The Glass Mountain: A Polish Tale

Today’s story is the Glass Mountain, also known as the Princess on the Glass Hill! If you started listening and realized that it sounded familiar to a previous story of ours, then you are thinking along the right lines! Let me explain:

One of the possible origins of this story is the Egyptian story of The Doomed Prince! Not to say it is the origin of this story because many stories can bubble up independently of one another but the Doomed Prince is one of the earliest known archetypes of a princess being trapped on a hill. However, keep in mind that there are a surprising amount of variants to this story from all around the world including Afghanistan, India, Eastern European countries like Poland, West Africa and Norway. Be sure to stick around for the Five Fantastic Finds for more information! 

This specific variant was originally compiled by Hermann Kletke before being translated into Andrew Lang’s Yellow Fairy Book and as fragments in the Brothers Grimm story, Old Rinkrank.

As a lover of Fairy Tale retellings, I first came across this story in Gail Carson Levine’s “Cinderellis and the Glass Hill.

Banished to the Mountain

Once upon a time, there was a glass mountain. We can only speculate how a mountain made of glass is even possible, but the imagery here is quite pretty. To make it even more fantastical there was a palace made of pure gold that sat atop the mountain. Outside of the castle gates grew a golden tree which grew golden apples. These apples were not just beautiful, but they were also the key to getting admittance into the golden castle.

This magnificent golden palace had more riches and gems than you could imagine. Since this is a fairy tale, there is also a beautiful and fair princess who lives here. 

Tales of this beautiful, rich princess spread and knights from all over came and attempted to climb the glass mountain. But alas, none could get even halfway up, even though some rode horses with sharpened hooves. All would eventually fall down the slippery mountain, breaking various bones, and many instantly perished. 

Image: Helen Jacobs

From her window, the beautiful and fair princess watched each knight attempt to climb the mountain. Though the sight of her gave the knights courage, none could reach her. Nearly seven years pass. Bodies have piled up at the base of the mountain. In the graveyard-like places, many injured knights became trapped as they were too injured to leave. 

The Golden Knight

Three days before it would be seven years that the princess was waiting, a knight clad in golden armour, riding a spirited stead, came. The knight charged halfway up the mountain before turning around and immediately going back down.

Image by Ilia McAfee

The next day he charged up once more, and this time, he got very close to the top before being attacked by a giant eagle. Unfortunately for our golden boy, his horse then slipped. Both fell down the mountain, leaving nothing but their bones behind, which rattled in the gold armour.

Cinder Lad

Now there was only one day before the end of the seven years. Enter our unnamed hero, a happy-go-lucky schoolboy. It’s probably safe to assume he has spiky, brightly coloured-protagonist hair. He had heard the tales of the princess and all the fallen knights from his parents, but he was determined to try his luck.

Before beginning the climb, he tracked and caught a lynx. Taking the creature’s sharp claws, he fastened them to his hands and feet, Wolverine style. After which, he began the climb. By the time the sun was setting, he was only at the halfway point. He was already quite exhausted, and his feet were bleeding, so he could only use his hands to climb further. As he looked down, he saw the abyss of bodies of the knights that had tried and failed before him.

When night finally came, he could climb no more. He gave in to his exhaustion, fell asleep, relaxed his body and was ready to accept his fate. But thankfully for him, the claws were firmly in the glass, so he did not fall.

Remember that giant eagle that killed the golden knight from before? Well, that eagle guards the golden apple tree, and every evening he flies around the mountain to protect it from those pesky people. As the eagle began making the rounds, he saw the sleeping youth in the moonlight.

Image: Henry Justice Ford for the Yellow Fairy Book.

Hungry for fresh meat, the eagle swooped down at the boy. But, unbeknownst to the bird of prey, the boy was awake, and he was not going down without a fight. The eagle sunk its talons into the youth. However, he refused to cry out in pain. Instead, he clutched the eagle’s feet with his hands. In terror, the eagle flew up and circled the castle. The boy, hanging on for dear life, saw the magnificent castle and the beautiful but sad princess on a balcony. Realizing how close he was to his goal, he took a pocket knife and cut off the eagle’s feet. You know, instead of just letting go.

Screeching out in pain, the eagle flew high into the dark clouds. Meanwhile, the boy safely fell into the branches of the apple tree. Very convenient. After a sigh of relief from surviving the fall, the boy tended to his wounds. First, he removed the claws still embedded in him, then he took golden apple peels and wrapped them over the wound. Within moments the wound was healed as if it had never been there. 

After pocketing several of these golden apples, he entered the castle to find a great dragon guarding it. Quickly, the youth threw an apple at the dragon, and the beast immediately vanished. Now that the dragon was gone, he looked around to see a courtyard with beautiful flowers and the enchanting princess watching from an onlooking balcony. She ran to him as her husband and gave him all her riches. 

Image by Edmund Dulac for a Russian variant called “Ivan and the Chestnut Horse.”

And so he became a wealthy and mighty ruler. But he never returned to the earth. You see, only the guardian of the castle and the princess could carry the treasure safely down the mountain. And that guardian was the mighty eagle, the same eagle the youth killed on his way up and whose body landed in the nearby woods. 

But it’s not that bad, for sometime later, the youth noticed a large group of people at the base of the mountain. Using a swallow as a messenger, he asked what was going on down below. The swallow quickly went down to investigate and returned, saying: the eagle’s blood had restored life to all the knights that died trying to climb up the mountain. And they were now waking up as if they had been asleep all this time.

The Variants

This folktale is impressive in its span and variety. Usually called “The Princess on the Glass Hill,” it can be seen in Norwegian, Swedish, Middle Eastern, Egyptian, Indian and Scottish stories, to name a few. The story often has two parts, with the first part being about the hero and his horse which has led some critics to argue this story must have originated from an equestrian society. However, the earliest known version of the latter Princess in a tower section comes from the Tale of the Doomed Prince, dating back to Dynasties 19 and 20, 1292–1077 BC.

Many theories argue the origins of this tale came from India and travelled upwards through to Russia and Europe. In most of the Indian variants (and there are almost as many as there are Polish variants), horses are ravaging the King’s garden, and the hero stops them before using one of the captured horses to win a suitor contest. Usually, this involves balls and a rooftop instead of a glass mountain.

The diversity of these stories is crazy, with everything from transformations into ravens, and ogres, story-telling contests, vigils for Kings and more magical horses than you can count!

Golden Apples in Video Games

Golden Apples don’t just exist in fairy tales and mythology! They are also a key part of many video games!

In the Assassin’s Creed franchise, golden apples, also known as apples of Edan, are super powerful muguffin objects. They are artifacts from the distant past and are primarily a driving force for many of the in-game entries.

In Minecraft, they are a rare consumable item that has limited healing and regeneration effects. This is similar to how our protagonist in today’s tale used the golden apple to heal his own wounds.

Stock Character: Ashlad and Cinderlad

We’ve discussed stock characters on this podcast before, specifically with Jack from English folklore and Vasilisa or Ivan from Slavic folklore. Well, today we have the Norwegian Ashlad or Askeladden. His name comes from the fact that he is often given the dirty work in the family or sleeps among the ashes. Later translations and stories will rebrand him as Cinderlad to go with the imagery of Cinderella.

This character features in a variety of tales as an underachieving younger brother who often has to use unconventional methods to succeed after his brothers try the conventional ones. In one example, the brothers need to rescue a princess trapped East of the Sun, West of the Moon, and Ashlad is the one who ends up doing it with a Viking ship.

It does seem Abjorsen and Moe gave him a clean, heroic edit, with other tales labelling him more of a thief character akin to Robin Hood.

Either way, this resourceful character is one of my favourite stock characters due to his out-of-the-box thinking and cleverness!

Decoy Protagonist

A decoy protagonist is a trope used by the author to purposefully mislead the audience about the real protagonist in the story. These are often short-lived divergences used to subvert expectations, especially in this story with the Golden Knight.

A great example is the start of The Legend of Vox Machina series, where we see an epic, tough-looking group of heroes ready to face any danger- only to be wiped out. After this scene, we go to our real heroes- drunk at a tavern which provides fun levity and shows how imperfect our heroes are.

Sometimes, the decoy hero is actually the antagonist. After all, villains are heroes of their own stories, so it’s no surprise their stories would start similarly to a protagonist. In Assassin’s Creed 3, the first three memories that the player experiences are of Haytham Kenway. At the end of the third memory, it is revealed that Haytham is part of the Templars, the enemy group of the Assassin order. As players continue the rest of the game as Haytham’s son, Conner Kenway, there is an antagonistic dynamic between the two that feels personal to the player.

Maiden in the Tower

The Gilded Cage is a popular theme in many stories, but let us specifically focus on the Maiden in the Tower trope here. In the fairy tale variants seen in this episode and The Doomed Prince, the tower is a challenge for suitors and a way of determining who is worthy of the Princess. However, the origins of this motif are usually more in-line with keeping the Princess’ virginity intact and keeping suitors away. Let’s examine how the narrative shifted. 

One of the earliest stories collected with this theme is in the 5th century BC with Danaë and the Golden Shower. King Acrisius of Argos locks his daughter, Princess Danaë, away after hearing a prophecy that her son would kill him. Zeus (because, of course, it’s Zeus) rains down on her in the form of a golden shower and gets her pregnant. Eventually, their son, Perseus, does kill his grandfather. 

A Jewish narrative from the 8th century has King Soloman locking his daughter away for similar reasons. 

In a previous series of episodes, we touched on the love story of Zal and Rudabeh from Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh, where we start to see the climbing of the hair. This becomes prevalent in most Rapunzel retellings later on.

Zal and Rudabeh by Hamid Rahmanian from his illustrated edition of Shahnameh.

To shift to the suitor contest’s role in the story, look no further than the Prose Edda of Snorri Sturluson. Brunhild lived on a mountain called Hindarfjall, where a wall of flame surrounded her, and she would only marry the man who could pass through the flames. Now, we have a situation where the hill is a challenge!  

As J.R.R. Tolkien once said, ‘The Cauldron of Story has always been boiling, and to it have continually been added new bits, dainty and undainty” (1997, p. 125).


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