It is due to the efforts of two men, Jón Árnason (1819-1888) and Magnús Grímsson (1825-1860), that such a large body of 18th and 19th century Icelandic folktales exist today. Jón was a writer and also the first librarian of the National Library of Iceland, and Magnús was a student-turned-priest.
Following the popularity of the Grimms Brothers’ fairytales, which were collected and first published in the early 1800s, similar folktale compendiums were collected throughout the Nordic countries. However, it was not until an English scholar named George Stephens issued a special request to Icelanders for a similar collection to be gathered, that Jón and Magnús began their work. The first volume was a modest one, called “Íslenzk Æfintýri,” (‘Icelandic Fairytales’) and was published in 1852. It was on the strength of this collection that a German scholar named Konrad Maurer agreed to help the pair publish more substantial collections.
Unlike many of their peers in other countries, Jón and Magnús were never able to travel around the country collecting stories directly from the tellers. Magnús was able to provide a number of stories from his home district in Borgarfjörður, but with their daily professions to attend to, both men basically depended on others—mostly scholars and clergy members from around the country—to send them second-hand accounts. Magnús also died at an early age, leaving Jón to continue the collection alone.
The legends were edited to fit into the two-volume collection that Konrad was preparing in Germany with the help of Jón Sigurðsson (the hero of Iceland’s independence movement) in Denmark. As Terry Gunnell writes in his introduction to J.M. Bedell’s collection “Hildur, Queen of the Elves,” this “three-step process naturally resulted in published legends… that were far from accurate records of the words spoken by the original storytellers… Another important consideration is the fact that Jón Árnason tended to look for legends he did not already have… and he, Maurer, and Jón Sigurðsson also regularly made conscious decisions about which legends and fairy tales should go into the initial two volume collection.”
Nevertheless, the eventual six-volume collection of legends and folk tales that Jón compiled “still represents one of the largest collections of Icelandic folktales in existence,” writes Terry. “It remains the best known of the collections and the model referred to by all those who have followed in Jón Árnason’s footsteps.”
What follows is a very small selection of the folktales collected by Jón and Magnús. For further reading about Hidden People mythology and additional stories in English translation, see “Hidden People: They’re Just Like Us (Kind Of).”
When I was seventeen years of age (around 1838), I lived on a farm at Hvammur in Möðruvallasókn [on Eyjafjörður, in North Iceland]. The farmer there was named Þórður Þórðarson.
On one New Year’s night, myself and another girl stayed awake rather late; also awake was Þorsteinn, the farmer’s son, who was writing. He remained awake after we fell asleep.
Later, he went to bed and turned off the light, but he didn’t fall asleep immediately, rather, he just lay awake in his bed. After a short time, he noticed a ray of light under the door before it opened, and an unfamiliar, well-dressed woman with braided hair entered the room.
She was so beautiful—he said she was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen. She held a tall, brightly burning candle, and went straight over to the farmer’s bed [note that entire families shared bedrooms in those days]. The bed was covered by a canopy covered in various designs. The woman then shone her light on the canopy and commenced examining it thoroughly.
The boy got worried that the woman was going to steal something and said, “What the hell are you looking for?”
At this, the woman grew disgruntled and left.
In the morning, the boy told the story. He realized that the woman had been the wife of the Hidden People’s pastor, and regretted his impulsiveness, as his parents scolded him for the act.
(Translated and adapted by Larissa Kyzer from the collection of Jón Árnason)
A story is told of a farmer who lived at Götur in Mýrdalur in the olden days. The local fishing grounds were just off the coast, at the island of Dyrhólaey, and the farmer would often row out there during the fishing season to make his catch.
One day, on his way back from fishing, the farmer was making his way across the bog in between his home and the shore. There he encountered a stranger whose horse had gotten stuck and could not be pulled out by a single person, so he offered his help and freed the horse. After this, the stranger says, “I’m your neighbour— I live in Hvammsgil ravine and have just come from fishing, too. I can’t pay you a reward for helping me as I’d like to, but I can give you some good advice that will spare you useless trips to the sea in the future. From now on, you must never go down to the sea unless you see me go before you. If you abide by this condition, you’ll always be able to row out whenever you go down to the shore.”
The farmer thanked him and agreed to follow this advice. And for three years, he did. He never went to the sea unless he saw his neighbour pass his home first, and, like promised, he was always able to row out, and always made a good catch.
But one day, there was a beautiful morning—the kind that is perfect for fishing. Although all of the farmer’s other neighbours went to sea, his mysterious neighbour did not. The farmer waited and waited, and finally decided to go fishing. There were no boats at the shore, however, so he was unable to row out. That day, it turned out, all of the boats that had gone fishing were lost in a storm. The farmer was safe because he had not been able to find a boat.
That night, the farmer dreamed of his neighbour, who told him: “You can give me thanks that you were not able to row out to sea today, but since you failed to follow my advice, don’t bother waiting for me to go by your window again. I won’t be letting you see me anymore.”
And sure enough, the farmer never saw the man again.
(Adapted by Larissa Kyzer, with reference to Jacqueline Simpson’s retelling)
It happened one summer on a farm, that everyone was out in the fields except for the mistress of the house and her young son, an intelligent boy of three or four years old. His mother had a number of chores to do this day, so she left him alone in the doorway of the homestead for a short while as she attended to them.
Some time later, she returned and greeted him. But the child, usually calm and quiet, responded with a series of vicious shrieks like she had never heard from him prior. This went on for a long time, and then the boy didn’t speak at all—just sulked and acted generally disagreeable to everyone around him. Moreover, he seemed to stop growing altogether, and started looking rather stupid.
Upset at this turn of events, the mother went to see a wise neighbour of hers. The neighbour asked many questions about when the trouble with the boy started and how he seemed to have changed. After she heard the full story, the neighbour asked her: “My dear, don’t you think your son might be a changeling? I think that he was probably exchanged when you left him alone.”
The mother wasn’t sure, but asked the neighbour to advise her on how she could discover the truth.
“You must leave the child alone,” said the woman, “and make sure that something really unusual happens in front of him. He will say something about this if he doesn’t see anyone around. If you hear him say something strange or suspicious, though, you must beat him without mercy until a change occurs.”
The mother thanked her neighbour for this advice and went home, immediately setting to her preparations. She put a very small pot in the middle of the kitchen floor and then tied several broom handles to a spoon, which she propped up in the pot. As soon as she was finished, she brought the boy into the kitchen, set him down, and left the room, stopping to listen at the door.
After a very short time, the boy approached the pot and studied it closely before exclaiming, “I’m so old now—as my beard shows—a father of eighteen in Elfland! But I’ve never seen such a long spoon in such a tiny pot!”
When the mother heard this, she ran into the kitchen and began relentlessly beating the child without any mercy, while he howled the whole time. It was then that a strange woman entered her kitchen with a sweet little boy in her arms. Looking at the baby kindly, the strange woman said: “You’re not acting fairly—I embrace your baby, but you beat my husband.”
After she said this, she set the child down and disappeared, taking an old man away with her. The boy, returned to his rightful mother, later grew up to be a fine man.
(Adapted by Larissa Kyzer, with reference to Jacqueline Simpson’s retelling)