The Hunchback And The Elves
A Folk Tale from Brittany
In the parish of Plaudren in Brittany there used to be a certain heath on which, amidst rows of towering stones, there was a village of elves. Here the mischievous imps danced every night and if you dared to venture on their domain they were sure to drag you into their carousal. They would make you whirl around and around in their fairy ring until the cock crew. That is why no one dared go near the heath after nightfall.
However, there was a man who braved the moorland. His name was Guilcher. One evening he was coming home with his wife from a field, weary after ploughing, when he decided to take a short-cut across the haunted heath. As it was early he hoped that the elves had not begun their dance. But when Guilcher and his wife were in the middle of that waste land he saw the elves scattered among the huge stones, like sparrows in a corn field. He was about to turn back when he heard the horns of the wood elves echoing behind him. Guilcher's legs began to shake.
"By Saint Anne, we are done for!" he groaned to his wife. "The singing elves and the underground elves have joined in with the dancing imps to keep the ball going all night long. They will make us dance till daybreak and I know my poor heart will burst."
And in truth troops of fairy creatures came bounding from all sides and surrounded Guilcher and his wife. But when the elves noticed the old wooden fork, for cleaning the plough, that Guilcher had in his hand they drew back.
Then they all began to sing together:
Then Guilcher understood that the forked piece of oak he had in his hand was a magic defense against the mischievous fairy folk. So with his wife he walked straight through their midst, and the elves lifted not a finger to molest him.
This was welcome news indeed for all folk of that countryside, and from that time forward all anyone had to do when he wanted to cross the heath in the evening unmolested was to carry a bit of forked oak wood.
But Guilcher was not satisfied to have done everyone a good turn, he was still curious about the elves. Now you must know that Guilcher was a merry, gay-tempered man, but the poor fellow was a hunchback. Yes, he had a hump just between his two shoulders that he would gladly have sold for ready money.
One evening his longing to see the elves got the better of him, so he took his oaken fork and set out for the heath. The elves saw him coming and ran to him shouting, "It is Guilcher! See, 'tis Guilcher!"
"Yes, little men, it is Guilcher," answered the cheery hunchback. "I have come to pay you a call."
"Welcome, welcome," cried the elves. "Won't you dance with us?"
"Please excuse me, kind friends," replied Guilcher, "but you are too long-winded for a poor human with a load between his shoulders."
"We will stop when you like," shouted all the elves.
"Will you promise to stop when I say the word?" asked Guilcher, who wanted to try the dance just out of curiosity, and most of all to be able to boast about it afterwards.
"We promise, we promise," they all cried in one voice.
So the hunchback took his place in the fairy ring and the elves began to whirl around and around, singing their usual song, which was nothing more than:
After a few moments Guilcher stopped to catch his breath and said to the dwarfs: "In spite of the respect that I have for you little gentlemen I must say that your song and your dance have precious little variety. You end too soon in the week. I shall add a bit to your lay."
"Do it, do it!" cried the elves.
So the hunchback took up the words and sang in a deep voice:
A shout went up from the dwarfs.
"Hurrah! hurrah!" they yelled, surrounding Guilcher. "You are a lusty singer and a fine dancer too. Sing it again, sing it again," they all cried.
The hunchback repeated his verse while the elves whirled round him, wild with joy. At last they ceased, and crowding once more around Guilcher all chimed out together:
"What would you like? Make a wish, and we will give you what your heart desires. Which will you have, wealth or beauty?"
"Well," replied the hunchback, "since you wish to make me a present, and since you let me choose it myself, I shall ask you for only one thing: take off what I have between my two shoulders and make me as straight as a staff on a steeple."
"That we will! that we will!" exclaimed the dwarfs. "Come hither, come hither," and catching hold of Guilcher, they tossed him from one to the other as though he had been a mere cork from a bottle until each imp had had his fling. Then they dropped Guilcher on the ground, giddy, breathless, and wonderful to see! without his hump. Guilcher now was tall and handsome, straight as the staff on a steeple, and unless you had been his own true mother you never would have known him.
You can imagine everyone's surprise when he appeared again at home. Not one of all his neighbors knew that he was Guilcher. Even his wife was not sure whether she ought to take him in. Guilcher was obliged to tell her exactly how many coifs she had in her linen press and the color of her four pairs of stockings before she was really sure that he was her husband.
Then everybody wanted to know how he had gotten rid of his hump. But Guilcher was afraid to tell. If, thought he, the neighbors knew he was friendly with the elves, each time an ox went astray or a goat was lost they would expect him to find it. So he held fast to his secret.
Now there lived in the parish a squinting tailor whom people called Perr the Stutterer, because he stammered. He was a gloomy miser and never laughed or sang. He ate rye bread so coarse that in it you could see the very husks and straw. What is more he was a usurer and lent money at so high a rate that he had brought about the ruin of many a poor man in that country.
Now Guilcher the hunchback owed Perr the Stutterer five crowns, and he could not manage to pay it back. One day the miser went to Guilcher and said he would grant him a week's delay on condition that Guilcher would tell how he had gotten rid of his hump. And so Guilcher was obliged to tell his secret. Perr then wished to hear again and yet again the words that Guilcher had added to the elves' refrain and then the tailor grumblingly remarked that he would give Guilcher, as he had promised, a week to pay back the five crowns.
But all Perr had just heard had aroused his miser's passion. The tale kept buzzing in his head and he made up his mind to go that very evening to the heath and dance with the elves and so, too, have the choice of wealth or beauty.
As soon as the moon arose squinting Perr set out for the heath with a bit of forked oak wood in his hand. No sooner had the elves espied him than running out to meet him, they invited him to join their reel. Perr consented on condition they would let him stop when he was tired just as they had granted Guilcher. So he began dancing in the fairy ring while the imps burst into their song.
"Wait a moment," shouted the tailor, suddenly inspired, "I want to add something to your song too."
"Yes, do!" cried all the elves, as they repeated their refrain:
Then they stopped and waited for Perr to add his word. Perr very much excited began to stutter:
"And Su . . . Su . . . Su . . . Sun . . . de . . . de . . . day . . . te . . . te . . . te . . . " stuttered the tailor, trying very hard to say it.
"But what comes after?" cried the elves.
"Su . . . Su . . . Su . . . Sun . . . de . . . de . . . day . . . te . . . te . . . Sunday too!" he stammered out at last.
The elves' ring broke up and they all ran about as if bereft of their wits.
Perr was frightened and stood with his mouth wide open. At last the sea of little black heads became calmer, they surrounded Perr and a thousand voices shouted at once:
"Make a wish! make a wish!"
Perr's courage came back with a bound.
"Gui . . . Gui . . . Guilcher could che . . . che . . . choose either wealth or be . . . be . . . beauty?" he managed to question.
"Yes, yes! Guilcher chose beauty and left wealth," the elves cried back.
"I am go . . . go . . . going to . . . to . . . choose what Gui . . . Gui . . . Guilcher left!" stuttered the miserly Perr.
"Very well, tailor," shouted the voices, "come along, come along."
Perr was delighted. The dwarfs caught him up and tossed him to and fro even as they had tossed Guilcher. They threw him bounding from hand to hand all around the ring. But, alas for Perr, when he fell on the ground, there, between his two shoulders was what Guilcher had left--a hump!
So Perr went home, his heart welling with black rage, swearing to avenge himself on Guilcher. And when the week was up and the time had come for Guilcher to pay the five crowns Perr with threats informed him that if he did not pay he would have to sell at once all of Guilcher's household goods. It was in vain the other pleaded. The, new hunchback turned a deaf ear to the poor man's supplications and told Guilcher that on the morrow he would put up his furniture, his pig, and tools at auction and that too, on his very doorstep.
Guilcher's wife began to cry that they were in disgrace and that there was nothing left for him to do but to beg from door to door, with his wallet on his back and his staff in hand. She wailed it was not worth while for Guilcher to have become so straight and handsome if he were to be a beggar.
Guilcher felt very sad. He was angry with himself now for not having preferred wealth when he was free to choose. He would gladly have taken back his hump if it could have been filled with golden crowns or even silver coins. So he made up his mind to return to the heath and try his luck once more with the elves.
Guilcher went that very evening. The elves welcomed him with joyous cries and made a place for him in the ring. They were singing the song to which Guilcher had added a line. But there were still no words to finish it. This seemed very dull to Guilcher. He brought up in the mad whirl and all but breathless panted out, "Your ditty seems somewhat like a butcher's dog, it limps."
"That is true, that is true, add to it," cried all the elves at once. And they continued in their shrill voices:
They paused waiting for Guilcher to finish. He quickly lifted up his voice and added:
A thousand cries rose from the heath, and in a moment the elves were everywhere. They came out of the tufts of grass, the flowering broom, the crevasses of the rocks. They leaped about among the heather singing:
"What does all this mean?" asked Guilcher astonished.
"It means," answered the king of the elves, "that we were under a spell to remain among men and dance every night on the heath until a Christian chanced to end our lay. You added a line and we hoped the tailor would finish the song but he stopped just before his line was finished and that is why we punished him. You at last have ended the verse and so the spell is broken. We are free to go back to our kingdom under the earth."
"If that be so, and I have done you a good turn," said Guilcher, "will you help me out of some sore trouble?
"What do you want?" they asked at once.
"Not very much, only five crowns to pay that miserly tailor," answered Guilcher.
"Take our bags! take our bags!" cried the elves.
And they threw down at Guilcher's feet the plump wallets of brownish linen that were strapped upon their backs. Guilcher picked up as many as he could carry and hurried home.
"Light the pine torch," he called to his wife as he came in the door, "and close the shutters so that our neighbors cannot see us. For I have money enough to buy up three of the richest parishes in all of Brittany!"
He threw the plump bags upon the table and began to open them. But alas, he had counted the price of butter before he had bought the cow. For the wallets had in them only sand, dead leaves, and a pair of scissors.
Guilcher uttered a heartbroken cry so that his wife, who was bolting the door, turned quickly around and asked him what was the matter.
Then Guilcher poured out to her his tale of where he had gotten the wallets and all about what had happened to him upon the heath.
"Heaven help us!" cried the good woman. "The elves have been making sport of you."
"Alas! So I see," answered Guilcher, shaking his head sadly.
"Unfortunate man, see what comes of touching bags that have belonged to those accursed beings!" cried his wife.
"Indeed I thought they would have something better in them than sand and dead leaves," sighed Guilcher.
"Nothing good can come out of what is good for nothing," retorted his wife. "What you have there will bring us evil fortune for sure and certain. Pray heaven I have a drop of holy water!"
She rushed to the bedside and took a little stoup which had holy water in it, and ran back to the table. Hardly had she sprinkled a drop upon the bags than the dead leaves were turned into golden coins, the sand into diamonds, and the scissors into the most magnificent of clothes.
Thus was the spell broken. The wealth that the magic of the elves had hidden from Christian folk assumed its true form again.
The very next morning Guilcher paid the five crowns to Perr the Stutterer. And the next day he gave to all the poor in his parish a bushel of corn and six ells of linen. Then he and his wife set out for Josselin where they bought a house well unto their liking. There they lived happily for many years and had a lot of children who are all fine gentlemen today.
Sources And Further Reading
Sacred Texts Folk Tales of Brittany by Elsie Masson