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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
The Magic Scythe
By Jón Árnason (1819–1888)
 
From ‘Icelandic Legends’: Translation of George E. J. Powell and Eiríkr Magnússon

A CERTAIN day-laborer once started from his home in the south to earn wages for hay-cutting in the north country. In the mountains he was suddenly overtaken by a thick mist and sleet-storm, and lost his way. Fearing to go on further, he pitched his tent in a convenient spot, and taking out his provisions, began to eat.  1
  While he was engaged upon his meal, a brown dog came into the tent, so ill-favored, dirty, wet, and fierce-eyed, that the poor man felt quite afraid of it, and gave it as much bread and meat as it could devour. This the dog swallowed greedily, and ran off again into the mist. At first the man wondered much to see a dog in such a wild place, where he never expected to meet with a living creature; but after a while he thought no more about the matter, and having finished his supper, fell asleep, with his saddle for a pillow.  2
  At midnight he dreamed that he saw a tall and aged woman enter his tent, who spoke thus to him:—“I am beholden to you, good man, for your kindness to my daughter, but am unable to reward you as you deserve. Here is a scythe which I place beneath your pillow; it is the only gift I can make you, but despise it not. It will surely prove useful to you, as it can cut down all that lies before it. Only beware of putting it into the fire to temper it. Sharpen it, however, as you will, but in that way never.” So saying, she was seen no more.  3
  When the man awoke and looked forth, he found the mist all gone and the sun high in heaven; so getting all his things together and striking his tent, he laid them upon the pack-horses, saddling last of all his own horse. But on lifting his saddle from the ground, he found beneath it a small scythe blade, which seemed well worn and was rusty. On seeing this, he at once recalled to mind his dream, and taking the scythe with him, set out once more on his way. He soon found again the road which he had lost, and made all speed to reach the well-peopled district to which he was bound.  4
  When he arrived at the north country, he went from house to house, but did not find any employment, for every farmer had laborers enough, and one week of hay-harvest was already past. He heard it said, however, that one old woman in the district, generally thought by her neighbors to be skilled in magic and very rich, always began her hay-cutting a week later than anybody else, and though she seldom employed a laborer, always contrived to finish it by the end of the season. When by any chance—and it was a rare one—she did engage a workman, she was never known to pay him for his work.  5
  Now the peasant from the south was advised to ask this old woman for employment, having been warned of her strange habits.  6
  He accordingly went to her house, and offered himself to her as a day laborer. She accepted his offer, and told him that he might, if he chose, work a week for her, but must expect no payment.  7
  “Except,” she said, “you can cut more grass in the whole week than I can rake in on the last day of it.”  8
  To these terms he gladly agreed, and began mowing. And a very good scythe he found that to be which the woman had given him in his dream; for it cut well, and never wanted sharpening, though he worked with it for five days unceasingly. He was well content, too, with his place, for the old woman was kind enough to him.  9
  One day, entering the forge next to her house, he saw a vast number of scythe-handles and rakes, and a big heap of blades, and wondered beyond measure what the old lady could want with all these. It was the fifth day—the Friday—and when he was asleep that night, the same elf-woman whom he had seen upon the mountains came again to him and said:—  10
  “Large as are the meadows you have mown, your employer will easily be able to rake in all that hay to-morrow, and if she does so, will, as you know, drive you away without paying you. When therefore you see yourself worsted, go into the forge, take as many scythe-handles as you think proper, fit their blades to them, and carry them out into that part of the land where the hay is yet uncut. There you must lay them on the ground, and you shall see how things go.”  11
  This said, she disappeared, and in the morning the laborer, getting up, set to work as usual at his mowing.  12
  At six o’clock the old witch came out, bringing five rakes with her, and said to the man, “A goodly piece of ground you have mowed, indeed!”  13
  And so saying, she spread the rakes upon the hay. Then the man saw, to his astonishment, that though the one she held in her hand raked in great quantities of hay, the other four raked in no less each, all of their own accord, and with no hand to wield them.  14
  At noon, seeing that the old woman would soon get the best of him, he went into the forge and took out several scythe-handles, to which he fixed their blades, and bringing them out into the field, laid them down upon the grass which was yet standing. Then all the scythes set to work of their own accord, and cut down the grass so quickly that the rakes could not keep pace with them. And so they went on all the rest of the day, and the old woman was unable to rake in all the hay which lay in the fields. After dark she told him to gather up his scythes and take them into the house again, while she collected her rakes, saying to him:—  15
  “You are wiser than I took you to be, and you know more than myself; so much the better for you, for you may stay as long with me as you like.”  16
  He spent the whole summer in her employment, and they agreed very well together, mowing with mighty little trouble a vast amount of hay. In the autumn she sent him away, well laden with money, to his own home in the south. The next summer, and more than one summer following, he spent in her employ, always being paid as his heart could desire, at the end of the season.  17
  After some years he took a farm of his own in the south country, and was always looked upon by all his neighbors as an honest man, a good fisherman, and an able workman in whatever he might put his hand to. He always cut his own hay, never using any scythe but that which the elf-woman had given him upon the mountains; nor did any of his neighbors ever finish their mowing before him.  18
  One summer it chanced that while he was fishing, one of his neighbors came to his house and asked his wife to lend him her husband’s scythe, as he had lost his own. The farmer’s wife looked for one, but could only find the one upon which her husband set such store. This, however, a little loth, she lent to the man, begging him at the same time never to temper it in the fire; for that, she said, her good man never did. So the neighbor promised, and taking it with him, bound it to a handle and began to work with it. But, sweep as he would, and strain as he would (and sweep and strain he did right lustily), not a single blade of grass fell. Wroth at this, the man tried to sharpen it, but with no avail. Then he took it into his forge, intending to temper it, for, thought he, what harm could that possibly do? but as soon as the flames touched it, the steel melted like wax, and nothing was left but a little heap of ashes. Seeing this, he went in haste to the farmer’s house, where he had borrowed it, and told the woman what had happened; she was at her wits’ end with fright and shame when she heard it, for she knew well enough how her husband set store by this scythe, and how angry he would be at its loss.  19
  And angry indeed he was, when he came home, and he beat his wife well for her folly in lending what was not hers to lend. But his wrath was soon over, and he never again, as he never had before, laid the stick about his wife’s shoulders.  20
 
 
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