P.C. Asbjornsen
& Jorgen Moe,
A Time for Trolls
(Nor-Media, 1962;
Arthur Vanous, 1992)

A childhood passion pretty much assured that, when I had a chance to travel to Norway shortly after college, I already knew most of the Norse myths by heart. A mythology addict in my youth, I quickly tired of the cruel, selfish gods of Greece and Rome and instead devoured tales of their more humorous -- and, at the same time, grimmer -- Northern counterparts.

But where books about Odin, Thor and Loki were easy enough to find, A Time for Trolls offered something different: stories about the common folk, the plucky heroes who won through sheer luck and perseverance. It's a brief read -- only 82 pages -- but it's delightful all the same.

Where the English have their ubiquitous Jack and the Arabs have their Aladdin, the Norwegians have Askelad. Several of the 13 stories in this collection feature a boy of that name, which translates to "lad of the ashes" (a sort of Cinderella). And, like his counterpart Jack, he's usually a slightly dim younger son who succeeds through random good fortune more often than skill or wit.

There's also Aase the goose-girl, who would wed the Prince of England, and Rumble-Mumble Goose-Egg, an ugly, supernally strong youth with a very unfortunate name, who could battle entire armies, trolls and the devil himself without bothering to work through a single thought in his head.

Look, too, for "The Three Billikin Whiskers," an early variation of the tale best known as "The Three Billy Goats Gruff."

Most of the tales are a fun read, like "East of the Sun and West of the Moon" (one of my favorites). A few are puzzlingly drab, such as one-page fable of "The Boy and the Devil," which involves (for no apparent reason) a nut and a hammer. Some are just plain strange, like "The Cock and the Hen in the Hazelwood," which is a chronicle of sequential bartering to save the life of a choking hen. Oddly, among the woodcutter, thresher, bakeress, lime-tree, charcoal burner and other characters in the chain of trading, we find the Virgin Mary -- who stoutly refuses to help the dying fowl unless she is first given a pair of shoes.

But A Time for Trolls is an enjoyable way to pass an hour or three, absorbed by the exploits of brave sons and daughters, the witches and trolls who seek to ensnare them, and the enchanted beasts, magical weapons and mundane objects (with surprising uses) which help them to win the day.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

Buy it from Amazon.com.