The Elves

I thought I would open this week by talking about my newest venture into social media, I am now on Tumblr! Why does this matter for people that like my Fairy Tale Friday posts? It’s a fairy tale, myth and legend tumblr, Myths We Live By. I have been taking bite sized chunks from my past musings on fairy tales from this blog and posting it over there along with all new information I’ve always been meaning to add. I also reblog a fair bit of fairy tale art, music, videos and quotes so if you are a fan of fairy tales you should check it out. I try and post things on a different fairy tale every day.

This week’s Fairy Tale Friday is The Elves, a series of three short stories from the brothers Grimm that all feature elves in the plot.

The Elves and the Shoemaker

In The Elves and the Shoemaker by the brothers Grimm we have a short fairy tale, often retold, about a poor struggling shoemaker and his wife and their attempts to make ends meet. They work hard and are virtuous and Christian (in Grimm tales the brothers often rush to add this when supernatural pagan events occur, but he’s a Christian so it’s alright!) but they find themselves without enough money to pay their bills or even buy leather for shoes. They only have enough money left to make one single pair of shoes.

The shoemaker cuts out what he thinks are his last pair of shoes and then goes to bed. In the morning when he and his wife wakes up they discover that the shoes have been assembled and are absolutely perfect. There is not a stitch out of place and they were done up to be a very beautiful pair of shoes. Someone comes along and loves them so much that they pay twice the asking price for them. With the money the shoemaker buys enough leather for two pairs of shoes and cuts them out and lays them on the table before going to bed. In the morning two beautiful pairs of shoes are sitting on the table and the look gorgeous. They are also bought up at more than the asking price and so the shoemaker buys enough leather for four pairs and so on.

With the number of shoes doubling each night he and his wife are soon very rich. One night the wife decides she wants to see what really happens at night to make the shoes suddenly appear fully made. So they sneak down and hide with a lantern, it is to discover that two nearly naked, very small, men appear in their shop at the stroke of midnight and proceed to busily make shoes until the crack of dawn. Then they disappear. The wife wants to do something nice for the elves in return for helping them with their shoe business and so carefully makes little outfits for each of them, right down to little tiny shoes. That night she and the shoemaker do not set out leather for making shoes but instead set out the new clothes. When the elves see their new clothes they are so delighted they dance around the shop. Then they put their new clothes on and vanish, never to be seen again. The shoemaker and his wife are glad they were able to help the elves as they were helped and use their new found riches to hire assistants and continue working productively until the end of their days.

This is a fantastic story for Christmas as it talks about the wonders of both gift giving and gift receiving. It is also a happy story, a rarity for a Grimm story, as the elves are freed from their work and the shoemaker and his wife are freed from poverty by that exchange of gifts. The fact that the elves were freed by clothes reminded me of something and some searching confirmed it, this sort of elf was what J.K. Rowling based her house elves on in her Harry Potter series. Some further searching shows that these are a particular kind of elf, a brownie. These elves are based around Scotland and northern England, they are often believed to be a being that God intended to have work for mankind, they enjoy working and helping around a human’s house and reject payment of any kind. Presenting these beings with clothes will either insult, flatter or simply free them from obligation to stay. No matter what the reaction they disappear never to be seen again.

Godmother for the Elves

In the second fairy tale under The Elves grouping in the brothers Grimm fairy tales we have a young woman who gets asked to be a godmother for the elves. The brothers describe the woman as being hardworking and fastidious. When she receives the invitation she has to have her employer read it to her as she cannot read. Her employers urge her to go as turning down the invitation could prove to be dangerous. She leaves and promises to come back shortly and is then whisked away to the land of Faerie. There she fills the position of godmother to an elf’s new born babe in a house more opulent than any she had ever seen before, there is a cradle made of ivory for the babe and a bathtub made of gold. After her duties are fulfilled over a course of several days they send her back home with her pockets full of gold, the woman picks up her broom to get back to work only to be greeted by strangers. She had not been away for several days in the real world but for several years. Her employers had long since died.

This fairy tale is a cautionary tale about dealing with fairies and elves. Such meetings are often tragic for the human because things in Faerie work so differently than they do in the real world. The time difference is just one of many things that can lead to tragedy for the humans involved. Normally when a person is hard working, industrious and good they are protected from the ill effects of dealing with the supernatural in Grimm fairy tales. This is not so in this fairy tale.

Can I also mention that I thought it was a little strange that Pagan elves were asking for a godmother to be present at a Christian baptism. Oh, Grimm brothers, your attempts to make all fairy tales Christian sometimes makes you look very silly indeed.

Normally in such tales as these a human is asked to be midwife or nurse to the elves, the reason being that elves live so long and have children so rarely that they rely on a human’s more experienced talents as midwife than their own to deliver the child safely.

There are also several other mainstays to these fairy tales that aren’t mentioned in this particular story. One of these is to not eat the food of Faerie while you are there. This is true in tales all over the world (remember the tale of Persephone and Hades?) if you break bread with someone you are creating a fellowship with them and to create a fellowship with elves traps you in the land of Faerie forever.

Another mainstay is the payment received, this tale is unique in that the elves paid her upfront in gold and it remains gold at the end of the tale. Normally the payment is in rubbish, rocks or coal. The fairy tale teaches not to reject gifts no matter how unwanted for if you dump them out as you go you might only discover on reaching home that the last bits of rubbish have turned into gold or precious jewels upon crossing the threshold of home. In other tales the reverse is true, the payment is in gold and jewels and on reaching home it turns into a pile of useless leaves. In this tale by the brothers Grimm the “punishment” for dealing with elves is the time shift and so the payment is left without any funny business attached to it.

I can’t help but think that perhaps after things went so well in The Elves and The Shoemaker that the brothers Grimm wanted to make sure you realized that things do not always go off without a hitch when dealing with supernatural beings and to be wary. Such dealings often go poorly for the humans even with the elves having the best of intentions.

The Changeling

The final fairy tale from the brothers Grimm under the grouping of The Elves is the story of The Changeling. In this story a young mother has her cradle robbed by elves and in her baby’s place they leave a changeling. The changeling is a grotesque child that is strangely misformed and has a huge appetite, all he seems to do is eat and drink. Not knowing what to do the mother turns to a neighbor who tells her to take the child into a kitchen and act like she was going to cook something out of egg shells. This would appear so ridiculous to the changeling he laugh and then the elves will immediately carry him off and return her baby to her. She does this and the changeling does laugh and adds that he is as old as the woods near there and had never seen anything so ridiculous. He is taken away and the mother gets her baby returned to her.

There are many, many fairy tales about changelings and how to get rid of them. They were fervently believed to be real at one time. Martin Luther (founder of the Protestant church) was a big proponent of changelings. He believed that any child born with a mental or physical deficiency was one. He preached that they were spawns of Satan and that they should be killed as soon as possible so they could not spread their evil on this earth. The changeling was viewed as a burden and in that era of working and eating hand to mouth they would have been. Here was a member of the family who likely wouldn’t grow up, who would live on to burden potentially more generations than just the parents as people didn’t live very long, who would eat from the table but never be able to do any work to contribute to it. The child would also likely be left alone most of the day as members of the family left to work and would receive none of the medical care they truly needed. Most fairy tales that talk about them have the parents go to neighbors, employers and the clergy asking what to do about their strange children and are reassured with various answers resulting in either getting rid of or killing the child. Parents seeking moral reassurance to rid themselves of these children usually received it in spades both in these fairy tales and in the society that surrounded them.

After a fairy tale that talked about elves aiding humans (The Elves and The Shoemaker) and a fairy tale about humans aiding elves (Godmother for the Elves) we have a tale that talks about how to deal with the elves when they are being more typically devious. Surprisingly enough it is also one of the nicer ways of dealing with a changeling, by making him laugh to reveal his true self. In the end the first tale’s hope and happiness is effectively dashed by the two tales that come after it. Once more the subtext is that you are to deal with supernatural events with the same hardworking, honest approach you give to everything else but don’t seek it out, in the end dealing with elves and their strange, trickster ways just isn’t worth it.

3 Responses to The Elves

  1. Carol
    8:26 am on December 20th, 2010

    I read all three, but only talked about the first. The other two just didn’t really strike me.

  2. Bitsy
    9:37 am on December 20th, 2010

    Yeah, I thought the latter two were particularly boring versions of their respective fairy tales. I had to talk about the more exciting ones!

  3. Tif
    9:51 am on December 29th, 2010

    Wow! You were very, very thorough on this one and I really enjoyed reading it! Funny thing is, I just finished re-reading the Harry Potter series and I had never connected the elves between these tales and the house elves until re-reading it again recently!

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