Pettson and Findus Pancake Pie by Sven Nordqvist

Pancake Pie (1984) is a Swedish picture book written and illustrated by Sven Nordqvist, and is the first in the Pettson and Findus series starring a man and his cat who live together on a rustic farm, along with many little creatures who make the setting seem alive.

What is a pancake pie? Is it just… a pancake? I’m reminded of a certain song about a big pizza pie (actually just a pizza), which is much improved after the moray meme came out.

The Pettson and Findus books have been adapted for children’s TV. The Pancake Pie book became Pancake Pudding in the adaptation. I’ve not heard of a pancake pudding, but it does look more like a storybook cake, and I can see it works better on the screen. The storytellers don’t really want the audience to be stuck, as I am, on the question of what the food is. The food is not central to the story.

This is likely why Swedish Pannkakstårtan was first translated as Pancake Pie in 1985 but later as The Birthday Cake in 1999

SETTING OF FINDUS AND PETTSON

  1. PERIOD — Findus and Pettson live on a storybook farm which is clearly Scandinavian, if you are at all familiar with with a Scandinavian farm looks like, with the open rectangular arrangement of the farm buildings.
  2. DURATION — This particular story takes place over a day. It’s all done and dusted in time for a sit-down afternoon tea outside.
  3. LOCATION — rural Sweden
  4. ARENA — The whole story takes place between the farm and the nearby village where it is possible to buy anything you don’t have at home, in this case flour.
  5. MANMADE SPACES — The Swedish farm buildings, the village shops, the well (which looks unlike your archetypal storybook well — this one must be based on a Swedish well.
  6. NATURAL SETTINGS — pastures around the farm, hills in the distance
  7. WEATHER — The Pettson and Findus stories span all the seasons. Some of them take place when it’s snowing; this one happens in a temperate season, perhaps summer.
  8. TECHNOLOGY CRUCIAL TO THIS PARTICULAR STORY — Pettson’s bicycle is important to his characterisation. I really love this guy, with his pedal power and his cat. If he drove a car he’d be a different sort of guy altogether.
  9. LEVEL OF CONFLICT — In the hierarchy of human struggles, this is an unlikely, fantasy, carnivalesque struggle in which the goal is simple; to bake a birthday cake. It’s not even a high stakes birthday given that the birthday person celebrates birthdays three times a year, just because.
  10. THE EMOTIONAL LANDSCAPE — In the TV adaptation, Findus is annoyed that Pettson seems to have forgotten one of his superfluous birthdays. This story is also about how annoying things happen and there’s no point apportioning blame for these things. Rather, we have no choice but to get on and deal with them if we want to achieve our goal.

STORY STRUCTURE OF PANCAKE PIE

PARATEXT

Translators over the years have had a bit of a job deciding on how to translate this series into English. The paper below makes for an interesting case study into how publishers try something then later change their minds.

From Pettson and Findus to Festus and Mercury… and Back Again: A Comparison of Four Translations of Sven Nordqvist’s Picture Books

The book title Pancake Pie is also translated as Pancakes For Findus (which I admit makes more sense). The title is probably modelled on Blueberries for Sal by Robert McClusky.

Pancakes for Findus is the first story in the adventures of farmer Pettson and his cat Findus. Pettson wants to bake a birthday cake for Findus, who has three birthdays a year. But how will they get the eggs with the bull in the way?
Findus and Pettson live in a ramshackle cottage in the country, with a henhouse, workshop, and woodshed. Their fascinating, magical world is inhabited by tiny creatures who move Pettson’s things about when he isn’t looking.

marketing copy

SHORTCOMING

We know from other books in the series that Pettson is probably a widower and his neighbours find him a little odd. The cat comes across to the reader like a proxy child. For storytelling purposes we can consider Findus a child ranging between the ages of 5 and 10, depending on what the situation calls for.

Pettson wears glasses as part of his character design. This shows how he is oblivious to the small creatures around him who are alive. Another character with the exact same trope is Muriel of Courage the Cowardly Dog. In both cases the pet can see all the opponents but the human occupant sees nothing. In Muriel’s case she fails to see some pretty dire baddies, but the setting of the Pettson and Findus stories is more utopian. The creatures are mischievous and sometimes cranky, but never evil.

The co-star Findus has all the shortcomings typical of a small child, and as in any comedic series, he never grows up. He continues to be self-centred and petulent, in a lovable way. I I find the TV version of Findus unlikeable, and I think it’s mainly to do with the English dub of his voice, which is irritating. Voicing animals is always difficult.

Another example of this exact difficulty: ‘Dog’ of Footrot Flats by Murray Ball. New Zealanders were already in love with Dog from the newspaper comic strips, and the makers of the 1980s Footrot Flats film had a hell of a time settling on how Dog’s voice should sound. I have a Border collie myself these days and I think they got it right.

The creators of the 1980s Garfield animations also got Garfield right, but as a kid I didn’t think so. I was shocked to find that Garfield had a lazy adult male voice when I had expected something more like… the Findus voice. More ‘miowy’, more aimed at kids. Now I’m an adult I can see Garfield’s voice is correct, and that as a kid I had been far too generous in my interpretation of that cat’s character.

DESIRE

Self-centred Findus wants three birthdays per year and Pettson wants to oblige his cat. However, this kind of self-absorption is only briefly critiqued, and only in the TV adaptation, in which a hen clucks at the extravagance of three birthdays per year. The young reader is not encouraged to side with the judgy hen though, so the idea of three birthdays per year is a carnivalesque bit of fun and also wish fulfilment. What kid wouldn’t want three birthdays per year?

On a deeper level, Findus wants to be the centre of attention with luxuries foisted upon him.

On the most surface level, Pettson and Findus want to celebrate the day by baking something and eating it as a treat, whether we call it a pancake pie or a pancake pudding or whatever.

OPPONENT

The storyworld itself stands between Pettson getting flour, or not. But ‘things going wrong in the world’ doesn’t usually make for a satisfying opposition, so literally populating the arena with tiny creatures, each with their own agenda, is a masterful way to make a setting come alive. Pettson doesn’t simply get a hole in his bicycle tyre; a little creature bites a hole in it.

This is literally how people of yore saw the world. We only need look into earlier versions of fairytales such as The Elves and the Shoemaker to know this. That tale’s reason for existence is to warn people against fraternising with small creatures and spirits in the home, so clearly many people thought they actually existed!

We might as well consider these little creatures fairies. They don’t look like the 21st century conception of a fairy — small, butterfly-like femme coded creatures influenced by Disney’s Tinkerbell. Fairies can refer to any creature who lives in the world around us, and in our living spaces. Earlier humans imagined fairies absolutely everywhere. (Modern audiences get the feeling we now understand Earth and seem more concerned with populating space… we call them aliens though, not fairies.)

This page layout beautifully expresses the flow of events from fishing a key out of the well, to fixing a tyre to riding to town to the goal of enjoying pancake pie for Findus. Notice how each image blends into the one below, creating a clear visual sequence for the reader.
This image reminds me very much of The Tomten. I haven’t even read The Tomten yet, but I still recognise the imagery of a Scandinavian character peering in through a window.

The neighbour who ambles by right as Pettson is washing his pants in a bucket also functions as an ‘observer opponent’. I’ve seen these scenes in other children’s stories, recently in Bluey, in which the father is playing a ridiculous game with his daughter when a dressed-up judgy poodle walks by and drags him with side-eye. She hasn’t got the memo that this small snippet is part of a game.

Audiences seem to love this gag — in which a main character is caught in the most humiliating part of a plot when someone happens to amble by. A funny moment now becomes comedically humiliating with the addition of an intradiegetic audience member. Funny how that works.

In such scenes, is it not humiliating enough that we, the audience, are watching? No, not if the fourth wall remains intact. Also, we are in possession of the complete story. We know how the character got into that position. Humour derives from the fact that the passerby is in audience inferior position. The joke is sort of actually on them, for failing to understand the whole scenario.

PLAN

Pancake Pie is basically a There Was An Old Lady Who Swallowed A Fly cumulative plot, except for one major difference: In the fly story, the old lady’s self-formulated plan is ridiculous. She herself is ridiculous. Perhaps for this reason I have never found that old lady an empathetic character. I couldn’t care less whether she lives or dies (and both endings exist in the world).

In the case of the empathetic Pettson, the scenarios are ridiculous (thanks to the fairies) but his plans are quite sensible, given the world of the story. Key falls down the well? Get a long stick and fish it out. Pants covered in egg? Take them off and wash them in a bucket.

It’s not Pettson who is eccentric; it’s his farm. Pettson is a misunderstood widower.

Another beautiful sequence of events illustrated on a single page. These pages are excellent examples of Continuous Narrative Art. This describes art which gives clues about the sequence of events, without making use of frames. In a Western picture book, the reader’s eyes are trained to move from top to bottom, left to right.

Honestly, I couldn’t follow the Plan part of the plot sequence on first reading. if you’d quizzed me immediately after for comprehension I would not have been able to tell you how Pettson goes from looking for flour to being chased by a bull in a field. But that doesn’t matter. We enjoy the spectacle and don’t mind the sequence.

That said, the sequence must make sense for the story to work, and it does if you’re paying attention, with a clear path from A to B to Z. Lucky for me, someone else wrote the sequence down in a humorous consumer review:

If Pettson, P, is to make a pancake pie, then P must buy flour.

If P is to buy flour, then P must cycle to town.

If P is to use a cycle C, then C’s tires must be intact.

If P is to make C’s tires intact, then P must obtain a cycle repair kit R.

If P is to obtain R, then P must have the key to the toolshed K.

If K is in the well W, then P must have a fishing rod F.

If F is on the roof, then P must have a ladder L.

If L is in the bull B’s field, then P must scare away B.

If P’s neighbor N had known all of the above, then N wouldn’t necessarily have thought P had lost his wits when he saw him playing Jussi Björling records for B on P’s wind-up phonograph.

That’s logic. What do they teach them in schools these days?

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THE BIG STRUGGLE

This story might align more closely to the carnivalesque picture book story structure if it weren’t for the bull sequence.

The animals in this story span a broad section of the ‘animal-ness continuum’, with Findus basically human (a child), and the hens who are middle-aged gossipy women archetypes and also this bull who is nothing more than an actual bull.

The bull is a Minotaur opponent (more literally than most Minotaur opponents, which can come in any shape or form and most have nothing to do with actual bulls).

That curtain tied around Findus’ ankle is very handy to the illustrator as a framing device which double as indicating the flow, leading the eye in the correct direction. As an accomplished adult reader you probably take this skill for granted. Younger, emerging readers need help with this.

The story climaxes at the bull fight. Although the ridiculous events around baking a simple pancake pie build into something more and more ridiculous, the level of ridiculousness is not enough to ‘finish off the story’, which must be finished somehow. So Nordqvist ends it with an actual battle scene, complete with danger of death and a chase.

Note the way Nordqvist depicts the movement. I suspect this is influenced by photography, specifically long exposure photography. I’m thinking of all those shots of highways on dusk, in which the headlights look like one long stream on the road of moving cars, or car singular.

ANAGNORISIS

Findus and Pettson have no major epiphany, because this story was all about spectacle (for the reader). They realise that when they have their hands on the flour that they can sit down to enjoy an afternoon tea of pancake pie.

NEW SITUATION

Though the desire for food is mostly the McGuffin of this particular story, Pancake Pie is an excellent example of a children’s book where all is well when the main characters sit down to enjoy food. A number of series work like this, including the more recent Mercy Watson picture books by Kate DiCamillo and Chris Van Dusen. Those stories end when Mercy sits down with everyone to enjoy hot buttered toast.

Food is very important in children’s stories.

EXTRAPOLATED ENDING

Findus learns nothing. I fully expect him to wrap Pettson around his little dew claw in further stories of the same series.

RESONANCE

This story established the intriguing world of Pettson and Findus. I fell in love with Pettson immediately. For me the farmer is the sympathetic character, though for children I expect the cat will be relatable. In this way, the series achieves a dual audience.

Worlds populated by tiny creatures endure. The Pettson and Findus books were just a small part of that. The golden age of fairy and goblin stories may seem to have passed, but look at the Hilda series, recently adapted by Netflix, for a similar utopian world populated by tiny creatures who each have their own agenda but who pose no significant threat to the main, human characters.

Belling The Cat

Gustav Doré The counsel held by the rats 1868

‘Belling the cat’ is idiom which means that it’s all very well to come up with good ideas as a fix, but executing those good ideas is another matter. It comes from a fable of yore, in which rats come up with a great idea for foiling a predatory cat. They’ll put a bell around its neck. But who will dare do that?

This feels like one of Aesop’s, but actually that’s unclear. It’s part of that tradition, though.

Jean de La Fontaine (1621–1695) included this story in his book “Fables”. It still says something very true about committees and hierarchy and how things get done (or not). Wikipedia sums it up nicely: This fable is about ‘the fundamental opposition between consensus and individualism’.

The Council of the Rats

OLD Rodilard, a certain cat,
Such havoc of the rats had made,
’Twas difficult to find a rat
With Nature’s debt unpaid.
The few that did remain,
To leave their holes afraid,
From usual food abstain,
Not eating half their fill.
And wonder no one will,
That one, who made on rats his revel,
With rats passed not for cat, but devil.
Now, on a day, this dread rat-eater,
Who had a wife, went out to meet her;
And while he held his caterwauling,
The unkilled rats, their chapter calling,
Discussed the point, in grave debate,
How they might shun impending fate.
Their dean, a prudent rat,
Thought best, and better soon than late,
To bell the fatal cat;
That, when he took his hunting-round,
The rats, well cautioned by the sound,
Might hide in safety underground.
Indeed, he knew no other means.
And all the rest
At once confessed
Their minds were with the dean’s.
No better plan, they all believed,
Could possibly have been conceived;
No doubt, the thing would work right well,
If any one would hang the bell.
But, one by one, said every rat,
“I’m not so big a fool as that.”
The plan knocked up in this respect,
The council closed without effect.
And many a council I have seen,
Or reverend chapter with its dean,
That, thus resolving wisely,
Fell through like this precisely.

To argue or refute,
Wise counselors abound;
The man to execute
Is harder to be found.

STORYTELLING NOTES

While fables use nameless animals to stand in as proxy humans, this poem opens by giving ‘a certain cat’ an individuating name — the name of Rodilard. This name is made up for the purposes of the poem and remains associated with this particular work: Rodilard is from Latin rodo (“gnaw”) and lardum “lard”. I imagine a few people have named their pet cats Rodilard.

In stories across history, especially in children’s stories, a cat often functions as the Minotaur opponent. This is very frequently the case in stories about mice and rats. He (and he is almost always masculo-coded) will be an irredeemable murderer, because that is part of his nature. Everyone else has no choice but to either kill him or protect themselves. As the poem states explicitly, this kind of opponent is basically ‘the devil’. And devils aren’t that interesting in their own right. A story with a Minotaur/devil opponent will be about the conflict that happens between his victims.

It’s therefore interesting that this cat has ‘a wife’. I think this is comically interesting for precisely the reason that Minotaur opponents have no ‘humanity’ (and family indicates humanity), but also because cats don’t have wives; this tom is out on the prowl, clearly. The story requires a reason to keep the Minotaur opponent occupied with something other than food. Another base instinct.

First, though, the poem depicts a world of ‘havoc’. This cat has been causing upset for quite some time. Like many children’s books in particular, the story opens in the iterative, describing what has been going on every day. Now it will switch to the singulative: Now, on a day…

It’s significant that ‘the dean’ comes up with the idea rather than, say, an underling. People in charge are good at coming up with ideas that will put underlings in danger rather than themselves. Bob Dylan’s song “Masters of War” is all about that.

Come you masters of war
You that build the big guns
You that build the death planes
You that build all the bombs
You that hide behind walls
You that hide behind desks
I just want you to know
I can see through your masks

Masters of War, Bob Dylan

In this case, the dean of a chapter of rats doesn’t have sufficient power to force an underling rat to bell the cat, so the meeting closes with the idea tabled and no plan. While other stories would start right about now, this story ends before it kicks off, because not a single character dares carry it out.

In case the reader has failed to realise what the rats realised, four lines at the end summarise the message for us.

We can extrapolate that the rat community continues to suffer, with the cat keeping the rat population down. Rats are not typically sympathetic characters in stories, which makes them an appropriate choice for this particular fable.

Header image: Gustav Doré The counsel held by the rats, 1868.

What is the atomic style of illustration?

Tintin The Shooting Star

The atomic style of illustration is closely related to ‘ligne claire’. In French this means ‘clear line’.

The ligne claire/atomic style of drawing was created and pioneered by Hergé (real name Georges Prosper Remi). Hergé was Belgian and lived from 1907 to 1983. He is best known for creating The Adventures of Tintin.

Hergé’s style of cartooning wasn’t called ‘ligne claire’ until 1977, coined by Dutch artist and graphic designer Joost Swarte.

Rewind a bit and French illustrator Yves Chaland (1957-1990) sort of relaunched Hergé’s style in France. This is when the style also started to become known as ‘atomic’.

The French Clear-Line master Yves Chaland is the main representative of the so-called “atomic style”, a nostalgic 1950s retro style. In his modern style of nostalgia, he created an ironic note to the classic Franco-Belgian comics, in the form of his popular series ‘Freddy Lombard’.

Comiclopedia

Yves Chaland sadly died young, in a car accident, at the age of 33. Below is one of his illustrations. If you’ve seen Tintin you’ll recognise the style.

by Yves Chaland. The atom ‘light’ style of illusration juxtaposes with the dark subject matter. The effect of dark/light matter juxtaposition always serves to make dark matter even darker. This was for his own book c 1980 ‘La Comète de Carthage’ (The Comet of Carthage).

FEATURES OF THE ATOMIC STYLE OF ILLUSTRATION

  • Clear, strong lines. In ‘clear line”ligne claire illustration, these lines are all of the same width, though there is clear pressure sensitivity utlised in the style more broadly, with tapering lines. We also see thicker lines used to outline objects and/or people.
  • However, there is no hatching.
  • Contrast is downplayed.
  • Shadows are important to the balance of the composition, and are therefore emphasised, as if there is a strong light source somewhere. Grounding shadows might be black, for example. A darker hue is often used to suggest form where shadow would fall, but it would not look so obvious in real life, or in realistic painting.
  • When coloured, atomic illustrations feature hues which are more saturated and ‘interesting’ than what we’d expect in the real world. In Chaland’s illustration above, a yellow hue stands in for what would clearly be coded as ‘brown’ in the furniture and picture frame.
  • Where the illustration features a background, cartoonish characters juxtapose against a ‘set’ which is more realistic than they are, with dots for eyes and other simplified features.
  • Together, these elements result in a ‘flat aspect’ (relatively little depth perception). These illustrations seem influenced by the stage rather than the camera of modern TV, with its close-ups and various angles. This ‘stage’ aspect is partly what contributes to the nostalgic feel of atomic illustration, harking back to a pre-cinematic era.
Yves Chaland (1957 - 1990) circa 1980 illustration for his own book Le Jeune Alber, tram
Yves Chaland (1957 – 1990) circa 1980 illustration for his own book Le Jeune Alber. This illustration features a low ‘camera angle’ with exaggerated perspective.
Edgar P. Jacobs (1904 – 1987) 1948 illustration for his Blake & Mortimer series Le Secret de l'Espadon (The Secret Of The Swordfish)
Edgar P. Jacobs (1904 – 1987) 1948 illustration for his Blake & Mortimer series Le Secret de l’Espadon (The Secret Of The Swordfish)

Perhaps the best way to get a sense of what the atomic style looks like is via a Pinterest collection.

The atomic style of illustration didn’t come out of nowhere. The illustration below by Italian artist Ettore Tito dates from around 1920. This is not clear line/atomic — notice the crosshatching. But we have the clear border outlines, the atomic colour palette and little in the way of depth perception. (Look at the artist’s other paintings and you’ll see this isn’t his usual style.)

Ettore Tito c.1920 fixing car in the rain
Ettore Tito c.1920 fixing car in the rain

ATOMIC STYLE IN CHILDREN’S BOOKS AND STORIES

  • The Where’s Wally? series by Martin Handford is especially well-suited to this style — indeed requires it — because the illustrations are so detailed they can’t take further interest value in the line and hatching.
  • Mo Willems illustrates with strong black line and flat aspect, though his line is less ‘ligne claire’ because much of it appears to have been created with a pencil or crayon, giving the work a more naive look. (See Elephant and Piggie.) The lines also overlap at times, deliberately, adding to the ‘handdrawn, sketchy’ look.
  • Numerous examples can be found in graphic novels. The graphic novels of Raina Telgemeir are similar to the atomic style. The strokes clearly vary in width and contain interest in their own right. Thicker lines outline an object, while thinner lines add interior detail. However, there is no hatching. The flat aspect, the use of darker colour as shading, the absence of hatching and the character illustration is clearly ‘Tintin’-esque.

WHAT TYPES OF STORIES SUIT THE ATOMIC STYLE OF ILLUSTRATION?

Whereas the atomic style of illustration is often used in stories for adults to juxtapose against dark subject matter, there is often no such juxtaposition in stories for children, in which case the ‘lightness’ of the illustration style more closely matches the subject matter, with less ironic distance between (illustration) style and (subject matter) darkness.

The inherent nostalgic tone of this style is clear. It’s no coincidence that Raina Telgemeier uses it to depict stories from her own childhood. It doesn’t matter than Telgemeier grew up in the 1980s, long after the Tintin era. It seems that ‘any era before this one’ can be rendered nostalgic (especially to young readers), and stories set anytime in the past can be well-suited to an atomic illustration style.

Another advantage of this style: Characters are not highly individuated. Eyes are very often just black dots. Skin colour notwithstanding, these minimalist characterisations can therefore function as proxy for ‘the every child’.

Books for very young children often feature strong, black outlines and flat hue. This is because the board book crew are still developing eye control and are drawn to objects with strong outlines and primary colours. The atomic illustration style is therefore well-suited to books for very young children, including babies.

Header illustration is from Tintin: The Shooting Star.