A year ago, I was given the chance to leaf through Roald Dahl’s mother’s book of Norwegian fairytales. The slim volume, held in the Roald Dahl archive in Great Missenden, was published in 1909 and contained 14 stories collected by Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe. The stories’ morbid blend of the frightening and the darkly funny completely transfixed the Dahl children, and would later become a hallmark of Roald Dahl’s own writing. Now, Asbjørnsen and Moe’s full collection of 60 folk tales, described by translator Tiina Nunnally as ‘a cultural treasure trove’, has been published in English for the first time.
Not quite as grim as the Grimm fairytales or as heart-wrenching as those of Hans Christian Andersen, the tales collected by Asbjørnsen and Moe were founded in a strong tradition of oral storytelling. Inspired by the Brothers Grimm, Asbjørnsen and Moe were the first to write down fairytales that had been passed down through generations, viewed by many as ‘mere nursery-room chatter.’ Neither of the men were writers by profession; Asbjørnsen was a successful oceanographer and zoologist who helped introduce the works of Charles Darwin to Norwegian readers. Moe nurtured an interest in philosophy and Romantic poetry, but ended up studying theology and later worked as a Lutheran pastor in eastern Norway.
The two men published their collections of folktales in the mid-1800s, at a time when Norwegians were constructing a new national identity for themselves after gaining independence from Denmark in 1814. During this period, a quintessentially Norwegian culture was crafted in a matter of decades. The stories collected by Asbjørnsen and Moe were firmly anchored in Norwegian geography and everyday life – often moralistic, but not without humour, they were filled with talking animals, lying princesses, and lurid trolls outsmarted by the devious Ash Lad, who like Cinderella was named due to his habit of poking around the ashes. Some of the stories were meant to explain the natural world, such as ‘Why the Bear Has a Stump of a Tail’ (he once used it as fishing rod); others were spine-tingling – I can still remember the terror I felt when first reading ‘About the Giant Troll Who Never Carried His Heart with Him’, where the troll, smelling Ash Lad hiding under his bed, exclaims: ‘Ugh! It smells like a Christian man in here!’
In the early publications, painter Theodor Kittelsen’s rough illustrations perfectly captured the barren charm of the Norwegian landscape. Kittelsen made the trolls – large, ugly and often three-headed – look as though the country’s pine-clad mountains and rocky islands had been given legs to walk on. ‘[Kittelsen’s] trolls made sense’, Neil Gaiman writes in the foreword, ‘they were as much a part of the world as the trees and the hills.’ Sadly, only a couple of his illustrations are included in this volume.
Instead, this edition offers some interesting contextualisation in the form of various forewords written by Asbjørnsen and Moe for the first four editions, where they among other subjects look at the parallels between their stories and Norse mythology. Tiina Nunnally perfectly captures the simple yet archaic tone of the original tales. Untranslatable Norwegian words such as ‘daler’ and ‘lefse’ have been left in italics, adding wonderful texture to the translation. The riches of Norway’s ‘cultural treasure trove’ appear to be in good hands.
This review was first published with the European Literature Network