Askeladden

Askeladden

Askeladden (the Ash Lad) is the main character in many Norwegian folktales. In some ways, he represents the small man who succeeds where all others fail, although the means employed are not always, strictly speaking, honourable. For instance, in the folktale where the Ash Lad has an eating contest with a troll, he slits open a knapsack that he previously tied in front of his stomach, and he suggests that the troll does the same, to slit his belly open to accommodate more food. But then again, pragmatic though cruel "guile" in the place of "honor" in regard to trolls may be appropriate, since they are essentially negative, nonhuman, monstrous entities.

In many folk tales, the Ash Lad is portrayed as the youngest of three brothers. Early in a typical tale, the older brothers appear to have much greater chances of success in life. For example, one brother might be extremely well read in books and newspapers. Another brother might be extremely competent in another area. In contrast, the Ash Lad is looked down upon as a ne'er do well, perhaps even as a loner or misunderstood eccentric, who spends too much time sitting by the fireplace lost in thought as he is poking the ashes.

As the typical story unfolds, the oldest brothers try first to heroically overcome some major crisis or problem. As an example, one tale involves rescuing a princess held captive in a land east of the sun and west of the moon. The two older brothers, who are tied to conventional thinking, typically fall flat on their faces. In contrast, it is the Ash Lad who comes up with creative solutions to outwit trolls, dodge charging unicorns, or get a magic Viking ship to fly him to the land east of the sun and west of the moon, and ultimately save the princess.

In modern parlance, the Ash Lad is a rugged individualist, free-thinker, and nonconformist who is capable of deep abstract, analytical thinking "outside the box", or who can create a scientific "paradigm shift". He is part of that extremely small part of the population capable of acting as a true visionary or innovative "early adopter". He might also be viewed as a "tinkerer" with a "Faustian search for knowledge". In contrast, the older brothers are more the politically correct, conformist, conventional, corporate soldier-types.

A final question might be, why is the Ash Lad character so prominent in Norwegian fairy tales as opposed to Swedish, Danish, Dutch, Anglo-Saxon, or some other Nordic (or Gothic, Indo-European, or Germanic -these terms become synonymous as one goes back further in time) folklore? The likely answer is that these other societies probably have had their versions of the Ash Lad character, but the Norwegians and Icelanders have been further removed from many modernistic cultural changes and retain more folklorish relics of bygone eras. In addition, one might venture a sociobiological explanation for why this peculiar Ash Lad character is something of a folklorish national hero in Norway. In a mountainous country such as Norway, with its extremely long coast line and fjords, where a significant proportion of its scattered inhabitants have traditionally depended on fishing in the often cold, rainy, dark, violent, and otherwise hostile North Sea, the ability to think individualistically, abstractly, and analytically about utilizing seafaring technology has been a key to bare survival. A good real life example is contained in the book "The Arctic Grail: The Quest for the Northwest Passage and The North Pole, 1818-1909" by Pierre Berton. The author describes how Norwegian explorers made exploration look surprisingly easy compared to many English explorers who died out because they showed greater pragmatism, imagination, and flexibility of mind in adapting to and overcoming harsh conditions.

Name

The name "Askeladden" is constructed. It is not present in any recorded source. His original name is in fact "Askefisen" (The ash fart). This name was regarded as too vulgar for the Norwegian upper class, hence the alteration. The term "fart" in this sense could easily mean a person who "blows" at the embers to keep the fire up. In Asbjørnsens`s first edition (1843), the name is rendered as "Askepot" (in Norway commonly associated with Cinderella), and this was later turned into "Askeladden" by Molkte Moe. Construction of a folklore theory around the name "Askeladden" is therefore a mistake.

The character is also closely related to the "Norwegian" per se in the common and quite nationalistic jokes of the three Scandinavian archetypes, the other two being the "Swede" and the "Dane". In those jokes, the Norwegian always succeeds where the others do not, in petty contests of peeing, flying or in other areas. The jokes resemble the fairy-tale pattern, and are mostly told by Norwegian children. Here, one can interpret the Norwegian as the youngest and underdog brother of the three, a parallel to the plain historical facts of Norway's position in Scandinavia.

Trivia

  • For some reason the Ash Lad is usually nicknamed "Boots"

See also

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