Once on a time there was a king who was a widower, and he had an only daughter. But it is an old saying, that widower's grief is like knocking your funny-bone, it hurts, but it soon passes away; and so the king married a queen who had two daughters. Now, this queen--well! she was no better than step-mothers are wont to be, snappish and spiteful she always was to her step-daughter.
Well! a long time after, when they were grown up, these three girls, war broke out, and the king had to go forth to fight for his country and his kingdom. But before he went the three daughters had leave to say what the king should buy and bring home for each of them, if he won the day against the foe.
So the step-daughters were to speak first, as you may fancy, and say what they wished.
Well! the first wished for a golden spinning-wheel, so small that it could stand on a sixpenny-piece; and the second, she begged for a golden winder, so small that it could stand on a sixpenny-piece; that was what they wanted to have, and till they had them there was no spinning or winding to be got out of them. But his own daughter, she would ask for no other thing than that he would greet the Green Knight in her name.
So the king went out to war, and whithersoever he went he won, and however things turned out he brought the things he had promised his step-daughters; but he had clean forgotten what his own daughter had begged him to do, till at last he made a feast because he had won the day.
Then it was that he set eyes on a Green Knight, and all at once his daughter's words came into his head, and he greeted him in her name. The Green Knight thanked him for the greeting, and gave him a book which looked like a hymn-book with parchment clasps. That the king was to take home and give her; but he was not to unclasp it, or the princess either, till she was all alone.
So, when the king had done fighting and feasting he went home again, and he had scarce got inside the door before his step-daughters clung round him to get what he had promised to buy them. 'Yes,' he said, he had brought them what they wished; but his own daughter, she held back and asked for nothing, and the king forgot all about it too, till one day, when he was going out, and he put on the coat he had worn at the feast, and just as he thrust his hand into his pocket for his handkerchief, he felt the book and knew what it was.
So he gave it to his daughter, and said he was to greet her with it from the Green Knight, and she mustn't unclasp it till she was all alone.
Well! that evening when she was by herself in her bedroom she unclasped the book, and as soon as she did so she heard a strain of music, so sweet she had never heard the like of it, and then, what do you think! Why, the Green Knight came to her and told her the book was such a book that whenever she unclasped it he must come to her, and it would be all the same wherever she might be, and when she clasped it again he would be off and away again.
Well! she unclasped the book often and often in the evenings when she was alone and at rest, and the knight always came to her and was almost always there. But her step-mother, who was always thrusting her nose into everything, she found out there was some one with her in her room, and she was not long in telling it to the king. But he wouldn't believe it. 'No!' he said, they must watch first and see if it was so before they trumped up such stories, and took her to task for them.
So one evening they stood outside the door and listened, and it seemed as though they heard some one talking inside; but when they went in there was no one.
'Who was it you were talking with? asked the step-mother, both sharp and cross.
'It was no one, indeed,' said the princess.
'Nay! said she; 'I heard it as plain as day.'
'Oh!' said the princess, 'I only lay and read aloud out of a prayer-book.'
'Show it me; said the queen.
'Well! then it was only a prayer-book after all, and she must have leave to read that,' the king said.
But the step-mother thought just the same as before, and so she bored a hole through the wall and stood prying about there. So one evening, when she heard that the knight was in the room she tore open the door and came flying into her step-daughter's room like a blast of wind; but she was not slow in clasping the book either, and he was off and away in a trice; but however quick she had been, for all that her step-mother caught a glimpse of him, so that she was sure some one had been there.
It happened just then that the king was setting out on a long, long journey, and while he was away the queen had a deep pit dug down into the ground, and there she built up a dungeon, and in the stone and mortar she laid ratsbane and other strong poisons, so that not so much as a mouse could get through the wall. As for the master-mason he was well paid, and gave his word to fly the land, but he didn't, for he stayed where he was. Then the princess was thrown into that dungeon with her maid, and when they were inside the queen walled up the door and left only a little hole open at the top to let down food to them. So there she sat and sorrowed, and the time seemed long, and longer than long; but at last she remembered she had her book with her, and took it out and unclasped it. First of all she heard the same sweet strain she had heard before, and then arose a grievous sound of wailing, and just then the Green Knight came.
'I am at death's door,' he said, and then he told her that her step-mother bad laid poison in the mortar, and he did not know if he should ever come out alive. So when she clasped the book up as fast as she could she heard the same wailing sound.
But you must know the maid who was shut up with her had a sweetheart, and she sent word to him to go to the master-mason, and beg him to make the hole at top big enough for them to creep out at it. If he would do that the princess would pay him so well he could live in plenty all his days. Yes! he did so, and they set out and travelled far, far away in strange lands, she and her maid, and wherever they came they asked after the Green Knight.
So after a long, long time they came to a castle, which was all hung with black, and just as they were passing by it a shower of rain fell, and so the princess stepped into the church porch to wait till the rain was over. As she stood there, a young man and an old man came by, who also wished to take shelter; but the princess drew away farther into a corner, so that they did not see her.
'Why is it,' said the young man, 'that the king's castle is hung with black?'
'Don't you know,' said the grey-beard, 'the prince here is sick to death, he whom they call the Green Knight;' And so he went on telling him how it had all happened. So when the young man had listened to the story, he asked if there was anyone who could make him well again.
'Nay, nay!' said the other. 'There is but one cure, and that is if the maiden who was shut up in the dungeon were to come and pluck healing plants in the fields, and boil them in sweet milk, and wash him with them thrice.'
Then he went on reckoning up the plants that were needful before he could get well again.
All this the princess heard, and she kept it in her head, and when the rain was over the two men went away, nor did she bide there long either.
So when they got home to the house in which they lived, out they went at once to get all kinds of plants and grasses in the field and wood, she and the maid, and they plucked and gathered early and late till she had got all that she was to boil. Then she bought her a doctor's hat and a doctor's gown, and went to the king's castle, and offered to make the prince well again.
'No, no; it is no good,' said the king. So many had been there and tried, but he always got worse instead of better. But she would not yield, and gave her word he should be well, and that soon and happily. Well, then, she might have leave to try, and so she went into the Green Knight's bedroom and washed him the first time. And when she came the next day he was so well he could sit up in bed; the day after he was man enough to walk about the room, and the third he was as well and lively as a fish in the water.
'Now he may go out hunting,' said the doctor.
Then the king was so overjoyed with the doctor as a bird in broad day. But the doctor said he must go home.
Then she threw off her hat and gown, and dressed herself smart, and made a feast, and then she unclasped the book. Then arose the same joyful strain as of old, and in a trice the Green Knight was there, and he wondered much to know how she had got thither.
So she told him all about it, and how it had happened, and when they had eaten and drunk he took her straight up to the castle, and told the king the whole story from beginning to end. Then there was such a bridal and such a feast, and when it was over they set off to the bride's home, and there was great joy in her father's heart, but they took the step-mother and rolled her down hill in a cask full of spikes.