This is one of Hans Christian Andersen’s more obscure stories. It begins with several lizards gossiping eagerly about a ruckus taking place on the nearby elfin mound. One lizard is more knowledgeable on the subject than the rest, having consulted with an earthworm of his acquaintance who happens to live in the Mount, and reveals that such important guests are expected that all the will-o’-the-wisps have been seconded to light a procession – but he does not know who those guests might be.
During the conversation an elfin housekeeper emerges from the Mount and hurries down to the seashore, seeking the night raven. According to the footnote, when a ghost is staked by a priest and then released, it takes the form of a bird and how did I never hear of night ravens before this moment? The housekeeper asks that he attend the evening’s festivities, which would feel like much more of a compliment if she didn’t also need him to distribute the rest of the invites.
“All the world may come to the great ball,” she explains, “even men, if they talk in their sleep, or do anything in our way. But for the feast the company must be very select; none but guests of the very highest rank must be present. To say the truth, the King and I have been having a little dispute; for I thought that not even ghosts should be admitted.” Sure, that’s not insulting the present company at all.
The housekeeper rattles off a list of the less contentious guests, includes the Mer-King and his daughter, the classier type of demons, the hobgoblins and various other spirits that sound like fantastic – if terrifying – dinner guests. The raven obligingly flies off to spread the word.
Inside the Mount, the preparations are almost complete, but the Elf King’s daughters have still not been told the cause of all this celebration. At the last minute, the king deigns to share his plans. “Two of my daughters must get themselves ready to be married,” he says, “for married they certainly shall be. The old goblin from Norway who lives in the Dovre mountains and who has so many castles of freestone among them, besides a gold-mine – a capital thing, let me tell you – is coming here with his two boys, who are each to choose a bride.” Your mercenary is showing, majesty.
The Norse goblin duly arrives and is greeted with all appropriate pomp. His sons are less dignified, kicking off their boots and putting their feet up on the banquet table. The entertainment commences with the dancing of the king’s seven daughters, and continues as each girl steps up to display her own particular skill. The youngest daughter can disappear at will. The second can cast a shadow, which no other elf or goblin can do, while the third has been taught by a moor-witch how to brew ale. When the fourth plays her harp everyone does as she bids them, a talent the Norse goblin does not find attractive at all. The fifth daughter professes a passionate love of the north (rooted in the belief that when the rest of the world falls, the stones of Norway will hold firm), but perversely the goblin passes over her.
“I can only tell people the truth,” the sixth girl states flatly. “No one cares for me or troubles about me, and I have enough to do to sew my shroud!” Oh, honey, why is this story not about you? I want to know about you. Instead we move on to the seventh girl, last and oldest, who has an amazing memory for stories and a gift for telling them well. Charmed, the goblin proposes on the spot.
His sons were also supposed to find brides at this party, but they’re off harassing the will-o’-the-wisps. “What is all this riot for?” their father complains. “I have been choosing you a mother; now you come and choose yourselves wives from among your aunts.” Could that be phrased in a more creepy way? No, I really don’t think it could. Fortunately the boys could not be less interested in marriage. They get drunk instead and fall asleep on the banquet table while their father dances around the hall with his new bride. Only at cock’s crow, with dawn imminent on the horizon, does the Mount close and the celebration end.
I always have mixed feelings about Andersen’s fairy tales because on the one hand they are so beautifully intricate, and on the other they’re just so depressing. And this is one of his more cheerful ones, since at least no one dies a tragic death. The fate of these princesses, though, laid out so matter-of-factly by their father, makes being kidnapped by a dragon look like a fantastic plan B.