Winter’s chill in fairy tales of old

For those of us who love the world of the Renaissance Festival, the fairy tales of old are a cherished source of wisdom and beauty. Read on to discover how Snow White became so fair, and for a few lesser-known stories of wintry trolls and frigid curses.

By Victoria Audley

Winter’s chill and darkness are tempered by community. Huddled together around warm fires, we share love, companionship, food, and of course, stories. Though many aspects of the winter season promise to be different this year, we are fortunate that we still have avenues through which to share tales of wonder, beauty, and terror, as humanity has done since time immemorial.

Though winter is dominated by the dark, it is in the light that it finds its life. The few precious hours of sunlight reveal sparkling mounds of new-fallen snow, often blinding in its stark whiteness under bright rays of light. We often think of fairytales capturing the abundant colours of spring, but winter’s beauty has its moment in stories as well. The opening of the classic German fairytale, “Schneewittchen,” commonly known as “Snow White,” depicts the vivid contrast of a winter landscape. The queen sits at the ebony window frame, looking out on the magical, pure sheets of snow on the ground below her as she sews. Her needle catches her finger, and the red droplet of blood combined with the black ebony and snow white overwhelm her with their beauty, and her wish for a child that encapsulates that picture is granted, entwining a sense of magic with the beauty of winter.

Painting: The Night Troll At the Window by Asgrimur Jonsson, 1876-1958

Aesthetic is not the only aspect of winter explored in folk and fairytales. In the lengthening dark, monsters and demons threaten from the shadows. The conflict between Scandinavia’s early Christianisation and the persistence of the Norse gods is evident in their cultural tales, such as the Icelandic story, “The Night Troll.” Every year on Christmas Eve, one person must stay to mind the farm while everyone else goes to church. On one particular farm, this important office seems to be cursed, and whoever stays home from church that evening is always found either dead or mad by the family on their return.

As time goes by and every year another loved one is lost, volunteers become scarce. They do not know what it is that finds the person who does not go to church on Christmas Eve, but they do not wish to find out. One year, however, the young daughter volunteers to stay and mind both the farm and the infant. Her family is reluctant to allow this, but someone must do it, and she shows no fear. She settles herself in the main room and sings to the baby.

During the night, she hears a voice singing back to her from the window. “Fair seems your hand to me — hard and rough mine must be.”

“Dirt did it never sweep,” she replies in song, not lifting her eyes from the infant in her arms, “Sleep, little Kari, sleep.”

Back and forth the girl and the mysterious stranger sing. “Fair seem your eyes to me — hard and rough mine must be.” “Evil they never saw — sleep, Kari, sleep once more.”

Finally the first rays of the rising sun begin to creep over the horizon, and the stranger sings, “Day in the east I see — hard and rough mine must be.” The clever girl finishes their song: “Stand there and turn to stone, so you’ll do harm to none.”

Thus commanded in rhyme, the troll is defeated, and turns to stone in the morning sun. The girl never speaks of what happened that night, but to this day, it is said a tall stone stands outside the window of that farm house.

Another tale of the roaming devils on Christmas Eve is the Norwegian story, “The Mill That Grinds at the Bottom of the Sea.” There are two brothers, one rich and one poor, and at Christmas the poor brother often begs his rich brother for food. The rich brother is always stingy, and one year he loses his temper entirely. He promises his poor brother a whole ham if he will do what the rich brother tells him to do in return. The poor brother agrees, and the rich brother tells him to go to the devil, slamming the door in his face.

“Well, I must keep my promises,” says the poor brother, who then sets off that cold Christmas Eve in search of the devil. He walks all day, and at nightfall finds a house illuminated from inside, and an old man with a long, white beard chopping wood in front of it. The man tells him that the house is full of devils who will want to buy the ham, but he must not sell it for anything except the old handmill hidden behind the door.

When he goes inside, sure enough, the devils descend on him, clamouring for the ham. He denies all their offers, however, and says he will only accept the handmill. The devils offer him riches, fine foods, and all kinds of tempting trinkets, but remembering the old man’s words, he refuses. The deal is finally struck, and the brother leaves the house. The old man shows him how to use it and how to stop it before he returns to his wife at home. There he uses the mill to grind out a fine Christmas dinner: not only food and ale, but a fine table, cloth, and candles.

The next day, he wishes to share his good fortune and invites everyone to join him for a Christmas feast. The rich brother hears of this and grows angry. “On Christmas Eve he was so poverty-stricken that he came to me and begged. Now he gives a party as if he were both count and king!”

Demanding to know where these riches came from, the rich brother is shown the handmill. He insists upon buying it, and the poor brother agrees, though carefully omitting the instructions for stopping the mill.

The next day, the rich brother declares that he will make lunch for his household. His wife worries, but allows him to stay home while the rest of them set out for their daily work. While they are gone, he commands the mill to grind out herring and porridge, which it does — and then he realises he doesn’t know how to make it stop. The mill grinds and grinds, and soon the house is overflowing with herring and porridge. He flees the house and runs to his poor brother, begging him to save the town from the porridge flood and take back the mill. The poor brother stops the mill and takes it back, and the rich brother never speaks of it again.

Some time passes, and tales of the mill spread. One of the many visitors to the poor brother’s house is a sailor, who comes to see the famed mill and asks if it will grind salt, for this is his cargo and he wishes to sell it without the trouble of acquiring it. The poor brother again sells the mill without explaining how to stop it.

The sailor does not test his new acquisition until he is on his ship out at sea. He commands the mill to grind salt, which it does without stopping. The salt piles higher and higher, and the ship begins to sink. In terror, the sailor tries all he can think of, but the mill will not stop. He abandons his ship as it sinks to the bottom of the sea with the mill, where it remains to this day, grinding salt into the water.

Fairytales of winter feature darkness, but also beauty and light. They acknowledge our fear, but promise light and hope for spring’s return. Stories that frighten and delight us with beautiful scenes of winter snow and humorous pictures of a house flooded with porridge have always, and will always, be what sustain us through the long winter nights. In a season of cold and dark, we band together and share what we have with each other: love, food, and fairytales.

We’ve fallen so in love with Victoria’s fairy tales that we’re dreaming of living in a wee cottage. Though that’s not quite possible, we did find this delightful accommodation in Sweden, the Norrqvarn Hotell and Konferens. You can book a mushroom or tree stump to stay in! What a perfect fairytale spot! Link below.

Victoria Audley is a writer and folklorist with degrees in philosophy and museum education. She has performed at the Texas Renaissance Festival as a Highland dancer and as the White Swan. When she isn’t writing ghost stories and fairytales, she can be found baking, reading, and attempting to convince the neighbourhood cats to let her pet them. She currently lives in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England, with her husband and twenty-one fake crows.

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A writer and storyteller by trade, throughout the course of my career, I have led with curiosity. Much like Alice, I love the opportunity to ask questions and look at situations through different lenses. It’s a great way to find unexpected solutions or new ideas.

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