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Storytelling in Sweden

Swedish storytelling - whatīs happening here?
Nordic storytelling - and in Norway, Denmark, Finland & Estonia?
Ratatosk - a squirrel and an e-mail list
The Northern Storytelling Day - every spring equinox
World Storytelling Day - March 20th 2004

STORYTELLING IN SWEDEN is alive and growing. Like in the northern countries and everywhere on earth. I have been active in this renaissance since the mid-eighties. These pages are a subbranch of my swedish website, dedicated to my friends all over the world, and to those who want to get in contact with northern stories and storytellers.

 Polar bears are a common nuisance on swedish streets I GREW UP in the north of Sweden where men are strong and silent. I am more of the weak talkative type, so I moved south and became a storyteller. A lot has happened since then! So much that you and my fellow northerners will have to excuse me that I canīt show you the true and complete picture of whatīs going on. Below are a few glimpses, just to whet your appetite!

A small, somewhat scattered community of enthusiasts live in the beautiful city of Stockholm. I and my friends Peter Hagberg and Mats Rehnman began organizing storytelling evenings for adults in 1991 at a place we called Cric Crac Café. Mats has renewed the tradition at Stallet, the "Stable". This is a stage run by the swedish association for folk-music and dance.

In the late nineties I started a similar stage with Mikael Thomasson in Göteborg which is a more relaxed and laid-back city than our capital. We call it "Hör och Häpna" which is a common expression in swedish, meaning something like "Listen up and be Amazed!" In summer there is storytelling outdoors around a camp-fire in Slottsskogen, "The Castle Forest".

Other centers for storytelling in Sweden are Lund and of course Ljungby, where the yearly festival takes place.

Around the Ljungby storytelling festival is an organization of volunteers. There are also local groups of storytellers in Skåne and in Göteborg. We had a national network, but nowadays most contacts are informal. But in spring 2003 Ida Junker restarted "Storytelling Network East" in Stockholm. This summer they can be heard telling stories under a tree in a square in the Old Town. And since 2001 an electronic squirrel, Ratatosk, has been running madly all over the north creating a virtual network. You will see him soon below!

Among the international storytellers who inspired the first wave of storytelling in Sweden are Marcia Lane, a storyteller from New York who introduced us to the lively and witty jewish oral tradition, Larry Johnsson and Elaine Wynne from Minneapolis, both with scandinavian ancestry, who inspired many of us who love life stories, the extremely skillful french-norwegian Abbi Patrix and the lovely Vauy Naidu from India. Later, tellers like Pomme Clayton from London and the british-jamaican "storytelling-volcano" Jan Blake have become our heroines.

Special to the swedish tradition are the storytelling cafés, where everyone can tell, mostly life stories. Of course similar events happen in many places, but inspired by Göran Palm, an author who has worked a lot with autobiographical writing, these kind of evenings are sometimes very successful. For example, I have been involved in a project of collecting stories about life at the shipyards in Göteborg. It is done in an open café setting and it has been very enjoyable and fruitful.

The native people of Sweden (and the nordic countries) are the sami, known among other things for their joik-singing. I have performed together with a very good joiker, Inga Juuso from Norway. One of the swedish storytellers I really like is a retired sami priest from Jokkmokk in the far north, Johan Märak.

Some of our folklorists also have close connections with the storytelling movement. They are very proud of their archives, with unbeleivable treasures of traditional stories and local legends.

A lot happens also in schools and pre-schools. The general trend is a slow development towards more storytelling. Guides, museums and freelance professional educators are faster in rediscovering the power of stories. In swedish urban educated culture, any kind of speech is underdeveloped compared to for example in somali and north american cultures. Swedish priests are so unbeleivably boring that churches nowadays are successfully used for treating otherwise incurable cases of sleep disorders. The quality and quantity of education in speech and talking in swedish schools is also remarkably low. Ironically, the difficulties with growing groups of immigrant children with poor knowledge of swedish might help in changing that. We have to find more powerful ways of working with language! Thatīs why oral storytelling is desperately needed.

But letīs move on to our neighbouring countries!

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In Norway, storytellers are very active and some of them are very well-trained in the art of storytelling. They have a national organization, festivals, workshops and academic education in storytelling. Marit Jerstad is the pioneer of the modern storytelling in Norway. And Heidi Dahlsveen at "Fortellerkontoret" is doing a lot of good work in promoting storytelling, including having trained one of the princesses of Norway in telling fairy-tales. Many norwegian tellers are heavily influenced by the british movement and tend to work with mostly traditional material. In comparison we tell more life stories in Sweden. And of course, they have a remarkable tradition to build on, the collection of Asbjörnsen and Moe, with the world famous folktales including the Billy Goats Gruff.

In Denmark, storytellers can build on an oral tradition in adult education, inspired by Grundtvig. Nowadays they have many really good and enjoyable tellers. Some of them tell stories from the inuit (eskimo) people from Greenland. They have a truly remarkable oral tradition which demands, I think, real cultural sensitivity. These stories can not be told with a sentimental hollywood accent.

In Finland, a network of storytellers was organized by Neppe Petterson in 2002. Her friends include mainly swedish-speaking finlanders. What happens among the finnish speaking finns is still a mystery to me. But I know that finnish folkloric research has a great tradition. And you already know that Kalevala is a finnish epic, donīt you?

In Tallinn in Estonia is Piret Päär doing a great job of inspiring and organizing storytelling.

I am, by the way, 25% finnish, 25% norwegian and also I am fully swedish. Most scandinavians can understand each others languages, sometimes with great difficulties however. But finnish is a completely different language, closer to estonian and hungarian. There are a lot of interesting contacts between nordic storytellers. Since -91, there has been nordic summer workshops with participants from primarily Sweden, Norway and Denmark. This has become a remarkably self-organizing tradition.

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Ratatosk - the electric squirrel RATATOSK
Nowadays we keep in contact through an e-mail list. I and Beate Eiklid in Oslo started it two years ago. Now there are 110 subscribers. We named it after Ratatosk, the squirrel in Yggdrasil, the world tree in scandinavian mythology. He is said to carry messages or insults between a dragon gnawing at the roots and a huge eagle at the top.

Through Ratatosk you can reach many of the active storytellers and organizers in Scandinavia. Everyone on the list understands english, so if you can read this, you can use the list.

If you have read this far, you really must be interested in storytelling in Sweden and the northern countries. If so, you might also be interested in participating in the yearly northern storytelling day on spring equinox. No you donīt have to travel here, and you wonīt have to learn swedish. The idea is similar to the US "tellabration", everyone does something where they live. It can be small or big, as long as it is storytelling anyone can join. We will publish a list of all events. You can use it as an inspiration and in marketing. There is also a
painting by Mats Rehnman which can be used in connection with this. Please note that any other use of this artwork is strictly forbidden.

We sometimes agree upon certain stories which we can use if we want to. This year some of us will tell "The Death of Balder" from the northern mythology which the icelander Snorre Sturlasson saved for all of us to enjoy. Last year it was "Nail Soup", which is the only story so far in the story archive. But it includes a wonderful version from Estonia by Piret Päär. Or is Nail Soup perhaps a variant of the estonian story? Or is it originally russian? Please donīt bother, just tell your own version!

Perhaps the Northern Storytelling Day will join the World in 2004. Because since spring 2003, storytellers all over the world have been discussing a new World Storytelling Day. If you want to join in the fun, please get in contact with me!
Read more!

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"Swedish storytelling" is also for some obscure reason, the name of an exercise from the improvisational theatre tradition. You come up with a big thing, a small thing, and something alive. Then you tell a story incorporating these three things. So now you can tell swedish stories without having to learn the language!

Ulf Ärnström
updated July 2003
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