Swedish Folk Tales by Elsa Beskow, Anna Wahlenberg, et al., illustrated by John Bauer (Floris Books, 2004)
Reviewed by Rebecca Valley
When I sat down this weekend to write about John Bauer’s illustrated anthology Swedish Folk Tales, the weather did nothing but cooperate. Snow came down in fist-sized flakes, and we were covered in a thick, wet, white blanket in a matter of hours. Though not quite the dry, bitter cold of a Scandinavian winter, it felt appropriate to write about trolls and blonde maidens in shimmering gowns while the boughs of the evergreens grew heavy with snow.
I collect anthologies of folktales from around the world – I have Calvino’s tome of Italian folktales, an anthropologists account of Tibetan stories, a beautiful hardcover copy of tales from Morocco. But of all of them, this book, which my mother bought me only a few months ago, is my favorite. The stories themselves are on par with the other collections; it’s John Bauer’s stunning illustrations that drew me in, and it is his artwork that kept me thumbing through the pages long after I’d finished reading.
The stories themselves are filled with violent trolls, nefarious witches, elves, fairies, giants, and a seemingly infinite dark wood to house all of those creatures, and more. Like most folktales, the stories have morals – in “The Boy Who Was Never Afraid,” for instance, the reader learns that if you are kind, you have nothing to fear, for even the most wicked creatures will treat you with compassion (Except for trolls, “only force helps with a troll”(103)). These stories, though, were particularly lyrical – the authors created a beautiful world within each tale, and experimented with story-telling techniques, which can be rare in more traditional collections of folktales. In my favorite story, “Leap the Elk and Little Princess Cottongrass,” Helge Kjellin writes a stunning, evocative introduction to the tale:
“Have you ever been in a large forest and seen a strange black tarn hidden deep among the tall trees? It looks bewitched and a little frightening. All is still – fire trees and pines huddle close and silent on all sides. Sometimes the trees bend cautously and shyly over the water as if they are wondering what may be hidden in the dark depths. There is another forest growing in the water, and it, too, is full of wonder and stillness. Strangest of all, never have the two forests been able to speak to each other.” (40).
The introduction continues, winding through the still forest, building momentum until an elk leaps from the wood, “snapping bushes, branches, and twigs.” He pauses, sniffs at the dark pool of water, stands still for a moment before leaping back into the underbrush, taking his disturbance with him. But this is not the beginning of the tale – Kjellin says, with a nearly audible smile, “That much is true. Now here is a fairy tale about it.” (40).
It is moments like in fairy tales that strike me as absolutely enchanting – the pool is made magical by the teller, but in fact the pool is real; the teller seems to be sitting beside it, watching the movements of the forest. And then, with a quick switch, the pool becomes magical again, with the story of a dreamy princess living in a meadow not far from that same, dark pond. The magical butts up against the real, the real against the magical – the story itself is imbued with a kind of magic because the veil between physical and fable is so sheer you can see one through the transparent skin of the other. John Bauer uses the same kind of magic in his illustrations, using color and shadow to transform a traditional landscape into one suitable for a gang of trolls. His forests are dark, dimly lit, full of bare tree branches, but they are made magical by a smattering of mushrooms, a shimmering girl with long, white hair, a horse with a purple mane galloping between the trunks. The boundary between fiction and fact is so thin, it seems permeable.
Now, sheets of wet snow slip from the roof and melt into slushy puddles on the pavement. The sky has cleared, the sun is shining. Still, I thumb through the pages of Swedish Folk Tales and I am transported to a colder, more mythical place, where scraggly trolls dwell in caves, plotting to steal the most beautiful cows from their meadows. I highly recommend this book for those looking to add a bit of magic to their bookshelves, and for parents in particular – I think every child deserves the chance to gaze at Bauer’s artwork and dream about a land not too far from here, where witches peer down from the trees and trolls grumble in their caves.