Will-o'-the-wisps are in Town - Says
By Hans Christian Andersen
There was a man who once knew many stories,
but they had slipped away from him so he
said ; the Story that used to visit him of
its own accord no longer came and knocked at
his door : and why did it come no longer ?
It is true enough that for days and years
the man had not thought of it, had not
expected it to come and knock ; but it
certainly had not been there either, for
outside there was war, and within was the
care and sorrow that war brings with it.
The stork and the swallows came back from
their long journey, for they thought of no
danger ; and, behold, when they arrived, the
nest was burnt, the habitations of men were
burnt, the gates were all in disorder, and
even quite gone, and the enemy's horses
trampled on the old graves. Those were hard,
gloomy times, but they came to an end.
And now they were past and gone, so people
said ; and yet no Story came and knocked at
the door, or gave any tidings of its
' I suppose it must be dead, or gone away
with many other things,' said the man.
But the Story never dies. And more than a
whole year went by, and he longed oh, so
very much ! for the Story.
' I wonder if the Story will ever come back
again, and knock ? '
And he remembered it so well in all the
various forms in which it had come to him,
sometimes young and charming, like spring
itself, sometimes as a beautiful maiden,
with a wreath of woodruff in her hair, and a
beechen branch in her hand, and with eyes
that gleamed like deep woodland lakes in the
Sometimes it had come to him in the guise of
a pedlar, and had opened its pack and let
silver ribbon come fluttering out, with
verses and inscriptions of old remembrances.
But it was most charming of all when it came
as an old grandmother, with silvery hair,
and such large sensible eyes : she knew so
well how to tell about the oldest times,
long before the Princesses span with the
golden spindles, and the dragons lay outside
the castles, guarding them.
She told with such an air of truth, that
black spots danced before the eyes of all
who heard her, and the floor became black
with human blood ; terrible to see and to
hear, and yet so entertaining, because such
a long time had passed since it all happened.
' Will she ever knock at my door again ? '
said the man ; and he gazed at the door, so
that black spots came before his eyes and
upon the floor ; he did not know if it was
blood, or mourning crape from the dark heavy
And as he sat thus, the thought came upon
him, whether the Story might not have hidden
itself, like the Princess in the old tale ?
And he would now go in search of it : if he
found it, it would beam in new splendour,
lovelier than ever.
' Who knows ? Perhaps it has hidden itself
in the straw that balances on the margin of
the well. Carefully, carefully ! Perhaps it
lies hidden in a withered flower that flower
in one of the great books on the bookshelf.'
And the man went and opened one of the
newest books, to gain information on this
point; but there was no flower to be found.
There he read about Holger the Dane ; and
the man read that the whole tale had been
invented and put together by a monk in
France, that it was a romance,
' translated into Danish and printed in that
language ' ; that Holger the Dane had never
really lived, and consequently could never
come again, as we have sung, and would have
so much liked to believe. It was just the
same with Holger the Dane as with William
Tell, mere idle legend, not to be depended
on, and all this was written in the book,
with great learning.
' Well, I shall believe what I believe ! '
said the man ; ' there grows no plantain
where no foot has trod.'
And he closed the book and put it back in
its place, and went to the fresh flowers at
the window : perhaps the Story might have
hidden itself in the red tulips, with the
golden yellow edges, or in the fresh rose,
or in the stronglycoloured camellia. The
sunshine lay among the flowers, but no
The flowers which had been here in the dark
troublous time had been much more beautiful
; but they had been cut off, one after
another, to be woven into wreaths and placed
in coffins, and the flag had waved over them
! Perhaps the Story had been buried with the
flowers ; but then the
flowers would have known of it, and the
coffin would have heard it, and every little
blade of grass that shot forth would have
told of it. The Story never dies.
Perhaps it has been here once, and has
knocked but who had eyes or ears for it in
those times ? People looked darkly, gloomily,
and almost angrily at the sunshine of
spring, at the twittering birds, and all the
cheerful green ; the tongue could not even
bear the old, merry, popular songs, and they
were laid in the coffin with so much that
our heart held dear. The Story may have
knocked without obtaining a hearing ; there
was none to bid it welcome, and so it may
have gone away.
' I will go forth and seek it ! Out in the
country ! out in the wood ! and on the open
sea beach ! '
Out in the country lies an old manor house,
with red walls, pointed gables, and a flag
that floats on the tower. The nightingale
sings among the finely-fringed beech-leaves,
looking at the blooming apple trees of the
garden, and thinking that they bear roses.
Here the bees are busy in
the summer-time, and hover round their queen
with their humming song. The autumn has much
to tell of the wild chase, of the leaves of
the trees, and of the races of men that are
passing away together. The wild swans sing
at Christmas-time on the open water, while
in the old hall the guests by the fire -side
gladly listen to songs and to old legends.
Down into the old part of the garden, where
the great avenue of wild chestnut trees
lures the wanderer to tread its shades, went
the man who was in search of the Story ; for
here the wind had once murmured something to
him of ' Waldemar Daa and his Daughters '.
The Dryad in
the tree, who was the Story-mother herself,
had here told him the ' Last Dream of the
old Oak Tree '. Here, in grandmother's time,
had stood clipped hedges, but now only ferns
and stinging-nettles grew there, hiding the
scattered fragments of old sculptured
figures ; the moss is growing
in their eyes, but they could see as well as
ever, which was more than the man could do
who was in search of the Story, for he could
not find it. Where could it be ?
The crows flew over him by hundreds across
the old trees, and screamed, ' Krah ! da !
Krah ! da ! '
And he went out of the garden, and over the
grass-plot of the yard, into the alder grove
; there stood a little sixsided house, with
a poultry -yard and a duck-yard. In the
middle of the room sat the old woman who had
the management of the whole, and who knew
accurately about every
egg that was laid, and about every chicken
that could creep out of an egg. But she was
not the Story of which the man was in search
; that she could attest with a certificate
of Christian baptism and of vaccination that
lay in her drawer.
Without, not far from the house, is a mound
covered with red-thorn and laburnum : here
lies an old gravestone, which was brought
many years ago from the churchyard of the
provincial town, a remembrance of one of the
most honoured councillors of the place ; his
wife and his five daughters, all with folded
hands and stiff ruffs, stand round him. One
could look at them so long, that it had an
effect upon the thoughts, and these reacted
upon the stone, so that it told of old times
; at least it had been so with the man who
was in search of the Story.
As he came nearer, he noticed a living
butterfly sitting on the forehead of the
sculptured councillor. The butterfly flapped
its wings, and flew a little bit farther,
and settled again close by the gravestone,
as if to point out what grew there.
Four-leaved clover grew there ; there were
seven of them. When fortune comes, it comes
in a heap. He plucked the clover leaves, and
put them in his pocket.
' Fortune is as good as ready money, but a
new, charming story would be better still,'
thought the man ; but he could not find it
And the sun went down, red and large ; the
meadow was covered with vapour : the
Moor-woman was at her brewing.
It was evening : he stood alone in his room,
and looked out upon the sea, over the meadow,
over moor and coast. The moon shone bright,
a mist was over the meadow, making it look
like a great lake ; and, indeed, it was once
so, as the legend tells and in the moonlight
evidence of the truth of the story.
Then the man thought of what he had been
reading in the town, that William Tell and
Holger the Dane never really lived, but yet
live in popular story, like the lake yonder,
a living evidence for such myths. Yes,
Holger the Dane will return again !
As he stood thus and thought, something beat
quite strongly against the window. Was it a
bird, a bat, or an owl ? Those are not let
in, even when they knock. The window flew
open of itself, and an old woman looked in
at the man.
' What 's your pleasure ? ' said he. ' Who
are you ? You're looking in at the first
floor window. Are you standing on a ladder ?
' You have a four-leaved clover in your
pocket,' she replied. ' Indeed, you have
seven, and one of them is a six-leaved one.'
' Who are you ? ' asked the man again.
' The Moor-woman,' she replied. ' The
Moor-woman who brews. I was at it. The bung
was in the cask, but one of the little
moor-imps pulled it out in his mischief, and
flung it up into the yard, where it beat
against the window ; and now the beer 's
running out of the cask, and that won't do
good to anybody.' ' Pray tell me some more !
' said the man.
' Ah, wait a little,' answered the
Moor-woman. ' I've something else to do just
now.' And she was gone.
The man was going to shut the window, when
the woman stood before him again.
' Now it 's done,' she said ; ' but I shall
have half the beer to brew over again
to-morrow, if the weather is suitable. Well,
what have you to ask me ? I've come back,
for I always keep my word, and you have
seven four-leaved clovers in your pocket,
and one of them is a six-leaved one. That
inspires respect, for that 's a decoration
that grows beside the high-way ; but every
one does not find it. What have you to ask
me ? Don't stand there like a ridiculous oaf,
for I must go back again directly to my bung
and my cask.'
And the man asked about the Story, and
inquired if the Moor-woman had met it in her
' By the big brewing- vat ! ' exclaimed the
woman, ' haven't you got stories enough ? I
really believe that most people have enough
of them. Here are other things to take
notice of, other things to look after. Even
the children have gone beyond that. Give the
little boy a cigar, and the little girl a
new crinoline ; they like that much better.
To listen to stories ! No, indeed, there are
more important things to be done here, and
other things to attend to ! '
' What do you mean by that ? ' asked the
man, ' and what do you know of the world ?
You don't see anything but frogs and
will-o'-the-wisps ! '
'Yes, beware of the will-o'-the-wisps,' said
the Moor- woman, ' for they're out they're
let loose that 's what we must talk about !
Come to me in the moor, where my presence is
necessary, and I will tell you all about it
; but you must make haste, and come while
your seven four-leaved clovers, of which one
has six leaves, are still fresh, and the
moon stands high ! '
And the Moor-woman was gone.
It struck twelve on the church-clock, and
before the last stroke had died away, the
man was out in the yard, out in the garden,
and stood in the meadow. The mist had
vanished, and the Moor-woman stopped her
' You've been a long time coming ! ' said
the Moor- woman. ' Witches get forward
faster than men, and I'm glad that I belong
to the witch folk ! '
' What have you to say to me now ? ' asked
the man. ' Is it anything about the Story ?
' Can you never get beyond asking about that
? ' retorted the woman.
' Can you tell me anything about the poetry
of the future ? ' resumed the man.
' Don't get on your stilts,' said the crone,
' and I'll answer you. You think of nothing
but poetry, and only ask about that Story,
as if she were the lady of the whole troop.
She 's the oldest of us all, but she always
passes for the youngest. I know her well.
I've been young, too, and she 's no chicken
now. I was once quite a pretty elf- maiden,
and have danced in my time with the others
in the moonlight, and have heard the
nightingale, and have gone into the forest
and met the Story-maiden, who was always to
be found out there, running about. Sometimes
she took up her night's lodging in a
half-blown tulip, or in a field flower ;
sometimes she would slip into the church,
and wrap herself in the mourning crape that
hung down from the candles on the altar.'
' You are capitally well informed,' said the
' I ought at least to know as much as you,'
answered the Moor-woman. ' Stories and
poetry yes, they're like two yards of the
same piece of stuff : they can go and lie
down where they like, and one can brew all
their prattle, and have it all the better
and cheaper. You shall have it from me for
nothing. I have a whole cupboardful of
poetry in bottles. It makes essences ; and
that 's the
best of it bitter and sweet herbs. I have
everything that people want of poetry, in
bottles, so that I can put a little on my
handkerchief, on holidays, to smell.'
' Why, these are wonderful things that
you're telling! 'said the man.' You have
poetry in bottles ? '
' More than you can stand,' said the woman.
' I suppose you know the history of " the
Girl who trod on the Loaf, so that she might
not soil her new Shoes " ? That has been
written, and printed too.'
' I told that story myself,' said the man.
' Yes, then you must know it ; and you must
know also that the girl sank into the earth
directly, to the Moor- woman, just as Old
Bogey's grandmother was paying her morning
visit to inspect the brewery. She saw the
girl gliding down, and asked to have her as
a remembrance of her visit, and got her too
; while I received a present that 's of no
use to me a travelling druggist's shop
a whole cupboardful of poetry in bottles.
Grandmother told me where the cupboard was
to be placed, and there it 's standing
still. Just look ! You've your seven four-
leaved clovers in your pocket, one of which
is a six-leaved one, and so you will be able
to see it.'
And really in the midst of the moor lay
something like a great knotted block of
alder, and that was the old grandmother's
cupboard. The Moor-woman said that this was
always open to her and to every one in all
lands and at all times, if they only knew
where the cupboard stood. It
could be opened either at the front or at
the back, and at every side and corner a
perfect work of art, and yet only an old
alder stump in appearance. The poets of all
lands, and especially those of our own
country, had been arranged here ; the spirit
of them had been extracted, refined,
criticized and renovated, and then stored up
in bottles. With what may be called great
aptitude, if it was not genius, the
grandmother had taken as it were the flavour
of this and of that poet, and had added a
little devilry, and then corked up the
bottles for use during all future times.
' Pray let me see,' said the man.
' Yes, but there are more important things
to hear,' replied the Moor-woman.
' But now we are at the cupboard ! ' said
the man. And he looked in. ' Here are
bottles of all sizes. What is in this one ?
and what in that one yonder ? '
' Here is what they call may-balm,' replied
the woman : ' I have not tried it myself,
but I know that if one sprinkles ever so
little of it on the floor, there immediately
appears a beautiful woodland lake, with
water-lilies, and calla and wild mint. One
need only pour two drops on an old exercise
-book, even one from the lowest class at
school, and the book becomes a whole drama
of perfume, which one may very well perform
and fall asleep over, the scent of it is so
powerful. It is intended as a compliment to
me that the label on the flask bears the
words, ' The Moor- woman's Brewing..
Here stands the Scandal-Bottle. It looks as
if there were only dirty water in it, and it
is dirty water, but with an effervescing
power of town-gossip, three ounces of lies
and two grains of truth, stirred about with
a birch-twig, not one that has been steeped
in brine and used on a
criminal's back, nor yet a piece of a
schoolmaster's birchrod, but one taken
direct from the broom with which the gutter
has been swept.
Here stands the bottle with pious poetry,
written to psalm-tunes. Each drop has a
terrifying ring about it, and it is made
from the blood and sweat of punishment. Some
say it is only dove's gall ; but doves are
most innocent creatures, and have no gall ;
so say those who do not know natural history.
Here stood the greatest bottle of all ; it
occupied half of the cupboard, the bottle of
E very-day Stories. Its mouth was covered
both with bladder and with pigskin, so that
it might lose none of its strength. Each
nation could get its own soup here ; it came
according as one turned about
the bottle. Here was old German blood-soup
with robber- dumplings in it ; also thin
peasant-soup with real privy councillors
swimming in it. There was English governess-
soup and French potage a la Kock, made from
cocks' legs and sparrows' eggs ; but the
best soup of all was the
Copenhagen. So the family said.
Here stood Tragedy in a champagne bottle ;
it could pop, and so it ought. Comedy looked
like fine sand to throw in people's eyes
that is to say, the finer Comedy ; the
coarser was also in a bottle, but consisted
only of theatrebills, on which the name of
the piece was the strongest item.
The man fell quite into a reverie over this,
but the Moor-woman looked farther ahead, and
wished to make an end of the matter.
' Now you have seen quite enough of the old
cupboard,' she said, ' and know what is in
it ; but the more important matter which you
ought to know, you do not know yet. The
Will-o' -the- Wisps are in the town ! That
's of much more consequence than poetry and
stories. I ought, indeed, to hold my tongue
; but there must be a necessity a fate a
something that sticks in my throat, and that
wants to come out. Take care, you mortals !
' I don't understand a word of all this ! '
cried the man.
' Be kind enough to seat yourself on that
cupboard,' she retorted, ' but take care you
don't fall through and break the bottles you
know what 's inside them. I must tell of the
great event. It occurred no longer ago than
yesterday. It did not happen earlier. It has
now three hundred and
sixty-four days to run about. I suppose you
know how many days there are in a year ? '
And this is what the Moor-woman told :
' There was a great commotion yesterday out
here in the marsh ! There was a christening
feast I A little Will-o'- the-Wisp was born
here in fact, twelve of them were born all
together ; and they have permission, if they
choose to use it, to go abroad among men,
and to move about and
command among them, just as if they were
born mortals. That was a great event in the
marsh, and accordingly all the Will -o' -the
-Wisps went dancing like little lights
across the moor, both male and female, for
there are some of them of the female sex,
though they are not usually spoken about. I
sat there on the cupboard, and had all the
twelve little new-born Will-o'-the-Wisps
upon my lap : they shone like glowworms ;
they already began to hop, and increased in
size every moment, so that before a quarter
of an hour had elapsed, each of them looked
just as large as his father or his uncle.
Now, it 's an old-established regulation and
privilege, that when the moon stands just as
it did yesterday, and the wind blows just as
it blew then, it is allowed and accorded to
all Will-o'-the-Wisps that is, to all those
who are born at that minute of time to
become mortals, and individually to exert
their power for the space of one year.
' The Will-o'-the-Wisp may run about in the
country and through the world, if it is not
afraid of falling into the sea, or of being
blown out by a heavy storm. It can enter
into a person and speak for him, and make
all the movements it pleases. The
Will-o'-the-Wisp may take whatever form
he likes, of man or woman, and can act in
their spirit and in their disguise in such a
way that he can effect whatever he wishes to
do. But he must manage, in the course of the
year, to lead three hundred and sixty-five
people into a wrong way, and in a grand
style, too : to lead them away from the
right and the truth ; and then he reaches
the highest point that a Will-o'-the-Wisp
can attain to become a runner before the
devil's state coach ; and then he'll wear
clothes of fiery yellow, and breathe forth
flames out of his throat. That 's enough to
make a simple Will- o'-the-Wisp smack his
lips. But there 's some danger in this, and
a great deal of work for a Will T
o'-the-Wisp who aspires to play so
distinguished a part. If the eyes of the man
are opened to what he is, and if the man can
then blow him away, it 's all over with him,
and he must come back
into the marsh ; or if, before the year is
up, the Will-o'-the Wisp is seized with a
longing to see his family, and so returns to
it and gives the matter up, it is over with
him likewise, and he can no longer burn
clear, and soon becomes extinguished, and
cannot be lit up again ; and when the
year has elapsed, and he has not led three
hundred and sixty-five people away from the
truth and from all that is grand and noble,
he is condemned to be imprisoned in decayed
wood, and to lie glimmering there without
being able to move ; and that 's the most
terrible punishment that can be inflicted on
a lively Will-o'-the-Wisp.
' Now, all this I knew, and all this I told
to the twelve little Will-o'-the- Wisps whom
I had on my lap, and who seemed quite crazy
'I told them that the safest and most
convenient course was to give up the honour,
and do nothing at all ; but the little
flames would not agree to this, and already
fancied themselves clad in fiery yellow
clothes, breathing flames from their throats.
' " Stay with us," said some of the older
ones. " Carry on your sport with mortals,"
said the others.
' " The mortals are drying up our meadows ;
they've taken to draining. What will our
successors do ? "
' " We want to flame ; we will flame flame !
" cried the new-born Will-o'-the- Wisps.
' And thus the affair was settled.
' And now a ball was given, a minute long ;
it could not well be shorter. The little
elf-maidens whirled round three times with
the rest, that they might not appear proud,
but they prefer dancing with one another.
' And now the sponsors' gifts were presented,
and presents were thrown them. These
presents flew like pebbles across the
swamp-water. Each of the elf-maidens gave a
little piece of her veil.
" Take that," they said, " and then you'll know the higher dance, the most
difficult turns and twists that is to say,
if you should find them necessary. You'll
know the proper deportment, and then you can
show yourself in the very pick of society."
' The night raven taught each of the young
Will-o'-the- Wisps to say, " Goo goo good,"
and to say it in the right place ; and that
's a great gift, which brings its own reward.
' The owl and the stork also made some
remarks but they said it was not worth
mentioning, and so we won't mention it.
King Waldemar's wild chase was just then
rushing over the moor, and when the great
lords heard of the festivities that were
going on, they sent as a present a couple of
handsome dogs, which hunt with the speed of
the wind, and can well bear two or three of
A couple of old Nightmares, spirits who
support themselves with riding, were also at
the feast ; and from these the young
Will-o'-the-Wisps learned the art of
slipping through every key-hole, as if the
door stood open before them. These offered
to carry the youngsters to the town, with
which they were well acquainted. They
usually rode through the air on their own
back hair, which is fastened into a knot,
for they love a hard seat ; but now they sat
astride on the wild hunting dogs, took the
young Will-o'-the-Wisps in their laps, who
wanted to go into the town to mislead and
entice mortals, and, whisk ! away they were.
Now, this is what happened last night.
To-day the Will-o'-the- Wisps are in the
town, and have taken the matter in hand but
where and how ? Ah, can you tell me that ?
Still, I've a lightning-conductor in my
great toe, and that will
always tell me something.'
' Why, this is a complete story,' exclaimed
' Yes, but it is only the beginning,'
replied the woman. Can you tell me how the
Will-o'-the-Wisps deport themselves, and how
they behave ? and in what shapes they have
appeared in order to lead people into
crooked paths ? '
' I believe,' replied the man, ' that one
could tell quite a romance about the
Will-o'-the-Wisps, in twelve parts ; or,
better still, one might make quite a popular
play of them.'
' You might write that/ said the woman, '
but it 's best let alone.'
' Yes, that 's better and more agreeable,.
'.the man replied, ' for then we shall
escape from the newspapers, and not be tied
up by them, which is just as uncomfortable
as for a Will-o'-the-Wisp to lie in decaying
wood, to have to
gleam, and not be able to stir don't care
about it either way,' cried the woman. ' Let
the rest write, those who can, and those who
cannot likewise. I'll give you an old tap
from my cask that will open the cupboard
where poetry is kept in bottles, and you may
take from that whatever may be wanting. But
you, my good man, seem to have blackened
your hands sufficiently with ink, and to
have come to that age of sedateness, that
you need not be running about every year for
stories, especially as there are much more
important things to be done. You must have
understood what is going on ? '
' The Will-o'-the-Wisps are in the town,'
said the man. ' I've heard it, and I have
understood it. But what do you think I ought
to do ? I should be thrashed if I were to go
to the people and say, " Look, yonder goes a
Will-o'- the-Wisp in his best clothes ! "
' They also go in undress,' replied the
woman. ' The Will-o'-the-Wisp can assume all
kinds of forms, and appear in every place.
He goes into the church, but not for the
sake of the service ; and perhaps he may
enter into one or other of the priests. He
speaks at the elections, not for the benefit
of the country, but only for himself. He 's
an artist with the colour -pot as well as in
the theatre ; but when he gets all the power
into his own hands, then the pot 's empty !
I chatter and chatter, but it must come out,
what 's sticking in my throat, to the
disadvantage of my own family. But I must
now be the woman that will save a good many
people. It is not done with my goodwill, or
for the sake of a medal. I do the most
insane things I possibly can, and then I
tell a poet about it, and thus the whole
town gets to know of it directly.'
' The town will not take that to heart,'
observed the man ; ' that will not disturb a
single person ; for they will all think I'm
only telling them a story when I say with
the greatest seriousness, " The Will-o'
-the- Wisps are in the town, says the
Moor-woman. Take care of yourselves ! " '