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Nordiska väsen Johan Egerkrans, Nordiska väsen (Nordic Wraiths)

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.

Other reviews by Agnes Broome

Other reviews in SBR 2014:1

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