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Danish Folktales



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 is a surprising number of such 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, and not many outside of Denmark have heard of him.

Are there good examples of borrowing tales?

Many better-known Danish folktales are much similar to tales of neighbouring countries: Norway, Sweden, and Germany are the closest neighbours. Moreover, Hans Christian Andersen of Odense wrote 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, s.v. "The Princess on a Pea" and "The Emperor's New Clothes"]

Do Danish folk tales reflect Norse beliefs and old traditions?

In part. 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 too occasionally.

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 BC. 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 a folk tale is not easy. Theories or speculations of origins are many, but hard to document to the satisfaction of all folklorists.

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. Asbjornsen and Moe (1996) left out many erotic folk tales who were published only lately in Norway. Danes likewise had erotic tales, as shown in Den bortfløjne mødom (The Flown-away Virginity) (1985).

Another complication is that many of the best known Danish tales in the 1900s had been edited and changed substantially by one well-known Danish editor, Svend Grundtvig. He made up older, chivalrous settings etc. for many tales. If he had presented his tales as his own, based on this and that folktale, it would have been good. But he did not.

Granting all that, some better-known "Danish folktales" may not stand inspection "below the surface". But many of those collected by Evald Tang Kristensen are neat, and in our generation they have been normalised too. Earlier they were available in a dialect that Danes found difficult to read. Moreover, Kristensen supplied the editor who changed too much, with many tales that the editor used, although it soon stood out they could not agree (below).

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. They fell out - and Tang Kristensen afterwards wrote about Grundtvig in this roundabout way:

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 to me.

I samkvem danna mannen sin personlegdom eit sært misforhold til verket hans . . . No har han og eg ikkje mykje med kvarandre å gjere. Men likevel, om eg no kom til København på vitjing og kom inn til Dykk nokre gongar, og De så sette eller la beina dykkar opp på bordet så eg kunne sitte og sjå på støvelsolane Dykkar og De drakk Dykkar halve bayer[øl] og lét meg sitte tørr i munnen og så vidare, ville eg så smått ta til å tenke at De likevel vanvørda meg. [Kristensen 1995, 3:286]

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 as an equal, without being condescending and vain, the Danes could have had their 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]

Today it has become known that Svend Grundtvig changed tales to suit preconceived views of noble knights and ladies in chivalrous times of some remote past. He changed the settings of folk tales back to a time of knights in medieval times, a time with castles, 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 in this way, he wrote in a letter from 1876 to Denmark's great folk-tale collector, Evald Tang Kristensen.

Kristensen, on the other hand, held the view that tales of common people were artistic in their own right, and were best preserved as verbatim and possibly. Surely there are goods sides to his view. However, because the vast amount of tales that he collected and edited were published in dialect, not many Danes have actually read them. But with recent editions of some of his tales - in normalised language - this has changed somewhat. [Kristensen 1995, 1:10]

Tang-Kristensen had an extraordinary large output of tale collections. (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 them (1888). He used the folktales in a collection by Carit Etlar from 1847. A mass of Tang Kristensen collections have appeared in English too. And later, Lauritz Bødker have published Danske folkeeventyr (Danish Folktales) (1960), and European Folk Tales (1963). Claire Booss has published a sizeable collection of Nordic tales, including Danish folktales and Andersen tales.

The first nine tales are from collections of quite old tales.

The next twelve tales in this series are from books that were edited by the Scottish scholar Andrew Lang (1844-1912). He has earned special praise for his 12-volume collection of fairy tales. The first volume of them was The Blue Fairy Book of 1889. Helped by his wife, Leonora Blanche Lang and others, the scholar and poet edited traditional stories for children. Outside of that venture, he also made some popular children's stories of his own.

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 and largest part of this collection is a whole book that Clara Stroebe edited, The Danish Fairy Book. It comes with separate notes to its tales also. Book data is below.

Besides, somewhat sanitised, well-loved folk tales that the greatly sentimental Hans Christian Andersen rewrote, are on another page.


Danish folktales, END MATTER

Danish folktales, LITERATURE  

English translations

Asbjørnsen, Peter Chr., Jørgen Moe, Knut Nauthella, et al. Erotiske folkeeventyr. 3rd. ed. Oslo: Universitetsforlaget, 1996.

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. New York: 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. Danske folkeeventyr. Copenhagen: Rosenkilde og Bagger, 1960.

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

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

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.

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

Kristensen, Evald Tang, and Vibeke Arndal. Evald Tang Kristensens Eventyr fra Jylland. Vol 3. Odense: Odense Universitetsforlag. 1995.

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

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

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.

Danish literature

For references to about a hundred Danish folktale books in Danish: [Link]


Danish folktales of Denmark USER'S GUIDE to abbreviations, the site's bibliography, letter codes, dictionaries, site design and navigation, tips for searching the site and page referrals. [LINK]
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