Bengt Holbek, Interpretation of Fairy Tales. Danish Folklore in a European Perspective. Folklore Fellows’ Communications No. 239. Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia (Academia Scientiarum Fennica), 660 pp. 1987. (2nd printing 1998).

Soft (ISBN 951-41-0786-1), FIM 270,-

Available at the TIEDEKIRJA bookstore, Kirkkokatu 14, FIN-00170 Helsinki, Finland (fax: +358 9 635017; e-mail:

BENGT HOLBEK (1933-1992), Doctor of Philosophy and Senior Lecturer in Folkloristics at the University of Copenhagen passed away on August 27, 1992 at his desk. His death came unexpectedly and sent shock waves all over the world of folklorists, where he had so many friends and practically no enemies.

Bengt Holbek was largely a self-made folklorist who did not choose any of the well-trodden paths of folklore theory. Although he was not a fieldworker, he developed a fine sense for the actual meaning behind the folklore text and he always looked upon the social context as an important factor in the analysis. His article “Games of the Powerless” is an example of how a non-Marxist can apply the tenets of a socio-historical interpretation of folklore in a superb way. Bengt Holbek was never an orthodox proponent of any psychoanalytic approach to folklore, yet his textually well-based argumentations about the actual symbolism in fairytales came close to converting even staunch opponents to psychoanalytic thinking.

For Bengt Holbek, fairytales were born in people’s hearts on the basis of their life experience and they always meant something special. A storyteller or singer saw different things in the same tale or song in the different stages of his/her life. The stability of folklore was thus questionable at this level. Every performance had a grain of novelty, every tale or song had, in a way, to be composed anew. Mere memorization was not enough. Yet folklore had the power of a weighty form: simple truths repeating themselves in the social life of many generations became reinvented over and over again and clad by a performing individual into expressions which carried the weight of world-knowledge and wisdom with them. It was the capability of the “folk” to create its own culture for its self-expression which fascinated Bengt Holbek.

(FFN 17, June 1999: 27)

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