by Joseph Jacobs
The Ridere of Riddles
THERE was a king once, and he married a great lady, and she departed on the birth of her first son. And a little after this the king married another wife, and she too had a son. The two lads grew up tall and strong. Then it struck the queen that it was not her son who would come into the kingdom; and she set it before her that she would poison the eldest son. And so she sent advice to the cooks that they should put poison in the drink of the heir; but as luck was in it, the youngest brother heard them, and he told his brother not to take the draught, nor to drink it at all; and so he did. But the queen wondered that the lad was not dead; and she thought that there was not enough of poison in the drink, and she asked the cook to put in more on the second night. It was thus they did: and when the cook made up the drink, she said that be would not be long alive after this draught. But his brother heard this also, and told him likewise. The eldest thought be would put the draught into a little bottle, and he said to his brother-" If I stay in this house I have no doubt she will do for me some way or other, and the quicker I leave the house the better. I will take the world for my pillow, and there is no knowing what fortune will be on me. His brother said that he would go with him, and they took themselves off to the stable, and they put saddles on two horses and they took their soles out of that.
They had not gone very far from the house when the eldest one said-" There is no knowing if poison was in the drink at all, though we went away. Try it in the horse's ear and we shall see." The horse did not go far before he fell. "That was only a rattle-bones of a horse anyway," said the eldest one, and they got up together on the other horse, and so they went forwards. " But," said he, "I can scarce believe that there is any poison in the drink; let's try it on this horse." That he did, and they went not far when the horse fell cold dead. They thought they'd take the hide off him, and that it would keep them warm at night which was close at hand. In the morning when they woke they saw twelve ravens come and light on the carcase of the horse, and they were not long there when they fell down dead.
They went and lifted the ravens, and they took then' with them, and the first town they reached they gave the ravens to a baker, and they asked him to make a dozen pies of the ravens. They took the pies with them, and they went forward on their journey. About the mouth of night, and when they were in a great thick wood, there came four and twenty robbers who bade them to deliver up their purses; but they said that they had no purse, but only a little food which they were carrying with them. "Good is even meat !" said the robbers, and they began to eat it, but had not eaten much when they fell hither and thither, all stone dead. When they saw that the robbers were dead they ransacked their pockets, and got much gold and silver. They went forward till they reached the Knight of Riddles.
The house of the Knight of Riddles was in the finest place in that country, and if his house was pretty, his daughter was prettier, and she had twelve inaldens with her only less fair than she. Her like was not on the surface of the world, altogether so handsome was she; and no one would get her to marry but the man who could put a question to her father that he could not solve. The brothers thought that they would go and try to put a question to him' and the youngest was to stand in place of gillie to the elder brother. They reached the house of the Knight of Riddles and this was the question they put to him - " One killed two, and two killed twelve, and twelve killed four and twenty, and two got out of it;" and they were to be kept in great majesty and high honour till he should solve the riddle.
They were thus a while with the Ridere, and try as he might he could not guess the riddle. On a day of days came one of the maidens who were with the knight's daughter to the gillie, and asked him to tell her the question. He took her plaid from her and let her go, but he told her nothing. The same thing happened to the twelve maidens, day after day, and the gillie said to the last one that no creature had the answer to the riddle but his master down below. One day after this came the knight's daughter to the eldest brother, and looking her finest and handsomest, and she asked him to tell her the question. And now there was no refusing her, and he told her, but he kept her plaid. The Knight of Riddles sent for him, and he gave him the answer of the riddle. And the knight said that he had two choices to lose his head, or to be set adrift in a crazy boat without food or drink, without oar or scoop. The elder brother spoke, and he said - " I have another riddle to put to thee before all these things happen." "Say on," said the knight. " Myself and my gillie were one day in the forest shooting. My gillie fired at a hare, and she fell, and he took her skin off, and let her go; and so he did to twelve, he took their skins off and let them go. And at last came a great fine hare, and I myself fired at her, and I took her skin off, and I let her go." "Indeed thy riddle is not hard to solve, my lad," said the knight, and he knew the lad knew he had not really guessed the riddle, but had been told the answer. So he gave him his daughter to wife, to make him hold his peace, and they made a great hearty wedding that lasted a day and a year. The youngest one went home now that his brother had got so well on his way, and the eldest brother gave him every right over the kingdom that was at home.
Now there were near the march of the kingdom of the Knight of Riddles three giants, and they were always murdering and slaying sume of the knight's people, and taking spoil from them. On a day of days the Knight of Riddles said to his son-in-law, that if the spirit of a man were in him, he would go to kill the giants, as they were always bringing such losses on the country. Well, so it was, he went and he met the giants, and he came home with the three giants' heads, and he threw them at the knight's feet.
"Thou art an able lad doubtless, and thy name hereafter is the Hero of the White Shield." The name of the Hero of the White Shield went far and near.
Meanwhile the brother of the Hero of the White Shield had wandered afar in many countries, and after long years had come to the land of the giants where the Hero of the White Shield was now dwelling, and the knight's daughter with him. His brother came and he asked to make a covrag or fight as a bull with him. The men began at each other, and they took to wrestling from morning till evening. At last and at length, when they were tired, weak, and spent, the Hero of the White Shield jumped over a great rampart, and he asked the stranger to meet him in the morning. This leap put the other to shame, and he said to him, "Well may it be that thou wilt not be so supple about this time to-morrow. The young brother now went to a poor little bothy that was near to the house of the Hero of the White Shield, tired and drowsy, and in the morning they dared the fight again. And the Hero of the White Shield began to go back, till he went backwards into a river. "There must be some of my blood in thee before that was done to me." "Of what blood art thou ?" said the youngest. "'Tis I am son of Ardan, great King of the Albann." " 'Tis I am thy brother." It was now they knew each other. They gave luck and welcome to each other, and the Hero of the White Shield now took him into the palace, and she it was that was pleased to see him-the knight's daughter. He stayed a while with them, and after that he thought that he would go home to his own kingdom and when he was going past a great palace that was there he saw twelve men playing at shinny over against the palace. He thought he would go for a while and play shinny with them ; but they were not long playing shinny when they fell out, and the weakest of them caught him and shook him as he would a child. He thought it was no use for him to lift a hand amongst these twelve worthies, and he asked them to whom they were sons. They said they were children of the one father, the brother of the Hero of the White Shield, who had not been heard of for many years. "I am your father," said he ; and he asked them if their mother was alive. They said that she was. He went with them till he found the mother, and he took her home with him and the twelve sons; and I don't know but that his seed are kings on Alba till this very day.
Jacobs, Joseph. More Celtic Fairy
Tales. London: David Nutt, 1894.
Jacobs' Notes and References
Source - Campbell, West Highland Tales, No. xxii. vol. ii. p. 36, seq. I have modified the end, which has a polygamous complexion.
Parallels - Campbell points out that the story is in the main identical with the Grimms' "Räthsel," No. xxii. There the riddle is : " One slew none, and yet slew twelve. " MacDougall has the same story in Waifs and Strays, iii. pp. 76 seq.
Remarks - There can be no doubt that the Celtic and German Riddle Stories are related genealogically. Which is of the earlier generation is, however, more difficult to determine. In favour of the Celtic is the polygamous framework; while on the other hand, it is difficult to guess how the story could have got from the Highlands to Germany. The simpler form of the riddle in the German version might seem to argue greater antiquity.