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Our cultural heritage:
Norwegian Folktales and myths

By Birgit Hertzberg Johnsen


What is a folktale?
The style of the folktale
The various types of folktales
The oldest traces of Norwegian folktales
Asbjørnsen and Moe's collections
How norwegian are our folktales?
Storytelling and storytellers


The Norwegian cultural heritage holds many treasures. Popular story telling may be the among the finest of these treasures. Even today this literature is important to Norwegians. It shows us where the roots of our culture lie, and forms part of our identity. Folktales and myths form, in addition to folksongs, the bulk of our more ancient literature.


Folktales are free ranging and imaginative stories which have passed from storyteller to storyteller from time immemorial. They depict the relationship between people, expressed in fantastic and symbolic terms. Like all good literature, they are based on real life, yet never confined to reality or what people consider true and reasonable. They often feature supernatural and extraordinary elements.

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The Folktales have a style all of their own,with a standard opening formula. The most common are : "Once upon a time", "Once there was a king and a queen" or, "There was once a time when all things could speak".

Similarly, folktales tend to have a standardized ending. often bringing us back to the real world again. Sometimes this formula tells us what happened after the main story was over : "And if they are not dead by now, then they are still alive", or "The saltmill lies at the bottom of the ocean and it goes on grinding to this very day, and that is why the sea is salty". In folktales simplification and schematization are common. The stories have a limited list of stock characters. A king or a queen, a princess or a prince, three brothers or three trolls. The roles are futher schematized by type casting. Askeladden, is the most important of all the characters. The young lad always starts off portrayed as a ne'er-do-well, but he has great hidden talents, which allow him to perform great feats. He always waits for just the right moment, then he steps forward and does what no one else can. The plot is often schematized too, and usually there are only two people in the plot at any given time.

The folktale uses short characterizations and employs repetition to emphasize what is important. The number "three" recurs; we meet three brothers, three princesses or three trolls. In the story about "White Bear King Valemon" (Hvidebjørn Kong Valemon) we are told that the bear carries off three princesses, on three sucessive Thursday evenings. Repetition is often accompanied by escalation; the dangers and difficulties increase each time they are mentioned, and the solution is normally reached the third time round. The folktale starts and ends calmly, and poetic justice is seen to be done. The good are rewarded and the evil are punished. There is always a happy ending.


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There are several different types of folktale. We usually divide them into three groups: animal stories, tales of the supernatural, and comical stories.

The former have animals as their main characters, both domestic and wild animals. The animals are able to talk and they behave like human beings, whilst retaining some of their animal characteristics. Norwegian folktales of this sort focus mainly on the bear, the wolf and the fox -and some of the best known stories involve these animals.

Most of the stories explain the origin of a particular feature of the animal. One well-known story tells how the fox was able to fool the bear into going ice fishing with his tail. The ice froze around the bears tail and when he tried to pull it up quickly to land a fish, he pulled it off, which is why to this day, the bear has such a short tail. Equally well-known is the story about how the fox tried to steal butter. Instead the churn topples over spilling milk on the tip of the fox's tail, explaining the white marking on the fox's brush. Similarly there is the story of the house mouse and the field mouse. The well known Greek fable about the monkey who was proud of her children, becomes a story about a sandpiper in Norwegian.

Of the domestic animals, cats, goats and chickens are the favourites. A story which may be unique to Norway is about the three billy goats Gruff, (de tre bukkene Bruse), who outsmarted and destroyed a big troll on their way to their summer pastures.

Stories about the supernatural and magic form the biggest and most important group of folktales. They tell about specific beings such as giants, dragons, trolls, witches and humans with supernatural capabilities. They also describe specific supernatural phenomena such as seven league boots, cloaks of invisibility, table cloths which bring forth food when they are laid, glass mountains, castles made of gold and all manner of fantastic and wonderful things. These stories of the supernatural also tell the tale of specific events, such as journeys made through seven times seven kingdoms, people who sleep for a hundred years, people who are turned into animals or into stone and so on.

The structure of these adventures follow a fixed pattern and the different sequences of the plot have their predetermined positions. First comes the account of some mishap, loss or accident; such as a princess being carried off by a troll. Next the hero or heroine becomes equiped with special aids or powers. The seemingly good-for-nothing boy, Askeladden, drinks a magic potion which allows him to wield a magic sword, with which he can chop off the troll's heads

Next we are told about how the heroine meets the prince or the hero meets the princess and how complications arise, causing delay and preventing the two from getting together. After these ordeals, the main character overcomes all difficulties or opponents, and, as the saying goes, wins "the princess and half the kingdom".

Many stories of the supernatural portray trolls and people who are transformed. These themes are also the subject of many folk melodies and are very popular in the Norwegian tradition. In stories about trolls we often hear about the boy who vanquishes the charlatan Red Knight, (Ridder Rød), kills the troll and wins the princess and half the kingdom.

The transformation stories tell how humans are turned into animals or other creatures. "East of the sun and west of the moon" (&Oslashstenfor sol og vestenfor måne) is one of the best known, and this and similar stories have roots which go back to the Greek myths about Amor and Psyche.

Of the stories where a difficult task forms the main motif, there is only one which is common in the Norwegian tradition, namely the story of "The husband's daughter and the wife's daughter" (Manndattera og kjerringdattera). Best known of the wondertales is "Table, set thyself!" (Bord dekk deg!) and the story about "The salt mill at the bottom of the ocean" (Kvernen som står og maler på havsens bunn).

The comical stories form the third large group of folktales. This type of tale has fewer supernatural aspects compared with the other types. On the other hand there is no other part of the literature which contains so many strange ideas and wonderful jests, as is the case in such stories as "Gudbrand on the hill" (Gudbrand i Lia), or "The old woman who always had to have her own way" (Kjerringa mot strømmen).


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The proliferation of folktales over almost the entire globe shows that this is one of the oldest forms of lore. The Norwegian word for folktale; "eventyr", crops up as early as the twelvth century in the form "ævinty;r", borrowed from the latin word adventura, meaning event or strange occurrence. In Old Norse literature one often comes across features reminiscent of folktales or with folktale motifs. In Odd Snorresøn's prolog to the Olav Trygvasson's saga we are told that "it is better to listen to sagas than to tales about stepmothers, of the kind that shepherd boys tell. In such stories one cannot tell what is true and what is not and also the king often tends to come out of such stories badly".

Clear evidence of the existence of folktales or stories similar to folktales, about stepmothers at the time of the sagas, is also to be found in the saga about King Sverre. In the seventh chapter we are told about the king's journey to Varmland: "on this journey he experienced many bad things. It was much like the old stories of what goes on between royal children and their wicked stepmothers."

Despite having old roots, folktales were not written down in Norway until the nineteenth century, owing to the fact that folktales were held in low esteem amoung the educated classes. Even the leading eighteenth century Norwegian writer Holberg, deemed folktales fit only for the nursery; they were "without merit and ought to be banned". This view only changed with the advent of the romantic movement in Germany. The romantics saw folklore as the most obvious and clear reflection of the soul of the people.

The first to see that folktales had scientific value, in addition to national and artistic value, were the German ethnologists Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. A loyalty to the popular tradition became the Grimm brothers' main preoccupation when they collected and published German folkstories. The first Norwegian collectors of folk stories, Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Lie, followed in the footsteps of the Grimm brothers.

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As early as in the 1840's Asbjørnsen and Moe published their first small pamphlets. The first edition of their collected folktales came in 1852. The book successfully unites genuine and unassuming characteristics with a readily accessible style. Asbjørnsen and Moe's folktales have established our impression of what a Norwegian folktale is like, a picture which comes close to the real thing. The large number of new editions and new selections from Asbjørnsen and Moe's collections have become the classic expression of the Norwegian folktale tradition. With the brilliant illustrations they were to receive later, they have become representative of Norwegian folktales, both in Norway and abroad.

The way they remain true to their sources, and their deep understanding of the value of folktales, have kept Asbjørnsen and Moe's collection of folktales from becoming outmoded. The collection contains around one hundred types of folktale, a little less than half of all those now known in Norway. They are however not wholly representative geographically, most of the stories being from Eastern Norway.

Asbjørnsen and Moe underline the difference between compiling or writing down and retelling. " Compilers and retellers" they called themselves. Retelling implies changing the dialect the stories were told in. And yet they always sought to retell the tales "faithfully so as to reflect what we had heard from the teller". Asbjørnsen and Moe only wrote down short outlines of the plots and the quotes, primarily to assist the memory. They put themselves in a class with good storytellers and told the stories in their own individual way, just as the best story tellers used to do.

Over the years their works have been published in many editions and each time the language and the style have been revised so that the work remains fresh and new.

Later folktales have been collected throughout the country and numerous collections of stories have been published, the majority of them in Nynorsk, (the second of Norway's two official languages) or dialect and some in the Sami language. These more recent works have never been able to compete with Asbjørnsen and Moe either in terms of popularity or circulation, neither in Norway nor abroad.


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Attempts to show what is characteristic of Norwegian folktales are often somewhat less than convincing. This is because the folktale, in addition to being national in character, is also cosmopolitan. The stories migrate from one place to another over large parts of the globe. If one picks up a collection of folktales from another country, one may well find many features which one thought were specifically Norwegian.

It is often hard to determine what stems from a prototype version of the folktale and what has evolved in the Norwegian variant. The style and the individual character of the storyteller has bearing on this.

The typical Norwegian folktale style is above all objective in its manner. However fantastic the subject matter may be, the style of the narrative remains realistic. The environment in which the stories take place are Norwegian, and the King in the story bears a striking resemblance to a Norwegian landowner, just as the seemingly ne'er-do-well, Askeladden, resembles the typical tennant's son. The illustrations to Asbjørnsen and Moe's folktales, in particular those by Erik Werenskiold, have also given Norwegian folktales an air of Norwegian down-to-earth realism.

Similarly, feelings are rarely mentioned in the folktales, and the narrator seldom expresses sympathy or commiseration with the characters. The realistic style is also short on detail and description is rudimentary in Norwegian folktales.


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Research has shown that it was not everyone who told folktales in the olden days. Telling these stories required special gifts and the storyteller might well be compared to a craftsman. Few people were able to tell the long and complex supernatural or magical folktales.

Those who told the stories had to have both a good memory and be able to tell a story well. Each storyteller had his or her special hallmark or way of telling a story. A storyteller never tells the story the same way from one time to the next, and each tells the story differently from all others. The consequence of this is that there is no single version of a folktale which is the correct one.

The rural working class clung to the old agrarian culture the longest and this is the culture in which the folktale is at home. At the time when folktales began to be collected it was particularly in the lower strata of the rural population that the storyteller were to be found. They were day labourers, tennant farmers, servants and travellers.

There turned out to be some connection between the gender of the teller and that of the main character in the story, particularly male storytellers preferred to tell stories where the hero was a man. This is probably because telling folktales can be a way of expressing oneself in the guise of the fictitious character, who is able to do the things that the teller would like to have done. In addition the folk stories can be a collective day dream. The storyteller draws up the framework of a fantasy world which the listeners can dream themselves into.

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The folktale is a branch of folk literature which has much in common with the other main section of popular story telling; the folk legends. Unlike the folktale, the legend often claims to be factual, and often describes things in a way that people can believe in. The legend is usually shorter than the folktale and is usually fixed in time and space.

In the older historical topographic literature we have both legends and stories about the legends. The first independent Norwegian collection of legends is Andreas Fayes' "Norwegian Legends" ("Norske Sagn"), from 1833. He relied on many oral and written sources. However his rendering did not catch the spoken style of the popular storyteller's art. P.C.Asbjørnsen, on the other hand was able to do this in an artistic way in "Norwegian Ghost stories and Folklegends" ("Norske Huldre-Eventyr og Folkesagn"), which was published in two volumes in 1845 and 1848. Within the framework of travelogue and ethnographic account, these two volumes contain a rich selection of legends, particularly from Eastern Norway. This was the first Norwegian collection of legends. Subsequently a large number of legend collections from all over Norway have been published.


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Aspects of the Norwegian countryside are a constant topic in Norwegian legend. To this day such legends remain vital in the local communities, and some are known throughout the country. Legends connected with natural phenomena are common in all countries, but a rugged and mountainous country like Norway probably has a particularly rich tradition in legends. Geological features can often seem strange and wonderful, stimulating the popular imagination. If a mountain top has a hole right through it, as is the case with the Torghatten mountain in Northern Norway, this would seem to require an explanation.

Legends which refer to supernatural beings and spirits (vetter) are often refered to as mythical legends. Previously, academics used to think that the supernatural beings in the legends were actually the descendants of the old gods, hence the name, mythical legend. In fact only one of the Norwegian legends refers to the old gods, which is about the god Thor. By the Totak lake in the county of Telemark, there is an enormous rock scree, called the Urebø scree. It is supposed to have been created when Thor smashed the mountain above, obliterating the little farm below with a pile of rocks.

There are several other legends about supernatural beings in the Norwegian tradition. Many of the legends are connected with the sea. There are many about sea monsters, the best known of which was about the monster in Lake Mjøsa. In recent times it is particularly the lake at Seljord has become Norway's Loch Ness. Otherwise there are tales about various creatures of the sea , the most common being about the sea ghost, Draugen. He is considered to be the ghost of someone who has drowned or the personification of all who have died at sea. Draugen is described as a headless fisherman dressed in oilskins. He sails the seas in half a boat and wails when someone is about to drown.

In inland lakes and rivers live the river sprite or Nixie. He is dangerous because he tries to lure people into the water with him. Like Draugen, he also gives warning of when someone is about to drown. He represents what is dangerous and unpleasant about water. This awe-inspiring creature is masterfully portrayed by the painter T. Kittelsen. He has also painted the river sprite in the guise of a white horse, a form in which the river sprite could appear according to several legends.

Specifically Norwegian traditions are the legends about the spirit which plays the fiddle, (Fossegrimen), who lives in waterfalls and which can teach would-be fiddlers how to play. Whoever wants to become a fiddle player has to go to the waterfall, offering food to the Fossegrimen. The legends often tell why this does not work out properly - for example when the food offered was so inadequate that the Fossegrimen only tought the fiddler to tune his instrument, but not how to play it.

Great numbers of mythical creatures inhabit the mountains and forests, and legends about landmarks created by trolls exist all over the country. Sometimes the trolls themselves remain standing in stone. Marks left by the trolls always show how big they were, such as the Giants Cut (Jutulhogget), in the &Oslashsterdal valley in Eastern Norway, or great rocks they have thrown at a church or some other troll.

The pixies, (haugfolket), or the subterraneans, (de underjordiske), undoubtedly play the largest role in Norwegian legend. They consist of a large group of supernatural beings (vetter). They have many names such as "bergfolk" - the mountain people, "haugfolk" - the hill people, "underjordiske" -- those who live below ground, "huldrefolk" and "tusser". The legendary roots of these people is that they descend from children that Eve hid from God. When He discovered that they had been hidden, God proclaimed that what had once been hidden should remain hidden. Another legend tells that those who live underground were angels whom the Lord had expelled from paradise.

Those who live underground are usually considered as being of a lesser order than humankind, and they are envious of the people who are able to live out in the sunlight (i solheimen). They are often smaller than humans, and they dress in blue or grey. Their world is much like the world of humans, they tend animals and farms, by the sea they are fishermen with boats. As their name implies, they live underground or inside mountains, and many legends tell how one can hear them from inside the mountain or about coming across them above ground, seeing their flocks or similar stories. Henrik Ibsen used material from such legends in his "Peer Gynt". The "huldre"-people can enter into our world and so can the things they own. Legends tell about men who marry "huldre"-girls or how they obtained beautiful silver objects like drinking horns or bridal crowns by throwing a piece of steel over the objects thus breaking the power of the supernatural over them. Many legends relate how people were taken underground, some to remain there, others eventually returning to the real world again.

Of the house spirits which follow the clan or the farm, the gnomelike "nisse" is the focus of a rich tradition of stories. He fights "nisser" from other farms and tries to get revenge if he is offended. Nevertheless, he looks after the farm and the livestock, sometime plaiting the horses' manes.


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The other major set of legends from the middle ages relate to the Black Death, the epidemic which struck Norway in 1349 - 50. This plague is often personified in the guise of an old woman who traveled the country with a rake and a broom. Where she used her rake some survived, but where she used her broom all were swept away. The legends also tell us a lot about the impact of the epidemic.

One touching legend is about the a horse from Rauland in Telemark, which, unguided, brought the dead across the mountains to the nearest churchyard. Many legends tell us how only one or a handful of people remained in a village or a valley, if anyone remained at all, and there are many place names connected with these legends. The best known is about the Jostedalen Grouse (Jostedalsrypa). She was a girl who lived alone in the Jostedal valley, and she was as shy as a wild bird when outsiders found her.

Another group is the clan legend. In sources from the 1700's we hear that Norwegian farmers were very interested in historical clan traditions. The bishop of Bergen, Erik Pontoppidan, tells us in 1753, that the Norwegian farming families "took quite good care to preserve the information which they had traditionally maintained about their family trees". The clan legends were written down after 1850. They do not have the same quality as the Icelandic sagas, even though the Norwegian sagas are also about strife, land, women, killings, vendettas, and outlaws.

The stories are about the greater landowning farmers. Many of them were giants who killed someone and were outlawed. The greatest number and the best of the clan sagas are from the inland areas of south-western Norway and the valleys in eastern Norway.

Another large group of historical village legends concern officials, but the stories which are best remembered concern strange priests. Clergy who were in conflict with their villagers, or those who were reputed to have knowledge of witchcraft, were prime characters. The priest and poet, Peter Dass, is talked about most.


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Cultural researchers make no stipulation that a story has to be old in order to qualify as a legend, but previously there was a tendency to link "legends" with "ancient"; with peasant society a prerequisite topic. Society has changed dramatically during the last 100 years and this has resulted in a renewal of the traditional legend. In our age a type of legend which we call roving legends predominate. Such legends are often spread through the newspapers and other mass media, but they are only seemingly modern because their content is attuned to our modern way of life. As a rule they tend to follow the old epic framework.

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Unlike the folktales, which take place in a make-believe world, legends seem plausible and tell about events which could have taken place. Research shows that some people believe in them, while others are sceptical. Legends exist in a hazy area between fact and faith, or fantasy. Thus believability, which is subjective, is no prerequisite for legends. We have to make formal distinctions in order to identify a story as a legend. The legend is told in such a manner that it acquires a ring of truth. It has happened to an acquaintance, it took place in a particular place and so on.

Are the legends based on real events? This is a question which we are seldom able to answer. They are often told as if they were true. However, when the frame of reference of the legend changes, so does the the basis of belief which it rests upon. Legends which tell how people were taken underground by supernatural beings were credible as long as people believed that such creatures existed. When this popular belief waned, the legends were told merely for the sake of entertainment, and no one continued to believe in them.

The legends give us insight into the storytellers perception of the world. They are group fanatasies which fill the gaps in peoples knowledge. Stylistically legends are objective, but on another level they express the attitudes and values of the storytellers.


K. Liestøl: Norsk Folkediktning. (Norwegian Folk Literature) Oslo 1936

R.T.Christiansen : Norske eventyr. (Norwegian Folktales) Nordisk kultur IX. Oslo 1931.

R.T.Christiansen & Knut Liestøl : Norske Folksegner. (Norwegian Folklegends) Nordisk Kultur IX, Oslo 1931


The author of this article, Birgit Hertzberg Johnsen, is senior lecturer with the Department of Folklore studies at the University of Oslo.

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