Legends from Härjedalen


The boy had had three days’ travel in the rain and mist and longed for some sheltered nook, where he might rest awhile.

At last the geese alighted to feed and ease their wings a bit. To his great relief the boy saw an observation tower on a hill close by, and dragged himself to it.

When he had climbed to the top of the tower he found a party of tourists there, so he quickly crawled into a dark corner and was soon sound asleep.

When the boy awoke, he began to feel uneasy because the tourists lingered so long in the tower telling stories. He thought they would never go. Morten Goosey-Gander could not come for him while they were there and he knew, of course, that the wild geese were in a hurry to continue the journey. In the middle of a story he thought he heard honking and the beating of wings, as if the geese were flying away, but he did not dare to venture over to the balustrade to find out if it was so.

At last, when the tourists were gone, and the boy could crawl from his hiding place, he saw no wild geese, and no Morten Goosey-Gander came to fetch him. He called, “Here am I, where are you?” as loud as he could, but his travelling companions did not appear. Not for a second did he think they had deserted him; but he feared that they had met with some mishap and was wondering what he should do to find them, when Bataki, the raven, lit beside him.

The boy never dreamed that he should greet Bataki with such a glad welcome as he now gave him.

“Dear Bataki,” he burst forth. “How fortunate that you are here! Maybe you know what has become of Morten Goosey-Gander and the wild geese?”

“I’ve just come with a greeting from them,” replied the raven. “Akka saw a hunter prowling about on the mountain and therefore dared not stay to wait for you, but has gone on ahead. Get up on my back and you shall soon be with your friends.”

The boy quickly seated himself on the raven’s back and Bataki would soon have caught up with the geese had he not been hindered by a fog. It was as if the morning sun had awakened it to life. Little light veils of mist rose suddenly from the lake, from fields, and from the forest. They thickened and spread with marvellous rapidity, and soon the entire ground was hidden from sight by white, rolling mists.

Bataki flew along above the fog in clear air and sparkling sunshine, but the wild geese must have circled down among the damp clouds, for it was impossible to sight them. The boy and the raven called and shrieked, but got no response.

“Well, this is a stroke of ill luck!” said Bataki finally. “But we know that they are travelling toward the south, and of course I’ll find them as soon as the mist clears.”

The boy was distressed at the thought of being parted from Morten Goosey-Gander just now, when the geese were on the wing, and the big white one might meet with all sorts of mishaps. After Thumbietot had been sitting worrying for two hours or more, he remarked to himself that, thus far, there had been no mishap, and it was not worth while to lose heart.

Just then he heard a rooster crowing down on the ground, and instantly he bent forward on the raven’s back and called out:

“What’s the name of the country I’m travelling over?”

“It’s called Härjedalen, Härjedalen, Härjedalen,” crowed the rooster.

“How does it look down there where you are?” the boy asked.

“Cliffs in the west, woods in the east, broad valleys across the whole country,” replied the rooster.

“Thank you,” cried the boy. “You give a clear account of it.”

When they had travelled a little farther, he heard a crow cawing down in the mist.

“What kind of people live in this country?” shouted the boy.

“Good, thrifty peasants,” answered the crow. “Good, thrifty peasants.”

“What do they do?” asked the boy. “What do they do?”

“They raise cattle and fell forests,” cawed the crow.

“Thanks,” replied the boy. “You answer well.”

A bit farther on he heard a human voice yodeling and singing down in the mist.

“Is there any large city in this part of the country?” the boy asked.

“What⁠—what⁠—who is it that calls?” cried the human voice.

“Is there any large city in this region?” the boy repeated.

“I want to know who it is that calls,” shouted the human voice.

“I might have known that I could get no information when I asked a human being a civil question,” the boy retorted.

It was not long before the mist went away as suddenly as it had come. Then the boy saw a beautiful landscape, with high cliffs as in Jämtland, but there were no large, flourishing settlements on the mountain slopes. The villages lay far apart, and the farms were small. Bataki followed the stream southward till they came within sight of a village. There he alighted in a stubble field and let the boy dismount.

“In the summer grain grew on this ground,” said Bataki. “Look around and see if you can’t find something eatable.”

The boy acted upon the suggestion and before long he found a blade of wheat. As he picked out the grains and ate them, Bataki talked to him.

“Do you see that mountain towering directly south of us?” he asked.

“Yes, of course, I see it,” said the boy.

“It is called Sonfjället,” continued the raven; “you can imagine that wolves were plentiful there once upon a time.”

“It must have been an ideal place for wolves,” said the boy.

“The people who lived here in the valley were frequently attacked by them,” remarked the raven.

“Perhaps you remember a good wolf story you could tell me?” said the boy.

“I’ve been told that a long, long time ago the wolves from Sonfjället are supposed to have waylaid a man who had gone out to peddle his wares,” began Bataki. “He was from Hede, a village a few miles down the valley. It was winter time and the wolves made for him as he was driving over the ice on Lake Ljusna. There were about nine or ten, and the man from Hede had a poor old horse, so there was very little hope of his escaping.

“When the man heard the wolves howl and saw how many there were after him, he lost his head, and it did not occur to him that he ought to dump his casks and jugs out of the sledge, to lighten the load. He only whipped up the horse and made the best speed he could, but he soon observed that the wolves were gaining on him. The shores were desolate and he was fourteen miles from the nearest farm. He thought that his final hour had come, and was paralyzed with fear.

“While he sat there, terrified, he saw something move in the brush, which had been set in the ice to mark out the road; and when he discovered who it was that walked there, his fear grew more and more intense.

“Wild beasts were not coming toward him, but a poor old woman, named Finn-Malin, who was in the habit of roaming about on highways and byways. She was a hunchback, and slightly lame, so he recognized her at a distance.

“The old woman was walking straight toward the wolves. The sledge had hidden them from her view, and the man comprehended at once that, if he were to drive on without warning her, she would walk right into the jaws of the wild beasts, and while they were rending her, he would have time enough to get away.

“The old woman walked slowly, bent over a cane. It was plain that she was doomed if he did not help her, but even if he were to stop and take her into the sledge, it was by no means certain that she would be safe. More than likely the wolves would catch up with them, and he and she and the horse would all be killed. He wondered if it were not better to sacrifice one life in order that two might be spared⁠—this flashed upon him the minute he saw the old woman. He had also time to think how it would be with him afterward⁠—if perchance he might not regret that he had not succoured her; or if people should some day learn of the meeting and that he had not tried to help her. It was a terrible temptation.

“ ‘I would rather not have seen her,’ he said to himself.

“Just then the wolves howled savagely. The horse reared, plunged forward, and dashed past the old beggar woman. She, too, had heard the howling of the wolves, and, as the man from Hede drove by, he saw that the old woman knew what awaited her. She stood motionless, her mouth open for a cry, her arms stretched out for help. But she neither cried nor tried to throw herself into the sledge. Something seemed to have turned her to stone. ‘It was I,’ thought the man. ‘I must have looked like a demon as I passed.’

“He tried to feel satisfied, now that he was certain of escape; but at that very moment his heart reproached him. Never before had he done a dastardly thing, and he felt now that his whole life was blasted.

“ ‘Let come what may,’ he said, and reined in the horse, ‘I cannot leave her alone with the wolves!’

“It was with great difficulty that he got the horse to turn, but in the end he managed it and promptly drove back to her.

“ ‘Be quick and get into the sledge,’ he said gruffly; for he was mad with himself for not leaving the old woman to her fate.

“ ‘You might stay at home once in awhile, you old hag!’ he growled. ‘Now both my horse and I will come to grief on your account.’

“The old woman did not say a word, but the man from Hede was in no mood to spare her.

“ ‘The horse has already tramped thirty-five miles today, and the load hasn’t lightened any since you got up on it!’ he grumbled, ‘so that you must understand he’ll soon be exhausted.’

“The sledge runners crunched on the ice, but for all that he heard how the wolves panted, and knew that the beasts were almost upon him.

“ ‘It’s all up with us!’ he said. ‘Much good it was, either to you or to me, this attempt to save you, Finn-Malin!’

“Up to this point the old woman had been silent⁠—like one who is accustomed to take abuse⁠—but now she said a few words.

“ ‘I can’t understand why you don’t throw out your wares and lighten the load. You can come back again tomorrow and gather them up.’

“The man realized that this was sound advice and was surprised that he had not thought of it before. He tossed the reins to the old woman, loosed the ropes that bound the casks, and pitched them out. The wolves were right upon them, but now they stopped to examine that which was thrown on the ice, and the travellers again had the start of them.

“ ‘If this does not help you,’ said the old woman, ‘you understand, of course, that I will give myself up to the wolves voluntarily, that you may escape.’

“While she was speaking the man was trying to push a heavy brewer’s vat from the long sledge. As he tugged at this he paused, as if he could not quite make up his mind to throw it out; but, in reality, his mind was taken up with something altogether different.

“ ‘Surely a man and a horse who have no infirmities need not let a feeble old woman be devoured by wolves for their sakes!’ he thought. ‘There must be some other way of salvation. Why, of course, there is! It’s only my stupidity that hinders me from finding the way.’

“Again he started to push the vat, then paused once more and burst out laughing.

“The old woman was alarmed and wondered if he had gone mad, but the man from Hede was laughing at himself because he had been so stupid all the while. It was the simplest thing in the world to save all three of them. He could not imagine why he had not thought of it before.

“ ‘Listen to what I say to you, Malin!’ he said. ‘It was splendid of you to be willing to throw yourself to the wolves. But you won’t have to do that because I know how we can all three be helped without endangering the life of any. Remember, whatever I may do, you are to sit still and drive down to Linsäll. There you must waken the townspeople and tell them that I’m alone out here on the ice, surrounded by wolves, and ask them to come and help me.’

“The man waited until the wolves were almost upon the sledge. Then he rolled out the big brewer’s vat, jumped down, and crawled in under it.

“It was a huge vat, large enough to hold a whole Christmas brew. The wolves pounced upon it and bit at the hoops, but the vat was too heavy for them to move. They could not get at the man inside.

“He knew that he was safe and laughed at the wolves. After a bit he was serious again.

“ ‘For the future, when I get into a tight place, I shall remember this vat, and I shall bear in mind that I need never wrong either myself or others, for there is always a third way out of a difficulty if only one can hit upon it.’ ”

With this Bataki closed his narrative.

The boy noticed that the raven never spoke unless there was some special meaning back of his words, and the longer he listened to him, the more thoughtful he became.

“I wonder why you told me that story?” remarked the boy.

“I just happened to think of it as I stood here, gazing up at Sonfjället,” replied the raven.

Now they had travelled farther down Lake Ljusna and in an hour or so they came to Kolsätt, close to the border of Hälsingland. Here the raven alighted near a little hut that had no windows⁠—only a shutter. From the chimney rose sparks and smoke, and from within the sound of heavy hammering was heard.

“Whenever I see this smithy,” observed the raven, “I’m reminded that, in former times, there were such skilled blacksmiths here in Härjedalen, more especially in this village⁠—that they couldn’t be matched in the whole country.”

“Perhaps you also remember a story about them?” said the boy.

“Yes,” returned Bataki, “I remember one about a smith from Härjedalen who once invited two other master blacksmiths⁠—one from Dalecarlia and one from Vermland⁠—to compete with him at nail-making. The challenge was accepted and the three blacksmiths met here at Kolsätt. The Dalecarlian began. He forged a dozen nails, so even and smooth and sharp that they couldn’t be improved upon. After him came the Vermlander. He, too, forged a dozen nails, which were quite perfect and, moreover, he finished them in half the time that it took the Dalecarlian. When the judges saw this they said to the Härjedal smith that it wouldn’t be worth while for him to try, since he could not forge better than the Dalecarlian or faster than the Vermlander.

“ ‘I shan’t give up! There must be still another way of excelling,’ insisted the Härjedal smith.

“He placed the iron on the anvil without heating it at the forge; he simply hammered it hot and forged nail after nail, without the use of either anvil or bellows. None of the judges had ever seen a blacksmith wield a hammer more masterfully, and the Härjedal smith was proclaimed the best in the land.”

With these remarks Bataki subsided, and the boy grew even more thoughtful.

“I wonder what your purpose was in telling me that?” he queried.

“The story dropped into my mind when I saw the old smithy again,” said Bataki in an offhand manner.

The two travellers rose again into the air and the raven carried the boy southward till they came to Lillhärdal Parish, where he alighted on a leafy mound at the top of a ridge.

“I wonder if you know upon what mound you are standing?” said Bataki.

The boy had to confess that he did not know.

“This is a grave,” said Bataki. “Beneath this mound lies the first settler in Härjedalen.”

“Perhaps you have a story to tell of him too?” said the boy.

“I haven’t heard much about him, but I think he was a Norwegian. He had served with a Norwegian king, got into his bad graces, and had to flee the country.

“Later he went over to the Swedish king, who lived at Upsala, and took service with him. But, after a time, he asked for the hand of the king’s sister in marriage, and when the king wouldn’t give him such a highborn bride, he eloped with her. By that time he had managed to get himself into such disfavour that it wasn’t safe for him to live either in Norway or Sweden, and he did not wish to move to a foreign country. ‘But there must still be a course open to me,’ he thought. With his servants and treasures, he journeyed through Dalecarlia until he arrived in the desolate forests beyond the outskirts of the province. There he settled, built houses and broke up land. Thus, you see, he was the first man to settle in this part of the country.”

As the boy listened to the last story, he looked very serious.

“I wonder what your object is in telling me all this?” he repeated.

Bataki twisted and turned and screwed up his eyes, and it was some time before he answered the boy.

“Since we are here alone,” he said finally, “I shall take this opportunity to question you regarding a certain matter.

“Have you ever tried to ascertain upon what terms the elf who transformed you was to restore you to a normal human being?”

“The only stipulation I’ve heard anything about was that I should take the white goosey-gander up to Lapland and bring him back to Skåne, safe and sound.”

“I thought as much,” said Bataki; “for when last we met, you talked confidently of there being nothing more contemptible than deceiving a friend who trusts one. You’d better ask Akka about the terms. You know, I dare say, that she was at your home and talked with the elf.”

“Akka hasn’t told me of this,” said the boy wonderingly.

“She must have thought that it was best for you not to know just what the elf did say. Naturally she would rather help you than Morten Goosey-Gander.”

“It is singular, Bataki, that you always have a way of making me feel unhappy and anxious,” said the boy.

“I dare say it might seem so,” continued the raven, “but this time I believe that you will be grateful to me for telling you that the elf’s words were to this effect: You were to become a normal human being again if you would bring back Morten Goosey-Gander that your mother might lay him on the block and chop his head off.”

The boy leaped up.

“That’s only one of your base fabrications,” he cried indignantly.

“You can ask Akka yourself,” said Bataki. “I see her coming up there with her whole flock. And don’t forget what I have told you today. There is usually a way out of all difficulties, if only one can find it. I shall be interested to see what success you have.”