- Fantastic Tales and Poetic Square Stories:Important Features in the Danish Author Louis Jensen’s Literature for Children
Louis Jensen’s oeuvre is one of the most original in contemporary Danish children’s literature. He was born in the same country as H. C. Andersen (1805-1875), and the two authors actually have several things in common. The works of both of these are highly experimental and innovative, and during their lives, they often challenged non-written conventions about how to write for children. In Jensen’s books, there is a great deal of cruelty and evil, but also love and friendship between different creatures and humans. Jensen’s language is highly poetic, and it is rich with intertextual references and metafictional episodes.
This article is an attempt to describe some key features in Jensen’s work from his debut as an author of children’s literature in 1986 with Krystalmanden [The Crystal Man] until today. During this period, he has published more than thirty-five books for children and young adults, including picture books, poetry, short stories, and novels. In addition, he continues to write poetry, novels, and memoirs for adults. In this article, the main focus is on Jensen’s special treatment of the fantastic tale as a genre, and his 1001 “square stories.” The latter is his own invention; the chosen format is just a very small prose story graphically formed as a square. The square stories are published in eleven books illustrated by the Danish artist Lilian Brøgger (b.1950). One hundred stories are included in each of the first ten volumes: and in the last volume, there is only one square-story, named “the last story in the world.” This last story is illustrated with a hundred pictures which refer to characters, motifs, and themes from the magic universe constructed in all the square-stories.
In most of Louis Jensen’s books, the main character has something to do with the supernatural, the magic, or the fantastic. Although often rejected in connection with children’s literature, the description and categorization of the fantastic by the literary scholar Tzvetan Todorov (Introduction à la littérature fantastique) is relevant when it comes to understanding Jensen. Todorov has never written directly about the fantastic in children’s literature, but the central European tradition he refers to has been an inspiration for Jensen. As for Todorov’s theory, one can claim that the hesitation or doubt between a literal or metaphorical understanding [End Page 43] of magic, which for Todorov is the hallmark of the genre, is often toned down in children’s literature. The protagonists in children’s literature are often quick to accept the existence of the supernatural, and by using the narrator’s voice in support of the main character, many works set the scene for a similar unproblematic acceptance of the supernatural by the reader. This is not always the case in Jensen’s works, where the narrator and the inscribed reader position often represent hesitation. In all cases, the question of literal or symbolic reference has to be raised in a subsequent interpretation. The hesitation is directed to the understanding of the magical events because these events do not refer directly to a symbolic or a realistic world, and the fantastic text is therefore open to more than one interpretation. This point is especially relevant in relation to some of Jensen’s novels and short stories where characters, features, and events have both symbolic and realistic references and meanings.
In Todorov’s system of genres, purely fantastic texts are bordered on the one side by the uncanny and on the other by the marvelous. Uncanny tales are related to realism and especially psychological realism, where a supernatural event is finally interpreted with a psychological explanation. The marvelous (or the fairy story) is characterized by a magical world in which there is no problem relating to the supernatural, and the interpretation will quite naturally be allegorical. It appears that the fantastic tales in children’s literature in general (or a large number of them), in Todorov’s sense, border on the marvelous. Todorov distinguishes between different border categories where the fantastic...