I stand at the foot of the glass mountain. Its sheer, hard wall sloping upward, the crest beyond my sight. Many a knight and his horse have clambered up its side, striving for the pinnacle and its prize, only to lose their footing and slide back down to their harm or death.
How many glass mountains are there? Maybe as many as there are people. For me, the most devious of glass mountains appears in the Grimm tale Old Rinkrank.
In this tale, as the princess and her suitor climb, she slips; the glass mountain opens up and swallows her. She is found by Old Rinkrank in the cave she falls into. He offers her death or servitude.
As his servant, she washes his dishes, makes his bed, and grows old. He takes to calling her Mother Mansrot. Every day Old Rinkrank takes his ladder out of his pocket, using it to climb to the top of mountain, and pulls the ladder up behind him. Every evening he returns with gold and silver to add to his hoard.
One day Mother Mansrot washes his dishes, makes his bed, then shuts all the doors and windows, except one small window. She refuses to open up when Rinkrank returns. He looks through the small window to see what she is up to, and she slams the window sash on his beard. Trapped, he must surrender the ladder.
After climbing to the top of the mountain, she releases him by pulling on a long rope. Returning to her father and betrothed, she tells them what has happened to her. The king condemns Old Rinkrank to death, taking his gold and silver. The princess finally marries, and they live in splendor and joy.
This story did not appear in the Grimms’ collection until the sixth edition of the seven they produced. They found it in Frisian Archiv von Ehrentraut, written in Frisian dialect, which I imagine appealed to the Grimms because of its rustic nature, but which is difficult to read in German and more difficult to translate into English. One verse of a rhyme in particular has been construed variously as “Here stand I, poor Rinkrank, On my seventeen long shanks, On my weary, worn-out foot,” and “Here I stand, poor Rinkrank, Seventeen feet long I stand on planks, On my tired-out feet.” Also as “On my seventeen legs long.”
There are numerous glass mountain stories. They harken back to Brunhilda’s deliverance from the Hall of Flame, protected by a wall of shields atop Mount Hindarfjall, which only the horse Grani could reach. Usually the variants involve a princess sitting on top of the glass mountain, often holding a golden apple, to which knights on horseback must ascend.
In Old Rinkrank, the accoutrements have fallen away. No golden apple, no horses. The princess is climbing with her young man when she slips and falls into the mountain, which opens up to receive her.
Not unlike The Turnip Princess, of which I have spoken before, the images and connections in Old Rinkrank are surreal, suggesting the art of literary correctness has not been applied to this tale. It is close to its rude, peasant origins.
Bruno Bettelheim in his Uses of Enchantment dissected a number of fairy tales to reveal their hidden meaning. He did not take on Old Rinkrank. I am a little surprised. If any of the fairy tales hold a hidden meaning, this is the one. It calls out to us, “Look deeper, look deeper.”