The cormorants of Utrøst

Translation into English by
Marie Lams

The Cormorants of Utrøst is an unpublished folkstory which ECOS has chosen for its readers. It does not appear in the classic anthologies of Norwegian legends and stories published by Einaudi and Mondadori. It is taken from the collection Samlede Eventyr compiled by Peder Christian Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe in the middle of the last century. The two writers, following a fashion set by the Grimm brothers in G e r m a n y, wrote down fairytales and funny stories, nursery rhymes and songs that had been handed down by word of mouth from generation to generation.

Norwegian fairytales usually begin in the same way as children’s stories all over Europe, "Once upon a time", or else, "In the days when things could talk" - words that introduce the magic and the marvellous .

The main characters in Norwegian children’s stories are the king, the queen, the prince, the princess, three brothers (three is a recurrent number) and there are a host of magic beings connected with pre-Christian, naturalistic culture, spirits that live underground and in the woods, reminiscent of the elves, imps, gnomes and dwarfs that abound in Northern popular literature and books of fantasy by modern authors like Tolkien.

An important role is played by the Troll, a sort of giant or monster with three , six or even nine heads, or with only one eye like the Cyclops. He may live in a cavern or underground, or in a splendid palace, but he fears daylight and commits horrible deeds, preferably on Thursday nights! He inspires terror, like the ogre, but the good characters nearly always get the better of him and make fun of him.

Then there is a character dear to the Norwegians: Askeladden, a lazy, warm-hearted boy, with heavy shoes and a quick brain, who likes to sit by the fire solving intricate problems, and is perfectly capable of outwitting the troll in his famous adventures. In Italian he is called "Scenario", the name given him in ALA Castagnoli Maghi’s first translation.

The unpublished tale presented by ECOS contains many features typical of Norwegian folk stories: the marvellous (a disappearing island); the sea, frightening but full of hidden treasures; a meeting with magic creatures; and goodness rewarded - this does not always happen in real life, but it is nice to know that it happens in stories, whether written or oral.

In their way home, the fishermen of the Northland often find bits of straw on the rudders of their boats, or barley grains in the stomachs of the fish they have caught. Then they say that they have gone through Utrøst or one of the other enchanted lands described in the legends of the Northlands. They are re v e a l e d only to the devout, or people with second sight in peril at sea, and they appear in places where there is no real land. The inhabitants of these magic lands till the soil, raise sheep and go fishing like other people, but there the sun shines on greener meadows and richer fields than anywhere else in the Northland: happy the man who lands on one of these sunny little islands, or even gets a glimpse of one. "He’s safe", the people up there will say. An old song in the Peder Dass style gives a complete description of an island off Træna, in Helgeland, called Sandflesa; the water abounds with fish and the woods with all kinds of game.

The locals say that a big, flat stretch of cultivated land sometimes appears in the middle of the Vestfjord, just high enough above the water to keep the ears of wheat dry. There are also tales of another enchanted land, with green hills and yellow fields of grain off Røst, on the southern tip of Lofoten: it is called Utrøst.

The peasant from Utrøst has a boat like the other inhabitants of the Northland, and every now and then, with spread sails, it heads straight for a fisherman; but as he braces himself for the collision, the magic boat disappears.

At Værøy, not far from Røst, there once lived a poor fisherman called Isak. He owned nothing but a boat and a pair of goats which his wife kept alive by giving them scraps of fish and grass she managed to pluck from the mountains. Although his hut was always full of hungry children, he was grateful for what the Lord gave him. The only thing he complained about was that he had never managed to live in peace with his neighbour, a rich man who was convinced that his possessions should be better than those of a poor man like Isak, and who therefore wanted to get rid of him to get hold of the pasture next to his hut.

One day when Isak was out fishing, about two miles off the coast, a heavy fog suddenly fell and such a violent storm blew up that he had to throw all the fish he had caught into the sea to stop the boat from sinking. Skilfully negotiating the breakers that threatened to suck the boat down, he managed to keep afloat for five or six hours, until he thought he would soon see land. But as he sailed on the storm and the fog grew worse and worse. Then he started to think he was heading for the open sea or that the wind had changed; in the end he was sure of it, because he made progress without ever spying land. All at once he heard a terrible cry in front of the pro w. He thought it must be the spirit of the waters singing a funeral dirge for him. He commended his wife and children to the Lord, because he thought his last hour had come. As he prayed he vaguely descried something black ahead, and when he got nearer he made out three cormorants perched on a piece of wood. They were visible for a moment and then ... suddenly he had passed them. Things went on as before for quite a while, and he became so hungry, thirsty and tired that he was falling asleep at the rudder. Suddenly the boat was grounded on a sandy beach. Isak opened his eyes. The sun was peeping through the clouds, illuminating a marvellous landscape. The hills and mountains were covered with greenery; fields and meadows rose gently to the peaks and the scent of flowers and grass was the sweetest he had ever smelt.

"Thank God, I’m safe; this is Utrøst", murmured Isak. In front of him was a field of barley with ears taller than he had ever seen, and with a path leading up to a peat-covered hut. Munching on top of the hut was a white goat with golden horns and udders as big as a large cow’s: Outside, a little old chap, dressed in blue and with a long beard flowing halfway down his chest, was sitting on a chair smoking a pipe.

" Welcome to Utrøst", said the old fellow.

"God bless you", replied Isak, "So you know me?"

"Maybe. I expect you’d like to stay the night."

"It would be wonderful, my friend".

" Trouble is, my sons can’t stand the smell of a Christian. Didn’t you meet them?"

"No, I only saw three cormorants bobbing about on a bit of flotsam."

"Those were my sons", said the little fellow, knocking the tobacco out of his pipe,

"Go in for a bit. You must be hungry and thirsty. "

"Thanks very much, my friend", said Isak.

When the old fellow opened the door of the hut, Isak was dazzled. He had never seen such splendour. The table was loaded with the most delicious food, yoghurt , fish soup, roast venison, liver paté, syrup and cheese, piles of ring-shaped Bergen cakes, brandy, beer and mead, and everything nice you can think of Isak ate and drank as much as he could, but his plate was never empty and his glass was always full. However, his host did not eat much or say much. As they lingered after their meal, they heard a great rumpus outside. The little fellow went out, and came back with his sons. Isak nervously mumbled a greeting as they crossed the threshold, but their father must have calmed them down, because they were quiet and good humoured. Isak got up, saying he had finished his meal, but they invited him to sit down again and have a drink with them. He did as they asked, and they all quaffed one glass of mead, beer and brandy after another. Having made friends, the brothers asked him to go fishing with them a couple of times so that he would have something to take home.

The first time they went there was a terrible storm. One of the brothers sat by the rudder, another in the pro w, and the third by the halyard. Isak busied himself with the baling pan until the sweat poured off his brow. They sailed like mad, never furling the sail; when the boat was full of water they brought her round with her stern to the wind, so that they could pour the water out of the glass-bottomed bucket they kept there to search for octopus on the seabed. After a while the storm died down, and they started fishing. There was such a lot of fish they could never get their sinkers down to the bottom. The brothers caught masses. Isak had brought his own tackle, and occasionally hooked a fine fish but it got away every time. When the boat was full they went back to Utrøst and the brothers gutted the fish and laid them out to dry. Isak complained that he had not caught anything and his host promised that next time he would do better and gave him a pair of fishing-lines. When they went fishing again Isak caught as much as the three brothers and filled three dryers with his own fish when they got back.

Eventually he got home-sick and decided to leave. When he left his host gave him flour and sailcloth and lots of other useful things. Isak thanked him profusely and his host asked him to come back for the launching of a new boat; afterwards Isak could go with him to Bergen to sell his fish. Isak accepted the invitation and asked how he could find his way back to Utrøst. "Follow the cormorant when it flies out to sea, and you’ll be on the right course", the old fellow replied. "Have a good trip". Isak set sail and looked back, but saw nothing but sea for miles around .

When the time came, Isak left home and went to the launching ceremony. He had never seen such a boat: it was "two shouts long", which meant that when the captain, who was on the look-out by the bowsprit, had to give an order to the man at the rudder, he could not make himself heard, however hard he yelled, so another man halfway down the boat, near the main mast, relayed his orders at the top of his voice. They put Isak’s fish on the dryer in the pro w, but he was amazed to see that when he took the fish off it, there was always plenty left, and when he left the dryer was as full as it had been when he arrived. When he got to Bergen he sold his fish and got so much money for it that he bought a new boat, fully fitted out, with the cargo and everything else he needed, as the little old fellow had advised him to do. Late in the evening, before he set off for home, his friend came on board and asked him not to be unkind to the children of his neighbour, who had died. He predicted he would have good luck with the boat. "Everything is in order, and everything upright will stay that way", he said, by which he meant that there was someone invisible on board, who would lean against the mainmast to prop it up when necessary.

From that moment Isak always had fortune on his side. He knew where it came from, and when he beached his boat in the autumn he never forgot to put something nice aside for the invisible winter guard, and every Christmas Eve bright lights shone from the boat, violins and music and laughter could be heard, and there was dancing in the cabin.

Page create on 06/03/2001
S. Volponi