Publication: 6 September 1975-31 January 1976
Artist: Phil Townsend
Solveig Amundsen and her brother Per are two Norwegian children who are prisoners in a Nazi concentration camp. They and their mother (now dead) have been sent there by Grendelsen, a rich and powerful man whom Mrs Amundsen accidentally found out was a traitor who had betrayed their Resistance group. Solveig draws strength from the resolution that they will return to their home with the big fir tree and the song their mother used to sing, “The Song of the Fir Tree” – hence the title. She is also determined to return to Norway and expose Grendelsen, as she and her brother are the only ones who know what he has done. (As the story develops, one gathers that Grendelsen is regarded as a respectable man and there are no suspicions that he is a Nazi collaborator.)
From the outset, Solveig proves the stronger one, with spirit, strength and determination to survive and make it back home, while Per has a weaker constitution. He is more prone to illness, demoralisation and almost succumbs to the camp conditions. He needs constant buoying up physically and mentally, and he would never survive without his sister.
The end of the war comes and the Allies liberate the camp. But Solveig recognises Grendelsen among the Norwegian officials who have come to collect them. Realising he has come to silence them, Solveig and Per go on the run, with Grendelsen in relentless pursuit. And Grendelsen soon proves he knows what he is doing in tracking people (and Solveig and Per never think to cover their tracks), and is very clever at tricking the authorities into helping him. And so the stage is set for a fugitive story going all the way from Germany to Norway, and all the assorted adventures, betrayals, misfortunes, lucky breaks, helpers and enemies the two children encounter along the way as they run for their lives. And all the while Solveig sings the song of the fir tree to keep her brother’s spirits up.
As the story progresses, another man joins the hunt for Solveig and Per – their father, Captain Amundsen. Captain Amundsen has returned from the war, discovered his children are alive, and is trying to catch up with them. He finds out about Grendelsen’s manhunt, and Grendelsen discovers the father is also searching. So it is a three-way journey and hunt, with Grendelsen and Captain Amundsen coming close to each other as they both search for the children, with the father constantly coming tantalisingly close to his children. However, the children’s constant attempts to evade Grendelsen also mean that their father constantly misses them. Each time Captain Amundsen comes close, he finds they have just taken off because of Grendelsen or whatever, which is heartbreaking and frustrating for the poor father and the reader. His biggest heartbreak comes when it looks like Grendelsen has finally killed the children by setting them adrift in a derelict boat and left it to sink. He does not know the children were rescued in the nick of time. He heads home for Norway, vowing to make Grendelsen pay.
Along the way, the children also become entwined in the fates of the sadistic Sergeant Strang and their fellow inmate Rachel Brodsky, the two concentration camp characters introduced in the first episode (above). The first occurs when the children go on a path that a local warns leads to a bad place rumoured to be haunted – haunted by Holocaust victims apparently, because the bad place turns out to be an abandoned concentration camp. The children take shelter in it anyway, not realising that Strang is doing the same thing.
We see that Strang has fallen a long way down from the hulky bullying Nazi with the whip and vicious dog. Forced into hiding from the Allies, he is now living rough, ragged and scared. Also, his mental state has deteriorated, exposing the coward he really is – or maybe a guilty conscience, as Grendelsen suspects? Strang even believes the voices he hears (Solveig and Per) are the ghosts of the people who died in the camp. It gets even worse for Strang when Grendelsen shows up (he would) and gets Strang to help him. Strang ends up breaking his leg and Grendelsen abandons him: “Then that’s your hard luck!” Fortunately for Strang, a more decent man is about – Captain Amundsen, who gets help for him. So Strang is not left to die a slow, painful death, but his final fate afterwards is not revealed. The story turns back to Captain Amundsen, whose quest to catch up with his children and Grendelsen has failed yet again.
The second occurs towards the end of the story. The children bump into Rachel, who is trying to get to Palestine. But she is doing it illegally with the help of an underground group because Palestine will not take any more immigrants (the strongest inference to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust in this story). Grendelsen stumbles across them and holds all three at gunpoint – something he has been doing several times already, but the children always escape with the help of a rescuer. And this is no exception; the smugglers arrive and rescue the children. Rachel is soon on her way to Palestine, but Grendelsen has the authorities arrest Per and Solveig for helping illegal immigrants. However, the children escape once more with connivance from a sympathetic soldier (the only one who shows any good sense in this story – for the most part, authority figures think Grendelsen is the one to believe).
Of course it all comes to a head when the paths of all three parties finally meet. It happens at a port, where Solveig and Per try to catch a boat to Norway. Grendelsen arrives with the idea of stealing a boat, corners the children and holds them at gunpoint – again. He does the same with Captain Amundsen, who has (by fluke) arrived at the same spot. But then a bolt of lightning sends a tree toppling over Grendelsen, which kills him. And the tree is…a fir tree. Yep. After that it’s a happy reunion and return to their home with the big fir tree.
For some reason World War II stories were very rare in Jinty. The only other Jinty serials with this theme were “Somewhere over the Rainbow” (1978) and “Daddy’s Darling” (1975), which were also drawn by Phil Townsend. Perhaps Jinty’s emphasis on science fiction, fantasy and sport became so strong that other themes fell by the wayside? It is noteworthy that “Daddy’s Darling” also appeared in 1975, at the time when Jinty was still following Tammy’s lead in producing serials that focused on darkness, cruelty, hardship and raw emotion to tug at your heartstrings.
And this is what the story clearly sets out to do. The cover says: “They must escape – or die! A story to tug at your heart.” And it must have done, because this serial ran for five months!
“Song of the Fir Tree” had a mix of the usual three-page spreads and two page spreads throughout its run. This is very unusual. Occasionally an episode was reduced to two pages if space demanded it, or increased to four or even six if there was pressure to finish it quickly. Sometimes a story was reduced from three pages to two, as was the case in “The Secret of Trebaran” from Tammy. But what could be the reason for the mix of two and three page spreads for this story? Was the writer under pressure from the editor to condense some episodes into two pages for space reasons? Or did the writer sometimes come up with ideas that only required two pages?
But on to the story itself. “Song of the Fir Tree” certainly catches your attention for featuring the Holocaust – a subject usually delicately avoided or addressed fleetingly when girls’ comics ran World War II stories. Any use of Nazi prison camps tended to focus more on captured civilians or soldiers being used as slave labour, such as in “Wendy at War” from Debbie. But here you get an immediate taste of the Holocaust the moment you see the first episode. Of course you don’t get too much of a taste; once the children are liberated, the rest of the story is focused the fugitive issue once Grendelsen shows up. But as mentioned above, the concentration camp not only comes back to bite twice, but a second camp is introduced, with ironic consequences for the Nazi villains.
The journey also incorporates statements about Nazi Germany and the aftermath of World War II, such as in the devastation from the war bombing seen everywhere in the story. But the focus is more on the effects of the war on the people Solveig and Per encounter during their journey. For example, Solveig and Per take refuge at a farm where young Luise is sympathetic but warns that her Aunt Johanna will not be, so they have to stay hidden from the aunt. When Aunt Johanna discovers the fugitives, Per and Solveig find themselves caught between two Germans who were on either side of Hitler. Luise’s father was anti-Nazi and paid the price for it (taken away, never to be seen again), but Luise upholds his ideals. However, Luise’s Aunt Johanna still has her Nazi Party membership card, which Luise uses to blackmail her into putting up with the runaways until they are ready to leave. This encounter makes a strong statement that not all Germans liked Hitler. There were decent Germans in World War II, and being German did not necessarily mean being Nazi. Winston Churchill understood this – he always said “Nazis” in his speeches, not “Germans”.
Other good Germans are introduced too, such as the Schulmans, a kind farming couple who nurse Per back to health when he falls ill. Per wants to stay and is tired of running. But Grendelsen shows up again – yes, dear Per, as long as Grendelsen is around, you will have no peace wherever you go. Mr Schulman shows more kindness when he picks a fight with Grendelsen, who has cornered the children again. It looks like the fight ends in Grendelsen dying in a river, but the children take the hint and take off again. Just as well, because they soon discover that Grendelsen is not dead and is back to chasing them again.
People who are less kind (apart from Grendelsen and Strang) seem to be fewer, but they crop up occasionally. One example is a gang of street urchins that Per and Solveig fall in with. They leave Per carrying the can over a stolen watch, but Solveig pleads with the authorities that it is because the urchins are homeless and starving after the war, and the authorities take pity on the urchins.
Do we also get a sly message about environmentalism with the constant imagery of the fir tree, and its use as a symbol of hope, steadfastness and, ultimately, retribution and salvation? There is even a hint of prophecy, as the fir tree song speaks of “wild skies” and “storm” – and in the final episode, a storm does break out and sends the fir tree toppling over Grendelsen.
Indeed, “Song of the Fir Tree” ran about at the same time as Jinty’s best-remembered story about ecology, “Fran of the Floods”, where warmer temperatures cause world-wide flooding. So it is possible that they slipped an environmental message in here too. Or maybe somebody on the Jinty team had a fondness for fir trees and wanted to a story that incorporated them? Whatever the inspiration for the fir tree, you will emerge with a whole new respect for trees – especially fir trees – after reading this story.