I was in the London Library yesterday, which is the most magical building in London. Up on the fifth floor, at the top of the literature stacks, three floors above English literature, two floors above the French, the Latin, and the Greek, there is a Swedish section where I have not been for years. Because I shall be off in a Norwegian forest for the first ten days of August, I came wandering up there with previous plunder (an 1893 volume of Coleridge's essays, Yeats' autobiographical novel The Speckled Bird, and his 1935 Collected Poems). And there I found a collection of Selma Lagerl�f's short stories, Troll och M�nniskor, or Trolls and Humans. Here's how one starts.
A Troll woman was walking through the woods with her child in a birchbark papoose on her back. He was big and ugly, with bristly hair, teeth sharp as needles and a claw on his little finger; of course the troll woman thought that no baby could be lovelier.
After a while she came to a place where the woods thinned out a little. There was a road here, pitted and slippery with tree roots, and on this road a peasant and his wife came riding.
The moment the troll woman caught sight of them she wanted to slip back into the trees so they wouldn't see her, but then she noticed that the peasant wife had a child in her arms, and she changed her mind. 'I want to see if the human child is as beautiful as my own', she thought, and hunched up behind a big hazel bush which grew close to the roadside.
But when they rode past her, she looked out too far in her eagerness and the horses caught sight of her big, black troll's head. They reared and bolted. Both the peasant and his wife were nearly thrown. They gave a cry of horror, bent forward over their reins, and in the next moment, they had vanished.The troll woman whimpered with frustration, because she had hardly caught a glimpse of the human baby. But she was immediately delighted again, for there was the child, lying on the ground at her feet ....
Here you are, then, Quinn:
It had fallen out of the mother's arms when the horses reared, but with great good fortune had dropped into a heap of dry leaves and was quite unharmed. It shrieked with fear at the fall, but when the troll woman leant over, it was so surprised and excited that it stopped at once and reached up its hands to tug at her black beard.
The troll woman stood dumbfounded and looked at the human baby. She saw the narrow fingers with rose pink nails, the clear, blue eyes and the little red mouth She felt the soft hair, stroked her hand over the cheeks, and grew more and more surprised. She just couldn't understand how a child could be so pink and soft and wonderful.
Suddenly the troll woman pulled the birchbark papoose from her back, hoisted out her own child and sat it down beside the human baby, And when she now saw what a difference there was between them, she could no longer control herself and started to bawl her eyes out.Meanwhile, the peasant and his wife had brought their horses back under control, and now they turned back to look for their baby. The troll woman heard they were approaching, but she had not seen enough of the human baby; she stayed sitting beside it until the riders were almost in sight. Then she made a sudden decision. She left her own child by the side of the road, but she stuffed the human baby in the birch bark papoose, threw it on her back, and ran off into the woods.
Lagerl�f won a Nobel Prize in 1909 for G�sta Berlings Saga, I think. She's mostly remembered now as a children's writer, which is quite unfair. I'm quoting this partly to show how much better good writers are than bad ones at telling simple stories. I can't promise to translate the whole thing, and I don't know if it's anywhere in English.
Scarcely had she vanished when the riders came into view. They were substantial farmers, rich and respected, the owners of a large farm in the fertile valley below the mountains. They had already been married for many years, but they had only had this one child, so you will understand that they were eager to get him back.
The wife rode a few lengths ahead of the husband and was the first to catch sight of the baby which lay by the side of the road. It was howling at the top of its voice for its mother, and the wife should have realised just from the terrible noise what sort of a child it was, but she was so frightened that the little one had been killed when it fell from her horse that her only thought was "Thank God he's alive!" "Here he is!" she called to her husband, as she slipped down from her saddle and ran to the troll child.
When her husband reached her, she was sitting on the ground looking as if she could not believe the evidence of her sense. "My child didn't have teeth like needles", she said, turning the troll baby round in her hands. "My child didn't have hair like a pig's bristles", she lamented. Her voice filled with fear. "My child had no talon on his little finger."
The farmer could only suppose his wife had lost her wits, and he jumped down from his horse. "Look at the baby" cried his wife: "See is you can work out why he looks so strange!" and she held it out to him. He took it from her hands, but scarcely had he glanced at the child before he spat three times and threw the baby to the ground. "It is a troll child", he said. "This isn't our son." The wife sat still as ever by the side of the road. Her mind worked slowly, and she could not comprehend what had happened. "What are you doing to the child?" she cried. "Can't you see it's a changeling?" asked the man. The trolls have seized their moment when our horses panicked. They have stolen our child and left one of their own here." "But where is my child?" cried the wife. "Away with the trolls is where our child is" said her husband.
At this, the knowledge of catastrophe overwhelmed his wife. She went so pale that her husband thought she would die on the spot."Our baby can't be far from here", he said, and gentled her. "We shall go into the woods and look for him".
At this he tied his horse to a tree at the side of the track and set off into the undergrowth. His wife rose to her feet to follow him, but as she did so, she noticed that the troll child was lying where it might at any moment be kicked by the horses, who were uneasy bbecasue it was near. Just the thought of touching the changeling made her shudder; none the less, she moved it a little to the side out of range of the horses' hooves.
"Here's the rattle our boy was holding when you dropped him" called her husband from within the woods, "So I'm sure that I'm on the trail." She hurried after him, and they walked for a long time in the forest, searching. But neither troll nor child did they find, and when the night drew in, they had to return to the horses.
The wife wept and wrung her hands. Her husband walked with his jaw clenched tightly and gave her no word of comfort. He came from a good and long-established family, which would have died out had he not got a son. Now he was filled with anger at his wife because she had let the child fall to the ground. "She should have held on to the child whatever happened", he thought. But when he saw how she despaired, he did not have the heart to reproach her out loud.He had already helped her up into the saddle when she remembered the changeling. "What shall we do about the troll child?" she said.
"Yes, where's it gone?" he asked.
"He's over there, under the bushes."
"Well, that's the right place for him", said her husband, with a bitter laugh.
"We'll have to take it with us though. We can't leave it lying in the wilderness."
"Oh can't we?" said her husband, and put one foot in his stirrup.
She thought, really, that her husband was right. They had no need to take up the troll's child; and so she let the horse take a couple of steps until it was suddenly impossible for her to ride on. "It is a child, in any case" she said. "I can't let it lie here as food for the wolves. You must give me the baby." "I most certainly won't", replied her husband. "It's fine where it is."
"If you don't give him to me now, I know I will have to return this evening and fetch him", said the wife.
"I don' t believe this", muttered the husband. "The trolls have not only stolen my child: they have stolen my wife's wits away". But he picked up the child anyway, and handed it to his wife, for he loved her dearly, and was used to letting her have her way in everything.
The next day, the news of their tragedy was all over the parish, and all the wise and experienced neighbours hurried to the farm to advise them, and to warn them. "If you have been given a changeling, you must beat it with a heavy stick" said an old woman.
"Why should you be so hard on him?" asked the wife. "I know he's ugly, but he hasn't done anything wrong."
"Well, if you beat the troll child until the blood runs down its back, then the troll mother will come running, throw you your child, and take her own away. I know many people who have recovered their children like that."
"Yes, but those children were no longer alive", interrupted another old woman, and the wife thought to herself that this was not a method she could use.
Toward evening, she was sitting alone in the farmhouse with the changeling when she felt such a violent and terrible longing for her own child that she could hardly bear it. "Perhaps I should do what the old woman advised me", she thought; but she could not bring herself to do it.Just then her husband entered the house. He had a cudgel in his hand, and asked for the changeling. The wife understood that he wanted to follow the wise woman's advice and beat the troll child to get his own son back. "It's just as well that he does it", she though. "I am so foolish. I could never beat an innocent child."
But her husband had scarcely given the troll child a single blow when she rushed forward and clutched his arm. "No, don't hit him, don't hit him!" she cried. "You don't want your child back, do you?" he said, pulling his arm free.
"Oh God yes, I want our son back" sobbed his wife, "But not like this."
The peasant raised his arm for a fresh blow, but before he could deliver it, his wife had thrown herself across the child so that the blow, when it fell, struck her instead.
"God in Heaven!" cried the husband. "I can see now that you're going to make sure that our child must live with the trolls for the rest of his life."
He stood and waited, but she still lay there at his feet, protecting the child. At last her husband threw down his cudgel and stalked, sullen and disappointed, out of the farmhouse. He wondered afterwards why he had not simply forced his way through her resistance, but there was something about her that compelled him. He could not resist her will.
More days passed, in grief and disappointment. It is hard enough for a mother to lose her child, but it is worse than anything to have it replaced by a changeling. That keeps her longing constantly alive, and never lets it rest."I don't know what I can give the changeling to eat" said the wife one morning to her husband. "He won't eat what I offer him"
"That's not surprising", said her husband. "Haven't you heard that trolls only want to eat frogs and mice?"
"But you can't ask me to go out to the pond and get food for him there" said the wife.
"No, certainly not." said her husband. "I think the best thing would be to let it starve to death."
The whole week passed, and still she was unable to persuade the troll child to eat anything. She placed every possible good thing in front of him, but the troll merely whimpered and spat when she pressed the delicacies on him.
One evening, when it really did look as is he were dying of hunger, the cat ran into the room with a rat in its mouth. She grabbed the rat out out of the cat's mouth, threw it to the troll child, and rushed out of the room so that she wouldn't have to watch it eating.
But when her husband found out that she really was collecting frogs and spiders for the changeling, he was gripped by such a loathing for her that he could no longer hide it. He found it impossible to speak kindly to her. Yet she still retained enough of her old power that he could not leave.This was not all. The servants, too, began to disobey and disrespect her. The husband pretended not to notice what was happening, and his wife understood that if she continued to defend the changeling, she would suffer through every day God sent. But she was a woman who had no choice: if there were anyone, whom everybody hated, she had to help the poor victim in every way she could. And the more she was made to suffer for the changeling's sake, the more faithfully she guarded him from harm.
One afternoon a few years later, the wife sat alone in the farmhouse, sewing endless patches on a child's smock. "Indeed", she thought, as she sewed, "no days are good ones when you spend your life caring for a stranger's child."
She darned and darned, but the holes in the smock were so large and so many that tears came to her eyes when she saw them. "And I know one thing", she thought: "If I were mending the clothes of my own son, I wouldn't care how many holes I had to patch.
"It really is hard with the changeling", she thought, as she caught sight of yet another rip in the smock. "The best thing would be if I could just take him so far into the forest that he could never find his way home, and then just leave him there.
"But I don't really have to put myself to so much trouble to be rid of him", she thought on: "If I just let him out of my sight for a moment, he would drown himself in the well, or burn up on the fire, or be bitten by a dog, or kicked by the horses. Yes, it would be so easy to get rid of him, nasty and disobedient thing that he is, There's no one on the farm who doesn't hate him, and if I didn't keep him with me all the time, someone would be sure to take the opportunity to get rid of him."
She walked over and looked at the child sleeping in a corner of the room. It had grown even uglier than when she had first seen it. The mouth now protruded like a funnel; the eyebrows were like two shoe brushes, and its skin was completely brown.
"Just mending your clothes and watching over you would be tolerable", she thought, "But that is the least I must suffer for your sake. My husband is angry with my, the farmhands despise me and the maids laugh at me; the cat spits when he sees me; the dog growls and shows his teeth, and it's all because of you.
"But to be hated by men and animals ? that I could bear", she cried. "The worst is worse than that. It is that every time I see you, I long more than ever for my own son. Oh, my own sweet child, where are you? Are you sleeping on moss and bracken in the troll woman's house?"The door opened, and she hurried back to her mending. It was her husband, and he seemed happy for once. He said to her ? more kindly that he had done for ages. -- "There's a fair in the village today. What do you think? Shall we walk over there?"
She thought this was a wonderful idea, and said she'd love it. "Get ready as quick as you can!" said her husband. "We'll have to walk, because the horses are out at pasture. But if we take the track over the hill we'll get there soon enough."
A little while later, she stood on the threshhold, wearing her finest costume. She felt happier than she had done for years, and she had completely forgotten the changeling. Suddenly she thought of something: "Perhaps my husband is just trying to lure me away, so the servants can kill the changeling while I am out of the way." She hurried into the farmhouse and came back with the sturdy troll child in her arms.
"Can't you leave that thing at home?" asked her husband, but he didn't sound irritated, only kindly. "No, I don't dare leave him", she replied. "Oh well; that's your problem", said her husband, "But you'll find he's too heavy to carry over the hill."
They started on their journey. It was heavy going, for the path ran steeply uphill. They had to climb right to the top before the path set course for the village.
At last the wife had grown so tired that she could hardly move. Again and again she tried to persuade the boy to walk by himself, but he would not.
Her husband was bubbling with good humour and friendlier than he had been since their own child was lost. "Do let me carry the changeling" he said, "for a while,"
"Oh no; I can manage", she replied. "I don't want you to have trouble with the little beast."
"Why should you always be the one to do it?" he asked, and took the child from her.
He did this just at the point where their path was hardest. Slippery and slidy, it ran along the side of ravine, so narrow you could not put both feet side by side. The wife walked behind him, and suddenly found she was frightened that somethng would happen to her husband while he hauled the child along. "Careful here!" she called, for he looked as if he were moving far too fast and carelessly. Sure enough, he tripped soon afterwards, and almost dropped the child into the abyss."If the child really had fallen, we would have finally been rid of it," she thought. But just at that moment she understood that this was what her husband planned. He wanted to throw the child into the ravine and pretend afterwards that it had been an accident. "Oh well," she thought, "That's it, then. He has arranged all this to rid the world of the changeling without my seeing that it was deliberate. Yes, the best thing would really be to let him do what he wants."
Her husband stumbled over another stone: once more the baby nearly slipped from his arms. "Give me the child! You'll fall with it." she called. "No: I'll be careful enough."
Just then, he stumbled for the third time. He grabbed for a branch with both hands and the child fell. His wife was walking right behind him, and even though she had just told herself that it would be best to lose the changeling, she stuck out her hand, caught a patch of the troll child's clothes, and pulled him back onto the path.
Her husband turned to her then. His face was hideous now, completely changed. "You weren't so agile when you let our own child drop in the forest", he said angrily.
She could not speak. She was so crushed by the discovery that his kindliness had all been assumed that she started to cry. "Why are you snivelling?" he asked. "It wouldn't have been a catastrophe if I had let the changeling fall. Come on. We'll be late otherwise."
"I don't want to go to the market any more."
"No. Me neither", said the man, and they turned back, in silent agreement.
Walking home, he asked himself how much longer he could stand his wife. If he were now to use his greater strength and rip the child away from her, everything might start to get better, he thought. He was just ready to take the stride that would bring him close enough when he saw how she was looking at him, troubled and fearful. He mastered himself once more, for her sake, and the moment passed.
Two more years passed: then, on a summer's night the farmstead burst into flames. The main room and the sleeping quarters were full of smoke, and the attic was a sea of flame before everyone was fully awake. There was no time to think of fighting the fire; no time to rescue anything. There was only a moment to rush outside before being burned to death.
One of the first out was the farmer, who stood in the yard, watching his house burn. "There's just one thing I'd like to know", he said: "I'd love to know who has brought this disaster on my head"."If only he's burned alive inside there," said the farmer, "It would be worth it to see my farm go up in flames." Just as he said this, his wife ran from the flames, dragging the child behind her. At this, he ran up to them, snatched the changeling away, held him high up for a moment, and then pitched him back into the burning building.
"Who else but the changeling?" asked a farmhand. "He's been playing with sticks and straw and lighting little fires, inside and outside now, for months."
"Yesterday he built a pyre of dry twigs in the attic" said a maid, "and he was just about to set light to them when I caught him at it."
"He'll have lit it this evening instead" said the farmhand. "you can be sure that he is the man to thank for all this."
At that moment the fire burst through the windows and the roof. The heat was terrible. For a moment the wife was pale as a corpse with horror, staring at her husband; then she turned and ran into the flames after the child.
"Burn up yourself! Why don't you?" Her husband shouted after her. But she returned, and she had the changeling with her. Her hands were dreadfully burnt and her hair had almost all been singed away. No one said anything to her at all. She walked away to the well, quenched a couple of embers that were glowing on her skirt, and sat with her back to the dry stone rim of the well. The troll child lay in her lap and soon fell asleep, but she stayed sitting, upright, awake, looking sorrowfully ahead. All sorts of people hurried past her, towards the burning house or away from it. None spoke with her. All seemed to find her so terrible and frightening that they could not bear to be close to her.
When dawn at last came, the farmhouse had burned to the ground; her husband came up to her. "I can't stand any more." he said. "You know that I don't want to leave you, but I can't bear living with a troll a moment longer. I'm going now. I'm never coming back."When she heard these words and saw him turn away from her and start walking heavily, she felt something tug and then tear inside her. She wanted to run after him, but the troll child lay heavy on her lap. She hadn't the strength to shake it off. She sat still as she was.
The farmer set off straight up the hillside into the forest, thinking as he did so that this was the last time he would walk that path. But he had not gone very far when a young lad came running towards him. He was fine and graceful as a sapling. His hair was soft as silk and his eyes were bright as steel. "Oh, that's how my son would have looked, if only I had been allowed to keep him", said the farmer. "That's what my heir should have been: not that black monster which my wife brought back to the farm."
"Well met in the forest!" he greeted him. "Where are you going?"The farmer felt his eyes grow heavy with tears of delight. "Yes, stay, " he cried. "Stay with me" ? and he picked up his son and lifted him high i the air. He was so frightened of losing him once more that he would not put him down again, but walked on, holding him close to his chest.
"Well met indeed" said the child. "If you can guess who I am, you will learn where I'm going."
But when the farmer heard the voice, it was his turn to grow pale. "You speak as the men of my clan do", he said, "And if my son were not away with the trolls, I would say that you were --"
"Yes, yes. You've guessed right!" said the boy, and laughed out loud. "And since you've guessed right who I am, I will tell you where I'm going. I'm going to my mother."
"Oh, don't go to your mother!" said the farmer: "She doesn't care for you or me. She has no heart for anyone but the great black troll child."
"Do you really mean that, father?" asked the boy. He looked his father deep in the eye. "Then perhaps I should stay with you now."
After a few steps, the boy started to talk to him. "It's a good thing you don't carry me as badly as you carried the changeling" he said. "What do you mean?"
"Well, the troll woman was walking on the other side of the ravine with me in her arms; every time you stumbled and almost dropped the changeling, she stumbled and she almost fell with me."
"What are you saying?" Were you walking on the other side of the ravine?" asked the farmer, and grew thoughtful.
"I've never been so frightened in my life" said the boy. "When you threw the changeling into the ravine, the troll woman wanted to throw me after. If mother hadn't ..."
The farmer began to walk more slowly, while he questioned the boy. "Tell me how you were treated with the trolls."
"Sometimes it was hard." said the little boy. "But so long as mother was kind to the troll child, the troll woman was gentle with me."
"Did she beat you?" asked the farmer.
"She never beat me more than you beat her child."
"What were you given to eat?"
"Each time that mother gave the troll child frogs and mice, I was fed with butter and bread. But every time you offered the troll child bread and meat, the troll woman offered me snakes and thistles. The first week, I almost starved to death. If mother hadn't — "
When the child said this, the farmer turned on his heel and started to walk briskly back to the valley. "I don't know how it's happened, but you smell of smoke and fire."The farmer now was almost running back down the hill, but a thought pulled him up short. "Now you must tell me why the trolls have freed you", he said.
"Well, that's not surprising", said the child. "I was thrown into the fire last night, as you threw the troll child into the burning farmhouse. If mother hadn't — "
"At the moment when mother offered something worth more than her own life, they lost their power over me, and must release me" said the boy.
"What did she sacrifice, that she loved more than life itself?" asked the farmer. "She did that when she let you go, so that she could save the troll child." answered the boy.
The farmer's wife still sat in her place by the well. She had not slept; she felt she had been turned to stone. She could not move, and she took as little notice of all that happened round her as if she really had been dead. Then she heard her husband's voice calling her name from very far away. Her heart began to move once more. Life returned. She opened her eyes, and looked around her, as if she were drunk with sleep. It was full day. The sun shone; the lark sang: it seemed impossible that even this wonderful day must drag along its burden of unhappiness. But all around her lay the charred timbers of her home, and a crowd of people with blackened hands and sweaty faces. Then she knew that she had woken to a life even worse than the old one had been; yet somehow she felt that all her suffering had ended. She looked around for the changeling. He wasn't on her lap, nor was he anywhere close by. In the old days, she would have rushed to her feet and looked for him but now she felt, somehow, this didn't matter.
Again, she heard her husband calling her from the direction of the woods. He came down the narrow path to the farm and all the neighbours who had come to help fight the fire ran towards him and surrounded him, so she couldn't see him at all. She could only hear him calling her name, over and over again, as if he wanted her to rush to meet him with the others.
The voice that called her was filled with a huge joy, but she stayed sitting, quite still. She did not dare to move. Finally the crowd was all around her, and her husband appeared from among them. He walked forward and laid a fine child in her arms."Here is our son, who has returned to us," he said, "and it is you, and you alone, who rescued him."