Elder Tree Mother by Hans Christian Andersen
THERE was once a little boy who had taken cold by going out and
getting his feet wet. No one could think how he had managed to do so,
for the weather was quite dry. His mother undressed him and put him to
bed, and then she brought in the teapot to make him a good cup of elder
tea, which is so warming.
At the same time the friendly old man who lived all alone at the top
of the house came in at the door. He had neither wife nor child, but he
was very fond of children and knew so many fairy tales and stories that
it was a pleasure to hear him talk. Now, if you drink your tea, said
the mother, very likely you will have a story in the meantime.
[Illustration: But how did the little fellow get his feet wet?
Yes, if I could think of a new one to tell, said the old man. But
how did the little fellow get his feet wet? asked he.
Ah, said the mother, that is what we cannot make out.
Will you tell me a story? asked the boy.
Yes, if you can tell me exactly how deep the gutter is in the
little street through which you go to school.
Just halfway up to my knee, said the boy, promptly; that is, if I
stand in the deepest part.
It is easy to see how we got our feet wet, said the old man.
Well, now I suppose I ought to tell a story, but really I don't know
You can make up one, I know, said the boy. Mother says that you
can turn everything you look at into a story, and everything, even,
that you touch.
Ah, but those tales and stories are worth nothing. The real ones
come of themselves; they knock at my forehead and say, 'Here we are!'
Won't there be a knock soon? asked the boy. And his mother laughed
as she put elder flowers in the teapot and poured boiling water over
them. Oh, do tell me a story.
Yes, if a story comes of itself, but tales and stories are very
grand; they only come when it pleases them. Stop, he cried all at
once, here we have it; look! there is a story in the teapot now.
The little boy looked at the teapot and saw the lid raise itself
gradually and long branches stretch out, even from the spout, in all
directions till they became larger and larger, and there appeared a
great elder tree covered with flowers white and fresh. It spread itself
even to the bed and pushed the curtains aside, and oh, how fragrant the
In the midst of the tree sat a pleasant-looking old woman in a very
strange dress. The dress was green, like the leaves of the elder tree,
and was decorated with large white elder blossoms. It was not easy to
tell whether the border was made of some kind of stuff or of real
What is that woman's name? asked the boy.
The Romans and Greeks called her a dryad, said the old man, but
we do not understand that name; we have a better one for her in the
quarter of the town where the sailors live. They call her Elder-flower
Mother, and you must pay attention to her now, and listen while you
look at the beautiful tree.
Just such a large, blooming tree as this stands outside in the
corner of a poor little yard, and under this tree, one bright sunny
afternoon, sat two old people, a sailor and his wife. They had
great-grandchildren, and would soon celebrate the golden wedding, which
is the fiftieth anniversary of the wedding day in many countries, and
the Elder Mother sat in the tree and looked as pleased as she does now.
'I know when the golden wedding is to be,' said she, but they did
not hear her; they were talking of olden times. 'Do you remember,' said
the old sailor, 'when we were quite little and used to run about and
play in the very same yard where we are now sitting, and how we planted
little twigs in one corner and made a garden?'
'Yes,' said the old woman, 'I remember it quite well; and how we
watered the twigs, and one of them was a sprig of elder that took root
and put forth green shoots, until in time it became the great tree
under which we old people are now seated.'
'To be sure,' he replied, 'and in that corner yonder stands the
water butt in which I used to swim my boat that I had cut out all
myself; and it sailed well too. But since then I have learned a very
different kind of sailing.'
'Yes, but before that we went to school,' said she, 'and then we
were prepared for confirmation. How we both cried on that day! But in
the afternoon we went hand in hand up to the round tower and saw the
view over Copenhagen and across the water; then we went to
Fredericksburg, where the king and queen were sailing in their
beautiful boat on the canals.'
'But I had to sail on a very different voyage elsewhere and be away
from home for years on long voyages,' said the old sailor.
'Ah yes, and I used to cry about you,' said she, 'for I thought you
must be lying drowned at the bottom of the sea, with the waves sweeping
over you. And many a time have I got up in the night to see if the
weathercock had turned; it turned often enough, but you came not. How
well I remember one day the rain was pouring down from the skies, and
the man came to the house where I was in service to take away the dust.
I went down to him with the dust box and stood for a moment at the
door,what shocking weather it was!and while I stood there the
postman came up and brought me a letter from you.
'How that letter had traveled about! I tore it open and read it. I
laughed and wept at the same time, I was so happy. It said that you
were in warm countries where the coffee berries grew, and what a
beautiful country it was, and described many other wonderful things.
And so I stood reading by the dustbin, with the rain pouring down, when
all at once somebody came and clasped me round the waist.'
'Yes, and you gave him such a box on the ears that they tingled,'
said the old man.
'I did not know that it was you,' she replied; 'but you had arrived
as quickly as your letter, and you looked so handsome, and, indeed, so
you are still. You had a large yellow silk handkerchief in your pocket
and a shiny hat on your head. You looked quite fine. And all the time
what weather it was, and how dismal the street looked!'
'And then do you remember,' said he, 'when we were married, and our
first boy came, and then Marie, and Niels, and Peter, and Hans
'Indeed I do,' she replied; 'and they are all grown up respectable
men and women, whom every one likes.'
'And now their children have little ones,' said the old sailor.
'There are great-grandchildren for us, strong and healthy too. Was it
not about this time of year that we were married?'
'Yes, and to-day is the golden-wedding day,' said Elder-tree
Mother, popping her head out just between the two old people; and they
thought it was a neighbor nodding to them. Then they looked at each
other and clasped their hands together. Presently came their children
and grand*-children, who knew very well that it was the golden-wedding
day. They had already wished them joy on that very morning, but the old
people had forgotten it, although they remembered so well all that had
happened many years before. And the elder tree smelled sweet, and the
setting sun shone upon the faces of the old people till they looked
quite ruddy. And the youngest of their grandchildren danced round them
joyfully, and said they were going to have a feast in the evening, and
there were to be hot potatoes. Then the Elder Mother nodded in the tree
and cried 'Hurrah!' with all the rest.
But that is not a story, said the little boy who had been
Not till you understand it, said the old man. But let us ask the
Elder Mother to explain it.
It was not exactly a story, said the Elder Mother, but the story
is coming now, and it is a true one. For out of truth the most
wonderful stories grow, just as my beautiful elder bush has sprung out
of the teapot. And then she took the little boy out of bed and laid
him on her bosom, and the blooming branches of elder closed over them
so that they sat, as it were, in a leafy bower, and the bower flew with
them through the air in the most delightful manner.
Then the Elder Mother all at once changed to a beautiful young
maiden, but her dress was still of the same green stuff, ornamented
with a border of white elder blossoms such as the Elder Mother had
worn. In her bosom she wore a real elder flower, and a wreath of the
same was entwined in her golden ringlets. Her large blue eyes were very
beautiful to look at. She was of the same age as the boy, and they
kissed each other and felt very happy.
They left the arbor together, hand in hand, and found themselves in
a beautiful flower garden which belonged to their home. On the green
lawn their father's stick was tied up. There was life in this stick for
the little ones, for no sooner did they place themselves upon it than
the white knob changed into a pretty neighing head with a black,
flowing mane, and four long, slender legs sprung forth. The creature
was strong and spirited, and galloped with them round the grassplot.
Hurrah! now we will ride many miles away, said the boy; we'll
ride to the nobleman's estate, where we went last year.
Then they rode round the grassplot again, and the little maiden,
who, we know, was Elder-tree Mother, kept crying out: Now we are in
the country. Do you see the farmhouse, with a great baking oven
standing out from the wall by the road-side like a gigantic egg? There
is an elder spreading its branches over it, and a cock is marching
about and scratching for the chickens. See how he struts!
Now we are near the church. There it stands on the hill, shaded by
the great oak trees, one of which is half dead. See, here we are at the
blacksmith's forge. How the fire burns! And the half-clad men are
striking the hot iron with the hammer, so that the sparks fly about.
Now then, away to the nobleman's beautiful estate! And the boy saw all
that the little girl spoke of as she sat behind him on the stick, for
it passed before him although they were only galloping round the
grassplot. Then they played together in a side walk and raked up the
earth to make a little garden. Then she took elder flowers out of her
hair and planted them, and they grew just like those which he had heard
the old people talking about, and which they had planted in their young
days. They walked about hand in hand too, just as the old people had
done when they were children, but they did not go up the round tower
nor to Fredericksburg garden. No; but the little girl seized the boy
round the waist, and they rode all over the whole country (sometimes it
was spring, then summer; then autumn and winter followed), while
thousands of images were presented to the boy's eyes and heart, and the
little girl constantly sang to him, You must never forget all this.
And through their whole flight the elder tree sent forth the sweetest
They passed roses and fresh beech trees, but the perfume of the
elder tree was stronger than all, for its flowers hung round the little
maiden's heart, against which the boy so often leaned his head during
It is beautiful here in the spring, said the maiden, as they stood
in a grove of beech trees covered with fresh green leaves, while at
their feet the sweet-scented thyme and blushing anemone lay spread amid
the green grass in delicate bloom. O that it were always spring in the
fragrant beech groves!
Here it is delightful in summer, said the maiden, as they passed
old knights' castles telling of days gone by and saw the high walls and
pointed gables mirrored in the rivers beneath, where swans were sailing
about and peeping into the cool green avenues. In the fields the corn
waved to and fro like the sea. Red and yellow flowers grew amongst the
ruins, and the hedges were covered with wild hops and blooming
convolvulus. In the evening the moon rose round and full, and the
haystacks in the meadows filled the air with their sweet scent. These
were scenes never to be forgotten.
It is lovely here also in autumn, said the little maiden, and then
the scene changed again. The sky appeared higher and more beautifully
blue, while the forest glowed with colors of red, green, and gold. The
hounds were off to the chase, and large flocks of wild birds flew
screaming over the Huns' graves, where the blackberry bushes twined
round the old ruins. The dark blue sea was dotted with white sails, and
in the barns sat old women, maidens, and children picking hops into a
large tub. The young ones sang songs, and the old ones told fairy tales
of wizards and witches. There could be nothing more pleasant than all
Again, said the maiden, it is beautiful here in winter. Then in
a moment all the trees were covered with hoarfrost, so that they looked
like white coral. The snow crackled beneath the feet as if every one
had on new boots, and one shooting star after another fell from the
sky. In warm rooms there could be seen the Christmas trees, decked out
with presents and lighted up amid festivities and joy. In the country
farmhouses could be heard the sound of a violin, and there were games
for apples, so that even the poorest child could say, It is beautiful
And beautiful indeed were all the scenes which the maiden showed to
the little boy, and always around them floated the fragrance of the
elder blossom, and ever above them waved the red flag with the white
cross, under which the old seaman had sailed. The boywho had become a
youth, and who had gone as a sailor out into the wide world and sailed
to warm countries where the coffee grew, and to whom the little girl
had given an elder blossom from her bosom for a keepsake, when she took
leave of himplaced the flower in his hymn book; and when he opened it
in foreign lands he always turned to the spot where this flower of
remembrance lay, and the more he looked at it the fresher it appeared.
He could, as it were, breathe the homelike fragrance of the woods, and
see the little girl looking at him from between the petals of the
flower with her clear blue eyes, and hear her whispering, It is
beautiful here at home in spring and summer, in autumn and in winter,
while hundreds of these home scenes passed through his memory.
Many years had passed, and he was now an old man, seated with his
old wife under an elder tree in full blossom. They were holding each
other's hands, just as the great-grandfather and grandmother had done,
and spoke, as they did, of olden times and of the golden wedding. The
little maiden with the blue eyes and with the elder blossoms in her
hair sat in the tree and nodded to them and said, To-day is the golden
[Illustration: As she placed them on the heads of the old people,
each flower became a golden crown.]
And then she took two flowers out of her wreath and kissed them, and
they shone first like silver and then like gold, and as she placed them
on the heads of the old people, each flower became a golden crown. And
there they sat like a king and queen under the sweet-scented tree,
which still looked like an elder bush. Then he related to his old wife
the story of the Elder-tree Mother, just as he had heard it told when
he was a little boy, and they both fancied it very much like their own
story, especially in parts which they liked the best.
Well, and so it is, said the little maiden in the tree. Some call
me Elder Mother, others a dryad, but my real name is Memory. It is I
who sit in the tree as it grows and grows, and I can think of the past
and relate many things. Let me see if you have still preserved the
Then the old man opened his hymn book, and there lay the elder
flower, as fresh as if it had only just been placed there, and Memory
nodded. And the two old people with the golden crowns on their heads
sat in the red glow of the evening sunlight and closed their eyes,
andandthe story was ended.
The little boy lay in his bed and did not quite know whether he had
been dreaming or listening to a story. The teapot stood on the table,
but no elder bush grew out of it, and the old man who had really told
the tale was on the threshold and just going out at the door.
How beautiful it was, said the little boy. Mother, I have been to
I can quite believe it, said his mother. When any one drinks two
full cups of elder-flower tea, he may well get into warm countries;
and then she covered him up, that he should not take cold. You have
slept well while I have been disputing with the old man as to whether
it was a real story or a fairy legend.
And where is the Elder-tree Mother? asked the boy.
She is in the teapot, said the mother, and there she may stay.