This Icelandic Children’s Tale Melts the Heart and Speaks Truth to Our Times

Snow is late this year, but winter’s chill is in the air in my Colorado mountain valley. Time for a fire and a return to Narnia, Middle Earth, or maybe Sigrid Undset’s Norway.

Winter months are long here, but they are less so with the help of wintry tales. By the time the Fellowship of the Ring has left Rivendell, winter is upon them. When we first enter Narnia with Lucy Pevensie, we’re crunching snow in a land where the White Witch has made it “always winter but never Christmas.” Sigrid Undset’s historical fiction glitters with snow-studded scenery as a backdrop for the struggles of stout-hearted medieval Norwegians.

If you, too, feet tucked under a fleecy blanket or snuggling with child at your side, return to these tales as winter’s chill surrounds you, I have a spellbinding children’s book to tantalize your wintry soul.

Elfwyn’s Saga is an original tale, published in 1990 by David Wisniewski, whose enchanting cutpaper illustrations and ability to weave themes of justice and the supernatural into a spellbinder of a tale won him the 1997 Caldecott Medal for Golem. Set during the persecution of the Jews in 1850 Prague, it is a tale worthy of legend. Elfwyn’s Saga is powerful in a similar way.

“The saga of Elfwyn (a Celtic name meaning ‘beloved of elves’) is original,” Wisniewski writes in the book’s Author’s Note, “but it draws from Icelandic history and legend.”

Elfwyn’s Saga is at its core a story about virtue, about insisting on goodness and truth no matter what the consequences.

It is a life-affirming, contrary tale that speaks truth to our vanities and pathetic political power struggles.

Hidden Folk who “dwell unseen in the fire and frost of the North” play a central role in this story, supporting the kindly Analf Haraldsson and his weary clan against the warrior Gorm the Grim, directing them by guiding wind and waves until they reach the greenest valley in the country.

Furious, the evil Gorm curses Anlaf and his people. Thus Elfwyn, Analf’s “bright and beautiful daughter,” is born blind.

“‘This is an ill omen,’ muttered the midwives.” As in many ancient cultures, their advice is to leave Elfywn to die:

Such a one should not be permitted to live. Better to let the snow be its blanket.

We, too, live in a time when death approved as the way to deal with imperfect or unwanted children, not under snow but within the sterile walls of hospitals and clinics.

But there is another option. With the tenderness of a true father, Analf refuses, blessing his blind daughter with a sprinkling of water instead:

Elfwyn, you are now a member of this house. Sighted or not, be worthy of it.

Soon, the servants sense that Elfwyn is beloved of the Hidden Folk. The Folk look after Elfwyn’s safety as she grows in knowledge and the insight of the innocent.

“She is sighted in other ways,” her mother explains to critics who disapprove of the blind girl’s freedom to roam the countryside.

Elfwyn’s inner sight will soon save Analf and his line from grave harm.

Gorm attempts to destroy Analf’s clan by deceit. He presents Elfwyn’s father with a large, brilliant crystal at a gathering in the great hall.

Everyone is dazzled by the gift, awed by its shimmering grandeur.

But when Alalf’s “cursed” daughter encounters the crystal, examining it with innocent hands, she speaks from the truth deep within her:

It is cold, like the man who brought it.

Indeed, the crystal has power over everyone who looks into it, for they each see “a vision of a wish unearned or a dream unattainable.” They’re enchanted by the crystal, for in it they see themselves young and beautiful or rich and powerful.

But when the mesmerized men and women leave the crystal and return to their quarters, they become “tired and newly dissatisfied” with their all-too-ordinary lives.

Elfwyn, however, is “protected by her blindness.”

She weeps for the untended fields and her unhappy countrymen as they bicker and backbite in the unhappiness of unfulfilled dreams.

In his anger, Analf sends Elfwyn away.

But the Hidden Folk once again aid Elfwyn. The story’s climax, which I won’t spoil, is gripping and unpredictable until it ends, as all good legends do, with a restoration of order.

Elfwyn’s Saga is the tale of “how a household was saved by a girl who though once blind, had never lost her vision.”

It’s a story that lifts the scales from jaded eyes and helps us see our blindness.

It is also an artistic wonder. Wisniewski hand-cut each figure and paper embellishment that illustrates the tale. In his charming Author’s Note, he explains,

Attentiveness to duty is always advisable. At times, though, it can become a life and death matter. In tenth-century Iceland in the Viking age, distraction from duty could bring disastrous consequences.

“An X-Acto knife and over one thousand very sharp blades were used to produce the illustrations for this book,” he continues:

“And because I paid attention, I didn’t cut myself once.”

Protect life. Speak truth. Pay attention. Attend to duty.

Excellent advice for avoiding cuts of many kinds.

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You might also like Hans Brinker’s Humble Heroism and Counteracting the Big Me with Two Frogs and a Toad.

Looking for a Thanksgiving read for children? Two of my favorites are A Thanksgiving Wish and The Secret of Giving Thanks.

What are you reading for Advent? I need a recommendation this year!

Photo by Steinar Engeland on Unsplash.