My interest for storytelling in digital environments has been piqued by a smartphone application based on a traditional Norwegian folktale collected and made famous by Asbjørnsen and Moe.
”The Ashlad and the Hungry Troll” is an app in English, presented as a book composed of pictures and text, along with a narrator voice.
On the site iPhone App World, a reviewer describes the story as ” probably one of the scariest and violent children’s book I have ever came across in my life”. In another review of the app, we can read that “people used to think it was a good idea to scare the crap out of small children” and how inappropriate it is in our days.
The story illustrated in the app in about a troll defeated by a smart young boy in a contest about their strength, including squeezing water from a stone and eating enormous quantities of porridge (AT 1060-1114; see the Aarne-Thompson index of folktales). Similar stories can be found in Sámi narratives about Stállu being defeating by a young Sámi man.
How and when did this traditional tale become incorrect for children?
Is it an issue of adaptation? The dark monotone voice of an unknown man reading loud the cruel details of the competition between the boy and the troll enhances a situation quite different from oral storytelling where a narrator would adapt the pitch and tone in his voice to the audience.
Is it an issue of consumption? The app is designed in such a way that kids can ”read” it by themselves, i.e. look at the pictures and listen to the narrator. Here again, the settings are very different than when storytelling was shared in a family or a group.
Is it an issue of shift of perspective on childhood? Our modern western perspective on children has certainly changed since the early 1800s, when Asbjørnsen and Moe’s stories were collected.
Is it an issue of globalization, now that stories for Norwegian kids are to be shared by English speaking children around the world? Education and upbringing might differ to some extent between cultural contexts, but still, it would be exaggerated to assert that Norwegian kids are less sensitive to violence than for instance American kids.
All these issues can together (partly) explain these contemporary reactions to the traditional folktale of The Ashlad and the Hungry Troll. But also, we should keep in mind that our perception of tales as something for children is also different from the context in which the folktales where originally told, and later published in books. Storytelling used to be an act that involved family and/or community members from different generations. It was often a social activity that would create an atmosphere where many topics could be narrated.
This app is only one of many examples that highlight the difficulty of adaptation of storytelling. Changes are necessary in order to match the expectations and conditions of our contemporary contexts. Look at Stállu for instance: when the first Sámi author Johan Turi writes about him in 1910, Stállu is cruel, vulgar and dies in the most brutal and sometimes obscene manner. In more recent adaptation in children books, he is more pitiful than scary, and the story often ends by his unclear disappearance…