A Yankee NotebookColumns

We Sophisticates Tend to Smile at Such Nonsense

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by Willem Lange

EAST MONTPELIER – Creatures commonly called brownies have been with us for centuries, and have operated under dozens of names. In pre-scientific times they were thought to cause inexplicable domestic phenomena, like the curdling of milk, the reappearance of items thought lost, or a fresh cow going dry. The most recent literary depiction of them is by J.K. Rowling in the Harry Potter series. Her houses have loyal house elves dressed in rags. Behind the rags is the belief that if you give them good clothes, they’ll leave, and your floors will no longer be mysteriously swept, your firewood brought in during the night, or your fire crackling in the hearth when you get up.

We sophisticates tend to smile indulgently at such nonsense. But polls taken as recently as 2017 indicate that up to 80% of Icelanders, among the most modern of us Westerners, refuse to deny the existence of the huldufólk. These “hidden people”, who are believed to coexist with the rest of society, are friendly, but territorial, and are not to be messed with. Tradition says they’re descended from Adam and Eve, who after the Fall, were subject to occasional surprise inspections from God. Warned one day that God was on his way, Eve scrubbed as many of her kids as she could, and hid the rest under a bed. After looking at the sanitized ones, God asked whether that was all she had. When she lied that these were the lot, God replied, “What must be hidden from God will be forever hidden from Men.” Thus the huldufólk.

Most of us are familiar with the Brownies, the junior version of the Girl Scouts. Like their senior counterparts, as well as the now-struggling Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts, they were originally 19th-century organizations created to foster the Victorian virtues we associate with the Boy Scout Law: “…trustworthy, loyal, helpful, etc…” The Brownies were late-comers, derived from the Girl Guides in 1914 and originally called Rosebuds. That name didn’t resonate somehow, so Lord Baden-Powell himself, the founder of the Boy Scouts, named them Brownies, after an 1870 story by Juliana Horatia Ewing about two lazy children magically transformed into “good” children by the brownies who inhabited the forest around their home. That name, obviously, has stuck.

My own childhood was much enriched by “The Brownies: Their Book,” copyrighted first in 1887 by Palmer Cox. My hardcover edition of it, printed in 1941, has been read so often that its covers have fallen off and its spine is a maze of fabric webs. My son tells me I read it to him and his sister when they were little. Dozens of intricate cartoons in black and white, enlivened by iambic tetrameter couplets, describe the nocturnal shenanigans of a large, merry band of little people.

That was all long ago, of course – my infant son is now in his sixties – and I can’t say that I’d join the Icelanders in their measured belief in the hildufólk. It’s as old as their language, which is ancient Norse. I would, however, maintain a friendly attitude toward them, in case I should get lost or benighted in Icelandic tundra or a lava field and need supernatural assistance. But that’s about it.

Besides, I’ve already got brownies right here. They don’t live in my house or even on the property, but they’ve been responsible for a multitude of important tasks and improvements around here – mowing the lawn, plowing the driveway, cleaning the attic, making runs to the dump, helping clapboard the barn, doing the guest room laundry – tasks that I no longer have the strength, expertise, or will to do myself. The good news is that they’re members of my immediate family.

They were here this weekend, two of them. They managed to get a long-broken window sash to a glazier, sweep the garage floor of a mess left by nesting phoebes (who gained entrance through the broken window), move my beautiful Adirondack guide boat, also a victim of the phoebes, into the yard for a cleaning, and then put onto its trailer. I can no longer use the boat without help, so it’s got to go. Now it can.

That’s the apparent contradiction of their help: It almost invariably leads to things disappearing. But in my current stage of divestment, before I’m too far gone to direct it myself, it’s what’s needed around here. It’s hard to express what an empty spot losing that boat, for example, will create. Its destiny, however, is best realized when it’s cruising smoothly through the water, not sitting in slings in the back of the barn like an Old Master in a little-used drawing room. This is the way things will be going around here for the foreseeable future. I’m very glad I’ve got brownies to help.