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The Norwegian Folk Tales and their Illustrators

If Norway were to show the world a single work of art which would most truly express the Norwegian character, perhaps the best choice would be the folk tales, published for the first time more than a hundred years ago and later illustrated by Erik Werenskjold and Theodor Kittilsen.

The folk tales of countries in more southern latitudes have preserved more of the romantic splendor that characterizes the folk tales which originated in the Far East and thence spread throughout the world. The Norwegian Folk tales, however, contain an undertone of realism and folk humor that makes them unique. The Grimm brothers in Germany, collectors of some of the most famous folk tale classics, were aware of this. The Norwegian folk tales, said Jacob Grimm, have a freshness and a fullness that "surpass nearly all others".

The Tales, or eventyr as they are called, wandered to Norway probably during the Middle Ages. They were absorbed into the existing lore, undergoing constant change through generations of storytelling. The storytellers themselves were highly esteemed if they were good, and each one had his own style of telling a story. It seems that there was a difference between the stories told by old men and old women. The old women usually kept to deep, mystic or eerie themes, while the men best related humorous, sometimes bawdy stories.

Rural life in Norway has always been centered in the family farms - small isolated communities, often surrounded by great forests and high mountains, There, according to Werenskjold's description of his childhood home, "one sat in the darkness by the oven door." from the time of the tallow candle and the rush light………in the endless, lonely winter evenings, where folk still saw the nisse and captured the sea serpent, and swore in life and faith, but everyday problems were solved by belief - belief that was never questioned.

The folk tales reflect the tremendous imagination of the people as well their independence and self-reliance. A Norse historian once complained that the tales always "belittle the king". He referred to the fact that the king was often always depicted as a fat, genial farmer who could be approached as an equal. There is biting satire in the tales, and the humor is often broad and earthy. The representatives of the Church are treated rather irreverently. Nonetheless, standards of guilt and justice prevail, and moral law is present, even in the world of the Trolls. The Trolls are awesome, but stupid, and are invariably outwitted and vanquished. The hero is Askeladden (literally,the Ash Lad, because he always sits by the fire and roots and pokes in the ashes). He is the youngest, the dreamer, the "ne'er-do-well", often despised by his parents and brothers. However, he is kind, he surmounts overwhelming obstacles to win the princess and half the kingdom.

Near the middle of the nineteenth century scholars began "discovering" a rich, native tradition that had lain fallow, and almost forgotten during the years of foreign cultural influence. Ballads, painting and folk music were unearthed and revived in the "National Renaissance" that was sweeping through the greater part of Europe at that time. Among the Norwegian scholars of native culture were the two men responsible for the most extensive collection of Norwegian folk tales ever made - Hans Christen Asbjornsen and Jorgen Moe.

Peter Christen Asbjornsen was born is 1812 in Christiania (now Oslo) where his father was a glazier. In his childhood he heard eventyr from the workmen and apprentices in his father's workshop. These apprentices, who came from all parts of the country, often took Asbjornsen along on their Sunday excursions while he was still very young, and, according to one of his friends, "thereby instilled in him a growing interest in the life of forest and fields"" In 1824 his father sent him to a school in Norderhov, northwest of Christiania. The two year stay, in a rural community steeped in traditions, made a deep impression on him. But of the greatest importance was his meeting with Jorgen Moe, who was to become his closest friend and later his collaborator in writing down the folk tales.

Jorgen Moe was born on a farm in Hole, Ringerike. Jorgen evidenced his love for books at an early age and became a voracious reader. Asbjornsen and Moe met at the Norderhov School in the summer of 1826.The two boys had many interests in common, especially their love for the outdoors. They spent every spare hour together hunting, fishing or taking long hikes, and both dreamed of the day when they would be poets.

In 1834 Asbjornsen went to Romerike in eastern Norway, where he remained for three years as a private tutor. During his student days he had begun writing down some of the folk tales he had heard in his childhood , and later in Norderhov. Once more surrounded by the living tradition, he kept up his avocation.

The first collection of Norwegian folklore, published in 1833, by a clergyman, Andreas Faye, aroused considerable public interest. Two years later, when it was rumored that Faye contemplated another collection, an assistant in the State Archives sent him some stories that had not appeared in his first book, including three "from one of my friend, student Asbjornsen" Faye was most appreciative, and sent Asbjornsen a letter of thanks in which he concluded by saying:" I hereby appoint you Folk-Lore-Ambassador-Extraordinary". Accepting this challenge, Asbjornsen soon submitted twelve legends and a folk song.

At this time he began thinking seriously of publishing a folk tale collection of his own, and discussed with Jorgen Moe the possibility of collaborating on such a project. They did not come to a serious agreement, however, until they had both read Grimm's Kinder und Hausmärchen. In a joint letter to Jacob Grimm, written in 1844, they describe how "an early acquaintance ship with your honorable Kinder und Hausmäuchen, and an intimate knowledge of the lore and life of the people in our homeland, gave us the idea, eight years ago, of preparing a collection of Norwegian folk tales".

The first volume of Norwegian Folk Tales, collected by Peter Christen Asbjornsen and Jorgen Moe, appeared in 1845. After the second edition in 1852, the book became exceedingly popular. The collaborators continued their research, one covering Gudbrandsdalen and the other Telemark. Districts in folk tradition. As the result of these and other trips, they published additional volumes as well as single stories in newspapers and magazines. However, as Jorgen Moe's clerical duties took up more and more of his time, he was gradually forced to abandon active collecting and research. His son Molkte Moe, had acquired an interest in the folk tradition at an early age, and it was not long before he had stepped into his father's shoes, and was collaborating with Asbjornsen. He later became a distinguished folklorist in his own right, and his contributions to the Norwegian folk tradition are manifold.

For some time Asbjornsen had contemplated an illustrated edition of the folk tales. This project was not realized, however, until 1879. Some of the most famous Norwegian painters of the time were selected to do the drawings, along with a young, unknown artist, Erik Werenskjold.

Erik Werenskjold was born in 1855 in Kongsvinger where his father was commander of the town fortress. Even in his childhood Werenskjold was a keen observer of nature and people, and his father told him folk tales and read aloud from the ancient myths and sagas. At the age of seventeen Werenskjold entered the University, but after a year he decided that he was more interested in studying art. In 1874, he enrolled at the Royal Norwegian Art School - much against his father's wishes. At that time Munich was a mecca for Norwegian art students. Werenskjold arrived there in 1875, and remained for five years.

His first drawing for the folk tales was composed to illustrate the tale "Taper Tom who Made the King's Daughter Laugh" In the summer of 1877, when plans were underway for the illustrated edition, this and others of his drawings were shown to Asbjornsen. Delighted with Werenskjold's work, Asbjornsen invited him to participate in the project.

Realizing that he had seen very little of Norway, Werenskjold went to Vaga and Lom in the Gudbrandsdal valley, to familiarize himself with the setting of the folk tales. On the large old farms he found the ancient patriarchal customs still alive. As he once remarked, "Here on the great farms there were still small kings, and the tenant farmers were their serfs. Behind this primitive life, behind these vigorous, strongly pronounced human types, and this unique architecture, one could sense the Middle Ages; and behind the large forest lay the Troll world of the Jotunheim mountains. I have never since found anything that seemed more Norwegian to me than Vaga".

In Werenskjold's drawings, the king appeares as the farmers must have imagined him. He wears crown and scepter,and generally shuffles around In slippers, smoking a long pipe. Genial in appearance, he is a also gruff and authoritative. Werenskjold brings the eventyr world to life by using the valleys and forests and rural architecture of eastern Norway as a natural setting.

The drawings for the folk tales established Werenskjold as one of Norway's foremost artists. Asbjornsen realized that he had found the right man, and, when the second illustrated edition was planned, Werenskjold alone on the original group was asked to carry on. He immediately requested that one of his friends, a completely unknown artist named Theodore Kittilsen, be invited to work with him.

Theodor Kittilsen was born in Kragero,Telemark County in 1857. He started to draw at a very tender age, and was considered by his townspeople as somewhat of a prodigy. Having attended an art school in Christiania for about two years, he continued his studies in Munich, where he arrived in 1876, and where he met Werenskjold.

Werenskjold seemed to have sensed that Kittelsen's temperament was even closer to the folk tales than his own. In l letter to Asbjornsen, Werenskjold wrote, " Kittilsen has a wild, individual, inventive fantasy.  For many years I have had the constant thought that he should be the man to do that side of your eventyr which none of the rest of us has yet been able to accomplish, namely the purely fantastic creations!"

At first,  Asbjornsen was shocked by the power and originality of these drawings, which bore no resemblance to the pale romanticism of contemporary art. When trying them out on children, however, he realized that they satisfied the unspoiled juvenile hunger for fantasy. Thus, Kittelsen was brought in on the project in 1881, and the happy collaborators began.

The tales, as illustrated by Werenskjold and Kittelsen quickly established themselves as a national treasure. There is no doubt that they have had a considerable impact upon Norway's cultural history, and they are cherished and read with as much enthusiasm today as when they were first published.


The Following are the Folktales!  ENJOY!

1.  The Bear and the Fox Who Made a Bet
2.  The Companion
3.  The Devil and the Baliff
4.  The Ash Lad Who Had an Eating Match with the Troll
5.  The Golden Bird
6.  The Golden Castle that Hung in the Air
7.  "Good Day, Fellow - Axe Handle"
8.  The Ash Lad and the Good Helpers
9.  Gudbrand of the Hillside
10. Little Freddie and his Fiddle
11. Smorbukk (Butterball)
12. Soria Moria Castle
13. The Boys Who Met the Trolls in the Hedal Woods
14. The Hare who had been Married
15. The Twelve Wild Ducks
16. Valemon - The White Bear King
17. The Fox as Sheperd
18. The Ash Lad who made the Princess Say "You're a Liar"
19. The House Mouse and the Country Mouse
20. The Old Woman against the Stream
21. The Parson and the Sexton
22. The Princess who always had to have the Last Word
23. The Ram and the Pig who went into the Woods to live by Themselves
24. The Seventh Father of the House
25. Squire Per
26. Not Driving and Not Riding
27. The Squire's Bride
28. Taper Tom - Who Made the Princess Laugh
29. The Key in the Distaff
30. The Mill that Grinds at the bottom of the Sea
31. The Three Princesses in the Mountain in the Blue

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