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Tomtebobarnen : bilderbok (1910)
av Elsa Maartman Beskow
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The Little Elves of Elf Nook, translated by Sonja Bergvall.
The eponymous little elves enjoy the beauty of all four seasons in their woodland world in this classic Swedish picture-book, first published in 1910 as Tomtebobarnen. Playing with their forest friends, attending Mrs. Owl's school, helping their father and mother gather winter stores, the little elf children are out and about in the world, working and playing. When the wheel of the year brings them back to spring, they find that their family has increased, and that there is an additional little elf in their number...
There are at least four different English versions of this story, that I am aware of, beginning with the 1932 Zita Beskow translations done for Harper & brothers, Elf Children of the Woods. Then there is this, The Little Elves of Elf Nook, translated by Sonja Bergvall and first published in Stockholm in 1966. The adaptation done by American poet William Jay Smith, published as Children of the Forest in 1969, was published next, followed by Alison Sage's 1982 translation, also published as Children of the Forest. Of the three versions that I have read - this, the Zita Beskow and the Alison Sage - the Bergvall translation contained here is the first to present the story in poetry rather than prose. It may be that this reflects the format of the original, but as I do not read Swedish and have never picked up a Swedish edition, I am unable to say for sure. What is certain is that this version simply doesn't read well, with an awkward and clunky structure, and a rhyme scheme that feels forced. Consider this verse from the scene in which the elf children play with their fairy friends: "The elves are plump and chubby, the fairies light as air / They tried to play at see-saw, but oh! it wouldn't do. / The fairies were too light to succeed, though they were eight / In balancing the children who were not more than two!"
Unfortunately, the entire text is just as stilted as this, greatly detracting from my reading enjoyment. The artwork is the same as in other editions, so I couldn't really dislike the book, given my delight in Beskow's illustrations, but this is definitely not a version I would recommend. That said, I did find it interesting that the copy I read, which came to me through inter-library loan, was given by William Jay Smith to the library at Hollins University. Smith is, of course, the poet who worked on the 1969 Children of the Forest, the only English-language version of Beskow's classic (that I know about, anyway) that I have yet to read. Perhaps Smith used this version, when working upon his own? Whatever the case may be, this unexpected coincidence has left me all the more interested in picking up Smith's version...
Elf Children of the Woods, translated by Zita Beskow.
"Deep under the roots of a pine tree, in the quiet of the woods, there lives a tiny elf with his wife and children. Four chubby wee children there are, and all are dressed in huge red caps with white polka dots." So begins this classic woodland fairy-tale from renowned Swedish children's author and illustrator Elsa Beskow, for whom Sweden's Elsa Beskow Plaque, given to the best-illustrated children's books, is named. What follows is a gentle but enchanting story, in which the four "elf children of the woods" work and play throughout the seasons of the year. Friends with the squirrels, the frogs and the bats, they enjoy games in their own pine tree and at the nearby woodland pool. There are dangers in the forest as well, from the deadly snake their father kills to the ogre whose lair they frequently creep past. They must work to gather mushrooms and berries for their winter food store, and cottongrass to be made into sweaters and blankets. Games with the ethereal fairies, school with Mrs. Owl - these round out their days until winter comes, and they enjoy the beauty of the snowy world. When spring finally arrives again, it brings a rebirth of the woodland world, and an addition to the elf family...
Originally published in 1910 as Tomtebobarnen, this Swedish classic is one I first encountered through the Floris Books edition, Children of the Forest, which contains the Alison Sage translation, originally from 1982. I was therefore quite interested to see what I would think of this 1932 edition, published in New York by Harper & Brothers, and containing a translation done by Zita Beskow. Given the name of the translator, I thought at first it must be a daughter, but as Beskow only had sons (six of them!), perhaps Zita was a daughter-in-law or niece. I find it unlikely that she was no connection at all. Leaving that aside, I found this edition delightful. The story is engaging, with lots of fascinating little details about the elf family's life, and the artwork is (of course!) lovely. When I did a page-by-page comparison with Children of the Forest, I found some fascinating things. Wereas in the Sage translation the children are named at the beginning of the tale - Tom, Harriet, Sam and Daisy - they are not in the Beskow translation, and only two of them - Tommy and Katie - are named later during the course of the story. While in this edition the family are described as elves, in the Sage they are simply caled "forest people," and the term 'elf' is not used. These differences are interesting, and in the case of the elf vs. forest people contrast, no doubt indicate the fact that there is no direct English equivalent for the Swedish word (and category of being) 'tomato.' That said, these minor differences don't really effect the story and its overarching tone that significantly, unlike some more significant distinctions later on in the narrative.
The 1932 Zita Beskow translation has a number of descriptions and phrases that feel a little old-fashioned, maybe even outdated, making me wonder whether Alison Sage changed or omitted these elements, to make the tale more palatable to contemporary readers. It's tempting to think the Beskow translation, because it is older, and because it is done by a Beskow, is closer to the original, and a more accurate representation of it than the Sage. As someone with little to no Swedish however, it's impossible for me to say that this is the case with any certainty. Some of the more significant differences include tha fact that the father goes off to actively hunt the snake in the Beskow, but only fights him when he first attacks the children, in the Sage. In the Beskow the children gleefully carry the dead snake to Mr. Hedgehog, whereas in the Sage they are thinking of burying him, when Mr. Hedgehog comes along. More significantly, in the Beskow the boy elves know that one day they will have to hunt the snake, and they practice on the ants, whereas in the Sage they simply poke the ants' nest, with no commentary offered as to why they might have been doing so. When their mother comforts them afterward, in the Beskow she simply binds up their wounds, whereas in the Sage she admonishes them, telling them to "never hurt the creatures of the forest, unless they mean you harm" Where has Sage come by this admonishment? Is it in the original text, or did she add it, in order to add a salutary message to a potentially disturbing incident? If her intention is to depict the elf family as being more at peace with the woodland world, why then, in the next episode involving the ogre, does the Beskow describe the creature as "a kind old thing" that doesn't mean any real harm, when she (Sage) describes him as laughing, because he doesn't have many chances to "give someone a fright"?
These and other differences - notably, in the episode involving gathering mushrooms, the father spanks his children for picking the wrong ones in Beskow, but only gives them a talking to in Sage - make for interesting comparisons, if one has access to both versions. In the end I find both translations appealing, and am curious to see how I will react to the other two English versions with which I am familiar, The Little Elves of Elf Nook, translated by Sonja Bergvall, and Children of the Forest, adapted by William Jay Smith.
Read both Beskow books with W in one evening, starting in the bath and finishing on dry land before bed. We both found them charming, I was reminded specifically of Crowley's Little, Big. We'll see if we revisit them.
Net als bij de andere boeken van deze schrijfster is het allemaal heel schattig. De zinnen zijn op rijm en soms zitten er oude en of moeilijke woorden bij.
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Wikipedia på engelska (1)
The children of the forest live deep in the roots of an old pine tree. They collect wild mushrooms and blueberries and shelter under toadstools when it rains. They play with the squirrels and frogs, and when fall comes, they collect and prepare food to see them through the long winter, until the warm spring breeze starts to blow.
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Melvil Decimal System (DDC)839.7Literature German literature and literatures of related languages Other Germanic literatures Swedish literature
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The children of the forest work and play their way through the four seasons of the year in this translation of a classic Swedish picture-book. Whether they are see-sawing with fairies or catching a ride with bats, helping to gather mushrooms and berries or listening to their father's stories, the rhythms of the natural world drive all that they do. When a year passes and spring comes again, they find that there is a baby sibling who has enlarged their family circle...
The fourth English translation I have read of Beskow's Tomtebobarnen, originally published in Sweden in 1910, Children of the Forest (not to be confused with the Alison Sage translation of the same name) is the second, after Sonja Bergvall's 1966 The Little Elves of Elf Nook, to be presented in verse. I speculated in my review of the Bergvall that this might reflect the original form of the book, and that idea seems borne out here by the statement on the cover (and title page): "Verse and Pictures by Elsa Beskow." Whatever the case may be, I found the text here to be superior to the Bergvall version, which I thought quite awkward and stilted. The text here still leaves something to be desired, but it is an improvement. I did wonder a bit at Smith's choice, in the scene involving the children playing in the snow, to describe them as "Peter, Tim and Tommy," when one of them is clearly a girl, but leaving that aside, I didn't find much to remark upon in the text. The artwork is beautiful, as always, but I thought the reproductions here were a little drab, compared to the other three versions I have perused.
Having now read all four of the English versions of this original Swedish woodland fairy-tale that are known to me, I can say that overall I preferred the prose versions, done by Zita Beskow and Alison Sage, to the poetic ones done by Sonja Bergvall and William Jay Smith. Of the two prose versions, it is the Sage that is widely available, so I would recommend that version, unless one is intent on comparing translations, as I was. ( )