THE PRINCE THAT DESIRED IMMORTALITY – A HUNGARIAN FOLK TALE

Once upon a time, beyond seventy-seven lands, even farther, beyond the Óperencia too, at the crumbling side of a ruined oven, in the seventy- seventh pleat of the skirt of an old woman there was a white flea, and right in the middle of it was a gleaming royal city, and in the city lived an old king who had a single worthy son.

Suffice it to say that the king had high hopes for that son, and so had him taught every scholarly subject and then sent him out to see the world, to hear and experience it. The prince travelled about for several years before at last settling down at home at his father’s request – but in the course of all his wanderings the prince’s nature had changed altogether: he had become pensive and melancholy. One day it befell that the king and the prince were alone together in the dining- room of the royal palace. The old king took his son, led him to a side-room which was full of pictures of beautiful girls, and said to him:

“My dear son, I can see that you are very much out of sorts; it would be good if you married. See, in this room are portraits of the daughters of every emperor, king and ruler, and you may take your choice; I will give you in marriage her that pleases you most, only let me see your good humour restored.”

“Alas, dear king and father,” replied the prince, “it is not love or marriage that troubles me, but the thought that every man, even kings, must some day die. I would like to find a kingdom where death has no power; and I have resolved that even if my legs are worn down to my knees I will travel until I find one such.” The old king tried to dissuade his son from this plan: he said that he would even give him his kingdom if he would but stay at home, but next day the prince girded on his sword and set out.

He walked and walked, and as he went his way he saw in the distance a huge tree – and it seemed that a great eagle was fluttering at the top of it. As he approached he could see that a great eagle was kicking the branches at the top of the tree in such a manner that twigs flew everywhere. When the eagle saw the prince staring at him he flew down to his side, turned a somersault and became a king. He asked the prince:

“What are you staring at, my lad?”

“Well, I was only wondering why you were kicking the top of this big tree!”

To that the eagle-king replied:

“Do you see, I am under a curse that neither I nor any of my kin may die until I, in the form of an eagle, have kicked this great tree root and branch out of the ground. And so I come here every day and work. But now it is evening, I shall work no more today but shall go home, and I shall be heartily glad to see you as a traveller in my poor home, for from your dress I see that you are a prince.”

The prince was pleased at that, and together they walked to the eagle-king’s residence. This eagle-king had a wondrously beautiful daughter, who welcomed her father and the princely guest and straightway laid the table.

Over dinner the eagle-king asked the prince why he was wandering from land to land. The prince said that he meant to travel until he found a kingdom wherein death had no power.

“Well, my dear boy,” said the eagle-king, “you have come to just the right spot. Death has no power over me and mine until I tear out that great tree root and branch; and that will take six hundred years. Marry my daughter and you can live happily with me until then.”

“Alas, dear king, that would be all very well! But in six hundred years I will have to die, and I wish to discover a place where death will never have power.”

The princess too would have detained him, but he would brook no delay. In the end, so that at least he should not leave her without a keepsake, she gave him a box on the inside of which was a picture of her, and she said:

“Well, prince, as you will on no account stay with me, take this keepsake! It has the property that when you are weary of walking, open the box and look at my picture, and you will be able to walk anyhow you desire: if you wish, in the air, as when the wind blows keenly, or on the ground, with the speed of thought or like a swift whirlwind.”

The prince thanked her for the box and put it in his pocket. Next day he took his leave of the eagle-king’s house and set out.

He went a way on foot along the highway but after a while he became weary and thought of the box. So he took it out, opened it, looked at the princess’s portrait and thought to himself: “Let me go like the swift wind in the air!” – and at once he was lifted up and was rushing along with the speed of the wind.

When he had gone a long way he saw a bald man on top of a very high hill, piling earth with a spade and a hoe into a basket and moving it to the bottom of the hill. The prince stopped and stared, and the bald man stopped and asked:

“What are you staring at, my lad?”

“Well, I am just wondering where you are taking that basket of earth.”

“Alas, my dear boy,” said the bald man, “I am under a curse that neither I nor any of my family shall die until I have moved this hill with this basket and cleared this space; but evening is drawing on now, and I shall work no more today.”

With that he turned a somersault, became a bald king, and immediately invited the prince home to stay the night. So off they went together to the king’s palace, and this king had a daughter a hundred times more beautiful than the previous one; she too welcomed them and dinner was promptly served. Over dinner the bald king too enquired where he was going, to which the prince replied once more that he was going until he found a land where death had no power.

“Then you are in luck,” said the bald king, “for as I said, I am cursed that I cannot die until I have moved all that great hill, and that will take nine hundred years. Marry my daughter, for I see that you do not dislike one another, and you can live happily for nine hundred years.”

“Yes,” said the prince, “but I mean to go to where death will never have power.” Next day they all rose early and the princess again tried to make the prince stay, but that he would not do; therefore, so that he should not go away without a keepsake she gave him a gold ring, which had the property that he who turned it on his finger was immediately carried to wherever he wished to be. The prince thanked her for the ring and with that took his leave and set off once more.

He walked along the highway for a spell; suddenly he thought of the ring. He turned it on his finger and thought to himself that he wished to be at the end of the world. He blinked his eyes and lo! he found himself in the middle of a splendid royal city. He walked up and down the streets and saw that everyone in the city was handsome and magnificently dressed. He tried to speak with them in twenty- seven different languages, for he understood that many, but no-one replied to any of them. He was very put out, not knowing what to do, being unable to converse with anyone. In his unhappiness he was walking up and down, when suddenly he saw a man dressed as men in his own land, and when he spoke to him in his own language he was able to reply. First of all he asked:

“What city is this?”

“The capital of the Blue King’s kingdom,” said the man. “The king himself is dead, but he has a kindly, beautiful daughter, and she rules seven lands.”

The prince asked:

“Could you show me the princess’s palace?”

“With all my heart,” said the man, and led the prince to the palace, where he took his leave of him.

The prince went into the royal palace and saw the princess sitting on the stairs, engaged in her embroidery. He went straight up to her, and she at once rose and took him into the great hall of the palace. Straight away she asked the prince to stay with her and be her companion on the throne, but he insisted that he wished to settle only in a country where death had no power. Then the princess took the prince by the arm and led him into a side-room. The floor of this room was stuck full of needles, so that there would not, perhaps, have been room for a single one more. “Now, prince,” said the princess, “do you see this enormous number of needles? A curse is laid upon me, that neither I nor mine may die until I have worn out all these needles in embroidery, and that will take a thousand years. If you stay with me we can live happily and rule.”

“Yes,” said the prince, “but after a thousand years I shall have to die; but I seek a land where death will never have power.”

The embroidering princess tried hard to dissuade the prince from his plan, but he made it clear that he would not stay, but would continue on his way. Then the princess stood before him and said:

“Since I cannot by any means hold you back, take from me as a keepsake this golden wand. It has the property that in time of necessity it will change into what you think of.”

The prince thanked the princess for her gift and put it in his pocket. With that he took his leave of her and set out once more.

Scarcely had he left the city than he came to a great river, and he could see that on the other side the sky came down and it was impossible to go farther, for that was the end of the world. And so he set off along the river-bank. When he had gone upstream a while suddenly he saw a gleaming royal palace above the stream, suspended in the air. Seek though he might he could discover no road or bridge by which it was connected to the land; nevertheless he would dearly have wished to see inside that gleaming palace. Suddenly he bethought him of the golden wand that he had received from the embroidering princess. He took it out and cast it on the ground:

“Become a plank and take me to the gleaming royal palace!” And the wand became there and then a golden plank. The prince did not delay; he sprang onto the golden plank and crossed it to the palace. But when he entered the palace gate he saw that it was guarded by wondrous beasts, the like of which he had never seen. He was alarmed, and ordered his sword:

“Sword, out of your scabbard!” and the sword leapt forth, and cut off the heads of several. But forthwith others grew in their place. At that the prince was even more affrighted, ordered his sword back into its scabbard and merely stared upward. The queen of the palace had seen all this from the window, and immediately sent down a footman, that the guards might not impede the prince, and commanded him to bring the prince into her presence. And so it happened. The footman ran quickly down and took the prince quickly past the guards into the presence of the queen of the palace.

The queen said:

“I can see that you are no ordinary person; but I wish to know who you are and on what errand you come.”

The prince told her of which king he was the son, and that he had set out to discover a land wherein death had no power.

“Then you are in luck,” said the queen, “for I am the Queen of Life and Immortality, here you are safe against death.”

She made him sit and received him hospitably.

The prince remained in that gleaming palace a thousand years, but they passed as quickly as the previous six months.

One night, when the thousand years were over, the prince had a dream in which he was at home talking to his father and mother. When he rose in the morning he told the Queen of Immortality that he wished to go home to see his parents once more. The queen was astounded at these words and said:

“Goodness, prince, what an idea! Your father and mother have been dead these eight hundred years, and you will find no trace of them.”

But she could not dissuade the prince from his plan, and so she said: “Well, if you will really go, at least I will equip you for the journey.”

And at once she hung about his neck a gold flask and a silver flask and led him into a little side-room. She showed him a little kettle in the corner and said: “Now, fill your silver flask to the brim with the liquid that you will find in this. Anyone that you sprinkle with it, though he has a thousand lives, he will die on the spot.”

Then she took him into a second side-room and made him fill the gold flask with the liquid from a similar little kettle in the corner, and said:

“Now, prince, this liquid, which springs from the cliff of eternity, has the property that if anyone has died four or five hundred years ago, if you can obtain only a tiny bone of them and sprinkle it with this, they will come back to life.”

The prince thanked the Queen of Immortality for her fine gifts, and with that took his leave of her and the whole palace and went his way.

Soon he came to the city where the embroidering princess lived, but he scarcely recognised it, it was so changed. He hurried to the royal palace, and there all was so silent, it seemed that no-one lived there. He went up to the hall and when he reached the day-room there he found the princess bent over her embroidery, fast asleep. Very quietly he crept up and spoke to her but she did not reply. He tugged at her skirt but she did not move. He ran to the room that had been full of needles, and there was not one there. The last needle had broken in her embroidery, and with that the princess had died. Quickly he took the gold flask, bathed the princess from it and she began to revive, raised her head, spoke, and said to the prince:

“Oh, my dear friend, it is good that you have woken me. I must have slept long.” “You would have slept till the end of the world,” replied the prince, “had I not roused you!”

Then the princess realised that she had died and that the prince had brought her back to life. She thanked him very warmly and promised to return the favour. From there the prince went directly to the bald king. He saw from afar that he had removed all the great hill. When he came closer he saw that the bald king had placed the basket under his head, laid down the spade and hoe at his side and died. This time too he quickly took the golden flask, sprinkled the bald king from it and revived him.

He too promised to return the favour and the prince took his leave and went to call on the eagle-king. Now, the eagle-king had so completely destroyed the big tree, root and branch, that not the least little twig of it remained; he himself, however, had spread out his wings and lay there dead, his beak pressed to the ground. The prince took the gold flask, moistened the eagle-king with its water and he too began to revive, came to himself and said:

“Goodness, but I have slept a long sleep! Thank you for waking me, my dear friend.” Then the eagle-king realised that he must have been dead. He renewed his thanks to the prince for bringing him back to life and promised to repay the kindness. Then the prince took his leave of the eagle-king too, resumed his journey and soon came to his father’s royal city, but even from afar he saw that the royal palace had been levelled without trace. He approached and saw where the palace had been a lake, of fire and brimstone, burning continually with a blue flame, like good plum brandy.

The prince abandoned his hopes of finding his father and mother, and set out in his grief to return, but as he was leaving the city someone called to him from behind: “Stop, prince, you are in luck! I have been seeking you ceaselessly these thousand years.”

The prince glanced back and recognised that the one addressing him was indeed old man Death! Immediately he seized the ring on his finger and turned it, and with the speed of thought he was with the eagle-king, then with the bald king, then the embroidering princess, and required all of them to marshal their forces to obstruct Death; but so fast did Death gallop after him that when the prince set one foot inside the palace of the Queen of Immortality, Death grasped the other outside. “Stop! You are mine!”

The Queen of Immortality saw what was happening and rebuked Death: what did he want in her kingdom, where he had no power?

“Yes,” said Death, “but his one foot is in my kingdom, that is mine.”

“Yes, but the other is mine in any case,” said the Queen of Immortality, “and what will you gain if we split him? Half a prince is no use either to you or to me. I suggest that you come in and the two of us settle the matter by a wager.” Death consented and went into the palace, and the Queen proposed to him that she should kick the prince into the seventh heaven, behind the morning star, and that if from there he fell into the castle he would be hers, but if he fell outside he would be Death’s. Death accepted. Then the Queen placed the prince in the middle of the castle and placed her foot beneath him, and so kicked him among the stars that he disappeared completely. But the Queen staggered a little with the effort and was deeply worried that the prince might come outside the castle, and she watched closely for his return. Suddenly she caught sight of him, but he was the size of a wasp. She measured with her eye where he was going to fall, right on the castle wall. The Queen was alarmed, but a light southerly breeze contrived for the prince to fall on the inward side of the wall. The Queen sprang to him and like a light ball picked him up and carried him in her bosom into the palace, and commanded the people of the palace all to fetch brooms, set them alight and drive Death out of the castle of immortality with fiery brooms. And Death she commanded never again to venture to set foot there. The king and queen live happily and gloriously to this day; anyone that disbelieves that, let him seek the castle floating in the air above the river at the end of the world, the castle of the Queen of Immortality.

Translation by Bernard Adams

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