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Folk Wisdom of Ola and Per

"Ola and Per" is a farcical strip made by Peter J. Rosendahl (1878-1942). He was born to Norwegian immigrants near Spring Grove in Minnesota in 1878 and held a certificate in mechanical and electrical engineering.The strip's main characters, Ola and Per, are folk heroes among Norwegian-Americans. The strip was first published in Decorah-Posten, Iowa, between 1918 and 1935. Books and reruns appear still. Among other things the strip offers proverbs and allusions to proverbs.

Below is a selection of most of the proverb-looking captions in the series in the order they appear there. For most part, right after the strip numbers come strip titles as translated, occasionally with a few American proverbs to compare with. Norwegian dialects and previous Norwegian ways of spelling abound in Rosendahl's strip.

From the Strip Series

Strip No. 3. Be kind to animals

The caption accompanies three boxes: In the first of them Ola sits milking his cow. On the other side of a fence Per is busy kicking away pigs who are eager for the food he carries in buckets. Ola says, "It grieves me to see how mean you are to the animals." But when Ola's cow kicks the bucket of milk in his face, he smashes his stool over her head in a rage.

The strip serves to show the tension between animals and men who basically utilize them. The cruel mistreatment by these two neighboring farmers indicate how shallow and calculating their sort of kindness is. Rosendahl, himself a farmer and sensitive man, uses irony to get that message through, loud and clear. The title says the opposite of what happens, and the mixed comment and text of the strip blends nice words of kindness to animals with ongoing cruelty. The farmers dominate the animals as they make use of them. There are other ways to be kind to animals - or farmers: Letting them be is often fit in the long run, if balances have not been upset already. Often they are, and that is quite a modern problem.

Vær venlig mod Dyrene.

Strip No. 8. "You may know the great by their riding-gear"

Ola and Per ride off in their new car. The two back wheels fall off as they are driving, the brakes will not work. The strip ends with a car crash.

The caption refers to an ironical comment in a scene in Henrik Ibsen's play Peer Gynt from 1875. It is said by Peer while thrashing the pig he rides on while trotting off. In the strip caption something is added: "- said Ola to his wife about her Ford". Thus:

"Paa Ridestellet skal Storfolk kjendes," sa Ola til Kjæringen om Ford'en hendes.

Strip No. 10. As long as you live you learn

Per does not manage to split wood proficiently, and Ola shows him how to do it, with the result that a large piece of split wood hits Per in the stomach. That is fun afterwards, at best.

"En lærer saa længe en lever."

Strip No. 15. It's never so bad that it could not get worse

Per wants to ride a bicyle, but ties it to an oak so that it will not go too far if he loses control of it. As a result the vehicle suddenly stops as Per is riding along. He hits a tree, head first, and says, "I wasn't so dumb after all when I tied it to the oak. If I hadn't done so, things might have gone absolutely wrong." Here the humor is effected in part by mixing causes. It was tying the vehicle that caused the accident.

Compare: From the day you were born till you ride in a hearse, there's nothing so bad but it might have been worse [Ap 433].

Det er aldrig saa galt at det ikke kunde gaaet værre.

Strip No. 29. Per "executes the smith for the baker", or The cow that suffered instead of the pig

Per aims his rifle at a pig among other animals and shoots a cow. The strip shows it is best to stay within the range of what you can safely do. Mottos like "Safety first" or "Sound precautions" apply.

However, the cartoonist welds the plot of this strip to the moral lesson: "Don't execute the baker for the smith." The comment: The innocent may be made to suffer for the guilty. The caption alludes to a poem by Herman Wessel, "The Smith and the Baker". Its action is, in prose rendition:

In a town there were two bakers and one smith. The smith killed another man while drunk, and was sentenced to death. But then they had just this smith in town - and he was a good smith too when he was not drunk - whereas they had two bakers, and one of them was not much praised for his work. So they hanged him instead of the smith. "Always be prepared for death. / It may come when you least expect it" concludes the poem.

The poem relates to the practice of scapegoating that runs through half the Bible, where innocent animals are sacrificed for the sins of the Jews and so on. "If slaughtering innocents for the sake of sinners is justice, what is great injustice?" said the woman. (A novel coinage).

Per "retter Smed for Bager," eller Kua som fik undgjælde for Grisen.

Strip No. 41. It is not easy to be a newcomer, says Lars

Per's academic brother Doctor Lars is a newcomer. In this strip he is asked to plow the corn. The inexperienced man often overestimates what he can do. When he does his best he miscalucates and spooks the horses so that they throw him. His comment after a ride through the air is, "Here in America one does not get treated in the way I had expected."

The real problem, as I see it, is not of being a newcomer, but to know for sure what he can do and not guess about it, so as to secure good enough instructions as needed before venturing on tasks. Many jokes on Lars involve these features. One may say that those who put the inexperienced Lars to tasks he does not master and do not make sure he can do what he guesses he can do, are poor managers indeed. "Poor managers victimize newcomers" lies at the back of the episode. It is in part as Kahlil Gibran suggests in The Prophet: "When the black thread breaks, the weaver shall look into the whole cloth, and he shall examine the loom also."

Now there can be great advantages to being a newcomer too. For example, in Soto Zen a main ideal is to attain and keep a careful and watchful "beginner's mind" [Zeb]

Det er ikke greit at være Nykommer, sier'n Lars.

Strip No. 44. Who laughs last, often laughs best. [Ap 360]

In strip 44 Ola walks along and fails to notice a little tricycle in his way. When he falls over it, Per laughs at him so much that he does not see a big branch in his way. The strip ends with his banging his head into the branch. "One time (it happens to) me, another time you (so refrain from backbiting and gloating)" is a poignant lesson of the episode. The caption is also used in the strips 357, 422, and 486.

The caption proverb suggests "the biter bit", that is, sweet revenge. So: Let them laugh that win [Ap 362]. Meanings in other veins are possible too: He who laughs last laughs longest [Ap 361].

Den som ler sidst ler ofte bedst.

Strip No. 51*. When Ola was to mind the house.

This caption alludes to a very popular type of folk tale that is given the International Folk Tale Catalog number (AT) 1408 and the title, "The Husband Who Was to Mind the House". A dissatisfied husband is made to switch work with his wife for a day, and falls short in extremes. D. L. Ashliman summarizes the type of tale like this:

"A man traded jobs with his wife for a day. He began with the churning, but soon went to the cellar for ale. He had just inserted the tap when he remember the unguarded churn; he ran upstairs, but the pig had already spilled the cream. Meanwhile, the ale ran onto the cellar floor. He refilled the churn. This time he strapped it to his back, intending to churn as he walked, but he bent over and spilled it. Then he led the cow across a plank to the cottage roof, where she could graze on the sod. To keep her from falling off, he lowered her rope down the chimney, tying the end to his own leg. But the cow fell from the roof, drawing the man up the chimney. His wife, returning from the field, saw the cow dangling from the roof and cut the rope. Inside, she found her husband stuck head-first in the porridge pot (Asbjørnsen and Moe) Cf. type 1387." [Agha]

A main lesson of the tale is probably not to talk down on the buzy, hard work of the housewife.

As for the strip (episode) it relates to, the husband Ola starts to churn butter in the absence of his wife, with tragi-comical results. During Ola's unlucky churning of butter he mentions when his neighbor visits him and he himself keeps working, that "she left for Norway this spring" and that since then he had not heard of her.

Da Ola skulde stelle hjemme.

Strip No. 62. The caption is "Per demonstrates 'Safety first' for Ola".

Per ties himself to the roof of a henhouse for safety, so that he will not fall down if he loses his balance while working upon the roof. However, he does fall, and in so doing brings the little building down over him. Miscalulations are his lot over and over.

Safety first is the motto of Industrual Council for Industrial Safety. It was used as a proverb as early as in 1915 [Ap 522]. Compare: Better one safe way than a hundred on which you can't reckon [Ap 643].

Per demonstrerer for Ola "Safety First" From 17 March 1922.

Strip No. 64*. The caption is, literally, "Ola and Per make a Gotham tale", that is, they act out a numbskull story

The strip is about making a cement cover on a cistern. Per starts to work on the inside walls of it, and Ola lends him a helping hand by bricking it up on the outside. After they part for the night, Per discovers that he is trapped in the cistern. The strip ends with calls from the cistern, and is related to painting oneself into a corner, only the prospects seem much uglier.

A Molbo tale (from Danish) is the same as a tale about wise men of Gotham. In English legend the villagers of Gotham were wise fools [Ebu "Wise Men of Gotham"].
Ola og Per laver en Molbohistorie.

Strip No. 65*. Per knows a way out

Per balances Ola's car so that it can run with two wheels only. The solution is strenuous, but it works as long as Per can run along with the car.

Per ved Raad for Uraad.

Strip No. 75*. When Lars was to mind the house

Ola and Per are about to leave the farm on an errand and ask Lars to shoot "a rabbit or a partridge or something" and make a soup on it so that they get something to eat when they are back. When they are having their meal, they ask what he made it from. It is "kind of black and white", Lars tells them, and shows them a skunk hide. Skunk soup was not a preferred dish, it appears, although in some cultures they eat rats and dogs.

The caption is used descriptively. It sums up some happenings. The strip illustrates once again that if you set a newcomer to do a thing, make sure he knows exactly what to do, or something unwanted or unexpected may happen. Complete instructions are fit, whereas a little learning can be "a dang'rous thing", as Alexander Pope says. [Dq 313].

Da Lars skulde stelle hjemme.

Strip No. 95. Sharp lye is needed for scurvy heads

Per has got head lice and washes his head in gasoline, catches fire, and is saved by Ola. Per underestimates the danger of what he is doing, once again.

"Scurvy scalps Call for Strong Measures" the caption runs in Einar Haugen's translation. The essential meaning of it is: Harsh measures are needed to get through to hardened minds, for example, to reform crooks, or Bad people need severe treatment. In Swedish the proverb is: Det behövs skarp lut till lusiga huvud (dåligt folk behöver hård behandling). Sharp lye is needed for heads with lice [Po 212]. That proverb describes the strip content best.

"Der skal sterk Lud til skurvede Hoder."

Strip No. 103. Everything at the right time and place

Per has got built a big house with a "sleeping porch" on the second floor, like "the big shots in Fargo". He goes to bed out there when the temperature is 36 centigrades below zero, with the result that his feet get frozen stiff. The strip is about suiting the occasion, and an encouraging idea at the back of it could very well be: A good life, like dexterity, comes by experience [cf. Ap 148].

Compare: Each thing has its right place if you know how to place it [Ap 589].

Hver Ting til rette Tid og Sted.

Strip No. 132. A byway is often the shortest

Maybe it is not. Compare: Don't go round the world for a shortcut [Ap 677].

En Omvei er ofte den korteste.

Strip No. 140. No one knows the day until the sun has set

Ola and Per are enjoying themselves, playing checkers. Per mentions they have always been friends, but then makes a stupid move. Ola wins, laughing. In anger Per soon smashes the checker board over Ola's head.

Compare: No day is over until the sun has set [Ap 135-7]. British proverbs express the same essence: The evening crowns the day. (Suggested: Only at the end of his life can a man be truly judged) [Dp 51] Praise a fair day at night." [Dp 51] Call no man happy till he dies. [Dp 51]

Some Norwegian and Swedish proverbs derive from the Norse teaching poem Havamal: "Praise day at even, a wife when dead (Olive Bray)," or more accurately in the translation of Bellows: "Give praise to the day at evening, to a woman on her pyre" (verse 81). Tail proverbs: Ein skal ikkje rose dagen før kvelden er kommen. (Don't praise the day till evening has come) [By 172; Oa 40; cf. Br 108]. Prisa ej dag förrän sol gått ned (och icke människan förrän hon är (död) (Don't praise the day until the sun has set (and not a person until he (she) is dead) [Po 59].

Ingen kjender Dagen før Solen gaar ned.

Strip No. 172, 245. Punished nosiness

Per wants to impregnate fence posts with creosote oil, and fills a large pot with creosote oil and warms it up. When he leaves the pot with Ola for a while, Per's meddling mother-in-law comes prying and as a result falls into the hot creosote with a splash. As the proverb goes: A man should not stick his nose in his neighbour's pot [Ap 397].

British: Meddle not with another man's matter [Dp 133]. American proverb: Foolish curiosity . . . often lead to misfortune [Ap 630].

Compare: Impertinence and intrusive prying is soon punished.* Keep your nose to yourself and it won't be cut off [Ap 432].

Straffet Næsvished.

Strip No. 194. "Per does not practice what he preaches."

Cf. Practice what you preach [Ap 479].

Per praktiserer ikke hvad han præker.

Strip No. 215. "Need breaks laws."

Cf. Necessity is above the law. Necessity knows no law [Ap 353].

"Nød bryder Love."

Strip No. 223. "When the ending is good, everything is good"

All is well that ends well.

Naar Enden er god, er alting godt.

Strip No. 244. Digging is hard after much leisure

The caption is: "Digging up stubs is hard work after all this leisure."

Det er en haard Job at grubbe efter al denne Lediggang.

Strip No. 247. All is well that ends well

Here is a variant of the caption of strip 223.

Alt er godt som ender godt.

Strip No. 267. "Better precautious than quick afterwards (eg, when damage has been done)"

Cf. A stitch in time saves nine. Bulwarking is better than prevention, which is better than attempts to cure.

– "Bedre at være føre var end efter snar".

Strip No. 294*. You are never rid of book agents (Joke)

    – Bogagenter blir man aldrig kvit.

Strip No. 306*. Foolhardiness is punished

    – Cf. Straffet Dumdristighed.

Strip No. 325*. Coffee brings new life (Joke)

    – Kaffi! Kaffi! bringer nyt Liv.

Strip No. 328. "When the danger is greatest, the help is nearest"

That is a nice hope. Now there is a story about two fishermen from the Sands Island in Norway. They had capsized in the middle of the Sandsfjord, and were clinging to the overturned boat bottom. While big waves washed over the keel, one of them said to the other, "Joan, now we have to call to Our Lord."

"Well, but aren't there people closer by?" asked the other. [Vkp 47-48]

Naar Faren er størst er Hjælpen nærmest.

Strip No. 358. Things do not aways turn out according to plan

Cf. The best laid plans of mice and men / often go awry. - Robert Burns.

Det gaar ikke altid efter Planen.

Strip No. 373, 597 Too much of a good thing . . . (is bad all right)

Cf. Too much of a good thing is worse than none at all [Ap 260].

"For meget af det gode!"

Strip No. 391. Sorrow and happiness wander together

    – "Sorgen og Glæden de vandre tilhobe."

Strip No. 423. Big head and little sense

(Expression akin to "Little man, big car)

Stort Hode og lidet Vet.

Strip No. 425. Don't believe everything you hear.

Cf. Believe only half of what you see and nothing you hear [Ap 274] Season all you hear with salt [Ap 523].

Man skal ikke tro alt man hører.

Strip No. 432. He who digs a grave for another falls in himself [Ap 266]

    – Hvo som graver en Grav for andre ...

Strip No. 503*. Pigs get a rough handling. (Novel)

    – Grisene faar en haard Medfart.

Strip No. 540*. Oo, Per!

"Uf da" is a Norwegian expression that among Norwegian Americans has taken off from its original meaning as an utterance of dismay to mean something different.

Uf, da, Per!

Strip No. 568*. Cf. The cure - worse than the disease [Ap 152]

Sometimes the remedy is worse than the disease [Ap 504].

Kuren værre end Sygdommen.


Folk Wisdom of Ola and Per in the Norwegian-American strip, Literature  

Agha: Ashliman, D. A Guide to Folktales in the English Language. New York: Greenwood, 1987.

Ap: Mieder, Wolfgang (main ed.), Stewart A. Kingsbury, and Kelsie E. Harder: A Dictionary of American Proverbs. (Paperback) New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

By: Bø, Olav, red. Rim, gåter, ordtøke. (Rhymes, Puzzles, Proverbs) (Norsk folkedikting 4) 3. utg (3rd ed). Oslo: Samlaget, 1977.

Dp: Fergusson, Rosalind. The Penguin Dictionary of Proverbs. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1983.

Hp: Rosendahl, Peter J. Han Ola og Han Per. A Norwegian-American Comic Strip. En norsk-amerikansk tegneserie, edited by Joan N. Buckley and Einar Haugen. Oslo: Universitetsforlaget, 1984 (Original printed in the Decorah-Posten).

Mop: Rosendahl, Peter J. More han Ola og han Per. A Norwegian-American Comic Strip. En norsk-amerikansk tegneserie. Edited by Joan N. Buckley and Einar Haugen. Bilingual Edition. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1988.

Oa: Aasen, Ivar. Norske ordsprog (Norwegian Proverbs). 3. utg (3rd ed). Voss: Vestanbok, 1982.

Po: Holm, Pelle. Ordspråk och talesätt (Proverbs and Phrases). Stockholm: Bonniers, 1973.

Tyno: Hodne, Ørnulf. The Types of the Norwegian Folktale. Bergen: Universitetsforlaget, 1984.

Vkp: Grimstad, Ivar. Velsigne kjæften din, prest. Oslo: Det Norske Samlaget, 1974.

Zeb: Suzuki, Shunryu. Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind. New York: Weatherhill, 1971.

Symbols, brackets, signs and text icons explained: (1) Text markers(2) Digesting.

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