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Norwegian Folktales: Introduction

"The Norwegian folk tales are the best there is," wrote Jacob Grimm in 1850. "They surpass almost any other".

Jacob Grimm did not know all the folktales in the world; all of them were not put down in writing in 1850, for example. However, his praise did not go unnoticed, and helped establish that the folk tales of Asbjørnsen and Moe got an excellent international reputation - such a good international reputation that their edited folktales and legends gradually were accepted by the conformist middle class (bourgeois) in Norway too (!). It took some time, in part because there were vulgar words and phrases in them.

Norwegian Folktales for Pleasure

Concerned with Norwegian folk tales from Norway
Sound pleasure

Here are some seventy Norwegian tales from Asbjørnsen and Moe's edited collection of Norwegian tales, with an added legend about Dyre Vaa. The tales are straightened out a bit for little ears that seldom love cruel and harsh taming.

Frederick H. Martens writes in the preface of his English translation of Klara Stroebe's Norwegian Fairy Tales that "It is his hope and belief that those who may come to know it will derive as much pleasure from its reading as it gave him to put it into English." (Stroebe 1922, Preface)

Collections and Dasent Translations

In 1841 Peter Chr. Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe published one booklet of tales they had collected and edited. In 1842-44 three more booklets followed, so that they had published 53 tales in all in 1844. Moe had prepared 28 of these tales, and Asbjørnsen 25 of them. In 1852 appeared a new and much enlarged 2-volumed edition. Finally, in 1871 came a book with forty-five more tales. The edition of 1871 was edited by Asbjørnsen, and contained four new contributions by Jørgen Moe too. The total of folktales that Moe contributed, was fifty. Asbjørnsen's share was somewhat larger. The two of them published quite accurately 130 folktales and some 100 legends.

Asbjørnsen, further, cooperated with Moe's son, Ingebret Moltke Moe, about one of the tales in the 1871 edition, "The Three Princesses in the Blue Mountain".

The folktale types that Asbjørnsen and Moe collected, edited and got published, are for most part edited tales. What is more, they are a fraction only of the 4200 folktale types in Norway, tells Ørnulf Hodne (1984:10). He has prepared a survey of Norwegian folktale types and variants of many of them. There can be up to dozens of variants, but usually not as many. It means there are more tales where Asbjørnsen and Moe's tales come from. (Hodne 1984; Bø 1982;25-26)

The first published folktales by Asbjørnsen and Moe were translated into English by the Scottish Sir George Webbe Dasent (1817-96). His first version of the collection by Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen E. Moe was called Popular Tales from the Norse (1859). In later editions at least thirteen more tales were included, such as in the edition of 1903. These figures suggest there are some thirty Asbjørnsen and Moe folktales lacking in Dasent's translations. For all that, his translations of the tales have remained popular since.

Folktales are largely international. Folk tale characters of Norway resemble others from the lore of other countries. In characters, motifs, incidents, and spirit, some Swedish and some Danish folktales are akin to the Norwegian ones. However, there are a few that may be of Norse or Norwegan origin. One is about the whitebear at Dovre, and the other is about a pig who wanted a better way of living, but got thwarted. (EB, "storytelling")

About Dasent's Translations and Norse Tor

Most of the stories that follow are from Dasent's translation called East o' the Sun and West o' the Moon. Several American editions of exist. About one third of the tales, added recently, are from his translation Tales from the Fjeld. Dasent tells his tales in a kind of friendly conversational tone. Asbjørnsen and Moe describes Dasent's translation of their works in their preface to the third edition, Christiania (Oslo), 1866.

In France and England collections have appeared in which our tales have not only been correctly and faultlessly translated, but even rendered with exemplary truth and care, nay, with thorough mastery. The English translation, by George Webbe Dasent, is the best and happiest rendering of our tales that has appeared. (Tales from the Fjeld, Preface)

Composite Ashlad features

Boots or the Ashlad. There are some Anglicisms in Dasent's work, Claire Booss (1984) points out, for example the nickname Boots for the youngest member in the family. In Norwegian this stock character and folk hero is not called Boots. He is known by many names, such as Hans, Espen (derived from the Norse personal name, Asbjørn, or "Godbear"). The decent type name "Ashlad" that Asbjørnsen and Moe also use, comes from "the Ashfart", Oskefisen. It is similar in Swedish. So much for Dasent's "Boots" and "the Ashlad".

Parts of Norse mythology shine through. In Swedish, oskan, is 'the thunder'. The first part of 'Ashlad' derives from ash, but a remote linkage to the Norse God of Thunder may be had anyway, since the folk tale hero resembles the thunder god Thor in several ways, as has been noted by Olav Bø (1982), and others too. Norse Tor is cognate with Jupiter, Zeus and Indra. In Norse mythology he is the defender of gods and men, and fights against trolls (giants) and kills many of them. Further, the Ashlad is pretty often helped by magical weapons or tools, and so was Thor - and other Norse gods. A boat that sailed on land and on sea belonged to another Norse god, and could be shrinked and tucked away in his pocket. Flying in chariots in the air was another god-mark, and so on. Thus, some strong features of folk tales is relatable to Norse tales of gods - what they did and how they were equipped too. [Norse gods and their gear]

The folk tale hero gets potent and magic help too, especially in miracle tales.

Remnants of Viking ways on and up? The folk hero, the Ashlad, steals and lies and boasts and kills great trolls and gets booty in some of the tales. An echo of Viking ways of success, perhaps? See how the large Viking Rollo came to get Normandy, for example. [Link]

Stupid idealisation: no thanks. Witty entertainment: yes. Not considering a troll-fighing heritage, or the Norse marauder tradition of old, some authors idealise the composite stock character Ashlad as if by whim. He is great fun to read about for most part anyhow, just as the god Thor to some (cf. Sundland 1995).

Too Much Praise is Mispraise

Empty boasts do not always serve folklore folks.

High praise: For her Norwegian tales Booss draws mainly on Brækstad's work, and also on Dasent's. She also writes high praise that may be much misplaced:

The Norwegians, for example, descendants from the fierce, untamed Vikings, are a hardy, courageous and independent people, but with a love of home and domestic life . . .

All Scandinavian tale-spinners seem to share . . . a great sense of humor." (Booss 1984:xiii-xiv.

If Norse vikings had loved home life, they should have improved much of their home living and stayed at home for most part: That could have been The Boon to the rest of Western Europe who was raided and much damaged for several centuries called the Viking Age (793–1066)

Humour, cursorily: The sense of humour is not evenly distributed among authors and jokers. Birgit Herzberg-Johnsen (1997) has shown how forms of humour differ among classes and generations in Norway too. The humour resorted to among working classes and farmers, is somewhat vulgar, and the humour of children tends to be more straightforward and brash.

As for how different forms of humour is appreciated among nations, a study by Dr Richard Wiseman (2004) shows differences between, say, continental Europeans and British people, but that could very well be due to such simple things as getting jokes in one's mother's tongue, as compared to getting them in another language. It is said somewhere that philosophy, proverbs and humour may be the hardest things to grasp in another language. However, it would depend on the depth of philosophy and the level of humour, from low, debasing humour to encompassing or delightful humour, where we laugh with others and at times "reverently" of ourselves. And still, there is much truth in the view that for the lack of enough language codes, subtleties of philosophy and some forms of humour may be hard to detect in another language.

Lastly, humour is not just one thing. It has many outlets, and its forms change over time, from crass, coarse and vulgar of earlier centuries towards more refined, polished humour (Bremmer and Roodenburg 1997). But there is also a common, basic phenomenon into it, postulates Arthur Koestler in The Act of Creation (1967): that of fusing two formerly separate mental frames of reference, fusing two association sets. The end result of such "bisociation", as Koestler calls it, is a surplus energy (laughter is one outlet), and novel insights. Fusion outcomes may express humour, scientific insights or worse. Koestler's understanding of humour is still "good Latin": The Encyclopaedia Britannica contains an article on humour by Koestler. The article could be a good place to start for Koestler readings. [Arthur Koestler bio]

More on Asbjørnsen in particular

How sympathetic is ridicule? How brilliant is rewriting other people's tales?

Peter Christen Asbjørnsen (1812-85) was "a giant in the field . . . together with Jørgen Moe (1813-82)," Claire Booss considers. Also, the English critic Sir Edmund Gosse (1849-1928) pays tribute to especially Asbjørnsen's "sympathetic and brilliant touches which make us forget the author." (Brækstad 1893, xix-xx)

Gosse might refer to Asbjørnsen's partly invented travelogues by that. Asbjørnsen put a few folk tales and more than a hundred legends into the twenty-six frame stories in a finalised collection of the Norwegian folk tales. Such frame stories are not included in this selection of tales. However, if Gosse speaks of the person Asbjørnsen, it shows up that on some issues he was hardly all that sympathetic, for he resorted to ridicule (below).

Sympathetic and skilful, but not without blemishes: Asbjørsnen used ridicule against the Scottish Robert Meason Laing, who was a fellow traveller and friend. They fell out after Asbjørnsen chose to ridicule him in a couple of his travelogues; Asbjørnsen also parodied a country school teacher in Sel in a travelogue; and Asbjørnsen jeers at a girl's father who did not want to have the family's poor, private teacher Asbjørnsen for a son-in-law: The family had her married to a sheriff instead. Asbjørnsen took a writer's revenge on the father by caricaturing him in "An Evening in the Squire's Kitchen".

Dr Olav Solberg (1942-) divulges much about the "the folklore hero" Asbjørnsen in an introduction and notes to a recent edition of Asbjørnsen's Norske Huldreeventyr og Folkesagn (2010) [◦Online].

Honour is due to some common people too: Asbjørnsen and Moe were collectors and rewriters of folktales told to them. As entioned above, Asbjørnsen wrote (in part invented) travelogues (frame stories) that set the scenes for legends, and the legends were genuine enough, albeit from other sources than what appears in some of the frame stories. Tale-tellers from the common people gave them the material that made the couple celebrated in time. The two depended on their suppliers. We could do worse than honouring those on whose backs they rode, all those whom honour is due. Ørnulf Hodne has assembled a survey of most in his very informative survey, The Types of the Norwegian Folktale (1984)

The joke about unafraid Norwegians: Booss also mentions that Scandinavians are "unafraid to refer to sex, illegitimacy, and to imagine the mating of mortals and supernatural creatures." And in many folk tales goodness is rewarded and evil punished. (Booss 1984:xxii, xviii)

Good as a joke can be, it gets classier for having substance.

More Norwegian Folk Tales

Many more Norwegian folk tale collections are around: There are many more folk tales or variants of them in Norway than the ones Asbjørnsen and Moe collected and edited. Some of these added tales are published in Norwegian on the site. There is also, as mentioned above, a useful English survey of types of Norwegian tales and their variants, furnished by Ørnulf Hodne. (1984).

Further, in 2004 Hans-Jörg Uther published a revision of the AT numbering system, replacing AT numbers by ATU numbers. I have drawn on these two sources mainly for several added tale comments.

Differences and changes from editions to editions. Finally, folk tales are a motley mixture. There are many sorts of such tales. Some of them are intertwined with literary stories. And above all, there are differences among story-tellers, and different editors of such tales may take off from oral stories in dialects and make literary tales out of them - more or less transforming them along that road. The Grimm Brothers did it. Asbjørnsen and Moe did it. Danish Hans Christian Andersen did it with a dozen tales or so, and Swedish Nils Gabriel Djurklou did it to a greater extent than the others. Did what? They transformed oral tales into literary pieces. Asbjørnsen and Moe first translated Norwegian dialectal stories into Danish, which was the written language of Norway too in the 1840s. Later they sought to make their collection of tales more Norwegian by steps and stages, as a Norwegian language was haltingly restored.

So first they purged the tales they had got, leaving out erotical ones for one thing, reformulating very much, replacing dialect words with Danish ones. The tales still were looked down on as vulgar among the upper classes in Norway at the time. Later, fifty-sixty years after their first collections were published, publishers sought to translate Danish expressions into dialectal ways of wording where farmers were speaking. Ivar Aasen helped with a bit of it.

The tales have been modernised several times since. A Nynorsk Norwegian edition of the collected works of Asbjørnsen and Moe, with helpful notes and a glossary of older terms, was first published in 2007-2008, for example, and revised since.

Now, folk tales in edited collections may be verbatim, or more or less so. Or they are edited, lightly or heavily.

A mixed pack. In themselves folk tales are a mixture of interesting and less interesting tales, and of well formulated tales and cruder ones. It is as with the first Grimm edition of two volumes. The Grimms spent decades refining, honing and editing the stories. Good as a story or other piece of art may be at present, improvements - or at least changes - may be possible, and such things may be seen later - and later. It happens to article writers "all the time" too.

Some tales go well with children: they are so designed. Fables may suit some, for example. However, tales of murder, horrible cruelties and killer bridegrooms (Bluebeard) are not good for backing up a sense of safety, and so on. So the mixture called folk tales is a fabric where some tales suit young folks better than others. Three early selections for children from the complete Asbjørnsen and Moe collection of 1871 are the Danish Eventyrbog for børn: Norske folkeeventyr af P. Chr. Asbjørnsen og Jørgen Moe; med illustrationer af E. Werenskiold og Th. Kittelsen. (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1898), followed by the Norwegian selections Barne-eventyr (1909) and Nye barne-eventyr (1910), both published by Aschehoug in Kristiania (Oslo).

A tale of trolls

Troll stroll. A little boy, the lecturer's son, spoke up during a lecture in Norwegian for university students: "There are no trolls!" They exist in fancy and folklore, though. A vivid and at times shared imagination, some lurking fear too perhaps, much alcohol and the effect of the fungus ergot that grows on rye and wheat, may account for some of these dangerous beings. "Poison someone, and a hallucination may be seen." Some think they see supernatural beings anyway. Earlier, many said they saw such beings too and many more believed in them. It was not uncommon in the early 1800s in Scandinavia.

Why wicked beings? It may be pointed out that ergotism symptoms include hallucinations, confusions, delusions, loss of parts of the hands and feet or earlobes, and in more serious cases, loss of arms and legs due to lack of blood circulation, and a very painful death because of infections. In witch trials in Europe similar symptoms are told of. The first outbreak of ergotism recorded in the Rhine Valley in 857 AD, struck peasants and killed thousands of people. A little "thing" (fungus) can have alarming effects, and some are found in folklore.

It is not possible to tell for sure what is the cause of what in folklore. Suspected influences are found, but hard proof is for most part missing, as with the yeti (abominable snowman). So folklore trolls are very hard to catch, if at all.

Psychoanalytic approach. A more or less psychoanalytic approach into folkloric giants and similar beings might be that they are either inventions of gifted poets, like Homer, or projections of some shared, "public mind", also called a collective sort of mind by Carl G. Jung. To the degree they are projections of deep, dark sides to human id (libido), they are likely to beget fears and call for ways of dealing with these inner sides to oneself - of the well hidden Norwegian raider lusts, one may add - living like trolls in caves in the deep woods of the subconscious mind. That could well be. Interpretation is the clue to this approach. [A Jungian approach is somewhat broader.]

Accordingly, a troll may be considered as a projected fantasy figure. Maybe so, but once again, firm evidence is missing. So trolls are elusive creatures. What stands out, though, is that trolls and giants have features in common with the landscapes where they are placed. In flat farmland Denmark, they do not live in medium high mountains, for there are no such things in Denmark. In the Faroe Islands, the giants are kinder than bloodthirsty Scandinavian trolls and giants for most part. On the Shetland Isles, they live like buried old Vikings in mounds, and share old Viking characteristics.

One should seek to assess fairly how trolls and their living quarters in time conform with natural landscapes, the surroundings of people, and rise above jokes like "Denmark is flat and windy, and so are those who live there." Danish trolls are not big, but foul, and live in hills in the fields, for the lack of mountains. In time folks modify trolls to make them suit the landscapes, is my firm conviction. Such troll changes seems to be part of the cultural appropriation at work or play or both. In other words: Norsemen who peopled islands in the Atlantic, also peopled them with imaginary creatures, and some such creatures changed. In Norway too, giants or jutuls got some added features and in time became trolls of folklore. The process took over five hundred years, more or less. A troll in Scandiavian folklore has many sorts of ancestors, in short.

Norse giants are metaphors for natural forces back then according to P. A. Munch (1981). In this light, folk tales where the hero fights trolls, are somehow figurative ways of dealing with features of one's mental landscape.

There are many other useful angles to folk tales. A generally very well received one is the formal analysis of a structural route a tale maps out, and the role agents in the tale, This approach to folk tales was formed by Vladimir Propp and simplified by Algirdas Greimas. (Propp; Greimas)

Reading some of them as verbal poetry is one. Many means and agents of general poetry are in some of them. Trolls may stand as figurative mentions, metaphoric items as means of poetry. So whereas trolls in Scandinavian stories are creatures that look like alarmingly ugly persons - some very large and evil, others small and friendly but fold of tricking people - with the Internet has come trolls that send anger-provoking messages to discussion groups there, and troll (persons) who deliberately behaves that uncultivated (Oxford Learner's Dictionary. For obvious reasons, internet trolls are not yet found in traditional folklore.

References and fuller texts about troll lore are found in introductions to the folk tales of many countries here on the site, both in the English and the Norwegian parts of the site, and in some notes as well.

Stuff for students. In the Norwegian section of this site are:

  • The complete Asbjørnsen and Moe with all their stories, legends and folktales with notes, in Nynorsk Norwegian: [Link]
  • 105 Asbjørnsen and Moe legends in Norwegian (marked out in a separate list): [Link]
  • 31 annotated Norwegian folktales and legends: [Link]
  • 15 Norwegian folktales: [Link]
  • 45 Norwegian legends: [Link]
  • 41 of Norway's old legends and similar tales: [Link]

In some of the translations further down, Norwegian tales are illustrated by Norwegian artists. Some of their illustrations are included in the collection on-site.


Norwegian folktales, fairy tales of Norway, Asbjørnsen and Moe, stories, Literature  

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

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

Bremmer, Jan, and Herman Roodenburg, eds. A Cultural History of Humour: From Antiquity to the Present Day. Oxford: Polity Press, 1997.

Bø, Olav, mfl, redr. Norske eventyr. Oslo: Det Norske Samlaget, 1982.

Dasent, Sir George Webbe. Tales from the Fjeld: A Second Series of Popular Tales from the Norse of P. Chr. Asbjørnsen. Tr. Sir George Dasent. London: Chapman and Hall, 1874.

EB: Encyclopaedia Britannica (Online or DVD).

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

Johnsen, Birgit Hertzberg. Hva ler vi av? Om nordmenns forhold til humor (What Do We Laugh At? On Norwegians' Relations to Humour). Oslo: Pax, 1997.

Koestler, Arthur. The Act of Creation. New York: Dell, 1967.

Munch, Peter Andreas. Norrøne gude- og heltesagn. Rev. ed. Oslo: Universitetsforlaget, 1981. [The work in English]

Solberg, Olav, ed. Norske Huldreeventyr og Folkesagn av Peter Chr. Asbjørnsen (Norwegian Legends. Solli: Det norske språk- og litteraturselskap v/ Ellen Wiger, Nasjonalbiblioteket, 2010.

Sugg, Richard P., ed. Jungian Literary Criticism. Evanston, ILL: Northwestern University Press, 1992.

Sundland, Egil. "Det var en gang - et menneske." Oslo: Cappelen Akademisk Forlag, 1995.

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.

Wiseman, Richard. Laughlab: The Scientific Search for the World's Funniest Joke. Last report., 2002. [◦Link (PDF file]

A Sample of English Translations

  • Sir George Webbe Dasent, tr. Popular Tales from the Norse. New ed. Edinburgh and London: David Douglas, 1903.
  • Peter Chr. Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe. Popular Tales From The Norse. Tr. Sir George Webbe Dasent. New ed. Edinburgh: David Douglas, 1912.
  • P. Chr. Asbjørnsen. Tales from the Fjeld: A Second Series of Popular Tales. Tr. Sir George Dasent. London: Chapman and Hall, 1874.
  • 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.
  • Asbjørnsen, P. Chr. Folk and Fairy Tales. Tr. Hans Lien Brækstad, with an Introduction by Edmund W. Gosse. 7th ed. New York: A. C. Armstrong & Son, 1893.
  • P. Chr. Asbjørnsen. Fairy Tales from the Far North. Tr. Hans Lien Brækstad. New York: A. L. Burt Company, 1897.
  • Asbjørnsen, Peter Christen and Jørgen Engebretsen Moe. East o' the Sun and West o' the Moon. Tr. Sir George Webbe Dasent. Philadelphia: David McKay, 1921.
  • Stroebe, Klara, ed. The Norwegian Fairy Book. Tr. Frederick H. Martens. New York: Frederick A. Stokes, 1922.
  • Tales by Asbjørnsen and Moe are also in the more recent Scandinavian Folk & Fairy Tales: Tales from Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, edited by Claire Booss (New York: Gramercy Books, 1984). In her extensive volume she borrows from Brækstad's translations, but also from Dasent's Tales from the Fjeld, which consists of translations of Asbjørnsen's Popular Tales from the Norse.


The series called "Norsk Eventyrbibliotek, NEB (Norwegian Folktale Library)" (Oslo: Det Norske Samlaget), consists of these volumes:

  1. Prinsessene som dansa i åkeren: Eventyr frå Rogaland. (Brynjulf Alver, ed). 1967.
  2. Ridder Skau og jomfru Dame: Eventyr frå Ringerike. (Brynjulf Alver, ed). 1969.
  3. Kongsdottera i koppartårnet: Eventyr frå Trøndelag. (Brynjulf Alver, ed). 1970.
  4. Jomfru Marias gudmorsgåve: Eventyr frå Hordaland. (Brynjuf Alver, ed). 1972.
  5. Dei tri blå tårni: Eventyr frå Telemark; Vol 1. (Olav Bø og Bjarne Hodne, eds). 1974.
  6. Guten som tente i tri år for tri skilling: Eventyr frå Telemark; Vol 2. (Olav Bø, ed). 1975.
  7. Sunnafor sør og nordafor nord: Eventyr frå Akershus, Vestfold og Østfold. (Brynjulf Alver, ed). 1976.
  8. Glunten og Riddar Rev: Eventyr frå Nord-Norge. (Reimund Kvideland, ed). 1977.
  9. Dyret i hagjen: Eventyr frå Agder. (Olav Bø, ed). 1978
  10. Lita-Frid-Kirsti: Eventyr frå Valdres, Numedal, Hallingdal og nedre Buskerud. (Reimund Kvideland, ed). 1979.
  11. Guten i gadden: Eventyr frå Sogn og Fjordane, Møre og Romsdal. (Brynjulf Alver, ed). 1980.
  12. Guten som snudde på halvskillingen: Eventyr frå Hedmark og Oppland. (Olav Bø, ed.). 1981.
Thus, the reference NEB 2 that is used in such as Norsk folkloresamling, is Volume 2 above, Ridder Skau og jomfru Dame from 1972, edited by Brynjulf Alver.

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