Kahlil Gibran once wrote, “My friend, I am not what I seem. Seeming is but a garment I wear….”
For as long as I can remember, I have been fascinated by the difference between the way things appear on the outside, and how they actually stand on the inside. That fascination is one of the main reasons I became attracted to fairy tales in the first place. Here, things are not what they seem. A frog is actually a king, a horrible beast turns out to be pretty nice guy, and so on.
What’s the word for something that looks terrible on the outside but is actually quite sweet on the inside? I found my word in The Brown Fairy Book, in a story called “Habogi.” It takes place in a land of rolling hills, flowery meadows, and thatched roof cottages. One evening a father is sitting on the steps with his three daughters, and he asks them what their future husbands’ names will be. It’s an odd question from our standpoint. They haven’t even met these guys. Yet they don’t mind the question—on the contrary, they have been thinking about the names of their future husbands. The eldest says her husband will be named Sigmund, and the second eldest says Sigurd. The odds are pretty good that they’ll find husbands with those names because there are dozens of Sigmunds and Sigurds in the villages around them. The third daughter, Helga, wants to say Njal, but a voice in her head says “Habogi.” Nobody knows a Habogi and the father thinks it’s an ugly name.
Time passes and the elder sisters meet their Sigmund and Sigurds and they’re all married together on the same day. A stranger shows up at the ceremony, an ugly old man who calls himself Habogi. He claims Helga as his wife, and takes her on horseback to see her new estate.
To Helga’s surprise, Habogi’s sheep are white, wooly and fat, his dairy cows are content, and his horses are healthy and sleek. His house, however, is a rundown shack. Yet, when Helga steps inside, she finds herself in a sultan’s palace. The carpets under her feet are richly colored, thick and soft, and she could lie down and fall asleep right away on the luxurious silk pillows that are scattered around the room.
Habogi tells her to come back with her family in three days and the wedding will be all prepared. When her sisters arrive at the shack, they disguise their laughter, but when they come inside, of course, it’s a different matter. After seeing Helga’s wedding dress, which glitters like sunbeams dancing on the ice, they are so jealous that they decide to bury it in a nearby ashpit. While they’re going about their dirty business, Habogi comes along. With his magical powers, he turns the ashes into roses and the sisters into statues. They’re frozen for a full day in their bent positions, which provides all sorts of entertainment for the wedding guests.
The next morning when the family wakes up, Habogi’s tumbledown house has been replaced by a splendid palace, and a handsome young man is walking among them, wearing a crown and dressed in a blue velvet coat.
“Who is that?” the guests ask Helga.
“That is my Habogi,” she says proudly.
The word habogi feels so familiar. When I hear the word, I think “bogey,” as in “boogey man.” The phrase , “the bane of my existence” also comes to mind, referring to something harmful or annoying that keeps coming back again. The black flies in June, for example, are the bane of every camper’s existence.
At the same time, the word habogi is so friendly that I want to fling my arms around it for all its bogeymannish, existentially baneful qualities. I want to go into Habogi’s house and throw myself on his soft pillows every time I am confronted with my own personal bogeymen. Yes, indeed. Habogi will remind me, as he strokes the hair from my forehead, that outsides are not insides, and when you’re in a storm, or you’re frightened out of your wits, the best thing to do is get inside as soon as you can, bolt the door and melt into the pillows.
illustrations by H.J. Ford and Michelle Tocher