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Literature / The Elf Maiden

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Illustration by H. J. Ford

"The Elf Maiden" is a Lapp Fairy Tale collected by Andrew Lang in "The Brown Fairy Book".

Once upon a time, two fishermen fell in love with the same woman. They lived in a coastal town whose folks had the custom to move to a nearby island every spring, where they spent the warmer months, and sail back to the mainland at the beginning of autumn.

During a summer, one of the fishermen realized his love interest was beginning favoring his rival; so, the fisherman tricked him into staying behind the day when the villagers were returning to the mainland.

Realizing he had been marooned in the island, the man took up residence in an abandoned hut, armed himself with a hunting bow and managed to survive until midwinter. On Christmas Eve, the man witnessed a group of strange folks arriving at the island, so he hid behind a woodshed while the newcomers explored the place.

However, two maidens spotted the man hiding behind the wood stack, and one of them was curious and brave enough to give him a poke. She accidentally pricked her finger with a pin sticking out his jacket and screamed loudly. When the entire group went to see what was happening and saw the man, they fled, leaving the maiden behind in their hurry. Then the maiden said the man he had to marry her because he had drawn her blood. The man replied he was willing to take her as his wife, but he was worried about them surviving during winter season. However, the maiden reassured him that her family would take care of everything if he married her.

Thus, the man promised to make her his wife, and indeed they easily found plenty food throughout the cold season. When the spring returned, the maiden said she would like to move far away from the huts from the fishing-folk before the villagers returned. Her husband agreed, and they found a nice spot to settle on the opposite side of the island.

Since it was too late to start building their house, both spouses lay down on the ground to get some sleep. Before falling asleep, though, the maiden warned her husband to not get up or open his eyes, whatever he heard. The man did as he was told, and upon waking up he found their house had been built by night. Then his wife told him to find a spot for the cow-stalls, and after they were mysteriously built in one single night, measure out the ground for a storehouse.

When their new homestead was finished, both spouses decided to pay her parents a visit. Her parents welcomed them warmly, but when it came time to leave, the wife warned him to jump quickly over the threshold. The man did as he was told, dodging a hammer thrown at his legs by his father-in-law.

On the way back home, the wife warned her husband to not look back until he set foot in their home, whatever he might see or hear. The man did his best to ignore the growing noises of cattle following them. When he was already touching the doorknob, he thought it would be safe to turn around. The half of a huge herd of cattle -sent by his father-in-law in acknowledgement that his daughter had proved to be smarter than him- vanished, but enough cattle were left to make both spouses rich.

Husband and wife lived happily together since then, but every so often she vanished unwillingly and never told him where she had been. The husband kept quiet about it for one long time, until one day he openly complained about her unexplained absences. Then her wife told him he could stop it by driving a nail into the threshold. And so he did.

It can be read here, in the Project Gutenberg and here.


  • Blue-and-Orange Morality: The elf maiden considers herself bonded to the fisherman because he accidentally drew her blood when she pricked her finger with one pin sticking out of his jacket.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Inverted. When the elves rush out of the island, it is mentioned they left two things behind: a bundle of keys, and the maiden. The narration bringing attention to a bundle of keys very blatantly should hint they will become important later, but they are not mentioned again.
  • Deserted Island: The main character finds himself stranded in a lonely island. He quickly makes a bow, takes up residence in an abandoned hut and manages to survive for several months until a group of elves arrive at the island, and he meets the titular maiden.
  • Don't Look Back: The elf maiden tells her husband to not look back until he's safely in the house.
  • The Fair Folk: Elves have mysterious magical powers, weird customs and a strong dislike towards humans, whom they tend to avoid.
  • Graceful Loser: When the fisherman and the elf maiden visit her parents, her father attacks the fisherman by surprise, but he fails to break his son-in-law's legs because the maiden warned her husband beforehand. Realizing his daughter has proved to be smarter than him, the elder elf accepts their relationship and gives both spouses a huge herd of cattle as a gift.
  • Happily Ever After: It is told the man and his bride lived happily together after their homestead was finished.
  • Interspecies Romance: The human main character gets married to an elven woman.
  • Karma Houdini: The fisherman who tricked the main character into staying behind is never punished.
  • Nameless Narrative: All characters are nameless.
  • No Antagonist: Unless you count the fisherman's rival who left him behind in the island and was dropped from the tale afterwards, there is no a central villain.
  • Obnoxious In-Laws: The maiden's father does not like his daughter's husband, despite being her rightful spouse according to their people's customs, and he even tries to break his son-in-law's legs.
  • Our Elves Are Different: Elves are wise, uncanny-looking humanoid creatures who tend to avoid humans out of fear despite having strange magic powers.
  • Parental Marriage Veto: The maiden's father does not approve of her marriage to a human, and he tries to cripple the main character when both spouses visit his house.
  • Revenge: Subverted. After being marooned, the main character vows he will survive, even if it is only to take revenge; but by the time the villagers return to the island, he has already forgotten everything about it.
  • Robinsonade: After being abandoned in a deserted island, the main character takes up residence in an abandoned fisherman's hut, uses his only tool -a knife- to fabricate a bow and arrows, and lives off hunting birds and fishes during the cold season until a colony of elves arrive at the island.
  • Rule of Three: The elf woman asks her husband to look for a place to erect their house, warning him about keeping his eyes shut during the night, no matter what. In the morning, their house has been built, and the woman tells him to fix on a spot for their cow-stalls. The next day, their cowhouse has been built, and she tells him to measure out the ground for a storehouse, which is also built in one single night.
  • Snipe Hunt: When they are about to leave the island, the main character's rival asks him to go back to the hut and pick a knife which he dropped carelessly. When the main character gets to the hut, he looks back and sees his "friend's" boat has sailed.
  • Uptown Girl: After claiming the poor fisherman as her husband, the Elf maiden reveals her family is very rich.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: Neither the main character's original love interest, nor his romantic rival, are mentioned again after the hero gets marooned by said rival.
  • Women Are Wiser: The man never questions his wife's strange instructions, considering she clearly knows more than him. Later, her father concedes she has outwitted him.
  • Yandere: The fisherman gets his friend marooned on a desert island when he realizes his love interest is falling for said friend.