Helga – An Icelandic Fairy Tale

Updated: Apr 27

The following story is from the book, Icelandic Fairy Tales, Translated and Edited by Mrs. A. W. Hall, with original illustrations by E. A. Mason. Printed in London by Frederick Warne & Co. and New York 1897.

HELGA – An Icelandic Fairy Tale

An old man and his wife once lived in a cottage beside the sea, far away from any other habitations. They had three daughters; the eldest was called Fredegond, the second Olga, and the youngest Helga.

Now, although the parents were not rich, owning only a few acres of land, which they tilled themselves, Fredegond and Olga were treated as if they were princesses. They never did any work, but sat all day amusing themselves and decking themselves in any finery their father brought them home from the neighbouring town, whilst Helga, who was far more beautiful and clever than either of her sisters, was always kept in the background. She never shared in any pleasures that her elder sisters often enjoyed; no presents were ever brought home for her; but all day long, from early morning till late at night, poor Helga had to work and toil for the whole family, receiving nothing but sour looks, often accompanied by blows, from the elder sisters.

Now, it happened one day that the fire on their hearth had been allowed to go out. Helga was busy working in the fields, and as they had to send a long way to fetch fresh fire, the old man told Fredegond she must go for it.

At first Fredegond grumbled, for she was trying to dress her hair in a new way; but then she thought a walk through the woods might be pleasant, so she started.

After she had gone some little distance, she came to a hillock, and heard a deep voice saying, “Would you rather have me with you or against you?”

Fredegond, thinking it was some labourer or woodcutter, said she did not care in the least, and that it was very impertinent of him to address her, and went on to the cave whence they fetched their fire.

When she got there, to her great surprise she saw a big cauldron, filled with meat, boiling on the fire, and beside it stood a pan, filled with dough, waiting to be made into cakes, but not a creature in sight.

Fredegond, being very hungry after her long walk, stirred up the fire beneath the cauldron, to make the meat boil quickly, and then began baking some cakes. But although she made one specially nice for herself, she let all the others burn, so that they were quite uneatable. Then as soon as the meat was cooked she took a bowl from a shelf, filled it with all the best bits, and sat down and made a good meal, finishing up with the cake.

Just as she had finished, a big black dog ran up to her, and began wagging his tail and begging for some food. But Fredegond angrily gave him a slap, and chased him away. Then the dog grew angry, and, jumping upon her, bit one of her hands.

Screaming with fright and pain, Fredegond jumped up, and, in her hurry to get away, forgot all about the fire she was to bring, and ran home to tell her parents what had happened.

They were very sorry, both for her sore hand, which they bathed and bandaged, and the lack of the fire. It was really very unfortunate, for that cave was the nearest place where they could procure some fire, as it was generally used by charcoal-burners. So, though very unwilling to send Olga, who was their pet and favourite, she had to go, for they all feared that if Helga were sent, she might run away and never come back again. And then there would be no one on whom to vent their bad tempers, or to do the work of the whole household for did she not wait on father and mother and both her sisters? So it was decided that Olga should go.

But, alas! Olga fared even worse than her sister. She was so spoilt, that she thought she ought always to have the best of everything. So, when she reached the cave, she too helped herself to all the best bits of meat, and, making a nice cake for herself, threw the rest of the dough on the fire.

Then when the dog came up to her and wagged his tail and sat up and begged for some food, Olga took up some of the boiling broth and threw it on him. This made the dog so angry that he jumped up and bit off the point of her nose; and Olga ran home crying and screaming, with only half a nose and no fire.

This time the parents were quite beside themselves with anger, and decided that Helga must go and fetch the fire. If she succeeded, well and good; and if not, why, the dog might eat her, for all they cared. It would be a good riddance.

So, taking up the big fire-shovel, Helga went on her way to the cave. As she passed the hillock, she too heard a voice, saying, “Would you rather I was with you than against you?”

To this question she answered, “A well-known proverb says, ‘ There is nothing so bad that it is not better to have it on your side than against you;’ so, as I do not know who you are who ask me this question, I would rather that you were with me than against me.”

And hearing nothing further and seeing no one, Helga continued her way till she reached the cave. Here she found everything the same as her sisters had done. The cauldron was on the fire, and the dough was ready for baking, but, instead of thinking only of herself, Helga looked after the meat, and saw that it was nicely cooked; then, with great care, she made up the dough into cakes, and never thought of taking anything for herself, although she was very hungry, for she had had nothing for her breakfast but some hard, dry crusts, and a glass of cold water. Neither would she now help herself to any of the fire without asking leave from the owner of the cave.

Feeling very tired after her long walk, Helga sat down on a bench to rest. But she had hardly done so, when she heard a loud rumbling noise; the ground began to tremble; and Helga, fearful that the cave might fall in, rose hastily from her seat. But as she turned to run out, she saw a big, three-headed giant standing at the entrance of the cave, followed by a large black dog.

Helga was terribly frightened; but being fond of animals, she held out her hand and patted the dog, and she quite regained courage when the giant, in a kind voice, said, “You have done the work well, which y