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What makes a Danish folktale Danish?

The fact that someone in past or present Denmark has told or retold it or written it down in Danish. There are very many recordings, notably by the folktale collector Evald Tang Kristensen (1843-1929). He himself wrote down 2700 folk tales, 2500 jocular tales and 25 000 legends. Most of his stories come in many and somewhat different versions. It is a looming folklore collection.

Are there good examples of borrowed tales?

Many better-known Danish folktales are much like tales of neighbouring countries: Norway, Sweden, and Germany are the closest neighbours. Moreover, Hans Christian Andersen of Odense wrote about a dozen famous tales that he borrowed from folk traditions, or he enlarged on such tales. For example, the tale of the sensitive princess in "The Princess and the Pea" may stem from a Swedish tale he heard as a child, "Princess Who Lay on Seven Peas". Another Andersen tale, "The Emperor's New Clothes", is based on a medieval Spanish story. So Andersen did not suck all of his finest tales out of his own breast. Also, some Danish tales are rooted in Icelandic lore. [Wikipedia, "The Princess on a Pea" and "The Emperor's New Clothes"]

Do Danish folk tales reflect Norse beliefs and old traditions?

In part they do. Some tales supposedly do; others hardly so. The Danish folktales reflect customs, traditions and ways of living in Denmark in the past three or four centuries at any rate. Various traditions are blended. Superstitions are interspersed. (See Boberg; Piø).

Do Danish folk tales reflect Danish conditions along sweeping, broad lines?

I should say they do, but in part depending on how far away any specific tale might originate, if that could be established. Most often it cannot. But tales with exotic animals and fakirs might come from outside the common European heritage. Now, as time goes by, a country's oral lore may get adapted to the country's landscape and dominant animal life - whereas written tales do not change that easily. In some Danish folktales, mythological animals, like dragons, "spill over" into them, and animals from far off appear occasionally too.

Was the start of some Danish fairy tales many thousand years ago in ancient Greece and Egypt, and China?

Maybe. Many folktales have ancient roots. Fights with dragons originate in the East; the ancient Gilgamesh contains an ancient description of a dragon fight, and the source of it is a Sumerian folktale. Similarly, the fairy tale "The Princess on the Glass Mountain" has been traced back to ancient Egypt, from about 1400 BCE. The couple that flees from trolls and uses magic, is there in the Greek Argonautica story already, about the couple Jason and Medea. Lauritz Bødker tells in a similar vein that Amor og Psyche by Apuleius from over 1800 years ago, has almost 1300 folk variants (Ramløv 168-70; Bødker 1967: 365-66, 369).

Tracing the roots or origins of folk tales themes and motifs is not easy. As with Greek myths, different versions intertwine, and later works take off from some versions and change them further. So theories or speculations of origins are many, but may be very hard to document to the satisfaction of all folklorists. However, The Types of International Folktales by Uther and others (2004) traces many types of tales back to their first known written sources, for example in medieval Europe or elsewhere. There are examples from Danish folklore for 658 types of tales. Among overlapping Danish sources in this catalogue are books by Laurits Bødker (1915–82); he is a Danish source (among other sources) of 164 types of tales; Klaus Berntsen (1844–1927) is a source of 12; Svend Grundtvig (1824–83) of 120; Bengt Holbek (1933–92) of 181; and Evald Tang Kristensen (1843–1929) of 577 types of tales.

Any complications that I should be aware of?

Yes. In the 1800s, the romantic folkorists collected folk tales and edited many of them to conform to the "censors" or predominant attitudes of what was OK to print their societies. Erotic tales were left out, cursing and other vulgarisms likewise. Danish erotic tales have now been published in such as Den bortfløjne mødom (The Flown-away Virginity) (1985).

Another complication is that many of the best known Danish tales in the 1900s were edited and changed by one well-known Danish editor, Svend Grundtvig. He made up older, chivalrous settings etc. for many tales and unfortunately his notes about what sources he had used, were not included in the printed works.

If Danish tales that Evald Tang Kristensen collected and published had been changed, it was by others, not Kristensen himself. A selection of Kristensen tales has more recently been published in contemporary Danish in a three-volumed set edited by Vibeke Arndal (Odense Universitetsforlag 1995, 1998, 2000). Moreover, Kristensen supplied the editor Svend Grundvig with over a thousand tales too before Grundtvig and Kristensen fell out (below).

When it comes to what is called folktales, we may have to deal with well collected tales; not so well collected tales; complete and incomplete tales (fragments); and differently edited tales. It is not that editing itself is wrong or heinously wrong. The Grimm Brothers edited their tales, for example, and extensively. Asbjornsen and Moe likewise edited tales they collected, in part by selecting one verson above the others, and in part by patching together parts of different versions.

A repeat: It is not so bad to edit tales in various ways. Recent studies have shown how Grundtvig's fairy tales were changed. They contain long embellishments, made-up remarks og repetitions, and strains from one or several variants to make the tale fuller and more nuanced. Moreover, out of the tales he got, he construed what he thought were original forms, and to this end he changed the settings back to medieval times with knights, tournaments, castles and more that were not in his sources.

In conclusion, folktales are fairly often reworkings somewhere between the oral folktale and the Kunstmärchen, that is, fairy tales written by a named author.[◦A source]

Collectors and Translators

The language of the tales that appear here is slightly modernised.

Danish fairy tale collections were collected and edited in the middle 1800s, as in Norway and Sweden, but some Danish tales go further back, they too, and were first formed in the 1400s and 1500s AD. The early tales contain names of towns and regions. Laurits Bødker points out that "In reality it is hardly possible to discern clearly between fairy tales and legends when it comes to form and content, because fairy tales and legends blend into one another (Bødker 1967: 364-65)

Among the most prominent Danish folktale collectors are Svend Grundtvig and Evald Tang Kristensen. Tang Kristensen commented on how he experienced Grundtvig:

In company, the man's personality greatly mismatched his work . . . By now he and I have not much to do with one another. But yet, suppose I went to Copenhagen and visited you several times, and you then put your legs on the table so that I could sit and watch the soles of your boots and you drank half bottles of lager beer and let me sit with a dry mouth and so on, I would by and by start thinking that you yet showed contempt of me. [Kristensen 1995, 3:286, My translation. TK]

Nine years earlier, Grundtvig had offered Kristensen five hundred Danish kroner for a thousand folktales. Kristensen did not accept the offer. If Grundtvig could have cooperated with Kristensen, the Danes could have had an alternative to Grimm tales over a hundred years ago. However, to this day such a collection is missing, writes Vibeke Arndal. [Kristensen 1995, 1:8-9; 3:288]

More recently it has come to the fore that Svend Grundtvig changed tales to suit them to some preconceived notions he had about a noble, medieval past with castles, knights, tournaments, pirates and other elements that he thought could fit: he "lifted" the folk tale out of the commoners arms and to former times, thinking he did something fine thereby, he wrote in a letter from 1876 to Evald Tang Kristensen.

Kristensen, who collected and published an extraordinary amound of carefully taken down tales and other sorts of folklore, held the view that tales of common people were artistic in their own right, and were best preserved as they had been told - and unedited. Surely his view deserves merit. He meant to leave it to other, later folklorists to select and edit tales he had recorded to his ability. With recent editions of some of his tales in contemporary Danish his tales can be better understood by more people than yesterday's Jutlanders too. [Kristensen 1995, 1:10; Bødker 1967: 375; Kristensen 1995, 3:286). [More]

In English

Many Danish folktales are translated into English. The British Benjamin Thorpe was the first to translate a sizeable amount of the folktales in Folkeeventyr by "Carit Etlar" - a pen name for Johan Carl Christian Brosbøll (1816-1900). Etlar's Danish book contains sixteen folktales and eighteen legends of heroes. (Steens Forlag, Copenhagen, 1947)

There are fourteen Danish folk tales translated by Benjamin Thorpe in his Yule-tide stories: A Collection of Scandinavian and North German Popular Tales and Traditions, from the Swedish, Danish, and German (London: George Bell, 1910:232-288)

Danish folktales have been translated into English by the Danish-American Jens Christian Bay (1899) too, and another collection by Frederick Herman Martens and edited by Klara Stroebe (1922). More recently, Lauritz Bødker has published Danske folkeeventyr (Danish Folktales) (1960), and European Folk Tales (1963). And Claire Booss has published a sizeable collection of Nordic tales, including Danish folktales and Andersen tales.

Recently, Timothy R Tangherlini has edited and translated Danish Folktales, Legends, and Other Stories (2014). Dr Tangherlini is professor of folklore and chair of the Scandinavian Section at the University of California, Los Angeles. His well researched book talks of critical approaches to folklore, and offers a deeper look into five storytellers, their backgrounds, and other sides to Danish folklore. The work contains a sizeable, translated selection from Evald Tang Kristensen's work.

The first group of tales are in part from collections of quite old tales by Thorpe, Bay and Martens. Also, among the sixteen last tales in the first group, twelve are from books edited by the Scottish scholar and poet Andrew Lang (1844-1912). Helped by his wife, Leonora Blanche Lang and others, the scholar and poet edited traditional stories for children.

Lang thought that from one country to another fairy tales are much about the same kinds of adventures. Courage, youth, beauty, and kindness have many trials to win in the long run, he thought, and also that witches, giants, and unfriendly, cruel people have a losing hand. It is true for some tales, but not all tales, however.

The second group of Danish folktales in this collection come from the book translated by Martens (1922). It comes with separate notes to its tales also. See the book data at the bottom of the page.

Adding to these folktales, somewhat sanitised, well-loved folk tales that the famous Hans Christian Andersen rewrote, are on another page.

- Tormod Kinnes


Danish folktales, fairy tales of Denmark, Literature  

Uther, Hans-Jörg. The Types of International Folktales: A Classification and Bibliography Based on the System of Antti Aarne and Stith Thompson. Vols 1-3. FF Communications No. 284-86, Helsinki: Academia Scientiarum Fennica, 2004.

English translations

Bay, Jens Christian, tr. Danish Fairy Tales: A Collection of Popular Stories and Fairy Tales from the Danish of Svend Grundtvig, E. T. Kristensen, Ingvor Bondesen, and L. Budde. London: Harper and Brothers, 1899.

Booss, Claire. Scandinavian Folk and Fairy Tales: Tales from Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Iceland. New York: Gramercy Books, 1984.

Bødker, Laurits, ed. European Folk Tales. European Folklore Series 1. København: Rosenkilde og Bagger, 1963.

Grundtvig, Sven, coll. Danish Fairy Tales. Tr. Jesse Grant Cramer. Boston: The Four Seas Company, 1912.

Grundtvig, Sven, coll. Danish Fairy Tales. Tr. Gustav Hein. New York, Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1914.

Stroebe, Clara, ed. The Danish Fairy Book. Tr. Frederick Herman, Martens. New York: Frederick A. Stokes, 1922.

Tangherlini, Timothy R., ed., tr. Danish Folktales, Legends, and Other Stories. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 2014 / Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, 2014.

Thorpe, Benjamin. Yule-tide Stories: A Collection of Scandinavian and North German Popular Tales and Traditions, from the Swedish, Danish, and German. London: George Bell, 1910.

Books in Danish

There is a reference list of 118 Danish folklore books in Danish - and one notable Danish dialect in particular - on another page on the site. The books contain folk tales, legends, anecdotes and proverbs: [Link]

The ones below are singled out from that list:

Bødker, Laurits. Danske folkeeventyr. Copenhagen: Rosenkilde og Bagger, 1960.

Bødker, Laurits. Sagn og eventyr. Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1967.

Høvring, Erik. Den bortfløjne mødom. Copenhagen: Nyt Nordisk Forlag, 1985.

Kristensen, Evald Tang, coll, and Vibeke Arndal, ed. Evald Tang Kristensens Eventyr fra Jylland. 3 Vols. Odense: Odense Universitetsforlag. 1995, 1998, 2000.

Ramløv, Preben. Danske folkeeventyr. Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1964.

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