The stories told are plot-oriented, the characters are depicted without much depth, and rarely do twists of events take place that are unexpected. Yet, listening to the well known can be wonderfully gratifying, and the stories do send messages, some nicely consoling, some unsettling; those who listened to the stories received knowledge of the world. The magic tale strongly makes the point that young people must grow up. In some stories, one sees the consequences of tests not being passed successfully. In “The Seven Foals,” three brothers seek to raise their dirt-poor family out of poverty, but the two older brothers fail by giving in to temptation. The third son, the ne’er-do-well, the underdog—a common formulaic character—rises to the occasion and wins the princess and half the kingdom. In “East o’ the Sun and West o’ the Moon,” a young girl is offered by her family in marriage to a bear; she is unhappy with her matrimonial state. Corrupted by her mother’s wishes, she fails a test and loses her husband to a distant witch. At that point, she realizes that the bear is an accursed prince, knows that she loves him, and overcomes all obstacles to regain him. A passive woman becomes an active, resilient heroine. The point at which a person must mature and go through a rite of passage is stressed through this trial-and-error pattern.
These seemingly sweet and harmonious stories can be used as a means for social criticism. One powerful story is “Mastermaid,” in which a young man is assisted so well by his magical helper—his future spouse—that they...
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During the nineteenth century, Norwegian collectors and editors Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe traversed the countryside of their native land to listen to and record folktales. Those tales served a nation that was in the process of gaining its independence, for they demonstrated that Norwegian culture was saturated with splendid and comic stories that ordinary people had told for centuries. The example set by, among others, the Brothers Grimm led to a craving for folklore by the educated classes. Such tales continue to be immensely popular and are taught in many folklore courses throughout the world. In addition, these tales have had a strong impact on Norwegian literature, such as the dramas of Henrik Ibsen and the novels of Sigrid Undset.
These tales have been translated into English several times, but G. W. Dasent’s selection from 1859 has proved to be a resilient publication. That translation is faithful to Asbjørnsen and Moe’s oral tone; many nineteenth century collections of folktales are heavily edited, and the vernacular of the informants—those people who told them to the collectors the tales—was altered. Asbjørnsen and Moe, however, had a profound respect for their storytellers and preserved the oral quality in their recording of the tales and that, in part, may be why these stories continue to enthrall readers.