Thursday, 27 October 2016

The Gravedigger’s Tales

By I, Chell Hill, CC BY 2.5

“The Gravedigger’s Tales” is one of Asbjørnsen’s frame narratives, from his solo project Hulder Tales and Folk Legends. Here, the narrator goes looking for Per Gravedigger, a dour man who is known for having tales to tell. With the promise of some of the narrator’s tobacco as recompense, Per tells numerous tales of witches; and when he runs out of these, he has a tale of the hulders to end with.

Camilla Collett wrote the first part of the narrative frame. The atmosphere she conjures is dark; no one in the village appears to try to help the outsider; in fact, they go so far as to confound his efforts to locate Per. The narrator is driven half mad on his quest to collect the tales.

We should be glad that he perseveres, though. The witches in the tales exhibit all the characteristics we have come to associate with their ilk, from the debauchery committed with the devil, to the ability to complete tasks in surprising and efficient ways, to the use of “grease” to make their broomsticks—or other vehicles—fly, to their organisation in companies, flocks, and hosts, and back to their complete disregard for societal mores or norms of behaviour and religion. Since witches were not organised until very, very recently, it is tempting to view the way in which these strong-minded women are characterised as a strategy to impugn the characters of those who would not conform to existing societal structures. Any non-conformity could thus be viewed a sign that the woman concerned was in league with the devil.

“The Gravedigger’s Tales” has, as far as I have been able to ascertain, never before appeared in English, which makes it interesting to note how the tales agree so well with what we otherwise know of European folk-religious practices, and with other folklore that treats witches. Of course, it is possible that Asbjørnsen’s tales are brought in from other sources; I shall have to do more research.

Per Krohg produced a series of illustrations for “The Gravedigger’s Tales,” but since the artist lived until 1965, they are still under copyright, and require permission for reproduction. (I urge you to look at that last link, though, which will take you to his illustrations of this text.)

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