This winter, the land of fire and ice, of polar bears and northern lights, of the chilling north wind, and of snow-nestled mountains has whispered magic into my soul. Tales from the Old North, the lands of Iceland, Norway, and Sweden, are my new love.
These tales are important. In them, the wind, the birds, the sea, the trees—nothing is just as you see it, but pulsing with promise and hope and vitality. Perhaps birds do not really talk, and the wind cannot blow you to other lands, but it is good to be reminded that there is more to the world around us than what we see, and the beauty of winter is a gift.
Along with fairy stories in general, Scandinavian tales are also important because they reveal the starkness of good and evil. It is true that the world is often nuanced and choices straddle grey. It is also true that good does not always get rewarded, nor does evil always meet its just end. But sometimes, before we can untangle the obscured, we need to take a step back and remind ourselves of where the lines are clear. In this wholesome and refreshing way, Scandinavian tales tell of trolls, giants, and evil men, and the heroes/ines who through courage and kindness (and a little bit of smarts!) beat them!
With this criteria in mind, here are three of my favorite newly discovered tales. One is never too old for a good story.
East O’ the Sun & West O’ the Moon
This magical world opens with a brave young girl who follows a mysterious polar bear to his enchanted castle. When her misstep traps the bear under an evil troll’s curse, she travels over years of time by foot, by wind, and by steed to free him. A tender story, it goes past the fairy-tale love at first sight to show the maturity that patience and endurance bring. In a culture that uses hardship as an excuse to skip out, East O’ the Sun & West O’ the Moon contrasts with a heroine who endures much, fighting for the preservation of a union that is dear to her. This melodic tale, easily the most told and retold of Norwegian lore, echoes themes from the Greek myth Eros and Psyche, and may bring to mind C.S. Lewis’s Narnia and George MacDonald’s At the Back of the North Wind. Asbjornsen and Moe authored the first written version of this tale, among many others, in the Norwegian tongue. Translations of the text do not vary much, but I chose this version for the wintry warmth of P.J. Lynch’s illustrations.
The Queen’s Necklace
Hailing from Sweden, this folktale is rich with heartbreaking generosity and compassion. When a peasant girl is forced to wed a nefarious king he gives her an unparalleled pearl necklace and strictly warns her to never let it leave her neck lest she forfeit her life. When put in the position to protect her life or heal the needs of her people, she chooses one by one to unstring each pearl with tears of compassion, making her choice. When this puts her under the king’s wrath, even the birds come to her aid in response to her kindness. This story comes to us through three languages. Crafted from Swedish oral tradition to the written word by Danish author Helena Nyblom in the late 19th century, it was translated into Swedish by her native husband, and now retold in English by Jane Langton.
The Race of the Birkebeiners
Brave warriors, loyal kinsmen, armor made of birch bark: these are the first famous skiers, the Berkebeiners. Here comes to us a historical Norwegian saga first recorded in 1264 and now crafted into narrative by Lise Lunge-Larsen. Reading this story makes you proud. Proud of those who through courage put aside personal safety and comfort to stand in the gap against evil, and inspired to live with courage. For the purpose of rescuing a newborn king from usurping Bagler raiders, this small band faces the odds of potential starvation and tyrannical weather, skiing across mountains that only a fool (or hero) would attempt, with the babe nestled in a sling for the ride.
For more wonderful tales such as Tatterhood and the Hobgoblins, and D'Aulaires' Book of Trolls, see the public list Scandinavian Folktales . This list contains collections for every age group.