Many classy tales contain figurative elements. Understanding of a tale often depends on an interpretation - also of figurative elements. Figurative speech opens up to many different and diverging interpretations. Consequently there may not be just one interpretation of a folk tale to be had; but several. Interpretation depends on skill, including meticulousness. Bland fairness and sensible background knowledge can help against getting biased and odious somehow.
Fables and other stories get interpreted, Grimm tales are often interpreted - Freudians do, Jungians do (cf. Sugg 1992) and others too. It is good if young persons, including students, are getting fit and fair means for doing it, since good understanding of figurative methods can help a heart many a time. About the same goes for salient poetry study. Common language is rich in metaphors, and if you learn to deal with such matter, it should not be to your loss, hopefully. There usually are approaches to master and terms fit for the field of study (Abrams and Harpham 2012; Baldick 2008; Dickinson 1959).
When delving into fairy tales there is no need to get biased. Freudians are Freudian-biased and so on. Fairness in the interpreter quest often adds up to being pragmatic and not dogmatic.
Another approach: Folk tales are getting sorted into different types and classified accordingly as belonging to one type, or a mixture of types or motifs. A catalogue of the types of international folktales often helps one to find and compare folk tales of similar types from different countries (Uther 2004).
The following comments are tied in with the regular type identifications in Ørnulf Hodne's excellent catalogue: The Types of the Norwegian Folktale, (Oslo: Universitetsforlaget, 1984). There is also D. Ashliman's Europe-centred A Guide to Folktales in the English Language (New York: Greenwood, 1987). I have corrected one classification error in Ashliman's book here. More recently Hans-Jörg Uther has revised the international classification system of fairy tales, and introduced ATU numbers (ATU is from the initials of Aarne, Thomson and Uther). They are to replace the AT numbers. Most of the tales in this collection still have their AT numbers, for their ATU numbers are usually their AT numbers. The titles of some ATU types of tales differ from their corresponding AT types, though.
Further: I have many a time explored terse blank verse writing (modernist telling), and here it is applied comment-wise or otherwise to folk tales. Poetry and semi-poetry may be able to loosen up things if the conditions are not too grave or tense.
On the road to one's own understanding or comments one may add some sort of academic qualifications (reservations) to lots of serious interpretations.
Tales often contain metaphors and symbols. By interpreting them somewhat according to some consistent pattern or otherwise, you can at times guess or suggest what the deeper instructions embedded in tales might be. There could be sound reason for some advanced hunches. But have fun too. The types of Norwegian tales favour many sorts of life lessons - things or attitudes to learn. See a sample of some 140 maxims related to ninety types of Norwegian tales: [Link]
Through tales, people used to educate and entertain each other somehow - the results mingled. Good folk tales serve to instruct the young ones in good and not so good ways of culture, as Jerome Bruner points out - they are cultural transmitters. The kind of living they advocate in figurative ways and others, may not the best kind of life, but perhaps ways that were available there and then - maybe too limited ways and ways with flaws and defects, but all the same indicators of what was acceptable within the culture then. [Bruner 1990: 42-43; 1996: passim] [Bruner on the value of stories] [Bruner on folk pedagogy and psychology]
Use of figurative parts and their interpretations
In the figurative language of Nordic folktales, trolls at times could serve as indicators of people there is something wrong with, for example being cold-hearted, cruel and uncultivated. Unless you choose such an interpretation, a troll may be a hard find - The tail of the woodland siren may likewise suggest psychological suppression and projection, "thinking with one's . . . arse and further down there". A mountain could perhaps be taken to mean a body many times, for example if the hero finds a female and a troll in a mountain cave, it may be interpreted to suggests delicates aspects of union, and what may follow in some cases. Compare the Bible's teaching, that the body is a (stone) temple, or that Solomon's stone temple had features of morphology and functions in common with the female sexual organs. It stands out from the descriptions of it.
Other interpretations are possible too. The ones in the previous paragraph are mainly analytic suggestions, and far from conclusive. Paul Brudal brings examples of psychoanalytic thinking in his study Det ubevisste språket (The Unconscious Language), and Jack Zipes reflects on some propagandic sides to folk tales - certain values that some of them propagate or advocate, and points out that some of them are made to serve ruling classes, for example French tales by Charles Perrault and Madame d'Alnoy. However, life orientations in fairy tales are not clear-cut, and depend to a great extent on the social fabric or class of the tale-tellers and their listeners in the first place.
Other handles include structural grasps on the chain of action and the participants in some types of fairy tales. The Russian Vladimir Propp has exposed these matters well, and others - notably Algirdas Greimas - have modified or simplified the structural description. Guldleif Bø has simplied the structural layout of events and characters still further for Norwegian folktales. Irene Engelstad has sought to apply Propp and Greimas to Norwegian folktales. References to their works are furnished below.
Fairy tale comments are not really necessary if you have not grown up. The steps: Enjoy good tales first, preferably coupled with artistic outlets from them. Waldorf education uses that principle. Later, even many years later, see if you want them interpreted, and by whom. Waldorf Education stands for that too - for more intellectual handling of tales long after they have been shared.
Also worth considering: There are different schools of interpretation and understanding of folk tales. A sensible, down-to-earth approach, a deeply pragmatic approach, could be fit. A cool Jungian approach suits some. A structural grasp suits others, and a blend of several approaches suits "all".and so on.
In the following, types of tales are described. Some descriptions are amplified a bit.
- T. Kinnes
Ørnulf Hodne: "A woman makes a pancake, which flees from the frying-pan. Various animals try in vain to stop it. Finally a hog or a fox eats it up."
❋ Animals grow and get eaten unless they are very guarded, very careful.
A snipe begs a hunter to spare her young ones - the prettiest in the wood. He pities her, assents, and shoots the ugliest he can find: the young snipes.
❋ One's own sportsmen tend to be"prettier than sportsmen of others" when the id (libido) is not developed and siding with one's own blunts one's mental powers.
❋ The ugliest can be the prettiest if their features matter.
The fox and bear jointly owned some butter or a butter-barrel. The fox pretended to be invited to stand god-father, and ate up the butter under that pretence.
He rounded off by smearing a little of the butter left on the snout or tail of the sleeping bear. The antagonistic scoundrel betrayed his stout business associate and also founds a fox way to cover up; an outsider might in fact judge the bear to be the thief.
The tale, which is the best known animal tale in Norway, stems from a cotter's widow in Flatdal, Telemark. The type of tale is in the the French book "Roman de Renart" from Medieval times, and variants are found in Asia, the Americas, and Africa, apart from Europe.
❋ You can't spoil a rotten egg.
The hen reproaches the cock because she has not got the shoes he seems to have promised her. The cock asks her to sell eggs and buy shoes herself.
On the surface of it a stepmother hates her stepchildren. The boy takes service at the court, the girls suffers at length at home. A supernatural creature tests her compassion, and rewards her with beauty and wealth. The woman's own daughter is unkind and is made ugly and so on.
The brother has a picture of his sister; the king sees it and falls in love with her and sends the boy for her. The stepmother drowns her in order to promote her ugly daughter by fraud, and gets her wed to the king according to "a word is a word, and a man is a man".
❋ You, a truthful brother, can get severely mobbed or soap opera punished for your sister's ugly looks!"
❋ The true bride, miraculously transformed to a goose, comes to the king's court on three nights. The last time the king wakes and succeeds in disenchanting her.
❋ The kingly wed had better look beautiful, at least by their clothing and jewellry. So it seems.
Part 1: Transforming oneself to win a nice female
A man gives his son to a magician or human troll for some period to be tamed or taught. The other keeps the boy, contrary to the bargain, so the father sets out to find him. Three old women act as guides, and by means of a great eagle he sets free his son, who is transformed to an animal.
They escape the wizard by throwing magic objects behind them in the air.
❋ Finally he's free, not tamed by indecent schooling, to say the least. [AT 325]
❋ He also gets a fit girl for himself, a princess, as it's called.
At last there was no other or better way out that getting richly married.
A peasant goes to town to sell a cow. Then he trades it for a horse, the horse for a hog, and so on downwards, till at last he has nothing left. He then bets with a neighbour that his wife won't get angry with him all the same, and wins the wager.
Bartering tales like this were popular in the old days, and are found in the Buddhist Tripitaka from 492 CE also. This type of tale is common in Europe, and is also found in India, Indonesia, and among some Native Americans.
Three brothers take service with a king, who orders them to herd his foals. The one who succeeds and stick to the arduous task, learns that the foals have communion too, far away. The hireling that wins, enters communion with them and their church inside - and later cuts off their heads when asked to.
Features of the tale - the landscape, the river with the bridge across it, and the paradise church - relate to Medieval visionary poetry. There are striking parallells with the Norwegian Medieval poem "Draumkvedet" in some variants. Still, the shape-shifting and the bridge to the beyond are tied in with mythology which is older than Christianity in the North.
A boy the size of a thumb travels with his mom to a king's court to propose to the process. On the way he amuses himself by disappearing in the horse's mane, ear and nose, or is swallowed by a cow. He returns safely home, or is drowned in a platter of porridge.
The tale has been popular Europe, and has been taken to the the US southern states, for example.
Stories of unusually small persons were popular with the ancient Greeks too (Homer), and Jonathan Swift used the idea in Gulliver's Travels.
The Atman (soul) deep inside is portrayed as "as small as a thumb, yet bigger than the universe" in ancient Indian texts called Upanishads - and marriage holds its dangers too.
Birds wager about a cow. He that first awakes, is supposed to win her.
Three goats cross a bridge which is guarded by an ogre. The ogre lets the smallest and middle-sized go in order to catch the biggest. But that one proves to be too big, he butts the ogre into the river and is allowed to thrive on the other side along with his kind.
This miscellaneous type comprises various tales dealing with a clever horse. There are classical origins for some motifs in it. Ørnulf Hodne Hodne gives the following chain of action, or sketchy content:
The hero obtains/inherits a supernatural horse. He is in service at a king's court, where envious fellow-servants are falsely asserting that he can rescue the princess. He succeeds, assisted by the horse. To win the princess he is, however, assigned new dangerous tasks, e.g. to remove a mountain for the king and fetch from hell a magic horse like his own. On the way he saves himself by throwing his supply of meat to the animals that try to stop him, and captures the magic horse assisted by his own, which fights against he other. Then the hero and the princess compete in transforming and hiding themselves from each other, and he wins. Finally he obtains her, and the magic horse changes himself into a prince." (Hodne 1984:123).The wise "horse" knew how to rise in worldly power by getting staunch in its way. By being allied to it, humans rose in power too. In "Dapplegrim" a young boy had to get tougher, till horrible scenes grow wilder and climax in a plotted wedding.
Norwegian Fjord Horses: [Link]
A blacksmith makes a contract with the devil so that in return for becoming a master smith he's to belong to the devil after a certain time. God or St. Peter - one or more of them - comes visiting the smith. They work miracles the smith did not hear of and can't copy either. He is, however, given three wishes for being a good sport, and he wants to have objects that give him power over the devil. The devil in turn becomes afraid of him and at last refuses to let him enter hell. The smith tries his luck in heaven afterwards. The final outcome of it is unsettled.
❋ You should have a place to go to - a few options would be nice.
A poor lad gets wonder-working objects from the north wind: a table cloth that supplies itself with food; a gold-dripping he-goat; and a purse that never gets empty. He is robbed of these objects at an inn by the greedy innkeeper and his wife. Finally he receives a stick that beats the thieves until called off by its owner. By means of it the other objects are recovered.
❋ Young ones are often taken in by their good will and innocence, and drinking comradery too.
❋ Three brothers; three attempts to identify with so as to compete in the fight for living - as in some variants of the tale there are three brothers, and, by the way, in many tales three brothers can be taken to represent three attempts marked by less and less credulity or inexperience.
❋ One is to guard valuable assets by being cleverly circumspect and on one's guard and not trust in all smiling faces.
❋ We have to get resolute enough to get out of deep fixes, but not to get into it is far better.
A small boy is enticed and fooled by a witch, who carried him off from his home in a sack. On the way he gets out twice by putting heavy objects in the sack, and runs home. The third time she succeeds in taking him all the way to her own home, where she fattens him. The witch's inexperienced daughter is put to the task of slaughtering him, but he fools her, kills he, boils her, and serves her as a meal to her family. The ogre's guests praise the meal. The boy lures them outside and smashes them all by surprise attack. And he ends rich.
❋ To be on our guard against "strangers (Greeks) carrying gifts" is an old lesson. And rather many gifts come with strings.
Twelve princesses out for a walk, disappear. Twelve princes of another country go to search for them by boat. On an island the youngest prince finds the youngest princess, gets a sword, and goes on board again. Later he kills the troll that has abducted the princesses, and the princesses get on board. When they remember they forgot their golden crowns, the youngest prince goes ashore for them. But in the meantime the captain betrays him by sailing off, and subjugates the eleven princes. However, the stranded prince gets helped by a big bird and a troll. He sails off in an outstanding boat and arrives home long before the others. When they come, he is recognised as the one who rescued the princesses, the captain is executed, and the twelve princess get a prince each.
A childless queen gets advice from a witch on how to have a child outside of normal channels. But the wilful mother breaks a condition tied in with the counsel, and gets twin girls: a darling and an ugly deformed one. The ugly sister always helps and assist the handsome one, and is at last to marry a prince. On the wedding day she sheds her ugliness and is found to be as pretty as her sister.
❋ Consider in passing how ugliness protects, whereas good looks may puff up and may cause downfalls.
❋ "Who is pretty? Hearts can tell."
This sort of tale allows for many interpretations, as there are many versions. On the one hand it tells of how a credulous, trusting traveller first is blinded, and next gets much favour due to miraculous help: He spends the night in a tree and overhears a meeting of animals, and learns some of their secrets.
By means of the secrets he restores his sight an performs many difficult tasks, cure his blindness, cure an ill princess, becomes rich and honoured, and marries the princess. - The false companion attempts in the same way to try his luck, but fails.
❋ A dangerous fellow is too occupied with himself by "Me first".
❋ If you chance to overhear deep secrets that can make you succeed in a really great way, you have to have lots of luck too in order to master the social ramifications or implications that tend to go along with success.
A boy of supernatural origin has to leave home because of his alarming size and correspondingly giant appetite. He makes a contract to work for a peasant and a king, and they give him hard jobs (chop wood, thresh, pull heavy loads). The strong one accomplishes every task and overcomes all difficulties. To be quit of him the master (or king) orders him finally to perform utterly dangerous tasks (waging war, going to hell for the devil's tax), but he succeeds in all and wins the king's daughter, consent or no consent.
❋ To outwit the devil you have to be smart and subtle, and not just strong.
❋ On his way up to the hero faces lots of situations where the quite "normal" reactions are to withdraw and adjust beneath those in power. However, the hero is fearless and staunch an keeps it up.
❋ To get your own family you have to be quite without fear of the in-laws, you too.
Some sections and major parts here are simplified and rearranged for the sake of getting to a nicer or better "flow of action". Basic changes are made near the end to make the hero appear less tactless, many things considered.
To make the quite long tale less alarming, these elements were dropped
near the end: a) a beastly killing of a pauper-boy, b) foul play; and c) a bargain with the
devil that amounted to nothing. d) Also, the king is allowed to live and retire with some shreds
of dignity instead of "sailing along between heaven and earth" after a stout whack by
A Viking Relative of Strong John
Some of the vital parts of the "Strong John" tale were actually lived out by Norsemen, or vikings. The story of Rolf Ganger (French: Rollon, Rollo), one of the ancestors of the British royalty, runs quite like a "Strong John" fairy tale. [Link]. Rolf was so big that viking horses could not carry him, sagas tell. He made the French king Charles the Simple hand over Normandy to him, and protected the Seine and Paris in return. Compare:
A princess who is a master at telling lies is offered in marriage to the man who can tell so big a lie that she says: "That is a lie". She is brought to say the required words in protest when the hero makes up shameful lies about her family, and then she has to marry the suitor. - Cf. Ørnulf Hodne.
❋ If telling the truth is so rare in high or famous circles, it could be the most needed thing for a successful marriage, and seems to be recognised by the king. "Be yourself," is a quite typical royal advice today too.
THIS IS a fine folk tale from "Makrelldorg" about mackerel trolling. I have not come across any AT number of it so far.
In this folk story, the three waves are three wives who are witches, and not at all fond of their husbands, as they decide to drown them all. But a clairvoyant youngster onboard overhears the women plotting, and is given the means to combat their swelling influences (three waves) when the time come.
On one level of interpretation or comment we may agree that life at sea or in the open, in nature, can combat splashing and drowning faking. And life partners may not be as friendly as they seem to be either. Yet there are differences among wives, as there are differences among pussycats.
Klara Stroebe: "A weird tale of the sea and of witches is that of "Storm Magic" (Asbjornsen, Huldreeventyr, I, p. 248. From the vicinity of Christiania, told by a sailor, Rasmus Olsen) . . . It would be interesting to know the inner context of the cabin-boy's counter magic, and why it is that the birch-wood, cast into the sea billet by billet, had the power to destroy the witches." [p. 68]. Indeed.
This story is another Norwegian tale with no allotted AT number. The story pivots on a humble, decent man who is taken miraculously care of in a pucker and from then on. The great help or luck he is given, is ascribed to the little people.
The man rises into wealth - the big motif of the story - by friendly co-operation from beings of the sea - now birds, now humans, and most of the time invisible to humans.
You can say the tall tale dramatises some typical plights in part brought on by harsh climate, barren soil and greedy neighbours - or unfriendly and at times warring neighbours. If so, the tale frames and evolves out of rather bad everyday conditions and the longings for a better fare and better life they give rise to in a human soul.
Clara Stroebe: ""The Island of Udrost" (Asbjornsen, Huldreeventyr, Part I, p 259, from Nordland, narrator not specified) is a legendary paradise, which appears at the moment of extremest peril to the Norsemen helplessly shipwrecked in the stormy sea . . . Udrost is almost an Isle of the Blest, an Avalon, to the fisherfolk whose lives are passed in want and constant danger."
❋ If a bundle of sea-birds fish for you and help you travel to Bergen to sell it, it reflects wishful thinking or advanced cooperation.
❋ In the old days people learnt to tame falcons for getting game, and some still do.
; ❋ Even trained otters help Indians by the northern Ganges River to catch fish.
THIS ELEGANT little story about travelling by air, is parallelled by a Swedish tale from the Torsjö area, and a story of a saint that travelled in the same way from Rome to Denmark. And then there is Milarepa, Tibet's patron saint from the 1200s, who was reputedly an expert in travelling by air, sitting cross-legged in so doing. [See Evans-Wentz 1969]
Unknown to many, there are many amply documented stories of levitation handed down, as of the Catholic saint ◦Joseph of Cupertino (1603-1663), and levitation per se. My personal preferences are in this vein: ◦Yogic Flying
The giant in the mountain can be looked on as a bold imagery of certain miracle-capable sides of man's spirit. Cf. Patanjali's Yoga Sutras.
A stiff tale allows for different interpretations, and some of them can be according to our mood at the time.
AT 425 is called The Search for the Lost Husband. This type refers to a cycle of related tales. AT 425A is called The Animal as Bridegroom.
A bear wants a human mate. A man talks his daughter into the match, and she rides away astride the beast. Thus she gets gets an animal husband and lives together with him. He becomes a handsome man at night, however. They lived together happily, but with time she became homesick. The bear gave her leave to visit her family, but warns her against listening to her mother's advice. The young wife listens to her mother anyway, and as a result breaks the "contract" at hand. When she on the advice of her mother looks at him in the light of a candle during the night, drops of tallow awakened her sleeping husband, and the bear-man resolutely goes away because of a spell cast on him by his stepmother: He would now have to go to a castle east of the sun and west of the moon and marry a woman with a nose three ells long. With that he disappears. Hence, the first part of the tale revolves around young love and its whereabouts - including staying away from the in-laws and parents in fair ways to get a "thing" going with one's sleep partner in the long run, which is fit for a couple.
Undaunted, his true wife set out to find him anyway, and undergoes a sorrowful wandering to recover him. The second part of the tale is about that, and how it ends. The young wife sets out for a long and difficult quest for him, in part using iron shoes for climbing. On her way she is given directions and precious gifts by helpful people. She arrives at her bridegroom's far-away residence by climbing a mountain. She takes service as maid and trades her precious things for three nights by the side of her lost husband. She wants to awaken his memory of her, but two times he is drugged by a soporific. He spills the soporific on the third night, stays awake, and recognizes her as his true bride. The false bride is unveiled and dies.
❋ The tale is about finding ones true mate and keeping him too, getting independent enough for that. He may not look like a million dollars at first sight, but see what he can do each night as time passes. Much depends on that.
The tale is classified as a religious folktale. It explains woodpecker characteristics on some folk moral grounds, and is also a tale of origins (of this and that, ie, aethiological).
Christ and Peter ask for something to eat from a peasant woman who is baking. But all her bannocks turn out too large, and she gives them only a little or nothing at all. She is punished for her stinginess by being transformed into a woodpecker.
There are 39 variants of the tale in Norway. The source of this version is Olav Bø et al (editors): Norske eventyr. Det norske Samlaget. Oslo, 1982, p. 241-42)
❋ The tale inculcates the shared, cultural values ("baggage") of sharing or giving, reflecting the very great need for them in years gone by in the North.
English folktale translations below are on-line at archive.org.
Abrams, Meyer Howard, and Geoffrey Galt Harpham. A Glossary of Literary Terms. 10th ed. International ed. Andover, Hampshire: Cengage Learning/Wadsworth, 2012.
Asbjørnsen, Peter Christen. Fairy Tales from the Far North.. Tr. Hans Lien Brækstad. New York: A. L. Burt, 1897. On-line. —— Forty tales.
Asbjørnsen, Peter, og Jørgen Moe. Samlede eventyr, bd 1-3. Oslo: Kunstnerutgaven, Gyldendal, 1965.
Ashliman, D.: A Guide to Folktales in the English Language. New York: Greenwood, 1987.
Baldick, Chris. The Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms. 3rd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.
Bruner, Jerome S. Acts of Meaning (the Jerusalem-Harvard Lectures). Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1990.
Bruner, Jerome S. The Culture of Education. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996.
Brudal, Paul. Det ubevisste språket: Psykologi og symbolbilder i folkeeventyrene (The Unconscious Language: Psychology and Symbol Pictures in the Folktales). Oslo: Universitetsforlaget, 1984. [The terapeutic uses of fairy tales]
Bø, Gudleiv, in Egil Sundland. "Det var en gang - et menneske (Once on a Time There Was a Human")" Oslo: Cappelen Akademisk Forlag, 1995:20.
Bø, Olav, mfl, redr. Norske eventyr (Norwegian Fairy Tales). Oslo: Det Norske Samlaget, 1982.
Dasent, George Webbe, tr. Asbjørnsen, Peter Christen and Jørgen Engebretsen Moe. East o' the Sun and West o' the Moon. Philadelphia: David McKay, 1921. On-line. —— Fifty-nine tales of a total of about one hundred and thirty in all by Asbjørnsen and Moe. Dasent's Tales from the Fjeld contains fifty-two more.
Dasent, George Webbe, tr. Tales from the Fjeld: A Second Series of Popular Tales, from the Norse of P. Chr. Asbjørnsen. London: Chapman and Hall, 1874 - On-line. —— Fifty-two more Norwegian tales.
Leon T. Dickinson. A Guide to Literary Study. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1959.
Engelstad, Irene. Fortellingens mønstre: En strukturell analyse av norske folkeeventyr. Oslo: Universitetsforlaget, 1976.
Evans-Wentz, Walter Yeeling, ed. Tibet's Great Yogi Milarepa. 2nd ed. London: Oxford University Press, 1969.
Greimas, Algirdas. Strukturel semantik (Structural Semantics). Odense: Borgen, 1983.
Hodne, Ørnulf: The Types of the Norwegian Folktale. Bergen: Universitetsforlaget, 1984.
Propp, Vladimir. Morphology of the Folktale. Austin: University of Texas, 1968.
Stroebe, Clara, ed. The Norwegian Fairy Book. Tr. Frederick Herman Martens. New York: Frederick A. Stokes, 1922. On-line. —— Thirty-seven tales.
Sugg, Richard P., ed. Jungian Literary Criticism. Evanston, ILL: Northwestern University Press, 1992.
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.
Zipes, Jack. Breaking the Magic Spell. Reprint. New York: Routledge, 1992.
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