Read CHAPTER VIII - THE ELF OF LIGHT. of Fairy Book , free online book, by Sophie May, on


In the strange island of Iceland, thrown up, by fire, from the depths of the sea, there once lived a lad who worshipped the god Odin, and was taught from two absurd books called the Eddas.  He wished to fight and die on a battle-field, so that his soul might cross a rainbow-bridge, and dwell in the beautiful halls of Valhalla.  There ­so the Eddas say ­are the chosen heroes, who are forever fighting all day, and feasting all night.

Thus, instead of a Bible, young Thule studied wild fairy-tales; yet, for all his heathenish training, he had some noble traits, which a Christian lad might imitate.

He lived with his widowed mother at the edge of a forest.  The snow piled itself in drifts, and the wind howled through the trees, and crept in at the windows; for the cottage was old, and a blind hurricane might almost have mistaken it for a heap of brushwood.  But Thule was quite as happy as if the hut had been a palace.  He loved the winter-beauty of his mother’s face, and the silvery hair half hidden under her black cap.  All the fire they burned was made of the dry sticks he gathered in the forest, and more than half the money they used was earned by his small hands.

In one of the ice-months of the year, when the weather was sharper than a serpent’s tooth, Thule came home from a hard day’s work; and, the chillier he grew, the more he whistled to keep up a brave heart.  Looking at the horizon before him, he saw the cold glare which we call Northern Lights, but which he knew to be the flickering of helmets and shields and spears.

“The warlike maidens are out to-night,” thought the boy:  “they are going to the battle-fields to decide who is worthy to be slain.  How I love to see the sky lighted up with the flash of their armor!  Odin, grant I may one day be a hero, and walk over the bridge of a rainbow!”

Then Thule went to his whistling again; but, just as he struck into the forest where the deep shadows lay, he heard a faint moan, which sounded like a human voice, or might have been a sudden gust of wind in a hollow tree.

“Perchance it is some poor creature even colder than I,” thought the boy:  “I hope not a troll!”

Hurrying to the spot whence the sound came, he found an ugly, long-nosed dwarf lying on the ground, nearly perishing with cold.  It was growing late, and the boy himself was benumbed; but he went briskly to work, chafing the hands and face of the stranger, even taking off his own blue jacket to wrap it about the dwarf’s neck.

“Poor old soul, you shall not die of cold!” said he; then, helping him to rise, he added cheerily, “We will go to my mother’s cottage, and have a warm supper of oat-cakes and herrings; and our fire of dry boughs will do you good.”

The noble boy knew there was barely supper enough for two, but did not mind going hungry to bed for charity’s sake.  In the ear of his heart, he heard the words of his mother: ­

“Never fear starving, my son, but freely share your last loaf with the needy.”

They walked through the forest, the old man leaning heavily on the youth’s shoulder.

“Why should you befriend a poor wretch who cannot repay you?” whined the dwarf in a hollow voice which startled Thule, it was so like the echo sent back by a mountain or a rock.

“I do not ask or wish to be repaid,” was the reply.  “Don’t you know what the proverb says?  ’Do good, and throw it into the sea; if the fishes don’t know it, Odin will!’”

“Yes:  Odin shall know it, never fear,” answered the dwarf; “but, as I happen to be informed that your tea-table is not quite large enough for three, I think I will decline your invitation to supper.  Really, my lad,” he continued, “it would delight me to do you a little favor; for, though I am only a poor dwarf, I know how to be grateful.  By the way, have you seen such a thing hereabouts as a green alder-tree?”

“A green alder-tree in winter-time!” cried Thule.

“A curious thing, indeed,” said the dwarf; “but I chanced to see one the other night in my rambles.  Ah! look, here it is right before your eyes.”

All the other forest-trees were dry and hard, their hearts frozen within them; but this tree was alive, hidden behind a clump of firs.  When Thule began to dig about its roots, it seemed to come out of the ground of its own free will, and to lie over his shoulders as if it would caress him.

“Take home the little tree, and plant it before your door, my lad.”

The youth turned to thank the stranger; but he had vanished.  Then Thule ran home with all speed to tell his mother of the little old man who had faded from his sight like a wreath of smoke.

“Now I wonder what it is you have seen,” said the good woman, raising her hands in surprise.  “Was he brown, my son, with a long nose?”

“As brown as a nut, mother, with no end of nose.”

“Just as I supposed, my child!  That dwarf is a wonderful creature, ­one of the night-elves, a race gifted with great understanding.  Know, my son, that he carves runes upon stones; and he no doubt assisted in making Thor’s hammer, that terrible instrument which can crush the skull of a giant.”

“One thing I observed,” said the boy:  “he blinked at that flashing in the sky, which people call Northern Lights; he had to shade his eyes with his funny little hand.”

“Did he, indeed?  Poor Elf!  Light is painful to his race; and I have even heard that a stroke of sunshine is able to turn them into stones.  I am almost afraid of this little tree,” added the good mother musingly.  “You know what we read in the holy Eddas:  Both the alder and the ash trees should be held sacred; for Odin formed man from the ash, and woman from the alder.  Nevertheless, the night-elf could not have meant to do you a mischief.  Let us plant the tree as he directed.”

“What, in the frozen ground, under the snow?”

But it now, for the first time, appeared that there was a spot of earth near the south window, which must have been waiting for the tree, since it was as soft and warm as if the sun had been shining on it all the year.  Here they planted the alder; and Thule brought water, and moistened the roots.

Next morning the tree seemed to have grown a foot higher; and by daylight its leaves showed a silver lining.

“May Odin favor my pretty alder!” said Thule; “nor let the frost pinch it, nor the winds blacken its green buds!”

Thule went into the woods again; and, as he was whistling at his work, he happened to look down, and there, on the ground, at his feet, lay a purse, well lined with gold.  He counted the pieces:  fifty, all bright and new.

“I will go to the town,” thought the boy, shaking his head and sighing (for the gold was very tempting), “I will go to the town, and ask who has lost a purse with fifty pieces of precious gold.  Ah, me!  I wish I could keep it! then we should swim in herrings and oil; and who knows but, for once in my life, I might even get a taste of venison?”

But next moment he loosened his greedy clutch at the purse.  “No matter how bravely it shines! it is not my gold; and it is too heavy for me to carry.  Stolen money is worse than a mill-stone about one’s neck, so my mother says.”

“Keep the purse, little boy,” said a sweet voice close by his elbow.  He turned, and saw a beautiful child, as radiant as a sunbeam, and clad in garments of delicate and transparent texture.

“I will be your friend, little boy.  That purse was dropped by a lady who wears a fur cloak and long veil.  If she asks for her treasure, I can say it fell into a hole in the ground.  Everybody believes me:  never fear!”

“Poor misguided angel!” said the boy, amazed by her wondrous beauty no less than by her apparent want of truth.  “You are, indeed, a lovely little tempter; but I have a dear mother at home, and I love her better than a million pieces of gold.  I must go to the town, and seek out this lady you mention, who wears a fur cloak and long veil.”

“Nay, if you will be so stupid,” said the shining child, “why, I will even go with you, and show you the way.”

So, gliding gracefully before the bewildered youth, she led him out of the forest, into the most crowded part of the city, up to the door of a splendid mansion; but, when Thule turned his head only an instant, she was gone, and no trace of her was to be seen:  she seemed to have melted into sunshine.

The lady of the house received the purse with thanks, and would gladly have given Thule a piece of the gold; but, much as the boy longed for it, he put it aside, saying, “No, madam:  my mother assures me I must be honest without the hope of reward.  She would not like me to take wages for not being a thief!”

The next morning the alder-tree had grown another foot; and Thule and his mother watched the growing leaves, and touched them with reverent fingers.  They were certainly of a tender green, lined with shining silver.

“May Odin favor my pretty alder!” said Thule; “nor let the frost pinch it, nor the winds blacken its green buds!”

Then Thule kissed his mother, and trudged off to the forest as usual.  But he seemed doomed to adventures; for this time he was met by three armed men, who were roaming the country as if seeking something.

“Prithee, little urchin,” said one of the men, “can you tell us what has become of a young alder-tree, whose green leaves are lined with silver?”

“I dug up an alder-bush, kind sirs,” replied the boy, trembling, and remembering that his mother had said she was almost afraid of that little tree.

“There are many alder-bushes,” said another of the men gruffly; “but only one is green at this time of year, and has silver-lined leaves.  It was placed here by command of the giant Loki, and no one was to touch it under pain of death; for, when his mountain-garden should be laid out in the spring, the tree was to be uprooted, and planted therein.”

Thule grew almost as stiff and white as if a frost-giant had suddenly breathed on him.  He knew that Loki was a pitiless god, feared by all, and beloved by none, ­a god who had an especial grudge against the whole human race.

“I will hold my peace,” thought Thule.  “I will never confess that the tree I carried away has silver-lined leaves.  I will hasten home, pluck up the bush, and burn it:  then who will be the wiser?”

But Thule, in spite of his trembling, could not forget his good mother’s counsel: ­

“Your words, my boy, let them be truth, and nothing but truth, though a sword should be swinging over your head.”

Then, as soon as his voice returned to him, he confessed that the tree he had removed was really just such an one as the men described, and begged for mercy, because, as he said, he had committed the sin ignorantly, not knowing the mandate of the terrible giant.

But the men bade Thule lead them to his mother’s house, and point out his stolen treasure; declaring that they could show no mercy; for, when Loki had made a decree, no man should alter it by one jot or one tittle.

“Oh!” thought the unfortunate boy, wringing his hands, and trembling till the woollen tassel on his cap danced a gallopade, “oh, if the cruel night-elf, who led me into this mischief, would only come forward now, and help me out of it!  But, alas, it is of no avail to invoke him; for it is now broad daylight, and the sun would strike him into a stone image in a twinkling.”

When Thule, followed by the messengers of Loki, had reached the door of his cottage, he found his gray-haired mother sprinkling the roots of the beautiful alder, and fondling its leaves with innocent pleasure.  At sight of the armed men, she started back in affright.

“It is indeed the giant’s tree,” said the men to Thule.  “Pluck it up, and follow us with it to Loki’s castle on the mountain.”

“To Loki’s castle!” shrieked the wretched mother.  “Then he must pass a frightful wilderness, be assailed by the frost-giants; and, if there be any breath left in him, Loki will dash it out at a glance!  Have mercy on a poor old mother, O good soldiers!”

The unhappy boy touched the tree, and it came out of the ground of its own free will; and, in a trice, stood on its feet, shook out its branches into arms, and in another moment was no longer a tree, but a child, with a beauty as dazzling as sunshine.

“Unfortunate men!” said she, in a voice whose angriest tones were sweeter than the music of an AEolian harp, “unfortunate are you in being the servants of Loki!  Go, tell your cruel master that the schemes he has plotted against me and mine have all failed:  my enchantment is over forever.  Yonder boy,” said she, pointing to little Thule, “has saved me.  I was, and still remain, an elf of light, as playful and harmless as sunshine.  The merciless Loki, enraged at the love I bear the children of men, changed me to a little alder-tree, which is the emblem of girlhood.  But he had no power to keep me in that form forever.  He was obliged to make a condition, and he made the hardest one that his artful mind could invent:  ’Since you love mortals so dearly,’ said he, ’no one but a mortal shall free you from your imprisonment.  You shall remain a tree till a good child shall touch you, ­a child who is generous enough to SHARE HIS LAST LOAF WITH A STRANGER, honest enough to GIVE BACK A REWARD FOR HIS HONESTY, brave enough to SPEAK THE TRUTH WHEN A LIE WOULD HAVE SAVED HIS LIFE.  Long shall you wait for such a deliverer!’

“Now how amazed will Loki be when he learns that this little boy has been tempted in all these particulars, yet proves true.  My poor soldiers, you may return whence you came, for the alder-tree will never rustle its silver leaves in the mountain-garden of Loki.”

Then the men disappeared, not sorry that the good boy had escaped his threatened doom.

Thule, looking at the beautiful elf so lately a tree, could hardly trust his own eyes; and I fancy that many a boy, even at the present day, would have felt rather bewildered under the circumstances.

“Shining child!” said he:  “you look vastly like the wonderful little being who led me out of the forest yesterday.”

“That may well be,” replied the elf of light; “for she is my sister.  The brown dwarf who pointed out to you the alder-tree is also an excellent friend of mine, though, strange to say, I have never seen him.  We love to aid each other in all possible ways; yet we can never meet, for there is a fatality in my eyes which would strike him dead.  He had heard of Thule, the little woodcutter who was called so brave and generous and true.  He tried you, you see; and so did my frolicsome sister, who was fairly ablaze with delight when she found you could not be tempted to steal!”

Thule’s mother had stood all the while on the threshold, overawed and dumb.  Now she came forward, and said, ­

“I am prouder to-day than I should be if my son had slain ten men on the battle-field!”

The beautiful elf of light, penetrated with gratitude and admiration, remained Thule’s fast friend as long as he lived.  She gave the lad and his mother an excellent home, and made them happy all the days of their lives.