The Types of the Swedish Folk Legend (FF Communications 300)

By Bengt af Klintberg. 2010. Helsinki: Academia Scientiarum Fennica/Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia. 501 pages.


Reviewed by William Hansen, Indiana University

[Review length: 852 words • Review posted on November 28, 2012]


In 1962 a committee set up by the International Society for Folk Narrative Research met to discuss the problem of defining and classifying folk legends. The second revised edition of Antti Aarne’s and Stith Thompson’s The Types of the Folktale (1961) had just appeared, and the big question was whether it was possible to create for the legend a type index of the sort that had been made for the folktale. One member of the committee, Carl-Herman Tillhagen, presented a model for the classification of legends based upon the Swedish materials, although several committee-members such as Linda Dégh held that the loose structure of legends as well as their processual character made them ill-suited to classification by type. Tillhagen turned over to his student, Bengt af Klintberg, the task of refining his model, and in 1964 the Swedish legend catalogue became the topic of af Klintberg’s doctoral dissertation at Stockholm University. The young scholar worked on it for four years but did not manage to finish it, whereupon he went on to other projects and wrote other books. In 2007 he returned to his earlier project and after three additional years of work completed the present book, The Types of the Swedish Folk Legend, which draws upon some 150 published works and thousands of unpublished texts and excerpts in Swedish folklore archives.

The title of the work indicates its scope. “Type” refers of course to a traditional narrative plot that is found in a number of texts, suggesting a genetic relationship; af Klintberg, following Tillhagen, restricts himself to narratives that have a fixed plot (thereby excluding loosely-structured narratives) and are documented in more than one variant (and so excluding memorates). By “Swedish” the author means that he limits himself to texts in the Swedish language. “Folk” refers here to the population of pre-industrial Sweden, which for the most part consisted of farmers dwelling in villages. The time-span stretches from around the sixteenth century, when Sweden converted from Catholicism to Protestantism, to the first half of the twentieth century. The author does not take in legends of our own time such as contemporary legends, which he says deserve their own index. As for “legend” itself, af Klintberg has in mind a genre of narrative that is linked closely to collective beliefs, one that consists mostly of mono-episodic stories characterized by stylistic devices aimed at making them believable, such as a setting in historical time and in known places. He regards it as futile to draw a sharp borderline between the legend and related genres such as the folktale (around a hundred of his legend types appear also as tale types in ATU) and the anecdote, and does not attempt to do so. Within the category of legend the author avoids making further generic distinctions, merely grouping the so-called “mythical legends” together in the initial sections (A-Q) of his index and the others in the later sections (R-Z). The former category features supernatural and other fantastic motifs (fate, miracles, the dead, spirits, giants, trolls, witches, and the like), while the latter emphasizes natural motifs (plagues, churches, treasures, wars, crime, etc.).

Each of the twenty-four alphabetic sections focuses upon a single topic such as “Death and the dead,” “Human transformations,” and “Treasures.” Brief introductions orient the reader to recurrent themes within the topic or helpfully explain peculiarities of Swedish folk belief and folk terminology. The individual entries each give a summary of a particular legend plot, an indication of its distribution within Sweden and Swedish Finland, a list of sources, and references to published literature, including other type indices.

For example, the introduction to section P, “Tools of Witches and Sorcerers,” mentions the belief that witches were able to create and give life to a milk-stealing creature. This creature had different names in different parts of the country; in southwestern Sweden the usual name was mjölkhare, or milk-hare. The witch sent her creature to suckle her neighbors’ cows, and after it had filled itself with milk, it would return and vomit the milk into the witch’s casks. One of the legends on this theme is “P22 Blood in the butter,” the plot of which is as follows: “An old woman sells much butter although she has only one cow. The buyer suspects her of having a milk-stealing creature and cuts in the butter with a knife, forged from nine points of steel tools (forged during three Maundy Thursdays). A stripe of blood is seen in the butter.” Not all of the stories are so serious. For example, “T104 the first bicyclist,” is glossed as follows: “An old woman sees for the first time a bicyclist who is smoking a cigar. She thinks it is the Devil riding on a spinning wheel.”

af Klintberg’s book is rich with clearly-written and well-organized information, the fruit of an immense amount of labor as well as of folk-narrative experience now extending over many years. His introductions and plot-summaries are so fascinating that I found myself reading them for sheer pleasure. The volume provides a wonderful glimpse into the narrative arts and worldview of pre-industrial Sweden.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2010. Last revised June 21, 2010.