People in Finland and Norway have long lived in close association with nature, which has also inspired a lively profusion of folk poetry. Their folktales and legends are filled with imaginary creatures and adventures in which the main figures undergo or witness metamorphoses. Lifeless nature may come to life; humans may turn into animals or vice versa. Many artists have illustrated these stories, interspersing them with figures of their own invention. There was admiration for artists who could empathise in a child-like way with nature – which could, like the world of dreams, be at once attractive and frightening.
Hugo Simberg and Theodor Kittelsen are among the best-known and most original artists to draw on the folk tradition. Simberg’s ‘little devils’ and other characters could take on human and even sympathetic traits, whereas Kittelsen’s creatures were always frightening, such as the hag Pesta, who represented the plague.