is very different.
D. L. Ashliman did an English translation. In the oldest version of "Kong Lindorm," the queen eats both roses, but has only one child - the lindworm. There is no twin brother. Marie-Luise von Franz's premise finally begins to make sense!
The story otherwise proceeds roughly as I knew it, but there is a second half that was completely new to me. Now happily married to the former lindworm, the heroine gives birth to twin boys, but an enemy at court gets her exiled. She uses her own breast milk to disenchant two more cursed men (King Swan and King Crane), before her husband finds out what happened and retrieves her.
"Kong Lindorm" was first published by Svend Grundtvig in Gamle danske Minder i Folkemunde (1854).
A Swedish version, "Prins Lindorm," was published in 1880. This was a very close retelling of the first version, with one important difference: the opening. This time, the queen is given instructions for bearing twins, no mention of whether they will be male or female. She is supposed to carefully peel the two red onions she grows, but she forgets to peel the first one. Storytellers might have added the twin brother because they confused this story with Tatterhood, which - as previously mentioned - has a strikingly similar beginning.
Then a variant appeared in Axel Olrik's Danske Sagn og Æventyr fra Folkemunde (1913). This was almost identical to the first Kong Lindorm, except that it included the twin brother. However, the storyteller did not otherwise alter the opening, so the birth of twins made no sense. The second half was hacked off, perhaps because the writer didn't want to talk about breast milk, and also because that's where the story starts to drag. This short version was translated into English in 1922, in a book titled East of the Sun and West of the Moon: Old Tales from the North. There, it was thrown in alongside Norwegian stories collected by the famous Asbjornsen and Moe, leading to the confusion around its origins.
So there you have it. The version I knew had been simplified and altered.
Ultimately, the story's sense of confusion stems from careless editing and a misunderstanding of the tale's logic. Adding in a second child obscures the idea of the older tale. In fact, the white rose leads to a daughter, a red rose leads to a son, and both roses together make a giant dragon monster. Simple, right?
Okay, I think it's really about 19th-century sexual mores for women. The queen's intemperance leads to a curse which affects her unborn child and generations to come. She hungered for extra roses (read: she was lustful), so her child is neither man nor woman and can't have a normal marriage. Echoing his mother's method of conception by eating, the only way he can engage with a woman is by devouring her. And his wives die because they are not behaving correctly on the wedding night. When Bride #3 follows proper instructions, she redeems her husband and can look forward to a happy and fruitful marriage. Note that she is still wearing one shift by the end of the cursebreaking ritual, indicating modesty and chastity. This is different from the Indian version, where the girl and the serpent shed the same number of skins. There's also an Oedipal note to it; she must bathe him in milk in order for him to be reborn. That original maternal sin has to be corrected. The longer version even doubles down on the milk motif.
You can read a translation of the original version here, and the popular English version here.
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7/28/2020 10:40:38 pm
Such insight into this story, thank you. I've recently started telling it and was also confused by the queen bearing two males. I appreciate all the research too.
Writing in Margins
7/29/2020 06:00:04 pm
Thank you for reading!
2/8/2023 04:35:56 pm
Hi! I’ve seen a lot of sources talking about how this tale may have originated from India, but I can’t find the actual Indian version of the story anywhere. You mentioned that in “Indian version, where the girl and the serpent shed the same number of skins,” so I’m assuming the story you’re talking about is not the snake prince story you linked above? I know it’s been years and you probably won’t even see this comment, but by any chance, do you still know where you read the Indian version, and if it’s true that the story actually originated from there? Sorry, I’m just a huge nerd for everything dragon-related and I’ve been fixating on this specific tale recently. I want to know every little detail and history of it!
Writing in Margins
2/10/2023 08:56:03 pm
I’m sorry, looking back I think I must have gotten mixed up! The one with the same number of skins being shed is the Turkish one, "The Stepdaughter and the Black Serpent." I probably got mixed up with "The Snake Prince" from India.
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Researching folktales and fairies, with a focus on common tale types.