June 14, 2024

The Brown Dwarf of Rügen

        It’s been quite a while since I featured a fantasy poem, so today we have “The Brown Dwarf of Rügen” by John Greenleaf Whittier.  It was first published in 1888 with a note that the “hint” of the tale came from a German collection of fairy tales in 1816.  I don’t know how much of the detail Whittier made up, but it’s a fairly straightforward theme.  As with many narrative poems of the era, it’s a bit long to include the whole thing, but here’s most of it.

And in the town of Rambin a little boy and maid
Plucked the meadow-flowers together and in the sea-surf played.

Alike were they in beauty if not in their degree:
He was the Amptman’s first-born, the miller’s child was she.

Now of old the isle of Rügen was full of Dwarfs and Trolls,
The brown-faced little Earth-men, the people without souls;

And for every man and woman in Rügen’s island found
Walking in air and sunshine, a Troll was underground.

It chanced the little maiden, one morning, strolled away
Among the haunted Nine Hills, where the elves and goblins play.

She came not back; the search for her in field and wood was vain:
They cried her east, they cried her west, but she came not again.

“She’s down among the Brown Dwarfs,” said the dream-wives wise and old,
And prayers were made, and masses said, and Rambin’s church bell tolled.

Five years her father mourned her; and then John Deitrich said:
“I will find my little playmate, be she alive or dead.”

He watched among the Nine Hills, he heard the Brown Dwarfs sing,
And saw them dance by moonlight merrily in a ring.

And when their gay-robed leader tossed up his cap of red,
Young Deitrich caught it as it fell, and thrust it on his head.

The Troll came crouching at his feet and wept for lack of it.
“Oh, give me back my magic cap, for your great head unfit!”

“Nay,” Deitrich said; “the Dwarf who throws his charmëd cap away,
Must serve its finder at his will, and for his folly pay.

“You stole my pretty Lisbeth, and hid her in the earth;
And you shall ope the door of glass and let me lead her forth.”

“She will not come; she’s one of us; she’s mine!” the Brown Dwarf said;
The day is set, the cake is baked, to-morrow we shall wed.”

The Dwarf obeyed; and youth and Troll down the long stairway passed,
And saw in dim and sunless light a country strange and vast.

Weird, rich, and wonderful, he saw the elfin under-land, —
Its palaces of precious stones, its streets of golden sand.

He came unto a banquet-hall with tables richly spread,
Where a young maiden served to him the red wine and the bread.

He looked; he clasped her in his arms; he knew the long-lost one;
“O Lisbeth! See thy playmate — I am the Amptman’s son!”

She leaned her fair head on his breast, and through her sobs she spoke:
“Oh, take me from this evil place, and from the elfin folk!

But Deitrich said: “For five long years this tender Christian maid
Has served you in your evil world and well must she be paid!

“Haste! — hither bring me precious gems, the richest in your store;
Then when we pass the gate of glass, you’ll take your cap once more.”

No choice was left the baffled Troll, and, murmuring, he obeyed,
And filled the pockets of the youth and apron of the maid.

They left the dreadful under-land and passed the gate of glass;
They felt the sunshine’s warm caress, they trod the soft, green grass.

And when, beneath, they saw the Dwarf stretch up to them his brown
And crooked claw-like fingers, they tossed his red cap down.

And soon from Rambin’s holy church the twain came forth as one,

The Amptman kissed a daughter, the miller blest a son.

        In trying to cut out unnecessary bits for length, I omitted a few of the bits I don’t like as much, such as an unsettling vagueness about age… are these little children or young adults?  (If Lisbeth is to be 16 when she emerges, she must have been 11 when she was stolen, but some of the descriptions make her sound much younger.)  But the elements I like a lot are the descriptions of the magical underground world with its long stairway, dim sunless light, and streets of golden sand.  My favorite image is that the door to this world is made of glass, which seems both odd and improbable, and clearly quite enchanted.  I also cut out the lines where our hero set a cross of stone by that glass door so that the trolls could no longer go in and out through the Nine Hills.
        I wouldn’t call this a masterpiece, either in content or execution, but it is a serviceable entry in the grand encyclopedia of fairy lore, illustrating a number of common elements in mythology and folklore, including the catching of the dwarf's cap, which is a trope I enjoy.
        (Also, a fun note is that at its original publication in children’s magazine St. Nicholas, this poem appeared right next to one of the installments of a serialized story by Frances Hodgson Burnett about a little girl named Sara Crewe!)

[Pictures: A dwarf king seducing a human woman, wood block print from Straßburger Heldenbuch, c. 1480 (Image from Wikimedia Commons);

Illustrations of “The Brown Dwarf of Rügen” from St. Nicholas, January 1888 (Images from Internet Archive).]

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