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Thursday, May 19, 2022

Cardamom Town ‘bad’ for children

Just as Norway finished marking the centennial of one of its leading children’s authors comes news that some of his work may actually be “dangerous.” The claim against Thorbjørn Egner’s make-believe town known as Kardemomme by has stirred both objections and support.

Cardemom Town, recreated here adjacent to the Kristiansand Zoo, has for years been portrayed as an idyllic, fantasy town for children, but now a Swedish author has claimed it's a dangerous place. PHOTO: Kristiansandsdyreparken
Cardamom Town, recreated here adjacent to the Kristiansand Zoo, has for years been portrayed as an idyllic, fantasy town for children, but now a Swedish author has claimed it’s a dangerous place. PHOTO: Kristiansands Dyrepark

In Egner’s much-loved story and play from 1955, whose full title is “When the Robbers came to Cardamom Town” (Folk og røvere i Kardemomme by), three robbers come to a peaceful little fantasy town where everyone is kind, and where the only law is “One shall not bother others, one shall be nice and kind, otherwise one may do as one pleases.”

This already set alarm bells ringing for Swedish director Sofia Jupither, who was in the audience at a recent performance at Oslo’s National Theatre and seeing the play for the first time with her young son. The law reminded her of slogans used by right-wing extremists in Sweden, such as: “Look after yourself, and don’t care less about anyone else.” She was troubled by the play’s underlying message, which she believes is harmful for children, and provoked her into writing a commentary for newspaper Aftenposten.

Jupither expected that the three rebellious robbers, who have a kind of childlike mischievous spirit, would come into the town and turn it upside down and make the audience roar with laughter. Instead they kidnap the town’s industrious housewife, Aunt Sophia, and take her back to their chaotic house so that she can tidy it up. But instead of being cross about this, Aunt Sophia hums while she happily cleans, and is content with a flower as her only reward. She reforms the robbers into becoming clean and tidy, joining society and going on to perform heroic deeds.

The underlying message, Jupither writes, is that “society functions best when everyone is the same, everyone is happy, and otherwise take care of themselves. The greatest misfortune is to be different and not belong to a homogenous group.”

She thinks that although adults can see that the play is dated (particularly the message that men cannot clean up or look after themselves and that women are happy to arrange everything for them), to children it is a new and idyllic world that is desirable and implanted in their subconscious. It does not equip them, she claims, to become part of a multicultural world with sexual equality.

Stirred up a storm
Her article has predictably stirred up strong reaction, as generations of Norwegians have grown up with Thorbjørn Egner’s plays and stories and they are a core part of Norwegian childhood.

Egner’s biographer, Anders Heger, is surprised that a director sees children’s theatre as an arena for propaganda, and that she is blind to the positive messages in the play, such as “inclusion, tolerance and community spirit.” He also says that there is nothing new about the criticism, and that many came up with similar attacks on Egner in the 1970s.

Trond Berg Eriksen, a professor in the history of ideas, believes that Jupither’s reaction is “typically Swedish” in its political correctness. “Why shouldn’t we laugh at these old-fashioned views of women and foreigners today? What about women’s roles in fairy tales?” he asks. Swedish childrens’ author Ulf Nilsson defends the play, and told Aftenposten that it is “a journey back to the age of our grandmothers, and worth a great deal.”

Others, such as the director at the National Theatre, Hanne Tømta, welcome the debate, and think that it’s good to get a fresh outsider’s view on something that is such a big part of the culture in Norway.

A new biography of author Thorbjørn Egner was published last year in connection with the 100th anniversary of his birth. PHOTO: Cappelen Damm
The late Thorbjørn Egner wrote his biography in 1995 and a new one was published last year in connection with the 100th anniversary of his birth. PHOTO: Cappelen Damm

Iconic Egner
The late author Egner was born on December 12, 1912, and his centenary was celebrated throughout last year. He was a children’s author, illustrator, radio broadcaster, scenographer, dramatist and composer whose songs and stories are a huge part of Norwegian childhood.

He is most famous for creating the  tooth trolls Karius and Baktus, who already have scared generations of children into brushing their teeth, as well as the make-believe worlds of Kardemomme by and the forest known as Hakkebakkeskogen.

Egner grew up in the working-class district of Kampen on Oslo’s east side. The block where he lived was full of shops at street level, such as bakeries, milk vendors, cobblers, glassmakers, and the grocers, which was owned by his parents. They often gave him sweets to keep him out of the busy shop, and as a child he was a frequent visitor to the dentist, according to his memoirs.

When he had children himself, and had managed to curb his sweet tooth, Egner invented Karius and Baktus (in 1949), partly for fun, but also as a reminder to himself and his family to brush their teeth.

In the story, which has also been turned into a musical, two tiny trolls make their home in the teeth of a young boy called Jens, who is very fond of sweets. They hack and hammer away at his teeth giving him terrible toothache. Finally he visits the dentist who fills in their little cavity houses, and they ended up being washed out of his mouth with a toothbrush.

The play has been translated into over 20 languages, most recently Urdu and Somali, as reported by newspaper Dagsavisen.

Karius and Baktus, like most of Egner’s characters and songs, started life on the radio. Egner presented a “children’s hour” (Barnetimen) for many years, as well as a “painting club” (“Malerklubben“) where he broadcast colourful and eventful songs, such as “The Animals in Africa” (“Dyrene i Afrika“), and encouraged young listeners to send in their illustratations of them.

Egner’s most famous story is the one about Cardamom Town, also converted into a musical. It was inspired by Egner’s extended study trip with his family, all armed with sketchbooks, around Europe and Morocco in the 1940s. It bears a particular resemblance to the ancient walled Moroccan coastal town of Essaouira, according to a recent travel article in newspaper Aftenposten.

In “The Animals of Hakkebakke Forest” (“Klatremus og de andre dyrene i Hakkebakkeskogen“, 1953), the animals come up with a law for “all the animals to be friends and not eat each other”, after the hungry fox has been trying to eat the mice. In the end the fox is converted to vegetarianism, and the animals discover that they can solve their problems better when they work together.

Egner drew a lot of his inspiration, and dialogue, from working at home, in a house that was always full of children. His make-believe worlds have sometimes been seen as poetic reflections of Norwegian post-war society, which stressed tolerance and team spirit. In a recent biography, author Anders Heger called Egner a “nation builder” and creator of social democratic utopias where class differences are done away with and everyone, both little mice and big foxes, have equal say and equal worth in the society.

Egner spent 25 years on his biggest project, writing school textbooks for children. It was a labour of love, and a huge disappointment to him that they ended up not being included in the Norwegian school curriculum.

Egner wrote a couple of books for adults, as well as over 30 children’s books. He translated ‘Winnie the Pooh’ into Norwegian, giving the bear the name ‘Ole Brumm’.

Egner wrote in his memoirs that authors who created plays and stories for children were especially privileged because “we are allowed to use our fantasy almost without restriction, we have the world’s most faithful readers and best theatre audience, who live spontaneously in the world of fantasy, and genuinely like what they like.” He also said it was important not to abuse this trust, to write naturally and be oneself, and to convey positive things.

Views and News from Norway/Elizabeth Lindsay

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