Friday, February 21, 2014

Fearless Folkloric Foxes: Mining the Unexpected Mythic in (Assumedly) Ridiculous Pop Culture (& You Know What They Say About Assume...)

Norwegian folk art - and tricksters - have gone mainstream.

First of all: I did NOT EVER expect to give the source of this a second thought but it turns out, a ridiculous, bizarre, annoying and hugely successful viral internet music video has produced a stunning folkloric work that's unbelievably mythic. (If you've seen some of the the text and are thinking "whaaa...?", just keep reading and concentrate on the artwork.)

The source I'm talking about, if you're still in the dark on this one, is the bizarre/nonsense music video by Norwegian comedy duo Ylvis, "What Does the Fox Say?" (link takes you to the video). Turns out, even before the video went viral with its bear and squirrel costumes, that they had plans to produce a beautiful and mythic work of home grown folk art in children's book form, to be released in the wake of an "intentionally bad" song (their words). They even had an illustrator in mind, Svein Nyhus, a very famous Norwegian author and illustrator, and approached him about the project but he was very busy with other priority deadlines and the timing just didn't appear to be good.

While the song was supposed to be a quick way to draw annoying, but also amusing, attention to the pair and their talk show, what they didn't count on was just how popular their "bad song" was going to get (well over 300 million YouTube hits to date), or just how many dollars from the viral success of their video produced, making for a hit on the song alone. To quote the duo: "It's just so stupid. But stupid dollars are the same as smart dollars." As the YouTube hits started stacking up, Nyhus (the illustrator) called them back and agreed to take on the task of illustrating the, er, "text".

And now they also have a gorgeous book, which is not only a #1 NYT best selling children's book but also sold out on its first day on It's also been rumored as being under consideration for Children's Book of the Year (unconfirmed). The book is hardcover, 32 full color pages and only contain the lyrics - no other story, but then, that's where you get to write your own... ;)

You can read a full color PDF version right HERE. (Highly recommended - although, you'll likely want to go grab a print copy too. Just a heads-up.)

I'll admit I was completely taken by surprise by the beautiful (stunning!) folk art the book contains, making me look at this pop-culture "phenom-sense" with a whole new set of eyes. (I never could figure out if the song was supposed to be silly and whimsical or sneakily subversive. Perhaps it's both!) However I felt about the music video, I was immediately and irresistibly drawn to the book.

While the comedy duo clearly meant their music and video to be a ridiculous stunt, it would seem that  - at least initially - they unintentionally tapped into their mythic roots and translated them playfully for pop culture - no skin off their nose if it didn't take. But it did take, showing that people - MANY people - had a positive and playful gut resonant response to the video images, even they couldn't explain, which in turn proved the importance of playful nonsense. It's this very trickster-like mentality that is reaffirmed in the excellent illustrations. In fact the whole presentation of the book tends to bring the mythic aspect to the forefront - and it's blowing people away (in a good way!).

I admit to having some shame now, for dismissing something so ridiculous, even though, somehow, it appeared to be resonating with hundreds of millions of people; and that's without/before the filter of the artwork, even if it was only on a playful level. Although I consider myself more open to pop culture and children's odd obsessions and trends than many, I have to wonder: did I dismiss this disguised trickster and the power of nonsense due to some unrealized snobbery (and ass-umption) on my part?! It certainly appears that way, and I almost missed out on something amazing as a result. Shame on me! I have some serious reassessing to do...

That said, I still can't handle repeat views of the video. The book, however, has me wanting to put the pages on display.

Someone else made a different connection with the book as well. Though my own revelation took me down forests paths of fox myth-masks and trickster stories, this person stumbled on a darker side to the images which I found fascinating. Here's the comment the person who uploaded this video (book images to a very different soundtrack) added:
DISCLAIMER: THIS VIDEO NOT INTENDED TO BE LISTENED TO BY CHILDREN - I had discovered that "The Fox" by Ylvis was so mainstream that a children's book was to be made featuring the lyrics of the hit song. Upon viewing the illustrations I was reminded of something eerie... something not native to Earth. If you're familiar with John Carpenter's "The Thing", just look at the illustrations and compare the Fox with the alien.(Basically I was almost passed out one night while on a website chatting with people when I saw this book while "The Thing" theme happened to be playing. Needless to say, it creeped the hell out of me. Crazy Swedes.)
Have any of you been treasuring this book on your shelves, secretly worried that you'll be outed? You can breathe a sigh of relief now.
This book is "mythic approved".
Additional sources: HERE, HERE & HERE


  1. I will admit I too wrote off the song as ridiculous...but I really like these illustrations. The stylized "carving" look with bright colors and pronounced shapes reminds me of Native American and Canadian totem poles. The fact that the animals are partying only furthers this in my mind, with the echo of a potlatch ceremony.

    1. I also love these images. I think with us being from the Southwest (Hi Jen! Nice to run into you on this page ;P!), the trickster fox looks very, very close to the imagery in Native American myths I grew up on. I definitely will be paying more attention to the artwork of Svein Nyhus in the future, and I'm pleased that such a silly song is getting him some recognition for his picture book illustrations.

  2. The book is really stunning -- and would be really fun to read with a toddler. So much nicer than than the video which was just so weird!