The Terrible Head

: The Blue Fairy Book

Once upon a time there was a king whose only child

was a girl. Now the King had been very anxious to have

a son, or at least a grandson, to come after him, but he

was told by a prophet whom he consulted that his own

daughter's son should kill him. This news terrified him

so much that he determined never to let his daughter be

married, for he thought it was better to have no grandson

at all than to be kille
by his grandson. He therefore

called his workmen together, and bade them dig a deep

round hole in the earth, and then he had a prison of brass

built in the hole, and then, when it was finished, he locked

up his daughter. No man ever saw her, and she never

saw even the fields and the sea, but only the sky and the

sun, for there was a wide open window in the roof of the

house of brass. So the Princess would sit looking up at

the sky, and watching the clouds float across, and wondering

whether she should ever get out of her prison. Now

one day it seemed to her that the sky opened above her,

and a great shower of shining gold fell through the window

in the roof, and lay glittering in her room. Not very

long after, the Princess had a baby, a little boy, but when

the King her father heard of it he was very angry and

afraid, for now the child was born that should be his

death. Yet, cowardly as he was, he had not quite the

heart to kill the Princess and her baby outright, but he

had them put in a huge brass-bound chest and thrust

out to sea, that they might either be drowned or starved,

or perhaps come to a country where they would be out of

his way.

So the Princess and the baby floated and drifted in the

chest on the sea all day and night, but the baby was not

afraid of the waves nor of the wind, for he did not know

that they could hurt him, and he slept quite soundly.

And the Princess sang a song over him, and this was her


"Child, my child, how sound you sleep!

Though your mother's care is deep,

You can lie with heart at rest

In the narrow brass-bound chest;

In the starless night and drear

You can sleep, and never hear

Billows breaking, and the cry

Of the night-wind wandering by;

In soft purple mantle sleeping

With your little face on mine,

Hearing not your mother weeping

And the breaking of the brine."

Well, the daylight came at last, and the great chest was

driven by the waves against the shore of an island. There

the brass-bound chest lay, with the Princess and her

baby in it, till a man of that country came past, and saw

it, and dragged it on to the beach, and when he had

broken it open, behold! there was a beautiful lady and a

little boy. So he took them home, and was very kind to

them, and brought up the boy till he was a young man.

Now when the boy had come to his full strength the King

of that country fell in love with his mother, and wanted

to marry her, but he knew that she would never part

from her boy. So he thought of a plan to get rid of the

boy, and this was his plan: A great Queen of a country not

far off was going to be married, and this king said that all

his subjects must bring him wedding presents to give her.

And he made a feast to which he invited them all, and

they all brought their presents; some brought gold cups,

and some brought necklaces of gold and amber, and some

brought beautiful horses; but the boy had nothing, though

he was the son of a princess, for his mother had nothing to

give him. Then the rest of the company began to laugh

at him, and the King said: "If you have nothing else to

give, at least you might go and fetch the Terrible Head."

The boy was proud, and spoke without thinking:

"Then I swear that I will bring the Terrible Head, if it

may be brought by a living man. But of what head you

speak I know not."

Then they told him that somewhere, a long way off,

there dwelt three dreadful sisters, monstrous ogrish

women, with golden wings and claws of brass, and with

serpents growing on their heads instead of hair. Now these

women were so awful to look on that whoever saw them

was turned at once into stone. And two of them could

not be put to death, but the youngest, whose face was

very beautiful, could be killed, and it was her head that

the boy had promised to bring. You may imagine it was

no easy adventure.

When he heard all this he was perhaps sorry that he had

sworn to bring the Terrible Head, but he was determined

to keep his oath. So he went out from the feast, where

they all sat drinking and making merry, and he walked

alone beside the sea in the dusk of the evening, at the

place where the great chest, with himself and his mother

in it, had been cast ashore.

There he went and sat down on a rock, looking toward

the sea, and wondering how he should begin to fulfill his

vow. Then he felt some one touch him on the shoulder;

and he turned, and saw a young man like a king's son,

having with him a tall and beautiful lady, whose blue eyes

shone like stars. They were taller than mortal men, and

the young man had a staff in his hand with golden wings

on it, and two golden serpents twisted round it, and he

had wings on his cap and on his shoes. He spoke to the

boy, and asked him why he was so unhappy; and the boy

told him how he had sworn to bring the Terrible Head,

and knew not how to begin to set about the adventure.

Then the beautiful lady also spoke, and said that "it

was a foolish oath and a hasty, but it might be kept if a

brave man had sworn it." Then the boy answered that

he was not afraid, if only he knew the way.

Then the lady said that to kill the dreadful woman with

the golden wings and the brass claws, and to cut off her

head, he needed three things: first, a Cap of Darkness,

which would make him invisible when he wore it; next,

a Sword of Sharpness, which would cleave iron at one

blow; and last, the Shoes of Swiftness, with which he

might fly in the air.

The boy answered that he knew not where such things

were to be procured, and that, wanting them, he could

only try and fail. Then the young man, taking off his

own shoes, said: "First, you shall use these shoes till you

have taken the Terrible Head, and then you must give

them back to me. And with these shoes you will fly as

fleet as a bird, or a thought, over the land or over the

waves of the sea, wherever the shoes know the way. But

there are ways which they do not know, roads beyond the

borders of the world. And these roads have you to travel.

Now first you must go to the Three Gray Sisters, who live

far off in the north, and are so very cold that they have

only one eye and one tooth among the three. You must

creep up close to them, and as one of them passes the eye

to the other you must seize it, and refuse to give it up till

they have told you the way to the Three Fairies of the

Garden, and they will give you the Cap of Darkness and

the Sword of Sharpness, and show you how to wing beyond

this world to the land of the Terrible Head."

Then the beautiful lady said: "Go forth at once, and do

not return to say good-by to your mother, for these things

must be done quickly, and the Shoes of Swiftness themselves

will carry you to the land of the Three Gray Sisters--for

they know the measure of that way."

So the boy thanked her, and he fastened on the Shoes

of Swiftness, and turned to say good-by to the young man

and the lady. But, behold! they had vanished, he knew

not how or where! Then he leaped in the air to try the

Shoes of Swiftness, and they carried him more swiftly

than the wind, over the warm blue sea, over the happy

lands of the south, over the northern peoples who drank

mare's milk and lived in great wagons, wandering after

their flocks. Across the wide rivers, where the wild fowl

rose and fled before him, and over the plains and the cold

North Sea he went, over the fields of snow and the hills of

ice, to a place where the world ends, and all water is frozen,

and there are no men, nor beasts, nor any green grass.

There in a blue cave of the ice he found the Three Gray

Sisters, the oldest of living things. Their hair was as white

as the snow, and their flesh of an icy blue, and they

mumbled and nodded in a kind of dream, and their frozen

breath hung round them like a cloud. Now the opening

of the cave in the ice was narrow, and it was not easy to

pass in without touching one of the Gray Sisters. But,

floating on the Shoes of Swiftness, the boy just managed

to steal in, and waited till one of the sisters said to another,

who had their one eye:

"Sister, what do you see? do you see old times coming


"No, sister."

"Then give me the eye, for perhaps I can see farther

than you."

Then the first sister passed the eye to the second, but

as the second groped for it the boy caught it cleverly out

of her hand.

"Where is the eye, sister?" said the second gray woman.

"You have taken it yourself, sister," said the first gray woman.

"Have you lost the eye, sister? have you lost the eye?"

said the third gray woman; "shall we never find it again,

and see old times coming back?"

Then the boy slipped from behind them out of the cold

cave into the air, and he laughed aloud.

When the gray women heard that laugh they began to

weep, for now they knew that a stranger had robbed

them, and that they could not help themselves, and their

tears froze as they fell from the hollows where no eyes

were, and rattled on the icy ground of the cave. Then they

began to implore the boy to give them their eye back

again, and he could not help being sorry for them, they

were so pitiful. But he said he would never give them the

eye till they told him the way to the Fairies of the Garden.

Then they wrung their hands miserably, for they

guessed why he had come, and how he was going to try

to win the Terrible Head. Now the Dreadful Women

were akin to the Three Gray Sisters, and it was hard for

them to tell the boy the way. But at last they told him

to keep always south, and with the land on his left and

the sea on his right, till he reached the Island of the Fairies

of the Garden. Then he gave them back the eye, and they

began to look out once more for the old times coming back

again. But the boy flew south between sea and land,

keeping the land always on his left hand, till he saw a

beautiful island crowned with flowering trees. There he

alighted, and there he found the Three Fairies of the

Garden. They were like three very beautiful young women,

dressed one in green, one in white, and one in red,

and they were dancing and singing round an apple tree

with apples of gold, and this was their song:


Round and round the apples of gold,

Round and round dance we;

Thus do we dance from the days of old

About the enchanted tree;

Round, and round, and round we go,

While the spring is green, or the stream shall flow,

Or the wind shall stir the sea!

There is none may taste of the golden fruit

Till the golden new time come

Many a tree shall spring from shoot,

Many a blossom be withered at root,

Many a song be dumb;

Broken and still shall be many a lute

Or ever the new times come!

Round and round the tree of gold,

Round and round dance we,

So doth the great world spin from of old,

Summer and winter, and fire and cold,

Song that is sung, and tale that is told,

Even as we dance, that fold and unfold

Round the stem of the fairy tree!

These grave dancing fairies were very unlike the Grey

Women, and they were glad to see the boy, and treated

him kindly. Then they asked him why he had come; and

he told them how he was sent to find the Sword of Sharpness

and the Cap of Darkness. And the fairies gave him

these, and a wallet, and a shield, and belted the sword,

which had a diamond blade, round his waist, and the cap

they set on his head, and told him that now even they

could not see him though they were fairies. Then he

took it off, and they each kissed him and wished him good

fortune, and then they began again their eternal dance

round the golden tree, for it is their business to guard it

till the new times come, or till the world's ending. So the

boy put the cap on his head, and hung the wallet round

his waist, and the shining shield on his shoulders, and flew

beyond the great river that lies coiled like a serpent round

the whole world. And by the banks of that river, there he

found the three Terrible Women all asleep beneath a

poplar tree, and the dead poplar leaves lay all about them.

Their golden wings were folded and their brass claws were

crossed, and two of them slept with their hideous heads

beneath their wings like birds, and the serpents in their

hair writhed out from under the feathers of gold. But the

youngest slept between her two sisters, and she lay on her

back, with her beautiful sad face turned to the sky; and

though she slept her eyes were wide open. If the boy had

seen her he would have been changed into stone by the

terror and the pity of it, she was so awful; but he had

thought of a plan for killing her without looking on her

face. As soon as he caught sight of the three from far off

he took his shining shield from his shoulders, and held it

up like a mirror, so that he saw the Dreadful Women

reflected in it, and did not see the Terrible Head itself.

Then he came nearer and nearer, till he reckoned that he

was within a sword's stroke of the youngest, and he

guessed where he should strike a back blow behind him.

Then he drew the Sword of Sharpness and struck once,

and the Terrible Head was cut from the shoulders of the

creature, and the blood leaped out and struck him like a

blow. But he thrust the Terrible Head into his wallet,

and flew away without looking behind. Then the two

Dreadful Sisters who were left wakened, and rose in the

air like great birds; and though they could not see him

because of his Cap of Darkness, they flew after him up the

wind, following by the scent through the clouds, like

hounds hunting in a wood. They came so close that he

could hear the clatter of their golden wings, and their

shrieks to each other: "here, here," "no, there; this way

he went," as they chased him. But the Shoes of Swiftness

flew too fast for them, and at last their cries and the rattle

of their wings died away as he crossed the great river that

runs round the world.

Now when the horrible creatures were far in the

distance, and the boy found himself on the right side of the

river, he flew straight eastward, trying to seek his own

country. But as he looked down from the air he saw a

very strange sight--a beautiful girl chained to a stake at

the high-water mark of the sea. The girl was so frightened

or so tired that she was only prevented from falling

by the iron chain about her waist, and there she hung, as

if she were dead. The boy was very sorry for her and flew

down and stood beside her. When he spoke she raised her

head and looked round, but his voice only seemed to

frighten her. Then he remembered that he was wearing

the Cap of Darkness, and that she could only hear him,

not see him. So he took it off, and there he stood before

her, the handsomest young man she had ever seen in all

her life, with short curly yellow hair, and blue eyes, and a

laughing face. And he thought her the most beautiful

girl in the world. So first with one blow of the Sword of

Sharpness he cut the iron chain that bound her, and then

he asked her what she did there, and why men treated her

so cruelly. And she told him that she was the daughter of

the King of that country, and that she was tied there to

be eaten by a monstrous beast out of the sea; for the

beast came and devoured a girl every day. Now the lot

had fallen on her; and as she was just saying this a long

fierce head of a cruel sea creature rose out of the waves

and snapped at the girl. But the beast had been too

greedy and too hurried, so he missed his aim the first time.

Before he could rise and bite again the boy had whipped

the Terrible Head out of his wallet and held it up. And

when the sea beast leaped out once more its eyes fell on

the head, and instantly it was turned into a stone. And

the stone beast is there on the sea-coast to this day.

Then the boy and the girl went to the palace of the

King, her father, where everyone was weeping for her

death, and they could hardly believe their eyes when they

saw her come back well. And the King and Queen made

much of the boy, and could not contain themselves for

delight when they found he wanted to marry their daughter.

So the two were married with the most splendid

rejoicings, and when they had passed some time at court

they went home in a ship to the boy's own country. For

he could not carry his bride through the air, so he took

the Shoes of Swiftness, and the Cap of Darkness, and the

Sword of Sharpness up to a lonely place in the hills. There

he left them, and there they were found by the man and

woman who had met him at home beside the sea, and had

helped him to start on his journey.

When this had been done the boy and his bride set

forth for home, and landed at the harbor of his native

land. But whom should he meet in the very street of the

town but his own mother, flying for her life from the

wicked King, who now wished to kill her because he

found that she would never marry him! For if she had

liked the King ill before, she liked him far worse now that

he had caused her son to disappear so suddenly. She did

not know, of course, where the boy had gone, but thought

the King had slain him secretly. So now she was running

for her very life, and the wicked King was following her

with a sword in his hand. Then, behold! she ran into her

son's very arms, but he had only time to kiss her and step

in front of her, when the King struck at him with his

sword. The boy caught the blow on his shield, and cried

to the King:

"I swore to bring you the Terrible Head, and see how I

keep my oath!"

Then he drew forth the head from his wallet, and when

the King's eyes fell on it, instantly he was turned into

stone, just as he stood there with his sword lifted!

Now all the people rejoiced, because the wicked King

should rule them no longer. And they asked the boy to

be their king, but he said no, he must take his mother home

to her father's house. So the people chose for king the man

who had been kind to his mother when first she was cast

on the island in the great chest.

Presently the boy and his mother and his wife set sail

for his mother's own country, from which she had been

driven so unkindly. But on the way they stayed at the

court of a king, and it happened that he was holding

games, and giving prizes to the best runners, boxers, and

quoit-throwers. Then the boy would try his strength with

the rest, but he threw the quoit so far that it went beyond

what had ever been thrown before, and fell in the crowd,

striking a man so that he died. Now this man was no

other than the father of the boy's mother, who had fled

away from his own kingdom for fear his grandson should

find him and kill him after all. Thus he was destroyed by

his own cowardice and by chance, and thus the prophecy

was fulfilled. But the boy and his wife and his mother

went back to the kingdom that was theirs, and lived long

and happily after all their troubles.