The following story is true, as far as legends can be considered accurate. It took place long ago in a small village in the north of Sweden, and it is known as the tale of Arvid and the elves.
Arvid was an orphan who worked as a farmhand for anyone willing to pay for a young pair of legs and arms.
The farmers liked him because although he was no ox on the land—for he was slight and frail—he would charm people with music from his fiddle.
His music wasn’t particularly good, nor was his work, but the farmers hired him because he kept the spirits high amongst the farmworkers. Every wise farmer knows that the happier the hands, the more work gets done.
Arvid also played his fiddle at parties and festive events. However, these were only for small groups of friends and acquaintances. The more generous ones would even pay him a meagre fee for his entertainment. The extra money Arvid collected helped him get through the colder months and kept him from starving and freezing to death.
Arvid’s music never attracted much of a crowd, as he was an unremarkable fiddler. But what he lacked in talent, he made up a hundred-fold in kindheartedness.
Arvid’s name fitted him like a glove, as it meant ‘friend of the people’. He always helped those in need and had a friendly word for everyone, young and old folk alike. He also had the utmost respect for those beings or events that most people often found strange or questionable.
At night, he would never forget to leave a small fire burning in the hearth along with the leftovers of a loaf of bread and a bottle of apple cider. Rumours claimed that elves and fairies often came out at night and gathered in people’s kitchens when all were fast asleep.
Now sprite creatures in Sweden differ considerably from how many of us would imagine them to be. Names like Tinkerbell, Ariel or Galadriel come to mind when thinking of magical creatures or even leprechauns. However, in the north of Sweden, they are quite different. Despite their magical powers, elves and fairies look like you and me.
You could be talking to one right now without even knowing.
So Arvid made sure he was generous to strangers he came across and offered a kind word to each. One could never know if behind those deep wrinkles or freckled nose lay one of the fairy folk come to test his goodwill.
One moonlit summer evening Arvid was walking back from a small wedding party he had animated with his fiddle. It was late, and he was due to work in the fields the next day, so he took a shortcut. He stumbled and groped along the stony path cloaked in darkness by the canopy of interlaced branches until he came upon a bubbling brook. He followed the stream northward, looking for a narrower place to cross over to the other bank. That was when he spotted two large flat stones that formed a natural wobbly path across the water, and with two awkward leaps, he landed on the other side.
The grass was soft and dewy, and as Arvid inhaled the mild night air, a rich scent of honeysuckle filled his nostrils, sending his head in a spin.
He sat down near the remains of a small campfire and rested his head on the soft grass. Arvid’s eyelids felt heavy, and his breathing slowed down until his jaw relaxed, and a faint whistle escaped his lips.
A lively breeze swooped up the ashes and scattered them over and around him. They settled on to his thick dark lashes and curly auburn hair. Grey petals crept up his upturned nose and landed on his parted lips, dancing in the air as he inhaled and exhaled.
The bubbling of the brook was overwhelmed by a tinkling melody, and in the darkness, flickering lights appeared, swaying back and forth in the breeze. The music got louder and merrier, and the patter of light feet resounded on the ground.
Arvid’s eyes fluttered open, the ashes falling on to his cheeks. His eyes widened as he took in the scene before him.
Gone was the darkness and the tranquillity of the stream bank. Songs and enchanting notes were floating in the air, while men and women were singing and dancing under multicoloured lights that dangled from branches.
Arvid sat up and rubbed his eyes, smearing grey ash all over his face.
How did I end up in this place?
Before he could find a reasonable explanation, a young woman sprang out from the darkness and loomed over him. She was wearing orange velvet trousers, and an ivory coloured shirt with frills down the middle. Wavy locks of a titian red bounced around her oval face, which was as pale as the moon shining overhead. Her eyes sparkled dark green and reflected the lights of the red and yellow lanterns.
“Get up, Arvid,” she said in a melodious voice, “the party has already started, and we need a second fiddler for the next dance.”
“A fiddler?” stammered Arvid, his eyes mesmerised as if in a trance, “I couldn’t possibly play the fiddle now. I’ve been playing all night. I wouldn’t be able to lift it to my chin even if I tried.”
“Oh nonsense,” said the graceful creature.
The titian beauty smiled, and Arvid felt a renewed energy flow into his tired limbs.
She offered her hand to pull him up, and in a blink, he found himself on his two feet without effort. He was eye to eye with the young woman and noticed with relief that he had to tip his head slightly downwards to look into her emerald eyes. She had looked taller from below, for she was slender and willowy.
“Why are you dressed up as a boy,” he asked, feeling a wave of heat spreading over his face.
The young woman tossed her head back and laughed.
“I’m not dressed as a boy; I’m dressed as a musician.”
Arvid followed her as she skipped towards the larger group.
“Hurrah,” she cheered, stepping up on a raised platform, made of large stones like the ones Arvid had used to cross the stream.
Two lithe young men were sitting on stools polishing strange-looking flutes carved out of dark wood. Arvid noticed intricate silver etchings along the rod stems. He had never seen such exquisite instruments in his life.
The tallest of the two men turned around and grinned at the young woman, then his dark blue eyes came to rest on Arvid, and he shook his head.
“There you are, Aredhel. And what have you dragged out of the river?” he said with a snort as he stood up boasting an elegant outfit of silver and blue.
“Well, well,” said the other man, hitching his foot onto the stool and examining Arvid with piercing dark eyes. A black lock of hair fell over his forehead as he too shook his head in disbelief.
Aredhel tipped her pointed chin upwards and pushed the dark-eyed youth aside, who lost his balance and nearly fell over.
“Well, we need a fiddler, and Arvid is the only one I can find who’s sober enough to play.”
Arvid shied away from the gaze of the two men, and a wave of discomfort swept over him. He knew he could never be a match to such refined and handsome beings with their fine instruments and confident demeanour.
“I’m sure their right,” whispered Arvid to Aredhel, “I’m only a mediocre fiddler, and you’re better off without me.”
Arvid turned around to step off the platform when he felt a hand grip his left shoulder.
“Wait,” said Aredhel, her voice soft and endearing, “don’t listen to my brothers, they’re just hot-headed show-offs. But, they are kind at heart and can teach you secrets about music you would never learn elsewhere.”
When Arvid spun around, he met a pair of penetrating eyes, the colour of dark sapphires, and he realised the hand on his shoulder had not been Aredhel’s.
He froze for a moment, trying to match the stare.
“You seem to be a kind-hearted fellow, and if Aredhel likes you, then we do too. What’d’ ya say, Arod?”
Blood rushed to Arvid’s face.
“But of course, Aldon,” replied Arod, bowing before Aredhel, “our noble sister is always right!”
The three siblings erupted in peals of laughter, and Arvid wasn’t sure if it was at his expense or not, but he did not wish to spoil the fun. He shrugged and accepted Aldon’s hand with a nod, and was heaved back up onto the platform.
Aredhel handed Arvid an exquisite fiddle made of rosewood. Fine golden etchings ran along its body in a foreign language he did not recognise. The instrument felt warm and comforting in a way Arvid could not define. As his fingers touched the shiny surface, electric sparks tingled his fingertips.
He placed the fiddle under his chin and brought the bow to the quivering strings, waiting in expectation. Arvid was sure he was imagining things, but the bow seemed to be attracted to the stings like a magnet to a metal rod.
He turned to Aredhel; her green eyes were full of humour and anticipation. She shook back her long auburn hair and beamed at Arvid before fitting her fiddle under the gentle curve of her chin.
Arvid’s head felt hot, yet he was oddly at ease, and knew that all he had to do was follow Aredhel’s lead, and all would be fine.
Arod rested the mouthpiece of his flute on his square chin and puckering his pale lips he formed an O and blew into the tone hole. A stream of enchanted notes escaped from his flute up past the lanterns into the canopy of the birches.
Arvid listened in awe as he turned to Aredhel, waiting for the signal to start. He needn’t have worried because the bow did the job for him. All he had to do was hold on to it and follow the dance on the strings.
That night Arvid played the fiddle in a way he had never done before. It felt like the fiddle was leading him and not the other way around. The music was unlike any kind he had played or heard before. Not only was there gaiety in the notes but also hope and lightness of heart.
Arvid learnt many things about fiddles and music during those dark hours, as well as different tunes and ways of playing the instrument. He no longer felt mediocre or common, but special and unique.
When through the trees cloaked in darkness, the pale fingers of dawn stretched out over the branches, the notes rippled to an end, dispersing the crowd as if by magic.
Only Aredhel remained standing before him. She lay the fiddle on the stool which Arod had used as a footrest, and Arvid took a step in her direction. He was about to place the fiddle next to Aredhel’s when she stopped him.
“That fiddle belongs to you now. You have become the master of its music, and no other musician will ever be able to play on its strings.”
Aredhel smiled and took Arvid by the hand leading him towards the stream whose waters now reflected the pale yellow light of dawn. Her hair caught fire as the first ray broke over the horizon.
“It’s time to go home Arvid and to take with you the secret that has been revealed.
Remember that only those who have faith in themselves can become leaders. Never doubt your skills and keep your heart as pure as it is now.”
Arvid looked down at the fiddle for a moment trying to find the words to thank Aredhel. He looked up again, and a second ray escaped from the line of the horizon blinding his view. He blinked and screened the light off with his hand, but Aredhel had disappeared.
From that day on, Arvid not only became an exceptional musician, he was also highly esteemed. The noble courts and most prestigious houses from all over the land seeked him for his fine talent.
Every time he played, Arvid heard Aredhel’s voice, like a soft breeze blowing against his cheek that rested on the fiddle and he felt familiar sparks tingling in his fingers.
“Let the notes vibrate and permeate the air with the buzz of happiness and hope, let them drift over the heads of your audience until people see the world around them as magical and full of colour, not dreary and stricken with grief. That, Arvid, is exceptional playing, and all it takes is believing in oneself.”