Friday night folklore: The Farmer and the Mystery Man’s Bargain

Readers will no doubt recognise elements from the story of Rumpelstiltskin in this Icelandic folk tale. The story is supposed to have taken place in A.D. 995-996 and is told with such detail that it becomes quite  realistic.

Late in the reign of Haakon II Sigurdsson, ruler of Norway, a young Icelandic farmer of Reyn (short for Reynisstaður) wanted to build a gathering hall on this farm and needed to get wood for the building. Late one summer he set out to Norway and arrived shortly after Haakon died and Olaf Tryggvason became king. 

Upon hearing the news, the young farmer decided to go before the king and ask to stay the winter and serve him until he could sail home the next spring*. The king granted him this boon and he stayed the winter, embracing Christianity and being baptised while he was there. In the spring the king gave him all the wood needed to build the gathering hall and a church and asked him to have the church built that same summer. 

When he arrived home he immediately hired carpenters to build the gathering hall and when this was finished he wanted to build the church, but when the carpenters learned that he was going to build a church they refused to do it and went home. He tried to find other carpenters, but all of them were worshippers of the Æsir (the old Nordic gods) and would not participate in the building of a church.

He heard that a Norwegian carpenter, a man loyal to King Olaf, was in Iceland, but the man had left before he could find him. The farmer was unhappy with the situation, but there wasn’t much he could do. This bothered him so much that he could neither eat nor drink and he took to wandering about and brooding over this apparently unlucky religion that he had accepted for his own and even considered going back to worshipping the Æsir.

As he was thinking this a man came walking towards him, a bearded stranger who greeted him. The farmer hardly answered him and the other man asked why he was so downcast and the farmer told him the whole story. 

“Shall I not build this church for you?” asked the stranger. The farmer said he would gladly accept this offer.

Now, this farmer had a three-year old son. The stranger said he had a two-year old son who was bored and needed a playmate. “My payment for this church-building task will be that you will give me your son for fostering in return for the favour.” But the farmer was unwilling to accept this deal.

"I will allow him to visit you when he wants to,” said the stranger, but the father was still unwilling.

The stranger said: “I will make you another offer. I will build the church, but you will have to guess my name before I am done, and then I will not take your boy.”

The farmer said this would be impossible, “for you probably have a very rare and unusual name.”

"No,” said the other, “I bear a common Icelandic name.” 

“Then I accept the deal,” said the farmer and they shook hands on it.

The stranger promised to begin right the next day and they parted, the farmer calm and happy. The next morning the stranger came back and began working on the church. Meanwhile the farmer sat down and wrote down every male name he could think of and read them out to the carpenter that night.

“None of these names is mine,” he said. 

By that time he had built the wall supports and raised the rafters and built the walls of he church. The next day the farmer visited all of his neighbours and asked them to write down all the names they could think of. This they did and that night the farmer came back with a long list of names that he read to the carpenter.

“None of these names is mine,” he said. 

“Then you have lied to me,” said the farmer. “Your name is not Icelandic, then.” But the other said that he had told him nothing but the truth.

The farmer now saw that he was in worse trouble than ever and the next day he wandered out into the wilderness, deep in thought and wowing that if the stranger took his son he would abandon Christianity and burn the church.

He did not notice where he went, but found himself on top of a rocky hillock and from inside the hillock came the sound of a human voice. He looked around him and saw that there was a window in the hillock and when he peeped inside he saw a woman sitting inside, holding a young boy in her arms. She was singing to the boy:

“Quiet, oh, quiet, my little baby boy,
Soon your father Finn will come home from Reyn,
With your little playmate.”

The farmer memorised the name and walked back to where the church was almost finished. The stranger was just hammering in the last nail in the carved altarpiece that he had made for the church when the farmer walked in and said: “Good work, my man Finn.”

The stranger looked around, threw down the hammer and disappeared and never came back for the boy, but the farmer kept his faith and thus the story ends.

*Going to Norway to serve the king for a winter or two is a common theme in the Icelandic Sagas.

Copyright notice: The wording used to tell this folk-tale is under copyright. The story itself is not copyrighted. If you want to re-tell it, for a collection of folk-tales, incorporate it into fiction, use it in a school essay or any kind of publication, please tell it in your own words or give the proper attribution if you choose to use the wording unchanged.


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