An Enduring Gift to the Young Reader: James Fenimore Cooper’s Works in Illustrerte Klassikere, Norway 1954-1976

Signe O. Wegener (University of Georgia)

Presented at the Cooper and Children’s/Young Adult Literature Panel of the 2015 Conference of the American Literature Association in Boston, Mass.

Copyright © 2015, James Fenimore Cooper Society.

Originally published in the James Fenimore Cooper Society Journal Fall, 2015, pp. 14-17.

[May be reproduced for instructional use by individuals or institutions; commercial use prohibited.]

And all the romance, retold

Exactly in the ancient way

Can please, as me they pleased of old


Kingston, or Ballantyne the brave,

Or Cooper, of the wood and wave,

(Robert Louis Stevenson, Treasure Island, 1883)

Until my dissertation director, Dr. Philip Beidler, suggested I “do Cooper” for my doctoral orals, Cooper had not figured prominently in my reading for decades. Yet there he was, nevertheless — I had, at a young age, succumbed to the lure of the Leatherstocking Tales, imbibing tales of Indian wars, perilous chase scenes, forests, and woodcraft. Like many of my contemporaries, I had proved the truth that Cooper’s works “were ideally suited for young readers.”

However, my early familiarity with the Leatherstocking Tales did not come from actually reading the full Cooper texts. Instead, it came from an eager study of these texts as presented not only in various “youth editions,” but most importantly in the very popular series Illustrerte Klassikere AA 1 (Classics Illustrated) . This series, which appeared on the Norwegian comic-book scene Nov. 1, 1954, promised “Berømte bøker og hendelser på en ny og morsom måte” (Famous books and events in a new and fun way). It was the brainchild of the American Albert Kanter, counted 169 issues, and was published in the US 1941-1971. Kanter’s was a new medium to introduce young, reluctant, and male readers to “great literature.” 2 And, to gladden every Cooper aficionado’s heart, Cooper was represented in Illustrerte Klassikere with a significant number of titles: all the Leatherstocking Tales and also The Spy, The Pilot, and The Red Rover. James Fenimore Cooper came in as number three in author frequency, outnumbered only by Jules Verne (ten titles) and Alexandre Dumas (nine titles). He was followed by Robert Louis Stevenson and Mark Twain. In fact, Hjortedreper (The Deerslayer) was, in Norway, the series’ opening volume. In the US, this honor was given to Dumas’ Three Musketeers. The Cooper books saw multiple editions, which testify to their enduring popularity and potential market value.

Over its two decades’ run, Illustrerte Klassikere were published by three different publishing companies. The initial 1954 publisher was Serieforlaget, later Se-Bladene A/S, a Stavanger company that specialized in the very popular tegneserier. The company released ten volumes of Illustrerte Klassikere ; the 8 first were also re-issued. In 1957, Illustrerte Klassikere , now printed and distributed by Illustrerte Klassikere A/S , in Fredrikstad, became part of a European series. Before it was bought by Williams Forlag in 1967, Illustrerte Klassikere A/S had released issues 11-184. Williams Forlag in the period 1967-1976 released issues 185-221. In total, 350 issues, including second and more printings, plus nineteen special editions appeared over the twenty-two years of publication. They appeared quarterly, and the original price was 1.50 NOK — about twenty cents — a magazine. The price increased to 1.75 in 1965.

The cover art changed with the companies-and are often also different from the American versions. Sebladene’s two first editions, in 1954 and 1956 respectively, have the same cover, depicting a frontiersman facing a trio of Native Americans. But on the later ones, published by Illustrerte Klassikere A/S , Natty is in Lincoln green à la Robin Hood, and equipped with a very odd hat with a feather. In addition, he is tied to a totem pole! Despite the obvious confusion about Native American practices, this is not as bad as an early twentieth-century Danish book cover that has palms and pyramids! The second Hjortedreper cover was used in the 1959, 1962, and 1963 editions.

Because of their prominent position within the series, Cooper’s works played a leading role, fascinating an audience already fixated on the American west through other series and movies. The texts provided fast-paced action and interesting wood skills. They also fueled an interest in further reading. And Natty Bumppo and Chingachgook, with their honesty and integrity, their sense of duty and their discipline, provided formidable role models for any time.

All the Leatherstocking Tales, and also The Spy, saw two or more editions. Hjortedreper, in fact, as mentioned above, saw a total of five, albeit from two different publishers. Prærien (The Prairie), the second work to be printed (as no. 27) appeared in 1957 and was reprinted in 1967. Stifinneren (The Pathfinder) was number three on the Norwegian market (no. 62), and was published in 1959 and 1970 respectively. As number four (no. 70 in the series) came Pionerene (The Pioneers), published in 1959 and 1965. Last, but not least, came no. 75, Den Siste Mohikaner (The Last of the Mohicans ), which reached a rapt audience in 1959, 1961, and l966. The latter work became part of popular Norwegian culture, giving birth to Arne Bendiksen’s hit song “Den Siste Mohikaner “ which ruled the airwaves in the 1960s. Other Cooper titles were also popular: Spionen (The Spy, no. 46) saw three printings, in 1958, 1963, and 1968, and a fourth printing was projected but never realized in 1969. Losen (The Pilot , no. 93) and Den Røde Pirat (The Red Rover, no. 186) each had only one printing, Losen in 1960 and Den Røde Pirat in 1967, but a second printing of Losen was projected in 1966. And even when the publisher discontinued the series, its many readers remembered it fondly.

Twenty-first century critics and translators alike seem uncomprehending to the Illustrerte Klassikere phenomenon, especially when the fancy collectors’ albums—nicely bound and printed on quality paper and with through introductions—arrived courtesy of the Egmont Forlag. Øyvind Holen, in his series 2013 Øyvinds Julekalender, (Øyvind’s Christmas Calendar,) in Bergens Tidende, launches a no-holds-barred attack on the reissued series, even chastising the buyers. Comparing the works to the contemporary world of comics and graphic novels, which strikes a balance between image and text, he writes, “You must have a passionate relationship to the series from before to have even the least enjoyment out of this, and even then you ought to have a strong stomach to expose yourself to this as an adult” (Holen). Furthermore, “some artistic experiences ought to remain in childhood, and chances are that revisiting them is a big downturn” (Holen). 3 The translator Torstein Bugge Høverstad, responsible for the Norwegian versions of the Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter series, in his essay “Illustrerte eller barberte klassikere” (“Illustrated or shaved classics”) denounces the works as well, opining that compared to full-length works, the depth disappears, so that “What remains are just some faces seen so close that you almost see the warts, or some stick-figures at far too large a distance. The story, at best a list of key words” (Høverstad). Leif Ekle, of Norway Broadcasting Corporation, Program 2 (NRK P2) comments that “considered as tegneserier, they were rather primitive, first and foremost based on textually simplified synopses, augmented by illustrations, where the dialogue often became indistinct” (Ekle). Of course, the critics in no way single out Cooper’s texts; it is more a wholesale denouncing of the series. Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield, for example, was full of factual mistakes, and important points disappeared.

Yet the above critics clearly miss the point — their problem being that they approach Illustrerte Klassikere as sophisticated adults, not as the unsophisticated, reading-reluctant target audience.

Still, the original magazines were a phenomenal success. And their readership was nongendered, and not limited to a specific age group. One early reader, a girl named Ingun, one of the many people interviewed for Kristin von Hirsch’s work Barndom: 50-tallet (Childhood: the 50s ) (2007), states, “Illustrerte Klassikere were quite fantastic. The boy next-door had cartons full, and I was allowed in to read. ... What happiness!” (von Hirsch 92). I inherited my cousin Ole’s magazines, and can just echo Ingun — what joy! A Larvik reader comments that even people that had read the books themselves, found that the series in “no way shamed the original versions” (Larvikinaerfortid).

But what caused this success? Why bother with comic book-versions at all? First and foremost, comic books — egneserier — were extremely popular and extremely profitable. In 1954, the various serial magazines on the Norwegian market sold between ten and fifteen million copies — an astonishing number considering Norway’s total population at the time was less than four million and the economy had not recovered from the Depression and the Second World War. In addition, the various weekly magazines, aimed at family entertainment, which also appeared in large printings, all had comic strips. In fact, the Norwegians’ voracious appetite for weekly magazines and tegneserier was a growing concern for educators and politicians alike. In 1953, in the Storting, the national assembly, there was intense indignation over all the “trash” these weekly publications presented. At the time, when the country was being rebuilt, the education and improvement of the masses — and especially the children — took center stage, and the politicians believed the contents in these magazines and comics with their unrealistic content were undermining this effort. 4 This sounds eerily similar to the argument of Fredric Wertham’s infamous 1954 condemnation of U. S comic books, Seduction of the Innocent, which ultimately led to the voluntary establishment of the Comic Code Authority in the United States in 1954. Only two publications avoided criticism in the Storting. One was the ladies magazine Urd and the second was Magasinet for Alle (The Magazine for Everybody) (von Hirsch 91). Both publications were moribund. Urd, named for one of the Norns of Norse mythology and a rather high-brow, cultural publication started in 1897, and aimed at the “polite part” of the middle and upper classes, folded in 1958. Magasinet for Alle (The Magazine for Everybody), which had started its life in 1927 as Arbeidermagasinet (The Workman’s Magazine), “an unpolitical magazine for the entertainment of the working classes” — all its founders belonged to the communist party — would fold in 1972. 5 All but one of the other popular magazines, several of them from the late 1800s and early 1900s, still survive. So much for political approval!

Tegneserier, also weekly publications, were of even more concern, in part, I think, because they too represented a veritable American tsunami overwhelming Norwegian culture. Spø:k og Spenning, which had begun in 1941 and would discontinue in 1954, presented various American series of high artistic quality, such as Prince Valiant. However, by far the most popular were the American newcomers, Skippern (Popeye, 1947-59), Donald Duck (1948-), and Fantomet (The Phantom, 1949-), Lyn Gordon (Flash Gordon, 1952-1982), Supermann (1952-91), and Lynvingen (Batman, 1953-87). But what really primed the pump for the popularity of Cooper’s stories were, ironically the first “spaghetti westerns,” various series translated from Italian, like Vill Vest (1953-1979) and Texas (1953-79) — long before Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name . Although the Norwegian Western-fixation in no way compares to what people experienced in Germany, where “Das Western-Hobby “ drew in young and old alike, it enthralled young readers. For, states Bente (born 1947), “Cowboys and Indians were always the most fun. Everything that had to do with this was the best” (quoted in Hirsch 93). And the biggest draw was that all of this came from America: movies — children consumed a steady diet of westerns with heroes like Roy Rogers, the Lone Ranger, Buffalo Bill, and others — chewing gum, fancy toys. It was all one. It was all good. And everything was Wild West — including the Leatherstocking Tales!

But Illustrerte Klassikere not only satisfied juvenile cravings for America and the American Wild West, they also satisfied parents’ and grandparents’ desire to make the younger generation, especially boys, read something not merely for entertainment. This was no easy task. For many, school work was bad enough, and “to throw oneself into the unwelcome page-filled classics” was not easy for restless boys who found it hard to sit still, especially to read a book (Larvikinaerfortid). And what they wanted them to read and interact with were the classics, books they themselves knew. Among these were works by Cooper, Verne, Stevenson, Dumas, and Twain, still popular in the middle of the twentieth century. The librarian Morten Haugen, discussing the importance of Illustrerte Klassikere in “Gutteromaner I eksotiske strøk” in 2012 makes this conservative intent clear: seventy-six percent of the works adapted were from the 1800s, fifty percent from the period 1850-1900. Only thirteen percent came from the period after 1900. In addition, as Torben Weinreich points out, in Kulört historie-krig og Kultur I moderne medier, sixty-five percent of the works were English-language texts (barnasforfatterleksikon). Yet despite the age and lack of sophistication in many of these adaptations, they, as a blogger in Larviks Tidende stated, “opened a child’s mind closed to literature for something new and exciting” (Larvikinaerfortid 2009).

The Cooper issues of Illustrerte Klassikere thus benefited from two different impulses: the parental/grandparental desire for works with lasting value — and the child’s desire for excitement and control of one’s own life. The “childhood reading expert” Finn Barlby comments that “One of the explanations as to why the classics continue to catch the interest, is that they on a physical and metaphorical level deal with becoming king in one’s own life” (quoted in Haugen, “Gutteromaner”). “The texts present an imaginary world where social and ethnic roles emerge fully defined, and the right to define them rests with the upper classes. Also important: the classics presented a pre-Freudian world without sexual drive, envy, and other urges we today expect to find in a book” (Haugen). They were, in other words, “wholesome reading” and did not need discussion of topics parents wanted to avoid. Another impulse was the child’s indoctrination of and desire for scenarios familiar from magazines like Vill Vest and Texas and the many western movies shown in afternoon matinees. As Jón Sveinbjørn Jónsson comments in his review of the first volume of Illustrerte Klassikere’s collectors’ edition, of course headed by Hjortedreper, “the innocent and very action-saturated story” was a reminder of the other western magazines. For publishers, parents, and readers alike, it was a win-win situation, especially as the magazines encouraged readers not to miss any copies, and also to purchase albums to store their collection. Children also traded and even established their own lending libraries to spread the joy. And most of the magazines were read to pieces, which recently led to a 1963 copy of Hjortedreper sold for five hundred NKR (about eighty-five dollars) due to scarcity.

Furthermore, Cooper’s tales were not only read: they lent themselves admirably to play. One of my former colleagues, upon hearing I was writing about James Fenimore Cooper, immediately began reminiscing about a childhood playing Natty and Chingachgook among the hills, woods, and lakes on the outskirts of town. The socalled “Vannassen” — the water authority’s reservoir — made, of course, an excellent Lake Glimmerglass due to the woods surrounding it. Tunnels left behind by the German forces served as the caves where Natty and company hide in The Last of the Mohicans, and so on. In fact, the possibilities were seemingly endless. “Wilderness areas” were relatively near, whether in town or in the suburbs, reachable either on foot or via a quick bike ride. Add to this that as long as children came home for dinner, there was ample time for re-enactments of scenes from books. Strangely enough, I cannot remember anybody actually getting seriously hurt, even when our play took us along narrow “mountain ledges” and up and down steppe paths where a wrong step could result in injury. Some children even made their own costumes based on illustrations; guns, bows, and arrows materialized under Christmas trees.

In Norway, Illustrerte Klassikere, then, became a success because it blended classical values with entertainment, and because it took advantage of an already very popular literary form, the comic book format. If readers had not been so primed through reading the various series already on the market, the result might have been different, and the world of classical literature would have remained a terra incognita. It is therefore rather sad that much of the criticism aimed at the once popular series, focusing so strongly on artistic merit, in later times overlooks its many positive aspects. Sure, the “cutesy” books aimed in their direction. And for some, reading Illustrerte Klassikere led not only to reading the books themselves, and reading and buying other books, but to further studies and academic interests.

Works Cited

  • Ekle, Leif. “Illustrert klassiker.” NRK P2. 27 Dec. 2010.
  • Haugen, Morten O. “Gutteromaner I eksotiske strøk.” Feb. 2012.
  • Holen, Øyvind. “öyvinds julekalender luke 5.” Bergens Tidende.
  • Jones, William B, Jr. Classics Illustrated: A Cultural History, Second Edition. Jefferson, NC and London, 2011.
  • Jónsson, Jón Sveinbjørn. “Klassisk serie-nostalgi.” Dagbladet.
  • Høverstad, Torstein Bugge. “Illustrerte eller barberte klassikere.”
  • “Larvik I nær fortid.” Larvik Tidende. Blog. Larvikinaerfortid 10/30/2009.
  • Vaage, Odd Frank. “Lesing av tegnerserieblader: Donald Duck holder fast på guttene.” Samfunnspeilet 1, 2014.
  • Von Hirsch, Kristin. Barndom: 50-tallet. Oslo, Norway: Vega Forlag, 2007
  • Weinreich, Torben. Kulørt historie-krig og kultur I moderne medier. Roskilde, Denmark: Roskilde Universitetsforlag, 1998.
  • Wertham, Frederic. Seduction of the Innocent. New York: Rhinehart & Company, 1954.


1 All translations from Norwegian have been done by the author of this essay.

2 For a thorough discussion of Classics Illustrated and the Cooper editions, see William B. Jones, Jr. Classics Illustrated: A Cultural History, Second Edition (McFarland, 2011), and also Jones’s articles in The James Fenimore Cooper Society Newsletter, Spring 2012.

3 Holen seems to believe that the objective, to get young boys to read, might have worked. He opines, “I am not going to undercut the possibility that the magazines fulfilled its task for many, that is to lure readers into the world of books” (Holen). His main complaint, though, it the lack of artistic merit: “As tegneserier and adaptations most of the series are complete makkverk — (wormeaten rubbish), sketchy and incoherent re-writings without respect for either storytelling, layout or proportions.” No matter how expensive the reprintings were, “no matter how much make up one puts on the corpse, it is stone dead and starts stinking. So also will Illustrerte Klassikere” (Holen).

4 Odd Frank Vaage’s essay in Samfunnspeilet 1/2014 (published by the Statistisk Sentralbyrå, Norway’s bureau of statistics) provides an interesting correction to this belief. In “Lesing av tegneserieblader: Donald Duck holder fast på guttene,” (Reading of Comic-Books: Donald Duck Retains Its Hold on the Boys”) based on media surveys of readers 1991-2012, Vaage shows that those who read comic books—more than 40% of all boys—also purchase and read books more frequently than whose who do not. The number was probably just as large in the 1950s. Samfunnsspeilet.

5 One of the magazine’s comic strips, “Jens von Bustenskjold” survives as an annual Christmas magazine.