Folklore Fun! Scandinavia

What do the God of Thunder and Disney Queen Elsa have in common? Popular movie franchises? Well, yes. Flashy elemental powers? Um, also yes. However, the answer I’m looking for is that they both have a connection to Scandinavian folklore. Thor, as you may know, is a prominent figure in Norse mythology, while Elsa’s story drew inspiration from a Danish author’s fairy tale. Scandinavian lore is no stranger to modern media, and its influence can be found across many age groups and genres. I am using the term Scandinavia in its broadest sense, which includes Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Iceland, and all the islands in the surrounding area. While each nation has its differences, they are woven together by common folkloric threads.

These days, the ancient deities of the pre-Christian north are known as figures from Norse mythology. You can find traditional tales in The Treasury of Norse Mythology, while Across the Rainbow Bridge relishes the darker elements that inevitably appear in folklore. The escapades of the gods and their heroes is a wellspring of inspiration for contemporary authors who borrow and reimagine the stories’ powerful characters, mystical lands, and iconic storylines.

There is an abundance of Norse-derived stories in the WPPL collection, all with their own interpretations and elaborations. Arthur and the Golden Rope is a graphic novel that remains lighthearted while detailing Arthur’s perilous quest. Novels like Thundercluck! and Thunder Girls are a modern and playful take on the Norse gods. Other key elements of Norse mythology are highlighted in Odd and the Frost Giants and Valkyrie. Frost giants, or jötunn, are more ancient than the gods and can range from ambivalent to antagonistic. Valkyries are heavenly female warriors that chose which mortal heroes will go to Valhalla, Odon’s hall of heavenly warriors. These books are an easy introduction to the Norse pantheon and surrounding lore.

For older readers, Rick Riordan’s Magnus Chase trilogy and The Sea of Trolls by Nancy Farmer offer more complex stories, interwoven with Norse mythology. Set in the present day, the Magnus Chase books are in Riordan’s signature Percy Jackson style, and a focused plot and fascinating characters make the trilogy truly enjoyable. Meanwhile, The Sea of Trolls is set in the era of the Vikings. A boy must undertake a difficult quest in order to save his sister from a terrible half-troll queen. Farmer seamlessly blends history and legend as the boy meets famed Viking leader Ivar the Boneless, and then travels to Jotunheim, the land of the trolls. Different religious systems are addressed directly as the children encounter a world larger than they could have ever imagined.

Remember the jötunn, previously described as frost giants? You may have noticed the similarity to the word Jotunheim, the land of the trolls, just now. The truth is, centuries of storytelling (and translations) have left us with imprecise terms. The jötunn have many interpretations. They are ancient, nonhuman beings, they are Other, they belong to the cold, stony lands of the north. They are trolls. Sometimes they have multiple heads, sometimes they can speak, sometimes they turn to stone in the daylight, and, often, they are a danger to humans.

Trolls can range from crafty tricksters to the lumbering, nonverbal brutes that appear commonly in fantasy movies. The picture books Helga’s Dowry and Trouble With Trolls showcase the former. Readers will root for Helga the troll as she works hard to achieve her dream. Meanwhile, the protagonist of Jan Brett’s story must outwit the pesky trolls who are intent on stealing her dog.

Now consider the boisterous rock trolls from Disney’s Frozen, or the miniature music-lovers of the DreamWorks movie Trolls. (The latter is based on a toy brand that was originally created in Denmark.) They are a far cry from the hulking giants of the wilderness or their malevolent humanoid iterations. Yet the word troll has continued to grow along with the lore, ultimately representing a vast family of creatures that stems from the folk stories of Scandinavia.

But trolls aren’t the only things wandering those rocky northern landscapes. Just ask Hilda! The titular protagonist of these graphic novels (and a wonderful Netflix series) loves the world and all its inhabitants… especially the unusual ones. Hilda meets a troll in the very first book, and she soon encounters all sorts of other creatures like a nature-spirit vittra, elves, giants, nisse, and more. Since Scandinavia encompasses so many languages, each country has different words and particulars for a lot of these beings, and even common terms have multiple regional spellings. For example, the smallish gnome-like nisse (Danish) is also known as a tomten (Swedish), and a tomtenisse or tonttu (Finnish), according to Wikipedia. In Hedgie’s Surprise, it is a tomten causes trouble by routinely stealing eggs. The nisse in Hilda has similar habits. While it is impossible to sort everything into neat categories, readers will soon get a sense of the consistent elements between variations.

The line between fairy tales and folklore is blurry. On opposite ends of the spectrum are Hans Christian Andersen and folklorist partners Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Engebretsen Moe. Andersen wrote fairy tales that are now so widespread that they might be considered folklore. (This includes The Little Mermaid and The Snow Queen, which inspired Frozen.) While true folklore arises organically from a whole population, Andersen’s tales are ingrained in the hearts and minds of people worldwide, resulting in book retellings and film adaptations and whispered bedtime stories; they are perpetuated as part of a modern oral tradition. You can find several of Andersen’s works in the library’s Juvenile Non-Fiction section J 389.209489.

But where Andersen created, Asbjørnsen and Moe collected. Simply put, they are the Brothers Grimm of Norway. A zoologist and a pastor by trade, gathering folklore was their lifelong passion. Their most familiar tale might be The Three Billy Goats Gruff, while the tale East o’ the Sun, West o’ the Moon has inspired several young adult novels. I remember being enchanted by Jessica Day George’s retelling, Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow (available digitally on Libby), long before I knew anything about Scandinavian folklore. Working my way back to the source, I recently read the complete Asbjørnsen and Moe collection (available through SearchOhio), and it is a fantastic exhibition of home-grown Norwegian stories.

Westlake Porter Library’s YA collection has a few more treats in store. Oksi is a haunting graphic novel rooted in Finnish folklore. Bears play a significant role in the ancient beliefs of Finland, and this book artfully evokes a sense of that fierce and dangerous spirit.

The Wide Starlight is set in Svalbard, an archipelago north of mainland Norway. A girl searches for her mother, slowly remembering the folk tales of her childhood while she spins her life into stories. She must navigate frozen fjords, mysterious magic, and her own emotions before she finds what she is looking for.

Exploring Scandinavian folklore has been a real treat. I love the troublemaking tomten and the terrifying trolls. People from all nations and and time periods have their own particular philosophies, and it is fascinating to see how Scandinavian thought has shaped these stories. Heroes, tricksters, gods, and beasts await. Though we’re thousands of miles away, a good book is all you need to start exploring!