The Company of Elves

Image by Sergi A. on Unsplash

“She knew that wolves and bears reigned in the forest, and under every rock lived trolls, and goblins, and elves, and she was suddenly afraid…”
-Sigrid Undset, Kristin Lavransdatter, Part 1, Chapter 1

By Hannah Piecuch

When Kristin wanders from her companions during her first trip into the mountains above her home, she sees an Elf Maiden—a woman dressed in jewels, holding a crown, beckoning to her from the far side of a river—and she runs. 

This scene is the first in which Kristin is alone, choosing to leave the circle of sleepers, drawn to walk with the horses on the bright afternoon, and then down to a still pool, cold from snowmelt. When her father hears her cries and gathers her up, it becomes her first secret as well. He makes the sign of the cross over her, as if what she has seen holds a curse, and has everyone in their party swear that no word of this danger will reach her mother.

This scene represents a tension that seems to exist in the early sections of the book—those that I have read thus far—that solitary places are perilous to Kristin, but that they are places she finds irresistible.

This tension is familiar: the longing to wander alone and a sense of imminent danger. I keep going back to this scene because it resonates so closely with my early experiences in nature. They happened when I was seven, too. 

My family moved into a farmhouse that had a meadow behind it, and behind that acres of woods. No roads, just trees, swamps, streams. Before that we had lived in town; I was used to a yard with edges that met a neighbor’s yard, streetlamps, sidewalks, houses in all directions and otherwise clear farm fields. At the new house I would sometimes cross the meadow alone, and go into the forest. There was a marsh back there, green with skunk cabbage in early spring and thick with irises later. There was an overgrown horse paddock full of small white pines and lady slippers. There were acres of cinnamon ferns, taller than me, through which I made paths and from which I liked to gather tufts of orange wool. I would walk, talking aloud to myself, narrating my own stories. And then I would climb a tree and lay back to look at the blue dimension of the sky. 

In that forest of my childhood, I knew what Kristin knew. I could wander on a summer day, braiding a flower crown, and things could turn. A change in the wind, a cloud over the sun, the snap of a branch somewhere out of sight, and I would fly back to my own yard.

“In medieval Norway,” a footnote tells me, “people believed that the forests and mountains were populated by many types of supernatural beings, which were both unpredictable and menacing.” This world still existed, when I was a child, in all the books that I read. The woods were not wholly mine, not wholly safe. They belonged to other creatures and beings. The paths twisted, the rules were different than in my own backyard. The woods were a place I might not come back from.

I remember running from the woods, again and again. And then reaching the opening in the stone wall that circled my yard and slowing my steps, catching my breath, so no one would know I’d been so afraid. I think that it gave me a thrill to run back home like that. The urgent sense of danger and then relief at the safety of home. This may have been part of what drew me back. 

I don’t know if the Elf Maiden is meant to be a real creature who truly did want to capture Kristin and take her under the mountain. Certainly, it seems that the horse can see the maiden too. The adults on the journey believe Kristin and treat her as someone who has made a narrow escape. 

But something curious happens after that. When Kristin returns home from the journey, she is at first afraid to tell anyone what she has seen. Then she wishes she could talk about it. Then she is filled with longing to travel again.

Hannah Piecuch is a staff science writer at Oceanus magazine and a designer at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. She holds an MFA in fiction, but has not written a word of fiction since completing it. She enjoys winter ocean swimming, long woods walks with her dogs, and eating oysters in months that contain “r”. She lives on Cape Cod with her husband. 

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