My father has always believed in extra sweaters. No matter where you are going, no matter what the temperature, he offers the same suggestion – take an extra sweater.
I’m the same way about stories. No matter where I go, I want to have an extra story along. Maybe even two. What if there is a Story Emergency?
That’s why I am looking at the Norwegian versions of Tale Type 1384 (A man seeks someone as stupid as his wife) and Tale Type 1460 (The Merry Wives of Windsor). I might tell fast. I might need an extra story.
I have heard and enjoyed versions of these two stories but never really looked at them closely. When read “Some Wives are Like That” and “Stupid Men and Foolish Wives” (Folktales of Norway, Reidan Christiansen, editor) I was somewhat appalled. I like these stories but each one has a touch of mean-spiritedness.
What’s going on here? When I looked carefully at “Some Wives are Like That,” I realized that the wife in that story was victimized by the butcher who, after buying the cow from her, got her drunk and tarred and feathered her while she slept. Then her husband goes looking for women as “stupid” as she is and financially victimizes three women in a row. When he comes home he discovers that she has gone and sown the fields with salt because “you reap what you sow.”
Salt destroys fields. This woman is really stupid! Or is she?
The other story, “Stupid Men and Foolish Wives” is very similar to other European versions. One wife convinces her apparently gullible husband that he is dead. and the other creates an “invisible” suit of clothes which she convinces her husband to wear to the first man’s funeral. But when the “dead” man looks out of the air holes his thoughtful wife has drilled in his coffin and laughs out loud when he sees his naked friend, the funeral comes to an abrupt and hilarious halt. In Christiansen’s version, the teller ends the story thusly: the longer they (the husbands) talked the more clear it became that the wives had arranged the whole thing between them. So the husbands went home and did the wisest thing they had ever done. And if anybody wants to know what that was, he’d better ask the birch rod!”
Each of these stories can be approached by thinking about the clue at the end.
The man who called his wife stupid for being a victim (and who financially victimized other women) ended up with his fields destroyed. Was that wife really stupid, like he said all wives were, or was she taking what revenge she could?
The women who made public fools of their husbands apparently met that birch rod.
Maybe these stories aren’t about living with idiots. Maybe it’s flipped.
In a world where people were expected to stay married, at least until the plague, childbirth disasters, or a hungry bear brought the death that do us part, these stories might be a warning.
You’ll pay a heavy price if you don’t respect your spouse.
About fifteen minutes after I accepted the opportunity to tell stories during the Musical Instrument Museum’s Experience Norway event I went into a panic.
Four hours of storytelling? Four hours of Norwegian folk tales?? How was I going to prepare four hours of Norwegian folktales??!
Then I remembered that I had, once upon a time, taken Storytelling II.
I’ve got this!
There is one slight problem with Popular tales of the Norse. When the entire book is read at one sitting every story starts sounding the same. This might be due to Asbjørnsen and Moe’s pedagogical intent. The book was first published in support of 19th century Norwegian educational reform. It might also be due to the translator. George Webbe Dasent was a man of his time and his time was late Victorian.
I needed something to leaven the dough.
There’s always the Norse Myths and I’m working on those. Plus I found the wonderful Folktales of Norway edited by Reidar Christiansen. There’s some neat legends in their plus the story “The Finn King’s Daughter” which I like a whole lot better than “East of the Sun West of the Moon.”
Now how to fit all these together?
I have always been under the impression that the collection of European folktales during the 19th century was an expression of “Romantic Nationalism”, a desire to connect with a simpler and more rural past. My impression isn’t entirely wrong. The Grimm brothers’ activities were certainly part of German Romantic Nationalism.
What about Asbjørnsen and Moe? There was undoubtedly a nationalist movement in Norway in the 19th century. Sweden tended to view Norway as a colony. The Norwegians disagreed. The two nations shared a king, but was that king the king of Sweden (and Norway) or of Norway and Sweden? This flag of the two kingdoms is a rather evocative illustration of the uncomfortable union between Norway and Sweden.
Norwegian political nationalism wanted to tell Sweden “you’re not the boss of me.” Culturally, Norway had spent 400 years as part of Denmark. Educated Norwegians spoke a language called Dano-Norwegian. Culturally, the Norwegians wanted to establish that they were not Danes
But did they want to return to a simpler and more rural past? Not so much, according to a fascinating article by JoAnn Conrad.
In “This is what trolls really look like” Conrad points out the sharp contrast between nineteenth century Germany and Norway. At that time, Germany was rapidly growing into an urban industrialized nation. The remaining peasantry were, the Volk were illiterate, landless, and still living in near-feudal conditions. The Grimms’ (who were librarians, that is to say academics) interest in the stories of the Volk was somewhat removed from the reality of rural life.
The emerging Norwegian middle class had no need to romanticize a life still lived by ninety percent of the country. And rural life was different in. The early adoption of elementary education Norway meant that the bonde or “peasantry” were relatively well educated. They were often landowners and had already won the right to elect representatives to parliament.
Although Asbjørnsen and Moe modelled their published collections of folktales, the Norske Folkeeventyr on the Grimms Kinder- and Hausmärchen, their approach to (and according to Conrad) reasons for collection were quite different. Asbjørnsen as a forester and Moe as a priest were both civil servants who worked in close contact with the bonde. They walked the land themselves, talking to the people who told the stories. And they published the stories as children’s literature, stories for use in educating the children of Norway. The stories were from the past but harked to the future. And these stories are, for the most part, the ones I will be telling during Experience Norway at the Musical Instrument Museum the weekend of December 6 and 7th.
Even as a cleric, Moe didn’t give up on poetry. His adult work drew a certain amount of notice. In an article titled “Norwegian Poetry Since 1814, which was published in “The Eclectic Magazine of Foreign Literature Science and Art” (Vol XVI, June 1872), Edmund Gosse called Moe “a poet of no mean order” and compared his work to unassuming violets. His efforts at writing fiction produced what has been described for the first real children’s book in Norway.
Norske Folkeeventyr, in English as Popular Tales of the Norse, has become one of my primary sources as I craft my concerts for the Musical Instrument Museum Signature Event, Experience Norway on December 6 and 7th.
Pictures of plane tales: http://www.norwegian.com/fr/a-propos-de-norwegian/our-company/our-heroes/literature/
Picture of starfish By NOAA Photo Library (expl9528) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
The composer Alexander Borodin was a chemist who specialized in aldahydes.
Peter Christen Asbjørnsen (1812- 1885) was a zoologist who, during te course of career trnalsated Darwin's Origin of the Species into Norwegian. In its publication “Our Ships – and the men whose names they bear” The Institute of Marine Research tells how Asbjørnsen, working with Michael Sars, known as one of the founding fathers of modern zoology, caught a “primitive and free-swimming” starfish from the bottom of Hardangerfjord at a depth far greater than it was then believed that life could exist. http://www.imr.no/filarkiv/2009/11/forskningsfartoy_engelsk_2009.pdf/en.
His interest in the stories of his people is reflected in the name he gave his discovery: brisinga. The term is derived from a Norse myth, “The necklace of the Brisings,” which tells of certain misbehaviors on the part of Freya, goddess of love. This name eventually became that of a whole order of starfish.
(Click here to learn more about these deep-sea creatures who bear names from Norse mythology)
As well as being a zoologist, Asbjørnsen worked as a forester and a manager in the peat industry. In addition he published a cookbook with the wonderful title of “Sensible Cookery.”
Now, doesn't he look like a sensible cook?
(Picture from Svenksa_familj_journalen)
The year was 1815 and Napoleon Bonaparte was safely, if not happily, ensconced on a scrap of an island in the South Atlantic. In Europe everybody who was anybody, everybody who had any claim to power, flocked to the Congress of Vienna to dance, flirt, and scheme. Those who had real power were busy carving Europe into bits and pieces for redistribution after the fall of the French Empire.
Norway was one of those bits and pieces. The country had been part of Denmark for more than 400 years but the Danes had managed to end up on the wrong side of the recent conflict.
This was not entirely by choice. Denmark had attempted neutrality, but the British, worried that Napoleon would conquer the country and take the navy, bombarded Copenhagen and confiscated every Danish ship they could find. After that, the Danes fought the British, at least until the money ran out. After the war, Denmark became Swedish territory since the Swedes had been part of the victorious alliance.
Not a few Norwegians objected to this turn of events. They revolted, elected a new King – the Crown Prince of Denmark – and wrote themselves a constitution of their own.
Sweden upheld its claim to Norway by invading. After a certain amount of fighting and much negotiation, the Norwegians ended up with the right to control their own internal affairs, though they were ruled by the King of Sweden.
And what does all this have to do with storytelling? Two baby boys were born during this exciting era of Norwegian History. Peter Christen Asbjørnsen entered the world in 1812. He was born in Christiana (the capitol of Norway, now known as Oslo). Jørgen Moe was born in the town of Ringerike, in eastern Norway) a year later. They met as teenagers, became friends and embarked on a project that became one of the foundations of modern folklore, folktale study and storytelling.