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Theodor Kittelsen – a Norwegian bestiary
Theodor Kittelsen was a Norwegian painter and book illustrator (1857-1914). He illustrated the Scandinavian bestiary of legend and fairy tales, and his work has scared countless children (myself included). He drew and painted trolls, the black death, sea monsters, nøkken (“water spirit”), and anthropomorphised natural phenomena such as the echo. His work can be rather subtle at times, and require a closer study to reveal the monster in the frame. I saw a lot of his paintings in an exhibition years ago, and it is a shame that all the pics on the internet does not show the frames: they are artwork in themselves.
Kittelsens’ images have defined how we see and imagine trolls for generations. What most of them have in common, is that they are very much embedded in nature: you might not see them, but they are there. On a dark and stormy night, that thing over there might not be a crooked root or a pile of rubble after all… Not all trolls are evil, some are comical, sad, or delightfully stupid.
The black death
As the story goes; In 1349 a ship arrived at Bergen, carrying the black death (via fleas). It moved across the country with the speed of ⅔ til 1½ kilometer per day, and after two years, somewhere between half and ⅔ of the population were wiped out. The country were, in effect, laid waste. Kittelsen illustrated the black death rather grimly, as anthropomorphised in the character Pesta – an old hag with a brush and a rake. She walks the country and visits every farm. If she uses the brush, everyone dies. If she uses the rake, some will survive. One of Kittelsens drawings show a farm, with a rake placed outside. The subtext is that Pesta is inside with the brush.
This image shows a husband and wife, trying to escape the black death in their community, but dying on the horseback. The horse would then go to a place it knew, and the pestilence would spread.
Nøkken is a water spirit that lives in freshwater ponds and lakes (oceans have their own special monsters). He can shape-shift, to lure people into the water, usually as a stunning, white horse, but also as a log, a pile of drift, or a person. Different stories tells different things, but once on the horse, there is no escape. The unfortunate would either drown, or be taken to beautiful green halls under the water, and be gone forever. Clearly these stories would help teach children to stay away from water, unknown people and animals; and with the added bonus of having explanations and stories for when people drowned. Kittelsens work, though, illustrates the creature beautifully, and if you have ever walked in a forest at dusk, with fog seeping around the trees, blanketing lakes… you could easily imagine and feel that it might not be so far fetched.