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Sunday, 23 August 2020

The Seal Girl’s Revenge

A legend from the Faroe Islands
Illustrations by Axel Gjødesen

It was Three Kings’ Eve.1 The Atlantic Ocean rolled in long waves towards the shores of the Faroe Islands and threw the splashing foam up the cliffs. Behind a protruding rock wall lay a young man staring out across the sea, where the moon had recently risen. He had heard the strange legend since he was a child, of how the seals – whom the Faroese believe were once human beings who voluntarily plunged into the sea – would come in their scores to the shore on this night, where they would throw off their animal skins, and in human figure amuse themselves on the rocks, in the caves, on the large stones at the edge of the sea, jumping and dancing until the approach of dawn, when they again in their animal skins would seek to the depths.

Half anxious, half curious, the young man from the southern farm in Mikladalur2 had slipped down here. In breathless excitement he waited for midnight. But even as it approached, he saw the sea growing as if in rebellion, splashing and spraying, snorting and bubbling. Thousands of seals swam, racing one another towards the coast. There they raised themselves up, threw their skin on to the stones, on to the rocks, and they became a swirling sea of white human figures – men and women, young and old – embracing one another, dancing and playing, floating like apparitions in the moonlight which glittered and gleamed around them. The young man was petrified, enchanted. He pitched forward - he had seen a young woman close by him, more beautiful than any maiden he had ever seen before. She laid her skin on the rock just below him and floated, dancing past him.

He was as if out of his mind. His heart beat as if it were about to burst. He clenched his fist and shouted suddenly: “She must be mine!” In a moment he had reached out across the rocks, grabbed her animal skin and hidden it deep down between the stones.

They danced and played all night, but when the day began to dawn, each seal went to find its skin. The young seal girl could not find hers; she searched and searched – the other seals had long since plunged themselves into the sea – when the young man suddenly grabbed her: “I have taken your skin!” he said, “and you will never see it again! You must become the Mikladalur man’s wife, and live and build here with me, as a human!”

She looked at him in horror. “I belong in the sea,” she said. “I cannot live here! I must frolic with the other seals, out in the fresh, cold waves. I hold the biggest and most beautiful of them dear. He loves me; I belong to him! Give me my skin! Quickly! They are leaving me behind. Do not let me remain here alone!” And she stared at him with sad, pleading eyes.

But her gaze caught him like a spell; it cut to marrow and bone, and he cried: “No! No!” Then he took her by force, held her crossed in his arms, and as he carried the reluctant girl away from the sea, up over the land, he muttered again and again: “You shall be mine! You must belong to me. I love you, do you hear? I love you, and I will not let you go. Never! Not before I kill you!”

Thus the man from the southern farm in Mikladalur compelled the seal girl by force to become his wife, despite her throwing herself to her knees and begging him to give her back to the sea. But when she understood that all her supplications were in vain, she seemed to yield, apparently finding peace in his house. A couple of years passed and she became the mother of two children.

The man hid the sealskin locked in a chest. The key hung on a nail where he could see it, but he never forgot to take it with him when he left the cabin. He was good and kind to his wife, so long as she was calm and quiet, but if he saw her staring longingly at the sea, or he heard from his neighbors that she had been sitting down on the foreshore when he was at sea, then he turned harsh and hard; yes, he threatened her too, and she soon learned to hide her secret thoughts from him. If he was indoors, then she was busy with the house and the children, and he followed her proudly with his eyes – there was no maiden on the whole of the island of Kalsoy as beautiful as she was.

But occasionally, when he was out fishing overnight, she hurried to put the children to bed. She put out all the lights, put away the knives and the other things that could harm them, let the fire go out on the hearth. Then she slipped out, ran over the fields to the sea, sat at the extreme tip of the mountains, where they were steepest, and shouted out into the night: “I shall come, some day! I shall come!” And then she could see a large seal appear below the mountain, gazing longingly up at her. The seal girl remained there weeping until the day began to dawn. Then she hurried home again so that she would not arouse suspicion. Her husband knew nothing of these nocturnal excursions; he considered only that she was more introspective than usual, and silent when he had been fishing overnight.

Then one evening a fisherman stuck his head in the door: “Shoals of herring have been spotted out in the fjord by the northern headland. We are going to get the boat ready! Hurry! You must be there in five minutes!” and he was gone. The Mikladalur man jumped up and hurried to put on his oilskins; he took his supper with him. There was almost no time to say goodbye before he was out the door.

The key hung on the hook over the chest – he had forgotten it!

She knew it. She had only thought of one thing while he was hurrying to get along. She could hardly stand on her feet, she trembled so. It was as if the happiness she had been waiting years for would paralyze her, now that it came so suddenly. Would he not remember what he had forgotten and turn back? She hardly dared breathe; with every nerve raw she listened, jumping at every single sound – no, he did not come! An hour passed, an hour full of hope, yearning, the fear of death - he did not come.

Then, with an effort, she turned her thoughts to the children, the two little ones she would now abandon. She was seized by melancholy; the youngest was crying. She took the child in her arms, hushed it, rocked it softly to sleep, kissed it, and laid it gently and quietly on the pillow. The eldest was already asleep. She kissed her too, laid the duvet close around her, put out the lights, as she was wont, and arranged and put away. The moon shone into the cabin; the key gleamed; she took it from the nail with a trembling hand and stuck it in the chest. It opened – she almost whooped loudly with joy – there lay the sealskin. She threw it over her arm, softly lifted the latch, and hurried out into the moonlit evening, down over the field, breathless, fearful of being stopped. But no one had seen her flight. She cast off her clothes, wrapped the skin around her, so her legs and arms shrank into it, and then she plunged into the sea. The skin lay soft and glistening around her slender body. She breathed deeply, liberated, and swam, splashing towards the place where the great seal usually surfaced.

He was there.

For years he had been waiting. He struck the water with his tail for joy when he saw her, and now they were at sea, and the spray foamed around them.

While all this took place, the Mikladalur man was busy with the herring. He had been so preoccupied, first with the work on the boat, then with rowing against the wind, and finally with the abundant fishing, that he had not given his wife a thought. But when they were on their way home, the thought of the forgotten key came like a bolt of lightning to him, and turning quite pale, he exclaimed: “I have lost my wife tonight!” He urged the other fishermen to row with all their might. They asked if he had seen a vision, but he merely shook his head and rowed as if it were his life.

When the boat was close to land, he jumped out, waded ashore, climbed up the wet rocks, and ran up over the fields to the southern farm. When he came to his door, he paused for a moment to catch his breath. He could hear a soft whimpering. He tore open the door and looked first at the bed – it was empty. The little one lay wimpering. Turning to the child, he caught sight of the open chest. He looked down into it and he reeled: he had lost his wife tonight, she whom he had taken by force!

The Mikladalur man was “strange” from this moment. He almost never spoke a word. He did not care much for the children; his sister, the widow of a drowned fisherman, moved in with him and took care of them. The general opinion in the town [sic] was that his wife, in his absence, had taken her own life – she had always hung around down there by the sea when he was out – and that he had seen a portent of this whilst he still was at sea.

A couple of years passed. Life on the island of Kalsoy continued on its quiet, monotonous course, only now and then were folk startled by word of an accident at sea, a stranding, or a fisherman lost out there – drowned. Then once there was talk of embarking on a great seal hunt. One of the elders suggested that several boats should join forces, surprise the seals in the rock caves, and kill them there – dividing the spoils upon returning home.

The man from the southern farm was present when the proposal was made, and he embraced it eagerly, not resting before a day was determined for it to take place. Then he hurried home to zealously begin his preparations. He worked feverishly: he got up with the sun and busied himself until it went down. He polished and sharpened the tools for bludgeoning the seals, he inspected his clothes, he made the boat ready, took down his troughs. The evening before the great hunt, everything was ready. Exhausted, the Mikladalur man threw himself on his bed to take a nap before meeting the others at dawn. It must have been a little past midnight, and he did not know whether he was dreaming or awake, but the cabin door was slowly opened and a bright female figure floated in and stood by his bed. It was his late wife, the seal girl.

“I have come to you,” she said, “to warn you of tomorrow! Do not go on the hunt. But if you do so anyway, then beware! In the great cave you will meet many seals. The foremost one, the big one with the striped skin will rise to their defence; he is my mate. Watch you don’t touch him! The two smaller ones, deeper inside the cave, are my two sons, and you must spare them too. That night, when you violently took me away from the sea and made me your wife, I swore revenge in the quietness of my mind; if you touch any of mine tomorrow, I will execute it. But if you will make sure that they are spared, then I will forget what you have done to me, and forgive you.” With these words the vision disappeared.

Now, when the man woke up, the sun was already shining into his chamber, and he sprang up briskly. His dream was still clear before him, but he dismissed it at first, and then he laughed defiantly, not considering for even a moment to forego going along. Without a word, he took a seat in the boat and grabbed an oar, and when someone asked, “where to first?” he replied: “To the great cave!”

The oars splashed regularly in the water, and it was no more than half an hour before six boats, with the man from the southern farm foremost, lay without the great cave. They could see that there were plenty of seals inside; the catch would be plentiful. They had camped on the rocks and had been taken by surprise; they could not escape. Then the largest of them stood up on its tail, gaped with its mouth and let out a loud bark. It was a bull with a striped skin.

“He’s something of a big brute!” shouted one of the fishermen. “Who dares face him?”

“I do!” cried the Mikladalur man, grasping hold of his axe and jumping from the boat on to a large rock. One mighty blow, and the head of the great seal was split. A strong stream of blood coloured the rocks and the water deep red, and splashed high up on the Mikladalur man’s clothes.

There was a howling cry beneath the water, and a seal shot under the boats and disappeared. But that was the only one that escaped; a terrible massacre began. They jumped out of the boats and beat down the poor seals. The man from the southern farm was always in the lead; he was as if wild. He searched deep into the cave; there he found what he was looking for – two young seals, barely grown. He killed them, and now his day’s work was done, now he could rest.

The seals’ dead bodies were loaded into the boats. There was life and merriment. They were in a fine spirits; the catch had been unusually plentiful. Now all they wanted was to go home and divide the spoils, and then rest after all their toil. The man from the southern farm was the only one silent among the cheerful company; he stared unceasingly at the big bull seal and the two cubs lying at his feet. No one paid him any attention any longer; they were used to his peculiarities, but when he asked only for these three seals at the division, there were a few who whispered: “He has a screw loose!” He was immediately granted what he demanded – it meant more for the rest of them – and he brought home his catch in a wheelbarrow. He began to skin them at once, cutting off the meat and putting it in troughs. He asked his sister to cook the head of the big one and the flippers of the small ones for supper.

When the food was put on the table, there was a violent crash outside, as if from a wave breaking against the door. “The sea!” cried his sister, fleeing into the kitchen. The little girl ran after her, screaming, but the terrified boy clung to his father.

In the same moment there was a great bang, the door flew open and in came the seal girl, like a fearsome ghost. She looked in the troughs and cried: “Here lies the head of my mate! Here are the hand of Haarek, and the feet of my other son! Revenge shall fall terribly upon you, upon all Mikladalur men! You shall perish at sea, and fall from the mountains, until the number of the dead is so great that, holding one another’s hands, you may encircle the whole of Kalsoy!” After screaming this curse, she disappeared, never to be seen again.

From that moment the man from the southern farm was insane. And the seal girl kept her word. Many Mikladalur men had accidents after that hour, on the dangerous waters and in the mountains, as well as when fishing and bird hunting. And there was always a madman in the families that grew up on the southern farm in Mikladalur.


  1. Three Kings’ Eve is the twelfth day of Christmas, 6th January. 

  2. ˈMik-la-ˌdal-ur 

Saturday, 22 August 2020

The Seal Girl (Norwegian)

The selkie statue in Mikladalur, Faroe Islands.

A man once saw several seal skins lying on the shore of a bay, and out in the bay he saw several figures diving under the water, then swimming easily through the waves. So he took one seal skin, ran off with it, and hid behind a small mound from where he could watch the swimmers. These soon came ashore, and he could now see that they were beautiful young women, who quickly put on their sealskins, plunged back into the sea and swam away. Only one was left back on the beach, sorrowfully looking after her retreating friends. The man went down to the beach and found a beautiful woman, who followed him home and became his wife. They had several children, but the seal girl never forgot the freedom of the sea and her happy friends.

One day the eldest of their children, a boy, was crawling under the floor of the house in the yard, and he found the seal skin that his father had once taken off the beach. His father was away and his mother was still ill after a recent birth. So the boy carried the skin into the house, and his mother had barely caught sight of it before she grabbed it and threw it over herself. Then she ran down to the sea, jumped in, and swam away like a seal, never to return. Not even the cries of her little newborn child managed to stop her flight.

— Olaus Martens Nicolaissen. Sagn og eventyr fra Nordland (1879).

Sunday, 2 August 2020

Sobbing-and-Sorrow

There was once a magnificent and mighty king who had three beautiful daughters by his first queen. But he had no sons, and he therefore held the three princesses all the dearer, so much so that he gave them anything they desired of him.

Now, warring armies broke into his kingdom and the king would go out to meet them. When the time came for him to leave, he asked his three beautiful daughters what he should bring home for them.

Well, the eldest asked him to buy her a ring that was such that she would not die for as long as she wore it on her finger.

The middle one had a mind for a wreath that was such that she would be glad and happy if only she gazed upon it, no matter how fretful and wretched she had felt.

“Buy sobbing and sorrow for me!” bade the youngest princess. She mourned and wept so for her mother, you see.

Yes, the king promised to do so.

When he had chased away the warring armies, both from his and the neighbouring kingdom, and contemplated his journey home, he remembered what he had promised his three beautiful princess. He obtained the ring and wreath easily enough, but sobbing and sorrow were not for sale, neither here nor there, neither in one place nor in the other: every man was so glad that the warring hordes were gone, and so cheerful, that neither sobbing nor sorrow were to be found in all the country and kingdom. Well, if it couldn’t be found to buy, then it wasn’t possible to buy it, and so he journeyed home without it, no matter how little he liked to.

Now, when the king and his army didn’t have far left to travel to the king’s farm, they passed through a copse. Here sat a squirrel in a tree by the road.

“Buy me, buy me! I am called Sobbing-and-Sorrow,” he said. Well, it would be better to return with a squirrel than with two empty hands, the king thought, and so he brought it along for his youngest daughter. She was as glad for her gift as her two sisters were for the ring and the wreath.

The squirrel was allowed to jump where he wanted in her chamber. Sometimes he wobbled on the bedpost; just like that, he sat on the dresser. And he was constantly full of chatter.

But after nightfall, the form of the squirrel fell off him, and he transformed into a handsome young prince. An evil gyger – he told her – lived in the golden forest, who had cast the form of the squirrel upon him, and as the day dawned each morning he had to take on that form again.1

Time passed and went, and after some time, it came to pass that the princess should have Sobbing-and-Sorrow. But after they were engaged, he bade her both sweetly and well, both nicely and beautifully, never to strike a light from a desire to see him: “then would she make them unhappy, the both of them,” he said.

No, she would never do so; she was as sure of that as could be, she replied.

And so it came to pass every night that a man came and lay down beside her, after she had retired and put out the light. But when she awoke in the morning, she lay alone, and the squirrel sat on the bedpost, greeting her and chattering at her about everything there was.

Then once, as he slept so deeply, it happened that she fancied that she was not able to control herself any longer, so she struck a light and dared to go with it to where he lay.

As she shone the light upon him, she saw that he was much more handsome than the most handsome of princes; she could barely believe how elegant and dashing he was, and she leaned over, so she could see him even more closely. Finally, she couldn’t stop herself; she had to kiss him on the mouth. Then she accidentally let three drops fall from the light on to his chest.

“No! Why have you done this, then?” he cried, groaning. “If you had but held out for three more days, then we would have been saved!” he said. “But now I must return to the irksome, loathsome gyger in the golden forest, and marry her; things between you and me are over,” he said.

“Can’t I go with you, though?” wept the princess.

“Oh no, you will never manage it, for when you rest in the evening, and bow your knees, then you will fall as far behind as you came during the day,” he said, going towards the door. And he was gone.

There was the princess, sobbing and wailing and weeping, and looking for him to come home. But he was neither heard of nor asked of again. Then she grew so restless and uneasy that she could no longer stay at home, so she began to entreat her maid to go with her to the golden forest.

Oh yes, her maid was eventually persuaded to go, but she wouldn’t take one step, she said, unless she could take along one ell of sackcloth, one of hemp, and one of canvas. This was not refused her; there was always more than a good supply of such at the king’s farm, you see.2

So they set off on their way, and before they knew it, they had entered a great forest. They walked and wandered the whole day long, first this way, and then that, until their feet were sorer than sore, and their courage was less than a little. They set off along both roads and paths, yet even though they looked in the north and in the south, in the east and in the west, they could not find their way out of such great gloomy darkness.

At length, the princess grew so tired and sullen that there was hardly any end to it, and she wanted to sit down for a while, so she could rest a little. But her maid took hold of her, and wouldn’t allow her to bow her knees, for then they would fall as far behind as they had come that day.

By the time that night should fall, they hardly knew of it before they stood by a huge great mountain.

“Well, here shall I knock,” said the maid, knocking and banging.

“Oh no!” said the princess. “Oh dear, don’t knock here; you see how awful it looks!” she said.

“Who is it who knocks at my door?” cried the gyger, coarsely and foully, from within the mountain, cracking the door open and poking out her nose, which was a good ell long, through the crack.

“It is the youngest princess and her maid, who want to go to the golden forest,” replied the maid.

“Oh fie! It’s so far to the north,
That rowing or sailing, no one comes forth!”

said the gyger. “You may as well turn for home sooner rather than later,” she said. No, they would in no way turn back, not by any means, I wouldn’t think. The maid then began to ask if it might be so well that they spend the worst of the night there, if nothing more.

“You can always spend the night,” replied the gyger, “but when my husband comes home, he’ll twist off your heads,” she said.

Well, they couldn’t go any further now, in the middle of the charcoal-black night. So the maid brought out the ell of sackcloth she had with her, and gave it to the gyger for a bonnet.

“Oh my, oh my, no!” cried the gyger. “Now, I have been married for a hundred years, but never have I worn a bonnet of sackcloth before,” she said, and was so glad that she invited them in, welcomed them, and treated them well.

After a while, when they had helped themselves to the food and drink they needed, the gyger said:

“Well, he is certainly always in a foul mood, this husband of mine. But since you are so kind, then I shall try to hide you in the pantry, so that perhaps he won’t find you,” she said, and made up a cot there, as soft and good as any cot could be. Even so, they dared neither to lie nor to sit down, not so long as they could blink their eyes. They stood the whole night through, taking turns to stay awake, each holding the other up under her arms, for now the maid too was so weak and feeble that she could hardly manage any longer.

At the turn of midnight, there was a great roaring and shaking. It was the troll coming home, it was, and he had but reached his first head in through the door before he screamed so roughly and foully:

“Fie, fie, it smells of the smell of a Christian here!” he screamed, turning so wild and mad that sparks flew from him.

“Yes,” replied his gyger, “a bird came flying here with a Christian’s bone, and dropped it down through the fireplace chimney; I hurried to get it out, I did, but I should think that must be what it smells of anyway,” she said, soothing him. At this he calmed down.

But in the morning, she told him that a princess and her maid had come, thinking to go to the golden forest.

“Oh fie! It’s so far to the north,
That rowing or sailing, no one comes forth!”

screamed the troll, too. “It’s the princess who should have had Sobbing-and-Sorrow then, I suppose. She’ll never have him, for in three days he shall marry the great gyger herself; everything is being prepared for the wedding. But wherever are they? They won’t leave here!” he screamed, sniffing and nosing in all the nooks and corners.

“Oh no, you won’t do them any harm,” said the gyger. “They gave me a whole ell of sackcloth for a bonnet, they did. And I have been married for a hundred years, but never have I worn a bonnet of sackcloth before,” she said. “So you shall lend them your trotting tunic, you shall, to our nearest neighbour!” said the gyger, entreating on their behalf. Yes, he too would do so, the troll would, when he heard that they had been so kind.

After they had eaten in the morning, and stood ready to leave, he fastened the trotting tunic to them.

“Now you shall say: ‘Forward, forward, over willow hollow and spruce-tops, over mountain, over valley, to our nearest neighbour!’ shall you say,” he said. “And when you arrive, you shall say, ‘Where you were fastened today shall you hang up tonight,’” said the troll.

They did so. And now they went forth over mountain and over valley, from horizon to horizon. At twilight they came to a huge great mountain. Here they took off the trotting tunic, and said:

“Where you were fastened today shall you hang up tonight!” And so it went home by itself.

“Well, here shall I knock,” said the maid, knocking and banging.

“Oh no,” sobbed the princess. “Oh dear, don’t knock here; you see how awful it looks!” she complained.

“Who is it who knocks at my door?” cried this gyger, even coarser and fouler than the first, poking out her nose, which was a good two ells long, through the crack of the door.

“It is the youngest princess and her maid who want to go to the golden forest,” replied the maid.

Well, this gyger also began to crow, she did, about how it was so far to the north that “rowing or sailing, no one comes forth!” and at length she wanted them to turn around. “It’d be better they return home sooner rather than later,” she said.

No, they would by no means turn back. The maid then began to ask if it might be so well that they spend the worst of the night there, if nothing more.

“You can always stay the night,” said the gyger, “but when my husband comes home tonight, he’ll twist off your heads,” she said. Well, then the maid took out the ell of hemp she had brought, and gave it to the gyger for a bonnet.

“Oh no, oh my, no!” cried the gyger. “Now, I have been married for two hundred years, but never have I worn a bonnet of hemp before!” she said, and was so happy that she invited them in, welcomed them, and treated them well.

After a while, when they had taken food and drink for themselves, there where they were staying, the gyger said:

“Well, he is certainly always in a foul mood, this husband of mine, and he tears asunder the soul of any Christian who enters in here, sorely and at length. But since you have been so kind, I shall try to hide you out in the pantry, I shall, so perhaps he won’t find you,” she said. And she made up a cot for them there; but they dared not lie nor sit down. They stood and held one another, and the one stayed awake whilst the other slept.

At the turn of midnight, there was a terribly great roaring and shaking. They felt how the earth quaked. Straightway, the troll came rushing in.

“Fie, fie! It smells of the smell of a Christian here!” he screamed, with such a coarse voice. And he turned so wild and carried on so that the sparks crackled as they flew from him.

“Yes,” said the gyger, “a bird came flying and dropped a Christian’s bone down through the fireplace chimney. I hurried to get it out again, I did, but I should think that must be what it smells of anyway,” she said, soothing him. Well, he contented himself with this.

At the time they should get up in the morning, she told him that a princess and her maid had come, who wanted to go to the golden forest. Straightway he heard this, he too began shouting that it was so far to the north that “rowing or sailing, no one comes forth!”

“Is it the princess who was supposed to have Sobbing-and-Sorrow, I suppose? But she shall never have him, for in two days he shall marry the great gyger herself; the wedding is already being prepared,” said the troll, just as the other had done. “But wherever are they? They won’t come from here alive!” he screamed, sniffing and nosing both high and low.

“Oh no, you shall do nothing to them,” the gyger said. And she told that she had given her an ell of hemp for a bonnet. “And I have been married for two hundred years, but never have I worn a bonnet of hemp before. So you shall lend them your trotting tunic, you shall, to our nearest neighbour,” she said. Yes, then he was willing, that very hour, the troll was too, when he heard they had been so kind.

After they had eaten that morning, he fastened the trotting tunic to them. “And when you arrive, then you shall say this: ‘Where you were fastened today shall you shall hang up tonight!’ and it will return by itself,” the troll said.

Now they went over mountain and deep valley, from horizon to horizon. At twilight they again came to a huge great mountain.

“Well, here shall I knock!” said the maid, and knocked and banged on the rock wall.

“Oh no!” begged the princess. “Oh dear, don’t knock here; you see how awful it looks!” she said.

“Who is it who knocks at my door?” cried the gyger within the mountain, even coarser and fouler than either of the others; she opened the door so that she could get her nose, which was a good three ells long, out through the crack.

“It is the youngest princess and her maid, who want to go to the golden forest,” replied the maid.

“Oh fie! It’s so far to the north,
That rowing or sailing, no one comes forth!”

screamed the gyger. “You may as well return home sooner rather than later,” she too said. Then the maid then began to ask if it might be so well that they spend the worst of the night there, if nothing more.

“You can always spend the night,” said the gyger. “But when my husband comes home tonight, he’ll twist off your heads,” she said. But there was no travelling in the forest and wilderness in the middle of the charcoal-black night. Then the maid took out the ell of canvas she had with her, and gave it to the gyger for a bonnet.

“Oh no, oh dear, no!” said the gyger. “Now I have been married for three hundred years, but never have I worn a bonnet of canvas before!” she cried. And she was so glad that she invited them in, welcomed them, and treated them nicely.

“Well, he certainly is always terribly fierce, this husband of mine, and he tears asunder the soul of any Christian who enters in here, sorely and at length. But as you were so kind, I shall try to hide you out in the pantry, I shall. Perhaps he won’t find you,” she said, and made up a cot for them there, as soft and good as any cot could be.

Now the princess was so weak and sleepy and sullen that there was nearly no end to it. She couldn’t hope to stand any longer, she said, and wanted finally to lie down, and even doze, though it would be little more than a short nap. The maid, too, had grown so weak that she slept where she stood; her head nodded a few times. But even so, she remembered so much that she supported the princess under her arms, not letting her bow her knees.

At the turn of midnight, there was a roaring and banging such that the whole house rocked, as if both the roof and walls should fall down. This was the huge great troll, this one, who now came rushing home. As soon as he got his first head in through the door, he screamed, so coarsely and horribly that they had never heard anything so coarse and horrible in all their livelong days:

“Oh fie! Oh fie! It smells of the smell of a Christian here!” he said, and was so wild and mad that the sparks thundered from him.

“Yes,” replied the gyger. “A bird came flying and dropped a Christian’s bone down through the fireplace chimney. I hurried to get it out, I did, but I should think that must be what it smells of anyway,” she said, soothing him.

Well, he contented himself with this. But when they got up in the morning, she told him that there was a princess and her maid there, who wanted to go to the golden forest.

“Oh fie! It’s so far to the north,
That rowing or sailing, no one comes forth!”

screamed the big troll, too, as the other trolls had done.

“It’s the princess who should have had Sobbing-and-Sorrow then, I suppose. But she shall never have him; tomorrow or the next day he shall marry the great gyger herself,” said the troll. “And wherever they are, they won’t come from here with their lives!” he screamed, jumping up and running around the floor, sniffing and nosing with his nine noses all at once.

“Oh no, you shall do nothing to them!” said the gyger. “They gave me an ell of canvas for a bonnet. And I have been married for three hundred years, but never have I worn a bonnet of canvas before. So you shall lend them your trotting tunic to our nearest neighbour!” said the gyger, you understand.

Well, when the great troll heard this, he wanted to do so too, he did.

In the morning, when they had eaten their food, he fastened his trotting tunic to them. And now they went far and farther than far, over mountain and deep valley, from horizon to horizon.

At twilight they came to a great, great forest. All the trees were as black as charcoal here. As soon as you went in, even a little, you would turn sooty and dirty.

In a flat clearing in the midst of the darkness stood a small crooked hut which was mostly rotten. It looked worse than the most squalid of pasture cabins. Before the door lay a foul heap of rubbish, scrap, and straw, which closed the way for them. Still, the maid took the trotting tunic off them and said:

“Where you were fastened today shall you hang up tonight!” and now it went home by itself.

“Well, here shall I knock,” said the maid.

“Oh no, oh dear no! Do not knock here; you see how horrible it is here!” complained the princess.

“Do now as I do, or things will go badly with the both of us,” said the maid, as she waded through the midden to knock on the door. An ancient gyger with a horribly long nose peered out at them.

“If these women-folk want to come in, then they may, and if they don’t, then they may leave be!” she growled in a fierce rage.

“Yes thank you, we will come in,” replied the maid, dragging the princess behind her.

“Oh my, oh dear me!” sighed the princess.

“If the women-folk want to come away from the door, then they may, and if they don’t, then they may leave be!” growled the gyger, growing fiercer and fiercer.

“Yes thank you, we will,” replied the maid, wading across the floor, up to her knees in rubbish and rags.

“Oh my, oh dear me!” sighed the princess.

Then the gyger went for some milk for them.

“If the women-folk want to drink, then they may, and if not, then they may leave be!” she growled, nearly taking the vessel away again.

“Yes thank you, we want a drink,” replied the maid, drinking and wiping the milk away.

“Oh my, oh dear me!” sighed the princess when the time came for her to drink, for the milk was in a pig trough, and it was full of dirt, and had tufts of hair floating on top.

Then the gyger made some food for them.

“If the women-folk want to come over and eat, they may, and if they don’t, then they may leave be!” bellowed the gyger at them, you understand.

“Yes thank you, we want to,” replied the maid, before the gyger could take the food away again. The bread was moldy, the cheese mouse-eaten, the butter rancid, and the meat completely spoiled. It smelt from afar. And two dirty calf tails lay in a ring around the butterdish.

“Oh my, oh dear me!” sighed the princess, nearly weeping. But she should do as her maid said anyway, she thought, and tasted the banquet.

Then they should thank her for her hospitality.

In some furs on a horrid cot in the corner lay an old man whom they had not seen before, and when the princess went to thank him, too. He stood up and kissed her hand. Straightway he became a handsome young prince, who was so outwardly comely and elegant and dashing that no one could imagine how elegant and fine he was. And she recognised Sobbing-and-Sorrow, whom she had grieved for and yearned for so sorely.

“Now you have saved me!” he told her.

“Bother!” screamed the gyger, rushing for the door. But as soon as she came out on to the threshold, she remained standing there as stock and stone, for the forest was no longer charcoal black. The trees looked as if they were gilded from top to bottom. They blinked and gleamed like the midday sun. And after the princess and her maid had stared for long enough, the squalid dark cabin had become a king’s farm so magnificent and fine that there was no measure. You would think the walls and ceilings were made of silver and gold. And they were so, too.

“Now you may bow your knees!” said the prince. “And no matter how much you have been sobbing in sorrow, you shall have all the more joy henceforth,” he said.

The gyger had brewed and baked and readied all the wedding fare. In the morning, as early as the day dawned, the maid and all the people in the king’s farm and in the whole country came to where the prince and princess would now be king and queen, and began to celebrate their wedding. They all carried on celebrating for four fortnights, so that it was heard of and asked about across seven kingdoms and all the way home to the father of the bride and her two sisters. They were supposed to be at the celebration too, but they lived too far away for that.

I was at the banquet and helped them with the carrying. But on the last day of the wedding, the bridegroom stuffed me into a canon and shot me hither.

And here I sit, and there you are. I haven’t been with them since, but as far as I know, they live still, and that both in gladness and in joy.


  1. Gyger: a female troll. 

  2. Ell: an ell is a measure of six handbreadths, or appoximately 45cm (18"). 

Sunday, 5 July 2020

The Cock and the Hen Who Went Out into the World to Take a Look Around

The following tale was probably composed by Moltke Moe, as there is no extant record of its collection. It would therefore best be described as a literary tale.

There was once upon a time a cock and a hen who stood upon a dungheap, kicking and scraping and digging. Just like that the cock began to flap his wings:

“Ho, ho, ho! I’ve found - Ho, ho, ho! I’ve found!” he crowed.

“What have you found?” asked the mother hen.

“A sleigh runner,” said the Toppe; he had scratched up a wood-plane shaving and a couple of bits of straw.

Then the hen grew envious and began to kick and scrape so that it flurried about her. Just like that she found some twine and a stick.

“Hey-ho, now I’ve found, I’ve found!” crowed the hen.

“Have you found?” said father Toppe.

“I’ve found some timber and mouth bits, timber and mouth bits,” said the hen, preening and flapping her wings.

“A good ear has much to hear!” said the cock. “But it’s easy to dance when fortune is your minstrel. We shall make ourselves a vehicle, and take a look around the world,” he said; “It’s not every day the wind is so favourable.”

So the cock took the plane shaving and made a sleigh; the straw he fastened as shafts, and for the carriage he took an old blackened besom, for it was so good and soft to sit on. Then he went away into the barn and found himself a couple of fleas, and bridled them and harnessed them before the sleigh.

Then the cock and the hen stepped up into the sleigh and drove off. And they went both quickly and well. The cock lashed, the fleas dashed, and the hen laughed so that she fell backwards in her seat.

When they had come a little distance, they met a mouse. “Good day and well met! You drive quickly today, my fellow,” she said.

“It is good we go so quickly; it’s better we go so well,” said the cock. “Or else we’d be driving like someone with a horse,” he said. And he lashed so that the fleas jumped in their harnesses.

“I would also like to have a holiday. May I come along?” asked the mouse.

“The sleigh is little and the horses are small, so you’ll have to sit up behind,” said the cock.

Then he cracked the whip. And the fleas dashed, and the cock lashed, and the hen laughed so that she fell backwards in her seat.

When they had driven a distance, they met a sheep.

“Good day!” said the sheep.

“Good day to you,” replied the cock.

“Are such good folk out driving in the fine weather today? It is fun to sled when one has such handsome equipage and good horses,” said the sheep.

“It’s easy to divine what everyone can see,” said the cock. “It usually shows on the horses which garden they graze in.”

“May I come along?” asked the sheep. “He must ask who does not receive an invitation,” he said.

“It’s not polite to answer before one is asked,” said the cock. “The sleigh is little and the horses are small, so you’ll have to sit up behind.”

When the sheep had sat down, the cock cracked the whip. And the fleas dashed, and the cock lashed, and the hen laughed so that she fell backwards in her seat.

Then they drove a long distance, and then they met a hare who jumped across the road.

“Good day and good courage!” said the hare.

“Good day and thank you for that,” replied the cock.

“You drive quickly, you do,” said the hare.

“It goes as it started,” said the cock. “The world is broad and the road is long, so I have to drive hard,” he said.

“Would it be possible for me to come along?” asked the hare. “He who walks far and gathers little, he grows tired in the end,” he said.

“The sleigh is little and the horses are small, so you’ll have to sit up behind. Otherwise, it is not heavy to drive, that which has little to draw,” said the cock.

So the hare got up behind. And the cock cracked the whip. And the fleas dashed, and the cock lashed, and the hen laughed so that she fell backwards in her seat.

When they driven a good distance farther, they met a fox.

“Bless our meeting!” said the fox.

“Thank you for that,” the cock said.

“You’re driving handsomely today,” said the fox.

“Yes, but not everyone likes it; some like it cold and some hot, some lean and some fat,” replied the cock. “But as the day draws on, and the road is long, the horses make all the difference,” he said.

“Yes, craft and understanding account for much,” said the fox. “If only it were so well that I too could join such a fine company. Then I would show you shelter for the night. He who wants to enjoy something, he must contribute something, too” he said.

“A newly-begotten guest is often best; no one can take a hostel along with them. “But the sleigh is little and the horses are small, so you’ll have to sit up behind.” said the cock, cracking the whip.

Then they drove, the whole company. The cock lashed, and the fleas dashed, and the hen laughed so that she fell backwards in her seat.

At great length the evening drew in, and the horses grew tired. “I know of a hostel close by here,” said the fox. He had an old lair in the forest. “I don’t suppose it’s anything like what you’re used to, but as the old proverb says: it is better to lie in a house than upon the wild heath,” he said. “We’ll relax and retire for the darkest night.”

“Whosoever wants a good day must think of a quiet night,” replied the cock; he was the weariest, he was. “Wind and water go their way,” he said.

So they unharnessed the fleas, and everyone went together into the fox’s lair.

“Many guests make for a crowded house, but there is alway room in the house where there is room in the heart,” said Mikkel. “Now let me count. I locks fox one, you wee flea two, you house mouse three, you fair hare four, you locky cocky five, you penny henny six, you leap sheep seven – there shall you lie!” Then Mikkel bit the sheep’s head off and threw him away in a corner.

“That was one. Now let me see: I locks fox one, you wee flea two, you house mouse three, you fair hare four, you locky cocky five, you penny henny six – there shall you lie!” said the fox, and then he bit mother hen’s head off.

“Who is there now, shall I say? I locks fox one, you wee flea two, you house mouse three, you fair hare four, you locky cocky five – there shall you lie!” Then he bit the cock’s head off and cast him into the corner with the others.

“Now let me see who’s left: I locks fox one, you wee flea two, you house mouse three, you fair hare four – there shall you lie!” and things went the same way with the hare.

“That was four: I locks fox one, you wee flea two, you house mouse three – you’re next in line, and there shall you lie,” and with that he bit the mouse.

Then there were just the fleas left. But Mikkel wasn’t good to catch them in the dark. They had noticed something sinister going on and hidden in his fur, and there they bit him so that he danced both on one and two, and had he not been bare-footed, then he would have worn out both his socks and his shoes. And there they remain today. Mikkel fox has been tired and flea-bitten since.

Friday, 12 June 2020

Patreon Campaign

I am remiss. The Patreon account I launched to fund the editing of The Complete Norwegian Folktales and Legends of Asbjørnsen & Moe has been running for nearly a week, and I haven’t posted about it here.

There are two tiers of investment available:

  • For $1 per creation, you get a professionally edited, illustrated .pdf of each of the 150 texts as it is made ready.

  • For $2 per creation, you get the professionally edited, illustrated .pdf of each of the 150 texts, plus the original notes of Asbjørnsen & Moe where available, plus all the information I have been able to put together, including the identity of the collector, where he collected the folklore, who from, and where and when.

In both cases the names of all my patrons will appear both in the .pdfs and in the books, when they are eventually ready for publication.

I have uploaded a sample of what you can expect: “The Three Billy-goats Gruff” with notes (and a little bit of scholarship).

I am ready to release the first patron text in the next couple of days, and it’s a good-un. Not only is it the most charming of the so-called hulder tales and folk legends, but in the notes there are details of Asbjørnsen’s tragic love life, how it relates to this text, and how it relates to the project as a whole.

If this sounds interesting to you, and you have a buck or two to invest in the project every couple of weeks or so, then please do take a look, and consider becoming a patron to the arts.



Tuesday, 19 May 2020

Swedish folktale: The Rat Princess

There was once upon a time a king who had three sons. When they were old enough to be married, they asked their father’s leave to go out into the world to seek brides for themselves. Their father gave his consent, and the eldest was the first to set off on his way.

When he had ridden a little, he saw the daintiest rat running before the horse’s feet. No matter how he steered the horse so that he might not hurt her, she kept as close as she could to the hoofs.

“Away with you, rat, before I ride you to death!” he cried at last.

“No, don’t do that, but take me as your fiancée!” bade the rat. “You won’t regret it.”

“A rat as my fiancée! No thank you!” replied the prince, and he rode quickly away.

He soon arrived at the king in the neighbouring country and was betrothed to his daughter. Then he drove home again, and the second brother took his turn to set off.

Things went with him as they had gone with his elder brother. The rat also asked him to take her as his fiancée, but he scornfully rejected her proposal. He rode on and was betrothed to a princess in another court.

When the third prince rode out, he met the rat. She begged him so earnestly to betroth himself to her, that he gave in and gave her a betrothal ring.

“Come now, and you shall see where I live,” said the rat. She ran ahead, showing the way, and the prince rode after. At length they came to a large stone. “Here is where I live,” said the rat, crawling into a hole. “Just wait, and I’ll get you a ring.”

The prince grew curious, dismounted his horse, and peered into the hole. He was almost dazzled by the brilliance that gleamed back at him. After a little while, the rat came out again and handed him a ring so beautifully and intricately worked that he had never seen its like.

The prince rode home again, showed off his ring, and said that he too was now betrothed. But he would not speak of with whom. Everyone marvelled at the beautiful ring, and the rings of the other princes looked like brass and bits of glass beside it.

After some time, the king said: “Now I would like to see what kind of bread your fiancées bake.”

“What kind of bread should my rat be able to bake?” thought the youngest prince sadly. “But I suppose I ought to tell her what my father wants.” He rode to the stone where the rat lived, and called out to her. When she came out, he asked her if she could bake bread.

“Yes, don’t worry about that,” she said. “It will be ready early tomorrow morning.”

When he returned to the stone the next morning, the rat stood there with the neatest, most delicious loaf of bread. He took it home to his father, and no one had ever eaten such good bread before. And the other princes only came with ordinary buns.

“Yes, I have seen and tasted the loaves your fiancées bake,” said the king. “Now I want to know if they can brew good beer.”

The youngest prince rode to the rat, and told her what his father wanted. She bade him return the next morning. Then, by the stone stood a golden flagon, set with shimmering gems, and when the prince lifted the lid, he smelt the finest and most appetizing fragrance. No one at court had ever drunk such good beer, and the king was enraptured.

“The three of you appear to have betrothed yourselves well,” he said, “but you, my youngest son, have certainly got the best. One would be able to live happily here upon the earth, with such bread and beer.”

Then after some time had passed, at length the king asked them to fetch their brides, so that he might see them.

“Oh, God’s grace!” thought the youngest, horrified. “How shall things go now?”

Most distressed, he went to the stone and told the rat that she must go with him to court. “But,” he added, “how shall this end?”

“It shall surely end happily,” replied the rat, “if only you do as I say. Bring me an egg shell, six dung beetles and two horseflies. Harness the dung beetles before the eggshell, and put one horsefly before and one behind me in the shell. Then make sure your brothers’ fiancées go first, and I shall come last. When we arrive at the castle, do with me as your brothers do with their fiancées, and all shall be well.”

The prince did as she said, and soon the strange equipage stood ready. The rat climbed up into the eggshell, and then off it went, quickly and lustily. When they arrived, the two elder brothers embraced their fiancées and kissed them. The youngest did the same with the rat. Hardly had he done so before he held the most beautiful young princess in his arms, and when he looked around, the dung beetles and the eggshell had disappeared. In their place stood a magnificent carriage, drawn by the most stately of horses. The horseflies had become footmen, dressed in fine liveries.

Happy and glad, the prince led his bride in to the king. He nearly fell off his throne in surprise, when he saw such a radiantly beautiful princess. The other princesses looked like washerwomen next to her.

Soon the princesses should leave, each to her own, and their carriages were made ready.

“Yes, I certainly have a beautiful fiancée, but I wonder what her home looks like?” thought the youngest prince. “The stone wasn’t much of a home, as far as I could tell.”

But when they came to the place where the stone lay, to his amazement he saw a beautiful, stately castle. When the unfortunate princess had been transformed into a rat, the castle had become a stone, but now the enchantment was broken. They lived a long and happy life together in the princess’s beautiful castle. And are they not dead, then yet do they live.

Svenska Folksagor IV. Efter Prosten C. F. Cavallius’ Uppteckningar. Berättade av Gudrun och Jöran Sahlgren. Illustrationer av Einar Norelius. Stockholm: P. A. Norstedt & Söners Förlag, 1941.

Friday, 8 May 2020

Andreas Faye’s Legends of the Black Death

Not everyone wants to read about plagues and pandemics, especially as there is too much of it around at the moment. But some people do. So I have posted a page upon which I will be posting the Black Death section of Andreas Faye’s Norwegian Folk Legends (1844). Although they are harrying, it is important to remember that these legends are just that – legends.

If you’re feeling up to it, take a look.

Thursday, 7 May 2020

The Daughter of the King of the Finns

There was a king whom they called the King of the Finns, and he had a daughter whom he held so dear. One time when he was going out to war, he dared not leave her at home; he thought he had noticed that something was going on between her and the servant boy. So he put her in a mound in the forest. She took with her nine maids and food and clothing and whatever else they might need. The king’s daughter and the maids tried to dig themselves out of the mound with their bare hands. They dug for nine years, and each year one of the maids died; but when the ninth year was drawing to an end, the king’s daughter made a hole in the mound and went on her way. The King of the Finns discovered that his servant boy was a king’s son. So he wanted to go home and let his daughter out of the mound and let her have the king’s son. But the king died on his way home, and no one could find the king’s daughter. Then came a witch and said that she was the king’s daughter, and things went such that she and the king’s son were to hold a wedding.

In the meantime, the rightful king’s daughter had stayed with some charcoal burners on her first night, the following day a wolf had helped her cross a large river. Eventually she had come to the king’s farm, but no one knew her, and so she went into service there.

One day, the king’s son said to the witch, “If you are the daughter of the King of the Finns, you will complete the seam that is begun here.” She tried, but couldn’t do it; she had to get the king’s daughter to help her.

The next day, the king’s son set the sorceress to finish some weaving; but this went just as well: the king’s daughter had to help her.

Then the king’s son said to the witch: “Tomorrow we shall be married, and if you are the daughter of the King of the Finns, then you will ride the horse you rode in the old days.” But the witch hag could not get up on to the horse, Grey-buckskin, and had the king’s daughter ride to the church in her stead.

When the time came for them to set off, the king’s daughter said:

Fall down, fall down, gentle Grey-buckskin,
To church rides the daughter of The King Finn!

When they came to the mound, she said:

My tears they ran, which no one has found,
I lost nine maids, right here in the mound;
I dried up my tears, but no one dared say,
That I was left here with nary a maid.

When they came to the charcoal heaps, she said:

Much and many things did I learn,
Stacks of charcoal here I watched burn.

When they came to the river, she said:

Though suffering hurt and many a lack,
I rode across here on the greyshanks’s back.

At the church, the groom gave his gloves to the bride and bade her hide them well and to not give them to anyone else but him. In the evening, the groom went to bed, and when the bride came to the bedroom, he would not let her get into bed with him, until she had repeated what she had said when she got on the horse. So the bride went off to ask the king’s daughter, and returned with the answer. But then he would not let her get into bed with him, until she had repeated what she had said when they were riding past the mound. The bride again went off to ask the king’s daughter, and once and again when he asked her to repeat what she had said at the charcoal stacks and the river. But then he asked what he had done with his gloves, and these the king’s daughter would not part with, but she flew to the king’s son herself. And then it all came out, and the witch was put in a nail barrel and rolled into the sea.


— Moltke Moe. Samlede skrifter, vol. 2. Oslo: Aschehoug, 1926 (p. 235–6).

Monday, 4 May 2020

King Finn Was My Father Called

There was once upon time a king who had an only daughter. When the queen died, the king married a witch who also had a daughter. Now, there was a prince who should have the king’s daughter, but the witch would not allow it, and so she sent her away into the forest, to dwell in a pit in the ground. Here she stayed for seven years. A linden tree stuck its roots down to her and she bound them with gold thread and silver thread.

But one day a horse, being chased by wolves, ran across the mound, and it trod through into the pit. A wolf that came after it fell through the hole and came down into the pit. The king’s daughter clung on to its coat, and got out that way.

When she had got up, she took a foal standing there and rode on it to the king’s farm. The following day, the witch’s daughter was to hold a wedding with the foreign prince.

The king’s daughter went in and asked if she might help in the kitchen.

Yes, she might.

But see, the witch’s daughter had given birth to a son down in the stable, and it hurt her so to stand as bride. So her mother determined that the stranger girl should dress as the bride, and go to the church her stead.

The prince had not seen his bride before, only a picture of her. He thought the bride he had been given was very beautiful, but even so, he noticed that something bad was going on. Before they went to the church, he gave her a glove, and told her not to return it to anyone else but him. The bride asked for her own foal to ride on, and said to the prince:

“Pay attention to what I say today!”

When they had ridden for a while, she said:

“Stand still young foal. The bride lies in the stable and has had a young son!”

The prince ruminated on this. When they came to the linden tree by the mound, she said:

“Here, the linden stands renowned.
All its roots with gold are bound!”

And by the pit:

“Seven years did I sit in the pit
All my ballads and tales I have quit
A foal I gained,
a king’s son attained
On the wolf I have sat
Now with glory as my hat!”

After a while they came to a gate that no one could pass through. The bride then had to come forward. She said:

“Stand still there, my fair, fine gate.
You by my father Finn were shaped!”

After they had returned home and the wedding should begin, the witch’s daughter was dressed as the bride, and the king’s daughter had to go out into the kitchen again.

But in the middle of the wedding, the prince asked the bride where she kept his glove.

“Oh, I forgot it,” she said, and went out into the kitchen to ask the other for the glove.

No, the king’s daughter wouldn’t give it to anyone but him. So it was decided that the strange girl would follow her in and poke her hand with the glove forth under her arm, so the prince should believe she had it.

Thus it was done, but the prince took hold of the hand, too, and saw his rightful bride. Then the witch and her daughter were sent out into the forest and thrown down into the pit. But the prince and the king’s daughter celebrated the proper wedding.


ATU-870 - The King’s Daughter Confined in the Mound
Place: Sandar, Vestfold
Informant: Jørgen Nilsen Golied’s grandmother
Collector: S. Sørensen
https://www2.hf.uio.no/eventyr_og_sagn/index.php?id=%2052258

Saturday, 2 May 2020

Sigrid Undset’s East of the Sun and West of the Moon

Take a look here for information on Sigrid Undset’s puppet-theatre play East of the Sun and West of the Moon, the translation of which I have released under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, which means that you can use it how you like, so long as you give credit where credit is due.

The play is freely available for use at home, in home education, in schools, in youth clubs, drama groups, and by professionals. I do hope you will find a use for it, even if that use is as personal entertainment.