|by James Baldwin|
|Far away in the Frozen Land in the long ago time a master wizard forged the wonderous sampo or mill of fortune, which ground out all sorts of treasures and gave wealth and power to its owner. This story, retold in from the Finnish Kalevala, tells of the making of this mill and the adventures of the heroes who sought to gain possession of it. Ages 11-14 |
THE FIELD OF SERPENTS
ES, the master Smith was standing at the
door. A hero, indeed, he appeared—tall,
handsome, and brave. Over his
shoulders was the sky-blue shawl which his
mother had woven for him. On his head was
the cap of his ancestors, and around his waist
a golden girdle was buckled. His shoes of reindeer
leather were highly polished and his stockings
of silk were long and black. His embroidered
coat was of yellow linen, very fine, and his
trousers were of scarlet-colored flannel.
The Maid of Beauty blushed when she saw
him; then her face grew white again, and again
suddenly red. Her heart beat hard and fast,
her hands trembled. Never in her life had she
beheld a hero so finely clad, so perfect in form,
so noble in feature. She would have swooned
had not pride prevented.
"Poor men are always fond of gaudy garments,"
whispered the mother; and then
re-  membering the law of the hostess she hastened
to greet the unwelcome guest. She led the
hero into the low-raftered hall and gave him a
seat beside the smouldering fire. She stirred the
coals and threw on wood; the flames leaped up
and filled the room with brightness.
Then the Maid of Beauty came forward with
the bowl of honey and the pitcher of milk, a
smile on her lips and a sparkle in her eye.
Welcome, weary traveller!" she said. "Eat,
drink, and be refreshed."
"Nay, nay," answered the hero. "Never
under the silver moon will I taste of food till
my desire is granted me—till I have leave to take
and wed the maiden who is the desire of my heart."
The grim old Mistress grew grimmer still as
she answered him: "When wilful maidens
choose 'tis folly for mothers to refuse. But never
should suitor win his bride too easily, lest doing
so he prize her too lightly. The Maid of
Beauty is waiting for you, Ilmarinen, but before
you take her your courage must be tested,
you must perform the task that I require of you."
"Name the task, and I will do it," said Ilmarinen
boastfully as of yore. "Was it not I
 who hammered the sky? Did I not forge the
Sampo and shape its lid of rainbow colors?"
"But this task is different," responded the
Mistress, "and if you fail your life is endangered."
"Tell me what it is and I will perform it,"
answered the hero. "I will drain the sea, I will
level the mountains, I will snatch the moon
from its place in the sky if you so command me.
I will do anything to win from you the great
treasure, the priceless Maid of Beauty."
"No doubt the feats you name are easy,"
said the Mistress; "but I shall require a harder
one. Before you are permitted to take the
Maid of Beauty you must plough the field of
serpents that lies in the barren lands beyond
the forest of pine. Twelve furrows you must
make lengthwise of the field, and twelve furrows
you must make crosswise; and you must
plough it deep, without touching either beam
"I have heard of that fearful field," said Ilmarinen.
"No man has ever yet gone into it
and lived. It is more dreadful even than
Tuoni's silent kingdom."
 "Yes, one man has lived," then spoke the
Maid of Beauty. "One man, in the old, old
times, furrowed the field with a copper ploughshare
drawn by horses of fire. The beam was
of red-hot iron and the handles were of living
flame. The name of that hero was Piru, and
after he had performed his task he came from
the field of horrors unbitten and unharmed.
Surely, the task which he performed was hard,
but if he succeeded why may not another hero
Ilmarinen made no answer. He rose silently,
and with eyes downcast went out of the hall.
His sledge was standing beside the door; the
fleet-footed racer was pawing the ground; the
cuckoos were calling, and the bluebirds were
singing. He sat down upon the soft robes and
took the reins in his hands. Then he looked up.
The Maid of Beauty was standing before him,
her eyes were full of tears, her face betrayed the
grief that was in her heart. Softly then the
hero spoke to her:
"Tell me, princess of the rainbow, do you remember
when I forged the Sampo and hammered
out its lid of many colors? Then it was that I
vowed a solemn vow. I swore by anvil and
 tongs, by hammer and smoke, by forge and fire,
that I would some day win you to be my bride.
Now, by the token of honey and milk, you have
promised yourself to me. But your mother has
set me a task that is full of peril. So, come
now, maiden of the twilight. Come sit beside
me in my sledge of magic, and I will carry you
swiftly, safely to my own country, to my own
The Maid of Beauty drew back; her cheeks
blushed crimson and her eyes flashed fire as
"Never will I wed a coward. Never will I
wed without my mother's consent, for just
punishment surely waits for disobedient daughters.
You must plough the field of serpents, or I will
never, never be your bride."
"The task is a hard one, it is full of peril,"
said Ilmarinen, as his courage came slowly back
to him. "But I will perform it; I will plough
the field of serpents, and no man nor maiden
shall call me a coward."
"Then let me tell you something," said the
Maid of Beauty. "You are a great smith and
skilled in working with all sorts of metals. You
are a cunning wizard and wise in magic. Your
 smithy still stands deep in the silent forest—the
smithy which you built when you forged the
Sampo. Go thither and make for yourself a
golden plough wherewith to furrow the field of
serpents. Make its beam of silver and its
handles of red copper, and strengthen it throughout
with spells of magic. Then go and do the
task my mother requires of you."
"I thank you, maiden of the twilight,"
Then he hastened to the gloomy forest and
to the smithy strong and roomy, in which he
had forged the magic Sampo. Again the bellows
roared, again the flames leaped up in the
ample forge, again the black smoke poured from
the chimney top. And the Smith, with many a
magic incantation, hammered out a golden
ploughshare, he shaped the handles of copper
and the beam of shining silver. A wonderful
thing it was, slender and strong and well fitted
for the work it was designed to do.
"Truly, with such a plough I shall not fail to
stir up a host of hissing serpents," said Ilmarinen;
"but how shall I protect myself from
their fury while I am furrowing the field?"
He threw both fuel and metal into his forge,
 and while he recited one magic rune after another
he thrust his long tongs into the roaring
fire. Presently, when the smoke subsided and
the coals were white with heat, he drew forth a
great mass of half-melted iron. This he laid
upon the anvil. With short, quick strokes he
hammered it; he turned it and twisted it; he
shaped it according to his will. He separated
it into parts, and of each part he formed something
that would be of use in the great task that
was before him.
First, he made a pair of iron shoes to wear
upon his feet; then he forged ten long chains,
slender and delicate, and these he wove together
and shaped into pliant greaves to cover his legs.
After this he wrought for himself a coat of mail,
and gauntlets of iron, and strong gloves which
no tooth nor sting could pierce. Then he made
a belt of hardest iron, sky-blue and brilliant, to
be buckled around his waist.
Lastly, in its place within the furnace, he hung
the magic caldron from which he had once
drawn the wonderful Sampo. Into this caldron
he threw many strange and potent things:
the hoof of a reindeer, the tail of a horse, a bag of
wind, a flash of lightning, a shooting star. With
 these he made a mixture such as no other wizard
had ever compounded, and as he stirred it
he repeated the runes, the songs of mystery
that he had sung while forging the Sampo.
All day and all night and far into another
day the master Smith toiled and sang, blew his
great bellows, and threw fuel into the furnace.
Then with caution he drew the caldron from the
flames, he lifted the lid and looked warily inside.
At first nothing but boiling vapor, scalding
steam, shapeless white clouds could be distinguished.
The next moment a horse sprang out,
beautiful, shapely, and strong. Its body was
glittering bright like fire, its mane and tail were
glowing red like the sun when it shines through
the mists of the morning. It leaped out and
stood, docile and obedient, beside the mighty
wizard, the master Smith.
"What will you have me do, my master?" it asked.
"Draw my plough through the field of dreadful
serpents," answered Ilmarinen.
"I am ready," said the horse.
Forthwith the hero harnessed the fiery steed
to his plough of magic. He donned his coat of
mail and drew on his greaves and his shoes of
 iron and his wonderful gloves which no weapons
could pierce. Then he drove with speed, out
through the shadowy pine woods and across the
desolate plains, till he came to the field of serpents—a
barren waste lying cold and dreary
under the empty sky.
The field was full of horrid reptiles, crawling,
writhing, hissing. They reared their heads high
and looked at the hero, they licked out their
tongues and threatened him. But he, no whit
afraid, paused in the midst of them and spoke
these words of warning:
"O ye snakes, so vile, so wise! Jumala made
you, and therefore you are not wholly bad.
Put your proud heads down, quit your hideous
hissing, cease your wriggling and your writhing.
Creep away into the bushes, hide yourselves in
your loathsome dwellings. Dare not touch me,
dare not threaten me, lest Jumala smite you
with his swift and flashing arrows!"
Then fearlessly he drove his steed of fire
through the dreadful field, and skilfully he guided
his golden plough, touching neither beam nor
handles. On this side and on that the earth
was heaped up, nor did rocks or roots stand in
the way of the cleaving ploughshare. The
ser-  pents were lifted from their holes, they were
torn in pieces, they were buried deep in the
ground. Twelve mighty furrows did the hero
plough lengthwise of the field, then, turning, he
made twelve other furrows across the width of
it. No barren spot nor stony space was left
unturned, no blasted shrub nor baneful vine was
unuprooted. Thus the haunts of the serpents
were broken up, and the field of dread was made
fertile and safe, a fit place for trees to grow and
grass to flourish.
The last furrow was completed, and Ilmarinen
rested from his labor. He loosed the long reins
with which he had guided his steed and lifted
the plough from the ground. He spoke lovingly
to his faithful helper:
"O wonderful plough-horse of fire! Your task
is finished and you are free. Go! Fly away!
Henceforth you may wander unrestrained in
the boundless pastures of the North."
The horse bounded away. It rose in the air,
higher, higher, until it looked like a cloud of
fire-dust floating in the sky; then it faded away
and Ilmarinen saw it no more. But it did not
remain invisible; for often, even in our own
times, it may be see during the silent winter
 nights leaping and prancing, shaking its fiery
mane and shooting beams of golden light
athwart the northern sky.
Ilmarinen tarried not a moment. With long,
impatient strides he hastened away from the
field of victory. For two weary days he travelled
through trackless ways and along forgotten
paths where bears used to amble and wolves
pursued their prey. For three long and painful
days he toiled among bogs and fens and across
the lonely, never-ending meadows. On the
sixth day, however, his eyes were gladdened by
the sight of the shores of Pohyola and the
weather-stained dwelling of the Wise Woman
of the North. Pale and wan and weak from
hunger and long exposure, he approached the
house and opened the door.
The Mistress was reclining upon her couch
beside the hearth.
Hundreds of additional titles available for
online reading when you join Gateway to the Classics