When Charlemagne was King of the Franks, legend says, he had a pillar erected in front of his palace, with a bell attached. If anyone wanted to appeal to the King for justice, all he had to do was ring that bell, and he would be immediately conducted to the King to have his case heard.
One evening, when Charlemagne was at dinner, he heard the bell ring. He sent a servant out to see who it was, but the servant returned, saying that when he opened the door he found no one. Dinner progressed; the bell rang again. Same result. When the bell rang the third time, the monarch himself rose and went to the door.
At the pillar, he found a snake wrapped around the pull-rope of the bell, using its weight to ring it. The palace servants tried to drive the snake away, but Charlemagne stopped them.
“Clearly,” he said, “the beast has come to have its case heard. And so it shall.”
And he asked the creature what it wanted.
The snake seemed to bow before the King, and then slithered away, looking behind itself as if it wanted them to follow. They followed the snake back to its nest, where they discovered a huge, poisonous toad sitting among the snake’s eggs, quite comfortable. The snake looked up at them, as if pleading.
The King ordered his servants to take the toad away and burn it; then he and his court returned to the palace.
At the next evening’s dinner, to everyone’s surprise, the snake suddenly entered the Great Hall. It glided straight to the King’s table, bowed, then came up onto the table and dropped a magnificent diamond into the King’s wine glass. It bowed again, and then left.
The King had the diamond set into a beautiful gold ring, which he then gave to his Queen, Fastrada.
What he didn’t know, however, was that the diamond was magic. Whoever gave the diamond to another person also gave that person all his love; and so Charlemagne was now deeply, passionately in love with his wife, never wanting to be parted from her. This is not such a bad thing — until, sadly, Fastrada fell ill.
She knew that she was dying, and she suspected the power that the ring had over her husband. She couldn’t bear the thought of someone else having the ring and taking Charlemagne’s love. So with her dying breath, she took the ring from her finger and hid it under her tongue.
She died, but Charlemagne’s love didn’t. He refused to let her be buried, instead setting up her corpse in state in her room. He knelt by her body constantly, even neglecting affairs of state. This was bad enough, but then the corpse started to decay.
The people were in a panic; they didn’t know what to do, so they turned to the Archbishop Turpin for advice. At first Turpin tried to talk some sense into Charlemagne, but it was useless. Turpin prayed and meditated on the problem; finally, in a dream he learned what he had to do.
Charlemagne was dozing when Turpin entered the room where Fastrada lay. Quickly, quietly, Turpin searched the corpse until he found the ring underneath the Queen’s tongue. The moment he took the ring out of her mouth, the King awoke. He looked at his wife’s body as if seeing it (and smelling it) with renewed senses.
“Why is she not buried yet? We’ve mourned long enough.”
And he left the room, for the first time since Fastrada had died. The household was greatly relieved.
But the Archbishop still had the ring. Guess who Charlemagne fell in love with next?
He was as infatuated with Turpin as he had been with Fastrada; he followed the Archbishop everywhere. Well, actually, he was King, so he made Turpin follow him everywhere. Turpin dined with him, traveled with him, hunted with him — Charlemagne wouldn’t leave him alone. But Turpin was afraid to get rid of the ring; if an enemy got hold of it, and gained power over the great Charlemagne….
But finally, the poor Archbishop couldn’t take it anymore. One evening, on a hunting trip near Aix-la-Chapelle [Aachen], Turpin managed to slip away from the King and throw the ring deep into the lake.
It worked. Charlemagne lost interest in the Archbishop, but he became very very fond of Aix-la-Chapelle. He made the town the capital of his Empire, and had a castle built there, on the edge of the lake that held the ring. He retreated there as often as he could, meditating and bathing in the lake’s mineral-rich waters. He loved Aix-la-Chapelle so much that he decreed that he should be buried there after he died, in the Cathedral which he also had built.
And he — and the ring — are there still.
I pulled this retelling together from a variety of sources, in particular:
- The legend of Fastrada as told in Folk-lore and Legends of Germany, an anonymous volume from 1892. It looks like it was one of a series of volumes about the folklore of various countries.
- Ferdinand Schmidt’s version from Charlemagne: Translated from the German of Ferdinand Schmidt (1910). Translated by George P. Upton.
- Lewis Spence’s version from Hero Tales and Legends of the Rhine by Lewis Spence (1995).
- Petrarch’s version as quoted by John R. Chorley in the epilogue of his short story “Eule: The Emperor’s Dwarf,” first published in Heath’s Book of Beauty, 1838. More on that later.
- Also, this retelling: Charlemagne is Heteroflexible. I didn’t use it in my story, but I like it.
The tale as I’ve told it is the longer version, which seems to be two legends put together: the snake story and the ring story. Some versions of the Fastrada legend say that the ring was always hers; according to these legends, Fastrada was an unattractive woman (some versions of the story even claim she was a commoner) who bewitched Charlemagne with the help of the ring. The historical Fastrada (Charlemagne’s third wife) was the daughter of a powerful Count; the marriage was no doubt politically motivated, so no sorcery is needed to explain it.
Ferdinand Schmidt’s version of the legend describes the snake’s gift as a jewel enscribed with “swan and runic symbols” — probably a reference to the myth that swans mate for life.
I discovered this legend through John R. Chorley’s short story, “Eule: The Emperor’s Dwarf,” which you can read online via Google Books. The story is a fairy-tale-like piece about an out-of-work soldier who retreats to Aix-la-Chapelle after a romantic break-up. Chorley’s story references both versions of the Fastrada legend: Fastrada is the plainest woman in Charlemagne’s court, but her ring is described as “a serpent, rudely chased, with eyes of fiery carbuncle.” I didn’t know the Charlemagne legend before reading the story (and the version I originally read didn’t have the epilogue), but I really liked the story’s fairy-tale structure, and I got curious as to whether or not the Charlemagne legend was a real one. And also, the description of the ring sounded familiar:
The above is from the opening of “The Coffin Man” by Mike Mignola, art by Fabio Moon. Hellboy only tells the anecdote in passing, but I’m sure it’s a reference to something, and I’ve been trying to track it down ever since I read the comic. The Fastrada legend isn’t quite it, nor is “Eule,” but I’m getting closer….
Anyway, I do recommend “Eule: The Emperor’s Dwarf” if you like fairy-taleish stories, or 19th century ghost stories. It’s fun.
Painting of Charlemagne by Albrecht Dürer (approx 1511-1513). Sourced from Wikimedia.