Saturday, May 5

Grimmoire 39: The Elves

Three separate stories concerning the nature and goings-on among the elves of Grimmopolis.

The first tale is that old chestnut, the shoemaker and the elves. You know the drill: shoemaker so poor that he only has enough leather for one pair of shoes, overnight the elves come in and use that leather to make a pair of shoes so snazzy that a buy pays double for them, thus allowing the shoemaker to purchase more leather, and the elves to compound the shoemaker's wealth, and so on. Curious to know how exactly this miracle continues the shoemaker and his wife stay up late and witness the naked elves--

Wait. Naked? I don't remember anything about naked elves?

So the shoemaker and his wife spend the next day making the elves cute little doll clothes, shirts and jackets and little tiny shoesies. That night the naked little elves come out and, whoa! clothes? Excited that they can finally go out in public the elves put on the clothes and take off, never to be seen again. The shoemaker was by this time very wealthy, his work beyond criticism, and he lived the remainder of his life coasting on the reputation of the elves.

Second tale appears to be a Grimm version of Rip Van Winkle, only with a girl, and maybe a little more innocent. A poor servant girl gets an invitation from the elves to be a godmother at the christening of one of the elf children. Convinced by her employers that she should go (it might not be wise to piss off the elves) the girl is taken by the elves to a cave in the mountain. The christening party lasts three days and when she finally felt like it was time to leave the elves filled the girl's pockets with gold and lead her out of the mountain. Back at her employer's house she resumes her duties only to find that she had been gone for seven years, her employers long dead.

In the final tale we have a little elf mischief, which is easily undone if you know the secret to making a changeling laugh.

The elves swap out a newborn with a fat-headed changeling that does nothing but eat and drink. The mother goes to the neighbor who consulted the great book of changeling recipes and informed her that if you boil water in two eggshells it will make the creature laugh and he would lose his power. What that power is, we're never told or shown. So she boils water in the eggshells, the changeling laughs, and the elves return the correct child and go in search of another family to dump the fatheaded monster onto.

So let's recap some things we've learned about German elves:
  • They are industrious enough to make shoes for humans to sell but lack either the ability, materials or wherewithal to make themselves clothes
  • They think nothing of asking poor, illiterate humans to be their children's godparents and even less of the fact that in doing so they distort that human's entire sense of time and space.
  • They love a good prank, swapping out people's children's with underworld changelings that can only be decommissioned by making them laugh at the sight of water boiling in eggshells.
This is a marked different brand of creature than the proper British brand of elf we see in J.R.R. Tolkien and J.K. Rowling and all the other British authors whose writing includes elves and sign their names with initial J.

And that Jolly Old Elf who pops around late in December.


Monica Edinger said...

First of all, let me say I'm enjoying this series of posts tremendously. All those odd, rightly forgotten, tales! I love the way you are not only recapping, but commenting in such a fresh way as well.

But re those elves. I'm with tehe owner of the Sur La Lune website who notes in her annotations for the Grimms' Elves and the Shoemaker that the elves are probably brownies who are pretty prankish in British folklore. (

And while I agree that these elves/brownies are nothing like the regal ones of Tolkien, they do seem to be an awful lot like the house elves in JK Rowling.

david elzey said...

Indeed, in my cursory research on Elves I kept running into Brownies and Sprites as if they were interchangeable. It appears the British are responsible for the confusion -- turning Elves into wee folk -- and the noted exception of J.R.R. is appropriate because he was using the Great Northern Elves of Scandiavia as his guide.

How the Elves Were Shrunk and Began Behaving Badly in Baden-Baden might make a good jump-off for a short story. Or not.