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Robert Elsie
Albanian Literature

Oral Literature  |  Folktales



The Scurfhead

Once upon a time there was a king who had three sons. He also had a beautiful garden with a quince tree in it which bore only three quinces a year. Every time the tree bore fruit, a dragon came by and gobbled them up. The king desperately wanted to eat one of the quinces because they were so beautiful, but the dragon got them every time.

The eldest son decided to guard the quinces and went to his father to ask him for a net, a rattle and three candles to light his way in the dark. The father gave him what he asked for and the youth went into the garden and chose a place in the tall tree to wait for the dragon. The dragon arrived at midnight as usual and, seeing the light, guessed that a trap had been set for it. It therefore let out a frightening roar, threw itself with all its might against the tree, plucked a quince and was off in a flash. The youth was so frightened that he could not even move. The next morning he returned downcast and pale with fear to his father and told him what had happened. The father was very disappointed that his son had proved to be such a coward.

The second son then said, "This time I will go and guard the quinces!" At first the father did not want to let him go, for the second son was also a coward just like the eldest, but eventually he gave in. The second brother took a net, a rattle and light with him and set off for the garden to guard the quinces. That night, the very same thing happened. The dragon arrived, stole the second quince and disappeared, and the second son, having failed to put up any defence at all, was obliged to return to his father in shame.

The third son was a scurfhead. He was delighted at the failure of his brothers and went to his father saying that he too would go into the garden to guard the last quince. He gathered together everything he needed to guard the last quince, entered the garden and hid behind a tree. When the dragon arrived, the youth bravely lunged forth, struck the beast and wounded it so badly that it took flight. When the two older brothers saw how courageous the scurfhead had been they hung their heads in shame. They were jealous because they themselves had failed to fight the dragon. Nevertheless, when they heard their brother shouting and the dragon roaring, they ran to help him and the three of them pursued the dragon with fury until it disappeared into a hole in the ground. Standing in front of the hole, they talked to decide which of them would enter. The two older brothers were too afraid. Only the undaunted scurfhead was still willing to pursue the dragon. He tied two ropes around his waist, a black one and a white one, to be lowered into the cave, and they agreed on a signal. If he tugged on the white rope, everything was all right, but if he tugged on the black one, it meant he was in danger and they were to pull him up immediately to save his life.

And so the scurfhead entered the cave, looking for traces of the dragon. He wandered around for some time until he saw a small slab of iron on the floor, covering a hole. With all his might, he lifted the slab and descended three steps. At the bottom of the steps, he found a tiny house and knocked at the door. A fair maiden came out, one of the three Earthly Beauties. She welcomed him and asked him what he wanted. The scurfhead replied that he had come to slay the dragon which frightened everyone. The maiden replied, "The dragon is very strong indeed. If you want to slay it, you will first have to find out if you are strong enough to do so, otherwise you will be killed yourself. Anyone who does slay the monster will become known as the saviour of our country and I will take him for my husband." As a sign of their betrothal, she gave him a spindle which could make gold. He threw it onto the floor and a golden apple appeared.

He then continued on his way, came across another house, and knocked at the door. The maiden who answered was even fairer and more attractive than the first. She too said that she would marry the man who slew the dragon. As a sign of their betrothal she gave him a bowl. When he placed the bowl on the floor, another golden apple appeared. He accompanied the maiden to a third house and knocked at the door. There, too, a maiden answered who was more beautiful and wondrous than the first two, who were her sisters. After she had welcomed him and they had talked for a while, she gave him a hen with twelve chicks as a sign of their betrothal because she, too, wanted to marry the man who would slay the dragon. Then she took him into the den of the dragon, who had not yet returned.

As he waited and pondered on how best to slay the dragon, he saw a crowd of people in the distance who were weeping and lamenting. They were accompanying the king's daughter who was to be offered to the dragon, for the country was forced to offer one maiden a day to the dragon as payment for the water which it owned. The maidens were chosen by lot and that day the lot had fallen to the king's daughter. The crowd brought the poor maiden to the dragon's den and left her there. When the scurfhead saw the maiden sobbing and weeping, he felt sorry for her and asked her what was wrong. She told him her sad tale and he replied, "Don't be afraid, I'll save you.".

At last the dragon arrived, still covered with blood from the wound it had received in the garden. The scurfhead had fallen asleep with his head in the maiden's lap. When she caught a glimpse of the dragon covered with blood from the wounds it had received in the garden, she began to tremble and warm tears welled up in her eyes. One of the tears dripped onto the scurfhead's face and woke him up. He sprang to his feet and asked the frightened maiden what had happened. Although she was speechless with fright, she managed to show by her glance that the dragon had arrived. The youth set upon the monster like a serpent, mortally wounding it so that it could neither stand nor move, and plunged straight into a well. When the dragon hit the bottom of the well, the water which the townspeople needed so badly began to gush forth. It formed streams which flowed through the villages, still crimson with the blood of the dying dragon. The maiden went to the scurfhead and thanked him on her knees, saying, "I will never forget you for saving me!" Then she filled her jug and returned to the palace.

When the king and queen saw their daughter return safe and sound, they were overjoyed and asked with great astonishment how she had escaped from the monster. The maiden recounted everything that had taken place and how an unknown hero in the dragon's den had saved her. The king immediately gave orders for the hero to be summoned, for he was anxious to meet the man who had slain the dragon and saved his daughter. The youth was brought in and the king rose to welcome him, offering the boy a seat at his side. The king praised the scurfhead's bravery and added, "Tell me what you would like to have. Don't be afraid to ask, even if it is half my kingdom! I'll give you whatever you want to pay you back for the service you have rendered us by ridding our kingdom of the dragon and by saving my daughter. I would also be very pleased if you would have my daughter for your wife." The hero replied, "The honour and tribute you have paid me have made me very happy. I need nothing at the moment, but if I should ever be in need, I will gladly call on you for help." He then departed content.

From there, our hero returned directly to the three Earthly Beauties who were impatiently awaiting him. They reminded him that they had given him their word that they were willing to marry him. He, too, spoke warmly to them, saying, "I have come to take all three of you with me. The two older sisters I will give in marriage to my brothers and the youngest one I will marry myself." The three maidens made themselves ready and the four of them set off to return to the surface of the earth. The maidens took all of their belongings with them and went to the opening of the cave. There the scurfhead called his two brothers and they let down a rope. The scurfhead tied the rope around the eldest sister and shouted to his brothers to pull her up, explaining that she was to be the wife of the eldest brother. When they let down the rope again to pull up the second maiden, he explained that she was for the second brother. As soon as the two elder sisters had been pulled up, the youngest maiden, who was the prettiest of all, said, "I have an inkling that something terrible is going to happen to you. Your brothers have wicked intentions. They want to leave you down here forever and have me, the prettiest one, for themselves. But don't be afraid. If they do leave you here, run back into the dragon's den. There you will find two rams, a black one and a white one. You must seize the white one, which will take you back to the surface of the earth. Be careful not to seize the black one, because if you do, you will have to remain here and will be lost forever. I will never belong to your brothers, even unto death. I will wait for you until you come." The two brothers then lowered the rope for the third time and pulled the maiden up. When they saw how beautiful she was and heard the scurfhead say that she was for him, they decided to abandon him in the cave below.

The scurfhead remembered what the maiden had advised him to do and ran back to the dragon's den. There he found the two rams, the black one and the white one. But to his great misfortune he seized the black ram instead of the white one and was thus condemned to remain in the depths of the earth.

The poor lad wandered off, downcast and despondent in his misfortune. He happened upon an oak tree where he sat down in the shade. There he heard birds chirping and, looking upwards, he saw a nest of young eagles. He also noticed a snake slithering up the tree to devour the eaglets. The birds cried out as if begging him to save them from the snake. Taking pity on them, he jumped up, drew his knife and slew the snake. Then he returned to his resting place under the tree and fell asleep. When the mother eagle returned and saw the sleeping hero in the shade of the tree, she imagined that he intended to kill her babies, and set upon him. But the babies, by means of sounds and signs, made it clear to her that he had been their saviour, not their attacker. She flew off to the sea to moisten her wings and returned, sitting at the youth's head with wings outstretched to protect him in his sleep. When he awoke, he saw the eagle hovering over him with its wings outstretched and thought that it intended to kill him. But the eagle calmed his fears, telling him in a gentle and soothing voice, "You saved my children. I am therefore indebted to you. I beg you to regard me as your servant and tell me freely what wish of yours I can fulfil to repay you." The hero replied by asking, "But how could you repay me? You are a bird." "I will do whatever you want," responded the eagle. "All right," declared the scurfhead, "I'd like you to take me back to the earth if you can. That is my only wish." The bird replied, "That's easy enough for me. But you must bring with you an oven full of bread, two roasts of mutton and a barrel of water for the journey. Pack everything on my back, climb on and we will fly back to the earth."

The scurfhead recalled the promise of the king whose daughter he had saved from the dragon, went to him and asked for the things the eagle had demanded. The king was surprised at how little the scurfhead wanted in compensation for his great deed, but ordered that he be given everything he needed. The scurfhead then loaded everything onto the eagle, climbed onto its back and they took off, soaring into the air. They flew for a long, long time through wind and rain and finally, after great exertions, they arrived on the earth.

The youth was overjoyed at having escaped from the underworld and asked first of all whether his parents were still alive and how they were faring. When told that they were well, he thought it was high time that he made some money for them. The next morning he went for a walk and, lost in thought, came upon three feathers. He singed the tip of one of the feathers and suddenly three mares appeared, saying to him, "What is your command, master? We are here to serve you." Although he was particularly delighted to have found a source of income, he told them after a moment's thought to go their way and that he would call on them if ever he needed them.

He still wanted to find work and went to see a silversmith, asking if he could serve as the man's apprentice. He said that he wanted no wages, only food and some old clothes. The silversmith saw that the youth was dressed like a noble and accepted him as an apprentice. One day, a herald arrived from the palace and told the silversmith that the king wished to see him. The silversmith was quite alarmed and went to the palace. There the king ordered him to made a spindle which could make gold. He said to the silversmith, "I want to marry off my eldest son, but his bride wants a spindle like the one she had when she was a child. I summoned you because you are the best silversmith of all. Have the spindle ready for me within three days or you will lose your head!"

Though the silversmith was very talented, he had no idea how to make such a spindle. Fearing for his life, he said nothing and returned home in dismay. The scurfhead, sitting at his work, saw his master returning in distress from the palace and asked him why he was so upset. The silversmith replied, "Hold your tongue! It is not your place to ask such questions." But the scurfhead asked again and again until finally the silversmith told him about the spindle. The scurfhead allayed the silversmith's fears and boasted that he could make such a spindle in one night. He would need only five kilos of nuts and plenty of good wine. Although the ill fated silversmith found this hard to believe, he took heart and went out to buy what the scurfhead had asked for.

The scurfhead locked himself in his room and began cracking open the nuts and drinking the wine. His frightened master tiptoed up to the door and looked in through a crack to see what the apprentice was doing. The sly fox, however, frightened his master even more by calling out, "Be off with you or you'll ruin my work with your evil eye!" The next morning he gave his master the spindle he had received as a gift from the first Earthly Beauty. The silversmith was overjoyed and relieved when he saw the wonderful craftsmanship, and ran off to the king with it. The king, too, was very satisfied with the spindle and gave orders that the silversmith be given five cartloads of gold for his work. The silversmith accepted them and returned to give half the reward to his apprentice. The scurfhead, however, simply replied, "It is enough for me to know that my master is pleased with me."

The next day, the eldest son was to be married and the silversmith was invited to the wedding. He wanted to take his apprentice with him, but the youth would not go. A lofty pole had been set up on a hill outside the town, with a golden apple and a bag of money hanging from it. The king sent heralds all over the kingdom to proclaim that anyone who could jump high enough to reach the apple would receive a royal gift. Many brave men arrived from all corners of the earth, but none could reach the apple. When the scurfhead heard of the proclamation, he singed one of his three feathers and one of the three mares appeared on the spot with garments of gold for him. Dressed in his golden garments, he mounted the mare and rode off to the pole where a large crowd had gathered. He called to them in warning and, taking a mighty leap, plucked the apple from the pole. Everyone was amazed at such bravery. And so, the struggle between the scurfhead and his brothers ended and he was rewarded with the prettiest of the three Earthly Beauties.


[Source: Albanikê melissa (Bêlietta sskiypêtare). Syggramma albano-hellênikon periechon meros historias 'Dôra Istrias - hê Albanikê fylê', Albano-Hellênikas Paroimias kai Ainigmata, Albanika kyria onomata, Asmata kai Paramythia Albanika, kai Albano-Hellênikon leksilogion meta parabolês Albanikôn lekseôn pros archaias hellênikas. Syntachthen hypo E. Mêtku (Typ. Xenofôntos N. Saltê, Alexandria 1878), reprinted in Folklor shqiptar 1, Proza popullore (Tirana 1963). Translated from the Albanian by Robert Elsie.]