“The Princess on the Glass Hill“ is one of the more obscure fairy tales, but the image of the suitors trying to get up the glass hill to the princess is familiar to most of us. Since our state frameworks mandate the use of of folk and fairy tales up to grade 7, I like to have some unusual and challenging stories to pull out for middle school students.
In this story, a boy called “Cinderlad,” the youngest of three brothers, braves a supernatural earthquake while guarding his father’s fields and thus acquires three magic horses: a copper one, a silver one, and a golden one. Meanwhile, for no apparent reason, the king of the country where Cinderlad lives has put his daughter the princess on top of a glass hill with three apples in her lap. Whoever gets the apples from her will get to marry her.
Cinderlad’s older brothers go to the hill-climbing contest, but leave Cinderlad at home, since he sits in the ashes and is dirty. He follows, though, with his magic horses and some equally marvelous armor, and is able to to climb the hill. This he does first as a copper knight, then as a silver knight, and finally as a golden knight. As the golden knight on the golden horse, he goes clear to the top of the hill and takes the golden apple from the princess’s lap.
The princess is so charmed by the mysterious and shiny knights that she throws the first two apples to the disguised Cinderlad and cheerfully gives him the third. However, he rides off each time. The king, once all the apples are taken, sends word all over the countryside seeking the knights with the apples. When he comes to the brothers of the Cinderlad, they say the king shouldn’t even bother to ask the Cinderlad, but he steps forward, shows the apples, and claims the princess.
We like to bring out the Venn diagrams and compare this story with Cinderella. The test, the cinders, and the search for the mysterious suitor all are obvious shared elements, but your class may also notice the animal friends, the patience and beauty of the protagonists, and the way both the Cinderlad and Cinderella deceive their siblings.
While I haven’t found this story in picture book form, there are a couple of uses of it in books that older students might enjoy. Cinderellis and the Glass Hill by Gail Carson is based on this story. Sam Pickering’s Letters to a Teacher uses the story as a metaphor for accomplishing things by going against common wisdom.
This is a great story to illustrate. It is also complex enough to be a good one to have older students retell. Combine the two responses by having students retell the story with illustrations for a bulletin board. Divide the tale up into episodes and divide the class up into groups, and give each group an episode to illustrate.
Once everyone is completely clear on the story, consider some cross-curriculum connections.
- This is definitely a physical science story. The first point to explore would be the characteristics of substances. It is assumed in the story that climbing a hill made of glass would be much harder than climbing a hill of dirt or some other substance. You can set up an experiment to test this with shelves made of wood, glass, and other substances (ask around for a shelf from an old medicine cabinet if finding a suitable piece of glass is difficult). Try getting toy cars up the “hills” of different materials. As always in science experiments, determining how to measure and track results is an important part of the experimental design.
- Next, check the question of steepness. The glass hill is particularly hard to get up because it is steep. Raise the shelves from the first experiment to different angles to test this point. Review the measurement of angles. Determine what angle is too steep for something like a battery-operated toy car to travel on successfully, and then challenge students to figure out ways to increase the angle. Does the surface make a difference? Can changes to the vehicle make a difference? You could have teams of students compete to get a toy up the steepest possible angle.
- In the story, horses rather than people are climbing the glass hill. Could people have had an advantage over horses? Human rock climbers climb steep surfaces regularly. Is the smoothness of the surface then the main problem? A climbing science project uses the kind of data collected in the first couple of explorations, plus allowing students to attempt to climb doorways. This could be a very popular experiment, as long as you have spotters on hand.
- Once you’ve determined the precise factors that made the hill hard to ride up, challenge students to use their imaginations to explain the mechanism that allowed the magic horses to get up the hill. Since this is a fairy tale, no such explanation is needed, but suppose that it were science fiction, so that some explanation is required, even if it relies on unrealistic premises or technology that doesn’t yet exist. Drawings, models, and stories will give students a variety of media they can use to convey their imaginative ideas.
- Another question for imaginative speculation might be this one: how did the princess get up there? How did she get safely back down in time for the wedding?
- Returning to the topic of characteristic of substances, have students make a chart comparing the suitability of copper, silver, and gold for armor.
- It has been suggested that the princess in this story is completely passive, but she does throw the apples to the Cinderlad. Given that she has somehow been placed on top of a tremendously slippery glass mountain, what more active role could she have taken in her future without sliding down the hill to her doom?
- It is clear in the story that the Cinderlad gets the magic horses by being brave in the face of the earthquake-like experiences that scare off his brothers, yet he claims that he wasn’t bothered by anything. Is he being brave and modest when he makes this claim, or just fooling his brothers so he can get the rest of the horses? Debate the question.
- In fact, it could be said that Cinderlad is not a very honest young man. He lies about his experiences in the field, hides the magical horses, sneaks off to climb the glass hill, and pretends to have no information about the knights clad in precious metals. Write, discuss, or debate the ethics of his behavior.
- Finally, a writing prompt on a character topic: was the princess brave to sit calmly on the slippery hill in a chair?