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A stranger called Gest appears at the court of King Olaf Tryggvason in Trondheim, Norway 998 AD. He is old yet surprisingly strong, and astounds the king's retainers by his skill in harp-playing and story-telling. Questioned how he can know so much about times long ago, the stranger reveals that he knew Sigurd Fafnisbane personally, as well as the sons of Ragnar Lodbrok, Harald Finehair of Norway and King Ludwig of Germany. This amazes the King and his retainers, as all these men are long dead, some of them for centuries. Finally Gest, who now reveals that he is also called Norna-Gest, tells his full story:
When he was recently born, his father had invited three seeresses, or norns, to foretell the child’s future. Two of the norns made good prophecies, but the last one was in a bad mood and when some rude guests enraged her, she cursed Gest to live no longer than the candle that burned beside his cradle. So the other norns extinguished the candle and told Gest’s parents to keep it, and Gest gained immortality -- he cannot die before the candle is used up.
On the wish of King Olaf, Norna-Gest agrees to be baptized. After a time, King Olaf asks him how long he plans to live. Norna-Gest says that he wants to die, being three hundred years old. In the presence of King Olaf, he lays down on a bed and lights the candle. A priest gives him the last rites. When the candle burns out, he dies.
Can be read online here.
Tropes in "Tale of Norna-Gest":
- The Ageless: An interesting case. Phenotypically, Gest seems to be simply an "undying" character -- he does not age beyond a certain point and cannot die of natural causes. The more complex problem, could he be killed by fatal violence or accidents, as long as the candle exists? Apparently not, or else the Curse Escape Clause would be proven invalid. In other words, the norn's spell must also have caused an in-universe Contractual Immortality.
- Curse Escape Clause: The curse of the angry norn is pretty easily neutralized by exploiting Exact Words.
- Elderly Immortal: Norna-Gest looks old, but is still healthy and vigorous.
- Exact Words: The norn's curse was not really well-thought-out. Presumably she meant that Gest should live no longer than the flame on the candle.
- Fairy Godmother: The good norns are more or less fairy godmothers. The plot's opening is indeed practically identical to that of "Sleeping Beauty".
- Frame Story: "Norna-Gest's Tale" uses Norna-Gest's life at King Olaf's court as a framing device to present several tales from the ages of heroes, told through the mouth of the protagonist.
- Immortality Inducer: The candle.
- Prophecies Are Always Right: The nature of the curse/prophecy raises interesting questions: Could Norna-Gest have been killed in any way at all, as long as the candle existed?
- Prophecy Twist: Uncharacteristically, in this story a bad prophecy is turned into something good -- usually, it's the other way round.
- Really Seven Hundred Years Old: Three hundred years, to be precise.
- The Storyteller: Norna-Gest.
- Soul Jar: What the enchanted candle amounts to.
- Who Wants to Live Forever?: It seems Norna-Gest finally had enough of life after three hundred years.