The Silver Fir Cones

The Silver Fir Cones

The following is an adaptation of an old German folk tale which was published in the year 1800 in an anthology of stories from the Harz mountains in northern Germany. The book was entitled Volkssagen (Traditions of the Harz) and was written by an unknown writer who named himself ‘Otmar’, itself a common given name.

The word ‘Harz’, which refers to the largest mountain range in northern Germany, comes from an older word which means ‘mountain forest’. Tonight’s tale largely takes place in such a forest and features a mythological figure in whom the people of the area once believed; yet strangely, our story comes from a time when the old religions of Europe had all but disappeared from memory. However, picturing a woman wandering alone in the leafy darkness, it is easy to understand how the potency of imagination and the enduring love of storytelling have preserved the ways of the past.

A long time ago in the Harz country lived a man and his wife. Together they had seven children, and the man worked as a miner for a living. Poverty fell on the little family when he fell gravely ill and was confined to his bed. It was not long before there was no money to buy meat to feed the children; but it was the loss of firewood during the cold nights which hit them hardest. Growing desparate, the miner’s wife decided to go into the forest to collect fir cones, both as firewood and to sell to buy meat. So, bidding her family farewell, she took up a large basket and set off.

Though the day was bright and clear, it was quite dark deep inside where the tall pines grew. As she travelled further into the forest, gathering fir cones as she went, the wife felt more and more helpless, knowing that fir cones alone would not bring back her husband’s health and the good fortune the family had enjoyed. Eventually becoming thoroughly miserable, she sat down on a tree stump to weep.

Before long, she heard a deep, angry voice.

“Who are you, why are you crying and most of all, why are you stealing my fir cones?” it demanded.

She looked up with fright and was surprised to see a short, heavyset man – no, a dwarf – glaring at her. He had skin the colour of the tree bark and a long white beard which trailed right down to the ground. The woman fell to her knees and begged his forgiveness, telling him why she had collected the cones. The dwarf’s face became kind and he bade her stand up.

“I am sorry, but you may not take these fir cones, for they belong to me. However, if you go further up the mountain, you will find trees which drop fir cones which will suit you far better,” he told her.

So the woman returned the pine cones which she had taken and headed up the mountain in the direction the dwarf had pointed. The ground sloped steeply upwards and it was not long before she became dreadfully tired. Having found no fir cones, she sat down to rest, dropping her empty basket to the ground. At once, showers of fir cones fell from the branches above, pelting her and filling her basket. She leapt up in fright, took up her basket and ran back down the mountain, not stopping until she emerged from the forest.

As she ran the basket had grown heavier and heavier. Now that she was safely out of the forest she looked to see what she had caught. She was amazed to find that the reason her basket was so heavy was that the fir cones were now made of pure silver. She hurried home to show her husband the fir cones and to tell him of her encounter with the strange dwarf.

“Surely that was Gübich, the King of the Dwarves,” he said, marvelling over the silver fir cones. “The stories always tell us of his kindness to the poor!” But remembering the dwarf’s anger and how frightened she had been, the woman secretly feared that she had met the Devil himself.

She went into town the next day and sold some of the silver pine cones, making more than enough money to buy everything the family needed. Though the children ate well that night and the fire blazed, the woman could not be happy. Her husband was now so ill that he could not eat a single bite.

Still, the woman was a gentle lady of good manners and so the next day she went back to the forest to thank the dwarf for his help. She found Gübich waiting for her beside the tree stump. When she thanked him he laughed.

“There is no need to offer me thanks, my good lady,” he smiled, offering a low bow. “I am happy to be at your service.” Still smiling, he reached down to pluck a plant from the ground which she had not noticed. “Take this,” he continued, “and strip the leaves from it. Boil the leaves to make tea. When the water turns green, give it to your husband to drink.” That said, he promptly disappeared.

At this, the woman was even more shocked and was yet worried that he had been the Devil in disguise. What if the leaves were poisonous? But when she returned home, she found her husband close to death. “I must trust the dwarf,” she thought. “He must have meant well.”

Boiling the leaves as the dwarf had directed, she made a tea which she gave to her sick husband. Before her very eyes his illness left him and within minutes, he was able to sit up in his bed. Before the hour was up, he was up and walking around the house. The family rejoiced at his recovery, and with the gift of the silver fir cones they were never in want again. The woman and her family returned to the tree stump many times to find Gübich and thank him once again for his kindnesses, but they never saw him again. Every day they thanked him in their hearts and, when all but one of the silver fir cones were gone, the children kept it as an heirloom, passing it down from mother to daughter.

It is said that the people of the Harz mountains still keep a silver fir cone in their dressers as a reminder of Gübich the King of the Dwarves and his kindness towards a family in need.

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