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Wednesday, February 1, 2017

The Wife Against the Stream

Kjerringa mot strømmen (Eng. "the wife against the stream") is a Norwegian folktale, published by Asbjørnsen and Moe in the 1871 edition of Norwegian folktales. Isolated, especially for a modern audience, the storyline unfolds in a rather morbid and bizarre manner; a man has a wife who is so cross and opinionated that no matter what he says, she always contradicts. In the story, they are arguing whether to reap or clip the field. The woman insists that the field should be clipped, although the man is threatening her with both word and deed. He ends up drowning her in the river. When he decides to look for her, to bury her in "hallowed ground", he finds that she has drifted, not downstream, but countercurrent, pass the waterfalls. Thus, the stubborn old woman for all posterity has been called "the wife against the stream."

This phrase has become a concept in Norwegian language. Although she immediately emerges as a quite a hag in the tale, she has in recent times been interpreted as a woman who spoke against her domineering husband. In this perspective, she suddenly appears as highly unorthodox, a nonconformist, a feminist, and is for that reason, for many people, considered a heroine in Norwegian culture. The term kjerringa mot strømmen is therefore frequently used in a positive sense as a description of someone who steadfast and often against the odds, manages to achieve their goals. Norwegian author André Bjerke was so fascinated by this woman, that he wrote a special poem about her. In the poem's last verse he emphasizes her stubbornness and temper as positive values:

"She is someone I would like to know. The best of us are related to her. "

Once upon a time there was a man who had a wife, and she was so headstrong and ill-tempered, that living with her took a great deal of restraint; whatever his wished for, she would contradict. Then one Sunday in late summer, the couple went out to check on the crops.

When they came to a field on the other side of the river, the man said:

“It’s well overdue, tomorrow we’ll reap it.”
“Yes, tomorrow we’ll clip it,” replied his wife.

“Say what? Clip? Are we not allowed to reap it no more or what?” said the man.

No, they were to clip it, proclaimed the wife.

"Nothing is worse than to know little," said the man; "but now you must surely have lost what little wits you had. Have you seen someone clipping a field?" he said.

“Little do I know, and little I want to know, "said the woman," but I know a field is to be clipped, and not reaped.” And that was the end of it.

Then they went on, scolding and quarreling until they arrived at the bridge which crossed the river.

"There’s an old saying," the man said, "that good tools make good work; but I think shears will harvest some strange crops, " he said."I vote for a scythe.”
No, no, no! Clip, clip, clip!
Illustration by Erik Werenskiold, 1871 

"No, no, no – clip, clip, clip!" cried the woman, jumped up, her fingers snapping for her husband’s nose. In her anger however, she forgot to mind where she put her feet, and so she tripped and fell in the river.

"Old habits are hard to break," thought the man, "but it would be odd if I wasn’t right sometime too.”

He waded into the river, and dragged her head to the surface by the hair. "Are we going to reap the field or not?”

”Clip, clip, clip!” cried the wife.

"I'll teach you how to clip," thought the man and ducked her head underwater. But it did no use, she stood her ground.

"The woman must be insane," the man thought to himself. "Many people are, and do not know it, many have wit, yet cannot wield it; but I will try again anyway," he said. But as soon as he had ducked her head underwater, she pulled up her hand and to clipped her fingers like scissors. Then the man got angry, and held her down. Not before long, she became so heavy that he had to let her go.
”Now you can stay down there, you troll,” he said. And so she did.
As soon as he had ducked her head underwater, she pulled up her hand and clipped her fingers like scissors.  
Illustration by Erik Werenskiold

Shortly thereafter however, he came to think that it would be a shame for her not to be buried in Christian soil, and went down to the river to look for her. But not matter how much he searched, she was nowhere to be found.

“This is no use,” the man said. “That woman was something else. While she was alive, opinionated and difficult, than why should she be any different even now? I’ll go look for her further up by the waterfalls, perhaps she has floated countercurrent.”
And sure enough, there she was. The wife against the stream.

  • Norsk Folkeminnesamling. AT1365AB - Kjerringa mot strømmen. Id: EIN488. År: 1847. Sted: Sogn, Sogn og Fjordane. Samler: P. Chr. Asbjørnsen

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