Folktales of Norway

Folktales of Norway

by Reidar Christiansen, Pat Shaw Iversen

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Often lacking the clear episodic structure of folktales about talking animals and magic objects, legends grow from retellings of personal experiences. Christiansen isolated some seventy-seven legend types, and many of these are represented here in absorbing stories of St. Olaf, hidden treasures, witches, and spirits of the air, water, and earth. The ugly, massively strong, but slow-witted trolls are familiar to English-speaking readers. Less well-known, but the subject of an enormous number of legends, are the more manlike yet sinister "huldre-folk" who live in houses and try to woo human girls. These tales reflect the wildness of Norway, its mountains, forests, lakes, and sea, and the stalwart character of its sparse population.

"The translation is excellent, retaining the traditional Norwegian style . . . the tales themselves will also appeal to the interested layman."—Library Journal

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226375205
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 05/19/2016
Series: Folktales of the World
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 330
File size: 983 KB

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Folktales of Norway

By Reidar Christiansen, Pat Shaw Iversen

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 1964 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-37520-5


Part I

Historical Legends


King Olav, The National Saint

Norway is full of folk traditions about King Olav, who ruled from 995 to 1030. See Introduction, p. xxii, and Bø, Heilag-Olav i norsk folketradisjon. This text was recorded by A. Röstad before 1930 in Verdal(Tröndelag), the scene of the battle in which the king was killed. Printed in Norsk Folkeminnelag, XXV (1931), 156, and reprinted in Norsk Folkedikting, III, 118, 226. The Motifs A941.5, "Spring breaks forth through power of saint" and D1567.6, "Stroke of staff brings water from rock," are present.

• ONCE, WHEN St. Olav, the king, came to Leksdalen, he saw how hard it was for people to travel back and forth. To get to Verdalen they had to cross a big lake and go over Klingen Mountain. The king made the farmers this offer: he would build a bridge over the lake and make a road through Klingen, while the farmers, for their part, were to give him one calfskin from each farm. This they agreed to, and he started building the bridge. But after he had been working there for a while, a man came and said that the king would not be getting any calfskin from him, and with that there was an end to the construction work. But the remains of the bridge, which the king started to build, can still be seen. The shallow bottom goes out in the water for a hundred yards, and this bottom is made like a road.

One day, when St. Olav was busy with the work up on Klingen, he became exceedingly tired and thirsty. He spoke to the mountain, and at once a spring bubbled forth right out of the hard rock. This is called "Olav's Spring" to this very day.

On Bjartnes farm there lies a big stone which resembles a huge bowl. It is said that St. Olav had thought of making a drinking vessel out of this stone, but he did not get it finished. Another time, when the king was going to ford the Trongdöla River, he led his horse across, and deep tracks of both horse and man can still be seen in the hard stone. Down in the lowlands there is a field which is called "Olav's Field," and from time to time something can be seen shining down there. These are small tongues of flame which flicker up in the tracks where St. Olav has walked.

Not a snake is to be found between Verdal River and Stjördal River, and this is because St. Olav once drove out all the snakes into a big cave, and no one has seen snakes there since. One day a man with a load of hay came up from Björge, and was going to cross the bridge over the Verdal River. When he came to the middle of the bridge, a snake popped out of the load of hay and hurried back.

A story is told of a fiddler from Verdal who had been on a journey all the way to Russia with the famous fiddler Ole Bull. It seems they'd had a falling out, and the fiddler from Verdal went home by way of Sweden. But on the way home he became sick, and he grew worse and worse as he came closer to home. It was all he could do to come up to Stikklestad, where St. Olav fell in battle and where the monument to him stands. The man was barely able to crawl over to the monument and touch it, and suddenly he was well again. It was as if the sickness had been stricken from him.


King Olav and the Gyger

This legend was collected by A. Faye in Ringerike in eastern Norway) in the 1840's and printed in A. Faye, Norske Folkesagn (1844), 110.

• ONCE, WHEN St. Olav came to Sten Farm in Ringerike, he had plans for building a church at Sten, because it is said that his mother once lived there. Now a gyger — who lived in a mountain, which is called Gyrihaugen to this very day — did not like this one bit, and she proposed that the king go along with a wager:

"By the time you finish your church, I'll have built a stone bridge over the fjord here," she said.

The king said he'd like to try, but before she was halfway finished with the bridge, she heard the bells ringing from St. Olav's church. Then she became furious, took all the stories she had gathered for the bridge and threw them, from Gyrihaugen, at the church on the other side of the fjord. But none of them hit it. Then she grew even angrier and wrenched off one of her thighs and threw this at the church. What happened next is a matter of dispute. Some say she managed to knock down the tower, others think she aimed too high. But everyone knows that the thighbone fell down in a mud hole behind the church, and this is called Gjöger Puddle to this very day, and a bad odor always comes up out of this mud hole.

Up in the mountains, on the same side of the fjord as Gyri haugen, a steep road goes down into a narrow valley called Krokkeleiva. Once, when St. Olav came along this road, a gjöger ran out of the mountain and shrieked at the king:

"St. Olav, with red beard and all,
You ride too near my cellar wall!"

But St. Olav only looked at her and said:

"Stand here in stock and stone,
Until I come this way alone!"

And there she stands to this very day!


King Olav, Master Builder of Seljord Church

Motif H521, "Test: guessing unknown propounder's name"; R. Th. Christiansen, The Migratory Legends, 7065, "Building a Church, The Name of the Masterbuilder"; Type 500, The Name of the Helper. This legend has been collected throughout Norway and in many parts of Sweden. The variant connected with the cathedral in Lund, Sweden, is famous. "The lullaby is often found independently as a well-known nursery rhyme" (The Migratory Legends, p, 210). In its fairy tale form, the story is extraordinarily popular in Denmark, Finland, Germany, and Ireland, Rumpelstiltskin and Tom-Tit-Tot are two of the secret names of the supernatural helper.

The legend of the Seljord church in Telemark was recorded by Reverend M. B. Landstad in the 1840's. It was first printed in Norsk Folkeminnelag, XIII (1926), 38–39.

• IN BRINGSAAS MOUNTAIN, in Seljord, there lived a tusse (troll) who was called Skaane — others say he was called Vinfjell. St. Olav had many churches to build, and had to get people to help him wherever he went. He came to an agreement with the troll in Bringsaas, that the troll was to build the church at Seljord and have it ready by a certain time. If, by that time, the king was not able to guess the troll's name, the payment for the building would be the sun and the moon — and St. Olav's head!

As might be expected, the work went fast, but the king could in no way find out what the troll's name was. Time went by, the church was finished except for the spire and the vane, and they were to be put up the next day. And still the king did not know anything about the name.

St. Olav was in great distress, and prayed to God for help. Then, in the evening, the troll went up towards Bringsaas to find a fine, straight billet out of which to make the spire. Then St. Olav heard someone singing inside the mountain. It was the troll's wife singing a lullaby for her baby:

"Bye, bye baby,
Skaane's coming soon,
Bringing St. Olav's head,
And the sun and moon,
As playthings for the baby!"

Now St. Olav was saved. On the next day, when the troll had raised both spire and vane, he stood there proud of his work and certain of his payment. Then he shouted to the king, "Well, King Olav, which way is the church facing now?"

"East and west, Skaane!" answered the king. But then the troll became so angry that he fell down from the church tower and was killed. Since then the church has always been called "St. Olav's Church," and it stands there to this very day.


King Olav, Master Builder of Trondheim Cathedral

This legend was recorded by A. Faye in the 1830's and printed in Norske Folkesagn (1844), 5.

• THE CATHEDRAL in Trondheim is one of the most magnificent churches in the lands here to the north. It has been like that from time immemorial, especially the way it was, when it had its tall, beautiful spire, St. Olav could build the church, all right, but he was not able to put up the spire. He did not rightly know what to do, but in his dilemma he promised the sun as payment to the one who could carry out the work. But there was no one who dared take upon himself the job of putting up the spire, until a troll came who lived in Ladehammeren, a mountain just outside the city. He promised to set up the spire for the payment that was promised, and on the condition that St. Olav was not to call him by name, if he should find out what it was. The king did not know how he was going to get the sun for payment or how he could find out what the name of the troll was.

It happened one night around midnight that St. Olav sailed past Ladehammeren and came below a place called Kjerringa. Then he heard a child crying, while the mother sang to it to make it go to sleep, and comforted it saying that Tvester was coming soon with the "heavenly gold." The king was happy and hurried back to the church. When he got there, the troll was already busy putting the golden knob on the vane of the spire. Then the king shouted, "Tvester, you're putting the vane too far to the west!"

And when the troll heard his name mentioned, he plunged down from the tower and was killed.


The Plague as an Old Hag Is Ferried across a River

R. Th. Christiansen, The Migratory Legends, 7085 (a subdivision of the legend cycle about the Great Plague). Recorded by S. Nergaard in Aamot, Österdal (in eastern Norway) about 1900 and printed in Norsk Folkeminnelag, III(1921), 109. This legend and Nos. 4, 5, and 6 are part of a cycle about the Black Death. The Great Plague cycle is widely known throughout the country and seems to be primarily Norwegian (The Migratory Legends, p. 214).

• WHEN THE Black Death ravaged Aamot, an old hag went ahead with a rake and a broom. Wherever she used the rake, some people survived. But if she used the broom and swept a farm clean, everyone died there. First she kept to one side of the river, but one day she went down to Sundet and shouted to the ferryman to take her across.

The ferryman did not know who it was, and rowed over to fetch her. When the Black Death entered the boat with the rake and the broom, he understood what kind of person she was, and said, "Well, if I'd known it was you, I certainly would not have come over to fetch you. But surely you'll spare me, who took you over the river."

"I can't promise to spare you," said the Black Death, "but I can promise you one thing; if I must take you, you shall have an easy death." She kept her word, for at the very moment they stepped out of the boat, the ferryman fell down dead.


The Horse That Carried the Corpses across the Mountains

This legend was first printed in a newspaper in Fedraheimen and reprinted in Norsk Folkedikting, III, 159–60. The relationship between the folk tune "Förnesbrunen" and this legend is discussed in Rikard Berge, "Förnesbrunen, Segni og Slaatten," Norsk Folkekultur, XXI (1935), 3–18.

• THERE IS a folk tune called "Förnesbrunen" (Förnes Brown), about the Black Death. At the time the plague ravaged Mjösstrand, they had a brown horse on Förnes farm, which has since become renowned. It was so clever that people only had to lay the corpses of the plague victims on a sledge and send the horse on its way. Then the horse trudged through the forests and over marshes to Rauland church. At that time there was no church at Mjösstrand, so the dead had to be carried all the way to the church in Rauland, a distance of fourteen miles. When Förnesbrunen came to the hill outside Rauland church, it neighed so loudly that people on the nearby farms could hear it, and they came and took the corpses off the sledge. But the horse left right away, and on the next day it came back with a new load.

It kept this up for a long time, for there were many who died in those days. But in the end the horse was so worn out — because it did not rest, and probably did not get the right food either — that one day it fell down dead when it came to the hill outside the church. People believed — and they were right — that there was something unusual about this horse, and so they dug a big grave on the spot where it had died, and buried Förnesbrunen there. The grave can still be seen, and is called "Hestedokken" (Horse Hollow).

In the folk tune named after this horse one can hear in the music how the horse struggles on the way until finally it cannot manage any longer.


The Jostedal Grouse

R. Th. Christiansen, The Migratory Legends, 7090. Collected by Olav Sande, Sogn (in western Norway) before 1893 and printed in Olav Sande, Segner fraa Sogn, II, 102. Reprinted in Norsk Folkedikting, III, 158–59. In the latter source (pp. 226–27) is also reprinted Ramus' first recording of the legend in 1735. This is probably the best known of all the legends concerning the Great Plague. Variants from other parts of Norway are connected with various other prominent families.

• WHEN THE Black Death ravaged the land here, many of the best families in Sogn moved up to Jostedal in order to avoid the plague. They settled down here, cleared fields, and built houses. They had made an agreement with people down by the fjord that they were not to visit them until the plague was over. If anyone wanted to write to them, he was to put the letters under a certain stone, and this stone is called the Letter Stone to this very day. The ones remaining down by the fjord could then fecch an answer from under the same stone. It lies beside the road from Jostedal to Luster.

But no matter how careful and foresighted these people were, the plague came to Jostedal too, and it came so hard that everyone died except a little girl on Björkhaug farm. Some say that seven cows without a herdsman, with the bell-cow in front, came straying over the mountains to the neighboring parish in Gudbrandsdal. When no one came to look for the animals, it occurred to someone that they must have come from Jostedal, and people went over there to see what had happened. If this was the case, then things must really have been in a bad way. Houses stood empty everywhere, and many of the dead had not been buried. They went all through the valley but saw no smoke from a single house, and no sign of life was to be found anywhere.

When they came to Mjelvesdalen, they saw footprints in the new snow. They followed the tracks, and at Björkhaug they saw a little girl. As soon as she caught sight of them, she ran into the birch forest, but at last they caught her. They questioned her about various things, but she did not understand them nor they her, except for these words: "Mother, little grouse."

It is told that when her mother was dying, she left food on the table, put the girl in a feather bed, and put food near the bed so the girl would not starve to death. When she was found, some of the feathers had grown fast to her.

The men took her home with them, and she grew into a fine and clever young woman. Some say she married and settled down at Björkhaug, but most people think she settled down at Runnöy, all the way out in Gaupnefjord, where people from Jostedal drive down to the sea. They called her the "Jostedal Grouse," after the words her mother had spoken to her. Her descendants are called "the Grouse Family," and they are known as generous and influential people. Characteristic of this family was "bird skin"; that is to say, they had big holes in their skin as if from the feathers that had grown fast to the girl.

6 The Church Found in the Woods

This story concerns Hedal Church, Valdres(in eastern Norway). It was collected by A. Faye about 1835 and printed in his Norske Folkesagn (1844), p. 152. A somewhat earlier reference is to be found in J. E. Kraft, Historisk topografisk Haandbog over Norge, p. 208. Similar stories are told about other churches, e.g., the church in Tuft parish, Sandsvaer; see Norsk Folkeminnelag, XXXI(1934), 42.

• IN THE REMOTE mountain valleys in Valdres, the Black Death struck with overwhelming force. On many a farm, in many a valley, everyone died. The farms lay deserted and forgotten, until, at long last, people started moving in from the outside.

Once there was a hunter who was out shooting grouse. It must have been a long time ago, for he was using a bow and arrow. He caught sight of a bird sitting in a tree and shot at it, but a strange clang was heard as though the arrow had struck a metal object. The hunter went over to see what it was, and underneath some huge trees stood an ancient church. He thought at first that this church must belong to the huldre-folk, and to keep it from disappearing right away, he took his fire-steel (ildjern), and threw it over the church. On the spot where it landed lies a farm today called Eldjarnstad.


Excerpted from Folktales of Norway by Reidar Christiansen, Pat Shaw Iversen. Copyright © 1964 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Index of Motifs,
Index of Tale Types,
Index of Migratory Legends,
Index of Places,
General Index,

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