B Wahlströms Förlag, 2013.
Reviewed by Agnes Broome in SBR 2014:1
Review Section: Fiction for Young Adults
A long time ago, but not quite as long as we might think, the endless forests of Northern Europe were teeming with supernatural life and dark lore. Huddling by the hearth during stormy winter nights or walking through fields of surging mist in the peculiar twilight of Midsummer’s Eve, the people of Scandinavia were in no doubt that elves, trolls, wraiths and worse lurked under every hill, behind every tree, in every lake and river, even inside their own houses.
These days, such creatures are considered quaint, no longer even the object of superstition, merely artefacts of the ignorance of our forebears. They have been cutified and relegated to fairy tales fit only for children, to a point where it has become nigh impossible to think of them as potentially evil and dangerous, let alone as real-life threats.
Johan Egerkrans wants to change that. In his new illustrated encyclopaedia of creatures of Nordic folk lore, Nordiska väsen, Egerkrans reminds us just how frightening these creatures once were and seeks to restore a measure of the darkness and terror they possessed in days of yore. The intention is clear from the start: the cover of the book shows a tomte, not the chubby, jolly little man on Christmas decorations, but the original house spirit, contemplating the reader with narrowed, yellow, menacing eyes, an enormous and conspicuously sharp axe slung casually over his shoulder. To put it plainly: this is to the usual retellings of Nordic lore what the original tales of the Brothers Grimm are to the Disney versions. Much scarier, in other words, not to mention darker, less child-friendly and infinitely more interesting. Be warned that, despite being marketed as a children’s book, Nordiska väsen may be both too linguistically challenging and too scary to suit the very youngest, whose nightmares are likely to be haunted for weeks after reading this book by mylingar, the spirits of bastard children killed by their mothers and buried under the floorboards.
With Nordiska väsen, Egerkrans continues a tradition of encyclopaedic treatment of the creatures of lore, joining the illustrious company of such authors as Ebbe Schön, and his texts are sure to delight, entertain and educate aficionados and neophytes alike. Particularly helpful to the non-Nordic reader are the frequent comparisons of Nordic lore to that found in other traditions: the Tylwyth Teg of Wales are related to the Nordic älvor, while the tomtar of the north have Eastern European cousins called domovoi and the spirits that protect special trees, springs and mountains, called rån in Swedish, have roots as far back as the dryads and naiads of Ancient Greek myth.
Interesting and well-written though the text is, however, the undisputed heart of Nordiska väsen is Egerkrans’ beautiful illustrations, which adorn every page in rich full colour or lush sepia tones. Egerkrans’ visual style is original and modern but also infused with tradition; the influence of iconic Swedish illustrator John Bauer is palpable, as is that of the fantasy tradition, and if Cicely Mary Barker’s flower fairies had ever developed a dark side, this is what they would look like.
Exploring Nordic lore has never been more appealing or inspiring, and if you can’t find any children to buy Nordiska väsen for, rest assured that this clothbound gem will also be an admired addition to any grownup’s coffee table.