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Ola and Per strips

Proverbs in Han Ola og han Per

Anecdotes open up for proverbs

"Ola and Per" is a Norwegian-American farce strip that was made between 1918 and 1935, and published weekly for most part. Books and reruns appear too. What is more, the main characters, Ola and Per, are folk heroes among Norwegian-Americans. Strip samples are here: [LINK]

Weekly strips of "Ola and Per" were quite often jokes, which may also be called anecdotes. The anecdote with the simplest form of the folktale, a single encounter between familiar characters, ending in a jocular resolution (the nub or point), says Einar Haugen. He finds the folktale anecdote ideal for the comic strip, and the particular form of the anecdote employed in most of Rosendahl's strips falls into the category of the "numbskull" story. Rosendahl's strip episodes are furnished with headings. Some of the headings are proverbs. They serve as nubs too.

Proverbs in Han Ola og han Per

Proverbs express and hand over various stands of a culture, by informing along broad lines what not to do, and to be quick to set things right, and much else. A great many proverbs appeal to one's sense of humor too, and also offer profitable perspectives.

Appropriate stories assist learning, as in many traditional fables, and Rosendahl's strip consists of stories in the form of anecdotal episodes and episodes that make up novellas. At times a part of an episode's inherent lessons are in the headline, and not infrequently in the form of proverbs, as the survey below gives examples of.

Some expressions in the comic strip's speech bubbles are proverbs or proverbial too. Most of the renderings that follow are as they appear in the two books on Han Ola og han Per edited by Haugen and Buckley. The first of the books contains a full list over the strip numbers and titles in Norwegian.

The allotted number of various strip episodes as they appear in two books, Han Ola og han Per and More han Ola og han Per, are put in brackets below.


Be kind to animals (3). 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.

"You may know the great by their riding-gear" (8). It is an ironical comment in a scene in Henrik Ibsen's play Peer Gynt from 1875. It is said by Peer when thrashing the pig he rides on while trotting off.

As long as you live you learn (10). It is never too late to learn. We learn not for school but for ourselves. 4

It's never so bad that it could not get worse (15). Compare: From the day you were born till you ride in a hearse, there's nothing so bad but it might have been worse. 5

Per "executes the smith for the baker", or The cow that suffered instead of the pig (29). - The caption alludes to a poem by Herman Wessel, "Smeden og Bakeren (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 comes when you least expect it" concludes the poem, which relates to the practice of scapegoating that runs through the Bible, where innocent animals are sacrificed for the sins of the Jews and further on. However, if slaughtering of innocents for the sake of sinners is justice, what is injustice?

It is not easy to be a newcomer, says Lars (41). I n his case it is in part as Kahlil Gibran suggests in the section Crime and Punishment in The Prophet: "When the black thread breaks, the weaver shall look into the whole cloth, and he shall examine the loom also." However, in Soto Zen a main ideal is to attain, keep, and cultivate an attentive "beginner's mind", which is something desirable to go for. 6

Who laughs last, often laughs best ( 44). The caption is also used in the strips 357, 422, and 486. This proverb suggests "the biter bit", that is, sweet revenge. Similarly: Let them laugh that win. Meanings in other veins are possible too: He who laughs last laughs longest. 7.

When Ola was to mind the house (51). This caption, which is not an outspoken proverb, alludes to a very popular type of folk tale that is given the International Folk Tale Catalog number (AT) 1408. 8

"Per demonstrates "Safety first" for Ola" (62) . "Safety first," the motto of Industrual Council for Industrial Safety, was used as a proverb as early as in 1915 [Mieder et al 522]. Compare: Better one safe way than a hundred on which you can't reckon [Mieder et al 643].

When Lars was to mind the house (75) . The strip illustrates in a humorous way that if you set someone to do a thing, make sure to tell him the details of it if he is inexperienced, or something unexpected may happen. As it is, Lars, a doctor in botany, at times serves to illustrate that untranslatable, academic learning can be "a dang'rous thing". Compare: A little learning is a dangerous thing. 9

Sharp lye is needed for scurvy heads (95). A Swedish proverb says: Det behövs skarp lut till lusiga huvud (dåligt folk behöver hård behandling). Sharp lye is needed for heads with lice [Holm 212]. Implied is that at times bad people need tough treatment.

Everything at the right time and place (103). Compare: Each thing has its right place if you know how to place it. 10

A byway is often the shortest (132). It can be questioned. Compare: Don't go round the world for a shortcut. 11

No one knows the day until the sun has set (140). Compare the British: The evening crowns the day. (Suggested thereby is something like "Only at the end of his life can a man be truly judged"). Praise a fair day at night. Call no man happy till he dies. The Norse teaching poem Havamal says in Henry Bellow's translation: Give praise to the day at evening, to a woman on her pyre (verse 81). In derived or related proverbs it is: Ein skal ikkje rose dagen før kvelden er kommen. (Don't praise the day till evening has come). 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). 12

Oh, I hear your voice, but I can't help you. (148) Along with the situation that is illustrated in picture 4 in this strip, it equals the Swedish proverb Jag hör dej, men jag kan inte hjälpa dej, sa den fulle, när brännvinet rann ur kuttingen. (I hear you, but I cannot help you, said the drunk when the liquor flowed out of the keg). [in Pelle Holm, 1975:161 - Addition of 2013]

Nosiness [may be] punished (172, 245). Compare: Keep your nose to yourself and it won't be cut off. Foolish curiosity . . . often lead to misfortune. British: Meddle not with another man's matter. Værmor in Rosendahl's strip at times experiences rebuttals for her nosiness. It is a cause of mishaps. 13

"Per does not practice what he preaches" (194). Compare: Practice what you preach. 14

"Need breaks laws" (215). Other variants: Necessity is above the law. Necessity knows no law. 15

"When the ending is good, everything is good" (223). Variant: All's well that ends well (247) . Yet, Buddha's teaching surpass that simple folk wisdom by promoting the idea that real good is good both in the beginning, in the middle and in the end, all of which serves one best.

A stitch in time saves nine (267). The Norwegian is literally: [It is better to be] precautious than quick afterwards (eg, when damage has been done). Cf. Prevention is better than cure.

You're never rid of book agents (Joke) (294). In Rosendahl's Spring Grove Norwegian: Bogagenter blir man aldrig kvit.

"When the danger is at its worst, help is nearest" (328). - Two fishermen from the Sands Island in Norway had capsized in the middle of the Sandsfjord, and were clinging to the overturned boat bottom. While big waves kept lashing over the keel, one of them said, "Joan, now we have to call to Our Lord." - "But aren't there people closer by?" asked the other. 16

Things do not aways go according to plan (358). Compare: "The best laid plans of mice and men / often go awry," by Robert Burns.

Too much of a good thing . . . (373, 597). Compare: Too much of a good thing is worse than none at all, says an American proverb. 17

Sorrow and joy, they wander together (391). Compare: Grief often treads upon the heels of pleasure. Pessimistic-religious Norwegian: "Hver gledesstund du har på jord, betales må med sorg (Every happy moment [you have] on earth, must be paid with sorrow)." 18

Big head and little sense (423). This is derogatory, like "Big head and little wit." A retort to that again: "Big head, little wit, little head, not a bit." 19

Don't believe everything you hear (425). Compare: Believe only half of what you see and nothing you hear, and Season all you hear with salt. 20

He who digs a grave for others . . . (432). He who digs a grave for another falls in himself. 21

The cure [may be] worse than the disease (568). Sometimes the remedy is worse than the disease. 22


Proverbs in Han Ola og Han Per, Ola and Per Proverbs, Literature  

Holm, Pelle. Ordspråk och talesätt. Rev. utg. Stockholm: Bonniers, 1975.

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).

——— 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.

The notes above refer a major thesis in "American Civilization: Norwegian Immigrant History", at the University of Trondheim:

Kinnes, Tormod. The Humor of Han Ola og han Per Taken Seriously. Major Thesis in American Civilization. The English Section at the Department of Foreign Modern Languages. NTNU, Trondheim, Spring 2007.

I have not taken time to incorporate the notes here so far.

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