Rilke’s The Dragon Slayer
By Rainer Maria Rilke - Translated by Daniel Joseph Polikoff
Daniel Polikoff, October 16, 2019
This story begins like a fairy tale but leads into the midst of what is most real. In this, it is finally like all true fairy tales, even while differing from these in many other ways.
It begins: There was once a beautiful and fruitful country full of forests, fields, rivers, streets and cities. A King chosen by God ruled the land, an elder of more ancient and upright bearing than any other King of whom I’ve heard credible report.
This King’s only child was a girl of great beauty and deep yearning. The King was familiar with all other neighboring kings, but his daughter was still a child. No doubt her serenity and the power of her calm countenance was the innocent cause of the Dragon who—the more the girl grew and blossomed—crept closer and closer to the heart of the kingdom and, at last, lodged—like Terror itself—in a forest bordering the fairest city in the land. For there is a secret connection between the most Beautiful and the most Terrible things, just as there is between mountain peaks and abysses, between calm lakes and the rushing streams that feed them, between noble, laughing Life and the dark Death that lies near us all the time.
I do not wish to imply that the Dragon harbored hostility towards the young Princess just as no one of conscience and honor can say whether Death is opposed to Life. Perhaps the great boiling beast would have laid himself down like a dog at the feet of the beautiful maiden; perhaps only its shyness would have prevented it from lovingly licking her darling hand in animal humility. But one naturally could not let the maiden anywhere near the Dragon, the less so as the creature had shown itself merciless toward any unfortunate being who, through ignorance or carelessness, fell within the reach of its power. No matter if such were a child or simple shepherd, it would fall upon them like the spectre of Death itself and destroy them so no trace of warm life survived.
At first, the King remarked with great satisfaction how this great danger and the need it announced made so many youths into men as they armed themselves and took leave of their parents and of the slender brides with whom they had never yet spoken of Love. Young men of all rank and kind—the sons of noblemen, priests and servants—would set out as if to some foreign land and be heroes for a single, fiery, breathless hour in which they lived, matured, and died as in the hot fever of a dream.
After a few weeks it no longer occurred to anyone to count these brave souls and inscribe their names in the books and records of the land. For in desperate, terror-stricken times the people accustom themselves to heroes; at such times, these appear no longer remarkable. The hearts and fears of thousands cry out for them and they are there, like a necessity, as if called forth and determined by those great laws that do not cease operation simply because times may be dark and troubled.
But as the number of those who sacrificed themselves in this gesture of wild resistance grew ever larger, and when almost every family in the country had lost their finest, the King rightly began to fear that all the first born sons of the realm might be destroyed and that too many young women would have to take upon themselves the burden of a too young widowhood, passing the long years of a childless life in daily grief over the loss of their beloveds. So he forbade his subjects the battle. Foreign merchants, however, many of whom fled the besieged land in a nameless horror, took with them the message that the King, like many others in his place, wished to spread abroad: He promised any stranger (be he nobly born or the hangman’s son) the hand of his daughter, if he should succeed in freeing the land from the great Death and restore joy and commerce to its sad, eerily deserted streets.
And so it was revealed that foreign lands, too, were full of heroes. They came on their heavy, tired horses, climbed dustily off by any house or hut that lay along the road and asked for shelter for the length of a night. They wished once more to sleep in a bed and bathe in the coolness of the night and address a prayer to the stars and to that next fateful morning, which they awaited in fearful impatience. But there were also those who did not think of prayer, but rode through the hidden streets of the city in search of willing girls who still could laugh in a time when, to most, laughter seemed hollow and sinful. Neither the one nor the other kind seemed to think overmuch of the reward promised to the victorious hero. Only the young Princess thought of that. If, to this point, her heart, grieved by the confusion and sorrow of the entire land, had desired and prayed for the demise of the beast; now—since she’d been promised to the strong, unknown hero to come—it bound itself to the Dragon. Indeed this had gone so far that she, in the freedom of her dreams, had found in herself prayers meant to call holy women to the defense of the Dragon.
One morning, as she awoke with shame out of such a dream, there came to her a rumor that had set the town buzzing for some days already. The talk was of a very young man who had come (no one knew from where) to fight and—while he did not succeed in vanquishing the Dragon—still was himself in the position to tell of his escape from the maw of Death. He had left his horse to the vengeful beast and crawled (he himself could not tell how it had been possible) pale and bleeding into the forest, crawled for a day and a night, so that he’d been found the next morning, cold in his cold iron armor, apparently dead and frozen. But in the house, to which he’d been carried, he came quickly to and lay there now in fever while the blood of his wounds broke like a fire out of the hot, burning bandages. When the young maiden heard this news, she would have gladly gone just as she was, in bare feet and her nightdress of white silk, through the stony streets of the city in order to be at the bedside of the wounded hero so she might surround him with the power of her clear and open heart as with peace and with light. But after her three chambermaids had dressed her and she had seen her wonderfully beautiful clothing and her sorrowful face coming and going in the many mirrors of the palace, she lost the courage to venture something so unheard of, and only sent an old servant, whom she bound to secrecy, to that distant house. She gave him cool linen cloths, gentle salves scented like evening flowers, and a vessel of strong old wine which she thought might dampen the cursed heat of the fever and awaken the still healthy blood of youth in the veins of the knight.
The old servant undertook the journey three times but on the third day brought the costly salve back because the stranger had no more need of it. He was dead. The old servant suffered severe shock and shaking knees when the young Princess demanded that—so soon as it was night and all was quiet in the castle—he lead her to the unknown dead one in that distant house. Her voice was so full of will and resolve that he dared not resist her from fear that, if he did so, she would undertake the dark path alone, without his protection.
The Princess kept pace with her breathless heart so that the old man could hardly keep up. They reached the house in an astonishingly short time; all seemed to be sleeping there except the dead one: by him, there was still light. Remarkably, no candle burned in the chamber. The flame of a pitch-torch danced in its black holder like the soul of an evil thing, and its uncertain flickering light, which lingered nowhere, made the room look alternatively so long one could not see its end and so short that one feared bumping into things at every step.
The dead hero lay upon a large long table clothed in only a coarse cloth that reached to his feet and ended there like some rough sack. They had tried to fold his hands, but these had already been too rigid, and light and shadow played through the weave of his fingers so that it looked as if something lived under them. The old servant tried to hide the corpse with gestures of deflection but the Princess had already seen him. She passed—as if going right through him—by the old man, strong and unastonished, as if the form and face of death held nothing unexpected for her. She bent like an angel over the prone hero, closed his eyes and touched the strange cold mouth with the endless sweetness of her first kiss. Then her knees buckled and she knelt down and pressed her face in her ice-cold hands, prayed disparate words of various prayers, and wept.
When she finally rose again, she hardly knew where she was and stood, breathless with fear, in the room torn by flames chasing hither and thither. She called softly to the old servant but did not dare turn around to look for him. Finally, she noticed that he lay upon the broad window board, sleeping. She thought about shaking him awake but did not have the courage to touch the sunken old man who—as she had suddenly lost her belief in sleep—reminded her of Death.
Somehow, she gathered the strength to rise and found her way out of the house. Outside, she noticed that the house stood alone, surrounded by black trees motionless as the high heaven of the spring night. The quiet stillness did her good and healed her eyes, which had been afflicted by the flickering flame. She began to walk, leaving it to her feet to find the path. A nightingale sang. It was only the first half of the song, a short, sobbing question that the bird raised again and again. She knew no answer to it. And the voice, which had sounded so blissfully soft and mild in the garden, was much too loud, as if it belonged to some terrible bird whose nest rested in the crown of tall oaks.
The young Princess had never been so alone. It seemed to her as if things themselves remained behind her, for she saw nowhere a house, and the barking of dogs that she heard now and then was already very far away. She ran ahead only so that she would not freeze. Her lips seemed to have sucked all the coldness out of the night so that her mouth burned with it. When she thought for a moment, she no longer recognized the past, nor could she conceive of a future. She drifted on like a dried leaf cut loose from life.
Suddenly she saw a rider coming towards her. She instinctively shrank back and pressed herself into the dark damp bushes bordering the path. He rode slowly, and his horse was black with sweat and trembled. And he himself seemed to tremble, the scales of his armor clanging softly as he moved. His head was helmetless, his hands bare and empty, and his sword hung listlessly down at his side. His hair waved slightly in the wind and his young face was hot and fair. His eyes were quiet and directed towards the coming morning, and shone as if they had seen it already.
And so he rode past. The girl looked after him a long while. All at once, she knew: he had slain the Dragon. And immediately a great calm came over her. She was no longer a lost thing in the night; she belonged to this trembling hero who rode into the morning and he, who as yet did not know her, would soon seek and yearn for her as for a missing sister of his sword.
Now suddenly she quite easily found her way back to her father’s castle and met the distraught old servant, who had been desperately searching for her, by a secret door. From her room, she could already see the coming morning.
The young Princess slept for a few hours and awoke to the loud joy of the land. The people celebrated and the bells rang almost madly in the towers. All seemed to call for the rescuer. But he did not show himself.
And, in the midst of all the din, the Princess suddenly knew: he would not come. She tried to imagine him enveloped by the loud gratitude of the crowds, and could not. Anxiously she sought to recall and hold fast the image of the solitary hero, the trembling one, as she had first beheld him as if it were of utmost importance for her life that she not forget it. And while so doing, her mood became so festive, that—even though she knew he would not come—she did not interrupt the chambermaids who had come to dress and adorn her. She let them weave emeralds and pearls into her hair which—to the great surprise of her attendants—felt moist to the touch. Then the Princess was ready. She smiled at the chambermaids and walked, somewhat pale, past the mirrors in the rustle of the long white train that trailed after her.
Meanwhile the old King sat, serious and dignified, in the high throne room, surrounded by the shining columns of the old realm. He was awaiting the strange Hero, the one who had freed the land.
That one, however, was already riding far away from the city, and there was a heaven full of larks over his head. Had someone reminded him of the reward for his deed, perhaps he would have laughed quietly and turned around. He had forgotten about it entirely.
Daniel Joseph Polikoff © 2018 – all rights reserved
Rilke, R. M. (1961). Der Drachentöter. In Zinn, E. (Ed.), Rainer Maria Rilke: Sämtliche Werke (IV, pp. 672-678). Frankfurt am Main: Insel Verlag, 1961. (Original work published 1902)
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