Writing this post, I discovered that a tomten (or tomte) is a mythical creature of Scandinavian folklore, similar to the English gnome. According to Wikipedia, “the tomte or nisse was believed to take care of a farmer’s home and children and protect them from misfortune, in particular at night, when the housefolk were asleep. The Swedish name tomte is derived from a place of residence and area of influence: the house lot or tomt.”
I wish I had this backdrop of information this years ago when I first read The Tomten by Swedish authorAstrid Lindgren, best known for the Pippi Longstocking series. At that time, I assumed that the Tomten creation (who also appears in Lindgren’s The Tomten and the Fox) was hers alone. But no matter; I fell in love with the book all the same.
This lyrical, rhythmic children’s read takes place in the dead of winter, in the dead of night, when everyone is sleeping except for one: the old, old Tomten, “who has seen the snow of many hundreds of winters”. He trips around the buildings of the homestead, checking in on the animals and the people. No one has ever seen him, but they know he is there.
Lindgren’s illustrations are starkly beautiful and even a wee bit haunting, just the like the winter she portrays. But they’re gentle too, and the Tomten’s red cap, which is often the only point of high colour on the page becomes a focal point of comfort for both the human and animal characters in the story as well as for the reader. The Tomten makes his rounds to those under his watch on the farm, ensuring their comfort against the cruel weather, all the while talking to them in Tomten language, “a silent little language” the animals can understand.
The height of the story arrives when the Tomten enters the house of the people, and beholds the sleeping children:
He tiptoes across to the children’s cot, and stands looking for a long time.
“If they would only wake up, then I could talk to them in Tomten language, a silent little language children can understand. But children sleep at night.”
And away goes the Tomten on his little feet. In the morning the children see his tracks, a line of tiny footprints in the snow.
This is one of my favourite moments in children’s books everywhere. Of course we want to meet all the magical, elusive creatures we encounter in our stories, but for me this page is spellbinding. The Tomten’s desire to know the children is conveyed so powerfully and yet with such restraint, both in words and image. The Tomten stands, gazing, waiting, longing; but he must leave them unfulfilled. The child reader must do this too, but when he does, it is at least with the knowledge that the desire for friendship with the Tomten is mutual.
We don’t live on a rural homestead in the middle of nowhere, but my kids have told me that they have seen Tomten tracks in the snow where we live in the city. I can tell you that I strain to see them myself, because I am unable to conceive of any protector I would rather have in and around our home.