Grýla, a bad-tempered mountain troll, finds a sled hidden in the snow. She discovers that racing downhill on the ‘whizzy thing’ is a lot of fun, especially with her 13 sons there to push her back up to the top afterwards. Eventually, they too are allowed a share of the action.
A fortnight before Christmas is one of a series of picture books about the Yule Lads written and illustrated by Brian Pilkington. The stories are based on well-known figures from Icelandic folklore. The 13 Yule Lads are said to be the sons of the mountain trolls Grýla and Leppalúdi. In the run-up to Christmas, the lads take it in turns to visit the children of Iceland; they leave rewards and punishments in the shoes the children have placed on their windowsills.
Before Brian Pilkington embarked on his series, only one book had been specifically written about the Yule Lads: a popular poem by Jóhannes úr Kötlum from 1932 which describes each lad in a single verse. Pilkington’s picture books therefore rely heavily on his personal interpretation in both text and illustrations but, as he mentions in this video clip, they are also the result of months of research on Icelandic Christmas traditions and a desire to present the Yule Lads as Icelanders now see them. This title includes a handy overview of ‘Christmas in Iceland’ in the end papers, as well as an illustration and short description of Grýla, Leppalúdi and their 13 sons.
With names like Sausage Stealer, Pot Licker and Door Slammer, the Yule Lads are mischievous characters, but with a lively twinkle in their eyes. They are instantly more likeable than the malicious, menacing figures sometimes depicted in old Icelandic folklore. Grýla, their troll mother, is given a similar treatment. For generations, Icelandic children have been told that she’ll come to get them if they misbehave. And yes, she is terrible both in appearance and personality in this picture book. Pilkington presents her as a toothy hag dressed in rags, with wild hair, pointed ears and jutting-out nose. And he also refers to her hold over her 13 sons; none of them has the courage to stand up to her. But, he also makes Grýla an object of amusement. She tries to order the sled uphill as if it can hear and understand her, for example. And Miss 5, who can now count up to 100, chuckles every time we read the line “ONE! TWO!! THREE!!! (Grýla is not very bright and can’t actually count any higher.)” It is a clever way of diverting the fear some children may experience with silly humour.
The plot is simple; the comic touches and beautifully detailed illustrations in gouache and watercolour are what make this book memorable. One of my favourite moments is when Grýla forgets her bad temper as she flies down the snowy hillside on the sled she has found. Eyes wide with excitement and mouth agape, her delight is clear to see. And when the lads are finally allowed a go, the merriment continues as they attempt to ride the sled in all sorts of impossible combinations.
A fortnight before Christmas is a beautifully illustrated, well-paced story packed with snow and Christmas cheer. It is also a wonderfully light-hearted introduction to part of Icelandic folklore.
A fortnight before Christmas by Brian Pilkington (first published in 2014 by Mál og menning; this edition, 2016).
Brian Pilkington is an English-Icelandic illustrator. Originally from Liverpool, UK, he went to Iceland for one month in 1976 to visit a friend and has lived there ever since. He started his career illustrating adverts in a local paper in Liverpool. In Iceland, he worked for an ad agency until 1980 when he was asked to illustrate a book about trolls. He has since illustrated and written many more books based on Icelandic folklore.
Note: This title was not readily available through my regular channels. I bought it through Islandica a small family firm, which offers a range of authentic Icelandic products, including books.
If you’re after some further reading on the Yule Lads, here are a couple of suggestions.
A fascinating article on the origins of the Yule Lads, this also features an English translation of Jóhannes úr Kötlum’s popular 1932 poem The Yuletide Lads by Hallberg Hallmundsson. I also enjoyed this piece about Brian Pilkington’s background as an illustrator and the enjoyment and challenges of bringing the Yule Lads to life.