Swiss Fairy Tales




Once upon a time in Switzerland, there was a Golden Age for cows and people. This was before the country had become the playground of Europe and the Land of a Thousand Hotels. It was before men climbed mountains for pleasure; or, imitating the New Hampshire Yankees on Mount Washington, had built railways to their summits, and filled the land with wires and rails. Not then, could the Edelweiss be bought in a drygoods store, or in the markets. Not then did lazy and soft-muscled tourists pay money to have burnt upon alpenstocks the names of a hundred mountains, which they never even saw, except from a hotel porch, or distant window, or from the train.

Then, as the old ladies tell us, summer lasted during ten months of the year and the very mild winter only eight weeks. Flowers were everywhere and the bees were so busy that immense caverns were stored with the honey combs, which hives could not hold. Colossal stalactites, and mosses, big as cabbages, were common. Then the land was so rich in clover and grass, that grew up to the very tops of the highest mountains, that the cows had to be milked three times a day. They were so large and fat, that the milk was poured by the bucket full into tanks, so big that the milk men went round in boats to skim off the cream for the making of cheese. These balls and disks were so thick and so big around, that the dairy men had to be very careful in piling them up in the store houses.

For, if, when rolling one inside the door, it broke loose and went trundling down the valley, it might destroy a village and people might think it an avalanche.

In those days, there were no mists, or storms, or barren rocks, or danger of landslides. On the day for churning out the butter from the cream, they used to employ the giants and give them big dinners for their wages, for the churns were like towers, for height.

This was the story of the Golden Age, as told by the old folks, who sat on their stone seats in front of the quaint wooden houses. As told, year after year, everything grew in size, just as an avalanche starts as a snowball and is finally able to wipe out a whole village, including modern hotels, as is done occasionally in our day.

But what happens always, when people get too rich or prosperous, followed in this case also. It went to their heads. Then they become proud, lazy and often cruel. Gold got to be as common, as iron or lead had been, yet many old frumps and codgers wanted more. Then misers became numerous. Such fruit grew out of the root of all evil. It seemed as if there was nothing more deceitful, than those very riches which their ancestors knew nothing about. In such prosperity, the farmers and shepherds had foolishly thought, lay the secret of all joy. They had imagined that, if they could only get and increase what they could sell for money, it would make them, as they used to say, “perfectly happy.”

The climate changed and gradually the whole land grew colder. Snow covered the mountain tops. Rocks, storms, fog, mist, and clouds lay long over the land. Land slides occurred often, and avalanches ruined the meadows and villages. Huge rivers of ice, called glaciers, leagues long, and hundreds of yards deep, were formed. These covered up the flowers. Summers grew shorter and winters grew longer. Grapes and fruit shriveled up to their present size and cows and goats were no longer such givers of food as of old. Milkmaids, who had to work with a cow thrice a day to get two small pails of milk between daybreak and dark, wondered at the story of the Golden Age, which the old folks constantly told. They wished they had lived then, when a boat, instead of a bucket, was the sign of a dairy man’s shop.

Many looked wistfully up at the ruins of an old tower, now ivy grown, where the owls hooted at night. They wondered, when told that, in the Golden Age, this was the Giant’s Churn, in which boat loads of cream were turned into butter by the good natured monster, who ladled out the yellow delicacy, with a shovel, as big as a pine tree.

In the Golden Age, the fairies were very numerous, of many kinds and always busy.

Some were rough, and loved to play tricks on stingy farmers, bad tempered milk maids, rude boys and naughty girls; but most of them were always glad to do something nice and pleasant, and, especially, to help kind people in their work.

But when the age of steam and smoke and puffing locomotives, and boats, with iron chimneys, that breathed out choking gas from their furnaces, and left clouds of blackness on the beautiful blue lakes and landscape, had come, the happy days changed to gloom. Men made railroads up to the very tops of the mountains and stuck their big hotels in the prettiest places, even on the high Alps. They spoiled the village dances, drove away the poor people from their old amusements in summer, and even turned thousands of the once honest Swiss folks into money-grubbers. Then the fairies lost all patience, and determined to call an out door congress, such as the mortals do at the Landsgemeinde, or town meetings, when they talked politics and voted by thousands, raising their hands, to mean “yes” or “no.”

One fairy, that was the lawyer and politician of the Swiss fairy world, was especially angry, when it was learned that even the children were taught by their parents to tell lies about their mother being dead—when she was waiting in the chalet, for the money the little girls got by telling doleful tales and thus moving the pity of travelers.

One day, after hearing some of these dreadful stories, the fairy took the form of a Yankee pedestrian tourist, and walked along a well beaten path in the mountains. Coming to a closed gate, which shut off the passage, it was opened for him by a little girl, not ten years old, who said plaintively with tears in her voice:

“Meine Mutter ist gestorben,” (My mother is dead).

At this, the kind hearted fairy, in Yankee clothes, nearly dropped his Alpenstock, out of sheer sympathy. Taking out his purse, he was about to hand the child a silver coin; when, looking up at the doorway of the chalet near by, he saw a woman standing and peering out with keen interest. He hesitated a moment, and then inquired, of the little gate-opener, whether that were her mother. She, having learned to speak her piece, but not prompted as to any further question, replied at once “Yes.”

At this the fairy in disguise lost his temper and said to her “you little cheat!” Then he shut up his purse, and passed on.

Quickly changing into his former fairy form, messengers by the score were sent out by him over the mountain tops, down in the mines, under the lakes, over the pastures, and wherever fairies of any kind or sort lived. These were all summoned to the meeting.

The hour and place of gathering was named, and it was promised that all, whether pretty or ugly, slow or rapid of speech, and whether of land, water, air, or snow, should have a chance to talk, all being limited to a quarter of an hour each.

What was of the most importance, was the guarantee given, that all delegates should be excused, and the whole meeting break up before sunrise, so that no fairies would be turned into stone, when the sunbeams should strike them.

No ogres or man-eating giants, of either sex, were invited to this meeting, for the Swiss fairies are a very respectable lot of folks. In some countries, they do not have anything to do with “gods,” or “devils.” They are very particular as to who or how or what they regard as fit for society, or look upon as equals. Such beings of uncertain reputation as “the gods,” or “the fates,” or “the devils” or any of their tribe, were not known in their fairy society. It is said that such beings used to live in the mountains, when the Romans were in the land.

Many people said that some of these used to live still further back and long ago, in certain mountains and caves which could be pointed out, but they went away forever, after the good saint Fridolin, and others came to St. Gall and Appenzell, from Ireland, a thousand years ago. When the idolators, in China or Japan, would build a temple for their idols, they inscribed it on their bells that “gods, as well as devils,” have paid or subscribed money to help rear the structure.

But Swiss fairies are better educated, and they have nothing to do with either “gods” or “devils.” These creatures have no reputation in Switzerland, and are not received into fairy society; for the Swiss fairies approve of churches and never hurt them, or the good people who go to them.

In fact, what all the fairies resented most, and about which they were as mad as fire with mortals, was that they had brought in such creatures of their fancy into the country. Men described the worst one of the lot as having hoofs, horns, a sooty skin, hooked nose, forked tail and sulphurous breath.

In other words, this fellow was something altogether different from any sort of fairy in earth, air, sky, water, cave, or mine. Besides, though the demons had the reputation of being always very busy and very smart, they never did anything good, nor helped honest mortals, as the fairies often did.

In truth, the fairies of every sort held their noses, and otherwise showed their dislike, or contempt, whenever any one made mention of the name or the deeds of demons, or devils.

What made the lovely fairies and the frost giants awfully mad, was, that human beings should name the pretty scenery, the wild crags, and the rocky valleys and mountains after one, they called His Infernal Majesty. A certain fairy told the story of a funny mortal, who had got mixed in his ideas. She had overheard one bumpkin find fault with the president of a college for inviting a popular preacher to address the students. “He’s an atheist,” said the fellow, “for he does not believe in a personal devil;” at which, both fairies laughed heartily.

It was the general opinion, however, that mortal men could do wonderful things. They might build railroads up to the mountain tops, harness every waterfall, fill the valleys with electric machinery, and erect observatories to study the weather and the stars. For all this, the fairies paid them due honor.

It was acknowledged that, in one thing, some of the native mortals could beat the world, that is, in holding out their hands for a gift. Fairies thought this was because they had a disease, called itch of the palm; but they noticed that a coin always healed the trouble and caused the fingers to shut up finely on the silver.

But when human beings gave credit, for the smart things which the fairies used to do, to the monster they called the Devil, they were vexed indeed. Both the frost giants and the flower fairies declared that they would go on with their work, for who or what could stop either of them? Besides, no human beings could produce anything so pretty as a flower, or a snow crystal. At the idea of their making Edelweiss out of canton flannel, and selling these bogus things in the shops, they laughed again and again.

In spite of railways built up the mountains, or tunnels dug into them, the gnomes and the kobolds declared, fiercely, that they should have their own way down below the ground, so long as there was any fire left in the earth.

The Undines and the Herwischers made their boast that, while glaciers melted and became rivers, and lakes were lakes, and marshes grew reeds, they, and all the water sprites, were determined to have a good time in their own way. They would enjoy their tricks and play their pranks on stupid mortals, as long as they pleased. There was too much fun in it for them to give up their old customs.

“Besides these foolish fashions, that will pass away,” said the president, “there was one place where machinery, or the jim-cracks of inventors, and all this chatter about science, or any thing else, can never destroy. None of these things can reach the hearts of the children.” Then he went on to say: “There will always be a new generation who love us. Even after all the learned men and scholars and prudes and fault-finders shall have had their way, and tried to drive out of the libraries such splendid fellows as Santa Claus or William Tell or Humpty Dumpty, they would climb through the window, go down the lightning rods, and from the chimneys into the nursery.

“Even if the prudes tried to abolish the fairies by law, and shut out all the fireplaces, and did away with sleighs, for automobiles, and had aeroplanes, in place of wagons, even then a new lot of fairies and heroes would come in and take the place of the banished old friends of the children. They would sit in the chairs, peep in at the windows, live in the nursery, and refuse to be driven out. In Switzerland, they would hide in the milk churns, or behind rocks, or in the ice caverns. In a word, never having been born they could not die.”

A wise old gnome spoke for his companions, as follows:

“It is only those creatures that have bodies and have to be born and must eat and drink food every day, that get old, and have to be buried. Besides, every fairy knows that, while thousands of tourists come, year after year, in their bodies, as in sleeping cars and day coaches, very few ever really get into that Switzerland, which, after two thousand years, has grown up in the Swiss heart. These foreigners come and go, and eat and sleep, and drink, but what did they know of the Swiss soul?”

One ancient fairy that looked as if he might be several millions of years old, who had a name too long to be pronounced, but which means, when translated, “I told you so,” summed up in his speech what he had seen come to pass, since mortals arrived on the earth. He had looked upon the lake dwellers, the Romans, the barbarians, the visitors of all sorts and times, and finally the hotels and tourists.

“There have been many changes of fashions since I paid any attention to mortals,” said he. Then he made them all laugh, by continuing: “Once, nobody cared for the mountains. Now, all human folks are writing poetry about them, or climbing them, or punching their faces with alpenstocks. Once no one loved the flowers of the Alps. Now, foolish mortals, in both trousers and petticoats, come with their long purses, but they are too lazy to climb up to the real ‘Alps,’ and pick the blossoms where they grow. So they buy them, already and artificially made, in the market. They go shopping for canton flannel Edelweiss, as they would for soap, or tooth brushes. They stick these woolen things in their hatbands, and they have their alpenstocks branded with the names of places, whether they have been there or not. Or, they make belt bouquets of the Alpine roses, or glacier violets, and then strut about as if they were explorers. What fools these mortals be.”

At this, all the fairies of every sort and kind, laughed and guffawed so uproariously, that the meeting adjourned in disorder.

Yet they all went away happy, for they felt sure that whatever foolish mortals should do, Switzerland would still be the fairies’ playground.