The cormorants of Udrost

Norwegian folk tales: The classics collection and others

BRIGHT, among the skerries of the Western sea, an island rides on the wave.
Yet if mortal ship by chance should drift too near the enchanted shore, a curtain of dark mist enshrouds the isle.
If so, no human eye can see its brightness, and no human foot may leave its print on the golden fields.
It's but in fancy he who lives ashore may picture, from the sweet longings of his dreams, that fairy jewel out there called Udrost.

Setting the scene

WHEN THE fishermen in the north of Norway come to land, they often find straw stuck between the rudder and the stern-post, or grain in the stomach of the fish. It is then said that they have sailed over Udrost, or some of the other fairylands that so many legends are told of in the north.
      These fairylands are only seen by pious people or by those who are gifted with second sight. When such people are in danger of their lives at sea, the fairylands appear where at other times no land is found. The supernatural people who live there have farms and keep cattle, own ships and fish, like some folks, but the sun shines on greener pastures and richer cornfields than elsewhere in the north. Fortunate is he who has landed on or even seen one of these sunny isles - "he is a made man," say the people in the north.
      An old ballad, in the style of Peter Dass, gives a full description of an island somewhere off Helgeland, a fairy island with rich fisheries and abounding with game of all sorts.
      And in the middle of the Vestfjord a large flat land with rich cornfields also appears, but it only rises high enough above the surface of the water to leave the ears of the corn dry.
      And then, outside the island Rost, off the southern point of the Lofoten islands, a similar fairyland with green hills and golden barley fields is spoken of at times. It is called Udrost. The farmer on Udrost owns his fishing-smack just like any other farmer in the north; sometimes the fishermen see it under full sail, steering right down on them, but just as they expect to be run down, it disappears.

Riff-raff start

ON VAERO, not far from Rost, lived once a poor fisherman, whose name was Isaac. All he possessed was a boat and a couple of goats, which his wife managed to keep alive on fish offal and the few stray wisps of grass to be found on the neighbouring cliffs; but he had a whole cottage full of hungry children. Even so Isaac seemed always to be satisfied with the lot Providence had ordained for him. His only complaint was that he could never be left in peace by his neighbour, who was a well-to-do man who fancied that he ought to have everything better than such riff-raff as Isaac. He wanted, therefore, to get rid of Isaac that he might have the harbour in front of Isaac's cottage.

Sailing out to sea

ONE DAY when Isaac was fishing a good many miles out at sea, a thick, dark fog came upon him, and before long a tremendous gale broke loose and raged with such a fury that he had to throw all the fish overboard to lighten the boat and save his life that way.
      Still it was not easy to keep the boat afloat; but he knew how to handle his little craft, and how to steer her among the heavy seas, which every moment threatened to swamp her. When he had been sailing at this rate for five or six hours, he thought he ought soon to see land somewhere. But hour after hour passed and the storm and the thick fog got worse and worse. Then it dawned on him that he must be steering right out to sea, or that the wind had shifted.
      He soon became convinced that he must have guessed right, for he sailed and sailed, but saw no sign of land. All of a sudden he heard a terrible screech ahead and he thought it must be the bogie singing his dirge. He prayed for his wife and children, for he knew now that his last hour had come. While he thus sat and prayed he caught sight of something black. As he came nearer he saw it was only three cormorants sitting on a piece of drift-wood. The next moment he had sailed past them. The time wore on and he began to feel so thirsty and so hungry and so tired that he did not know what to do.

What was hidden from normal sight

He was sitting half asleep, with the tiller in his hand, when all at once the boat grated against the beach and ran aground. Isaac was not long in getting his eyes open. The sun was breaking through the fog and shone on a lovely country; the hills and the cliffs were green right to the top. There were meadows and cornfields on the slopes, and a scent of flowers and grass such as he had never before experienced.
      Isaac said to himself. "I'm safe now; this must be Udrost."
      Straight before him was a field of barley, with ears so large and full that he had never seen their like, and a narrow path led through this field to a green turf-roofed hut at its far side. On the roof of the hut was a white, grazing goat with gilt horns; its udder was as large as the largest cow's. Outside the hut sat a little old man on a wooden stool, smoking a fine pipe. He was dressed in blue, and had a full long beard which reached down to his waist.

The Udrost welcome

"WELCOME to Udrost, Isaac!" said the old man.
      "Thank you!" answered Isaac. "You know me, then?"
      "Maybe I do," said the man. "You want to stop here tonight, I suppose?"
      "Well, if I might I should like nothing better," said Isaac.
      "It's rather awkward with those sons of mine," said the old man; "they don't like the smell of Christians. Haven't you met them?"
      "No, I have met nothing but three cormorants sitting on a bit of drift-wood screeching."
      "They are my sons, you see," said the old man, as he knocked the ashes out of his pipe. "You'd better go inside in the meantime. I suppose you're both hungry and thirsty?"
      "Thanks for your offer, my friend," said Isaac.
      When the man opened the door, Isaac found it was such a fine and grand place he was quite taken aback. He had never seen anything like it before. The table was covered with the most splendid dishes - sea perch and sour cream, venison and cod-liver stew with treacle and cheese, heaps of cakes, brandy, beer and mead - in fact, everything that was good.
      Isaac ate and drank as much as he was able, but still his plate never became empty, and although he drank a good deal, his glass was always full. The old man did not eat much, and he did not speak much either.
      Just as they were sitting, they heard a screech and a great noise outside. The old man went out, and soon came back with his three sons. Isaac felt just a little queer when they came in, but the old man must have been telling them to behave themselves, for they were kind and pleasant enough.
      When Isaac was going to leave the table, they said he must follow their custom and sit down and drink with them. He had done very well, he said, but he would join them if they wished and they drank glass after glass of brandy, and now and then took a pull at the beer and the mead. They became good friends and got on very well together. Isaac must go fishing a trip or two with them, they said, so that he could have something to take home with him when he went away.

The three sons and their father help him

THE FIRST trip they made was in a terrible gale. One of the sons was steering, the other held the sheet, and the third son was midships, while Isaac bailed out the water with a big scoop till the sweat ran down his back in big drops. They sailed as if they were stark mad; they never took in a reef in the sail, and when the seas filled the boat, they sailed her up on the back of a wave till she stood nearly on end and the water rushed out over her stern as out of a spout.
      Shortly the storm abated, and they started to fish. The fish were so thickly packed that the lead could not reach the bottom and the young men from Udrost hauled in one fish after another. Isaac had plenty of bites too, but he had brought his own fishing tackle with him, and every time he got a fish as far as the gunwale it got off; he did not catch as much as the tail of one.
      When the boat was full, they sailed home to Udrost. The sons cut up the fish and cleaned them and hung them up across some poles to dry, but Isaac could only complain of his bad fortune to the old man, who promised him better luck next time and gave him a couple of fish-hooks.
      The next time they went out fishing Isaac caught as many fish as the others, and when they came ashore and hung up their catch, he had three long poles full for his share.

Isaac sails homeward

ISAAC soon began to feel homesick. When he was leaving the old man made him a present of a new eight-oared boat, filled with bags of flour, canvas and other useful things, and Isaac thanked him a lot. The old man told him to come back again by the time the fishing smacks were about to start for their yearly trips to Bergen; he was going himself with a cargo, and Isaac could go with him and sell his fish. Isaac would be pleased to do that, and asked what course he was to steer when he sailed for Udrost again.
      "Straight after the cormorants, when they fly to sea," said the old man. "That's your right course, and a safe journey to you!"
      Isaac sailed away from the shore and wanted to wave goodbye to his friends. But when he turned round to give his friends a farewell wave, he could not see Udrost; he saw only the open sea far and near.

The second visit, for he behaved like a gentleman

WHEN THE TIME came for the smacks to sail for Bergen, Isaac arrived again at Udrost. The man had a very big boat, it was enough to make himself heard in many ways. Isaac's share of the cargo was stowed forward in the smack; he took the fish down off the poles himself, but he could not make out how it came to pass that as soon as he took the fish off the poles, they were full of new fish again; and when they sailed, there was just as much fish as when he came.
      When he came to Bergen, he sold his fish and got so much money that he bought a new smack, with cargo and everything that was wanted for a good outfit, just as the old man had advised him to do. Late in the evening, when he was getting ready to sail, the old man came on board to him and asked him not to forget those who had been his neighbours when he was lost at sea, and then he foretold good luck for Isaac with his smack.
      "Everything on board is sound and good, and you may be sure that all aloft will stand," said he, meaning that there would always be one on board whom nobody could see, who at a pinch would put his back to the mast and steady it.

From there on ...

ISAAC was always quite successful after that time. He knew well where his great new luck came from ... Every Christmas Eve there was such a glare of light from the smack that it could be seen afar off, and you could hear the sound of fiddles and music and laughter and merriment - and there was every indication that dancing was going on in the cabin, for that's what the story says, or what?

Page create on 25/11/2000
S. Volponi