Saturday, June 15, 2019

StorySpotting: A girl, a desert, a lizard (The Magicians)

StorySpotting is a weekly or kinda-weekly series about folktales, tropes, references, and story motifs that pop up in popular media, from TV shows to video games. Topics are random, depending on what I have watched/played/read recently. Also, THERE WILL BE SPOILERS. Be warned!

I am doubling down on The Magicians this week, since I have been binge-watching season 4. As far as plotting and character development goes, this season has probably been the best.

Where was the story spotted?

The Magicians, season 4, episode 10 (All that hard, glossy armor)

What happens?

Margo is (self-)exiled from her kingdom, and sets out into the desert on a quest to find a magic weapon. In her satchel she carries her very own Lizard of Destiny, which is supposed to reveal her future, except it is stubbornly quiet. Lost in the desert, Margo licks the lizard out of thirst and starts hallucinating (this is a musical episode). Eventually, she ends up in a village plagued by demons, solves the mystery of where they come from and what they want, and restores the women of the village to their deserved place of power.

What's the story?

There is an Algerian folktale called Aicha's tasks on earth - although I usually tell it with the more exciting title of Aicha the Demonhunter. It is about a strong and capable young woman who defeats a man-eating ghoul, rejects the advances of a cowardly prince, and learns the secrets of geomancy (reading the future from sand). While killing he ghoul, a splinter of the monster's bone embeds itself in Aicha's skin, and with it comes a curse: she has to leave her home and keep wandering. Aicha turns the curse to her advantage: she travels from city to city, defeating monsters as she goes along.
In one version of the story, she is accompanied by a lizard-like creature that represents the curse and clings to her shoulder. Eventually, Aicha ends up in a dense forest, and keeps riding through it until the lizard is scraped off of her, and the curse is broken. Then she returns to the kingdoms she saved, and becomes a powerful queen.

(I included this story in my folktale collection, Tales of Superhuman Powers, under Future Sight)


This was probably just a merry coincidence, rather than a conscious folktale reference, but the imagery of the magician queen, the magical lizard, and the demon-hunting desert quest were still delightfully familiar.

Monday, June 10, 2019

Classics and morals (Following folktales around the world 110. - Guinea-Bissau)

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 here, or you can follow the series on Facebook!

Sadly, Guinea-Bissau is another one of those countries that I could not find a story book from, so I delved into the Internet, and used my knowledge of Spanish and Latin (and some Google Translate) to find as many folktales as I could.

The hyena, the hare, and the holly (From this book)

A classic tar baby tale. Hare keeps stealing fish from Hyena's fish trap, replacing them with toads. Eventually, hyena becomes suspicious, and creates a stick figure covered in sticky holly (?) syrup - and Hare, like every other trickster ever, falls for the trick.

I was born in the fire (From this book)

Hare keeps stealing from Hyena's peanut plantation, until Hyena manages to construct a trap that catches him. However, when Hyena wants to throw Hare into the fire, the thief insists that he is fireproof, because he was born in it (showing his red eyes as proof). He begs the Hyena not to throw him in the tall grass instead, and Hyena falls for the deception.

The legend of African drums (Bijago tale, from here)

The spot-nosed monkeys decide that they want to go to the moon. They stand on each other's shoulders, until the smallest monkey reaches the moon. However, the pile topples, and the little monkey gets stuck up there. Moon gives him a drum to keep him entertained, but eventually he becomes homesick, and wants to return to earth. Moon lets him down on a rope, telling him to strike the drum when he's arrived. The bored monkey begins drumming halfway down, Moon lets go of the rope, and monkey falls, landing among some humans. He hands the drum to the humans - and we have had drums ever since.

The hunter and the crocodile (From here)

Classic tale about a hunter that rescues a crocodile, and it wants to eat him in return. They go to various animals for justice, and they all side with crocodile - except for Hare, who tricks the beast into going back into the trap, and saves the hunter's life.

The race between monkey and tortoise (From here)

Another classic, an animal race tale: here, tortoise leaves bananas along the road, and monkey keeps getting distracted.

Vulture and falcon (From here)

Falcon makes fun of vulture because he doesn't hunt. Later on, however, falcon flies into a tree, and is suddenly grateful that vulture doesn't eat live animals. Once he is dead, vulture eats him, getting the last laugh.

Tedungal Djamanu (From here)

A very honest young man sets out to find a wife. He is starving along the road, so he eventually steals a mango - then he feels so bad about it that he finds the owner of the tree, and offers compensation. The owner demands that the young man marry his deaf, mute, blind, leper daughter. The young man agrees to keep his promise - and it all turns out to be a test.

The curious bird (From here)

The owl forces a bird to serve him by threatening it with his "horns" (feathers). One day, he gets drunk and passes out, and the curious bird finds out the truth.

Two borthers (From here)

An Ali Baba type tale, with a clever and a stupid brother.

The shoemaker king (From here)

A kingdom selects its ruled based on exactly how tall the candidates are. A poor shoemaker fits the height perfectly.

A promise kept (From here)

A man sets tasks for the suitors of his daughter. They have to cross a river without getting wet. All three suitors solve the problem in miraculous ways - and since the father can't decide between them, he creates three daughters out of one, so that they each win a wife.

Nafa Munharé (From here)

A king has two beautiful but mean wives, and he is told that he will only have children when he marries an ugly woman. The three sons eventually grow up and set out to seek their fortune, but the two older ones torture the youngest until he is left alone to die. Listening in on the conversations of vultures, he learns important secrets, becomes rich, and lives happily ever after.

Mam Tamba and the buffalo (From here)

Mam Tamba, the hunter, kills a buffalo. The calf of the buffalo sets out to avenge his mother, turns into a human, and moves into the hunter's home as a guest. As he watches the hunter and his children, slowly he takes a liking to them, forgives them, and before returning home, reveals his secret to Mam Tamba.

The two rivals (From here)

Kind and unkind girls, with a snake.

I also found some criole anecdotes.

Where to next?

Saturday, June 8, 2019

StorySpotting: I spy with my fairy eye (The Magicians)

StorySpotting is a weekly or kinda-weekly series about folktales, tropes, references, and story motifs that pop up in popular media, from TV shows to video games. Topics are random, depending on what I have watched/played/read recently. Also, THERE WILL BE SPOILERS. Be warned!

Like any good urban fantasy show about magic, SyFy's The Magicians uses a lot of folklore elements for plot and flavor (and usually subverts them with hilarious results). It was, however, especially fun to spot one that is less well known, but was excellently adapted.

Where was the story spotted?

The Magicians, seasons 3-4 (ongoing plot)

What happens?

In season 2, Margo loses her eye to a fairy queen who is quietly conquering her kingdom. In season 3, however, after doing some favors to the fairies, Margo is rewarded with a replacement for her lost eye - a fairy eye with magical powers that let her see things other people can't. She can see magic, hidden objects, illusions, etc. Her vision becomes useful to the plot a couple of times in season 4.

(She can also pop it out and put it back in. Obviously.)

What's the story?

There is a folktale type commonly known as The Fairy Midwife (ATU 476, officially titled Midwife (or godparent, or nurse) for the Elves). The story features a mortal person, who is out-of-the-blue visited by some supernatural creature who asks for their help. Most often it is a midwife, who is woken up in the middle of the night by some frantic stranger who spirits her away to an unknown location to help with a birth. While in the other world, doing some kind of a service, the mortal accidentally gets some supernatural ointment in her eye. She is either supposed to be rubbing the newborn fairy baby with it, or she is watching the fairies/trolls/elves apply it to themselves - either way, despite dire warnings, she rubs some of the ointment in one of her eyes, and suddenly gains magical sight. She can see the fairy world for what it is - a cold underground cave instead of a palace - or she can see the fairies that have been invisible to her before.
The story usually ends on a dark, but not tragic note: some time later, the mortal spots the fairies doing some mischief in disguise, and calls out to them. They are surprised to be seen, and ask her which eye she can see them with. When she indicates the eye, the fairies simply pluck it out - or blow on it, leaving her half blind.

You can read several variants of this folktale type here, here, or here.


In Margo's case, the story happened the other way around: first the plucking, and then the magic sight. It was a small change, but they have been using her new abilities wisely ever since.

Monday, June 3, 2019

Hare and trickery (Following folktales around the world 109. - The Gambia)

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 here, or you can follow the series on Facebook!

Folktales from The Gambia
Wolof fictional narratives
Emil A. Magel
Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1984.

The book features 45 Wolof folktales, collected in The Gambia between 1973-74. They are organized by structure, which was kind of fascinating (e.g. "statement-parallel-conclusion" type stories), although less useful than organizing by tale types. The Introduction talks about Wolof history, culture, storytelling, story structure, and other interesting topics. Each story came with ample end notes, and there is also a bibliography.


One of my favorite stories in the book was featured in two variants, under the awkward title The marriage of two masters of the Wolof language. It was about a girl who was so clever and eloquent that she confused all of her suitors - and a young man smart enough to understand her. They communictaed through references and metaphors, and she even rescued him from bandits in the end, thanks to a mysterious message he sent.
Wolof warriors
I also liked the story of the young man who was searching for a friend. He met another chief's son and they became best friends - however, our hero started an affair with his best friend's stepmother, the youngest wife of his father. When the father discovered the affair, the friend came to the rescue with a clever lie.
There were many tales with morals, where the wrong behavior was duly punished, such as the story of a greedy father, who hid food from his hungry family. He even pretended to be dead, so that he would be buried near the food. He was eventually found out by his son, and turned into vines out of shame.
I also enjoyed the fun tale of the donkeys of Jolof. Their king turned into a man and started a human family, until all the donkeys turned into people too, and went drumming and singing, looking for their ruler to bring him home.


There was once again a snake husband (Handsome suitor) tale; I read one of these from Mali, and while these variants lacked the helpful little sister, they still had the warning message about things that look too good to be true. Another familiar African motif was the wife who was secretly a beast (in this case, a hyena). I remember an African-American folktale similar to that of the Eternal lovers - a ram and an ewe. The ram was captured by a king, cooked, and eaten, but it kept singing to his wife all along, even from the king's stomach, until they eventually cut him out of there. I also knew the tale type of Hare seeks endowements from Caribbean traditions - the hare trickster wanted more cunning from Allah, but once he completed all the tricky tasks in exchange, Allah decided he had plenty of cunning to spare already.
Of course, there was yet another "kind and unkind girls" type tale, here it was the Mother of Wild Animals who doled out gifts and punishment. Kumba, the orphan girl, poked the wild animals with needles at night, so that they would think there were fleas in the bed, and leave her alone.
The trickster in residence was definitey Hare, who usually tricked Hyena - rode him like a horse, saved a helpful hippo from him, or got him punished for stealing ostrich eggs from inside a tree (a very popular tale among story therapists, the Secret Heart of the Tree, is very similar to this one). I knew the story of the Bearded Rock as an Anansi tale from Ghana, but this one was a bit darker: any animal that said "that rock has a beard!" died immediately, and Hare gleefully used up all their meat.

Where to next?

Saturday, June 1, 2019

StorySpotting: An old woman in a pumpkin (Years and Years)

StorySpotting is a weekly or kinda-weekly series about folktales, tropes, references, and story motifs that pop up in popular media, from TV shows to video games. Topics are random, depending on what I have watched/played/read recently. Also, THERE WILL BE SPOILERS. Be warned!

Years and Years, BBC One's brand new drama created by Russell T. Davies, just launched a few weeks ago, and it already has a lot to love. Solid cast, exciting story, lots of sarcastic humor about current (and future) events. And on top of that: A storyteller!

Where was the story spotted?

Years and Years, series 1, episode 1

What happens?

One of the main characters on the show, Daniel, meets his new neighbor in the first episode, and offers to give her a lift to work. The charming woman named Fran Baxter (portrayed by Sharon Duncan-Brewster) tells him that she is a professional storyteller, which amuses him at first, but she goes on to confirm that it is an actual job, and "it's worldwide." Later on in the episode, we see Fran perform by a campfire to a group of Ukrainian refugees - we get to hear her tell part of a folktale about an old woman who hides inside a pumpkin. During the story, she even uses the call-and-response "Cric? Crac!" with the audience.

What's the story?

The story Fran tells is easily recognizable from a few lines: It's a Persian folktale variously known as "The old woman in a pumpkin shell" or "The rolling pumpkin." In it, an old woman sets out to visit her daughter's family who live on top of a hill. On the way she encounters three monsters (depending on the variant, a wolf, a lion, an ogre, a tiger, etc.). Each wants to eat her, but she asks them to let her visit her daughter first, since she will be much fatter and juicier on the way home. All three beasts agree to wait. The old woman makes it to her daughter's, and tells her what happened. When she is ready to go home, the daughter has an idea: She puts her mother inside the shell of a large pumpkin, and rolls the pumpkin down the slope of the hill.
As the pumpkin rolles down, each beast stops it in turn, and asks if it has seen a fat old lady coming along. The old woman inside the pumpkin denies it and asks them to roll her on her way. The last beast, however, manages to crack the pumpkin open somehow. In some variants, the woman tricks the last beasts into getting insite the pumpkin, and rolles it off a cliff - or she simply jumps out and screams at the beast until it runs away. She makes it home safe.
This story works wonders with small kids, and is sometimes also tacked on to the end of another popular Persian folktale, Pumpkin Girl.

(Find the story here, here, here, or read it online here. There is also a Bengali version here.)

"Cric? Crac!" is a call-and-response tool widely known among American storytellers from the Haitian oral tradition. The teller calls out "Cric?" and the audience has to respond "Crac!" as one, or the story stops until they all do. It is fun and useful, and gave its name to a marvelous storytelling group in the UK, the Crick Crack Club.


To say I'm incredibly excited about my profession being represented (well!) on TV is an understatement! I hope we'll get to see her tell again.

Monday, May 27, 2019

The Epic of Kelefaa Sane (Following folktales around the world 108. - Senegal)

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 here, or you can follow the series on Facebook!

Since, despite my best efforts, I could not find a book of folktales from Senegal, I decided to read a folk epic instead.

The Epic of Kelefaa Saane
Sirifo Camara
Indiana University Press, 2010.

The Mandinka epic that is presented in this book in Mandinka and English mirror translation is about the great 19th century hero, Kelefaa Saane, who protected the kingdom of Kaabu (currently parts of Senegal and Gambia) from a foreign invasion. The epic is more than 3200 lines long (took two and a half hours to sing), and was recorded from a griot (jalóol) named Sirifo Camara in Dakar in 1987. The storyteller passed away in 2003, but he expressed his wishes that his story be made available in print to a wider audience. This is the longest version of this epic recorded so far. Kelefaa Saane is presented as a great and powerful warrior - he is a historical character, but we don't know much about his life from historical sources.
The book has a detailed Introduction with maps, photograps, and historical-cultural context about African epics. We can also read about the life of Sirifo Camara, who sang various hero epics, and performed on the radio for decades. This performance of his was being sold on casette tapes at the market. The translator admits that he could not reproduce the original alliterations, rhymes and rhythms. The book comes with pronounciation guides and notes for the Mandinka text.


I really enjoyed the scene where djinn visited the newborn hero in the shape of various animals, to give him powers - the chameleon djinn gave him the ability to change (which he used later to hide from a shapeshifting enemy), and the monitor lizard gave him the power to live both in water and on land. I also liked the part where Kelefaa met a pack of hyenas, and convinced them (and their female leader) he was not afraid of them, so they elected him as their leader, and gave him magical gifts in the hopes of getting a lot of meat under his leadership.
One of my favorite moments of the epic was when a djinn girl fell in love with the young hero while he was herding sheep in the woods. She asked him if he'd fear her if she showed her true form, and he asked her to show herself in any form she wanted. After a series of shapeshifting, Kelefaa told the djinn that he was not scared of her. They got married.


Like in the case of many other heroes around the world, the father of Kelefaa Saane doesn't live to see his son grow up. Fulfilling a prophecy, he dies before he can name his son (this reminded me of Fionn Mac Cool's father). There is also a magic weapon featured in the epic - in this case, in a modern fashion, a magic gun with a magic tracking-and-returning bullet, taken out of the mouth of a crocodile (or rather, a sorcerer turned into a crocodile). Shapsehifting was an important part of the story; Kelefaa defeated his own uncle, the king, in a shapeshifting fight.

Where to next?
The Gambia!

Saturday, May 25, 2019

StorySpotting: Breastmilk from a giantess (Game of Thrones)

StorySpotting is a weekly or kinda-weekly series about folktales, tropes, references, and story motifs that pop up in popular media, from TV shows to video games. Topics are random, depending on what I have watched/played/read recently. Also, THERE WILL BE SPOILERS. Be warned!

Who doesn't like Tormund and his outrageous stories? If there was a true storyteller in this show (after Old Nan), it's not Bran, it's definitely the Tormund.
I'm just gonna say it up front: The research for this post royally messed up my search history and Facebook ads. You're welcome.

Where was the story spotted?

Game of Thrones, season 8, episode 2 (A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms)

What happens?

During the night of drinking before the Battle of Winterfell, Tormund Giantsbane, everyone's favorite Wildling, tells a story. It goes like this: "I killed a giant when I was 10. Then I climbed right into bed with his wife. When she woke up, you know what she did? Suckled me at her teat for three months. Thought I was her baby. That’s how I got so strong: giant’s milk."
The story has already launched a thousand memes. Just Google "Tormund" and "milk."

What's the story?

Tormund, in the fashion of a true storyteller, takes a story that already exists, and makes it his own. Suckling a giantess' milk is a common motif in world folklore, believe it or not. It usually goes like this:
A hero is on a voyage or a mission, and in order to complete it, he needs help from a giantess. To avoid her killing him on sight, he sneaks up on her, and in an opportune moment he latches onto her breast and sucks milk from it. Sometimes this maneuver is aided by the fact that the giantess wears her breasts thrown over her shoulders (motif number G123, because obviously). Thus, before she even notices, he becomes her milk child, and therefore she cannot hurt him.

Pic from here
The motif appears in a lot of different cultures. In the Abaza Nart Sagas, it's the hero Sosruquo who sneaks up on a sleeping witch and sucks milk from her breast, so that she has to adopt him, and give him a horse. In the Armenian tale of the Sunset Lad, the hero on his way to placate the Sun's mother (whom he'd cursed as a child) sucks a giantess' milk, and she helps him accomplish his quest. In another Armenian tale, The Wicked Stepmother, the hero sucks the breast of the giant mother of forty giants, convincing her to help him acquire the Melon of Life. In the Palestinian folktale of Little Nightingale the Crier, the hero in search of a magic bird sucks the breast of a ghoul woman to get her to help him find the bird (and allegedly so do his brother and sister, after he fails). There are some Turkish variants as well, and  Christine Goldberg lists a bunch of other parallels from the Middle East and Africa.
In a Scottish Traveler folktale, a hero on a journey for the White Glaive of Light pretends to be a baby and is picked up and cuddled by th Big Women who guard the glaive.


DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME. In real life, sucking someone's breast uninvited (unless you are a baby) qualifies as sexual assault, not adoption. Obviously.