‘The Glassblower’s Children’ Explores the Existential Melancholia of the Child’s World

Deep at the existentialist heart of this story there's a solemn treatise on the socially inequitable struggles between the worlds of the child and the adult.

The fabled realism of Maria Gripe’s The Glassblower’s Children (originally published in Sweden in 1964) offers a tale at once strange and all too familiar. The Swedish author made a living writing children’s novels that borrowed heavily from the fantastic lore of Nordic myth; stories which detailed the striking dynamism and power of Norse gods and the lessons learned by mere mortals.

Her stories were often deceptively plaintive. They hid a wealth of darker truths which brewed just beneath the crust of her mannered language.

The Glassblower’s Children is a story of poverty and perseverance and also of the captivating façade of wealth. In the story a poor glassblower, Albert, and his frazzled wife, Sofia, struggle arduously to make ends meet while raising their two toddler children, Klara and Klas. Though both parents deeply care for their kids, there simply isn’t enough time and energy to go around to constantly keep watch on them.

One day, during a carnival fair, when Albert and Sofia are preoccupied, a well-meaning but hopelessly ignorant Lord (ruler of All Wishes Town) abducts the children as a present for his ailing and fussy wife. Klara and Klas are now prisoners of a strange castle with endless mirrored corridors and hundreds of spacious rooms. They have since forgotten their real parents and move about the castle rather unaware of their predicament, following after the Lady of the house like little pets.

Things take an unexpected and decidedly horrible turn when, after Klas mysteriously begins acting up all of a sudden, a nanny is hired. She endeavours to make their life miserable, bullying them into submission with physical punishment.

As a children’s novel, it sounds like a real downer. But, in fact, Gripe employs a striking dynamism that straddles a balance between grim realism and mystical fantasy. Very Swedish in its approach to analyzing human behaviour (think Ingmar Bergman writing children’s stories), The Glassblower’s Children delves deep to examine a kind of existential melancholy in young children.

Throughout the story, Klara and Klaus encounter their reflections in the hallway mirrors; unbeknownst to them, these are merely reflected images of themselves, though they believe these images to be other children who, for some reason, appear always sad. Such soul-dissecting explorations are rare in children’s novels and Gripe’s simple yet articulate analysis on the emotional welfare of young children is astonishingly sharp.

Moody and atmospheric in the way that only a true Swedish fairytale can be, the narrative spans the arc of an interior monologue taking place well below the clean and polished prose. Deep at the existentialist heart of the story, there’s a solemn treatise on the socially inequitable balance between the worlds of the child and the adult. Children in Gripe’s narrative (like in most fairytales) are required to discover the true nature of their abilities to survive, be they newly learned coping mechanisms or natural flight or fight instincts. It’s strangely revealing (perhaps refreshing) to see young children depicted with real emotional problems, with only their true impulses to refer to. Indeed, there’s a sort magic that intervenes at some point (in the form of an elderly fortune-teller), but it doesn’t take away from the nuanced shadings of the story or negate the emotional complexities of these characters.

New York Review Books presents a nicely translated version of The Glassblower’s Children from the original Swedish. There are some old-fashioned pencil-sketched illustrations throughout that give the tale a quaint and subtle wash of old-world nostalgia. NYRB has also designed this book in the same tradition of their Children’s Classics hardbacks, with red-cloth spines and beautifully-rendered cover art.

The late author received the Hans Christian Andersen Award (the highest honour awarded a children’s author) in 1974 for her invaluable contributions to literature.

RATING 8 / 10