Dancing Fairies


Art by August Malmstrøm

Imagine rowing quietly over a lake a summer night. You are in the north and the sun is betwixt dusk and dawn, still giving off a mellow gleam of pale yellow and grey light. Above the water a mist has gathered, twirling in slow motion in the stillness of the night. And that is when you see it. Is it just a formation of white vapor gracefully leaping in the air? Or is it something else, something you thought only existed in your imagination?


Photo by: Ingolf Endresen

Ever since the first people came to Norway, they have been asking themselves this question. Of course, fairies are not supposed to exist, but how can mist move so intently and musically without even a breath of air? The tales speak of fairies coming out to dance in the mysterious light of the summer night, disguising themselves in the glamour of white mist upon water.

What do you believe? Perhaps you are not so easily convinced of the existence of fairies, but if you were there, rowing quietly over a lake a summer night…you would perhaps not be so sure…

Image credit: The beautiful photo is taken by the very talented Ingolf Endresen. You can see more of his incredible photos here: https://blog.ingolfendresen.com/

White Bear King Valemon

TheodorKittelsen-KvitebjørnKongValemon(1912)
Art by Theodor Kittelsen

This is a traditional Norwegian Folk Tale also known as The Polar Bear King in English. It was written down by Asbjoernsen and Moe.

There was once, as well could be, a king. He had two daughters, who were mean and ugly, but the third was as fair as sweet as the bright day, and the king and all were fond of her. She once dreamed about a golden wreath, which was so lovely that she couldn’t live unless she got it. But as she couldn’t get it, she began to pine and could not speak for sorrow. And when the king found out it was the wreath she was grieving for, he had one made almost like the one the princess had dreamed of, and sent it out to goldsmiths in every land and asked them to make one like it.

They worked both day and night, but some of the wreaths she threw away, and others she wouldn’t even look at. Then one day, when she was in the forest, she caught sight of a white bear, which had the wreath she had dreamed of between its paws and was playing with it. And she wanted to buy it.

No! It wasn’t to be had for money, but only in return for herself. Well, life wasn’t worth living without it, she said; it didn’t matter where she went or who she got, if only she got the wreath. And so they agreed that he was to fetch her in three day’s time, and that would be a Thursday.

When she came home with the wreath, everyone was glad because she was happy again, and the king felt sure that it would be a simple matter to keep a white beat at bay. On the third day, the whole army was posted round the castle with him. But when the white bear came, there was no one who could hold him against him, for no weapon could make any effect on him. He knocked them down right and left until they were lying in heaps. This, thought the king, was proving downright disastrous; so he sent out his eldest daughter, and the white bear took her on his back and rushed off with her.

When they had traveled far, and farther than far, the white bear asked, “Have you ever sat softer, have you ever seen clearer?” “Yes, on my mother’s lap I sat softer, in my father’s court I saw clearer,” she said. “Well, you’re not the right one then,” said the white bear, and chased her home again. The next Thursday he came again, and did just as he had done before. The army was out with orders to deal with the white bear. But neither iron nor steel bit on him, so he mowed them down like grass until the king had to ask him to stop. And then he sent out his next eldest daughter, and the white bear took her up on his back and rushed off with her.

When they had traveled far, and farther than far, the white bear asked, “Have you ever sat softer, have you ever seen clearer?” “Yes, on my mother’s lap I sat softer, in my father’s court I saw clearer,” she said. “Well, you’re not the right one then,” said the white bear, and chased her home again. On the third Thursday he came again. This time he fought even harder than before, until the king thought he couldn’t let him knock down the whole army, and so he gave him his third daughter. Then he took her on his back and traveled away, far, and farther than far, and when they had reached the forest, he asked her, as he had asked the others, if she had ever sat softer and seen clearer. “No never,» she said. “Well, you’re the right one,” he said.

So they came to a castle which was so fine that the castle her father lived in was like the meanest cottage in comparison. There she was to stay, and live well, and she was to have nothing else to do but see to it that the fire never went out. The bear was away during the day, but at night he was with her, and then he was a man. For three years all went as well as could be. But each year she had a child, which he took and rushed away with as soon as it had come into the world. So she became more and more downcast, and asked if she couldn’t be allowed to go home and see her parents. Yes, there was no objection to that; but first she must promise that she would listen to what her father said, but not to what her mother wanted her to do. So she went home, and when they were alone with her, and she had told them how she was getting on, her mother wanted to give her a candle to take with her so she could see what the bear was like when he turned into a man at night. But her father said no, she shouldn’t do that. “It will only do more harm than good”.

But no matter how it was or was not, she took the candle stub with her when she left. The first thing she did, when he had fallen asleep, was to light it and shine it on him. He was so handsome that she thought she could never gaze her fill at him, as she shone the light, a drop of hot tallow dripped onto his forehead, and so he awoke. “What have you done? He said. “Now you have brought misfortune on us both. There was no more than a month left; if you had only held out I would have been freed, for a Troll-hag bewitched me, so that I’m a white bear during the day. But now it’s over with us. Now I have to go there and take her.”

She cried and carried on, but he had to go and go he would. So she asked if she could go with him. That was out of the question, he said, but when he rushed off in his bearskin, she seized hold of the fur all the same, flung she up on his back and held of fast. Then they were off over mountain and hill, through groove and thicket, until her clothes were torn off, and she was so dead tired that she let go her hold, and knew no more. When she awoke, she was in a great forest, and so she set out on her way again, but she didn’t know where her path led. At last she came to a cottage where there were two womenfolk, an old crone and a pretty little girl.

The king’s daughter asked if they had seen anything of White-Bear-King Valemon. “Yes, he rushed by here early today, but he was going so fast that you won’t catch up with him again,” they said. The little girl scampered about, and clipped and played with a pair of golden scissors, which were such that pieces of silk and strips of velvet flew about her if she but clipped in the air. Wherever the scissors were, clothes were never lacking.

“But this poor woman, who has to journey so far and on such rough roads, she’ll have to toil hard,” said the little girl. “She has more need of these scissors than I; to cut clothes for herself,” she said, and then she asked if she could give her the scissors. Yes that she could. So the king’s daughter set off through the forest which never came to an end, all that day and night. And the next morning she came to another cottage. Here there were also two womenfolk, and old crone and a little girl. “Good day,” said the king’s daughter. “Have you seen anything of White-Bear-King Valemon?” she asked. “Were you to have had him, maybe?” said the old woman. That it was. «Why, yes, he rushed by here yesterday, but he went so fast that you won’t catch up with him,” she said. The little girl was playing about on the floor with a flask, which was such that it poured out whatever they wanted, and wherever the flask was, drink was never lacking. “But this poor woman, who has to journey so far and on such rough roads, she’ll be thirsty and suffer many other hardships,” said the little girl, and then she asked if she could give her the flask. Why, yes that she could.

So the king’s daughter got the flask, said her thanks, and set out again, walking through the same forest, all that day and night. ON the third morning she came to a cottage, and there were an old woman and a little girl.

“Good day,” said the king’s daughter. “Have you seen anything of White-Bear-King Valemon?” she asked. “Were you to have had him, maybe?” said the old woman. That it was. «Why, yes, he rushed by here yesterday, but he went so fast that you won’t catch up with him,” she said. The little girl was playing on the floor with a cloth that was such that whenever they said to it, “Cloth, spread thyself, and deck thyself with every good dish!” it did so. And wherever the cloth was, good food was never Lacking. “But this poor old woman, who had to journey so far and on such rough roads, said the little girl,” she may well both starve and suffer many other hardships, so she’ll have more need of this cloth than I,” she said, and then she asked if she could give her the cloth. That she could.

So the king’s daughter took her cloth and said her thanks, and set off. Far, farther than far, through the forest all that day and night she went. In the morning she came to a mountain spur which was as steep as a wall, and so high and so wide that so end could she see. There was a cottage there too, and, when she came in, the first thing she said was, “Good day, have you seen whether White-Bear-King Valemon has traveled this way?” “Were you to have had him, maybe?” said the old woman. That it was. “Yes, he rushed by here yesterday, but he went so fast that you won’t catch up with him,” she said. The cottage was full of little children, and they all clung to their mother’s apron strings and cried for food. The old woman put a kettle full of pebbles on the fire. The king’s daughter asked what was the good of that. They were so poor said the old woman, that they could afford neither food nor clothes, and it was so hard to hear the children crying for a bit to eat. But when she put the kettle on the fire, and said,” Now the apples will soon be done,” it seemed to deaden their hunger, and they were patient for a while. It wasn’t long before the king’s daughter got out the cloth and the flask, as you can imagine, and when the children were fed and happy, she clipped out clothing for them with the golden scissors.

“Well, said the old woman of the house, “since you’ve been so heartily kind to me and my children, it would be a shame not to do what we can do to try to help you up the mountain. My husband is really a master smith. Now you just rest until he comes back, and I’ll get him to forge claws for your hands and feet, and then you can try to crawl up”:

When the smith came, he started on the claws right away, and the next morning they were ready. She had no time to wait, but said her thanks, fastened the claws on her hands and crept and crawled up the mountainside the whole day and night, and, just when she was so tired that she didn’t think she could lift her hand again, but felt she would sink to the ground, she got to the top. There was a plain, with fields and meadows so big and wide that she had never imagined anything so broad and so smooth, and close by there was a castle filled with workers of every kind who toiled like ants in an anthill. “What is going on here?” asked the king’s daughter.

Well, this was where she lived, the Troll-hag, who had bewitched White-Bear-King Valemon and in three days she was to wed him. The king’s daughter asked if she could talk with her. No, not likely! That was out-and-out impossible. So she sat down outside the window, and started clipping with the golden scissors, and velvet and silken clothing flew about like a snowflurry. When the Troll-hag caught sight of that, she wanted to buy the scissors. “For no matter how the tailors toil, it’s no use,” she said. “There are too many to be clothed.”

The scissors weren’t for sale, said the king’s daughter. But the Troll-hag could have them, if she would let her sleep with her sweetheart tonight. She could certainly do that, said the Troll-hag, but she would lull him to sleep herself, and wake her up herself. When he had gone to bed, she gave him a sleeping potion, so he was in no condition to wake up, for all the king’s daughter shouted and cried.

The next day the king’s daughter went outside the windows again, sat down and started pouring from the flask; it flowed like a brook, both beer and wine, and it never ran dry. When the Troll-hag laid eyes on that, she wanted to buy it; for “no matter how much they toil at the brewing and distilling, it’s no use. There are too many to drink,” she said. It wasn’t for sale for money, said the king’s daughter, but if she would let her sleep with her sweetheart tonight, she would give it to her. Yes, that she could certainly do, said the Troll-hag, but she would lull him to sleep herself, and wake him up herself. When he had gone to bed, she gave him a sleeping potion again, so the King’s daughter had no better luck that night either. He couldn’t be awakened, for all she cried and shouted. But that night one of the artisans was working in the room next door. He heard her cry in there, and he guessed what had really happened, and the next day he told the prince that she must have come, the king’s daughter who was to have freed him.

The next day just like the others – with the cloth as with the scissors and the flask. When is was dinner time, the king’s daughter went outside the castle, pulled out the cloth, and said,” Cloth, spread thyself and deck thyself with every good dish!” Then there was enough food for a hundred men, but the king’s daughter sat down alone. When the Troll-hag caught sight of the cloth, she wanted to buy it, for “no matter how much they cock and bake, its no use. There are too many mouths to feed,” she said It wasn’t for sale for money, said the king’s daughter, but if she would let her sleep with her sweetheart tonight, she could have it. She could certainly do that, said the Troll-hag, but she would lull him to sleep herself, and wake him up herself. When he had gone to bed, she came with a sleeping potion, but this time he was on his guard, and fooled her. The Troll-hag didn’t trust him any more than just so far, she didn’t, for she took a darning needle and stuck it right through his arm, to see if he were sleeping soundly enough. But no matter how much it hurt, he didn’t move, and then the king’s daughter was allowed to come in to him.

Now this was all very well, but they must get rid of the Troll-hag before he would be free. So he got the carpenters to make a trap door on the bridge which the bridal procession was to cross, for it was the custom there that the bridge should ride first in the procession. When the Troll-hag started across the bridge with all her Troll-hag bridesmaids, the planks under them dropped open and they fell through. Then King Valemon and the king’s daughter and all the wedding guests rushed back to the castle, and took as much of the Troll-hag’s gold and money as they could carry, and then rushed off to his country to hold the real wedding. But on the way, King Valemon stopped in and fetched the three little girls, and now she found out why he had taken the children from her – it was so that they could help her find him. So they caroused at the wedding both lustily and long.

Norwegian Fairy Tales

kittelsen 2
Art by Theodor Kittelsen

Norway has a rich history of storytellers, folk tales told on little farms in the darkness of winter evenings with only a blazing fire for light and warmth. These tales were full of trolls, elves, nisse folk, witches and other creatures lurking in the darkness of the deep forests. In the tales these creatures are either wicked, luring people into harm, or wise and helpful aiding humans through challenges and helping them solve mysterious riddles and seemingly impossible tasks.

wikiart kittelsen
Art by Theodor Kittelsen

Typical for Norwegian fairy tales is that the hero is always the underdog, the youngest son or daughter, the one who is humble, honest, kind, helpful, quiet, and often a little different than others. The villain, often a troll or a witch is the opposite, dumb-witted, loud, greedy, and selfish.

wikimeda theodor kittelsen
Art by Theodor Kittelsen

The hero of the tale has to go through different challenges or tasks to prove himself worthy of the prize or reward promised to the one who solves the quest. This prize is often the princess and half the kingdom. The challenges include tests of the hero’s kindness, cleverness, perseverance, humility and bravery.

kittelsen wikimedia
Art by Theodor Kittelsen

Our favorite hero is the “Ashlad”, who bears similarities to Cinderella. He is the youngest son of three brothers, he sits by the hearth poking the fire with a face full of soot and ash. He is unappreciated by his family who often judge him as a little stupid and a “good-for-nothing” kind of lad. He is the eternal dreamer, never caring much about money or material possessions.

t.kittelsen
Art by Theodor Kittelsen

Norwegian fairy tales also features talking animals, like polar bears, foxes, brown bears, hares, mice and birds. Some of the most famous fairy tales are: Soria Moria Castle, Three Billy Goats Gruff, and the Polar Bear King or White-bear King Valemon.

TheodorKittelsen-KvitebjørnKongValemon(1912)
Art by Theodor Kittelsen

The Norwegian fairy tales are full of folk humor, and they are not as romantic and fantastical as many of the other fairy tales from more southern countries. Many of the tales are made to solve everyday problems or explain things in nature. The tales belong to the people, and rather than celebrate kings and queens, they honor the ordinary folk, farmers and cottagers. People who live ordinary lives but who have extraordinary things happen to them.

kittelsen 3
Art by Theodor Kittelsen

It was two men called Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe who, during the national renaissance in the middle of the nineteenth century, decided to embark on the gigantic task of collecting these folk tales, tales that up till now had only been perserved orally, told to children by parents and grandparents through generations, into one big volume. The first volume of Norwegian folk tales, collected by Asbjørnsen and Moe, was published in 1848.
The book became so popular that Asbjørnsen and Moe ended up publishing several additional volumes of tales.

moe
Jørgen Moe. Image credit: skoletorget.no

asbjornsen
Peter Christen Asbjørnsen. Image credit: skoletorget.no

One of the most popular as well as loved illustrator of Norwegian fairy tales is the Norwegian painter Theodor Kittelsen. He is still the most popular fairy tale illustartor today, even 100 years after his death.

theodor_kittelsen1
Theodor Kittelsen

Asbjørnsen and Moe’s volumes of Norwegian folk tales can be found in almost every Norwegian home, and Norwegian children still grow up with these magical tales of trolls, elves, witches and brave kind heroes who always win the prize at the end of the tale, not just because they are the hero of the tale, but because they have proved themself worthy by showing extraordinary kindness, wit, and generosity.

Norske_folke_og_huldre-eventyr
An old volume of fairy tales

eventyr
A modern collection of the same folk tales. Image credit: dagbladet.no

All the images, unless informed otherwise, are sourced from wikimedia

The Scandinavian Nisse

Midthun
Art by Kjell E. Midthun

Did you know that the way Santa Clause looks like today; his boots, top hat, coat and even his long beard is inspired by the ancient legends of the Scandinavian nisse?
You see, nobody had really seen santa clause, so when they wanted to put his picture on Christmas cards and in books they had to use their imagination and try to imagine what he looked like. To spark their creativity they looked towards Scandinavian folklore for inspiration. And there, hidden among trolls and elves and various underlings, they found the little Scandinavian nisse.

svein solem 4
Art by Svein Solem

The Scandinavian nisse, or tomte, as he is called in Sweden, is quite different than Santa Clause. He is very tiny, and lives either in the forest or on a farm, or sometimes even in the mountains.

svein solem pinterest
Art by Svein Solem

The forest nisse lives under the roots of trees or in hollow trees. You might sometimes spot these forest nisse abodes in nature, you might see a tiny opening leading underground, or a little hidden pathway into the hollow of a tree trunk. The forest nisee gathers berries, nuts and fruits in the autumn to fill his pantry for the harsh winter. The forest nisse’s purpose is to take care of the little animals in the forest and to help them if they are hurt or if they can’t find food in winter. Sometimes the forest nisse can be mistaken for a mouse and be caught by an eagle, an owl or a fox, but when they discover that it is in fact a nisse and not a mouse they have caught they immediately let the nisse go and apologizes sincerely.

skanidsk.com svein solem
Art by Svein Solem

The farm nisse lives on people’s farms. He helps take care of the farm animals. If the farmer is nice and gives the nisse rice porridge topped with lots of butter, sugar and cinnamon on Christmas Eve,
the nisse helps him take care of the farm. But if the farmer doesn’t believe in the nisse and consequently doesn’t give him his rice porridge, the nisse may play a prank on him, like stealing his washing from the cloth line or switch the sugar with salt, or he might even leave the farm if he gets angry enough. Every Norwegian knows that if you want to run a successful farm you’ve got to have a happy nisse helping out!

svein solem 2
Art by Svein Solem

There is a third kind of nisse, the mountain nisse, but very less studies have been done about this particular nisse. It is only recently the stories of this very shy nisse has come out in daylight and been told to children. Some say that the mountain nisse’s top hat is blue instead of red like the farm nisse and forest nisse. This is probably to blend in more with the mountains. The mountain nisse’s life purpose is to make sure that the air is clean and crisp, as well as to make the blue hour, the hour before sunset and sunrise, during the winter season.

K. Midthun
Art by Kjell E. Midthun

The nisse can live as long as 300 years. He marries if he falls in love, something that only happens once in a lifetime for a nisse, and it is not always the nisse girl chooses him!

Nisse Couple - Svein Solem
Art by Svein Solem

In Norway children grow up with stories of the forest nisse, the farm nisse and the mountain nisse. So instead of giving Santa Clause milk and cookies on Christmas Day, children in Norway prepare rice porridge for the nisse and leaves it for him outside the house on Christmas Eve. And of course the porridge has to be topped with lots of butter, sugar and cinnamon.

The legends of the nisse dates back to ancient pre-Christian times, even before the Vikings, and is a treasured part of Norway’s and Scandinavia’s rich cultural heritage and folklore.

To know more about the artists, please see these links:
Svein Solem: http://www.sveinsolem.com/nisser.html
Kjell E. Midthun:https://www.facebook.com/pages/Galleri-Midthun/111736875585437