It’s Banned Books Week, and everyone is rallying around the classics: your Gatsbys, your Catcher in the Ryes, your Mockingbirds and Lady Chatterleys. No one is giving any love to Snorri the Seal—to my eye one of the handsomest books ever to face censorship.
Snorri is a Norwegian children’s book written and illustrated by Frithjof Sælen. Published in 1941, during the Nazi occupation of Norway, it tells the story of “the vainest little seal in the Arctic Ocean”—that’s our Snorri!—who whiles away his seal-days delighting in his own good looks. And who wouldn’t, with a luxurious coat like his? He’s so self-absorbed that he fails to see trouble on the horizon in the form of Brummelab, a distinctly Soviet polar bear.
Clearly there’s a metaphor afoot, and Sælen knows how to run with it: he stocks the book with obvious stand-ins for various nation-states. (Even the ice floe Snorri plays on is shaped like Norway.) Snorri evades Brummelab only to encounter Glefs, a Teutonic killer whale who butters him up by admiring his (Aryan?) features and making a lot of false promises; then he crosses paths with Sving and Svang, a pair of S.S.–ish seagulls who have the troublesome habit of broadcasting Snorri’s coordinates to Brummelab and co. Oh, and Snorri routinely ignores his Uncle Bart, a well-intentioned walrus with an avuncular, deeply Anglo mustache.
Suffice to say that Snorri served as an acerbic little allegory for the geopolitical jam Norway had found itself in. As heavy-handed as it was—bear in mind that it was even marketed as “a fable in color for children and adults”—what’s more remarkable is that it eluded the Nazi censors. Actually, the Nazis were kind of into it, at first. Kathleen Stokker describes its publication in her book Folklore Fights the Nazis:
[Snorri] actually received high praise in the Nazi-controlled press. The German-language Deutszche Zeitung in Norvegen reviewed it favorably, while the Norwegian Nazi organ Fritt folk extrolled Sælen as “the Norwegian Walt Disney,” and assured readers that “both adults and children will enjoy making this book’s acquaintance.”
That was in November. By December, they’d wised up and tried to confiscate all the Snorris swimming around, but upward of twelve thousand copies were out there. In January, when they dragged Sælen in for a grueling three hours of questioning, he leaned on that strategy most beloved by allegorists: plausible deniability. The Nazis let him go. He went on to take prominent positions in the Norwegian resistance movement and ultimately escaped to England.
As for Snorri, I’m sure I don’t need to remind you that his story—of the dangers of complacency in a time of grave political danger—is timeless. At the risk of putting too fine a point on it, let me add that Donald Trump bears a striking resemblance to the evil polar bear.