Fairy tales updated

30 December 2008 | Authors, Reviews

Jukka Itkonen

Jukka Itkonen. Photo: Irmeli Jung.

Päivi Heikkilä-Halttunen on Jukka Itkonen’s quirky fables

In Jukka Itkonen’s collection of fables for children, Sorsa norsun räätälinä (‘The mallard as tailor to the elephant’, Otava, 2008) the plots and heroes of traditional fairy tales are turned on their heads. This kind of parody drawing on old-time folktales has been introduced to Finnish readers by translations of the British author Babette Cole and her feminist-flavoured picture books.

‘The fox and the bear’ reinterprets the folktale of the same name. For generations of children it has explained why the king of the forest today has only a stub of a tail left: the cunning fox tricks the trusting bear to fish in a hole in the ice, using his handsome tail as bait, and the tail of course freezes to the ice, with fateful results. Jukka Itkonen’s version leads to the same tail docking, but the story also plays with Finnish men’s experiences of cosmic solitude, including details from the particulars of ice fishing to today’s world of cars and fire engines.

With their piquant and sometimes wildly inventive details, Itkonen’s tales also allude to media phenomena of present-day Finland and to certain public figures loved by the tabloids. The characters favour karaoke and Eurovision songs along with the music of Jean Sibelius and, in ‘Maiden in the tower’, the heroes Pekka and Paavo even meet the composer himself. For her illustrations Christel Rönns selects duly crazy details from the stories.

In the traditional Finnish folktale, a mouse serves as tailor to a cat who places an order for a coat, but the mouse uses up all the material, finally producing just a small purse – and so the annoyed cat devours his good-for-nothing tailor. In Itkonen’s version, an elephant wishes to remember his dear late wife by having a purse made out of her hide but, incapable of producing this item, the mallard tailor finally pulls off a hot air balloon, and the elephant, soaring up in the sky, is more than delighted.

Jukka Itkonen (born 1951) is best known for his children’s poetry. Itkonen has written the lyrics for more than 700 songs for entertainment artists and many of his children’s poems have been set to music. The name of his band, Z. Z. Topelius, pays homage to Zacharias Topelius, the 19th-century father of Finnish children’s literature. Itkonen also translates children’s literature into Finnish.

Jukka Itkonen reinvents the fable tradition, at times writing fairy tales and poems set in the animals’ natural habitats with factually correct material and, at other times, human character studies reminiscent of Aesop’s fables. Readers find a carefully thought out philosophy of life within and between Itkonen’s lines. He approaches matters with a naïve sense of wonder, like a child. To him, nothing is too trivial to merit thorough marvelling.

(First published in Books from Finland 4/2008.)

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