Monday, June 11, 2018

Luring down the stars and scheduling the rain (69. - Montenegro)

Today I continue the blog series titled Following folktales around the world! If you would like to know what the series is all about, you can find the introduction post here. You can find all posts under the Following Folktales label, or you can follow the series on Facebook!

A kilenc pávalány és az aranyalmafa
Népmesék Vuk Stefanović Karadžić gyűjtéséből 
Európa Könyvkiadó, 1987.

This book is yet another volume of our Tales of Nations series, and once again a selection from the folktale collections of Vuk Stefanović Karadžić. In terms of publications, it is impossible to separate the folklore of Serbia and Montenegro, so I was really happy to see that this book listed the actual source and location for each folktale - this way, I found six of them that were from the region of modern day Montenegro. Vuk himself descended from an old Montenegrin family, and according to some sources collected almost half of his folktales from there. The book, by the way, contains twenty-nine "female" (wonder) tales, and twenty-three "male" (humorous) tales. In the afterword we can read the detailed and fascinating true story of Karadžić's life and work. All storytellers should familiarize themselves with it.


The tale titled Real Steel from last week's Serbian collection turned out to be one of the tales from Montenegro. In this book, it is titled The Wily Bas-Chelic, and it is still awesome with its giant-slaying, princess-rescuing, dragon-army-mobilizing glory.
Tales were collected around the
Bay of Kotor
Also from Montenegro is one of the most beautiful, most symbolic stories in the book, The Magic Knife, in which a man has to bring three special horses to a Tzar to win his daughter's hand. The daughter helps the hero in secret, giving him a magic knife and telling him how to find the Field of Pearls, and gain treasures from a bush that has roots of honey and flowers of gold. Karadžić also collected a similarly beautiful tale from his home village, in which a princess demanded Three rings from her suitor - one of the sun, one of the moon, and one of the stars. An old woman helped the hero by undoing her hair, and using it to lure the three rings down from the sky.
There was also a Montengrin tale of Truth and Falsehood, in which two princes argued over which one leads to success (the former won, obviously, because this is a folktale), and another one titled The priest and the congregation, which was both poignant and hilarious. In it, a priest was accused of his prayers for rain being useless, so he asked the members of his congregation when they would like to schedule the rain for. They all began to fight, and eventually concluded that there is no right time for rain...
Among the non-Montengerin tales I especially liked the story of How Solomon the Wise was cursed by his mother. The wise ruler could not die until he had seen the deepest bottom of the ocean, and the highest peak of the mountains of the world. He had to resort to trickery to accomplish both.


This book contains Hungarian translations of several stories that I read last week in English; it has The Golden Apple Tree and Nine Peahens, Son of the Bear, Snake Husband, Hovering Castle, Bird Maiden, and the Tzar with goat's ears (it took me this long to realize his name is Trajan). Interestingly enough, the Hungarian translation of The Golden-fleeced Ram says the hero needs to build a palace from "fairy teeth", rather than ivory. I wonder if it was a translation mistake, since all other variants have ivory...
There was also a version of You can't please everyone (with father, son, and donkey), and a fun legend about Saint Sava and the devil which fell into a classic international trickster tale type. Saint and devil planted crops together, and by asking "do you want the top part of the bottom part?" the saint kept tricking the devil. Eventually the poor devil at least got back at him by inventing liquor...
There was once again a tale with Ossetian nart parallels - The father's oath listed all kinds of wonders from the underworld that a wise person had to explain to the hero.

Where to next?
Bosnia and Herzegovina!

Monday, June 4, 2018

Of Vilas and Dragons (Following folktales around the world 68. - Serbia)

Today I continue the blog series titled Following folktales around the world! If you would like to know what the series is all about, you can find the introduction post here. You can find all posts under the Following Folktales label, or you can follow the series on Facebook!

Serbian Fairy Tales
Jelena Curcic
Flying Fish Publications, 2013.

Once again the name of Vuk Stefanović Karadžić pops up: He collected tales all over the Balkans in the 19th century, and the author of this book selected these 20 stories from his collection. Karadžić's collection in its own time was remarkable and much appreciated; even the Grimm brothers followed it with interest, and Karadžić added a letter of gratitude to its publication (a letter which is translated to English in this book). It is also important to note that Jelena Curcic is not only an author and translator, but also a practicing storyteller, which made her selections and language dear to my heart (you can follow her on Twitter). Karadžić divided tales into two types: "Female tales" were fairy tales, wonder tales, and anything mythical, while "male tales" were legends, anecdotes, and funny stories. This book, true to its title and its author, contains 20 "female tales." Each story comes with great notes and comments, there is a detailed introduction, and even the Serbian alphabet in the back. The book's publishing was supported by Art Council England and the Serbian Council of Great Britain, in order to promote Serbian oral tradition in the UK, and allow second- and third generation immigrants to connect with, and share, their culture.


The first story in the book is also the best: The maiden who was faster than a horse is reminiscent of all kinds of race-running tales... except here the girl actually wins! She runs on foot, racing her suitors on horseback, creates all kinds of obstacles, and only stops at the end to be "captured" to disappear the next moment. The girl was created from summer snow by the Vilas, iconic female figures of Serbian mythology (they might be familiar from Harry Potter). The Vilas appeared in several other tales as well, among them Vila's Mountain, where a mortal man went to live with them.
Apart from Vilas, we are also introduced to the two kinds of dragons of Serbian tradition: The Azdaja, which is serpent-like and usually evil, and the more human-like, strong and powerful Zmaj. The former was usually fought and killed in tales, but there was also one (The Magic Ring) in which a female (!) Azdaja was rescued by the hero from the stag trapped in her throat, and in exchange gave him a magic ring.
The strangest, most unique tale was The Bear's Son. It began like other Bearson-tales (except here the mortal mother ran away, leaving the cub to be raised with his bear-father), but then turned into a strange adventure full of giants and over-the-top visuals. Interestingly enough, this second part has its clear parallels among the Caucasian Nart sagas. I wonder how that happened.

The tale of Real Steel was a very nice combination of tale types. It begins with Water of Life, with nighttime giant-slaying adventures and a visit to the sleeping princess. Except while in most variants the hero gets the sleeping princess pregnant (ew), in this one he kills a snake that is trying to bite her. I like this a lot better. The second half of the story is that of Koschei the Deathless, with the kidnapped wife and the magic horse race. This second type also appeared in the Golden Apple Tree and Nine Peahens, where it followed the tale type of the golden apples stolen by fairy maidens.
The volume concludes with a strange and ominous short tale, where a king takes his army to the Dark Realm, and some soldiers pick up pebbles in the dark - only to discover in the light that they are diamonds.


Of course the book contained several familiar types and motifs that are known all over Europe, and the Balkans. Multiple tales had the motif of the villain's life being hidden outside of his body (The young tzarevich and the Azdaja). There was a clever maiden (The maiden who outsmarted the Tzar), and a Hovering Castle, which was the same as the underworld adventure of the "three kidnapped princesses" type, except here the hero ha to climb up, not down. The popularity of the Vilas is shown in the tale where instead of a golden goose, the princess was brought to laughter by people stuck to The Vila's Carriage.
I was happy to find yet another variant of my favorite tale, the Extraordinary Helpers, in Tzar's Son-in-Law and the Winged Old Woman. I especially liked that it was attached to the motif of a boy imprisoned for a dream - and that he bore a hole in the wall to visit the princess who was imprisoned in the next room over. Helpers with superpowers also appeared in Seven Little Vlachs, where they argued over who gets to marry the rescued princess, and they eventually all rose into the sky, and turned into the Pleiades (I read this variant in the Greek book too). Another favorite type of mine, Son of the Hunter, also made an appearance as The Golden-fleeced Ram, also with some clear Greek parallels; in this version the hero had to build an entire ivory city, not just a palace. And talking about the Greeks, let's not forget Tzar Trojan's Goat Ears. You can guess which myth that reminded me of.

Where to next?

Monday, May 28, 2018

The Battle of Kosovo (Following folktales around the world 67. - Kosovo)

Today I continue the blog series titled Following folktales around the world! If you would like to know what the series is all about, you can find the introduction post here. You can find all posts under the Following Folktales label, or you can follow the series on Facebook!

Kosovo is a partially recognized state; those who do not recognize it claim it is a part of Serbia. Either way, it was hard to find folktales specifically from Kosovo, so I decided to look at some epic poetry instead.

The Battle of Kosovo
Serbian epic poems
John Matthias and Vladeta Vuckovic
Swallow Press/Ohio University Press Athens 1987.

This volume contains English transations of Serbian epic poems about the Battle of Kosovo (1389) against the Ottoman empire. Charles Simic notes in the Preface that it is unique in this epic cycle that it celebrates defeat, rather than victory. The poems are from the collections of Vuk Karadzic (we'll talk more about him later), who gathered them at the beginning of the 1800s from blind old women and old men who recited them as poems, instead of from the original tale-singers. The authors of the book tried to reflect the rhythm and language of the poems, and the Preface claims that they succeeded very well in capturing their authentic tone. The book comes with a long introduction, footnotes, and translation notes.

Fénypontok és kapcsolatok helyett:

The epic poems do have a unique tone and visual world. Supper in Krushevatz, for example, mirrors almost perfectly the Last Supper; the Tsar announces that someone will betray him on the battlefield the next day. He is seated at the table with his best warriors on his left and right; this fragment also serves as the enumeration of the epic cycle, listing all the famous heroes and their best features. On the other side, the Turkish army's overwhelming numbers are described very well in Captain Milosh and Ivan Kosanchich: "If all the Serbs were changed to grains of salt / We could not even salt their wretched dinners!" And yet, the superior numbers do not discourage the Serbian heroes. Both Sultan and Tsar died in the battle that day, but still, the Serbian army and kingdom were sorely defeated. It is a very touching moment in the ballad of Musich Stefan when the knight on his way to the battle encounters a peasant girl, who is carrying a Serbian helmet that she fished out of the river flooding with blood. The knight sees the helmet and weeps, but goes on to fight in the losing battle. The same girl also appears in another text as the Maiden of Kosovo: She goes around on the field after the battle, bathing the wounded and giving the bread and wine as communion. She is searching for the hero she was promised to marry. Similarly touching is the song of Tsar Lazar and Tsaritsa Militsa - the wife begs her husband to leave at least one of her nine brothers at home, so that he can ride to the battlefield and bring news later. The tsar agrees, but she is refused in turn by all nine of her brothers, and left home with a servant. Two ravens later bring news from the battlefield about the defeat. In fact, in several texts the battle is told through someone bringing news, rather than directly. In The Death of the Mother of the Yugovichi, the mother of the nine warriors grows wings herself and flies to the field to bring the bodies of her sons home, and then dies of heartbreak.
These poems really are heroic and somber in their tome. No wonder their collection became popular in the early 1800s, when Serbians began to revolt against Turkish rule. I would have loved to read more epic poems of this king. For those who are interested, I recomment Albert Lord's classic book "The Singer of Tales."

Where to next?

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Snow White was originally rescued by her father (and other surprises from the 1810 Grimm manuscript)

(Disclaimer: In the case of folktales, there is no such thing as an "original" version. We can speak of "earliest known" or "earliest collected" instead, but those are usually preceded by centuries of oral tradition)

People have been pointing out that the 1812 first edition of the Grimm fairy tales is drastically different from the stories we know from later versions. This very first, "uncensored" collection has recently been given a shiny new full English translation by Jack Zipes. It is the book where Rapunzel still gets pregnant, where Snow White is still persecuted by her biological mother, and so are Hansel and Gretel.

The 1812 first edition, however, is still not the earliest version we have for the Grimm tales.

In 1810, while working on collecting stories, the brothers were asked by their friend, Clemens Brentano, who also had an interest in folklore, to send him the manuscript of the 50 stories they already had. And then, in true friend fashion, he forgot to give them back. Ever.
The manuscript, full of neatly hand-written pages by Jacob and Wilhelm, was re-discovered in the library of a monastery in the early 1920s. A hundred years later, in the form of a Kickstarter project, Oliver Loo created a full English translation for it. It is available on Amazon Kindle for about $2. and it is well worth the read.

Even at this point, between the first hand-written notes in 1810, and the 1812 print edition, several changes can be observed in the tales. Oliver Loo makes sure to point all of them out, along with translation mistakes and inconsistencies later English editions were likely to make. His translation is painstakingly true to the German original (to the point of leaving the German word order intact), and it re-translates both the 1810 and the 1812 versions of every story, side by side. It is a marvelous resource, and it helped me make a few shocking discoveries about the Grimm collection.

Here are some of my favorites:

1. The 1810 version Snow White is a trip. She is blonde, with "eyes black as ebony." The evil queen is her biological mother, who takes the girl into the woods to pick roses, and abandons her there (drives away in her carriage). Snow White, after eating the poison apple, is rescued and revived by her father (!), returning from a trip abroad. No prince.
(Also, the queen's question is "Who's  the fairest one in England?")
Also, there are other texts the Grimms used for the tale, including one where Snow White is abandoned in a dwarf cave (makes a lot more sense than a quaint little cottage), and one where Mirror is the name of her dog. In many of them Snow White comes back to life because a servant grows tired of caring for her dead body, and hits her, making her spit out the apple. Romantic.

2. The girl in Rumpelstiltskin can actually spin gold (!!). No one appreciates it, though, until the little demon helps her find a royal husband who knows what gold is worth. Is it just me, or this this a whole different story?!

3. Hansel and Gretel had no names in 1810. They were listed as Brüderchen und Schwesterchen (Little Brother and Little Sister). Originally, Jacob named them Hansel and Gretchen, and Wilhelm changed to to Gretel so it would rhyme better.

4. The birth of Sleeping Beauty is prophesied by a randomly appearing crayfish. Also, the fairy's prophecy is fulfilled on her 15th birthday (the last day of her 15th year), which often gets mistranslated as her 16th.

5. King Thrushbeard is a whole different story, put together from two separate tales. In one, the king in disguise takes the princess home, and then reveals himself and apologizes (!) for scaring her. In the other, she goes to steal food by her own volition, not because her husband tells her to. Both tales feel more like the princess was taught a lesson for despising poverty, rather than for being picky about a husband.

6. In the Three Ravens, the Glass Mountain (Glasberg) is actually a Glass Castle (Glasburg), which the girl lock-picks with a chicken bone. Makes a lot more sense than using the bone to climb the mountain...

7. In Thumbling's Travels, the famous line "Too many potatoes, too little meat" was not a part of the folktale at all. Wilhelm heard it from a kitchen maid, and he thought it would be funny to put into the story.

8. In Three Feathers, the two wives trying to copy the magical feats of the Frog Princess end up horribly dying. Wilhelm took this out by the 1812 print edition. (Also, in another early version of the same tale, there is no bride at all, magic items just literally fall from a tree into a hero's lap).

9. The name on Foundling Bird in the 1810 version is Karl.

10. In Allerlei-Rauh (All-Kinds-of-Fur), it is the stepmother who chases the girl away from home. The girl had been engaged to a prince, and it is to his castle she flees in disguise (not to some random royal household).

11. In The Golden Duck, the girl who can cry pearls and roses accidentally dies, and then her stepmother decides to replace her with a false bride. The prince immediately notices the exchange. This tale also has an unexpected ending: The prince falls in with bad company, and is stabbed to death in a knife fight. The girl lives happily with her brother ever after.
(This one was delegated to a footnote in the 1815 print edition)

12. There is a tale called Murmeltier (Marmot) that was also delegated to a footnote in the 1812 book. It is basically Frau Holle on steroids. Or LSD. It involves a girl that is locked in a snow globe, fights a bear, has a trusty beaver, and meets a miller married to a male earth spirit. Among other things. Apparently it is originally a French fairy tale that someone told Jacob in a scrambled version. Nonetheless, it is delightful.

I highly recommend reading this collection. You will never think of the "Grimm" tales the same way again.

Monday, May 21, 2018

God and taxes (Following folktales around the world 66. - Macedonia)

Today I continue the blog series titled Following folktales around the world! If you would like to know what the series is all about, you can find the introduction post here. You can find all posts under the Following Folktales label, or you can follow the series on Facebook!

19th century Macedonian Folktales
Marko Cepenkov
Macquarie University, 1991.

This book (which you can find online) contains 66 tales from the 19th century collection of Marko Cepenkov. Interestingly enough, even though Cepenkov gathered more than 800 folktales in his life (as well as legends and other folk texts), he was not really a folklorist or researcher. Rather, he listened to the stories, then mulled about them until they were "ready", and then wrote them down with his own words. In that way, he is another link in the chain of oral tradition that formed the stories, rather than an academic.
There are not many classic "fairy tales" in this collection. Most of the stories are legendary tales, funny anecdotes, and realistic tales. In exchange, they really are an excellent lineup of stories: The jokes are amusing, the legends are clever, and many stories mirror directly some issues and social situations that exist even to this very day (you'll see). The translation is also entertaining, although I wished there had been some notes accompanying the tales.


I was sad that the Bulgarian volume did not contain the tale of Silyan the Stork... and lo and behold, I found it in this one! The book says it is one of Cepenkov's most famous tales. Not sure if the Bulgarians would agree with that statement, but it is a great story anyway. Silyan the good-for-nothing husband and father goes out into the world, and gets shipwrecked on the Island of Storks. The storks of the world are people, who live as humans for half a year, and as birds the other half. Silyan also learns the secret of transformation, and flies home with them... but then gets stuck in bird form, and can only watch his family from afar. Eventually, the tale does have a happy ending, and we also learn a lot about storks along the way. The people's love for animals (and storks especially) also showed through in other tales. One had a poignant moral: If you help a wicked man, you help the devil. In this, a kind man saved a snake and a stork, and they both helped him in return; then he saved a wicked man, and almost got executed because of his shenanigans. The story concluded: "You don't have to harm wicked people, but you should not help them either." Words to live by...
I also loved the moral of the tale of The rich man who bought a liver for a poor man. A rich man bought a liver as a gift to a poor man, and then asked him to carry his own shopping home "as a thank you." On the way, the rich man boasted to everyone what a great charity he had done, then made the poor man do some more chores "as a thank you," while basking in his own charity. Finally, the poor man decided one liver was not worth the humiliation, and left. I want to use this tale for teaching about privilege... Similarly, the one titled The poor man who lost a thousand eggs on the way to Istambul. In this one, the poor man had to give his eggs away little by little to corrupt customs officers. Eventually, he decided to set up a toll booth at the cemetery, and grew rich from taking a "burial tax." Only at the end of his life did the Emperor discover the trick, and with it, the corruption in his kingdom. (Fun fact: This story still goes around on the Internet as an urban legend!).
I had a feeling of déja vu reading the tale of The man who had the emperor's permission to murder. A man made a bet that the judges of the city were so corrupt that he could get away with killing someone on the marketplace in broad daylight, if he paid them off. He did prove his point, and won the bet, by presenting a "licence" made of money to the judge. Hmmm.
Some of the animal tales were also delightful. That of The Wolf told about a hungry wolf that tried to devour various animals, but they all tricked him in various ways. Even better was The fox who had a hundred ideas, and the badger who only had two: The fox kept taking advantage of the badger and stealing his ideas, until he outsmarted her in the end.
There were several religious legends in the book where humor and moral went hand in hand. My favorite was that of St. Peter and the poor man. The saint took pity on a freezing beggar, and asked God to make it so that it would be summer all year round. But he soon found out that eternal summer came with consequences: Amphibians and reptiles began to proliferate, grow, and become sentient. Eventually, when King Toad asked for Peter's daughter in marriage, he had to admit the whole thing was a bad idea... I was also amused by The poor man and St. Nikola, in which the protagonist bought two icons, that of the Virgin and that of St. Nikola, to guard his house from thieves. When the house was robbed anyway (obviously), he threatened Nikola until the saint made sure the goods were returned. I loved it that the poor man decided to let the Virgin off easy, because "she was probably changing diapers at the time."
The tale of Truth and Falsehood was similar to the popular "Truth and Story" tale, except here the truth was dressed up in lies, and felt very embarrassed about it. Finally, there was a very clever story about A man who kept a written record of all the female wiles. He collected all the tricks that women used to cheat on their husbands with him (!!!), and then tried to control his own wife by consulting the list. Of course, the wife, who was actually faithful, still managed to prove that she could have tricked him if he wanted to.


It is not all that surprising that there is a Macedonian version of King Midas - except instead of donkey ears, here The king had a horn in the middle of his forehead. The lucky boy's story was very similar to that of the Devil's three golden hairs, except here the boy's lucky fate was decided by The Three Fates (and written down), and it was the daughter herself who changed the letters to be able to marry him. Also, I loved the variant of the Blacksmith and the devil in which the protagonist showed up in Heaven with twelve devils in the end (his card-playing buddies), and insisted that if he had to treat all the twelve apostles when Jesus visited him, then he was entitled to bring his friends in too. St. Peter couldn't argue.
There was also another variant of 'why old people are not killed anymore' - in this one, The old folks were taken up to the mountain to die. Interestingly, in this one the king gave young people impossible tasks on purpose, to make the realize they needed their elders' wisdom. There was also another tale where a child helped serve justice to thieves (and his name just happened to be Solomon).
After Greece, I once again found a tale about a man who would his Fountain of Luck... and tried to broaden the tap with a stick, but the stick broke, and blocked his luck. He eventually died from an accidental self-inflicted cannonball wound.
I grew up hearing the story of the stubborn donkey and the chili pepper from my grandfather. Here, there was yet another version after Nasruddin, but with Six donkeys.

Where to next?

Friday, May 18, 2018

Are millennials killing the fairy tale?

Alright people, gather up, because I'm only willing to do this once.

Millennials have a reputation in the news for being notoriously murderous, but to be honest, I don't usually pay much attention to the kill list du jour. This week, however, several iterations of an article popped up on my feed that all talked about my generation's latest victim: The fairy tale.

Things just got personal.

First up, the articles. The original "poll" of 2000 parents was published on the MusicMagpie blog, with the title "Are fairytales outdated and offensive?". This was soon picked up by a very telling (heh) assortment of news outlets with titles such as "Snowflake parents are censoring fairytale storylines to make them more PC" and "Outdated and offensive?" and "Millions of parents 'CHANGE the endings of classic fairytales because they are politically incorrect'". The poll and the implications came in handy for several sources that like to conflate the natural evolution of the oral tradition with panic about "political correctness."

So. Let's set a few things straight.

1. Folktales and fairy tales are NOT the same thing.
Folktale means a story comes from the oral tradition (as in, told by teh folk). Fairy tale is a type of tale that features magical elements. Some fairy tales are folktales, and some are literary tales (as in, they have an author). The line between the two is not always clear, but that's the general idea.

Why is this important?
Well, because

2. Folktales have VARIANTS.
That means, they have been told, and are being told, in many places by many people in many, vastly different ways. Claiming that one story is "right" or "wrong" just shows that the person critiquing has never really read or heard any other version.

Why is this important?
Well, because

3. Folktales have ALWAYS CHANGED.
They have been changing for centuries. They change with every telling. They have changed so much between each edition of the Grimm collection that you'd barely recognize the first version (Did you know that there are TWO wolves in Little Red Riding Hood? Or that Rapunzel gets pregnant and left in the tower? Or that Snow White is persecuted by her own mother?). What a story looks and sounds like depends on how far back you want to go. Like, shall we go all the way back to when the Dancing Princesses were wine-crazed followers of Bacchus who had to be exorcised by a priest?

Why is this important?
Well, because

4. You are free to CHANGE the tale, or PICK a version you like.
Because oral tradition works like that.
For example: If you have problems with non-consensual kissing in Sleeping Beauty (or, going back further, the fact that the prince gets the sleeping Talia pregnant, and then leaves her until she wakes up while giving birth) - you can just pick a motif that works better for you.
Folktale motifs are like LEGO blocks for stories. You can mix and match them. For example, there are several Sleeping Beauty variants where the princess is woken up when a prince (in some cases, another princess) pulls the magic splinter from her hand. Or there are tales from a related type (Water of Life) in which the sleeping princess is about to be attacked by a snake, so the prince kills the snake, and that breaks the curse.
There is no one single right way to tell it. There are several.  

Why is this important?
Well, because

5. Some story motifs (or entire stories) DO GET OUTDATED.
The big mistake of the article (and the poll) is that it does not make a distinction between necessary (and natural) changes for social values, and changes that result from people misunderstanding how folktales work.
Take the Lazy Cat, for example. It is a traditional Hungarian folktale that used to be wildly popular. It is about how a man teaches his wife to be a good, hard-working woman by repeatedly beating her bloody with a whip. Eventually, she learns. The end.
Traditional? Yes. Should we tell it to kids?

But this is only half of the issue.
The other half is that

6. Our understanding of violence CHANGES as we grow up.
When kids hear Little Red Riding Hood, they don't imagine a scene from Game of Thrones. It is clear from the story that Red gets to be swallowed in one cartoonish gulp, since she is rescued in one piece later. As a practicing storyteller for more than 10 years, I can tell you this: The only complaint I have ever received from kids about folktale violence is that it should have been bloodier. Death in fairy tale symbolism means absolute closure. The wolf needs to die, or the kid will have nightmares, not from the belly-cutting, but from the fear that it might come back.

But this is still only part of the issue.

If we really are focusing on parents telling bedtime stories, here is the big solution: TALK TO YOUR KIDS. Ask them what they think. Listen to what they say. If they tell you they are scared of the wolf, then tell something else. Or even better, ask them why they are scared. Talk about wolves. Look at pictures. Draw pictures. Discuss. Bedtime stories are not supposed to do the heavy lifting.


Okay, now, just for funsies, let's look at the "worst offenders" in that poll.

"36% are concerned by the Pied Piper of Hamlin tricking children into following him."

You know who else is very concerned about that? The parents who didn't pay the piper.
(There is a moral to this story, you see)
Also, this is neither folktale, nor fairy tale. This is a local historical legend.

"Almost one in four disagree with Cinderella doing all the cleaning and chores."

You know who else disagrees with this? THE AUDIENCE. That is why they love the part of the story where she doesn't have to do that anymore. You know, the ending?

"27% think Robin Hood is a terrible role model, despite giving back to the poor."

People need to learn the magical phrase of "you know, back in those days..." and read up on feudalism.

"A quarter think The Ugly Duckling could encourage body-shaming and discrimination." 

Again, not a folktale, and also not a particularly great story. But I'll play. Here is your reading comprehension test: What does the ending of this tale say about bullying ugly ducklings?

"One in four think Sleeping Beauty is problematic due to Prince Charming not asking for consent before kissing the princess." 

See No. 4 above.

"3 in 10 dislike Hansel and Gretel as children are left alone in the forest." 

You know who else dislikes that? Hansel and Gretel. Oh, and THE AUDIENCE.

"Little Red Riding Hood , for example, ends with a little girl being eaten by a wolf then cut out of said wolf’s stomach by a hunter with an axe."

Little Red is kind of a crap story. That is probably why I have been halfway around the world, read a couple of thousand folktales, I found no variants of it. For other concerns, see Numbers 6 and 7.

Oh, and as for millennials: We just grew up on Disney movies. It's not like we made them.

(***Do NOT get me started on how Eurocentirc this whole debate is***)

Monday, May 14, 2018

Sun, Moon, and Nasruddin (Following folktales around the world 65. - Albania)

Today I continue the blog series titled Following folktales around the world! If you would like to know what the series is all about, you can find the introduction post here. You can find all posts under the Following Folktales label, or you can follow the series on Facebook!

A Föld Szépe - Albán népmesék
Európa Kiadó, 1957.

This book is among the earliest in our Tales of Nations series. It's a translation of a 1954 volume that was published by the Albanian Science Institute, as a representative sample from their huge collection of folktales. It contains 44 stories, but no additional information; there are some footnotes, and a short Afterword. Translator claims the sample is pretty well-rounded in representing Albanian folktales, with the exception of stories about rebirth.
For reading Albanian folktales in English, I highly recommend this collection.


Albanian sun and moon symbols
I really loved the tale of Sun and Moon visiting - Sun wanted to bring a dress for Moon, but could not make it to measure because Moon constantly changes. Therefore Sun offered up its light instead, for Moon to dress in. Similarly pretty was the tale of Ahmet the Generous. In this one, a princess locked up by her overly protective father fell in love with Ahmet without ever meeting him. Eventually she set out to find him on her own; Ahmet's aunt helped her win his love.
I laughed a lot at the tale of Her brother took her. A girl is kidnapped by a wolf, and rescued by her brother. When the wolf comes home and asks objects where she'd gone, only a broken cup tattles on her - but it has such a lips that the wolf can't understand what it is trying to say...
I was reminded of a Greek folktale by the tale of The three brothers and Beauty of the World (Beauty of the World is the generic magical bride who shows up in many of these tales). A hero called Saber made friends with Star and Sea. They helped him when he was in danger, and in exchange he helped Star get a wife, and helped Sea become king. In another Beauty of the World tale a swarm of bees helped the hero pick out the real bride from among women who looked the same (similarly to Grimm's Queen Bee). This tale had a similar structure to my favorite Greek story The Son of the Hunter - and so did another one in the book, Letter to the Afterlife. In this one, instead of building a castle from ivory, the hero had to build one from gemstones. Beauty helped him by crying a lot; her tears turned stones into gems.
The tale of The young woman and the Four-Eyed Woman was similar to Hansel and Gretel - but without a Hansel. The young woman rescued herself from a mysterious cannibalistic woman who had two extra eyes on the back of her head.
The story of Samakadi began with a princess falling in love with a colt, and insisting of marrying it. Eventually, of course, the colt turned out to be a prince... but he was kidnapped by a dragon, and then the girl (!) had to set out to rescue him. The story turned into a Magic Flight type tale, except in this case it was the husband who was helping his wife complete impossible tasks.
How the devil was killed had the common motif of the hidden death (like Koschei the Deathless, or the Crystal Ball), but in this case, the hero himself was a shapeshifter. He received his powers from the Parcae, the three matrons of destiny: He could turn into an ant, a hawk, or... a winged man with superhuman strength. Definitely an upgrade compared to other variants.


Once again I encountered a variant of one of my favorite tales, known from the Pentamerone as The Flea. A princess doesn't want to marry so she sets an impossible task - but the devil solves it, and takes her. Seven Brothers set out to rescue her, each with his own special superpower. I especially liked it that at the end of this version, she got to pick which one she wanted to marry. A similar "superhero team" appeared in the tale of Bilmeni, and I was especially excited about it because it contained a hero whose power was to cause earthquakes. I have never seen one in any variant other than the one from Greece.
There was a trickster hero in a Treasures of the Ogre type tale - except here instead of an ogre or dragon, the enemy was a cyclops. At the end of the story they blinded him the same way Odysseus blinded the other one (we are close to Greece here). The tale of The Mermaid, on the other hand, was reminiscent of northern Selkie stories. It was a cruel variant, where two brothers trapped a mermaid and forced her into human marriage; they even threatened the life of her child to make her talk. Eventually, she fled back to the waters.
The tale of Fenichka was an interesting mix of the Frog Princess and Daughter of the Sun. Beauty of the World here appeared as a snake and married the youngest brother; then she did all kinds of magical things, tricking her sisters-in-law to try to copy her (e.g. she cut her own breasts off and cooked them, but they grew back). This (very Mediterranean) motif also showed up in Daughter of Sun and Moon. A woman went to Sun and Moon to ask for a soul for a girl she made of clay (and did the whole "series of questions" thing along the way). The girl got a soul, and also magic powers, which she used to trick the brides of her true love into trying to copy her.
There were tales of a princess turning into a prince (The magic mare), a princess disguised as a prince (Silent One), a Clever Girl, and even one about a Glass Mountain, which turned out to be very similar to the Gemstone Mountain tale of the Greeks.
The local trickster is Nasruddin (Nastardin) hodja. I was excited to find a tale about him that I only knew from the Nart sagas so far (Nastardin's cow and the end of the world).

Where to next?