A Story From: Denmark
Read Time: 11 to 15 mins.
For Ages: 5 to 10yrs.
There was once a princess of England who was very beautiful. But she had one great fault – namely, that she thought far too much of herself and too little of everyone else. Of course she had many suitors, but she refused them all, scorning each one for even trying to woo her.
At that time there was a young prince in Denmark. The fame of her beauty had reached him, and he sent word, asking for her hand in marriage. The princess answered that she would rather earn her bread by spinning all her life than marry such a poor and miserable prince as the prince of Denmark.
However, the young prince was determined to win her. He dispatched fresh messengers with letters, and sent with them a gift for her of six beautiful horses, white as milk, with pink muzzles, golden shoes, and scarlet rungs. Such fine horses had never before been seen in England. The king was much impressed, and said to her that a prince who could send such a fine gift must at least be considered her equal. But the princess ordered the grooms to cut off the manes and tails of the six horses, to soil them with dirt, and return to Denmark with the message that rather than be married to him she would sit in the street and sell pottery.
When he learned of this response the king of Denmark became enraged and declared that he would put to sea with all his ships and go to war with England at once to revenge the insult. His son begged him, however, to hold off on any such action.
Instead, the prince built a ship, a ship so beautiful and costly that its like had never been seen before. The prince gave the sailors a letter to deliver to the king of England, asking his daughter to accept him in marriage, and to receive the fabulous ship as an engagement gift.
The ship commanded considerable attention in England, no one having seen such a magnificent vessel before. The king was more impressed than ever, and begged his daughter to accept the proposal without delay. A suitor so wealthy and generous, so true and devoted as this prince, he urged her, certainly deserved a favorable answer.
But that night the princess gave orders for the magnificent ship to be sunk to the bottom of the ocean. In the morning, she told the sailors to return as best they could to their home country; that she would rather wash cups and plates than to call their poor fellow of a Danish prince her husband.
Upon hearing about the fate of his ship, and the disdainful answer of the princess, the king of Denmark was more enraged than ever, and determined to man his fleet and take a bloody revenge. The prince prevailed on him one last time, however, vowing solemnly that he would make the haughty princess regret her proud ways.
So the prince left Denmark quite alone and reached England. Since no one knew who he really was, he decided to call himself Greyfoot. Disguised in an old hat, dingy clothes, and wooden shoes, he arrived at the English palace towards evening and asked the herdsman for work. That night the prince slept with the cows in the stable. The next morning the prince — now Greyfoot — began work as a herdsman’s helper by driving the royal cattle to their watering-hole.
The path to the watering-hole happened to travel exactly below the windows occupied by the princess. As Greyfoot approached the princess’ window, he pulled from a bundle he had brought with him a golden spindle, and proceeded to use it in driving forth the cows. The princess caught a glimpse of the sun shining on the golden spindle. She took a great fancy to it, and sent someone down to ask whether the beggar were willing to sell it. Greyfoot answered that he did not care to sell it for money. However, he said that would gladly give it to her if she would but answer a single question he would put before her. The princess would do no such thing. No! she declared; a princess is not obliged to answer any question at all, much less one put before her by a beggar such as he.
“Very well,” answered Greyfoot, “Then I shall keep my spindle, your highness.”
The princess had taken it into her head, however, that she must possess the beautiful golden spindle, and so she agreed to his terms.
“Very well, then, princess, answer me this question: Is the sky blue?”
The princess laughed long and hard, then answered, “Yes, yes, of course yes!” And the beggar gave her his golden spindle.
The next morning, the princess noticed Greyfoot chasing the cows with a golden reel. At once she sent one of her maids down to ask whether it could be bought.
“Yes,” said Greyfoot, “and the price is the same as yesterday. The princess must answer a single question that I put before you.”
The princess laughed to herself, remembering the silly question he had asked the day before. But as the treasure could be had in no other way, she agreed.
“Then here it is, princess,” said the beggar. “Tell me this: Is the grass green?”
Again, the princess laughed and laughed. “Yes, yes, of course yes!” she cried. And so she had the golden reel, too.
The third morning Greyfoot drove the cattle to the watering-hole using a weaver’s shuttle of pure gold. The princess sent for him, and when he appeared before her, she said, “Now, Greyfoot, how much do you ask for this treasure of yours? Another difficult question, I suppose?”
And Greyfoot answered, “Your highness, all I ask is that your answer be the same as it was twice before; that you agree to say, ‘Yes, yes, of course yes!’ to the question I will put before you.”
The princess was delighted. Perhaps I’ll be asked this time, she smiled, whether birds fly, or perhaps, if fish swim.
“Very well, then princess,” said the beggar. “Are you ready?” She nodded, laughing to herself. “Then here is the question: Will you marry me?”
The princess was astonished. “Surely you can’t expect me, the Princess of all England, to throw my life away on a shabby beggar such as you!”
The king overheard his daughter’s cries. When he heard the entire situation he thundered, “Daughter, I cannot believe that you have given your word to marry this man, but so you have, and so marry him you must. There is nothing more to discuss. The two of you, be off!”
The king made hasty arrangements for a wedding, and shortly afterward Greyfoot and the princess were married. Thus the princess was forced to leave her life of royal comforts.
When they passed the barn door, Greyfoot turned to the princess, saying, “You cannot walk on these dusty roads in your silk gown and satin shoes; you must change your clothes before we depart.” So they visited the herdsman’s wife, who gave the princess — now Greyfoot’s wife — a plain dress of linsey-woolsey, a woolen jacket, a cape, and a pair of heavy shoes.
“That’s better,” said Greyfoot.
At first they walked each on his own side of the road, without speaking; but in a little while the princess raised her eyes to look at the man who was now her husband. To her astonishment she noticed that he was neither old nor ugly, but really a handsome young man, in spite of his old and dingy clothes. Not accustomed to walking very far, especially with such heavy shoes, the princess was soon exhausted. “Dear Greyfoot,” she said, “do not walk so fast!”
“Ah,” he said, “it is not easy having a princess for a wife. Very well, then, I’ll slow down, but move on we must.”
At last they arrived at a seaport. There Greyfoot obtained passage for himself and his wife as servants aboard a ship, and the princess felt much relieved when at last the shoreline of her father’s land vanished from sight, although she had no idea where they were bound, nor did she care.
The voyage ended in Denmark. When they had safely landed, Greyfoot proceeded to rent a small cabin in the neighborhood of the royal palace. It had only one little room with a stone floor and an open fireplace, where she must prepare their meals.
“And to think,” she sighed, looking about the dark, damp cabin with spider’s webs in all the corners, “that I could have married the Prince of Denmark.”
Greyfoot, who as you know was really the Prince of Denmark said only as gently as he could, “It’s no use thinking of such things. You might as well get used to what we can afford.”
In a little while, Greyfoot went out and returned with an old spinning wheel and a bundle of rough flax, to be spun into yarn. “I must try to find work to earn some money,” he said. “But neither of us can afford to be idle. Spin this flax into yarn, and we might make a few pennies from your efforts.”
Greyfoot found work at the palace as a woodcutter. Though the princess spent most the day spinning until her fingertips were raw and her knees shaked under her, the yarn was forever becoming torn and knotted. Every evening, when Greyfoot returned and examined her work, he sighed. Then he shared with her a loaf of bread and a jug of milk he had bought on the way home with the little money he had earned selling firewood. And they went to bed on their hard cots.
One evening Greyfoot showed his wife a wheelbarrow filled with pottery.
“Here’s a chance for you to be useful,” he said. “I had to use our savings for a deposit and borrow the pots on credit, but it will be worth it when you sell them all by the end of the day. It’s easy enough work to stand behind a table at the marketplace and sell pots, even for a princess.”
The next day Greyfoot went to his work as usual, and his wife set out for the town with her pottery. But just when she had managed to sell a few of them, a troop of knights came galloping down the street. One of the horses became wild and rushed in among her pots, and they all shattered into a thousand pieces under the heavy hoofs which trampled upon them. The riders pursued their way; but the poor princess could do nothing but clean up the mess and return to her cabin. Sitting down, she wept bitterly.
In the evening, when Greyfoot returned, she told him of her terrible day. “Now our situation is worse than ever,” said he, shaking his head, “for I have no money with which to pay for the pottery that’s been broken.” So they could do nothing but to share their daily dinner of bread and milk, and go to bed early.
Greyfoot came home the next evening with some exciting news. “I found a good job for you at the palace. They are preparing for a wedding, and tomorrow you are to help out in the kitchen. Do your best and make yourself useful. Maybe they will keep you and pay you good wages. Tomorrow they will give you your meals and twenty pennies besides.”
The next morning, Greyfoot said to his wife, “Today I must stay at home; I feel an illness coming on me, so I will rest and try to get better.” She burst into tears, and told him that when he was ill she could not think of leaving him. When he answered, however, that she was expected at the palace and must go, she kissed him good-bye, hoping that he would soon feel better, and promising to return as quickly as she could.
So the princess spent the whole day in the royal kitchen. Toward the end of the day, to her alarm, she slipped and spilled a great pot of stew on the floor. The head cook fired her on the spot. Shamed and tearful, she returned to the cabin, where Greyfoot told her that he felt better. When she told him what had happened in the kitchen, her husband said not to worry. At least she had earned a few pennies for the day’s work, and besides, he had heard some more exciting news that day. An order had been issued announcing that the Prince of Denmark was to be married to a Russian princess. The bridal-gown for the Russian princess had arrived, but the princess herself, having been delayed by wind and waves on the sea, was unable to be fitted for the wedding gown before the ceremony. The following day, every girl and woman was to present herself at the palace and whoever matched the measurements of the Russian princess would be chosen to try them on for size and fit.
“To be fitted for a fine gown is surely a job you could do well,” said Greyfoot. “And who knows? Maybe your wages could pay off our debts.”
In the morning Greyfoot declared that he felt worse than ever, but would not keep her from going to the palace. She hesitated, but as he insisted, she threw her arms around him, kissed him, and left.
The royal measurer was busy among the many women assembled in the courtyard, and it seemed impossible to find anyone who fit the right measurements. But when at length he reached Greyfoot’s wife, he declared that she was the very person they wanted.
Now she was taken into the palace, and attired in a gorgeous wedding gown, a bridal veil, and a pair of exquisite slippers. When finally the crown was placed on her head, everyone declared that the real princess could hardly be prettier than she. When the seamstresses were finished, the princess started to take off the bridal finery, but the chief lady-in-waiting stopped her. “Now you must take part in the rehearsal for the royal wedding,” she said. “The bride will be very late arriving from Russia, and the court must practice the event.”
In a little while a beautiful carriage drawn by six milk-white horses was seen at the door, and Greyfoot’s wife was asked to enter. The Prince of Denmark was already seated in the carriage. Casting her eyes downward, the princess felt grateful that the prince couldn’t possibly know that the woman sitting beside him had once been the proud princess of England who had scorned his many offers of marriage.
They drove along the road until the carriage passed Greyfoot’s cabin. Seeing with alarm from a distance that it was afire, the woman in the carriage uttered a piercing shriek and cried, “Stop! Stop this carriage at once! My husband Greyfoot was ill at home when I left him this morning, and he may not have escaped from the fire!” She tried to jump out, but only succeeded in tangling her long train and veil and dropping her crown. The prince now spoke to her for the first time, and said: “What? That woodcutter Greyfoot is your husband and you are ruining the royal bridal finery for the likes of him? A young woman like you should leave such a tramp anyway.”
She answered, “He is my husband, and always shares what he has with me, though I’m the one who’s been of little use to him. Why, even if you offered me the place which I am now occupying as your real bride, I would refuse it, and return to the cabin where I have lived the happiest part of my life!”
The prince smiled and said, “But you are already my real bride.”
Now she looked at him directly and saw that he, the Prince of Denmark, and her husband Greyfoot were one and the same man. Throwing her arms around him, she said that she was so sorry for all the cruel things she had once said and did, and that she would stay with him forever whether he was a prince or not.
Thus the proud princess of England became the happy princess of Denmark and, in the years to come, its good queen.
"Greyfoot" is based on "Greylegs," a story from Danish Fairy and Folk Tales by J. Christian Bay (Harper & Brothers Publishers: New York, 1899), pp. 35-46.
Adapted by Elaine Lindy. ©1998. All rights reserved.
There are many stories of haughty princesses being tricked into marrying royal men in disguise who intend to humble them, the most common being "King Thrushbeard" (The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm: Bantam Books, 1987). In "King Thrushbeard" the princess is utterly humiliated. In the scene where she is working as a kitchen maid, she sews two jars of kitchen scraps inside her skirt to take home. The king (in truth her beggar-husband) appears in the kitchen (as king) and engages her (as kitchen maid) to dance. The string breaks, the jars fall, and the scraps scatter on the floor. The people laugh at her "a good deal" and "she feels so ashamed that she wish[es] she were a thousand fathoms under the earth." In the story of "Greyfoot," the prince-in-disguise continues to respect the princess and maintain her dignity.