Select Popular Tales from the German of Musaeus/Legends of Rübezahl: The Princess’s Flight

Published in German as the first of the "Legenden von Rübezahl" in Volksmärchen der Deutschen (vol. 2, 1783). For other versions, see Legends of Rübezahl.


Legend the First.


PON the summit of the oftimes, yet but indifferently, sung Giant Mountains, the Parnassus of Silesia, there dwelt in peaceful union with Apollo and his nine muses, the renowned mountain spirit Rübezahl, who, without doubt, has conferred upon these mountains more celebrity than all the Silesian poets put together.

This prince of gnomes, it is true, possessed but a small territory on the surface of the earth, its extent measuring in circumference only a few miles, shut in by a chain of hills: and even this small domain had to be shared by two other mighty monarchs, who did not condescend to own his sovereignty. A few fathoms, however, under ground, he reigned sole master, no one there being able to trench upon his dominion, which extended eight hundred and sixty miles into the depths of the earth, even to its very centre.

It sometimes pleased this subterranean prince to traverse his wide-spread domain in the dark abyss, that he might behold the inexhaustible treasure chambers of rocks and strata, observe how his subjects gnomes were getting on, and give them something to do; at times employing them in making dykes to stem the fire stream which flowed in the interior of the earth, or in bathing in metallic vapour the sterile stone, until it became transformed into noble ore. Then, freeing himself from the cares of his underworld government, at other times he would ascend, for relaxation, to his frontier castle, and there dwell on the Giant Mountains, and amuse himself with making sport of the children of men: like a mischievous merrymaker, who, in order to laugh, terrifies his neighbour to death.

For Rübezahl, it must be known, resembles a man of powerful genius, and is capricious, stormy, and singular; rude, rough, proud, vain, and changeable; to-day one of the warmest of friends, to-morrow cold and reserved. Sometimes good natured, noble, and feeling, but by and by contradicting himself: wise and foolish, soft one minute and hard in another, like an egg which falls into boiling water; roguish and honest, obstinate and yielding;—just according to the mood of his inward humour at the time when he happens to come across some person or thing.

In ancient times, before the posterity of Japheth had penetrated so far northwards as to make the country habitable, Rübezahl, already stormed in the wild mountain, roused bears and buffaloes until they fought with each other, or frightened with dreadful uproar the timid deer, driving them down from the steep precipice into the deep valley. At length, wearied of this hunting, he again departed to the regions of the lower world, and rested there a few centuries, until the wish arose once more to lay himself down in the sun, and to enjoy the view of the upper world. What was his surprise, when, on one of these visits, and looking around from the snowy summit of the Giant Mountains, he beheld the whole landscape changed! The dim impervious forests were all hewn down and converted into fruitful fields, where the rich grain was ripening. Amidst orchards of fruit-trees, full of blossom, arose the straw-thatched roofs of thriving villages, and the curling smoke peacefully ascended from many a chimney; here and there on the declivity of a hill stood a solitary fastness, as the defence and protection of the place. In the flowery meadows sheep and oxen pastured, and in the verdant copse were heard the melodious tones of the pipe.

The novelty of the scene, and the agreeableness of its first appearance, delighted the astonished prince of the domain so much, that he had no desire to interrupt the occupation or existence of these self-constituted intruding planters, who were thus labouring here without his permission; so he allowed them quietly to rest in possession of their usurped property, as a kind householder permits the social swallow, or even the troublesome sparrow, to rest beneath his roof. It even came into his mind that he would make the acquaintance of men—that strange race, that mixture of animal and spirit; that he would mingle in their society, and examine their nature and manners. For this purpose he assumed the form of a stout countryman, and hired himself as a labourer to a most respectable farmer. Whatever he took in hand prospered, and Rips, the ploughman, was considered the best labourer in the village. But his master was a glutton and a drunkard, who squandered away the wages of his faithful servant, and gave him little thanks for his trouble and labour; Rips therefore left him, and went to his neighbour, who gave him his flock of sheep to take care of. He guarded them diligently, drove them to solitary places and steep hills, where the best grass grew. The flock throve and increased wonderfully: no sheep tumbled over the rocks, and none were torn to pieces by the wolf. However, this master turned out a miser, who did not reward his good servant as he deserved; he himself stole the best ram out of the flock, and then kept the value of it from the wages of the shepherd. Upon this, Rips took leave of the greedy fellow, and entered the service of the judge; became the scourge of the thief, and laboured most zealously in the cause of justice. But the judge was a wicked man; turned aside from what was just; judged according to favour, and despised right. As Rips would not be the instrument of unrighteousness, he refused his services to the judge, and, in consequence, was thrown into prison, out of which, however, in the usual way of spirits, he easily made his escape by the keyhole.

It was impossible that this first attempt in the study of mankind could make a favourable impression upon him. He returned back in disgust to his rocky fortress, from thence beheld the smiling plain which human industry had made beautiful, and wondered that mother nature could lend her gifts to such a heartless brood. Notwithstanding this, he again ventured on a journey into the plain, to resume the study of humanity.

His next adventure was a love one. He became enamoured of the fair Princess Emma, the daughter of the King of Silesia, whom he once accidentally fell in with as she strolled about, among the woods and streams of her father’s domain, with her attendant maidens. He forthwith determined upon an abduction, and one day, when the fair princess had wandered further than usual, and was reclining alone under the shade of a spreading tree, he carried her off, and had arrived with her in his subterraneous palace long before her attendants had discovered their loss. The affair caused great consternation and grief to her father and his whole court, but especially to the young Prince Ratibor, the betrothed of the fair Emma. Long and anxious were their searches after the lost one, but in vain.

Meantime the object of their anxiety was not so uncomfortable as might have been supposed. Her apartments in the gnome’s palace were truly magnificent, and contained everything she could wish for, while the gnome himself, having taken the form of a handsome young man, knelt at her feet, and offered up to her his vows of ardent devotion.

Observing that his lovely idol languished for society, the obliging gnome presented her with a basket of fresh and full-grown turnips, giving her at the same time a silver wand, by means of which she metamorphosed these vegetables into well-dressed and well-bred courtiers. Enchanted with her imposing retinue, the Princess Emma would now roam through every crook and cranny of her subterraneous dwelling, and, when tired of exploring its numerous halls and chambers, pace every alley and shady walk of the spacious garden, throughout which reigned a perpetual spring.

But, alas! even in a fairy land it would appear that nothing is certain but change. It surpassed the art even of a courtier to conceal the ravages of a decay which too plainly advanced with rapid strides. The Princess, in fact, beheld her graceful retinue gradually sinking into a company of old and withered hags, with tottering feet and trembling arms; and, in a fit of high indignation, she ordered them all from her presence, and ran to lay her grievances before her lover. The complaisant sprite explained to her, that as soon as the juice of the turnip was dried up, the vegetable became utterly worthless, and its functions extinct.

The fair Emma, finding that she was again to be doomed to solitude, first complained, and then wept; and so powerful are the tears of a lovely woman, that, not even a gnome could withstand them. He protested that he would explore every inch of his subterraneous domain in quest of another supply of turnips suited to her purpose; but his exertions were fruitless. Delicious fruits and fragrant flowers he found in abundance; but though he would willingly have exchanged a whole bushel of the golden apples of the Hesperides for a single turnip, not one could he procure. He then determined to ransack his dominions over-head; but what was his dismay, on emerging from below, to find the icy sceptre of winter extended over the whole earth, and not even a blade of grass penetrating through the deep masses of snow!

In this dilemma, there was nothing left for our dejected lover but to assume the appearance of a countryman, walk into the nearest village, and purchase a sackful of turnip-seed, which he laid at the feet of his beautiful tyrant. Provoked and disappointed, she now loaded him with reproaches, ridiculed the idea of his possessing such boasted power of transmutation, and cut him to the heart by sarcasms on his inability to perform what he had undertaken; in short, she raised such a storm as any one, save a lover, would have fled from. But the gnome stood his ground; and the lovely Emma at last consented to accompany him to the garden, to see him sow the seed from which her future happiness was to arise. The gnome set instantly to work, and in a few moments innumerable uprooted myrtles, hyacinths, and carnations strewed the ground. So eager indeed was Emma to forward the work of extermination, that she laid her dignity aside, and assisted her lover to tear up whole beds of her once-loved flowers, and to sow the much-valued substitutes in their place. To watch the progress of the turnip-field, was her occupation morning, noon, and night; and there at sunrise or sunset her lover never failed to find her. He rejoiced at it, for she never listened so complacently to his suit as when so engaged.

Gradually the young plants increased in size and beauty, and gradually the coldness and reserve of the princess began to give way, until at length she consented to be his—but on one condition. “My marriage,” said she to her enraptured lover, “shall not be without witnesses; go, then, and count every turnip in the field; I shall animate every one of them; for take care that you count them correctly, for if you miss but one of them, my promise shall be withdrawn.” So enchanted was the gnome, that he would not have scrupled to count the sands of the sea-shore. The counting of a field of turnips, therefore, appeared a small affair; and Emma having retired into the palace not to disturb his calculations, he immediately began his task. But this he soon found was no such easy matter. Hour after hour did our lover labour at his task; at length it was accomplished, and he hurried to the palace. There a dead silence reigned. “I shall find her in the garden, gathering flowers for the bridal wreath,” said the gnome; but in vain did he make the groves resound with the loved name of Emma—echo alone answered him, as if in mockery. A sudden suspicion came across him, he darted upwards, and in another instant stood upon the surface of the earth. Unhappy sprite, what a heart-rending scene did he now behold! There was his loved Emma, mounted on a steed swifter than the wind, flying to her former lover, Prince Ratibor, who rapidly approached her. He now comprehended the whole extent of his misfortune. The deceitful Emma had abstracted one of the turnips, metamorphosed it into a fiery courser, and had nearly attained the boundary of his territory, beyond which he had no power. “Ah, traitress! you shall not escape me,” exclaimed the indignant gnome, as he darted after the flying fair one. Furious the gnome laid hold of two clouds which were near him, dashed them with a hideous crash against each other, and sent after the fugitive a flash of lightning, which shivered in a thousand pieces a massive oak tree, which for ages had marked the boundary of his dominions. The boundary, however, the princess had luckily just passed, and beyond that Rübezahl was powerless.

The deserted spirit rent the air with his cries, and plunged down to his subterraneous dominions, there to bewail his disappointment, and to lament his ill-fortune. In his rage he stamped his feet, and in a moment the magic palace disappeared, while the gnome betook himself once more to his former solitary abode in the centre of the earth, with a heart still more embittered against the inhabitants of this upper earth.

The report of the strange adventure of the princess, and the ingenious device by which she effected her escape, was soon spread abroad throughout her father’s kingdom, and in all the surrounding country, and it became a tradition, which descended from generation to generation, until at last the common people were accustomed to give the gnome, for want of a better, the name of Rübezahl, or the Turnip Counter; thus perpetuating in the most lasting manner the memory of his unlucky mishap.