Friday night folklore: Grettir the Strong, the Maid and the Elf-man

This is a folk-tale but it tells of one of Iceland’s Saga heroes, the outlaw Grettir the Strong. It is also a classic helper story in which the central character does someone a favour and that person comes back to help them when they need it.

On a farm somewhere in Iceland in the old days it was a tradition for one of the farm workers to be left out of the Christmas celebrations, turned out of the common room and made to spend Christmas Eve sleeping on the floor by the front door. These poor wretches would always disappear and everyone thought this was very strange. This had been going on for a long time.

One summer day when the farm maids were milking the ewes, a stranger arrived, a man tall and strongly built, and asked one of the girls for a drink of sheep’s milk, as he was very thirsty. She asked him for his name and he said it was Grettir Ásmundarson. She told him that she was afraid to give him any milk because her mistress would punish her harshly if she saw that there was less milk in her pail than usual.

The stranger answered that if she would only give him a drink of the milk, he would come to her aid when she most needed it. She relented and handed him the pail and he drank deeply of the milk and then departed. When the maid came back to the farm her mistress scolded her relentlessly for the loss of the milk and from that day on the girl was an outcast among the farm workers, and on Christmas Eve she was made to sleep by the front door.

When the girl had been there for a short while, an elf-man came to her and asked her to be his wife, but she refused. He went away but came back shortly afterwards and persisted in asking for her hand in marriage, saying he would kill her if she kept refusing. He was about to attack her when suddenly Grettir arrived and the elf fled. Grettir lay down with his head in the girl’s lap and thus they spent the night, and the girl saw no more elves that night.


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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