Icelandic tales seem to be of a more simple nature, reflecting the relentless, daily struggle that Northern people had with nature, and poverty. Moulded by their penchant for sea travel, and the stark, wild beauty of their storm-beaten islands, the stories of these dynamic people echoed their past. By ‘simple’, I don't mean inexperienced or gullible; I mean that the stories aren’t ‘clothed’ in the opulent touches of a people who have time and money on their side, and who aren’t at nature’s mercy. But these northern tales are rich in fantastic imagination, as their mythology practically overflows with stories of trolls and elves.
The Money Chest
It happened, early one Sunday morning, that a large party of men travelling together came upon a lush green meadow. Having journeyed through the night, they were tired, and decided to pitch their tent in the meadow. They tethered their horses, and, the day being bright and warm, soon fell asleep all around the inside of the tent.
Despite his fatigue, sleep eluded the one who was nearest the opening. So he lay quietly, lost in his thoughts. By and by he noticed a small cloud of pale-blue vapour moving over the head of the man who was sleeping in the innermost part of the tent. Astonished, he sat up, and at the same moment the cloud flitted past him out of the tent. Curious to know what it could be, he softly got to his feet for he did not wish to disturb the others, and stole out into the sunshine.
Seeing the vapour floating slowly over the meadow, he began to follow it. After a while it stopped over the bleached white skull of a horse on the grass. Flies hovered about the skull, and the vapour appeared to hover with them. A few moments later, it continued its course over the meadow until it came to a little thread of a rivulet, which hurried through the grass. Here the vapour stopped, then darted back and forth as if it could not fathom how to get over the water.
The man watched it for a while then took his whip, which he had with him, and laid it over the water. The vapour quickly passed along the handle, which was sufficient to bridge the rivulet, and carried on its way until it came to a small hillock, into which it disappeared.
The man waited, wondering if the vapour would appear again. In a matter of minutes, the vapour came out of the hillock and returned the same way it had come. Again, the man laid his whip over the rivulet and the vapour passed over the handle. When he came within sight of the tent, the man could see that the vapour was heading towards it. The man entered the tent in time to see the vapour, once more, over the head of the same sleeping man before it disappeared. Wondering at the strangeness of what he’d witnessed, the man lay down and was soon asleep.
When the day was almost done and the sun was going down, the men awoke, struck the tent, and prepared to continue their journey through the night. While they were packing and loading the horses, they spoke of many things, including money.
“Bless me,” said the man who had been sleeping in the innermost part of the tent. “I wish I had what I saw in my dream today.”
“What was your dream?” asked the man who had followed the vapour.
The other said, “I dreamt that I walked out of the tent, and made my way across the meadow. I came to a large and beautiful building and went in. There I found many people in celebration, in a vast and noble hall, singing, dancing and making merry. I spent some time with them. When I left, I saw stretched before me a vast plain of grassland. I walked over this for some time, and then came to a broad and turbulent river, over which I wished to cross, but could find no means of doing so. As I was walking up and down, thinking how I could possibly get over it, I saw a mighty giant, greater than any I had ever heard of, come toward me. He was holding the trunk of a large tree, and this he laid across the river. I could easily cross to the other side then. Once over the river, I walked for a long time until I came to a high mound which lay open. I entered, thinking to find me some wonderful treasure. I found only a single chest, but this was so full of money that I could not lift it, neither could I count the contents though I spent many hours over it. So I gave up and thought to return to our tent. Once again, the giant flung his tree across the river, and I came back to the tent and went to sleep, being that weary.”
The one who had followed the vapour was most pleased, and chuckled to himself. “Come, my good friend, let us fetch the money. If one could not count it, no doubt two can.”
“Fetch the money! Are you mad? Did you not hear? I only dreamed about the money. Where do you suggest we fetch it from?”
But his friend would not relent, and kept insisting until finally the one who’d dreamed it agreed to go with him.
So they took the same course the vapour had taken. When they came to the skull, the man who had followed the vapour said, “There is your hall of celebration.”
As they stepped over the rivulet, he said, “And there is your broad and turbulent river, and here the trunk the giant threw over it as a bridge.” He produced his whip and laid it across the rivulet as before. “That would then make me your mighty giant,” he said with a laugh.
The other was filled with amazement, and when they came to the mound, they dug a little way in to discover a heavy chest full of golden coins. And the astonishment that overcame the dreamer filled the other as well. On their way back to their friends with the treasure, the one who had followed the vapour told the dreamer all that he’d seen.
Whether they complained of the weight of the money-chest, or gave up counting its contents in despair, the story does not say.
See? Simple, yet so fantastical. I wonder what the ‘pale-blue vapour’ was; part of the sleeping dreamer, maybe? Or was it something other-worldly, tied somehow to the ‘lush green meadow’? And, if it was to do with fairies or elves, how wonderful that ‘it’ had shown the dreamer and the other man something which they were able to take without any sacrifice. I also like that they shared the money, when I can think of tales which would have had the man who’d followed the vapour keeping his knowledge secret and going to retrieve the money-chest for himself alone.