By Minjie Su
Once upon a time, in a mountainous region somewhere in Iceland, something strange took place that was at the same time puzzling and frightening: every year, when the winter sun finally shone on Christmas Day, the herdsman was found dead in his bed, with no apparent trace of injury. Naturally the farmer was greatly troubled by these mysterious murders; on the one hand, he needed a herdsman to tend his sheep, but on the other, as a good Christian, his conscience didn’t allow him to hire a fellow man into his untimely death. What should he do?
Sounds familiar, does it not? The long, cold night before Christmas Day is a highly favoured time for monsters (in particular, draugar or revenants) in Icelandic sagas to come out of their lairs (or mounds) to haunt and to kill. The herdsmen are often the favoured victim, for the nature of their job places them between the safe, domestic space – symbolised in a house – and the unknown landscape of wilderness.
But this is not a story of some draugr in some ancient saga; this is the story of Hildur, Queen of the Elves. Originally an oral tale, it is preserved in the collection published by Jón Arnarson – also known as ‘The Grimm of Iceland’ – under the title ‘Íslenzkar Þjóðsögur og Æfintýri’ (‘Icelandic National Stories and Tales’) in 1862. Many of them were translated and published in English by George E. J. Powell and Eiríkur Magnússon (William Morris’s Icelandic tutor). Despite the late date, these folktales share many motifs with the medieval sagas – after all, in the words of Guðbrandur Vigfússon, they are ‘twin sisters’, for ‘these tales are closely coherent with, and have risen and grown in the company of, the historical sagas, as, in those long gone-by days, history and tradition lived in the greatest union.’
Enough background; let’s go back to the story. So, what did the farmer do? By this time, we’ve been quite well informed about the farmer’s household. The farmer was unmarried; his only long-term companion was a housekeeper named Hildur, who did a very good job and whose family and lineage the farmer knew very little of. Everyone in the house was very fond of Hildur. We’ve also been told that it was the customary for people to spend Christmas Eve at Church. Everyone in the farmer’s household did just that, except the herdsman and Hildur, for both finished their work late and had to stay behind.
As implausible as it may sound, a man who was apparently in desperate need of a job presented himself and insisted on being hired, despite the unexplained yearly death. He turned out to be an able farmhand and everything went on just fine until Christmas Eve. Just before he was about to fall asleep, the herdsman suddenly remembered the tragic fate of his predecessors, so he decided to remain awake no matter what. This turned out to be a smart move, for it did not take long before he sensed someone stole into the room and went up to his bed. In the dim room, he can barely make out the silhouette of a person, but he recognised Hildur the housekeeper. Believing he was fast asleep, Hildur put a magical bridle on him and rode him to a huge precipice. Then she fastened the reins onto a rock and leaped into the opening. The herdsman, ‘objecting strongly to being tied to this stone all night’, freed himself after a struggle and followed Hildur to a beautiful meadow.
With the help of a magical ring that just happened to be in the herdsman’s possession, he became invisible and followed Hildur unnoticed to a splendid palace – this was where the Elven king dwelled and Hildur was saluted and welcomed as his queen. A great feast was laid out in Hildur’s honour, and several children came out, calling Hildur mother. To appease the youngest child, Hildur gave him her golden ring to play with. The ring rolled to the herdsman; he took it and carefully hid it in his pocket. As the night drew to an end, Hildur prepared for her departure. Seeing this, everyone begged her to stay except an old, ugly woman who sat sulkily in a corner. The crone was the king’s mother; she had laid a curse on Hildur and refused to unsay it. Hildur just had to go.
The herdsman quickly went back to the rock, re-harnessed himself, and allowed himself to be ridden back to the farm. Exhausted, he slept until late morning, when the farmer went to his room to check on him. When they found out he was not dead, they pressed him to tell what happened. The herdsman named Hildur and produced the golden ring as evidence. Then Hildur revealed to all that she was indeed the Queen of the Elves, but, since she was but a commoner, the king’s mother banished her from her homeland and family by a curse; she can only return once a year at the cost of a man. But by breaking down the barrier between the human world and the elvish world, and by surviving the trial, the herdsman also broke the cycle of murder. Hildur was freed; she told them her story and vanished, never to be seen again.
The herdsman built a farm for himself and prospered. He often gave his thanks to Queen Hildur.
You can follow Minjie Su on Twitter @minjie_su