The Witch in the Stone Boat

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"The Witch comes on board", illustr. by H. J. Ford
—"The Witch in the Stone Boat",
Yellow Book of Fairy Tale (1894)

The Witch in the Stone Boat is an Icelandic fairy tale, found in Andrew Lang's The Yellow Fairy Book (1897). The tale was originally collected by Jón Árnason (1864) under the title "Skessan á steinnökkvanum", and translated into German as "Die Riesin in dem Steinboote" by Poestion (1884), a known source for Lang.[1][a] This folktale is classified Aarne-Thompson type 463, and is cognate with the Italian tale "The Dragon" (Pentamerone IV.5).[2]


A king told his son Sigurd to marry, recommending a daughter of another king as prospective wife. Sigurd traveled to that kingdom and made his marriage proposal, and the bride's king agreed to the match, on condition that Sigurd would stay and help him as long as he could. Sigurd promised to remain, until such time as he received news of his father's death. When Sigurd learned of his father's death, he set sail for his homeland with his wife and their two-year-old son.

The ship was one day short of completing its journey when the wind died down. Sigurd was overcome with drowsiness and left the queen and his child alone on the deck. There approached a stone boat carrying a frightening "witch" (Lang. tr.) or "troll-wife" (Icelandic: tröllkona[b]). The witch boarded ship, snatched away the baby and assumed the queen's place by transforming into her shape and wearing the fine clothes she stripped from the queen. The imposter put the real queen on the stone boat, and spoke incantations to the boat telling it to go without straying to her brother in the underworld. The boat shot off and was soon out of sight from the ship. The disappearance of the real mother made the baby cry uncontrollably, and the witch's effort to quiet it was to no avail. So the witch went beneath deck and scolded Sigurd for leaving her alone on the deck. Such temper tantrum was something Sigurd had never received from his wife, and it surprised him, but he thought she had an excusable reason this time. But for all the efforts of the two of them, they could not stop the boy from crying.

"Sigurd hews the chain asunder", H. J. Ford

Sigurd was now the ruler of his homeland, succeeding his dead father. The little boy who used to be such a quiet child hardly stopped crying since that day, so he had to be given up to be raised by a nurse (or foster mother fostrá), one of the court ladies. Sigurd noticed his wife's change in temperament: she was now more "haughty and stubborn, and difficult to deal with".

But the fake queen's identity was to unravel. Two young men who were in the habit of playing chess in the room next to the queen eavesdropped and spied on her through a crack. They heard her say that the more widely she yawned, the more she transformed back into a troll, and even as she spoke, she gave a huge yawn, and reverted into the form of a hideous troll-wife. And through the floor of her room appeared a three-headed giant (þríhöfðaður þussi[c]), who brought her a trough full of meat, which she devoured.

Meanwhile, the boy-prince's nurse was about to witness the supernatural appearance of the true queen. When the nurse turned the [candle-]light on,[d] several planks from the floor rose up, and from undereath appeared a woman dressed in linen.[e] Clasped around her waist was an iron belt, with a chain leading down into the ground below. The queen embraced the child for a moment, and returned under the floor again. Her appearance was repeated the second night, and the nurse heard the queen say lamentfully that "Two are gone, and one only is left," which the nurse guessed must mean that the third night would be her final appearance.

The next night, King Sigurd was in the nurse's room with a drawn sword in hand, awaiting the apparition, whom he instantly recognized as his own wife. He cut the chain in two and great noises came from beneath the earth. The true queen now told her story. The three-headed giant had tried to force her to marry him, and at last she consented provided she could visit her son for three consecutive days. But the giant must have plummeted to death, the crashing "caused by him in his death throes". The real queen was then restored to all her dignity, and the king had the false queen immediately captured and then stoned to death and her body torn apart by horses.


"White-Robed Figure", by E. A. Mason
—Hall, "The Giantess and the Granite Boat" (1897)

An embellished retelling was given by Mrs. Angus W. Hall, entitled "The Giantess and the Granite Boat" (1897).[3] Here Sigurd's wife is given the name "Helga", his father-in-law "Hardrada", and the young son "Kurt".

See also[edit]


Explanatory notes[edit]

  1. ^ Another German translation is Rittershaus's "Die Riesin im Steinboot" (1902), but this postdates the Yellow Fairy Book.
  2. ^ Hall's retelling: "giantess"; Poestion tr.: Riesenweib; Rittershaus tr.: Riesin
  3. ^ þussi (dative?), þuss (nominative) is apparently a phonetic form of: "Þurs (sounded þuss), m.. a giant" (Cleasby-Vigfusson Icelandic-English dictionary).
  4. ^ The Icelandic text does not specify the light source. In Hall's retelling, "the nurse had lighted the lamp."
  5. ^ Icelandic: kona á línklæðum. Hall's retelling, "wearing only a single white linen garment." Lang: "woman dressed in white."


  1. ^ See The Horse Gullfaxi and the Sword Gunnfoder
  2. ^ Uther, Hans-Jörg (2004). The types of international folktales (snippet). 1. Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia, Academia Scientiarum Fennica. p. 273. . In Uther's types, the tale is cited Rittershaus 1902, No.44, which is another German translation.
  3. ^ Hall 1897, pp. 176–188