Andersen Fairy Tales, Andersen-Hans Christian

“The Will-O’-the-Wisp is in the Town,” Says the Moor Woman

"The Will-O'-the-Wisp is in the Town," Says the Moor Woman“The Will-O’-the-Wisp is in the Town,” Says the Moor Woman

A man had once known many stories, but he couldn’t quite remember them now. The man knew that the story never died, but he hadn’t seen it in a while. It came in various forms, very unexpected at times.

The man decided to go out and search for story. He went to a manor house out in the country. There were things to see there, but the man had yet to find story. An old moor woman was there at her brewing. She knew what he was after and she knew he had four-leaf clovers in his pocket. The woman was strange and told him she would be back, for she always kept her word to someone who had a six leaf clover in his pocket; the man had one of those as well. She disappeared and so did the moor she had been on and the man found himself out in the yard.

She had asked him, “Didn’t he have stories enough?” Children weren’t interested in stories these days. Give a little boy a cigar and he would be much happier with that. The old woman had told him to come to the moor.

The man did and the woman chided him for being so slow about it. Witches move faster than men. She told him stories and poetry were cut from the same clothe. She had poetry in bottles, more than the man could ever wish for. She told him she had an entire chest full of poetry in bottles. It looked like an alder stump out on the moor.

The woman said poetry in bottles was all very well, but she had something important to tell him, “The Will-O’-the-Wisps were in the town.” Each year they were born, this year there had been twelve. She had seen them and even held them in her lap. Will-O’-the-Wisps grew quickly. At a particular hour, as they had been born in a favorable hour, they were allowed to go out amongst the people and have them do as they would please. They could control a person. They could cause physical effects to happen. In return, the wisps must lead astray three-hundred and sixty-five people in some manner by the year’s end.

Some wisps tried to tell the new wisps to stay at home and be safe, but others encouraged the new wisps to go out into the world and play with the people. It was decided the wisps would go out into the world. There was a ball a minute long and the wisps were given presents to help them along their way. They could move through keyholes and imitate the sound of a crow, among others.

The man asked the woman how he might know a wisp out in town–a wisp could take many forms, a politician that spoke of parliament not for the good of the people, but for himself or someone who goes to church, but not for the sake of the service.

The woman said that by telling the man the story would get out in town and people could be aware, but the man said no one would believe him if he said, “The Will-O’-the-Wisps are in the town, says the Moor woman. Take care of yourselves!”

dead marshesObservations

Will-O’the-Wisps are around in many cultures and no one has a concrete explanation for them, even after all these years. Basically, they’re explainable lights you see out in nature, usually over moorland or swampland. One explanation is that wisps are ignited swamp gases. Not as many people claim to see them today.

Here’s the thing about this–my great-grandmother, as a little girl in Georgia/Arizona saw something like this. Balls of light that rolled along beside the wagon wheels. They didn’t stay in one place, as swamp gas would, they rolled around. How in the world do you explain that? Balls of light don’t just go roaming the Earth. That whole gas explanation just isn’t going to cut it, unless someone can come up with a way that gas would seemingly develop sentience and move around by itself.

The idea is that people were drawn to these lights, almost always in dangerous places, and they met their deaths. If you see a light in the middle of the night and you’re out in nature, you’re going to want to investigate; you’re just too curious not to.

In The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien writes about a similar thing; I’m speaking of the dead marshes in the books. The dead who were in the water would light their flames and draw others to their deaths.


There are multiple ideas in this story–stories never die, old ladies are mysterious, and so on, but the one we should talk about is how the wisps disguise themselves among people. They’re the politicians who say they’re for the people, but they’re not. They’re the people who go to church just for show. He’s the person who brags about their abilities but never delivers. Essentially, the woman is saying that wisps are hypocrites. Although it would be comforting to write hypocritical people off as wisps instead of people, we know they really are just hypocrites.

A wisps purpose is to deceive people and to lead them astray. If a wisp could go into a person and cause them to be hypocritical, they could lead away that person, but maybe also more. Let’s say we’re talking about the politician–the politician could advise the people, in his hypocritical way, to do things that would lead them astray, just as the wisp intended, but a politician could reach a wide audience. The wisp could lead away its yearly quota and then some by disguising themselves as a politician. It would likewise be the same if the wisp became a preacher.


Yes, beware of the wisps.

Weigh In

Wisps, lizard people, and demons–who really controls people who cause bad things to happen?

Do you think the old woman was just messing with this guy?



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