Follow TV Tropes


Creator / Asbjørnsen and Moe

Go To
Asbjørnsen & Moe

"The Norwegian folk tales are the best there is... they surpass almost any other."

Authors Peter Christian Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe were a pair of Norwegian Fairy Tale collectors. The result of their work is an anthology of roughly 150 tales, properly called "Norwegian Folktales", but more commonly referred to simply as Asbjørnsen and Moe.

Peter Christen Asbjørnsen was the urban one, born in the city of Christiania in 1812. He died in 1885, a vivid hobby scientist and professional zoologist, engaging in social issues, and in collecting of stories. Most of the material collected in and around the Oslo area is written by him, and also many of the legends. Asbjørnsen was the son of a glass maker, and had humble origins. He wrote and edited his own collections of stories before even meeting Jørgen Moe as early as in 1842. In later years, Asbjørnsen ended in a heavy porridge debate (called the "porridge war") with sociologist Eilert Sundt, over the necessity of eating and making porridge. Hilarity ensued.

Jørgen Moe was the son of a farmer from Ringerike, born 1813. He was the rural one of the two. He studied to become a priest, and was also a poet and writer of children's books. Many of the dialect examples in the texts are his, and also the more lengthy tales from the upper valleys. He sought out story-tellers in remote areas, and collected some of the more rare and extensive tales from them. Regrettably, he was not always there for long, but he laid out some ground work for the next generation of collectors. His son, Moltke Moe, became the first professor of folklore in Norway. Moe had a chance meeting with Henrik Wergeland in 1841, and Wergeland insisted that he should get to the task of collecting more thorougly. In time he became a respected priest in the parish of Krødsherad, and from there, he was able to collect more stories. Jørgen Moe died in 1882.

The "classical" mode of telling the stories derives from the mode of some particular storytellers in the eastern parts of Norway. Folklorist Rikard Berge commented later on that the western modes differed somewhat from the Asbjørnsen/Moe style, and this, he argued, showed some local characteristics in how to present the characters. The "eastern" ashlad is more of a witty trickster, while there is more of a heroic youngster in the "western" one.

The vast majority of these tales originate from three earlier anthologies:

  • Asbjørnsen og Jørgen Moe's "Norske Folkeeventyr" (Norwegian Folktales) published in parts from 1841 to 1844.
  • Asbjørnsen's "Norske Folkeeventyr: Ny Samling" (Norwegian Folktales: New Collection) from 1868.
  • Asbjørnsen's "Norske Huldre-Eventyr og Folkesagn" (Norwegian Hulder-tales and Folk-legends) published in parts from 1845 to 1866.

A handful of other tales by Asbjørnsen and by Moe's son, folklorist Moltke Moe, have also made their way into the collection.

Tales with their own page:

A partial translation can be found here and in the Project Gutenberg.

J. R. R. Tolkien singled this one out for discussion in "On Fairy-Stories" when discussing What Do You Mean, It's Not for Kids?: though the translator did not bowdlerize, he did forbid children to read the last two stories, under the assumption that they were the natural audience.

Examples of tropes in Asbjørnsen and Moe's folk tales that don't have their own page:

  • Action Girl: There are quite a few female protagonists who are steadfast Determinators who will go to Hell and back to reach their goal.
  • Age Without Youth: Den Syvende Far i Huset ("The seventh father in the house"). The traveller encounters gradually older men who directs him toward their father. The seventh and final father is so old that he rests in a horn hanging on the wall.
  • An Aesop: Most of the stories have a clear moral to them — though a fair few (especially the more comedic ones) don't.
  • All Trolls Are Different: We get a lot of different ones here; some bigger than mountains with trees growing on their noses, some human-sized, some with multiple heads (the more heads, the more powerful the troll, in some stories), some violent and temperamental and some more good-natured. Some of them burst or turn to stone when exposed to sunlight, others don't seem bothered by the sun at all. Most of them are Too Dumb to Live but a few are surprisingly clever and cunning. Most of them are villains but you do occasionally find honorable or even benevolent trolls. Though, thanks to the illustrations by Theodor Kittelsen, the Norwegian public image of the troll is pretty consistent: Big, shaggy and ugly, with big noses, often shaggy beards, with plain and tattered clothes and long tails that look like cow's tails. They also have a great sense of smell, being able to smell when strangers are in their house.
  • Always Chaotic Evil: Tax collectors. Trolls and monsters and wolves and even the Devil might be portrayed sympathetically in some stories, but there is no such thing as a tax collector with even slightly redeeming qualities. Not surprising, considering that most of these stories were originally told by poor farmers.
  • Author Tract: Asbjørnsen, when he decided to make a frame for his legends. Thus, he also presented his sources, wise women, hunters, grave diggers, blacksmiths and so on. He usually placed himself in their environment, passing time with hunting or fishing, and thus stumbling over storytellers on the way. Asbjørnsen was an enthusiastic hobby fisherman himself, and this was a great excuse for him to get to people. He even lampshaded this: "when the world goes against me, something it seldom declines to do when it has an opportunity to do so, I take my fishing gear and walk away..."
  • Batman Gambit: Tricksters and Guile Heroes often pull these off, even if a lot of them only make sense if the trickster knew how the story was supposed to go right down to the exact words someone would say in a given situation.
  • Beast Fable: A number of the stories; the most popular ones being the stories about the fox and the bear.
  • Beauty Equals Goodness: Both played straight and defied/subverted as An Aesop.
  • Become a Real Boy:
    • In "Lord Peter" (link), the cat demands that her head be cut off, which proves to turn her back into a princess.
    • In "The Twelve Wild Ducks" (link), the sons turned to birds are rescued by their sister, turned back into human form.
  • Bloodier and Gorier: Most of the stories don't exactly shy away from violence and killings, but all of them pale to the story of "Peik," possibly the most gory tale in the entire collection.
  • Bowdlerise: To make the stories more acceptable for the higher classes, the tales were amended somewhat. The name "Ashlad" stands out, as the rural name for the lad is "ash fart" (Askefisen), more to the point on blowing/"farting" on the embers. But the upper classes would never accept it, hence the Ashlad. In the very first edition, his name was "Askepot", a name more commonly associated with Cinderella.
    • Some versions and translations of the stories further removed objectionable material. The English translation of Peik, for instance, removes the part where he, while Disguised in Drag, gets the two princesses pregnant and such clues the king in that he's not actually a girl; in the softer version his disguise is revealed when an old friend of his family comes by and recognizes him.
  • Cinderella Plot: Shows up in a number of stories, most notably Katie Woodencloak, which has been called "the Norwegian Cinderella."
  • The City vs. the Country: "The House-mouse and the Mountain-mouse" follows this formula. The usual message is interesting enough subverted however as the Country Mouse is no better portrayed than the City Mouse.
    • The Norwegian version states a classical social criticism when the Country Mouse leaves for the hills. The Cat is associated with the tax collector, a person who were thoroughly disliked by the farmers. Country Mouse says that she'd rather be at home, than be pestered by "such a hawk".
    • Pragmatic Adaptation: The tale is actually called "Home Mouse and Mountain Mouse", setting the story outside of town altogether. Home Mouse (City Mouse) represents the well to do farmer in the valleys and flatlands, while the Mountain Mouse (Country Mouse) represents the mountain farmer, usually poorer and not so well off (but seemingly more free and far away from the cat).
  • Classic Villain: Mostly the tax collector, sometimes the Beadle or the Sheriff. Those guys are prone to be taken by the Devil, or to make deals with him. (Interestingly enough, the Devil isn't always portrayed as such a bad person.)
  • Cool Horse: In "Dapplegrim", the eponymous horse is so massive that the protagonist can barely climb on him even when he lies down, and his coat so gleaming that sunbeams reflect off it like a mirror. All the protagonist's achievements are enabled by Dapplegrim and his Undying Loyalty, and it's a plot point that his equal can only be found in hell.
  • Cunning Like a Fox: Whenever a fox shows up in the stories, it's going to be portrayed as a wily trickster, sometimes helpful and sometimes just out for itself. If a bear appears in the same story, ten to one the fox is going to take on a Gadfly role towards said bear.
  • Curse: They flourish in these tales, most of them involving some form of Forced Transformation.
  • Damsel in Distress: Plenty. The number of fair maidens and princesses who are kidnapped by trolls, under weird curses or similar is high — though interestingly enough (unless they've been placed under a curse or some enchanted sleep), they're seldom portrayed as completely helpless. While they don't have the power to take on the bad guys themselves, they usually aid in their own rescue by giving the hero good advice or present him with some kind of magical aid to make the task easier.
  • Debut Queue: "The Ashlad and the Good Helpers".
  • Deadpan Snarker: The Ashlad has his moments of this. The Narrator joins in occasionally.
  • Deal with the Devil: In a couple of stories, like in the very short story The Devil and the Tax Collector, in which the tax collector makes a deal with the Devil; if the Devil can find someone else that is damned, he'll take that person instead. What happens, after a few false starts because the Devil won't accept it as legit when a mother says "damn you" to her child, is that they meet two farmers who see the tax collector and mutter "damn that tax collector." The story only lasts a couple more sentences after that.
  • Determinator: If the protagonist of a story is female, she is going to be this, especially if you take her lover from her — she'll go anywhere and do anything, no matter how impossible the odds, to get him back. Male heroes, unless they are Guile Heroes like the Ashlad, tend to be more flighty, often straying from their paths and needing help to get back on track.
  • Distressed Dude: Not as common as the Damsel in Distress, but still shows up fairly often. If the hero is male, the Distressed Dude is usually one or more of his older brothers; if the hero is female, the Distressed Dude is her Love Interest (and probably a prince).
  • The Dividual: The Ashlad's older brothers, usually named Peter and Paul, are only important as contrasts to him — being the older, more favored brothers who think themselves better than him but end up falling flat on their faces. Usually they don't even get individual spoken lines but share all dialogue. Several adaptations have tried to individualize them to a bigger degree; in these the most common one seems to be to make Peter, the oldest, the bragging Small Name, Big Ego while Paul, the middle child, is a dull-witted Yes-Man who just follows Peter's lead but is often portrayed as more sympathetic. When Peter W. Cappelen adapted many of the fairy tales for stage, he gave the two brothers distinct characterizations; one was a food-obsessed glutton while the other was a penny-pinching and money-obsessed miser... though it varied from play to play which was which.
  • Dub Name Change: In English Askeladden is sometimes translated as "the Ashlad" or "the Cinderlad," and sometimes just called "Boots". Likewise, his brothers Per and Pål have had their names anglicized to "Peter and Paul."
  • Dude, Where's My Respect?: In "Dapplegrim'', the king orders the hero to perform many tasks because his fellow servants falsely claimed he said he could do them, and then in an attempt to keep him from marrying the princess; in the end, he gives in.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: Especially in the longer fairytales, the protagonists have to go through quite a lot and face many harshships before they can live Happily Ever After.
  • Enchanted Forest: A fairly common setting, and there's always at least one big, dangerous troll present. Special mention must go to the three metal forests in Katie Woodencloak; the first is made entirely out of copper, the second of silver and the third of gold, each one is thick and dense and almost impossible to pass through without harming one or more of the metal trees — and when you involuntarily do, the troll who owns the forest shows up to kill you for your impudence.
  • Engagement Challenge: Quite often the one who sets the challenge deliberately makes it impossible to do, so the hero(ine) won't have a chance of succeeding... when (s)he inevitably does anyway, additional impossible tasks are set. One of the more notable versions of this is in The Ashlad and the Good Helpers, where the King really doesn't want the Ashlad to marry his daughter and comes up with one impossible task after the other to stop the wedding from taking place.
  • Fake Ultimate Hero: Ritter Red, who shows up in a few stories, always tries to step in to take the glory (and the princess) after the hero has done all the work. There are a few other characters like this; usually they're military officers who have cowered in the background while the lower-ranked hero has faced all the tasks. They're always exposed and usually executed for their crimes.
  • Fallen-on-Hard-Times Job: In "Katie Woodencloak", the runaway princess finds a work as a scullery maid.
  • Family-Unfriendly Death: There sure are a lot of beheadings in these stories.
  • Folk Hero: The Ashlad.
  • Forbidden Fruit:
    • In some stories the protagonist is explicitly told that there is one thing (s)he absolutely must not do — anything from opening a certain door, to look at their lover's true face before a certain amount of time has passed, or to sit on the edge of a well. Normally the protagonist means it when promising to refrain from that one thing, but then the temptation gets too great, or the promise is forgotten in a careless moment, and you can guess the rest.
    • In "The Mastermaid", a prince working for a giant is forbidden to go through a door. However, he disobeys and finds the Mastermaid, who tells him how to survive.
  • Forced Transformation: Happens to a lot of the Damsels in Distress and Distressed Dudes in the story. The lucky ones are transformed into animals and are often still capable of speaking and aiding the hero — the unlucky ones are turned into stone or inanimate objects.
  • The Girl Who Fits This Slipper: In Katie Woodencloak, it's a gold shoe. The trope is played slightly with, because while the prince only has the gold shoe to go by, Katie still has the other shoe and the entire fancy outfit she turned his head with in the first place, and when she shows up to try the shoe on she's wearing it all underneath her wooden cloak in order to make a dramatic reveal.
  • Guile Hero: The Ashlad, who traditionally succeeds by using his wits.
  • Happily Ever After: "...og de levde lykkelig alle sine dager."
  • Hitchhiker Heroes: The helpers in "The Ashlad and the Good Helpers".
  • Impossible Task: Usually what the king sets for the hero in order to win the princess, or the wicked troll sets for the girl to win back her lover.
  • Impossible Theft: In "The Master Thief" (link), the main character steals one horse from his owner while he is riding on his back.
  • Involuntary Shapeshifter: A number of them. If you see a white bear in any of the stories, it's definitely this.
  • "Just So" Story: "Why The Sea Is Salty" (link) has it that this is because of a magical food-producing hand-mill, which a greedy sea-captain set to producing salt. It churned out so much salt that the boat sank, and thus nobody was ever able to stop it. The mill sits on the ocean floor to this day and continues to churn out salt, which is why seawater is salty.
  • Laser-Guided Amnesia: In "The Mastermaid", the hero is magically forced to forget the heroine.
  • Meaningful Name: The Ashlad, Butterbuck, Mumble-Gooseegg and more.
  • Nameless Narrative: The majority of the characters in the stories aren't named, and a fair number of the ones who do get names are really Only Known by Their Nickname.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: A pretty common tactic to prolong the hero's trial, usually combined with Forbidden Fruit: The protagonist breaks a promise never to do something, and this results in a lot of extra hardships and trials.
  • Noble Fugitive: In "Katie Woodencloak", the princess has flee before her Wicked Stepmother kills her and her only friend off.
  • The Nose Knows: Trolls have a brilliant sense of smell. Assuming "Christian man" isn't just a catchall term, they can actually smell a person's religion. Most trolls in stories are introduced by saying "I smell the blood of a christian man!"
  • Once Upon a Time: "Det var en gang..."
  • Only Known by Their Nickname: The Ashlad's real name is "Espen" ("John" or "Jack" in some English translations), but he's nicknamed "Ashlad" because he sits in the ashes by the fireplace. Likewise, characters like Tatterhood and Butterball are specifically mentioned as being called by those names for their appearances; their real names never mentioned.
  • Parental Favoritism: Clear in the stories with the Ashlad. Ashlad is always the youngest son and The Unfavorite, while his older brothers are adored by the parents and get all the best stuff, the best food and the greatest benefits, while Ashlad has to make due with their leftovers.
  • Person of Mass Destruction: The last of the seven helpers in the "Good Helpers" tale has "seven summers and fifteen winters in his body". Thus, he constantly keeps his hand over his mouth, because, as he says: "If I let them all out, they would end the world in an instant..."
  • Plot Tailored to the Party: The ending of "The Ashlad and the Good Helpers".
  • Pragmatic Adaptation: Why many Norwegian tales differ from the German ones. The social environment is vastly different in the Norwegian Cinderella versions, as far as the meeting with the prince is concerned. In Germany or England, the king holds a ball for the Prince attended by the heroine in disguise. In Norway, the girl in question rides to church three Sundays in a row and turns heads there. Churches were the common meeting place in the old days, and Norway had few castles, if any. (In fact, while the English translations often make references to the "King's Palace," the original refers to it as the "King's farm" and has the king live more like a grand, rich farm-owner.)
  • The Promise: Many heroes and some heroines have to make some kind of promise to one of their helpers. Whether or not it's kept depends on the nature of the promise: If the promise is meant to keep the hero(ine) safe from harm or keep some form of secret from getting out, then it'll always be broken and lead to complications or danger. However, if the promise is meant to aid or reward the helper it's almost always kept, to show that the hero(ine) is no Ungrateful Bastard. There are a couple of stories where a well-intentioned hero gets so caught up in his happy ending that he momentarily forgets the helper, but when he realizes that he's broken the promise he'll immediately feel bad and make amends.
  • The Quest
  • Rags to Royalty: Male example in the Ashlad stories, which almost always follow this — and even in the stories where he doesn't marry a princess and become royalty he at least becomes rich.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: The king is usually presented as fair-minded and dependable. He might be needlessly harsh, often he sets Impossible Tasks and doles out Disproportionate Retributions towards people who fail those tasks or otherwise displease him, but he'll at least give people a chance to explain themselves or make amends, he's generous with praise and rewards, he always (or almost always) keeps his promises, and for the most part is polite and amiable even towards poor people. Now, there are plenty of stories that present the king in a far less sympathetic light; he can be both shifty and untrustworthy, and willing to employ some underhanded methods to keep the hero from reaching his goal. But even in those stories he'll almost always at least pretend to be reasonable and make it appear like he's giving the hero a fair chance.
  • Royal Brat: Most princesses are this. It won't stop the main characters from trying to marry them however.
  • Rule of Three: They're fairy tales; of course this trope is in full force. Three brothers, three princesses, three quests, trolls with three heads (or three trolls — the first one with three heads, the second one with six heads and the third one with nine).
  • Rule of Seven: Shows up every so often as well; usually if it's not three brothers it tends to be seven.
  • Shapeshifting Lover: White-Bear-King Valemon is the most famous example, being the version where the man takes on the form of an animal thanks to a curse, and has to leave the princess when she sees his true form — leading to the bulk of the story where the princess searches for her lover and has to save him from the hag who cursed him.
  • Sinister Minister: While priests are seldom presented as outright evil, and you might very well see the occasional priest who's treated sympathetically, if you see a man of the cloth in these stories he'll usually be in an antagonistic role — he'll either be a pompous Small Name, Big Ego, an insufferable cheapskate, a total hypocrite, or all three. Even the priests who are more sympathetic are generally portrayed as extremely stupid and gullible.
  • Snake Pit: In "The Twelve Wild Ducks", the heroine's Wicked Stepmother-in-law kidnaps each baby she has and throws it into a snake pit, making it look like she ate them. However, the snakes were less vicious than she thought, and wouldn't harm the children. When they're found again, they're still alive, and even playing with the snakes.
  • Standard Hero Reward "I'll give you the princess and half my kingdom."
  • Talking Animal: It's actualy more common for the animals to talk in these stories than it is for them not to talk.
  • The Trickster: The Ashlad, Foxes, and quite a few one-off character.
  • The Unreveal: Subverted, "The Casket with the Strange Content" (Skrinet med det rare i) is basically the same as the Grimm's "The Golden Key" except the contents of the box is actually reveled to be a calf's tail. The narrator snarkingly remarks that had the tail been longer the story might have been so too.
  • Villain Protagonist: Peik, in his story. He starts off fairly innocently; he doesn't want to get a job, so he decides to make a living as a trickster and con man. He tricks the king into giving him a horse, then makes the same king believe he has a magic cooking-pot and selling it to him at a high price — but then it escalates when he tricks the king into believing he can call the dead back to life, resulting in the king killing his wife and eldest daughter. Then he dresses up as a girl and gets himself adopted by the same king, gets both the surviving princesses pregnant while in disguise as a girl, and when the king then tries to execute him for his crimes, Peik tricks an old man into getting executed in his stead, and for an encore tricks the king into killing himself, so Peik can become king in his stead.
  • Wealthy Ever After: The common reward for getting rid of trolls is the chance to loot all their gold afterwards.
  • Youngest Child Wins: The Ashlad and quite a few others.