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Once there was a king and queen in their castle, and a peasant and his old wife in their cot. The king was wealthy in herds and cattle, and had an only daughter who lived in a costly bower with her maidens. The peasant was poor and had no child. The only support for him and his old wife was a cow.

Once the old man went to church. The priest preached of the rewards of giving, and said it would pay a thousand-fold. When the old man came home from the church, his wife asked him what good things he had to tell. The old man told that the priest had said that anyone who gave a gift, should get a thousand-fold back.

The old woman thought her husband must have heard wrong. But the old man was quite sure. So they quarrelled about it for a while, both sticking to their own views of the matter.

The next day the old man hired numbers of workmen to build a cow-house for him, enough for one thousand cows. The old woman did not like this at all, but could not stop her husband.

When the cow-house was built, the old man began thinking about who to give his cow to, so that he could get a thousand cows in return, guessed it had to be the king himself. But the old man did not have the courage to go to him in person, so he went to the well off priest. "The priest would be the last to let his own words come to nothing," he said to himself.

Now the peasant took his cow with him in a cord, and did not heed his wife's protests against taking away their sole cow. He found out the priest and gave him the cow. The priest wondered at this and asked him what he meant by it. The peasant told him why he did as he did. The priest grew peevish and rebuked the peasant.

"You have listened wrongly to what I preached," he said, and drove him away back with his cow.

The peasant went back, dragging his cow after him, but much ill-pleased with the outcome of taking the cow to the priest. On the way home he was overtaken by a coal-black snowstorm from the north, and hard frost. He lost his way, and thought he would lose his cow and his own life too in the raging snowstorm.

At that moment a man came walking towards him with a large bag on his back. The other asked why the peasant was travelling with a cow in such weather. The peasant told him.

"You are sure to lose the cow in this nasty weather, and it is very doubtful whether you will escape the storm alive and well," said the stranger. "It is much better for you, poor old man, to give the cow to me in exchange for this sack with only flesh and bones in it. You can easily carry it on your back."

The bargain was made. The stranger went off with the cow, and the peasant walked off with the sack, even though it was fearfully heavy, and not easy to carry as the other had said.

When he got home, he told his wife how things had gone and showed up the bag he had got for the cow. The old woman grew very cross on hearing the story, but he asked her to put their largest pot with water in it on the hearth and not be angry.

She did. When the water boiled, the peasant began untying the mouth of the bag. But when he had opened it, a full-grown man jumped up from it. He was dressed in grey clothes from head to foot, and said they had better boil something else than him.

The old man sat astonished, but his old wife scolded him, "Ah! First you took away the only animal we lived on, and now you have brought us one more mouth to feed."

The peasant and his wife quarrelled for some time about this, until Greyman said he would go out in search of something they all could eat. Greyman ran away into the darkness, and soon came back with a full-grown, fat wether.

"Slaughter it and make good food of it," he told them.

They lived well on the wether for many days, and when they had eaten up all the food they had made from it, Greyman fetched another, then a third, fourth, and fifth, and they had real good mutton for many months.

While this went on, the king's herdsman got aware that wethers were missing from the flock. He did not understand this, and told the king that five wethers were missing.

"I don't know how it could happen," he said, "for they were lost one after another. I have come to think there might be thieves in the neighbourhood."

The king found out there was a newcomer in the cot of the old peasant and his wife, and that nobody knew anything about the man. He sent a message to him, asking him to come at once to the court. Greyman went at once, and came back later that day. The peasant and his wife welcomed him fondly, and but then he told them: "The king believes I have stolen five wethers from him, but says he will pardon me if I can steal his five-year-old ox tomorrow, after he has made his servants take it out into the pastures among the hills surrounding the castle. If I fail to do it, he will have me hanged."

"Oh dear, can we do anything to help you?" "Just have a rope ready for me tomorrow morning," he said. Then they all went to sleep.

Next morning, Greyman picked up the rope and went away. He went into the hills where he knew the king's men must pass, and hung himself by the rope in from a sharp drop there. Soon after, the king's men came passing by with the ox. When they saw Greyman hanging there, they said,

"Ah, it's Greyman. Someone has hung him up. Now we don't have to fear that he will steal our ox."

After this, they paid no more attention to him, but went on their way.

When the king's men had passed out of sight, Greyman got down from the cliff and ran through hidden paths until he was a long way past the king's men. There he hung himself up again from another clifftop by the wayside. When the king's men passed by, they saw Greyman hanging there and was greatly surprised.

"Is it possible that there are two Greymen?" they said to one another. "Let us run back and see how the other Greyman is, if it is not him who is hanging her."

They tied the ox to a large stone and went back. But when they disappeared behind a hill on their way, Greyman jumped down from the little sheer drop and took the ox with him as quickly as he could to the old peasant and his wife. He bade them slaughter the ox speedily and skin it without splitting the skin, and make candles out of the fat. The old couple did it with glee.

The king's men did not find Greyman hanging from the steep cliff where they had first seen him. Then they ran to the other cliff, but found no Greyman there either, and no ox. There was nothing better to do than to go back to the king and tell what trick Greyman had played them, and so they did.

The king ordered Greyman to come to the court, and asked him, "Did you take my ox?"

"It was a kind of dare you put on me, remember."

Then the king said: "I will pardon you if you will steal the bedsheets from the bed of me and my queen tonight. If not, your life is at stake."

Now Greyman went home to the old peasant and his wife. They were very glad to see he had survived the visit to the castle and was in one piece. Now Greyman took some few pounds of flour and asked the old wife to make a rather thich porridge for him. When she had done this, Greyman put the porridge into a little pail and put a lid over it so that it should not cool too quickly. After this, he walked off with the pail and got into the king's castle without anyone seeing him, and hid himself in a dark corner.

Soon afterwards the king's court was bolted to keep Greyman out, if that could be. But when all the people in the court were asleep, and the king and queen too, he stole silently to the royal bed-chamber and moved the bed-clothes off them down to their waists, poured the porridge gently down between the king and queen, and then got away into a very dark corner in the moon-lit room.

When the porridge touched the queen, she was startled and woke up the king, saying "What is this you have done in the bed?"

The king did not know anything about it, he said, but he could smell the sheets were not clean, and took them from the bed and flung them on the floor. Then they went to sleep again.

Greyman picked up the sheets, rolled them up under his arm, and walked off with them to the cot of the old couple. He told them to clean the porridge out of sheets and use them for their own bed.

Greyman picked up the sheets, rolled them up under his arm, and walked off with them to the cot of the old couple. He told them to clean the stir-about out of sheets and use them for their own bed.

Next morning, when the king and queen woke up, they saw that the sheets were gone. The king understood that Greyman most likely had stolen than, and sent for him.

The old couple thought that Greyman was called away to be hanged, and took a long farewell to him.

Greyman walked without delay up to the king, who aske: "Did you steal the sheets from the bed of me and my queen last night?"

"Yes, that was what you dared me to if I wanted to stay alive, remember."

"Well, then, I will pardon you if you can steal me and my queen from our bed tonight," said the king; he thought it would be impossible.

They parted, and Greyman went home to the peasant and his wife. They were very glad to see him alive and well again.

In the dark evening, Greyman put on his head a hat that belonged to the peasant. It had a very high and broad crown, and a very broad brim. He pierced the crown and brim with holes through and through. Into the holes he stuck candles that had been made of ox fat. He also fixed many candles to his clothes, all over his body, from head to foot.

In these clothes, with the hat on his head and a large sack of ox-skin in his hand, he went to the king's court and into the castle chapel. There he put down the sack in the choir, lit all the candles he was wearing, went to the bells and rang them well.

The king and his queen woke up at the sound of the bells and got up to the window to see what was going on. They saw a shining figure or a man standing at the door of the church.

The king and queen thought it was an angel who had come down from heaven to them, and hurried to him in their best clothes and knelt down in front of him and asked for grace and mercy.

He answered that he could do it only at the altar in the chapel. They followed him up to the altar. When they came there the angel turned round and said he was ready to forgive all their sins only if they humbled themselves mightily and crept into the large sack that was lying beside them on the floor of the choir.

"These are easy terms," they guessed, and crept together into the bag. No sooner were they in the bag, than the angel seized the opening of it and tied it tightly up.

The king asked what this meant. The angel answered:

"I am no angel after all, but Greyman. I have now stolen you and your queen."

He dragged the sack along the chapel floor, adding,

"If you grant me all that I ask for, you may get out of the bag again."

After then king had sworn he would grant all Greyman's wishes; Greyman let out the king and queen. Then Greyman said:

"I want to marry your daughter, get half of the kingdom, and keep the old peasant and his wife with me."

The king promised, and it was written down too, so that no one should forget their agreement, especially the king.

Greyman went to the peasant and his wife again, and soon they were groomed and brought to the castle. They were well received. Greyman married the king's daughter and got half the kingdom.

At the wedding-feast he told the guest that he was the son of a neighbouring king. He had been told by the priest that had been offered the cow, what the old peasant was up to and had agreed with the priest to help him out so that his words would not fail. He added to the old man:

"I hope you have been paid a thousand-fold for your cow now."

Greyman lived long and happily with his wife, had the whole kingdom after his father-in-law died, and governed it ably till his death. The peasant and his wife lived with him in great prosperity the rest of their lives.




Kort and the Sea Monster

Kort was doing winter fishing and stayed with other fishermen in a sea cabin on the shore. There was only one key that opened or locked the cabin door.

One night, after they had locked the door from within and all were asleep, Kort dreamt that a monster came into the cabin and took him by the hand. It was as if he got up and crept with the monster under the bed. From there the monster forced him through the shanty wall and outside. It felt very uncomfortable.

The monster then led him onto the beach and down to ta place where they measured the tide. There the monster tried to lure Kort into the sea. Kort got red-hot angry, something he was given to, and attacked the monster. The result was that Kort threw the monster into the sea.

At that moment he woke up, standing in his underclothing at the point where the tide used to be measured. His first thought was that he had sleepwalked and wandered away from the cabin. But when he returned to it, the door locked from within. He could not enter until he had awakened his companions and asked them to unlock the door.


Icelandic folktales, notes



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