Before Thor hung out with the Hulk and Iron Man, he starred in a blockbuster series of Norwegian folk tales that nearly every child in Norway, from the Viking era onward, knows. But Thor is not just an entertaining figure in Norse mythology, he’s a keeper of Norwegian identity. Over the centuries, as Norway endured occupations by other nations and cultures, its people hung onto Thor and other figures as an emblem of their own, distinct heritage.
During the Christianization of Norway, images of Mjölnir, Thor’s hammer, were worn on clothing or hung on doors as a sign that its owners were holding on to their native belief systems. Scandinavian pagans continue to use Mjölnir as a symbol; in May 2013, the Veteran’s Administration approved Thor’s hammer for use on official headstones and grave markers. The Thor stories are only a part of Norway’s folklore tradition, but the importance of folklore to Norway’s identity in the world is much greater.
The University of Minnesota Press has reissued three significant volumes by Norwegian novelist Sigrid Undset. “True and Untrue and Other Norse Tales” is a collection of popular folk tales, some purely funny, others with instructive intents. The volume begins with a warm, chatty introduction that explains the significance of the tales to a non-Norwegian audience; during World War II, as Norway fell under Germany’s occupation, Undset fled to the United States, where she lived in homesick exile for 5 years. (Her criticism of Hitler led to her work being banned by Nazi Germany. Undset, who died in 1949, lost a son during the German invasion of Norway.)
“She’s writing for Americans who know nothing about Norway and may not have even heard many folk tales,” says Claudia Berguson, a professor of Norwegian language and Scandinavian literature at Pacific Lutheran University (she previously taught at Concordia in Moorhead and hails from Minnesota). “She’s saying, ‘I want to explain to you what it’s all about, why these are special.’ And they really are. They are simple, entertaining, have a lesson, describe human nature, even get into how people believe what they believe.”
Living among people who knew little about her country or its traditions, Undset included stories about Norway’s favorite folk heroes, as well as engaging minor gods and even local elves. In “Sigurd and His Brave Companions,” she follows three boys living in medieval times who set out to reenact the adventures of legendary knights. A third volume, “Happy Times in Norway,” gives a contemporary (to her time) peek into the rhythms of everyday life in Norway before the war. Undset’s own family life is depicted, including skiing and ice skating in the winter, a lively celebration of May 17 (Norway’s Constitution Day) and storytelling year-round.
“She had an extraordinary amount of knowledge of Norwegian folklore. It was part of her upbringing, and something she felt very strongly should be continued, that these stories should not be lost. No matter what happened to Norway in the world, the stories would live on for Norwegians everywhere,” said Berguson.
Undset won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1928 for her “powerful descriptions of Northern life during the Middle Ages,” mainly the Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy of books. But her body of work encompasses a heavily researched understanding of Norway through the ages, and she was able to capture the basic dimensions of life during historical times in her novels, which are still read today.
“In Norway, she’s a key part of the canon. She is read by the general public in the United States, too, in book clubs and by people who are interested in history. Her work gives us a direct link between the United States and Norway, and is especially valued in places like Minnesota, where there are many Norwegians. Norway is such a small country, and has been invaded so many times, that there is a strong need to somehow say, ‘These are our stories, this is our voice, this is who we are.’ Unset’s work does that so well.”