Most Norwegian children are at some point during their childhood, confronted with the creatures that populate our folklore, fairy-tales and myths. There are many of them, some benevolent, others evil, some a bit of both. There are of course the trolls, who live in the dark woods and mountain ranges and who will burst if in direct contact with sunlight. There are the Norse Gods such as Odin with his two ravens, and the mighty Thor. And there is the Hulder, a female creature, often disguised as a beautiful woman who lures enamored, young men down to her underworld.
As children, we often fear the beings we hear of in our fairy-tales and folklore, for many of them have cruel intentions and should be avoided at all costs. Some of us begin to fear the unseen; the darkness beyond the garden hedge, the stone steps leading down to the damp and musky cellar. But, as we grow older, we learn that our fears are irrational and tied up in childhood superstition and ignorance. We laugh at the terror once lodged deep within us, and dismiss it as childhood folly.
I moved from Norway to London for studies at the age of twenty, and left behind the landscapes of my childhood. I also left behind the fantastical beasts and monsters that inhabit the land. For a while, immersed in the rush of a city that was wild in so many new ways, I forgot all about them.
Perhaps because of this short-term memory loss, the beings I had forgotten about for so long, returned to me stronger than ever when I eventually returned to Norway. I currently live at the edge of an expansive forest full of oak, birch and pine. Roots run over the footpaths, reminding every hiker who this place belongs to. Patches of untamed bog grow in the clearings. The trees are strange. Some have roots that have practically forced themselves up and out of the earth, which then elevate the trees above ground, creating the illusion that they are floating in mid-air. Others are hollow or grow horizontally off rocks and small cliff-faces.
Lakes, or rather tjern, are scattered throughout the forest. I can’t find an English word that properly describes the Norwegian tjern. Lake comes close, but it’s not quite the same. While lakes can often be huge and clear and almost resemble the sea itself, a tjern is more commonly found in a forest and is a darker sort of lake, often full of tall grasses, reeds and waterlilies.
A few weeks ago, a heat wave swept over this part of the country. One day I walked through the forest to one of the lakes or tjern on my own. It was a weekday afternoon, and once I passed the first lake closest to the road I saw no one else on the forest track. I reached the second lake, hemmed in by a sheer rock face on one side and the forest-covered footpath on the other. There was not a breath of wind and the lake lay black and static before me. I walked down to some smooth rocks that jutted out towards the water, and stripped down to my swimsuit. Then I lowered myself into the water, which was cool and pleasing against my hot, sticky skin.
When I peeked beneath the surface, the water immediately surrounding me was clear. I could see my pale legs dancing against the stone and mud-covered bottom. But not far beyond them, clarity quickly turned to murky darkness. There was no way of telling what lay further ahead of me in the water. It is perhaps not so strange then, that a being I had learned of in my childhood, resurfaced in my mind: Nøkken.
Nøkken is a supernatural being that lives in the many deep, dark lakes, or specifically tjern, that cover our country. It can take on the shape of a human or a beautiful, white horse, in order to lure people into the water. It is also said that the cry of Nøkken is a warning of death to come, by drowning.
This lake, with its still, black water, fringed by forest, is just the sort of place Nøkken would reside. How then, out there on my own, could I help but picture a broad-faced beast’s head slowly emerging from the middle of the lake, waiting patiently for me to venture out towards it?
My body felt relaxed while submerged in the water. The feeling was therapeutic. And yet, I didn’t swim out from the shore. I remained by the rocks and swam short laps of a few strokes from one rock to the other, back and forth, while the hot, eerie stillness of the day settled around me. After a while, two British girls appeared on their bikes. They stopped, undressed and jumped into the lake. I heard their chatter and the swishing sound of their arms and legs moving through the water. Soon they were out in the middle of the lake. There they split up, one of them swimming over to the shore below the steep cliff face, the other swimming further out. I wondered if either of them had ever heard the tale of Nøkken.
As I floated in the water, I caught myself almost wishing that Nøkken really was down there, at the bottom of the lake. Of course, the logical part of my mind doesn’t want the beast to truly exist. If it did, I would never venture anywhere near the lake, let alone set foot in it. But the imagery of the beast is so strong that I cannot disconnect it entirely from the landscape surrounding me. In my mind it belongs there, as surely as the stooping ferns, the crows and the water-lilies. It completes the landscape. Its presence is assertive. It has a right to be there.
I will continue to swim in the tjern that are dotted throughout the forest. But the beasts that populate this country’s folklore, will continue to appear in my mind whenever I do. Because that is the only way they can survive. They need us, the people, to remember them. Feeding off our fear and imagination, they make sure that we do not forget about them. They are always there, at the periphery of our vision, lurking in the shadows.
I believe we need the creatures of our folklore and fairy-tales, now perhaps more than ever. Because they remind us to respect our natural environments. Because they distill in us, hopefully, just the right amount of fear needed, to not interfere too deeply with the natural world.