- Framing a National Narrative: The Legend Collections of Peter Christen Asbjørnsen
In the disciplines of folklore and fairy-tale studies, the name Peter Christen Asbjørnsen is intimately connected with that of Jørgen Moe. As coauthors of one of the earliest experiments in folklore fieldwork and publishing, the classic nineteenth-century tale collection Norske folkeeventyr (1841), Asbjørnsen and Moe have heretofore stood inseparable, seemingly indistinguishable, in the annals of folklore's historiography.
One of Marte Hvam Hult's prime objectives in her recent book, Framing a National Narrative: The Legend Collections of Peter Christen Asbjørnsen, is to focus critical attention on Asbjørnsen himself and, more specifically, on his independent collection of Norwegian supernatural legends, published in 1845-48 as Norske huldreeventyr og folksagen. As Hult indicates early on, her study seeks to "'dust off' Asbjørnsen and his legend collection and position it as a text of great importance in the establishment of the Norwegian national narrative, a critical link in the development of the modern Norwegian novel, and a work relevant in its themes to modern Norwegian society" (15-16). Indeed, the strength of this book resides in Hult's attention to Asbjørnsen's textual practices, most especially his experimentation with narrative voice and the representation of Norwegian dialects, and his use of frame narration—attention that is sure to spark new or renewed interest in Norske huldreeventyr.
Inspired by the Grimms' German translation of Thomas Crofton Croker's Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland (1825), Asbjørnsen crafted his own work from composites of stories remembered, collected, or "contributed" by friends and colleagues. Hult argues convincingly that the framing passages Asbjørnsen developed for this work serve at least two significant functions. First, they draw readers into an imagined relation with a frame narrator—an urban Norwegian who serves as an educated, skeptical, and sometimes condescending guide to Norway's rural topography and people, customs [End Page 147] and beliefs, dialects and stories. Second, these highly descriptive and firmly localized framing passages give the work an aura of verisimilitude—using the same techniques employed by storytellers when narrating legends—to render this national metanarrative persuasive and believable.
It is unfortunate that Hult limits the reach of her study by assuming from the outset that her readers are already familiar with both Norwegian literature in general and Asbjørnsen's corpus in particular. Despite the author's repeated declarations of Asbjørnsen's deserved place among the literary giants of nineteenth-century Norway, it takes readers a fairly long while to get a clear sense of what makes Norske huldreeventyr so compelling. Instead, the first two chapters of Hult's study would seem to continue the established tradition of marginalizing Asbjørnsen's solo efforts, engaging with, first, a survey of scholarship on nationalism in Norway and beyond, and second, the legacy of Asbjørnsen and Moe's collaborations. There is no question that these matters are relevant to the project as a whole, but the focus, thesis, and promise of the book lack clarity in these early chapters.
One also begins to suspect that Hult's engagement with literary and cultural theory—particularly recent scholarship on print culture and nationalism, narratology and genre theory, folklore and critical ethnography—is not as deep or as nuanced as it could be. For example, Hult frames her study with clear statements of her commitment to textual analysis, on the one hand, and examination of "the cultural work" performed by Asbjørnsen's text "at the time of its reception and in the decades following" (194), on the other. Nevertheless, a number of self-contradictory statements (slips, perhaps) make it unclear whether the author herself views the print entextualization of oral traditions as an ideologically charged construct—a crafted representation of storytelling events intended to "reveal"/delineate national character—or as an unclouded mirror of culture. "It was to be Jørgen Moe and Peter Christen Asbjørnsen," she writes in Chapter 2, without a...