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Chapter XXIV: The Dwarfs

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Little Men

In the first chapter we saw how the black elves, dwarfs, or Svart-alfar, were bred like maggots in the flesh of the slain giant Ymir. The gods, perceiving these tiny, unformed creatures creeping in and out, gave them form and features, and they became known as dark elves, on account of their swarthy complexions. These small beings were so homely, with their dark skin, green eyes, large heads, short legs, and crow’s feet, that they were enjoined to hide underground, being commanded never to show themselves during the daytime lest they should be turned into stone. Although less powerful than the gods, they were far more intelligent than men, and as their knowledge was boundless and extended even to the future, gods and men were equally anxious to question them.

The dwarfs were also known as trolls, kobolds, brownies, goblins, pucks, or Huldra folk, according to the country where they dwelt.

“You are the grey, grey Troll,

With the great green eyes,

But I love you, grey, grey Troll—

You are so wise!

“Tell me this sweet morn,

Tell me all you know—

Tell me, was I born?

Tell me, did I grow?”

The Legend of the Little Fay (Buchanan).

The Tarnkappe

These little beings could transport themselves with marvellous celerity from one place to another, and they loved to conceal themselves behind rocks, when they would mischievously repeat the last words of conversations overheard from such hiding-places. Owing to this well-known trick, the echoes were called dwarfs’ talk, and people fancied that the reason why the makers of such sounds were never seen was because each dwarf was the proud possessor of a tiny red cap which made the wearer invisible. This cap was called Tarnkappe, and without it the dwarfs dared not appear above the surface of the earth after sunrise for fear of being petrified. When wearing it they were safe from this peril.

“Away! let not the sun view me—

I dare no longer stay;

An Elfin-child, thou wouldst me see,

To stone turn at his ray.”

La Motte-Fouqué.

The Legend of Kallundborg

Helva, daughter of the Lord of Nesvek, was loved by Esbern Snare, whose suit, however, was rejected by the proud father with the scornful words: “When thou shalt build at Kallundborg a stately church, then will I give thee Helva to wife.”

Now Esbern, although of low estate, was proud of heart, even as the lord, and he determined, come what might, to find a way to win his coveted bride. So off he strode to a troll in Ullshoi Hill, and effected a bargain whereby the troll undertook to build a fine church, on completion of which Esbern was to tell the builder’s name or forfeit his eyes and heart.

Night and day the troll wrought on, and as the building took shape, sadder grew Esbern Snare. He listened at the crevices of the hill by night; he watched during the day; he wore himself to a shadow by anxious thought; he besought the elves to aid him. All to no purpose. Not a sound did he hear, not a thing did he see, to suggest the name of the builder.

Meantime, rumour was busy, and the fair Helva, hearing of the evil compact, prayed for the soul of the unhappy man.

Time passed until one day the church lacked only one pillar, and worn out by black despair, Esbern sank exhausted upon a bank, whence he heard the troll hammering the last stone in the quarry underground. “Fool that I am,” he said bitterly, “I have builded my tomb.”

Just then he heard a light footstep, and looking up, he beheld his beloved. “Would that I might die in thy stead,” said she, through her tears, and with that Esbern confessed how that for love of her he had imperilled eyes and heart and soul.

Then fast as the troll hammered underground, Helva prayed beside her lover, and the prayers of the maiden prevailed over the spell of the troll, for suddenly Esbern caught the sound of a troll-wife singing to her infant, bidding it be comforted, for that, on the morrow, Father Fine would return bringing a mortal’s eyes and heart.

Sure of his victim, the troll hurried to Kallundborg with the last stone. “Too late, Fine!” quoth Esbern, and at the word, the troll vanished with his stone, and it is said that the peasants heard at night the sobbing of a woman underground, and the voice of the troll loud with blame.

“Of the Troll of the Church they sing the rune

By the Northern Sea in the harvest moon;

And the fishers of Zealand hear him still

Scolding his wife in Ulshoi hill.

“And seaward over its groves of birch

Still looks the tower of Kallundborg church,

Where, first at its altar, a wedded pair,

Stood Helva of Nesvek and Esbern Snare!”

J. G. Whittier

The Magic of the Dwarfs

The dwarfs, as well as the elves, were ruled by a king, who, in various countries of northern Europe, was known as Andvari, Alberich, Elbegast, Gondemar, Laurin, or Oberon. He dwelt in a magnificent subterranean palace, studded with the gems which his subjects had mined from the bosom of the earth, and, besides untold riches and the Tarnkappe, he owned a magic ring, an invincible sword, and a belt of strength. At his command the little men, who were very clever smiths, would fashion marvellous jewels or weapons, which their ruler would bestow upon favourite mortals.

We have already seen how the dwarfs fashioned Sif’s golden hair, the ship Skidbladnir, the point of Odin’s spear Gungnir, the ring Draupnir, the golden-bristled boar Gullin-bursti, the hammer Miölnir, and Freya’s golden necklace Brisinga-men. They are also said to have made the magic girdle which Spenser describes in his poem of the “Faerie Queene,”—a girdle which was said to have the power of revealing whether its wearer were virtuous or a hypocrite.

“That girdle gave the virtue of chaste love

And wifehood true to all that did it bear;

But whosoever contrary doth prove

Might not the same about her middle wear

But it would loose, or else asunder tear.”

Faerie Queene (Spenser).

The dwarfs also manufactured the mythical sword Tyrfing, which could cut through iron and stone, and which they gave to Angantyr. This sword, like Frey’s, fought of its own accord, and could not be sheathed, after it was once drawn, until it had tasted blood. Angantyr was so proud of this weapon that he had it buried with him; but his daughter Hervor visited his tomb at midnight, recited magic spells, and forced him to rise from his grave to give her the precious blade. She wielded it bravely, and it eventually became the property of another of the Northern heroes.

Another famous weapon, which according to tradition was forged by the dwarfs in Eastern lands, was the sword Angurvadel which Frithiof received as a portion of his inheritance from his fathers. Its hilt was of hammered gold, and the blade was inscribed with runes which were dull until it was brandished in war, when they flamed red as the comb of the fighting-cock.

“Quick lost was that hero

Meeting in battle’s night that blade high-flaming with runics.

Widely renown’d was this sword, of swords most choice in the Northland.”

Tegnér’s Frithiof (G. Stephens’s tr.).

The Passing of the Dwarfs

The dwarfs were generally kind and helpful; sometimes they kneaded bread, ground flour, brewed beer, performed countless household tasks, and harvested and threshed the grain for the farmers. If ill-treated, however, or turned to ridicule, these little creatures would forsake the house and never come back again. When the old gods ceased to be worshipped in the Northlands, the dwarfs withdrew entirely from the country, and a ferryman related how he had been hired by a mysterious personage to ply his boat back and forth across the river one night, and at every trip his vessel was so heavily laden with invisible passengers that it nearly sank. When his night’s work was over, he received a rich reward, and his employer informed him that he had carried the dwarfs across the river, as they were leaving the country for ever in consequence of the unbelief of the people.


According to popular superstition, the dwarfs, in envy of man’s taller stature, often tried to improve their race by winning human wives or by stealing unbaptized children, and substituting their own offspring for the human mother to nurse. These dwarf babies were known as changelings, and were recognisable by their puny and wizened forms. To recover possession of her own babe, and to rid herself of the changeling, a woman was obliged either to brew beer in egg-shells or to grease the soles of the child’s feet and hold them so near the flames that, attracted by their offspring’s distressed cries, the dwarf parents would hasten to claim their own and return the stolen child.

The troll women were said to have the power of changing themselves into Maras or nightmares, and of tormenting any one they pleased; but if the victim succeeded in stopping up the hole through which a Mara made her ingress into his room, she was entirely at his mercy, and he could even force her to wed him if he chose to do so. A wife thus obtained was sure to remain as long as the opening through which she had entered the house was closed, but if the plug were removed, either by accident or design, she immediately effected her escape and never returned.

The Peaks of the Trolls

Naturally, traditions of the little folk abound everywhere throughout the North, and many places are associated with their memory. The well-known Peaks of the Trolls (Trold-Tindterne) in Norway are said to be the scene of a conflict between two bands of trolls, who in the eagerness of combat omitted to note the approach of sunrise, with the result that they were changed into the small points of rock which stand up noticeably upon the crests of the mountain.

A Conjecture

Some writers have ventured a conjecture that the dwarfs so often mentioned in the ancient sagas and fairy-tales were real beings, probably the Phœnician miners, who, working the coal, iron, copper, gold, and tin mines of England, Norway, Sweden, etc., took advantage of the simplicity and credulity of the early inhabitants to make them believe that they belonged to a supernatural race and always dwelt underground, in a region which was called Svart-alfa-heim, or the home of the black elves.


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