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.