Monday, October 19, 2020

Tales at the crossroads (Following folktales around the world 173. - Tajikistan)

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!

Tadzsik népmesék
Jeremiás Éva
Európa, 1970.

This is another volume of the Tales of Nations series, which is one of the best and most popular folklore publications in Hungary. It contains 30 folktales from Tajikistan, organized by type from animal tales to anecdotes. At the time of publication, it was the only collection of Tajik folktales in Hungarian (I think it still is, and I couldn't find an English edition either). The afterword talks about Tajik culture, history, and storytelling. The book comes with a source and tale type index, and a glossary of foreign words. The tales are beautiful, and eloquently written.


The wonder and hero tales of the book were definitely the best. The story of Iradjpahlavan, for example, was about a boy whose father had been abducted by devs; when he grew up, he went to his rescue, and succeeded after a series of epic battles. The tale titled Alive in the grave reminded me of some Nart sagas; the hero grew up inside the grave of his wrongly accused mother, and then emerged to bring justice to her. He went through many adventures, fighting devs and venturing into the kingdom of snakes.
Tajik woman, 19. c.,
image from here
The most beautiful story in the book was the one mentioned in the title: Moon Angel was a variant of the "silent princess" tale type. What I liked is that suitors had to keep the girl awake and intrigued (not make her speak). After the hero failed his friend succeeded (with riddles and stories), and the princess decided to marry him instead, even though he was a commoner.
Among the animal stories the most interesting was that of the bird and the elephant. The elephant kept knocking the bird's nest out of a tree while scratching, and he refused to take responsibility because he was stronger. The bird then recruited the wasps, the frogs, and a crow, and together they almost killed the elephant through a trick; in the last moment they granted him mercy, warning him that small animals can be strong too when they work together.
There was also a riddle tale where a king was warned of impending danger by a treasury guard who'd seen it in a dream. The king rewarded him then fired him. Why?... Because he fell asleep on duty.
I also felt like the tale of Lak and Pak was relevant to our times. A girl accidentally ate bread with dirty hands, and she was so ashamed that she asked the king to declare that no one can ever mention her eating with dirty hands, because she would be shamed if people found out...


Due to the cultural crossroads that is Central Asia, there were also many familiar tale types in the book. For example: Brementown musicians (The donkey's journey), golden-haird twins (The talking parrot; the girl sibling got incredible power in this one), innocent girl wrongly accused (Mehranbu), a king learning a trade (The shepherd girl and the padisah - here she married someone else instead), and a mass-hysteria chain story (Lak and Pak). 
I was reminded of a Hungarian folktale by the story of the djugara seed who went to see the world with an ember and a piece of straw. Crossing a river the ember burned the straw and they were washed away. The seen grew into a plant on the riverbank, keeping the memory of its friends.
The resident trickster is Nasreddin, who was referred to as Effendi or Mosfeqi. There were several familiar tales, such as the pot that gave birth, or the one-legged geese. My favorite was the one where the clever effendi brought a tree as witness to theft, making the culprit unwittingly confess his crime.
There was also a clever fox, once again outwitted by a pheasant, who rescued all the other prey animals too.

Where to next?

Thursday, October 15, 2020

Prince Hlini (Feminist Folktales 22.)

Another Thursday, another post for Feminist Folktales! It's a series of traditional stories from around the world that display motifs that reflect feminist values. I am not changing any of the stories, merely researching and compiling them, and posting them here as food for thought. You can find the list of posts here.

Origin: Icelandic

The story

A king's only son, Prince Hlini, disappears during a hunt. The king offers a reward to anyone who can find him, but to no avail. A shepherd's clever daughter, Signy, sets out to seek the prince. She finds a cave, and inside, two beds - in one of them, there is Prince Hlini in an enchanted sleep. She hides and waits. Soon two troll women appear. They wake the prince up with the song of magic swans, and try to get him to marry one of them. Prince Hlini declines. The next day, while the troll women are away, Signy wakes the prince up, and they hatch a plan of escape.
That night Hlini pretends to be friendly with the trolls, and coaxes out of them the magic words that make the beds fly. He also learns that the trolls keep their life hidden in an egg they like to play with. The next day, after the trolls leave, Signy and Hlini take one of the beds and follow them in secret. When they start playing with the egg, Hlini breaks it, killing the trolls. The prince and the girl pile all the troll treasure on the two beds, and fly home to the palace together. They eventually get married. 

What makes it a feminist story?

I especially adore tales where male and female heroes work together to overcome challenges. This story begins with a classic Sleeping Beauty style situation, where the brave girl wakes up the enchanted prince (with patience, attention, and no kissing). However, from that point on, they both actively participate in the escape plan, and work together. On top of that, is is the prince who takes on the "sneaky" role in this plan, flattering the trolls to learn their secrets, which is often seen as a feminine role in folktales (thing women using their "wiles" to spy on people). Here, it is the prince who is trying to avoid unwanted marriage, and he finds a way out of the situation by following the girl's advice. This is another thing I love: Hlini trusts Signy, and trusts her advice.
In the second half of the story, we can see perfect cooperation between the two heroes. Signy notices the runes on the beds, Hlini finds out what they mean, Signy makes the bed fly, Hlini breaks the egg and kills the trolls. Finally, they fly home together, either one on a separate bed. I like this balance between the two roles. 
I also love the fact that a girl sets out to rescue an abducted prince.

Things to consider

Thanks to the movie franchise, many kids these days think of trolls as something cute and friendly. It is worth explaining up front that these are different kinds of (man-eating) trolls, before we traumatize the audience by killing them off. For smaller children, the fact that they turn into mushrooms can be a way of softening the description. 
Some kids I've told this story to were hung up on Hlini being a "girl name." We had some good conversations about what makes a name a "girl name", and how different languages have different naming customs. 


A. W. Hall: Icelandic Fairy Tales (Frederick Warne & Co., 1897.)

Reimund Kvideland & Henning K. Sehmsdorf: All the World's Reward: Folktales Told by Five Scandinavian Storytellers (University of Washington Press, 2011.)


This story was recommended to me by a fellow storyteller after my "gender-swapped folktales" post the other day :)

Monday, October 12, 2020

Mountains of gemstones (Following folktales around the world 172. - Turkmenistan)

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!

Turkmen Folk Tales: 
Turkmen national tales
Iqroriddin Sayfutdinov
Kindle, 2016.

I was hesitant about this book when I bought it on Kindle: the digital layout is a bit of a mess, and the text reads as if someone put the original folktales into Google Translate (possibly in Russian). With all of this said, I managed to read it (it is easy to follow if you have read folktales before), and it actually had quite a few great, entertaining and unique stories.


The favorite hero of Turkmen folktales is Yarty-Gulak, the tiny boy ("half a camel's ear"), who is also a trickster figure: he goes on adventures, gets into trouble, and especially enjoys tricking greedy rich men. His old father and mother find him in the desert and adopt him. In one story, Yarty goes into the neighbor's vineyard to eat some grapes, and accidentally manages to scare the lights out of the neighbor's family. In another, he is trapped in a clay pot that a greedy man takes from a poor potter - and he manages to trick the guy into smashing all of his own pots. In a third story he is taking three cakes to his father working the fields, and he gets into a series of adventures, including falling into a pit and being chased by a dog and a crow.
I loved the Turkmen version of the Bluebeard tale where a girl saves her two sisters. In it, a dev kidnapped three girls, and filled his palace with their tears that turned into beads. Eventually, the youngest girl managed to kill him. The story started out as a Beauty and Beast tale, by the way, with the youngest girl asking for beads as a gift, and the dev followed the father home along the trail of beads he dropped.
I enjoyed the tale of Ahmed, who wanted to be a merchant even though no one believed he could do it. He managed to gather a lot of pearls in secret, and prove people wrong. There was a dark tale about a princess whose father asked for an impossibly high bride price to keep a prince away - but the prince was so intent on marrying her that he ruined his whole family and kingdom, and sunk into crime. When he finally paid the bride prince he decided to spy on his bride - however, she mistook him for a bandit, and had him blinded by her maids. There was a similar moral to the story of the man who spoke the language of animals, and used it to sell his pets whenever they were about to die. In the end, he was about to die too, and there was no one left to help him.


There were some familiar tales in the book as well. The widow's son was a classic "three kidnapped princesses in the underworld" tale, with peris instead of princesses, divs instead of dragons, and a Simurgh bird instead of a griffin (we are close to Iran here). I especially liked that the hero didn't marry the underworld princess, instead he was adopted as her brother. In the end, when he found his bride, they flew back to the underworld on the Simurgh, and lived happily there.
There was a version of the "silent princess" tale; here the hero managed to get her to talk with the help of a golden carp. The dilemma tale embedded in this story was similar to the "woman carved from wood" stories, except here with wooden birds, which is a lot nicer.
The story of Mamed was an animal brothers-in-law tale (wolf, tiger, and lion in this case), combined with a "princess on a glass mountain" type plot. It was a neat combination.
There was once again an "ungrateful animal" story, this time with a snake locked in a box, who was tricked by a young boy to gab into the trap.
Turkmenistan is also the country where I originally got my version of Gemstone Mountain (the version I first told). This book has two versions of this tale type.

Where to next?

Saturday, October 10, 2020

Down the Rabbit Hole: More questions about researching stories

Today I taught my storytelling research workshop (Down the Rabbit Hole: The How and Why of Researching Stories) as part of the FEAST webinar series. I had a lovely group of people attending from around the globe, and a wonderful team helping me run the workshop (thanks to Sheila Wee, Roger Jenkins, and Krupa Vinayagamoorthi!).

As usual, there were a lot of questions, and I did not have time to answer all of them. Luckily, people typed them into the chat, so now I can go back and address the ones I've missed.

Here we go!

How often do you find a folk tale does not fit an ATU number?

Often. Especially when I venture further outside of Europe. In these cases I try to use other sources that might help, either regional tale type and motif indexes, or other handbooks. Here is a very useful one I didn't mention, that deals with African folktale types that also appear in the Americas. It that fails, it's back to keyword search...

Does anyone have resources for folk tales from the Punjab Region of India/Pakistan in the original language? I mostly have been finding English.

I don't, but I'm putting this out here so that other people might respond. All the sources I can come up with are also in English (like the India/Pakistan tale types and motif indexes I mentioned in the slides). 

How to search for the F number E number or H number story from the search result of

I talked about this in the workshop, but I want to share the resources. If you want to search by number, here is the motif index online (and here is the bibliography of sources it refers to). As you can see, the letters mark different groups of motifs, such as Tests or Magic. I did a really fun blog series about the weirdest motifs, you can read it here.

Also, when you have the number of a motif you are looking for, and you have already checked the motif index's own bibliography, I usually type the number into Google Books search, with quotation marks and an additional search term. For example: "S31" + "folktales"

What is your recommendation for pronunciation resources?

Usually other people, who speak the language as their native tongue. But there are also resources online, Forvo is a pretty good one for example, because people can add to it, and it gives you where the person is from.

What if I read a story in a book or watch a video of a story, and want to tell it enough to just mention about the author and the publisher or do we need to take permission from the author/publisher?

This is a whole long and complex conversation that revolves around copyright laws, and also around professional ethics. Checking whether you need copyright permission for a story is one of the main reasons people do background research. But even when something is a folktale, and not under copyright, storytellers tell the same tale very differently. We all make them our own, and out favorites become our "signature stories", as the Americans call it. Because of this, I feel it is polite to ask a teller if you like their signature version of a tale - or ask for the sources, so you can go, do your research, and come up with your own signature version! 

And finally, as usual: if anyone has any storytelling research questions, or specific stories you are looking for, feel free to reach out here, or through my Facebook page! And check out Girl in the Chair, my blog series on storytelling research. :)

Monday, October 5, 2020

Kindness, wits, bravery (Following folktales around the world 171. - Kyrgyzstan)

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!

A szürke héja
Kirgiz népmesék
Buda Ferenc
Európa, 1988.

The book contains 57 Kyrgyz folktales in thematic chapters: magic tales, animal tales, realistic tales, and origin stories (etiological tales).  The texts are eloquent, sometimes poetic, and peppered with traditional words and phrases in italics, with a glossary at the end of the book. This way, the stories kept their Kyrgyz flavor, and they are still easy to follow (I learned a lot of new words by the end). The afterword talks about Kyrgyz history, customs, culture, and traditional storytelling, even though there are no notes attached to the individual stories. I couldn't really find a Kygryz collection in English, sadly. You can read about their national epic here, though.  


I enjoyed the tale about The orphan boy who first saved a frog from a road accident, then revived various other animals, and in the end even the son of his enemy. While the other boy betrayed him, eventually he did find a happy ending, and forgave the villains. I also liked the story about The old many and a fox, where an old couple adopted a pregnant fox who in exchange hunted various animals for them. When the fox herself was being hunted, the old woman yelled at the hunters, shaming them until they left the household alone.
Image from here
The tale of The obozger's daughter was a fun variant of the silent princess type. Here a man left his bride of low birth to try and win the hand of a princess. He failed, however, and then his bride set out, disguised as a man, and managed to win the princess herself. In the end, the three of them went home together. Another story, Djapalak's wife, featured another clever woman; a khan tried to seduce her but she resisted, and then came up with a devious plan to show the khan's wife was not immune to seduction... 
The story of Tolubaj Sinchi gave me a lot to think about. It was about a khan who wanted to find a magic horse in his herds, but when a wise man pointed out the ugliest colt in the lot, the khan refused to believe him. There was also a tale where a clever khan proved that generosity comes from the heart, not from wealth. 
My favorite origin story was that of the hedgehog, who had smooth skin in the beginning, but when their wisdom was needed to defeat the devil, the animals gave them protective armor in gratitude.
One of the "golden-haired twins" tales had a lovely moment where the abandoned babies were found by a veteran warrior named Akmat, on his way home from Fairyland. He warmed the babies on his bare chest, and then raised them as his own; he even helped them from beyond the grave. I love father figures like him. Another nice moment was in the story of Akchükö and Kuchükö, where one of the heroes visited the king of dragons. The king did not only take good care of him, but also gave him a dragon to fly him where he needed to go. 


There were, once again, many familiar tale types in this book, such as extraordinary helpers (Seven sons of the old woman), sometimes along with Underworld adventures (Töstük), secret dream (Chinibek), Polyphemus (Djajil Mergen), cloth, donkey, stick (The grey hawk), Aladdin (The magic ring), firebird and grey wolf (The golden bird), magic bird heart (Akchükö and Kuchükö), magician's apprentice (The wizard boy), puss in boots (How the fox went courting), clever maid, valiant tailor (The coward warrior), false fortune-teller (Almikul Tüschü). Even one of my favorite tale types, that of the "pirate princess" showed up in the book, under the title Zar and Meer
There was a classic animal chain story (here started by a nightingale), and also a race between animals, here featuring a fox, a turtle, and a tick (the tick won). I also once again encountered the story about the animal calendar and the contest between the mouse and the camel
There were both animal and human tricksters in the stories. There was the clever fox (here outwitted by a partridge), Kösö (a smooth-faced trickster guy) and Apendi, who is very similar to the Hodja Nasreddin. 

Where to next?

Monday, September 28, 2020

A magic garden of stories (Following folktales around the world 170. - Kazakhstan)

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!

Stories of the Steppes
Kazakh folktales
Mary Lou Masey 
David McKay, 1968.

The book contains 19 folktales, translated from Russian language sources listed inside. They are not literal translations, but rather enjoyable re-tellings by the author, true to the original plot of the stories. They are accompanied by black and white illustrations, and a glossary at the end. The book was a fairly quick read; I would have enjoyed more folktales of the same style.


The most beautiful tale in the book by far is The magic garden, in which a boy sets out to plant a beautiful garden for everyone who wants to eat the fruit, drink the water, or enjoy the shade. An evil khan tries to build a wall around it (*cough*), but the garden protect itself, and remains a shelter for all people. I also loved the story that warns that Whoever knows a tale should tell it - or otherwise the tales take revenge. In this case, it's a man's sister-in-law who rescues him from the vengeful story spirits that don't want to exist in secret.
There was a lovely story about A little camel who got lost and almost eaten by wolves. When later two man argued about who the camel belonged to, a clever judge howled like a wolf, and watched which flock the little animal ran to for shelter. The camel was a less likable character in the story about The animals' quarrel that explained the origin of the animal calendar. Since it was the mouse who saw the rising sun first in a contest (standing on the hump of the camel), the cycle starts with the Year of the Mouse.
I liked the story about the Three suitors who were all promised the same girl. Eventually, a judge discovered that the girl already loved one of them, and made sure she got to marry him. This was not the only story with clever and independent girls: The woodcutter's daughter, for example, tricked a rich man multiple times when he wanted to take all her inheritance; eventually she defeated him in a storytelling contest. In the strange tale of The magic ring, golden shoe, twigs, the hero defeated three fairy women without realizing it, and eventually, when he met them, he married all three and lived happily ever after. Even though they all ate people...
The illustration was the best thing about The stupid wolf, who was tricked by various prey animals.


There were familiar tale types in the book, such as a valiant tailor (in this case, Old Man Kurai), or puss in boots (Salakhbai and the Fox). Also, Segizbai and the Mouse-girl was a variant of the story where a father wants to give his daughter to the strongest suitor - and after Sun, Wind, and Rock, he eventually marries her to a mouse. 
The resident trickster is Aldar-Kos. In one story he tricked a rich man who kept hiding food from him. There was alos a clever fox who tried to make a quail believe that World Peace is here - but the clever bird didn't fall for the trick.

Where to next?

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Cinderfella, Sleeping Prince: Less-known versions of popular folktales (Feminist Folktales, special edition)

Another Thursday, another post for Feminist Folktales! It's a series of traditional stories from around the world that display motifs that reflect feminist values. I am not changing any of the stories, merely researching and compiling them, and posting them here as food for thought. You can find the list of posts here.

Today's post is a special edition: I have collected variants of well known folktales where the gender of the hero is different from what we are used to (not saying "opposite" because gender is not a binary, people). My goal was to show off how - while people tend to bash/praise folktales for promoting "traditional gender roles" - oral folklore around the world is a lot more flexible than we tend to give credit for. 
(Links in the titles.)

Cinderella is often brought up when people discuss gender roles in fairy tales (see "if Cinderella were a guy" by the creators of - the otherwise amazing - Rebel Girls). And yet, a whole lot of Cinderfellas exist in folktales around the world. There is a Hungarian folktale called Prince Cinderella (although, despite the title, the cinder-boy walks a whole different journey), and the folktale type of The princess on the Glass Mountain (ATU 530) also often revolves around an abused youngest brother showing up in disguise three times to win a princess. 
The Cameroon folktale of The unhappy stepson follows the Cinderella plot to a letter. A boy is left at home by his stepmother to sort beans, while the princess is having a ball to pick a husband. The boy is dressed for the ball by the spirit of his mother. In the end, he even leaves his shoe behind, and the princess uses it to find him. 

Sleepig beauties are not always women - in many tales, it is a sleeping prince who needs to be awakened. In the Turkish fairy tale of The dragon prince and the stepmother, the female hero wakes and rescues a prince enchanted by peris. There is a similar Greek folktale, as well as an entire folktale type (ATU 425g), where the female hero has to sit vigil over a prince for many days and nights until the curse is broken. Often she is replaced in the last minute by a false bride - but I also know at least one variant where the women become friends instead.

Boudin-Boudine is a French folktale, where the role of Little Red Riding Hood is taken up by the boy. Also, in the end the wolf is chased away by a broom-wielding grandma.

The Swedish folktale that Andersen based his Princess and the Pea on is actually much more fun than his version. It is essentially a Puss in Boots tale, except the hero is a clever girl, and she is helped by a clever dog. And she is not bothered by the pea at all.

There is a folktale type (ATU 725) about a hero who sees a prophetic dream of wealth and fortune, but either refuses to tell his parents about it, or tells them and they are angered by his inpertinence (see Joseph and his brothers). In the end, of course, the dream comes true. Well, in the Greek folktale of The Wild Man's daughter, it's a girl who sees herself as a powerful queen in a dream, and her father chases her away. She is adopted by a wild man in the woods, who takes good care of her, and makes sure her dream comes true.
(This is also a lovely adoption story.)

The story of the Clever Maid is internationally well known: this is the tale where a girl has to visit a king "walking and not walking, dressed but not dressed," etc. In at least one version I know, from Finland, this tale is told with a clever male hero. 

In another well known folktale motif, a man usually spies on fairy women who take off their bird / swan / feather dresses while they bathe. He steals the dress/skin of the most beautiful girl, so she can't escape from him (sometimes, this backfires). Creepy, right? In the Armenian tale of The magic box, it is a girl who spies on bird men, and steals a feather cloak. In her defense, it is her stolen husband she is trying to find again.

We get used to princes in folktales setting out to seek beautiful princesses. In the Greek tale of Fair as the Sun, however, it is a princess that takes on the journey to find a legendarily beautiful prince, and make him her husband (even though he already has a lover... but that's beside the point).

There are many variants of the Silent princess folktale, where a hero has to make a princess speak three times through various means - usually with telling some very clever dilemma tales. In a Georgian folktale, however, it is a king who has to break the enchantment on a silent prince, and he is helped by a talking golden apple.

You know the folktale motif where a mortal woman marries a mysterious supernatural husband, who only visits her at night, and refuses to show his true (beautiful) face? Well, in a Lithuanian folktale it is a mortal man who marries a mysterious woman, and when he spies on her, she tosses him out the window.
(They do reunite in the end, though.)

The Love of Three Oranges (ATU 408) is a folktale type where a man sets out, obtains three magical fruits, and cuts them open to summon beautiful women. The first two usually die or disappear, but the third eventually becomes his wife.  
Well, in one tale from the Dominican Republic, it is a girl who sets out to pick grapefruit, and by burning them she summons three princes. However, she can't talk to any of them, so all three disappear. Later on, when her life is in danger, they return to help her.

You might be familiar with the motif from many "animal bride" folktales where three brothers shoot arrows in three directions, and follow the arrows to find a bride. In the Turkish tale of Rose Beauty, the archery trick is done by three princesses, who then set out to seek husbands.

This is what they call the folktale type where two brothers accidentally eat the heart / liver / head etc. of a magic bird, and gain superpowers from them. After they get separated and go through many adventures, their powers bring them good fortune and they eventually find each other again (ATU 567A). 
In the Azeri version of the story, the siblings are a boy and a girl, Lala and Nergiz, and it is the girl who has the most exciting adventures - among others, she defeats a dragon, a giant, and a sea monster too! 


Hungarian, Russian, Middle Eastern, and Caucasian folktales often contain the motif of a tree of golden apples being robbed every night, until the youngest of three princes manages to stay awake to spy on the mysterious thief. I recently found a Hungarian folktale variant, where a king's silk meadow is grazed every night. He sets his three daughters to guard it, but only the youngest princess manages to stay awake, with the help of a little mouse. At the end of the story, the mouse turns into a prince.

Jill and the Beanstalk

The well known tale of Jack and the Beanstalk belongs to folktale type ATU 328, Treasures of the Giant. It is a very interesting type, because it exists both with male and female heroes. The version with the female hero is especially well known in the Hungarian tradition. I translated one text here.
There are also other tales around the world where women climb up into the sky on a beanstalk. I read one from Nauru, and another one from Latvia.

"But the traditional gender roles in folktales..."