Danish traditional tales are learned and transmitted by traditional means. They include texts and genres that are counted as part of the broader category of Scandinavian traditional narratives, as well as stories that are unique to Denmark.
Denmark’s early literary history includes Norse mythology and ancient epic poetry. Asthe Viking age ebbed by 1066 C.E., the old sagas were replaced by Christian sacred texts. Eventually, new storytelling genres that were derived largely from northern European traditions took hold in the Danish popular imagination. By the nineteenth century, Denmark had become known for the vitality of its tale-telling.
There are several distinctive genres of Danish traditional tales that have been preserved in various ways. The nineteenthcentury Danish historian Svend Grundtvig collected hundreds of folktales. Hans Christian Andersen reworked and compiled fairy tales. And the vibrant oral tradition features a wide range of folktales, including a unique variety of European numskull stories called Molboer tales.
First Collection of Tales
Svend Grundtvig (1824–1883) was an important philologist and folklorist who created the earliest scholarly collection of Danish traditional tales. His two-volume work, Danske Folkeæaventyr, was compiled between 1876 and 1883. Grundtvig’s main area of interest was the study of ballads, or narrative songs. The system that Grundtvig developed for classifying the ballads provided the basis for Francis James Child’s catalog of the ballads of England and Scotland. Grundtvig also constructed the ﬁrst system for categorizing folktales into types. His system was likewise expanded by other folklorists who created indexes for tale types and motifs.
The tales in Grundtvig’s collection were based on oral traditions. He assembled them using his own memory combined with the work of a network of other Danish writers. Grundtvig took a scholarly approach to the stories because he recognized their value to the study of language, culture, and history. He was, however, highly inﬂuenced by a literary bias that elevated the written text over the spoken word.
Consequently, he reworked the stories according to his own artistic ideals, and the compilation does not necessarily represent how these tales were actually told. Nevertheless, his stories are excellent renditions of Danish folktales, and his work provides an important foundation for the study of folklore.
Hans Christian Andersen
Hans Christian Andersen (1805–1875) achieved worldwide fame as a compiler, performer, and writer of folktales and fairy tales. The son of apoor shoemaker, Andersen was born in the slums of Odense, a city on the island of North Fyn. His mother, Anne Marie Andersdatter, worked as a washerwoman and was likely responsible for introducing the young Hans to traditional folktales.
The stories that readers associate with Andersen are rooted in the Danish tales that he heard throughout his life. But Andersen was primarily a literary artist, and he reworked traditional and printed tales to meet the aesthetic sensibilities of his audience. Stories such as “The Ugly Duckling” reﬂect themes found in both traditional Danish folktales and Andersen’s own childhood experiences. Other stories, such as “The Little Mermaid,” are literary renditions inspired by European märchen, or “wonder tales.”
Although Andersen used Danish texts and genres in much of his work, he also reworked stories from other nations. “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” for example, is a Danish folktale that is rooted in Turkish traditional stories. In addition to his beautiful anthology of stories, Andersen created literary works that exemplify the creativity and imagination that can emerge in folkloric expression.
Whereas Grundtvig and Andersen substantially reworked traditional texts to create highly polished literary works, contemporary folklorists carefully document stories as they are actually told. Many of the studies of Danish folklore are included in larger collections of Scandinavian studies. Traditional genres such as legends, household tales, jokes, and others constitute a rich body of Danish lore within the larger context of Scandinavian tradition.
Some of the Danish folktales include stories of the nisses. These little sprites often play tricks on unsuspecting members of a household.
Another indigenous genre is the Molboer tale. Set in the Jutland community of Mols, these tales center on a fantasy village of rural peasants. Mols is portrayed as a backward area populated by well-intentioned but naive fools. Ed K. Andersen, who emigrated from Denmark’s island of Falster to Audubon, Iowa, knew a number of Molboer tales and told one that is characteristic of this genre:
A Molboer was out working on his farm one day. He became upset because he saw a stork smashing down the grain with his big feet. He started chasing him out of the ﬁeld, but this didn’t do any good because he was tramping down the grain with his own big feet. He just didn’t know what to do.
So one of his neighbors said, “I’ve got a solution. What we’ll do is get this big gate, and we’ll carry him around on top of the gate so that he doesn’t smash the grain down with his big feet.”
As seen in this example, the humor of Molboer tales is quite subtle, and may be an acquired taste. Some storytellers ﬁnd themselves clarifying the joke. Andersen explained, “You see, they wound up smashing down more grain by having four farmers carry the gate.”
Other Molboer stories are more direct andthe humor more obvious, but often the listener is left to ﬁgure out the foolish action by completing the joke. A good teller of these tales frequently draws from a vast repertoire and strings one Molboer tale onto another. The droll humor is characteristic of this variety of numskull, or noodle, tale.
Molboer tales, stories of the nisse, and a variety of other narrative forms remain important components of a storytelling tradition that stretches back to the origins of Danish culture.