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Monday, 22 March 2021

Shoemaker Henrik

Shoemaker Henrik was born in Norway, but howsoever it may or may not have happened, he wandered around for so long that he found himself Russia. There he sat one day, making shoes as he was eating. He accidentally spilt a drop from his bowl, and immediately a number of flies gathered around it. Henrik grabbed a strip of leather and swiped at the swarm, swatting fifteen flies in one go. He thought this was a great feat, so he took a scrap of paper and wrote it down. He wrote that he had slain fifteen at one stroke. He fastened the scrap of paper on the outside of his cobbler’s bag. People who read it thought that here was a deadly warrior fellow, and they stepped aside out of respect for him. Eventually Henrik came into the service of the emperor, and the respect and reverence due to such a great war hero – as they thought he was – wasn’t lacking.

Now the emperor owned a great forest, and a unicorn had come into this forest and ravaged terribly there. Almost no one dared to travel through the forest for fear of the beast. Well, Henrik wasn’t one of those folk whose words alone were fine, nor was he particularly shy; he promised to fell the unicorn. The emperor was more than happy for him do so and offered a crowd of folk to go along and help. But no, Henrik wanted to go alone. It was no worse a beast than he could handle alone, he said. If he couldn’t go alone, he wouldn’t go, he said.

Well, in that case he should be allowed to go alone. But it was one thing to be so brave while he was still at home in the king’s farm, and quite another when he was to go out and do it. As soon as he got so far into the forest that no one could see him, he grew so scared that he thought only about how he could escape unseen without meeting the unicorn.

But as he stood loitering there, the unicorn came towards him. And I tell you, he wasn’t slow getting up into the biggest tree he saw. A unicorn is a beast that has a single horn in the middle of its forehead. When it saw Henrik clamber up, it began to butt the tree. And at length it rammed its horn so far into the tree that it couldn’t get it out again, and couldn’t go anywhere. Then Henrik regained his courage, climbed down the tree, and killed the unicorn with his big knife.

Then he returned to the emperor’s castle, and said that now he had hunted the beast for so long that it had rammed itself into a tree, and there he had killed it. And so it may well be that he was celebrated for his valour.

But soon after, an even worse beast came to the same forest. It was a great belligerent bear. And so they wanted Henrik – he who had killed the unicorn – to kill the bear, too. He would have as many men as he wanted. But Henrik said now, as he had previously, that if he should go, he should go alone, otherwise he wouldn’t go.

So it was then that he got to go alone. And as soon as he got out of sight, he was so scared that he thought of nothing but about how he was going to get away without meeting any belligerent bear. But just as he went lurking there, the bear came charging straight towards him.

Now, there was a deep hole in the ground close by, and a hatch had been prepared for its opening. This hatch stood open, and Henrik ran as quickly as he could and crouched behind the hatch to hide himself. As the angry bear no longer saw anything of the one who had disturbed his peace, he thought that the fellow must have run straight into the hole, and so the bear followed. But as soon as the bear had gone down, Henrik wasn’t slow in slamming the hatch shut and locking it tightly.

Then he went to the emperor’s castle and said that now he had hunted the bear for so long that it had run down into the hole; if they wanted him, they could fetch him there. He, for his part, cared no longer about it, he said. The emperor then sent a whole host of hunters and soldiers to take the life of the trapped bear. But the one who received honour and praise was Henrik the shoemaker. He was invited to the court and was seated at the same table as the emperor.

Immediately after, the emperor went to war against the Turks, and Henrik was commissioned as a captain of the entire Russian army. Now Henrik had certainly never seen a war, and hadn’t the least idea of how things were done, but folk thought he was so brave that it should be a matter of course that he should lead the army. Henrik himself was ill at ease. Leading an army was something he had never considered, much less had any experience of. The only weapons he was practised in were the awl and his cobbler’s knife.

But here something might be done. He ordered every man to dress stark naked. The soldiers had it from the emperor himself that they were to obey Henrik in every detail, and they dared do nothing but obey such orders, and soon the whole army stood there naked, without a thread on their God-given bodies. Then Henrik ordered them to find fatwood sticks, set them alight, and run towards the enemy as they swung the burning torches above their heads.

When the Turks came to fight them, Henrik swung his burning torch above his head and stormed straight ahead. The soldiers did the same as their captain, and followed after him. When the Turks saw all these men, stark naked, with flames above their heads, they thought an army of spirits was coming on, and they cried out in great fear, and took flight as swiftly as their feet would carry them. Henrik and his army stormed after at a quick march, and the Turks didn’t dare look behind them before they had arrived in the midst of Turkey. Henrik’s spoils, and those of his men, were greater than great. And since then, the Turks have never dared attack the Russians.


  • ATU-1640 (the brave tailor)
  • Location: Bø, Leirfjord
  • Collector: Knut Strompedal
  • Informant: Jens Hansen

  • The Tzar: Alexander II (1818–1881)
  • The war: the Russo (Eastern Orthodox Coalition) - Turkish (Ottoman) War (April 1877–March 1878)
  • Casualties: >550,000, all told.

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