New book elevates Sámi folk tales

Efraim Pedersen’s stories published in Norwegian

sami

Photo: Ørjan Marakatt Bertelsen / NTB
Efraim Pedersen’s great-great-grandson Emil Kárlsen, a prominent Sámi musician and actor, and other descendants have written the foreword to the book De døde kommer til bryllup.

Gitte Johannessen
NTB

The Sámi storytelling tradition should be lifted up and equated with the old Norwegian folk tales, say descendants of the Sámi storyteller Efraim Pedersen.

Pedersen, considered one of the three big names in early Sámi literature, is only now being published in his own book. De døde kommer til bryllup: Samiske fortellinger (The dead come to weddings: Sámi stories), was published on Feb. 2, ahead of Sámi national day on Feb. 6.

The descendants, great-great-grandson Emil Kárlsen, great-granddaughter Camilla Therese Karlsen, and his now deceased granddaughter Elna Lovise Karlsen, write in the foreword:

“For a long time, learning about Asbjørnsen and Moe, who traveled around and collected Norwegian folk tales, has been part of the curriculum in Norwegian schools. Unfortunately, our greatest collector of Sámi folk tales has not become as well known, nor has he ended up on the school curriculum. Perhaps Just Qvigstad’s Lappiske sagn og eventyr (Lappish legends and folk tales) should also end up there, and in that way we equalize the importance of Sámi and Norwegian storytelling traditions in our vast country.”

Preferred over Disney

It was Qvigstad (1853-1957), folklorist and Sámi language researcher, who wrote down Efraim Pedersen’s stories and published them with other stories or narratives, intended for research colleagues.

The same stories that his great-great-grandson, the award-winning multi-artist Emil Kárlsen, chose to hear rather than stories from Disney and Bokklubben, when his grandmother read folk tales to him as a child.

“I was captivated by the fluid border between the near world and the magical, and all the surreal and epic, which in turn took place in places whose names we still know. As children, you got the impression that this had happened here–and in places we recognized the names of. Of course, it will be exciting when you hear that there lives an eahpáraš, the spirit of a dead, newborn child longing for peace, in the waterfall just a few kilometers from you!” he said.

Recognizable

Emil Kárlsen says the stories also have a very current focus on treading carefully in nature, something that has been–and still is–important in Sámi culture: That you are only guests on earth.

“There is no finger pointing in the stories, but the message still shines through,” says the actor and artist, who says he recognizes himself in his diverse, articulate, and slightly restless great-great-grandfather.

This fall, Emil Kárlsen can be seen in one of the main roles in the star-studded TV dramatization of Mikael Niemi’s best-selling crime novel “Koke bjørn,” which Disney+ is behind. He believes that his ancestor’s stories would also have been suitable for film adaptation, but adds:

“We have to take one step at a time. The fact that the stories come out in a book, in a new language format, and for a new audience, is a good start.”

Lack of interest

The author and religious historian Brita Pollan is the editor for the publication. She came across Efraim Pedersen’s stories for the first time 40 years ago and never forgot them–they were so different and fascinating.

For one, dreams are important in many of the stories, originally told and written down in Sámi between 1882 and 1927. It is in dreams that the dead make contact with the living, often to convey a message.

“The free imagination that Efraim Pedersen unfolds can be seen today in parts of popular culture, such as the fantasy genre,” says Pollan, who contacted the publisher Aschehoug with the plan for the book after meeting Emil Kárlsen at a concert.

She believes it says something about Norwegians’ lack of interest in Sámi culture that it took more than 100 years before the works of his two more famous, contemporary Sámi author colleagues, Johan Turi and Anders Larsen, also born in the middle of the 19th century, became widely available.

Important source

Now the same is happening with the stories that Efraim Pedersen told.

“About time,” notes Pollan.

“They are a door that open up to knowledge about Sámi culture, which Norwegians know little about. We live with an Indigenous population that has its own culture. Now there are new sources for Norwegian speakers,” she says, and describes Pedersen’s stories as well-told and fun to read.

She believes the publication will highlight “his natural place” in early Sámi literary history.

“At the same time, they are a source of Sámi experiences and interpretation of reality, a different way of experiencing life than one finds in a Norwegian context.”

This article originally appeared in the March 2024 issue of The Norwegian American.

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