The Elves: A Brothers Grimm Tale
Die Wichtelmanner told by Dortchen Wild in 1812.
Translated by Jack Zipes.
There was once a shoemaker who, through no fault of his own, had become so poor that he had only enough leather left for a single pair of shoes. That evening he cut out the shoes, which he planned to work on the next morning, and since he had a clear conscience, he lay down quietly in his bed, commended himself to God, and fell asleep. In the morning, after he had said his prayers and was about to sit down to do his work, he saw the two shoes standing all finished on his workbench.
He was so astounded by this that he did not know what to say. He took the shoes in his hand to examine them more closely and saw that the shoes were perfect. Not a single bad stitch could be found, and it was as if the shoes were intended to be masterpieces.
Shortly after, a customer entered the shop, and he liked the shoes so much he paid more than the usual price for them. The money enabled the shoemaker to purchase leather for two pairs of shoes. In the evening he cut them out and planned to begin work on them with renewed vigor the next morning. However, it was not necessary, for the shoes were already finished by the time he awoke.
Once again he found customers for them, and they gave him enough money to purchase leather for four pairs of shoes. The following morning he found the four pairs of shoes already made, and so it went: whatever he cut out in the evening was finished by morning, and soon he had a decent income again and eventually became a well-to-do man.
Now one evening, not long before Christmas, it happened that the man had been cutting leather, and just before he went to bed, he said to his wife, "What would you think about staying up tonight? If we do that, we might be able to see who's been lending us such a helping hand."
His wife agreed and lit a candle. Then they hid themselves behind some clothes that were hanging in the corner of the room and watched closely. When it was midnight, two cute little naked elves scampered into the room, sat down at the shoemaker's workbench, took all the work that had been cut out, and began to stitch, sew, and hammer so skillfully that the amazed shoemaker could not take his eyes off them. Indeed, they did not stop until everything was done and the shoes were left standing on the workbench. Then they quickly ran away.
The next morning the wife said, "The little men have made us rich. We ought to show them that we're grateful for their help. Do you know what? Since they run around without any clothes on and must be freezing, I'm going to sew some shirts, coats, jackets, and trousers for them. I'll also knit a pair of stockings for each, and you can make them both a pair of shoes."
"That's fine with me," the husband said.
In the evening, after they had finished everything, they put the gifts on the workbench, instead of the cut-out leather, and hid themselves in order to see how the elves would react. At midnight the elves came scampering into the room and wanted to get right down to work, but they found the nice little clothes instead of the cut-out leather. At first they were puzzled, but then they were tremendously pleased. They put the clothes on quickly, smoothed them down, and said:
"Now we look so fine and dandy, no more need to work and be so handy!"
They they skipped, danced, and jumped over chairs and benches. Finally they danced right out the door and were never seen again. But the shoemaker continued to be prosperous until the end of his life and succeeded in all his endevours.
Fairies are well-known to live underground, most often under hills, in what are called "fairy raths." The ancient hilltop earthen-forts found all over the British Isles are commonly referred to as "fairy-forts", and most reports of entrances to Fairyland happen in such places. Less frequently, we hear of an entrance that was simply a hole in the earth.
Perhaps the most famous place that has been reported as a portal to Fairyland is Glastonbury Tor ("hill") in England, a place that has been considered holy since long before Christian times. St. Collen, a early Welsh saint who lived in a hermitage on the hill, reported entering it and confronting Gwynn ap Nudd himself, the king of the Welsh fairies. In more recent centuries, a church dedicated to St. Michael was built on the top of the hill, perhaps because it was feared that the fairies were really servants of the devil, and St. Michael was revered for his power to suppress the demonic flames.
Lucky observers in many different places have told of seeing a hill open up, with its top raised up on pillars and light streaming out, usually on a special night of the year such as All Hallows Eve (Hallowe'en) or May Eve. Others have told of coming to an ancient ruin when the fairies were at their revels within and seeing light stream out of it.
The question of light is important, because most visitors to the fairies' underground homes have mentioned how they were lit up within by neither sunlight nor torch nor lantern, yet there was light, sometimes a dull glow, sometimes light almost as brilliant as day. (Some sources relate that the fairies grow crops under the earth, particularly barley. But it is generally thought that they are able to provide little of their own food, and so are forced to "borrow" from mortals so very often. This is why those who would befriend the Good People often leave them gifts of food or milk. When they are not forced to steal, but can obtain a willing loan, they often show their gratitude with a magical gift in return.) The source of fairy light remains unknown.