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Wednesday, June 1, 2016

The Boy Who Was Never Afraid

One of my favorite things in the world is discovering new tales and artists, providing new perceptions of reality. Written in 1912 by Swedish writer Alfred Smedberg, the story about Nisse, the little boy who was never afraid, reminds us that although most creatures can be overcome with kindness, it doesn’t hurt to 
1) be realistic, and 2) ask for help along the way.

Originating from Västergötland in Sweden, Smedberg (1850-1925) was a well-known and renowned writer in his days. In the beginning of the 1890s, he published a number of legends and poems in annuals and books. Highly influenced by the love of his native Sweden, many of Smedbergs’ tales are inspired by the stories of elves, goblins, witches and forest nymphs, all of which he had grown up with. They are often characterized by warm sense of humor, as well as emphasizing temperance, justice and honesty.

The Boy Who Was Never Afraid, in the highest degree, depicts a world within these frames. First published in Bland tomtar och troll (Eng. ‘Among Gnomes and Trolls’), a popular Swedish folklore and fairy tales anthology issued since 1907, Smedbergs story was illustrated by the renowned Swedish artist John Bauer.

This fairytale bears many similarities to the ones about Butterball, and 'the Ashlad', who both – like Nisse – relate to the world with a sense of naivety and blind trust, always believing in the kindness of strangers. This congeniality however, ultimately proves to backfire, and new measures have to be put into action, in order to restore justice. And as is often proven, the really menacing forces of the world cannot be succumbed without a little help from dear friends.

There was once a poor tenant farmer, who had eight lively children but only one cow. One can understand that the children were not used to any abundance; that being said, it was a great blessing for the family that Lily was the best cow ever. She milked just as much as the richest manor house cows, which was certainly necessary for the sake of the many children she had to feed. Big and beautiful she was, and so wise, it seemed she understood everything the children chatted on with her about.
Just how well the children took care of their beloved cow, cannot be described in words. Lily thrived like a fly in a jam jar, despite that she belonged to a tenant family. In the summer, she was allowed to feed on the large mansion pasture, and never did it happen that she did not voluntarily return home when the sun went down, wise as she was.

One day however, the unthinkable came about; Lily did not come home that evening, as she always did. The father went half the night looking for her, but came back alone and exhausted. As soon the morning dawned the next day, the father and the mother went together with the oldest children, to search for Lily in the pasture, roaming through it from one end to the other, without finding their cow. Finally, in the innermost corner however, they suddenly got view of Lily’s tracks in the loose soil. But next to these were other tracks, obviously made by someone with big, clumsy feet.

The father was horrified, for he realized just who left these tracks; it was non other than the large troll in the Hulta forest, who lived in the caves in the mountains. The trolls were well aware that Lily was the best dairy cow in the area. Now it was not difficult to figure out where Lily had gone.

One can easily understand the grief and consternation that suddenly struck the crofters’ little cottage. The children cried, and the father and mother could not say a word, anxious of what would become of them. It was unimaginable to try to get the cow back, for never before had anyone ventured into the terrible mountain caverns where the trolls lived, and lived to tell the tale.

For it was not only the trolls they had to fear in the deep and desolate forest. There were also three other creatures, which were almost as dangerous. One was a wood nymph, or the green-haired witch as people called her. The other was bälghunden, the mad watch dog of Hulta, and the third, Nalle bear, the shaggy King of the forest.

Among the children however, there happened to be a small, rosy-cheeked boy named Nisse. And Nisse was not just any other boy; for he could never feel afraid of anything in the world, no matter how dangerous it was. This was because he was so good-hearted and kind to all living creatures, that not even the most dangerous animals were able to do him any harm. Therefore he harbored not the slightest fear of neither wolves, bears, witches or goblins in the dangerous Hulta forest.

When Nisse heard that Lily the cow had gone missing, kidnapped by the trolls, he made his mind up right away to go the troll dens and bring her back. His father and mother let him do as he pleased, for they knew that Nisse had nothing to fear, because he was kind to everyone.

And with a walking stick in one hand, and a couple of sandwiches in his pocket, the boy was on his way.

Very soon, he entered the forest. It was not easy to work his way over gorges and boulders, fallen trees, streams and swamps, but Nisse was small and slender and agile, and slithered his way through like a fish.

After a while he saw a witch, who sat on a rock combing her green hair. It was a wood nymph of the Hulta forest, and her hair was so long that it reached all the way down to her hips.
“What are you doing here in my forest?” she cried out when Nisse came along. 
"What are you doing here in my forest?" Illustration by John Bauer

“Please, ma'am, I'm looking for our cow, for the trolls have abducted her,” said Nisse and went on his way.

“No, wait a minute, you!” screamed the witch, and jumped down from the cliff to catch him. But in that very moment, her long hair got stuck in the branches of a bushy spruce that grew beside. Soon, the forest nymph found herself hanging in the tree, so that her toes barely touched the ground; she could not budge no matter how hard she tried. The witch started squirming and yelling at the top of her lungs. Anyone else would have laughed and thought: “serves her right!” Nisse of course, did not.

“Do not despair, little mother,” 'he said kindly. “I'll try to help you.” And he climbed up into the tree, and released the nymph from her captor.

“You are indeed a strange one, helping out an enemy,” said nymph astonished. “I was going to eat you up, but now I wish to help you instead.”

“That’s very nice of you, little mother!” said Nisse.

“You can never get along with the dangerous animals of the forest, if you do not understand their language“, continued the nymph. “Here is a piece of magic herbs for you. Pop it in your ear, and you will be able to understand everything that the animals saying, as long as you are in the woods.”
“Here is a piece of magic herbs for you." Illustration by John Bauer

And so the boy he did as forest nymph had said, thanked her and moved on.

When he had walked for a while, he met the great bälghund, who came hobbling on three legs and grinned terribly bad.

“Poor little doggy!” Nisse said confidingly. “You seem to be hurt. Can I help you in any way?”

The dog, which was just about to throw himself over the boy, was so astonished over Nisses’ kindness, he abruptly sat down on his hind legs, just like a real dog.

“You do not seem to be like other people”, he said.

“That may well be”, replied the boy. “May I see your feet, father dear!”

When the dog stretched out his front paw, Nisse noticed a big thorn which had penetrated deep into it. He pulled out the thorn, put a little wet moss on the wound, and wrapped around some long leaves of grass.

“Ah, that felt good!” the dog exclaimed, happy to be on all four again. “I was going to bite off your ears, but I do not want to now. Where do you intend to go?”

“I am going to the troll dungeons, to fetch our kidnapped cow,” said Nisse.

“Ouch!” the dog cried out with a pitiful grimace. “That sounds like a tricky task, for those trolls are not to be trifled with. But since you healed my foot so nicely, I'll come with you and show you the way. Maybe I can help you.”

And so it was. The bälghund went ahead, the boy ran after, far, far into the forest.

When they had travelled for a couple of hours, they saw Nalle bear, who went snooping for cranberries.

“That one you need to avoid,” said the dog, “for he spares neither people nor animals!”

“Oh, I think he looks pretty nice, though he is big and shaggy,” the boy said, and went on his way.

Immediately, the bear caught sight of them, got up on his hind legs, and made a terrible roar.

“That’s a very rough voice you have there,” the boy said, and stretched out his little hand to greet the bear. “You should become the lead singer of a choral society.”

“Uff!” said the bear and stepped closer.

“Yes, a great voice you have,” continued the boy. “And how awfully kind of you to come and greet me with both paws!”

The bear was just about to gobble up the boy, when the green-haired forest nymph suddenly came running out of the woods. She had followed Nisse at a distance, to see how he would manage in the trolls’ dungeon.

“That boy you do not touch,” she screamed, “for he is not like other people!”

“This doesn’t concern you,” the bear roared and yelled even worse.

Then the witch grabbed a pine stump, and threw it straight into the bear's wide-open mouth, where it got stuck between his jaws. Suddenly, Nalle could neither scream nor bite.

“Shame on you!” the boy said. “That was a naughty thing to do the old bear, which came towards me so friendly, greeting me with both paws. But wait, let’s see if we can put him right again!”

He fetched a good sized pine stick, and started poking into the mouth of Nalle, who sat on his hind legs and groaned. By turning and poking and twisting the stick, he finally managed to loosen the piece of wood from the bears’ mouth.

“That was cleverly done,” said the bear with a satisfied grunt. “You got guts, I see. I had thought to eat you up a mouthful, but now you are free from Nalle bear as long as you live. What are you doing out here in the woods?”

“I'm looking for our cow, which the trolls have abducted,” said Nisse.

“Well, you’re courageous, who dare on such adventures,” mumbled bear. “If you can talk your way out of trouble with the trolls, then there is more spunk in you than most I’ve met. I’ll have to follow and make sure; perhaps I can be of any help.”

And so they all went on their way. First came the dog, then the boy, and last following was Nalle bear. But the green-haired witch of Hulta sneaked ahead, to see how the whole thing would eventually pan out.

It was starting to get dark when they finally reached the mountains where the trolls had their den. The entrance was closed off by large boulders, but there was a small opening, wide enough for a little boy to get through.

“That’s your way in,” said the bear to Nisse. “And remember; if to troll try to harm you in any way, just shout: ‘Nalle, come and help me!’ Then we’ll have a tussle with the trolls, I promise.”

“I do not think that will be necessary,” the boy said. “But thank you anyway.”

And so Nisse crawled in through the narrow opening, entering the den. And there, by the fireplace, sat the mountain troll, and nibbled on a bone. He was hideous to look at with his long nose, his hairy arms and greenish yellow cat eyes. And behold, in one corner stood Lily the cow, chewing sharp thistles that the trolls had fetched for her out in the woods.

“Well, what do we have here!” cried the troll. With one hand he seized Nisse round his waist, and lifted him up on the table. “Where are you from?”

“Please, good sir!” Nisse said politely. “I just wanted to fetch our cow, which has gone astray.”

“That’s what you think,” troll chuckled. “I think I’ll have to say no to that, little one! I need some milk, you see, and so does my old lady. But you'll make a fine steak for supper. As soon as my wife returns, she'll put you in the frying pan.”

“Oh, dear, I believe you are joking,” said Nisse. “You surely do not want to harm a little boy who has never done any mischief to anyone.”

“Are you kidding me?” roared the troll. “I assure you, you will fry. Are not you afraid?”

“No, I am not,” Nisse said jauntily. “For I know you are not as wicked as you pretend.”

“What on earth,” the troll growled astonished. “Wife, come over here and light up the fireplace!”

“What on earth,” the troll growled astonished.Illustration by John Bauer
The old troll wife immediately came rushing in, and began to make a fire with flint and steel.

“That’s very nice of you, making something hot to eat for you husband,” Nisse said cheerfully. “But now it is time for me to be on my way with our cow.”

Not before he had finished this sentence, the troll grabbed him with one hand, to throw him into the pot.

Now, it is quite true that most creatures can be overcome with kindness, compassion and generosity, but against the trolls, only brute force will have to do. At this moment in time, even Nisse came to understand that, and so he shouted: “Nalle, come in, Nalle, come in!”

One should have been around to witness this! The huge bear threw the boulders to the right and left, so that the sparks flew through the air. Then he rushed into the cave, followed by the witch and the dog. Nalle bear grabbed the troll by the neck, and threw him flat on the floor. The boy was freed, and skipped into a corner. The dog stabbed the troll hag so hard, so she tumbled down in the water tub by the fireplace. Oh, you should have heard how funny it sounded, when the water splashed up on the ceiling: smack! But the wood nymph ran forth, and freed Lily from the rope she was tied with.

Nisse did not hesitate to cling onto Lilys’ neck, grabbing her by her long horns.

“Thank you for your help!” he shouted. “Do be kind with the poor trolls!” Then he urged Lily: “Up and away, my little cow! Up and away!”

With the boy on her neck, and her tail in the air, Lily the cow was finally off, galloping through the woods. Needless to say, their family where overjoyed when the boy got back safe and sound with their cow.

But the trolls were so horrified by the fact that Nisse, thanks to the goodness of his heart, gained such good helpers out there in the woods, and they never dared to show their faces on the mansion pasture again.


  1. Thank you for sharing this wonderful tale. I wrote a version of a similar tale called "Fearnot" as a puppet performance with teen volunteers at a children's museum in Utah a few years ago.

  2. Thanks for sharing. And I must say i'd love to watch Randel''s version !

  3. Thanks for sharing. It is carting an interesting story. Would love to watch Randel's puppet version as well.

  4. Glad you liked it :) I immediately fell in love with this story, and hoped others would too. Agree that it would be lovely too see the puppet version! Fearnot is a fairytale quite new to me (at the time being that is). Is there a recording of the performance?