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Arland O. Fiske: The tales of Askeladden

Folk tales tell a great deal about a nation.  Every country has its special stories that describe the humor, wit and wisdom by which they have survived.  Two Norwegian writers made a great effort to collect stories of their people before the outside world made its modernizing impact on them.  Peter Christian Asbjornsen and Jorgen Moe became friends when they were schoolboys.  They loved to hunt, fish, hike and dream of becoming poets.

Influenced by Grimm’s fairy tales from Germany, they traveled up and down the valleys of Norway during the 1840s, especially in Gudbrandsdal and Telemark, listening to the stories that had been told for generations.  The people never tired of telling or hearing these stories again and again.  It was their main entertainment during the long dark nights of winter, especially in the deep valleys where the sun’s rays never penetrated.

Among the favorite stories were those of Askeladden, the “Ash Boy.”  He was the “Cinderella” of the boy’s world.  His main job was tending the fire and raking the ashes in the fireplace.  His two older brothers scorned him because of his simple honesty.  They were “bigshots” in their own eyes.  Even his mother merely tolerated him.  Askeladden always comes out on top in these stories, much to the chagrin of every one except the listeners.

Once there was a king whose daughter was an atrocious liar.  He offered any man who could get her to say, “You’re a liar,” that he’d get half the kingdom and the princess for a wife.  When the older brothers failed, Askeladden ventured forth to the castle and always managed to tell a taller tale than the princess.  He won the prize.

In another story, Askeladden matched wits and courage with a big, burly troll in the forest.  The older brothers had been sent into the forest to chop wood.  As soon as the chips began to fly, the troll would say, “If you are chopping in my forest, I’m going to kill you.”  They threw away their axes and ran for dear life until they arrived home.

Askeladden had never been away from home before, but he confidently set out for the forest.  When confronted with the troll, he took some cheese from his knapsack and squeezed it until the whey ran out of it and said to the troll, “If you don’t hold your tongue, I’ll squeeze you the way I’m squeezing water out of this white stone.”

With that the troll became cooperative and invited the boy to his home where he challenged him to an eating contest.  Fortunately for Askeladden, trolls are a bit dim-witted and have weak eyes.  The Ash Boy kept putting the food into his knapsack hanging over his stomach and slit it when it was full.  Finally the troll could eat no more.  Askeladden advised him to slit his stomach, as he had done to his knapsack.  The troll did so and Askeladden marched home with all the silver and gold found in the mountain.

In another story, a king offered his daughter and half of his kingdom to anyone who could build a ship that could go as fast on land as on the sea.  The proclamation was read in all the churches of the land.  Askeladden had managed to get away from the shed and be at the service that day.  His older brothers set out for the prize and on the way met a bent and wizened old man.  When he asked what they were doing, they lied and everything turned out badly.

Askeladden’s turn came, his honesty and wits always carried him through to success, even when the king tried to renege on the deal.  He didn’t like the Ash Boy’s dirty clothes.  Finally, he grudgingly gave Askeladden both the kingdom and princess.

People never tired of these morality stories where the simple triumph over the wise, the weak over the strong and where honesty pays handsome dividends.  The people who lived in the valleys of Norway were mostly poor and these stories kept hope alive even when they had little else than hope.

To learn more of these fairy tales from “old Norway,” get a hold of a copy of these stories by Asbjornsen and Moe.  A Scandinavian gift shop may have the book or a library can obtain one for you.


Next week: The Prime Minister Who Saved the King

ARLAND FISKE, a retired Lutheran minister who previously lived in Laporte and now lives in Texas, is the author of 10 books on Scandinavian themes.