Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Of trolls, witches and princesses

It must have happened to all of us at one point. You lose a possession that was dear to you, something that meant just a little bit more than any of your other belongings. Or at least it feels that way when the mishap occurs. It happened to me too. In spite of (not all too frequent) bouts of decluttering, there are some things I know I would never have consciously thrown out or given away. And still they are gone, and I will have to consider them lost (lost forever, she wails).

Not all of those items held equal meaning to me (in spite of possible momentary drama) but I can still feel the tiniest bit of heart ache for some of the extra special ones. Detachment is my on-going lesson.

I must have been about 10 years old when my parents gave me a tiny book they knew their dreamy child would like. To this day I can picture everything about it, I can even recall what it felt like in my hands. It was a hardcover book, with a bottle-green linen cover, very small and flat. It contained stories about trolls, witches and princesses. Not to mention resourceful little boys. And it had some of the most magical illustrations I have ever seen.

The stories, Swedish folk tales, were charming albeit quite simple. The illustrations were what really made them come to life for me. Look at the trolls and you can tell that they are big and clumsy creatures, simple-minded and mischievous, yet not overly wicked or menacing. Just from looking at the pictures you know it can't be too difficult to outsmart a troll - which happens to be a major theme in the tales they illustrate.

My little green book contained only 5 to 6 stories, that were probably first published in Bland Tomtar och Troll (Among Gnomes and Trolls), an annual Christmas book of fairy tales. And the artist who made the images that stole my heart was John Bauer, a Swedish illustrator and painter. His work reminds me in some ways of that of Arthur Rackham and Anton Pieck (I have much-loved books with their works as well - as you would guess). But even though it hurts my national pride a tad (Pieck was Dutch), I still love Bauer's creations just that little bit more. His work transported me to a world of ancient forests, misty hills and deep dark lakes. Where you could encounter the creatures he drew so skillfully - even if they would want to make you hide behind one of those big mossy rocks.

I have often wondered why this artist and his amazing work aren't known to a wider international audience. I guess the fact that he died at a young age will have played a role in that. Although you could also reason that his tragic death added to the nostalgic, sometimes melancholy appeal of his work. Bauer was only 36 when he, his wife and their small son set out for a new life in Stockholm on the ferry Per Brahe, in November of 1918. The Per Brahe sank in a storm on lake Vättern, and all those aboard perished with it. In a bitter twist of fate the family had decided ferry travel was the safest - as there had been a severe train accident in Sweden the month before.

Only last week I ordered a copy of Swedish Folk Tales, a large book illustrated with the works of John Bauer. It arrived today. All my old stories are there - and many more that I didn't know yet. Sitting by the kitchen table and going through the book, a big strong cuppa at hand, I have been feeling almost as delighted and entranced as the little girl I was then. John Bauer's work still casts a powerful spell over me.

Of course, I still wish my little green book was somehow magically returned to me.


  1. Everyone of those would make a great album cover. Talking of which..........................?

  2. I think one of them has been used as an album cover! Re album... the gremlin has struck again!

  3. I LOVE illustrated book. I have worked as an illustrator in the past, but I'm nothing like this. These are great illustrations and I think I will order the book with the new year. So dreamy and magical. And such a sad story about the author!! maybe it adds a little more magic to everything. Now I'm going to Google John Bauer.

  4. Why am I not surprised to hear you worked as an illustrator? That really suits a creative person like you - you should put some of your work on your blog.

    It is a tragic story - an author at one point made a comment that the trolls and fairy creatures of his region didn't want him to leave them and caused the storm to make the boat sink, so they could keep him with them forever...


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