The Elves and their Antics, by William Elliot
The elves are the little white creatures that live between heaven and
earth. They are not in the clouds, nor down in the caves and mines, like
the kabouters. They are bright and fair, dwelling in the air, and in the
world of light. The direct heat of the sun is usually too much for them,
so they are not often seen during the day, except towards sunset. They
love the silvery moonlight. There used to be many folks, who thought
they had seen the beautiful creatures, full of fun and joy, dancing hand
in hand, in a circle.
In these old days, long since gone by, there were more people than there
are now, who were sure they had many times enjoyed the sight of the
elves. Some places in Holland show, by their names, where this kind of
fairies used to live. These little creatures, that looked as thin as
gauze, were very lively and mischievous, though they often helped honest
and hard working people in their tasks, as we shall see. But first and
most of all, they were fond of fun. They loved to vex cross people and
to please those who were bonnie and blithe. They hated misers, but they
loved the kind and generous. These little folks usually took their
pleasure in the grassy meadows, among the flowers and butterflies. On
bright nights they played among the moonbeams.
There were certain times when the elves were busy, in such a way as to
make men and girls think about them. Then their tricks were generally in
the stable, or in the field among the cows. Sometimes, in the kitchen or
dairy, among the dishes or milk-pans, they made an awful mess for the
maids to clean up. They tumbled over the churns, upset the milk jugs,
and played hoops with the round cheeses. In a bedroom they made things
look as if the pigs had run over them.
When a farmer found his horse's mane twisted into knots, or two cows
with their tails tied together, he said at once, "That's the work of
elves." If the mares did not feel well, or looked untidy, their owners
were sure the elves had taken the animals out and had been riding them
all night. If a cow was sick, or fell down on the grass, it was believed
that the elves had shot an arrow into its body. The inquest, held on
many a dead calf or its mother, was, that it died from an "elf-shot."
They were so sure of this, that even when a stone arrow headósuch as
our far-off ancestors used in hunting, when they were cave menówas
picked up off the ground, it was called an "elf bolt," or "elf-arrow."
Near a certain village named Elf-berg or Elf Hill, because there were so
many of the little people in that neighborhood, there was one very old
elf, named Styf, which means Stiff, because though so old he stood up
straight as a lance. Even more than the young elves, he was famous for
his pranks. Sometimes he was nicknamed Haan-e'-kam or Cock's Comb. He
got this name, because he loved to mock the roosters, when they crowed,
early in the morning. With his red cap on, he did look like a rooster.
Sometimes he fooled the hens, that heard him crowing. Old Styf loved
nothing better than to go to a house where was a party indoors. All the
wooden shoes of the twenty or thirty people within, men and women, girls
and boys, would be left outside the door. All good Dutch folks step out
of their heavy timber shoes, or klomps, before they enter a house. It is
always a curious sight, at a country church, or gathering of people at a
party, to see the klomps, big and little, belonging to baby boys and
girls, and to the big men, who wear a number thirteen shoe of wood. One
wonders how each one of the owners knows his own, but he does. Each pair
is put in its own place, but Old Styf would come and mix them all up
together, and then leave them in a pile. So when the people came out to
go home, they had a terrible time in finding and sorting out their
shoes. Often they scolded each other; or, some innocent boy was blamed
for the mischief. Some did not find out, till the next day, that they
had on one foot their own, and on another foot, their neighbor's shoe.
It usually took a week to get the klomps sorted out, exchanged, and the
proper feet into the right shoes. In this way, which was a special trick
with him, this naughty elf, Styf, spoiled the temper of many people.
Beside the meadow elves, there were other kinds in Elfin Land; some
living in the woods, some in the sand-dunes, but those called
Staalkaars, or elves of the stall, were Old Styf's particular friends.
These lived in stables and among the cows. The Moss Maidens, that could
do anything with leaves, even turning them into money, helped Styf, for
they too liked mischief. They teased men-folks, and enjoyed nothing
better than misleading the stupid fellows that fuddled their brains with
too much liquor.
Styf's especially famous trick was played on misers. It was this. When
he heard of any old fellow, who wanted to save the cost of candles, he
would get a kabouter to lead him off in the swamps, where the sooty
elves come out, on dark nights, to dance. Hoping to catch these lights
and use them for candles, the mean fellow would find himself in a swamp,
full of water and chilled to the marrow. Then the kabouters would laugh
Old Styf had the most fun with another stingy fellow, who always scolded
children when he found them spending a penny. If he saw a girl buying
flowers, or a boy giving a copper coin for a waffle, he talked roughly
to them for wasting money. Meeting this miser one day, as he was walking
along the brick road, leading from the village, Styf offered to pay the
old man a thousand guilders, in exchange for four striped tulips, that
grew in his garden. The miser, thinking it real silver, eagerly took the
money and put it away in his iron strong box. The next night, when he
went, as he did three times a week, to count, and feel, and rub, and
gloat, over his cash, there was nothing but leaves in a round form.
These, at his touch, crumbled to pieces. The Moss Maidens laughed
uproariously, when the mean old fellow was mad about it.
But let no one suppose that the elves, because they were smarter than
stupid human beings, were always in mischief. No, no! They did, indeed,
have far more intelligence than dull grown folks, lazy boys, or careless
girls; but many good things they did. They sewed shoes for poor
cobblers, when they were sick, and made clothes for children, when the
mother was tired. When they were around, the butter came quick in the
When the blue flower of the flax bloomed in Holland, the earth, in
spring time, seemed like the sky. Old Styf then saw his opportunity to
do a good thing. Men thought it a great affair to have even coarse linen
tow for clothes. No longer need they hunt the wolf and deer in the
forest, for their garments. By degrees, they learned to make finer
stuff, both linen for clothes and sails for ships, and this fabric they
spread out on the grass until the cloth was well bleached. When taken
up, it was white as the summer clouds that sailed in the blue sky. All
the world admired the product, and soon the word "Holland" was less the
name of a country, than of a dainty fabric, so snow white, that it was
fit to robe a queen. The world wanted more and more of it, and the Dutch
linen weaver grew rich. Yet still there was more to come.
Now, on one moonlight night in summer, the lady elves, beautiful
creatures, dressed in gauze and film, with wings to fly and with feet
that made no sound, came down into the meadows for their fairy dances.
But when, instead of green grass, they saw a white landscape, they
wondered, Was it winter?
Surely not, for the air was warm. No one shivered, or was cold. Yet
there were whole acres as white as snow, while all the old fairy rings,
grass and flowers were hidden.
They found that the meadows had become bleaching grounds, so that the
cows had to go elsewhere to get their dinner, and that this white area
was all linen. However, they quickly got over their surprise, for elves
are very quick to notice things. But now that men had stolen a march on
them, they asked whether, after all, these human beings had more
intelligence than elves. Not one of these fairies but believed that men
and women were the inferiors of elves.
So, then and there, began a battle of wits.
"They have spoiled our dancing floor with their new invention; so we
shall have to find another," said the elfin queen, who led the party.
"They are very proud of their linen, these men are; but, without the
spider to teach them, what could they have done? Even a wild boar can
instruct these human beings. Let us show them, that we, also, can do
even more. I'll get Old Styf to put on his thinking cap. He'll add
something new that will make them prouder yet."
"But we shall get the glory of it," the elves shouted in chorus. Then
they left off talking and began their dances, floating in the air, until
they looked, from a distance, like a wreath of stars.
The next day, a procession of lovely elf maidens and mothers waited on
Styf and asked him to devise something that would excel the invention of
linen; which, after all, men had learned from the spider.
"Yes, and they would not have any grain fields, if they had not learned
from the wild boar," added the elf queen.
Old Styf answered "yes" at once to their request, and put on his red
thinking cap. Then some of the girl elves giggled, for they saw that he
did, really, look like a cock's comb. "No wonder they called him
Haan-e'-kam," said one elf girl to the other.
Now Old Styf enjoyed fooling, just for the fun of it, and he taught all
the younger elves that those who did the most work with their hands and
head, would have the most fun when they were old.
First of all, he went at once to see Fro, the spirit of the golden
sunshine and the warm summer showers, who owned two of the most
wonderful things in the world. One was his sword, which, as soon as it
was drawn out of its sheath, against wicked enemies, fought of its own
accord and won every battle. Fro's chief enemies were the frost giants,
who wilted the flowers and blasted the plants useful to man. Fro was
absent, when Styf came, but his wife promised he would come next day,
which he did. He was happy to meet all the elves and fairies, and they,
in turn, joyfully did whatever he told them. Fro knew all the secrets of
the grain fields, for he could see what was in every kernel of both the
stalks and the ripe ears. He arrived, in a golden chariot, drawn by his
wild boar which served him instead of a horse. Both chariot and boar
drove over the tops of the ears of wheat, and faster than the wind.
The Boar was named Gullin, or Golden Bristles because of its sunshiny
color and splendor. In this chariot, Fro had specimens of all the
grains, fruits, and vegetables known to man, from which Styf could
choose, for these he was accustomed to scatter over the earth.
When Styf told him just what he wanted to do, Fro picked out a sheaf of
wheat and whispered a secret in his ear. Then he drove away, in a burst
of golden glory, which dazzled even the elves, that loved the bright
sunshine. These elves were always glad to see the golden chariot coming
or passing by.
Styf also summoned to his aid the kabouters, and, from these ugly little
fellows, got some useful hints; for they, dwelling in the dark caverns,
know many secrets which men used to name alchemy, and which they now
Then Styf fenced himself off from all intruders, on the top of a bright,
sunny hilltop, with his thinking cap on and made experiments for seven
days. No elves, except his servants, were allowed to see him. At the end
of a week, still keeping his secret and having instructed a dozen or so
of the elf girls in his new art, he invited all the elves in the Low
Countries to come to a great exhibition, which he intended to give.
What a funny show it was! On one long bench, were half a dozen washtubs;
and on a table, near by, were a dozen more washtubs; and on a longer
table not far away were six ironing boards, with smoothing irons. A
stove, made hot with a peat fire, was to heat the irons. Behind the tubs
and tables, stood the twelve elf maidens, all arrayed in shining white
garments and caps, as spotless as snow. One might almost think they were
white elves of the meadow and not kabouters of the mines. The wonder was
that their linen clothes were not only as dainty as stars, but that they
glistened, as if they had laid on the ground during a hoar frost.
Yet it was still warm summer. Nothing had frozen, or melted, and the
rosy-faced elf-maidens were as dry as an ivory fan. Yet they resembled
the lilies of the garden when pearly with dew-drops.
When all were gathered together, Old Styf called for some of the
company, who had come from afar, to take off their dusty and
travel-stained linen garments and give them to him. These were passed
over to the trained girls waiting to receive them. In a jiffy, they were
washed, wrung out, rinsed and dried. It was noticed that those
elf-maidens, who were standing at the last tub, were intently expecting
to do something great, while those five elf maids at the table took off
the hot irons from the stove. They touched the bottom of the flat-irons
with a drop of water to see if it rolled off hissing. They kept their
eyes fixed on Styf, who now came forward before all and said, in a loud
"Elves and fairies, moss maidens and stall sprites, one and all, behold
our invention, which our great friend Fro and our no less helpful
friends, the kabouters, have helped me to produce. Now watch me prove
Forthwith he produced before all a glistening substance, partly in
powder, and partly in square lumps, as white as chalk. He easily broke
up a handful under his fingers, and flung it into the fifth tub, which
had hot water in it. After dipping the washed garments in the white
gummy mass, he took them up, wrung them out, dried them with his breath,
and then handed them to the elf ironers. In a few moments, these held
up, before the company, what a few minutes before had been only dusty
and stained clothes. Now, they were white and resplendent. No fuller's
earth could have bleached them thus, nor added so glistening a surface.
It was starch, a new thing for clothes. The fairies, one and all,
clapped their hands in delight.
"What shall we name it?" modestly asked Styf of the oldest gnome
"Hereafter, we shall call you Styf Sterk, Stiff Starch." They all
Very quickly did the Dutch folks, men and women, hear and make use of
the elves' invention. Their linen closets now looked like piles of snow.
All over the Low Countries, women made caps, in new fashions, of lace or
plain linen, with horns and wings, flaps and crimps, with quilling and
with whirligigs. Soon, in every town, one could read the sign "Hier
mangled men" (Here we do ironing).
In time, kings, queens and nobles made huge ruffs, often so big that
their necks were invisible, and their heads nearly lost from sight, in
rings of quilled linen, or of lace, that stuck out a foot or so. Worldly
people dyed their starch yellow; zealous folk made it blue; but moderate
people kept it snowy white.
Starch added money and riches to the nation. Kings' treasuries became
fat with money gained by taxes laid on ruffs, and on the cargoes of
starch, which was now imported by the shipload, or made on the spot, in
many countries. So, out of the ancient grain came a new spirit that
worked for sweetness and beauty, cleanliness, and health. From a useful
substance, as old as Egypt, was born a fine art, that added to the sum
of the world's wealth and pleasure.