Swiss Fairy Tales




In Appenzell, and some other cantons in the heroic Swiss republic, many old democratic customs still prevail. One of these is seen in the Landsgemeinde, or meeting of all the men not only in a village, but in the whole canton, or district.

This long word means a mass meeting of voters. The people gather together in a great crowd, when they wish to settle matters of public interest. They vote, not by casting bits of paper in a box, or with a voting machine, but by raising their hands.

When the president of the meeting puts the question, tens of thousands of fingers at once go up in the air. This is the ancient form of the town meeting, which is still kept up.

The Swiss fairies follow Swiss customs, and, not long ago, one moonlight night, they met together on a glacier in a deep valley.

They had much to talk about. It was not all gossip, but after much friendly chat, that they began. Not one said “How do you do?” For, none of them ever gets sick, or has influenza, or whooping cough, or the mumps, or the measles, or tooth ache. They never have doctors, or take doses of medicine, or wrap flannel round their necks, or swallow castor oil, or have the doctor visit them and feel their pulses or make them stick out their tongues.

Instead of all this, the fairies usually inquire, one of another, in this fashion, “How about those curious creatures called men?” Or, “How are mortals behaving?” Such questions, as “What are they up to now?” or “What are they doing to spoil our fun?” are very common also.

Some of them at this meeting wanted very much to tell about some of the tricks, which they had played on foolish men, or how they had done a good thing or two to people they liked. There was, however, no time for a long chat, for it was said that much business was on hand. Moreover, the meeting must break up before daybreak.

We shall not describe all that were present, for most of them looked like the fairies of other countries. Yet there were some entirely Swiss, and these are known, or heard of, only along the Rhine or the Rhone river, or on the mountains inside the country.

The water fairies, quite the most numerous, were present in full force. There were the sprites, or “necks,” that live in, and had come all the way from the river Neckar. They looked and behaved very much like the nixies of England.

Undine was the general name of one family of the female water fairies. All of these were in the form of pretty young women. They love to sit by the side of the brooks or water courses. Sometimes they lurk in the marshes among the reeds. They have very white hands and golden hair, which is full of waves or ripples, that can beat Marcel, or any other hair waver. On their heads they wear a fillet, or wreath, made of pond lilies, and often have on a long white veil-like mist. They are very sentimental and have tender emotions and whisper often and sigh a great deal. They delight in dancing along the shore, and go flitting from one water lily to another, opening the golden hearts and lovely white petals of these flowers that grow in the water.

These mist maidens were very attentive to all that was talked about, but they did not themselves say much. Like other pretty fairies, they were lovely to look at, but they had no soul, and if they had any brains, no one would ever know it. One would not expect to meet them at matinee parties, or at any daylight picnics, for they made it a rule never to be seen, except on moonlight nights. It was therefore useless to look for them at any other time.

Very much like Undine and her sisters were those in a delegation of fairies from the Grotto de Balme. This cave may be seen on the way to Chamounix, but high up above the level of the road, and has stalactites hanging from the ceiling. The story teller remembers it well, but when he was there, the fairies were all out, for it was broad daylight, when fairies do not allow themselves to become visible. How we two college boys wished we had spectacles, that could pierce the light and make the fairies to be seen.

These grotto folks, that were at this mass meeting of the fairies, looked much like human girls, with olive complexions; but if one looked carefully, he would see that they had no heels. Their hair was the most wonderful part of them, for they never wore any clothes. When any human person came near, they could cover themselves up entirely with their tresses, so that nothing but their roguish, laughing faces were visible.

They were great coquettes, and often appeared on mountain paths, to lure away young hunters; but old men only laughed at them, and hummed a tune and ditty about “The Spider and the Fly,” for they knew all the tricks of these grotto girls. Sometimes these pretty creatures carried lights at night and danced in circles, so it was very hard to tell one from another. Yet they looked very lovely, with their fresh faces, sparkling eyes and pretty manners. Besides these charms, they had, each one, a soft low voice. Of all these grotto girls, Funetta was the best known.

In fact, some of these fairies belonged to the same families as fairies in other lands, though they spelled their names differently and talked German, French or Italian, and, what sounded like the speech, which country people in Switzerland use.

For instance, there were several of the Herwisch folk, or first cousins to the Will-o’-the-wisp. Several dozen of little creatures of this family, not much bigger than dolls, were on hand. They live on marshy ground and delight in lighting their little lanterns at night. Then they entice bumpkins and other dull fellows, out of the regular path in the fields, into the mud and swamp. When the clumsy chaps are floundering deep in the water, and down among the frogs and tadpoles, the Herwisch put out their lights and leave the louts in the wet, all the while laughing at them. Stupid fellows from the grog and beer shops, with their brains befuddled, are the chief victims of these merry mischiefs. It is good to see how many a drunkard gets a ducking and cooling off from these tiny tots.

Some of the Herwisch folk have wings like bats, and to the bold girl or boy that is too smart, and makes fun of them, they come and flap their wings in his or her face and this frightens them. Men, especially, who have drunk too much wine, get easily scared. After it is dark, most people are careful not to anger, or irritate the Herwisches in any way.

Quite different in their bearing and looks, as well as in their ideas and manners, was another set of delegates to this fairy convention. These were the gnomes, the kobolds, and the elves. They were near relations, and looked very much alike, especially in stature, in the color of their skin, and in all having beards. Most of them live underground and in the mines. These very industrious and lively little fellows are always busy. Many among them look like old men. When they talk to each other, their long beards and chins wag up and down, so the boys and girls call them “chin choppers.” They wear funny, peaked caps, each with a tassel on the end of it. They have to do with gold mines, for they understand all about fires, forges, coal, crucibles, and what one sees in a foundry.

A long time ago, one of these gnomes amused himself and enriched the good people in a place called Plurs, by pouring liquid gold in a crevice of the rocks. But having thus gained plenty of the precious metal, the people got to be very proud, like most mortals who get rich suddenly. They lost their good manners, and got drunk and fell into very bad habits. When the gnomes saw that the heads of these mortals were turned, and that their hearts were like those of bad potatoes, they threw down tons of dirt upon the villages and destroyed them, just as men burn up caterpillars and potato bugs.

It is true that at this meeting, the elves, gnomes and kobolds were, some of them, so black and sooty, and smelled so strongly of smoke and fire, that the more dainty fairies in gauzy dresses did not like to sit near them. Besides this, some of the kobolds came with their leather aprons on, and altogether they were such real blacksmiths, that the doorkeeper did not want to admit them. At least, the water fairies thought, they might have taken off their aprons and washed up a little.

Biggest of all, at the assembly, were the frost giants, and one of these, who towered above all, was chosen, by a show of hands, to be president of the meeting. A half acre was allowed him to sit down upon. When ready to tap for order, he picked up a boulder, for a gavel, which weighed a ton or more. With this, he pounded on a flat rock. At the sound, all stopped talking, looked up and listened. One minute before, it was like the buzzing of bees. Now all was silence.

These frost giants, of whom a dozen or so were present, had ridden to the meeting each on his own avalanche, which he used for a bicycle. They all had long beards of icicles, that appeared like stalactites in a cave. Their big eyes looked, for all the world, like locomotive headlights, and some of the little fairies were afraid to look at them.

Their sabots, or wooden shoes, were hollowed out of whole trunks of fir trees, and when they walked they made an awful stamping noise. Their breath, like mist, rolled out in great clouds over the assembly, so that at times some of the fairies could not see the speaker and several felt very chilly. Their voices, in speaking, sounded like rolling thunder. When the president pounded with his gavel, some of the fairies, sitting at the edge of the crowd, thought an earthquake had taken place.

During the debate, when some of the frost giants lost their tempers, it seemed at times, as if they would hurl rocks at each other, or gobble up some of the smaller fairies, such as the elves, or Undines. In fact, the gentle flower fairies, that were very thinly clothed in gauzy dresses and loved warmth, shivered, when a frost giant came near them, and some almost cried, lest they should get frozen. In fact, one brave little fairy borrowed a white fur coat, made of edelweiss velvet, and boldly sat near the frost king—to the mingled fear, anxiety and admiration of her sisters. One of them even said she was “a pert hussy.”

On the other hand, one cunning summer fairy, with a fan of flowers in her hand, enticed a young frost giant to come and sit down beside her. Then she threw a spell over him, and he was so wrapped up in her charms, that she actually melted him with her beauty, so that when the meeting broke up, there was no frost giant there, but only a puddle of cold water; for that is what frost giants turn into, when the weather is too warm.

Each speaker mounted the platform, which was a big boulder, with a flat top. When any of the frost giants, who sat up in front, made a speech, it was noticed that, while there were gnomes and kobolds out on the edge of the audience, who shouted “Louder, Louder;” some of the gentler fairies, who were nearer, put up their hands to their ears, for fear of being deafened. It was hard to please all, and at one time, when there were too many on their feet and all wanted to talk at once, the president roared out that he would adjourn the meeting, if there was not better order.

As for the grotto girls, they were pointedly requested, several times, to stop whispering.

It was a pretty long session, for all were allowed to have their say, just as at a town meeting of mortals.

Yet when one of the big giants talked too long, or when a lovely and pretty fairy wandered in her thoughts, and prattled too much, without saying anything, the whole company coughed him, or her, down. After all, nothing much came of the meeting, for they could not agree.

Here the president of the meeting pounded hard, to call the long-winded fairy to order, lest he might keep on for a week. It would soon be sunrise, when they must all scamper.

So, at the first streak of light, in the east, down came the gavel of the president, with a force that split the rock, and, before half of those who wanted to speak, had opened their mouths, the congress was adjourned.