Tuesday's Tales - back to Iceland

The Shepherd of Silfrunarstadir

Once upon a time, there was a man called Gudmundur who lived on his farm in the bay of Skagafjörður.  The farm was called Silfrunarstadir, and the farmer, rich in flocks, was held in high esteem by his neighbours.  Though he was married, he had no children.

One Christmas Eve night, Gudmundur’s herdsman failed to return home.  Gudmundur caused a search to be made, but the man was not in the fields, nor was he in the sheep-pens.  It was as if the man had simply vanished.

The following spring, Gudmundur hired another shepherd, by the name of Grimur.  He was tall and strong, and boasted that he was able to resist any who wished to threaten him.  Still the farmer warned him to be careful and not take any risks.  On Christmas Eve, Gudmundur told Grimur to drive the sheep into the pens early, and to return to the farm while it was still daylight.  But evening came, and there was no sign of Grimur.  Again, Gudmundur caused a careful search to be made, but Grimur was nowhere to be found, and Gudmundur was full of grief.

Unable to find anyone willing to act as his shepherd, Gudmundur finally went to Sjavarborg.  A very poor widow lived there, who had several children.  Her eldest was a boy of fourteen, named Sigurdur.  Gudmundur offered the widow a large sum of money if she would allow her son to act as his shepherd.

Before his mother could answer, Sigurdur declared that he was willing to be the farmer’s shepherd, for he knew how good the money would be for his mother and the children.  So Sigurdur went with Gudmundur.  He proved to be very good as a shepherd, and during the summer did not lose one sheep.

As the year went on, the farmer made a present of a wether (a male sheep castrated before sexual maturity), a ewe, and a lamb to Sigurdur, and the youth was very pleased.  Gudmundur had become attached to Sigurdur, and on Christmas Eve, begged him to return home before sunset.

All day long, Sigurdur watched the sheep, and as the sky darkened, he heard the sound of heavy footsteps echoing down from the mountains.  Turning towards the sound, he saw a huge and terrible troll coming towards him.

“Good evening, my Sigurdur,” she said.  “I have come to put you into my cook pot.”

Sigurdur stared at her.  “Are you mad?  Can you not see how thin I am?  Surely I am not worth any effort.  But I have a sheep and a fat lamb here which I will give you for your pot.”

He gave her the sheep and the lamb, which she threw on her shoulder, and returned to the mountain.  Then Sigurdur went home, and Gudmundur, overjoyed to see him, asked if he had seen anything.

“Nothing,” said Sigurdur.  “Nothing that I do not always see.”

After New Year’s Day, the farmer checked his flock, and noticed that the sheep and lamb he had given to Sigurdur were missing.  When he asked what had become of them, the youth replied that a fox had killed the lamb, and that the wether had fallen into a bog.  He said to Gudmundur, “I do not think I will be lucky with my sheep as you are with yours.”

Still, the farmer gave him one ewe and two wethers, and asked Sigurdur to continue as his shepherd for another year.  Sigurdur agreed to do so.

The following Christmas Eve, Gudmundur again begged Sigurdur to be cautious, and not run any risks, for he loved him as his own son.  Sigurdur said, “You need not fear, there are no risks to run.”

When he had got the sheep into the pens near nightfall, the same troll came along, declaring that, this time, Sigurdur would not escape being boiled in her pot.

“I am at your service,” said Sigurdur, boldly.  “But, as you can see, I am still thin, and cannot even be compared to one wether.  However, for your pot, I will give you two old and two young sheep.  Will you be satisfied with this offer of mine?”

Hooking them together by the horns, she threw the sheep on to her shoulder, and ran off up the mountain.

Sigurdur returned to the farm to Gudmundur’s relief.  When questioned, the youth said, as before, that he had seen nothing unusual.  “But, as I said, I have been very unlucky with my sheep.”

Sigurdur then agreed to remain in Gudmundur’s service for another year.  When the summer came, the farmer gave Sigurdur four more wethers.  On Christmas Eve, as before, the troll came to Sigurdur as he was putting the sheep in their pens, and, again, she threatened to take him away with her.

He offered her the four wethers, which she took, throwing them over her shoulder.  But this time, she seized Sigurdur, tucked him under her arm and took them all to her cave in the mountains.  She flung the sheep down and ordered Sigurdur to kill them and shave their skins.  He did so with no argument, and when he was done, asked her what task he was to perform next.

“Sharpen this axe,” she said, “for I intend to cut off your head with it.”

Again, with no argument, he sharpened it well, and handed it to the troll.  She told him to remove his neckerchief, which he did with no hesitation.

Instead of cutting off his head, the troll lay the axe on the ground.  “Brave boy!  I never intended to kill you, and you shall live to a good old age.  It was I that caused you to be made herdsman to Gudmundur, for I wished to meet with you.  Listen well, and I shall tell you the way you shall arrive at good fortune.  Next spring you must leave Gudmundur, and go to the house of a silversmith, there to learn his trade.  When you have learned it well, you shall take some of your silver-work to the farm where the dean’s three daughters live.  It is the youngest who is the most promising maiden in the whole country.  Her elder sisters are fond of dress and ornaments, and will admire what you bring them, but Margaret will not care for such things.  When you leave the house, ask her to accompany you as far as the door, and then as far as the end of the field.  There you shall give her these three precious things – this handkerchief, this belt, and this ring.  She will then be your love.  But when the time comes that you see me in a dream, you must return here.  You will find me dead.  Bury me, and take for yourself everything of value that you find in my cave.”

Thanking her for her kindness, Sigurdur bade her farewell and returned to the farm, where Gudmundur welcomed him most joyously, for he had believed him to be forever lost.  Again, he asked if Sigurdur had seen anything.

“No,” replied the boy, but he did say that he could now answer for the safety of any future herdsmen.  No more would he say, even though he was asked many questions.

The following spring, he left Gudmundur’s service and went to a silversmith’s house to learn the trade.  In two years, he had made himself master of the trade.  He often visited Gudmundur, and was always welcome.

There came the day when he did as the troll had told him.  He chose a variety of glittering silver ornaments and took them to where the dean’s daughters lived.  As the troll had said, the two elder sisters were most taken with the ornaments, and they bought many trinkets.  But the youngest, Margaret, did not even look at them.

When it came time for him to leave, Sigurdur asked Margaret to accompany him as far as the door, and then to go with him as far as the end of the field.  Shocked at his request, she asked him what he wanted, for she had never seen him before.  But Sigurdur would not relent, and continued to entreat her until she finally consented.  At the end of the field, he gave her the belt and the handkerchief, and put the ring on her finger.

“I should not have taken these gifts, for I cannot now give them back to you,” said Margaret.

Sigurdur then took his leave and returned home.  But by the time she walked back into her own house, Margaret found that she had fallen in love with him, and told her father that she could not live without him.  Her father told her to cease such mad thoughts, and declared that she should never marry the youth as long he lived to prevent it. 

But Margaret began to pine for Sigurdur and became so thin that her father finally relented, and, with some reluctance, consented to her request.  Going to the farm where Sigurdur lived, he hired him as his silversmith.  And soon after, Sigurdur and Margaret were betrothed.

One day, Sigurdur dreamed that he saw the old troll.  On awakening, he remembered that she’d said this would mean her death.  He asked the dean to accompany him to Gudmundur’s farm. 

Once there, they told Gudmundur that Sigurdur was betrothed to Margaret.  On hearing this, the farmer was very pleased.  He told them that it had long been his intention to leave Sigurdur his property, for he was the son he did not have.  He then offered Sigurdur the management of his farm the following spring.  The youth thanked him heartily, and the dean was glad, for this meant his daughter would be well provided for.

Next day, Sigurdur asked Gudmundur and the dean to go with him to the mountain.  At the troll’s cave, he bade them follow him in without fear.  Inside they found the troll lying dead on the floor.  Then Sigurdur told them all that the troll had done, and all that she’d told him.  He asked them to help him bury her.  When they had done so, they returned to the cave, and found there as many precious things as ten horses could carry, which Sigurdur took back to the farm.

Not long after, he married Margaret, and prospered to the end of his life, which, as the old troll had prophesied, was a long one.


I love that, what is essentially a fairy godmother figure is, in fact, an ugly old troll ... though this 'godmother' has more than a few rough edges - she's 'huge and terrible'; she constantly threatens him with her cook pot; and makes him sharpen the weapon of his own death.  Again, there is no backstory or explanation, just the troll’s statement that she wanted to meet Sigurdur – why?  And that she wished for him to have good fortune – again, why?  Maybe there is no reason, maybe she was the loveliest troll ever, who was looking out for one poor, good-hearted boy.