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   Chapter 4 THE LIGHT ELVES.

Brownies and Bogles By Louise Imogen Guiney Characters: 14918

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

OVER the beautiful Light Elves of the Edda, in old Scandinavia, ruled the beloved sun-god Frey; and they lived in a summer land called Alfheim, and it was their office to sport in air or on the leaves of trees, and to make the earth thrive.

But they changed character as centuries passed; and they came to resemble the fairies of Great Britain in their extreme waywardness and fickleness. For though they were fair and benevolent most of the time, they could be, when it so pleased them, ugly and hurtful; and what they could be, they very often were; for fairies were not expected to keep a firm rein on their moods and tempers.

Norwegian peasants described some of their Huldrafolk as tiny bare boys, with tall hats; and in Sweden, as well, they were slender and delicate. When a Swedish elf-maid or moon-maid wished to approach the inmates of a house, she rode on a sunbeam through the keyhole, or between the openings in a shutter.

The German wild-women were like them, going about alone, and having fine hair flowing to their feet. They had some odd traits, one of which was sermonizing! and exhorting stray mortals who had done them a service, to lead a godly life.

The elle-maid in Denmark and in neighboring countries was always winsome and graceful, and carried an enchanted harp. She loved moonlight best, and was a charming dancer. But her evil element was in her very beauty, with which she entrapped foolish young gentlemen, and waylaid them, and carried them off who knows whither? She could be detected by the shape of her back, it being hollow, like a spoon; which was meant to show that there was something wrong with her, and that she was not what she seemed, but fit only for the abhorrence of passers-by. The elle-man, her mate, was old and ill-favored, a disagreeable person; for if any one came near him while he was bathing in the sun, he opened his mouth and breathed pestilence upon them.



A common trait of the air-fairies was to assist at a birth and give the infant, at their will, good and bad gifts. Dame Bertha, the White Lady of Germany, came to the birth of certain princely babes, and the Korrigans made it a general practice. Whenever they nursed or tended a new-born mortal, bestowed presents on him and foretold his destiny, one of the little people was almost always perverse enough to bestow and foretell something unfortunate. You all know Grimm's beautiful tale of Dornr?schen, which in English we call The Sleeping Beauty, where the jealous thirteenth fairy predicts the poor young lady's spindle-wound. Around the famous Roche des Fées in the forest of Theil, are those who believe yet that the elves pass in and out at the chimneys, on errands to little children.

The modern Greek fairies haunted trees, danced rounds, bathed in cool water, and carried off whomsoever they coveted. A person offending them in their own fields was smitten with disease.

The Chinese Shan Sao were a foot high, lived among the mountains, and were afraid of nothing. They, too, were revengeful; for if they were attacked or annoyed by mortals, they "caused them to sicken with alternate heat and cold." Bonfires were burnt to drive them away.

The innocent White Dwarves of the Isle of Rügen in the Baltic Sea, made lace-work of silver, too fine for the eye to detect, all winter long; but came idly out into the woods and fields with returning spring, leaping and singing, and wild with affectionate joy. They were not allowed to ramble about in their own shapes; therefore they changed themselves to doves and butterflies, and winged their way to good mortals, whom they guarded from all harm.


The Korrigans of Brittainy, mentioned a while ago, were peculiar in many ways. They had beautiful singing voices and bright eyes, but they never danced. They preferred to sit still at twilight, like mermaids, combing their long golden hair. The tallest of them was nearly two feet high, fair as a lily, and transparent as dew itself, yet able as the rest to seem dark, and humpy, and terrifying. He who passed the night with them, or joined in their sports, was sure to die shortly, since their very breath or touch was fatal. And again, as in the case of Seigneur Nann, about whom a touching Breton ballad was made, they doomed to death any who refused to marry one of them within three days.

Of the American Indian fairies we do not know much. In Mr. Schoolcraft's books of Indian legends there is a beautiful little Bone-dwarf, who may almost be considered a fairy. In the land of the Sioux they tell the pretty story of Antelope and Karkapaha, and how the wee warrior-folk, thronging on the hill, clad in deerskin, and armed with feathered arrow and spear, put the daring heart of a slain enemy into the breast of the timid lover, Karkapaha, and made him worthy both to win and keep his lovely maiden, and to deserve homage for his bravery, from her tribe and his. Some of you will remember one thing against the Puk-Wudjies, which is an Algonquin name meaning "little vanishing folk," to wit: that they killed Hiawatha's friend, "the very strong man Kwasind," as our Longfellow called him. He had excited their envy, and they flung on his head, as he floated in his canoe, the only thing on earth that could kill him, the seed-vessel of the white pine.

The Scotch, Irish and English overground fairies were, as a general thing, very much alike. They had the power of becoming visible or invisible, compressing or enlarging their size, and taking any shape they pleased. When an Irish Shefro was disturbed or angry, and wanted to get a house or a person off her grounds, she put on the strangest appearances: she could crow, spit fire, slap a tail or a hoof about, grin like a dragon, or give a frightful, weird, lion-like roar. Of course the object of her polite attentions thought it best to oblige her. If she and her companions were anxious to enter a house, they lifted the spryest of their number to the keyhole, and pushed him through. He carried a piece of string, which he fastened to the inside knob, and the other end to a chair or stool; and over this perilous bridge the whole giggling tribe marched in one by one. The Irish and Scotch fays were more mischievous than the English, but have not fared so well, having had no memorable verses made about them. The little Scots were sometimes dwarfish wild creatures, wrapped in their plaids, or, oftener, comely and yellow-haired; the ladies in green mantles, inlaid with wild-flowers; and dapper little gentlemen in green trousers, fastened with bobs of silk. They carried arrows, and went on tiny spirited horses, as did the Welsh fairies, "the silver bosses of their bridles jingling in the night-breeze." An old account of Scotland says that they were "clothed in green, with dishevelled hair floating over their shoulders, and faces more blooming than the vermeil blush of a summer morning."

Their Welsh cousins were many. A native poet once sang of them:

--In every hollow,

A hundred wry-mouthed elves.

They were queer little beings, and had notions of what was decorous, for they combed the goats' beards every Friday night, "to make them decent for Sunday!" They were very quarrelsome; you could hear them snarling and jabbering like jays among themselves, so that in some parts of Wales a proverb has arisen: "They can no more agree than the fai

ries!" The inhabitants believed that the midgets never had courage to go through the gorse, or prickly furze, which is a common shrub in that country. One sick old woman who was bothered by the Tylwyth Teg ("the fair family") souring her milk and spilling her tea, used to choke up her room with the furze, and make such a hedge about the bed, that nothing larger than a needle could be so much as pointed at her. In Breconshire the Tylwyth Teg gave loaves to the peasantry, which, if they were not eaten then and there in the dark, would turn in the morning into toadstools! When Welsh fairies took it into their heads to bestow food and money, very lazy people were often supported in great style, without a stroke of work. And the Tylwyth Teg loved to reward patience and generosity. They played the harp continuously, and, on grand occasions, the bugle; but if a bagpipe was heard among them, that indicated a Scotch visitor from over the border.

King James i. of England mentions in his D?monology a "King and Queene of Phairie: sic a jolie courte and traine as they had!" Nothing could have exceeded the state and elegance of their ceremonious little lives. According to a sweet old play, they had houses made all of mother-of-pearl, an ivory tennis-court, a nutmeg parlor, a sapphire dairy-room, a ginger hall; chambers of agate, kitchens of crystal, the jacks of gold, the spits of Spanish needles! They dressed in imported cobweb! with a four-leaved clover, lined with a dog-tooth violet, for overcoat; and they ate (think of eating such a pretty thing!) delicious rainbow-tart, the trout-fly's gilded wing, and

--the broke heart of a nightingale

O'ercome with music.

But we never heard that Chinese or Scandinavian elves could afford such luxury.

Their English dwellings were often in the bubble-castles of sunny brooks; and the bright-jacketed hobgoblins took their pleasure sitting under toadstools, or paddling about in egg-shell boats, playing jew's-harps large as themselves. Beside the freehold of blossomy hillocks and dingles, they had dells of their own, and palaces, with everything lovely in them; and whatever they longed for was to be had for the wishing. They had fair gardens in clefts of the Cornish rocks, where vari-colored flowers, only seen by moonlight, grew; in these gardens they loved to walk, tossing a posy to some mortal passing by; but if he ever gave it away they were angry with him forever after. They liked to fish; and the crews put out to sea in funny uniforms of green, with red caps. They travelled on a fern, a rush, a bit of weed, or even boldly bestrode the bee and the dragon-fly; and they went to the chase, as in the Isle of Man, on full-sized horses whenever they could get them! and when it came to time of war, their armies laid-to like Alexander's own, with mushroom-shield and bearded grass-blades for mighty spears, and honeysuckle trumpets braying furiously! There are traditions of battles so vehement and long that the cavalry trampled down the dews of the mountain-side, and sent many a peerless fellow, at every charge, to the fairy hospitals and cemeteries.


Their chief and all but universal amusement, sacred to moonlight and music, was dancing hand-in-hand; and what was called a fairy-ring was the swirl of grasses in a field taller and deeper green than the rest, which was supposed to mark their circling path. Inside these rings it was considered very dangerous to sleep, especially after sundown. If you put your foot within them, with a companion's foot upon your own, the elfin tribe became visible to you, and you heard their tinkling laughter; and if, again, you wished a charm to defy all their anger, for they hated to be overlooked by mortal eyes, you had merely to turn your coat inside out. But a house built where the wee folks had danced was made prosperous.

Hear how deftly old John Lyly, nearly four hundred years ago, put the dancing in his lines:

Round about, round about, in a fine ring-a,

Thus we dance, thus we prance, and thus we sing-a!

Trip and go, to and fro, over this green-a;

All about, in and out, for our brave queen-a.

For the elves, as we know, were governed generally by a queen, who bore a white wand, and stood in the centre while her gay retainers skipped about her. Fairy-rings were common in every Irish parish. At Alnwick in Northumberland County in England, was one celebrated from antiquity; and it was believed that evil would befall any who ran around it more than nine times. The children were constantly running it that often; but nothing could tempt the bravest of them all to go one step farther. In France, as in Wales, the fairies guarded the cromlechs with care, and preferred to hold revel near them.

At these merry festivals, in the pauses of action, meat and drink were passed around. A Danish ballad tells how Svend-F?lling drained a horn presented by elf-maids, which made him as strong as twelve men, and gave him the appetite of twelve men, too; a natural but embarrassing consequence. It used to be proclaimed that any one daring enough to rush on a fairy feast, and snatch the drinking-glass, and get away with it, would be lucky henceforward. The famous goblet, the Luck of Edenhall, was seized after that fashion, by one of the Musgraves; whereat the little people disappeared, crying aloud:

If that glass do break or fall,

Farewell the Luck of Edenhall!

Once upon a time the Duke of Wharton dined at Edenhall, and came very near ruining his host, and all his race; for the precious Luck slipped from his hand; but the clever butler at his elbow happily caught it in his napkin, and averted the catastrophe: so the beautiful cup and the favored family enjoy each other in security to this day.

In the Song of Sir Olaf, we are told how he fell in, while riding by night, with the whirling elves; and how, after their every plea and threat that he should stay from his to-be-wedded sweetheart at home, and dance, instead, with them, he hears the weird French refrain:

O the dance, the dance! How well the dance goes under the trees!

And through their wicked magic, after all his steadfast resistance, with the wild music and the dizzy measure whirling in his brain, there he dies.

All the gay, unsteady, fantastic motion broke up at the morning cock-crow, and instantly the little bacchantes vanished. And, strangest of all! the betraying flash of the dawn showed their peach-like color, their blonde, smooth hair, and bodily agility changed, like a Dead Sea apple, and turned into ugliness and distortion! It was not the lovely vision of a minute back which hurried away on the early breeze, but a crowd of leering, sullen-eyed bugaboos, laughing fiercely to think how they had deceived a beholder.

These, then, were the Light Elves, not all lovable, or loyal, or gentle, as they were expected to be, but cruel to wayfarers like poor Sir Olaf, and treacherous and mocking; beautiful so long as they were good, and hideous when they had done a foul deed. It is hard to say wherein they were better than the Underground Elves, who were, despite some kindly characteristics, professional doers of evil, and had not the choice or chance of being so happy and fortunate. But we record them as we find them, not without the sobering thought that here, as at every point, the fairies are a running commentary on the puzzle of our own human life.

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