Our understanding of fairy tales depends on what light we study them in. This survey is in a pragmatic light, that is, we study stories to see what lessons be useful for us here and now and in the possible future.
The tales referred to on this page are described briefly in various versions and adaptations of the International Folktale Catalogue by Ørnulf Hodne (1984) and D. Ashliman (1987), Aarne and Thomson (1961), and Hans-Jörg Uther (2004). You will find the titles and classification numbers (AT numbers and ATU numbers) of the tales in the catalogues. In different catalogues, tales are described somewhat differently. ATU numbers (of Uther 2004) correspond to AT numbers (of Aarne and Thomson 1961) many times, although the descriptions of the separate tales may not always be good - mostly because many heads (tales and variants) are gathered under one umbrella (as one type of tale). Such things happen.
Below, comments to the types of tales are added to suggest what needs many old folk tales speak of, and what developments they appear to be forerunners of - according to a pragmatic understanding of many of them.
Even Norse gods had miraculous tools and things "of the trade". Equipment the Norsemen (ca. 800–1200 CE) might benefit from, appeared as tools of gods in Norse myths, and probably reflect needs of Norsemen. Norse people, and Norwegians (and Danes, Fins, and Swedes, etc.) told tales about being helped by magical objects, and many of them have become real since - they were developed through ascending technological knowledge. "It works like magic."
It stands out that many trolls had wonderful objects. The folktale hero steals them and is favoured by it - ascends to a higher class and gets wealthy too. It may in some ways be likened to espionage ways to get information about secretive devices, and then use "creative copying" to mass produce some of them.
Several wonder tales in folklore served to heighten an awareness of how to get a better life, through special equipment. Many former miraculous things have been devised in time, and are today taken for granted. One may say that tales about not yet existing objects help in focusing the attention in certain directions, and help in socialising some young ones, perhaps.
Embedded in some tales may lie hints on how to use wonderful gadgets and contraptions too.
1. First imagined, next made into products (after some hundred years or more). Among all the types of Norwegian fairy tales with variants, being helped by equipment is a key element in roughly thirty of them. The gadgets or magical objects found in myths and stories reflect on the one hand former deep-set needs among people, and spell out imagined solutions to not a few of them. Still, interestingly, many of the magic tool and things of fairy tales have since become reality. Sir Arthur C. Clarke says in this connection, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." This "law", as he calls it, needs to be qualified, here by way of paraphrase: Many accessories that people of old imagined and presented as magic things, have since become products of technology.
In most Norwegian folk tales that deal with "magic", the hero is given magic or splendid objects as rewards and by help of them he wins a good hold in life.
It is a great challenge in modern times to learn to master equipment, for optimal benefit. Minimizing damages, counting the cost, bulwarking against great risks are also elements to master: learning to develop and handle tools and equipment.
2. Striving to understand images: Sigmund Freud thought dreams were symbolical expressions of hidden desires, needs, etc. In Jung's view, a dream is an interior drama: "The whole dream-work is essentially subjective, and a dream is a theatre in which the dreamer is himself the scene, the player, the prompter, the producer, the author, the public, and the critic." Jungians adapt aspects of folk tales to the theoretical system and constructs of Carl G. Jung, which is far less reductionistic than Sigmund Freud's. Through Eric Berne's Transactional Analysis (TA) one may also compare certain happenings to the further evolved "life scripts" for possible benefit.
The content of many nightly dreams and the fantastic and surreal imaginations of folklore seem much relatable to one another, insofar as dream topics can reflect both deeply felt wants and solutions. In folklore most solutions turn out to be imagined, but in the arena of technology and science some ideations are explored and turned into reality. Here is one example of it:
3. Employing images: "Creative achievements are instigated by dreams or forms of dreaming as the regular case. Spontaneous forms of consciousness try out in a groping manner possible solutions and present them to waking consciousness in sudden Eurekas," says Franz Strunz. And Nobel prizeman Kekule (1890) says, by way of warning, something further to adjust to, "Let us beware of publishing our dreams until they have been tested by the waking understanding."
Albert Einstein discovered the special theory of relativity one day he lay daydreaming on a hill one summer's day. He imagined he rode on sunbeams to the outer end of the universe, and then came back to the surface of the sun. From that he concluded that the universe had to be curved, against anything he had learnt about it earlier. It took him years to prove his ideas mathematically. Now they have massive support in modern physics.
Physicists like Albert Einstein and Richard P. Feynman have both described the metaphoric, image-rich thought processes they had during some of their most original scientific discoveries. Images can inspire further thought, and that appears to be a basic principle, both in art and science and elsewhere.
4. Very helpful objects of Norwegian folk tales. Norwegian folk tales show help by what was then magic objects. Through recent technological development many of earlier, dreamt-of devices are in full use among people.
✑ Norwegian folktales with AT numbers and notes. Some tales have not got any allotted AT number so far. They are marked AT -.
The hero comes into an ogre's power, and is assigned impossible tasks: clean out a stable, build a bridge, go for wild horses, etc. He receives help from a bewitched girl/princess. They run away from the ogre by transforming themselves into a man with a cow, duck and water, tussock with straw etc., and leave behind them magic objects which are transmuted and stop the ogre. Then the boy loses the girl because he breaks a taboo, forgets her etc. She settles down in a cabin, where three rich visitors come to court her, but she paralyses them into humiliating positions. The hero is on his way to marry another woman, but his wagon is damaged, and he has to borrow things from the girl in the cabin in order to reach the church. At the wedding table she gives him her tokens of fidelity, is recognized, and takes her rightful place as bride.
A blacksmith makes a contract with the devil so that in return for becoming a master smith he is to belong to the devil after a certain time. The Lord/St. Peter visits the smith and works miracles, which the smith can't copy. He is given three wishes, and he wants to have objects which give him power over the devil. The devil becomes afraid of him, and finally refuses him admittance to hell. The smith tries his luck in heaven, but the outcome of this attempt is rather uncertain. The smith outwits the devil by way of objects which give him power over him (or her).
The man is carried to a foreign place in a self-propelling boat. He finds a bewitched princess (or three) there, and rescues and marries the youngest. He gets a wishing ring, disobeys the prohibitions around it, and loses his wife. Unlike Ola he then sets out in search of her and is helped by supernatural beings (an old women, an eagle, the north wind, etc.) and remedies like an invisibility hat, and seven-mile boots. The lost wife, who is about to be remarry, again wants to be united with her first man.
A girl is promised to someone that looks worse than a farmer when he comes in after a day's work in the fields and mud. But the fairy tale monster (white bear, wolf) is a transformed prince, and he sets down the conditions for how things are to be. The woman breaks the prohibitions and loses him. Then she has to wander about in sorrow, trying to recover him. On her way she gets exactly the things she needs - the tools for climbing mountain walls - in order to liberate her husband or get him back. Besides, the false bride dies.
The monster could be a father-in-law at worst. Like an amorous strip character the folk tale hero dreams about a beautiful woman and sets out to find her. On the way the hero helps a dead man (frozen in a block of ice). The grateful dead becomes the hero's incognito fellow-traveller and helper. He gets hold of magic things that are later used to help the youth perform difficult tests and rescue the woman from her monster.
The want is to build a ship that goes both on land and on water, just as the Norse boat Skibladner, owned by Frey. In the tale an old man with lots of experience builds the magic ship in return for friendly intercourse and food. On the way to the king's court - more central than Fargo, even - the hero is joined one after the other by extremely specialized people, counterparts of modern specialists. For example, the helper who can hear the grass grow, has exceptionally acute senses. Today we have microphones that "listen through windows and walls" in similar manner, and telescopes, radar, and much else that are related to improved sense organs. The hero, assisted by his experts on the boat, succeeds in doing all the things he needs to do to win his woman.
A raven's three sisters give very good swords and an armour to a boy. He brings his objects to a king's castle. Here three princesses are promised to a monster, and the tale passes into AT 300.
A boy receives a magic dog, a cat, and a basket with a lizard that is a bewitched prince. He disenchants the prince and receives a wishing ring. He then proposes to a princess and performs the tasks she enjoins on him. Through trickery she picks up the ring and wishes him to be poor again. He recovers the missing objects and is set free from the dungeon with the help of the grateful cat and dog.
is about a youngster who fetches a magic lamp from inside a mountain by means of a wishing ring. The magic lamp gives him a castle and a princess, but as things turn out, his wonderful wife has to kill for him to help him recover her and all his belongings.
A poor lad gets wonderful objects from the north wind, the elves, etc.: a table cloth that supplies itself with food, a gold-dropping he-goat, a purse that never becomes empty. He sells or is robbed of the objects. Finally he receives a stick that beats an enemy until called off by its owner. By means of it the other objects are recovered.
A poor man enters hell with a piece of meat, and receives in return a magic mill that grinds everything, and makes him rich. Another man (his greedy brother or neighbour) borrows the mill, but does not learn how to stop it, and must pay the owner to do so. A ship-captain buys it, and takes it aboard ship, where he commands it to grind salt. He cannot stop it either, and it sinks the ship and keeps on grinding. This is why the sea is salt (think twice).
Three tailors want to try their luck. The first two are satisfied when they find an apple-tree with silver flowers and another with golden apples. The third one travels further and obtains a magic table cloth from an old woman. He exchanges it for a cartridge-box with ten thousand soldiers, and lets them secure the first object again. The king takes the cloth, but the soldiers compel him to surrender it.
A king has offered his daughter as a prize to the man who can herd his hares/rabbits/goats. The youngest of three brothers succeeds in gathering the animals because he gets a magic pipe from a grateful old woman. The king's family tries without success to trick the pipe from him, and each of them has to buy it with an erotic/obscene act. Finally the king orders him to tell a vat full of lies. He begins to tell until the king (queen) makes him stop and gives him the princess. He/she does not want to get embarrassed.
A king offers his daughter in marriage to the man who can perform certain tasks for him (cut down a large oak, dig a well). The youngest of three poor brothers succeeds by means of some (magic) things he pays attention to/receives on their way to the king's court: a nut, an axe, a pick.
Each of three brothers has his own wish. The youngest wishes for and receives the power to make women love him. In each of three inns the hostess falls in love with him and makes him a present of a magic thing (scissors, cloth, beer-tap) which he makes a good living with. At last he is admitted to the princess's chamber. She falls in love with him and marries him.
A poor man and his wife get a magic pot, which brings them food and money from a rich parson/king. Afterwards the pot disappears.
A boy gives his pittance to a poor man, who in return grants the boy three wishes: a self-filling purse, a never-failing gun, a fiddle that compels people to dance, etc. He uses the magic objects to gain wealth, take vengeance on his former master and the magistrates, and compromise their daughters. Finally he is brought to trial for his misdeeds and condemned to be hanged. He gets permission to play his fiddle and compels the Judge and whole assembly to dance until he is released.
A boy conceived under a birch tree goes out to do business, and gets in exchange a bridle that tames all kinds of horses, a needle that makes everything fall to pieces, and a gun that always hits what he aims at. He lives as a servant in a king's court, and performs so great exploits by means of the magic objects, that he wins the youngest princess.
A poor boy is adopted by a rich merchant, but is sent to sea when he falls in love with the merchant's daughter. In a foreign country he is rewarded with magic objects by trolls. He heals a sick princess and returns home as a rich man and marries his first love.
A princess playing with a golden ball loses it in a well. A frog promises to get it back for her if she will marry him. On the wedding day she throws the frog furiously against the wall. It is immediately changed into a prince, who tells her that the ill-treatment has disenchanted him. The wedding continues with the prince as bridegroom.
A poor boy (Hans Furuvald) makes a marvellous career by means of a magic hazel stick, which makes it possible to cross waters dry-shod and reign over life and death. He participates in a war, becomes a general and prince, and marries a princess. Later he returns home and reveals his identity.
A man competes with the devil/an ogre in mowing the grass and wins because he uses a magic scythe that never gets blunt.
The youngest of three brothers gives away his food to an old woman and gets a supernatural box as reward. Using this he helps a smith to get out of an impossible bargain with a king, and he is ordered to protect the king's cattle against three ogres. He kills them one after another and is enabled to lay hands on their wealth. As a kitchen hand in the palace he proposes incognito to an enchanted princess by means of a golden armour, and she attaches a golden apple to his knee. Later she points him out as her rescuer to the king. When the king finds out how rich he is, he accepts him as his son-in-law. Then he goes home and confronts his parents and brothers, first as himself, then as a prince.
Three friends who are seeking their fortune eat a magical bird, and they all get some thing that brings them luck. One of them gets a purse that will never be empty, the second one a bag that mobilizes 15 soldiers for every blow he gives it, while the youngest one sees his future bride. This is the same princess as a king has promised to the person who can free his kingdom of a dragon. The youngest succeeds and marries her. The other two give false evidence against them, and persuade the king to put them in prison and sentence their children, a boy and a girl, to death. They are rescued by the maid and grow up with the king's miller. After a time they are recognized because of their golden hair and have to flee. At last they return to the king's palace, persuade the king to set free their parents and expose the delinquents.
The wonderful player frees a town of its mice and rats by playing in such a manner that the animals follow him into the sea and are drowned. When the citizens cheat him of his promised reward, he takes his revenge by playing so that all the children in the town vanish into a mountain.
An old man is going to divide his fortune between his three sons and gives all three of them a task to perform in order to prove who is the proper one to inherit his very best heirloom - a ring of fortune. The youngest one, the young Alv, helps an old woman and gets a gun with magical bullets. By means of this he shoots an elk and wins the ring. Contrary to his brothers he then performs two impossible tasks for the king: he shoots the troll bear that kills the king's cows, and provides him with new cows instead by killing a giantess in the giant's garden, by emptying molten lead into her eyes. At last he rescues the king's son and wins the princess and half of the kingdom.
NOTE: Some fairy tales entertain by presenting magical objects. Others entertain by them and special animals. And still other fairy tales entertain by animals only. These are three different types.
The kind one of two (step-)sisters must set out on a journey to get a situation, or she may fall into/be thrown into a well, because she loses a spinning-contest. On the way she gives help to animals and other objects which need her. She enters the service of a supernatural person (troll, witch, the Virgin Mary), who assigns her difficult and impossible tasks. But she is aided by the birds, and they also advise her in choosing a reward. The witch pursues her on the way home, but the grateful animals and objects help her in her flight. The other sister attempts to imitate the success, but she is evil and disobedient and is punished.
A king holds his beautiful daughter imprisoned in a tower. A soldier on guard wants to see her, and is promised help from an old woman if he will fetch her tinder-box. He searches three underground treasuries watched by three supernatural dogs, and finds the tinder-box. It makes the dogs his servants, and they bring him the princess. The love intrigue is discovered, she is caught in a pitfall, and the soldier is sentenced to death. At the place of execution he gets a last wish. He wishes for the tinder-box, and the dogs appear and rescue him.
A boy travelling with his mother stays with an ogre, or a prince and his sister fleeing from their father, who will compel them to incest, come to a den of robbers. The mother/princess conspires against the boy and tries to kill him. The mother feigns sickness and sends him on a quest for medicine: lion's milk and magic apples. Instead of killing him, the lions become his true servants, and by means of them and a blue band (belt) which gives him supernatural strength, he overcomes his enemies and wins a princess.
The King promises one of his daughters in marriage to the man who can find out why they wear out their shoes every night. The youngest of three brothers refuses a sleeping draught offered by the princesses and discovers that they go dancing with three princes/elves in a foreign country by making himself invisible and following them on a subterranean journey. He confirms by proof (a silver goblet) what he has seen and is given the hand of the youngest princess in marriage.
Legends give us insight in group fantasies, says Birgit Hertzberg Johnsen. Legends and folk tales intermingle and make classifications more difficult. For example, the Norwegian legend "Gullfebla" shows a yearning for better cattle, cattle that produces more and fatter milk. Selective breeding has brought forth much improved farm animals far and wide.
"The giant and Johannes Blessom" is a legend - variants are found in Sweden and Norway alike - that hints at an urge to ride like birds. Leonardo was into it, and the brothers Wright, among others. Miraculous rides have been described since medieval times. Helicopters and air planes have been developed extensively so that we can "ride like birds" or "ride on big birds".
Aarne, Antti. The Types of the Folktale: A Classification and Bibliography. Translated and Enlarged by Stith Thompson. 2nd rev. ed. Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia / FF Communications, 1961.
Ashliman, D. A Guide to Folktales in the English Language. New York: Greenwood, 1987.
Evans-Wentz, Walter Y., ed. Tibet's Great Yogi Milarepa. 2nd ed. London: Oxford University Press, 1969.
Hodne, Ørnulf. The Types of the Norwegian Folktale. Bergen: Universitetsforlaget, 1984.
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.
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