Jun 14, 2007

Norwegian Folktales by Asbjornsen and Moe

Norwegian Folktales by Asbjornsen and Moe

I read this book slowly, as perhaps folktales books should be read – often no more than a tale a day, and generally before bed.

A lot of the tales in this collection were reminiscent of the Russian folktales I read earlier this year. That is to be expected – people travel, after all, and stories travel along with them. But, more than that, people are all people, and their imaginations work in remarkably similar ways.

But similarities apart, there is local flavouring, there is uniqueness in detail. Jacob Grimm himself said that Norwegian Folktales were among the finest in the world – “they have a freshness and a fullness that surpass almost all others.” I can certainly understand where he was coming from. These tales also have a very particular sense of humour that I appreciated a lot – “The Old Woman Against the Stream” is a good example.

One of the things I liked best about this collection is how the geography of the land is imprinted in these stories. There are mountains and forest, snowy landscapes and fjords. And there are echoes of Nordic mythology as well – almost every other tale features a troll.

My favourite story in this collection was probably “The Companion” – a story in which a young man goes in search of the woman of his dreams – quite literally. On his way he finds a town in which there is a block of ice with the frozen body of dead man inside, and all the townspeople spit on it as they walk past it. When he enquires about it, he is told that the body belongs to a cruel man. The young man thinks that, despite that, it is time that the poor man gets a proper burial, and he spends all his savings arranging for that to happen. As often happens in fairy tales, his good deed is soon repaid, and he finds the help he needs to fulfill his quest.

Other favourites of mine include “Squire Per”, a version of Puss in Boots with a very fundamental difference concerning the cat, “The Golden Bird” (which is remarkably similar to the Russian tale of the Grey Wolf and the Firebird) and “The Boy with the Beer Keg” – a story I’d read last year when I was investigating variations of Godfather Death.

I was a little surprised that this collection did not include “East of the Sun and West of the Moon” – my favourite, and probably the best-known, Norwegian Folktale. It did include, however, a tale called “White Bear King Valemon”, which I suppose could be considered a variation of this tale.

Finally, the tale “The Twelve Wild Ducks” was a delightful mixture of elements of Snow White and The Six Swans.


  1. I think I need to start doing this and reading short tales before bed every night. Mythology is something I am really interested in, but I keep getting sucked into reading more fantasy based books.

  2. I like to read collections of any sort at a one-a-day pace, too. Now that I'm done with that 48 hour thing, I'm reading Cultural Amnesia one essay a day.

  3. Another great selection, Nymeth! I grew up on Folktales, Indian and European, so I love,love,love them! I am very excited you linked to some of the stories, I would be happy to read them!

  4. Nymeth, you are KILLING me with all the folklore and fairy tale books!! I really need to read them all, but i've bogged myself down in all these challenges. But I've started writing down all the wonderful recommendations I'm getting. Hope to get to them all some day!

    Thanks for the great review!

  5. Where do you find all these great books?

  6. Rhinoa: Do it! Most of the tales in this book were short, so it's only a matter of 5-10 minutes to get through one. Sooner than you realize you'll be done with a whole book.

    Dewey: Experience has taught me that it's much better this way. If I try to go through this kind of book too fast I went up getting bored.

    Lotus: Are you familiar with the SurLaLune website? They have a fantastic selection of folk and fairy tales available online! http://www.surlalunefairytales.com/

    Stephanie: if you try reading one or two stories a day you'll see you'll be able to get through this kind of book quicker than you'd imagine!

    Literary Feline: The aforementioned SurLaLune website has a great deal of wonderful recommendations in this field. Also, there are publishers that I've come to really trust, and I plan on reading their whole folktale catalogue. For example, Random House has a great selection, and so does Dover.

  7. I second Stephanie! You keep introducing all these tempting stories that I can't resist adding to my TBR list. I love the idea of reading one a night (especially since it's more my budget than my brainpower that is stressed by my growing list).

    I've used that strategy with most of the short fiction that I've read and I think it leads to a greater appreciation of the collection. If you breeze through, you just get saturated and lose the subtlety of each individual tale.

  8. I don't read enough mythology, but as your lovely review shows, there are some beautiful stories out there. The short story reading blog, A Curious Singularity, ought to get together to read one!

  9. Kim: I completely agree that otherwise there is the risk of getting saturated. I hope you enjoy the collections you get around to reading.

    litlove: Ohh, a short story reading blog! What a great idea! And yes, folktales would be a good addition. There's a great selection of them to chose from online!


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