The Princess Who Sleeps Underground

The Princess Who Sleeps Underground

Northumberland is home to several magnificent castles, though none could be judged more dramatic than the ruin at Dunstanburgh. The largest castle in the county stands on a prominent headland which juts out of the cliffs. Surrounded by the raging sea to the east and miles of rugged landscape in every other direction, it’s not difficult to see why the castle has its own, equally dramatic, story.

It was one evening in the depth of winter which found the young knight Sir Guy riding along the coast of Northumberland. Though his leavetaking of Bamburgh had been under a clear sky, at the oncoming of night the skies grew dark and Sir Guy soon found himself lost in a mighty storm. Heavy black clouds rolled overhead and soon he could see no further into the darkness than the nodding of his horse’s head. The rain lashed down and soaked him through; the hailstones stabbing him like knives.

Forced to look for shelter in this inhospitable land where neither house nor hovel could be seen, Sir Guy had almost given up hope when with a sudden lightning flash he spied the towers of the great castle of Dunstanburgh, just a few miles away. He rode with all speed to the castle and beat in earnest upon its great wooden doors. But under the howling of the storm his cries could not be heard, and no one came to his rescue. There were no lights in the towers, and if he listened at the keyhole no sound came from within, save the whistling wind.

Disappointed but not yet beaten, Sir Guy rode around the castle walls looking for another gate or perhaps a small door by which he might enter. Finding no better than a small porch set into the stone, he lay down in it to rest as best he could until the storm had blown over. But no respite could he find from the weather; still the wind howled and pulled at the castle walls as if to rip them from the very landscape. Below him the sea boiled and tore against the cliffs, and ahead the lightning flashed across the sky, the roars of thunder rumbling and crashing as if to bring the heavens down.

As the storm grew closer each rumble grew louder until at last the storm was overhead, the lightning illuminated the entire landscape with dazzling light. Then came a strike of thunder which made the very battlements shake with its power. Leaping from his shelter in fear, Sir Guy stood helpless as his horse bolted away over the fields.

As if the weather had wreaked all the fury it could, in that moment the wind died down and the storm faded into the distance. The moon came out from behind the receding clouds and, by its light, he perceived that the porch in which he had rested was now an open doorway, through which light streamed out into the darkness. The knight stared in amazement as on the threshold emerged a giant of a man, wreathed in flame from head to foot. The giant bowed to Sir Guy and bade him enter in a voice as deep as the thunder itself.

Sir Guy entered, and as he passed through the doorway it closed as mysteriously as it had opened. Casting his eyes around the chamber, his gaze was soon drawn to two magnificent thrones, upon which two great lords sat, living though unmoving as if carved from stone. In the hand of one was a great sword, of which the scabbard was set with many jewels and the blade inscribed with beautiful patterns. The other held a burnished hunting horn made of gold, which shone like the sun.

Between the two kings was a slab of marble encased in clear crystal, upon which lay a beautiful princess. She was richly dressed and bore on her head a coronet of silver and priceless diamond. The young knight was so drawn to her beauty that he wept, thinking her dead. Confused by all he saw the knight turned to the fire-giant, who bowed to him and spoke once more.

“Look with care, Sir Knight, for you are one of few in this world to have been given leave to enter this place. The princess who lies beyond is not dead; she sleeps under a spell which also binds her protectors to a neverending slumber. The horn and the sword which they bear will break the spell. For the princess to awaken the horn must be blown and the crystal shattered by the sword. This deed is granted to all who have reached this place, and if you choose the right one first, the charm holding the princess in sleep will be broken. Choose wisely, Sir Knight, for you will not receive a second chance.”

“How shall I know which to choose first?” asked the knight.

“Of the choice I may make no judgement,” replied the giant. “This is a choice you must make.”

Sir Guy gazed upon the princess and saw she was lovely indeed; how wonderful a thing would it be to restore her to life once more! But his heart was heavy, for the decision with which he was charged was a difficult one. He searched the faces of the lords upon the thrones, but they sat motionless, their expressions as hard and empty of emotion as stone. It seemed to him that there was no aid to his decision. He paced back and forth across the floor, first deciding upon the horn, then upon the sword, then back again. Many times he started up to choose one or the other, but was soon driven back by the fear of choosing wrongly.

The fire-giant grew impatient and Sir Guy saw that his time was running out. Jumping up, he grasped the horn in a trembling hand and blew a long blast. Immediately the room was plunged into darkness and the giant, lords and lady all disappeared from his sight. Overcome, the knight fell to the ground.

When he awoke, he found himself lying in the porch which had been his shelter from the storm. Day had come, and he found his horse grazing peacefully in the grass. Remembering the events of the night before, the knight hurled himself upon the porch door and burst it open, finding nothing but a dusty room filled with rubbish and hung with cobwebs. He searched for the chamber in which the lady lay, though however hard he smote the walls with his hands he knew that he had truly made the wrong choice and the princess was lost to him forever.

The memory of her beauty haunted Sir Guy so that he could not leave Dunstanburgh. He gave up his title and dwelled ever after beneath the walls of the castle. Though he never strayed far and never lost hope, the giant had spoken the truth. The knight died without ever finding again the giant’s hall and within it, the princess who would sleep on forever.

Photo credit: The Path to Dunstanburgh Castle 2 by Moose Malloy

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