Saturday, July 20, 2019

StorySpotting: Moon Landing Special

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!

Today's post is a little bit different from the usual, but it had too great a topic to miss.

Where was the story spotted?

Today is the 50th anniversary of a human being first setting foot on the Moon.

What happens?

A human being walks on the moon.
Also, a pop culture connection: I am a big fan of the Changeling: The Dreaming role-playing game, where July 20th, 1969 marks the Resurgence, the moment when so many people experienced wonder at the same time that the gates of the Dreaming opened again, and magic and belief returned to our world.

What's the story?

Since the whole Moon Landing is the culmination of millennia of dreams and stories, I decided to celebrate today by spotting some of my favorite tales about people (or, occasionally, animals) visiting the Moon.

The Prince of the Dolomites: A prince, raised by his widow mother, dreams about going to the Moon from an early age. One night he sees a princess in the moonlight and falls in love with her; after that, he becomes Prince Moonstruck, and admires the Moon every night, wishing to travel there to meet the princess. Luckily, he befriends a group of Dwarfs who help him ascend to the Moon - but they warn him that if he stays too long, he will go blind. Prince and princess fall in love, but when the prince starts to lose his sight, they decide to move back to Earth. To ease the princess' homesickness, the Dwarfs paint the Dolomites with the shining colors of the Moon, and they have been like that ever since.

Shooting the Moon: A Yao folktale about how long ago there was a fiery, burning moon in the sky. The archer Ya La and his wife Ni Wo worked together to assemble a magic bow and arrow to shoot it down. When chipping stars off the fiery moon was not enough, they shot up Ni Wo's embroidery that covered the Moon's surface, and cooled it down - but it also sucked the wife herself up to the sky. Not wanting to live apart from his wife, Ya La called to Ni Wo, who let her long braid down so that her husband could climb up to her. Ever since then, they have been living on the Moon in a little hut with a cassia tree and a flock of sheep - all of which you can see in the dark shapes on the surface.

Matanako and the Moon: A folktale from Tuvalu about a boy who has a special connection to the Moon. As a baby, he only sleeps in moonlight, and when he learns to talk, he says he wishes to go to the Moon. He convinces his father to take him, and they board a ship together, sailing for the place in the East where the Moon rises from the sea. On the way they pass various spirit islands, and lose some of their crew to spirit diseases. When they reach the horizon, the father throws Matanako at the Moon, and he has been living up there ever since. The dark shapes on the surface are the shape of his body.

Why the Skunk Lives Underground: A Quechua folktale about a skunk and a fox who are unlikely best friends. Fox's biggest dream is to go to the Moon, while Skunk would like to feast on the worms that live underground. When the Moon lets down two ropes for them, they decide to climb up together. Skunk doesn't really want to go, but he agrees to accompany his friend. In some versions, a guinea pig chews Skunk's rope through and he falls back down; in others, he decides that going to the Moon is not for him after all, and comes back down to live comfortably underground. Fox makes it happily to the Moon, and thus both friends fulfill their own dreams.

The Fox who was in Love with the Moon: Another Quechua story, and a very cute one. A fox falls in love with the Moon, and wants to reach her, but no matter how many mountaintops he climbs, he can't get any closer. Eventually he climbs the highest, most daunting mountain, and from the top, he jumps into Moon's arms. He's been cradled there ever since.

True History
: Lucian of Samosata wrote this piece in the 2nd century AD as a parody of the "true stories" of ancient travelers. He claims to have sailed to the Moon on a ship picked up by a whirlwind. The Moon, he says, is inhabited by Vulture Riders, people riding giant vultures into battle, ruled by Endymion, the Moon Goddess' mortal lover. They are waging a war against the Ant Riders of the Sun over who gets to colonize the Morning Star. The Armies of the Moon have 80,000 Vulture Riders, 20,000 Cauliflower Riders, Garlic Warriors and Millet Slingers. They are joined by 30,000 Flea Archers (archers riding giant fleas) and 50,000 Wind Runners. Lucian describes the whole war in great and elaborate detail. He also shares wild tales about the Moon society, including how they harvest babies from trees that grow from men's testicles planted in the ground, how their rich people dress in glass clothes, and how they have honey instead of snot.

Orlando Furioso: In one of my favorite epic moments, the knight Astolfo borrows a hippogriff (and then Elijah's chariot) to fly to the Moon, where all lost things can be found, to search for the wits/sanity of his friend Orlando, who lost them due to his love for a woman. Among the great collection of lost things on the Moon there are such curiosities as lost fame, lost desires, lost tears, lost kingdoms, wasted efforts, lost favors, unhappy marriages, lost charms... and lost time, which is the only thing one cannot claim back. Astolfo is shocked to find a bottle with his own name on it: it contains a portion of his own lost wits, which he never even realized was missing.


There are countless other folktales and legends about traveling to the Moon; most cultures seem to have at least one. This is what made the actual Moon Landing so fascinating in the eyes of the storyteller: Humanity achieved something that it has collectively been dreaming of for millennia.
So, which dream should we tackle next?

Monday, July 15, 2019

Brains over brawn (Following folktales around the world 115. - Burkina Faso)

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 Moose of Burkina Faso
Alain-Joseph Sissao
Langaa RPCID, 2010.

The book contains forty-two folktales from the Moose people of Burkina Faso, collected from the oral tradition. We get a short introduction to Moose culture and storytelling, as well as a bibliography at the end of the book. The stories have been translated to French, and then to English, keeping their original wording. This is a folklore collection, definitely not a children's book, and some of the tales sound strange even to adult European ears. However, some of the strange tales were really interesting and enjoyable.


In the tale of The warthog and the lion, the king of the animals wanted to kill the warthog because others claimed he was stronger. Hare helped the warthog to get away, with a lot of cunning and some frustration, but the lion has been hunting his kind ever since. In another, more adorable escape story, a hunter picked up a hedgehog and her children. The mother kept telling the little ones "if God does not kill, the chief cannot kill either." Eventually the hunter set his bag down to kill an antelope, and the hedgehog family got away.
There was a fun chain story about a Beautiful girl who was kidnapped by a crocodile, and rescued by a turtledove. The dove began to sing, and the crocodile left the girl with a lizard to go listen to the music. The lizard wanted to listen too, so he left the girl with a frog, and so on, until she was finally left alone, and she could escape.
My favorite clever solution in the book, however, was for the dilemma of The chief, the hawk and the turtledove. In this one, a dove fleeing a hawk found refuge in a chief's pocket, and in return promised him whatever he wished for. The hawk promised he would have many children. The chief did not know which one to pick, but luckily a child came along, and asked what the matter was. His solution was simple yet great: he asked the hawk if he was trying to kill the dove specifically, or was just hungry. Since it was the latter, the child told the chief to bring some meat, and feed the hawk. Both birds got away content, and both of them gave their gifts to the chief.
There is always a third option.


There were also some familiar tale types in the book - for example, two variants of the Kind and Unkind Girls, both of which had an orphan girl for a protagonist. She returned home covered in gold or riches, while the lazy stepsister only got death and scorpions. On the other hand, the "clever maid" character who solved a chief's impossible tasks in this case was a boy.
There was yet another fun "dangerous rock" type trickster tale: in this case, everyone had to go A year without criticizing, because anyone who uttered a criticism would die. Hare pretended to plant a garden on a rock, and collected the possessions of the animals that made a critical comment on his foolish behavior. Eventually Guinea Fowl turned his own trick against him.
The trickster-in-residence is still Hare, who steals fruit from the chief's tree and collects impossible gifts (e.g. djinn brains). There was also a boy who was a great liar, making a fool of the chief and the whole village (gold-shitting donkey, stick that the revives the dead, classics), and swapped his punishment with someone else.

Where to next?

Monday, July 8, 2019

Great mothers, questionable husbands (Following folktales around the world 114. - Ivory Coast)

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!

Some Gold, a Little Ivory
Country tales from Ghana and the Ivory Coast
Edythe Rance Haskett
The John Day Company, 1971.

The book contains 24 folktales, out of which 14 are from the Ivory Coast (and the rest from Ghana). They have been collected and re-told by an African-American teacher, who spent years in the countries of West Africa. Since I will have a whole other post for Ghana, in this one I will only focus on the tales from the Ivory Coast. The stories were told in an enjoyable style with an audience of children in mind, and the book has some colorful illustrations, but I found it interesting as an adult as well.


In the tale of Mahda and the Bull Elephant, an evil elephant devoured the three children of a widow. She set out, tracked the elephant down, followed her children into his stomach, and saved everyone, people and animals alike, who had been trapped there.
In another story, Mongoose accidentally killed the king's favorite (but very annoying) goat, and tried to frame Dog for the murder. Dog's wife figured out a way to save her husband, and in the end, it was Mongoose who got sentenced to death by snake pit. This is why, according to the story, Mongoose is so good at killing snakes.
Once again, there were some dilemma tales in the collection. In one of them, a warrior loved two girls equally, and could not make up his mind about which one to marry - so he killed himself. One girl died after him in grief, while the other found a way to bring both of them back to life. The storyteller poses the lover's riddle: How should the warrior decide now?
In a short, fun pourquoi story, God entrusted Bat with a basket full of darkness, to deliver it to the Moon. On the way Bat fell asleep, and curious monkeys opened the basket, letting the night loose. Ever since them, Bat has been frantically flying around at night, trying to collect the darkness.


Binyoka, the Old Woman of the Water helped a girl named Hallah when she made a mistake and threw herself into a lake in her shame. She sunk down into the land of water spirits, where she met the Old Woman. Binyoka rewarded the girl's patience and kindness with gemstones, and made sure she found a good husband. This story reminded me of that of Frau Holle, without the "unkind girl" repetition. There was also a tale very similar to the European "handless maiden" stories - here, a girl was mutilated and chased away by her evil brother. When she was exiled into the wilderness for a second time, her father's blessing and the friendly forest snakes helped her turn her fate around.
The story of The Three Prayers reminded me of all the "three wishes" tales - a husband first wished his ugly wife to be pretty, then, when she was taken from him, he wished her to be a monkey, then when he got her back he wished her to go back to her original self. In the end, however, he concluded that he could be just as happy with an ugly wife.
As for tricksters: I was reminded of the Tar Baby stories by the tale in which a lazy thief was captured with the help of a bowl of fu-fu (and hot peppers). In the end, the thief was chased out of the village, and his wife, who wished for a better husband, became the second wife of the fu-fu's owner. There was also a version of the classic story in which a boy rescued a crocodile, and it wanted to eat him in return. Everyone they asked claimed that it is usual for good deeds to be rewarded with bad, until a chief came along and saved the boy.

Where to next?
Burkina Faso!

Sunday, July 7, 2019

Medusa in the backpack, and other stories about teens and role-playing games

Almost exactly a year ago, a high school invited me to their ESL summer camp for teens. I visited with my friend Danielle Bellone, we told some stories in English, and since we had a free afternoon, I decided to introduce the kids to role-playing games. Several hours and three dungeon crawls later, they were hooked. This year the organizers invited me back, by popular demand, to run some more role-playing adventures.
I love my job.

Buy it here
There were 26 teens at the camp, so we divided them into 5 and 6 person groups, and I got a three-hour session with each. Since this time I was DMing alone, I decided to bring some adventures that are perfect for beginners and also make good stories: The first volume of the Uncaged Anthology came out earlier this year, and is quickly gaining much deserved popularity. It turns old Dungeons & Dragons tropes inside out, giving voice to classic monsters, and making players reevaluate their beliefs and convictions. It's an awesome collection of short adventures, I highly recommend it!
I brought pre-made character sheets the players could pick from; my own party helped me by rolling up eight first level characters. We covered the basics (Human Cleric, Wood Elf Ranger, Half-Elf Sorcerer, Elf Rogue, Minotaur Fighter, Half-Orc Barbarian, Halfling Bard, Dragonborn Paladin). Each group selected their characters a little differently, which made for good diversity. I also brought gift D20s for everyone, so that they could continue playing on their own if they wanted.

Here are the highlights:
(SPOILERS! Also, long post, scroll to the end for TL;DR)

Team One (5 girls, all beginners both in English and in RPGs). We played From the Forest They Fled by Alison Huang. In this adventure, the party gets hired to find out why animals have been fleeing a forest. They fight some plant creatures, and eventually encounter a Dryad who is setting fire to the trees. Turns out the forest should burn down every decade or so to help new seeds germinate, but people have been controlling the forest fires, so the trees asked the Dryad for help. The party had to come up with a solution that would work both for the forest and for the people living in it. After some discussion, they decided to convince all 150 villagers to move somewhere else, promising to take care of them - and the adventure suddenly turned into a refugee saga. They were sent away from various towns and villages, until I decided to link up with another adventure, and had them arrive to Canticle Bay, from Cry of the Sea by Alicia Furness. Here, they made a deal with the mayor, who promised to take care of the refugees in exchange for the party's help. The girls worked out a second compromise between the Sirens of the bay and the human fishermen - they designated sea sanctuaries, and convinced the Sirens to teach the humans sustainable fishing methods. It was a beautiful and diplomatic solution, and I was very proud of the players.

Team Two (6 guys). We played Maid from Waterdeep by Bianca Bickford. A mute girl hired the party to look for a missing woman. She couldn't write (in my version of the adventure, anyway), so we spent some time vigorously playing charades until the party got the full story from her, which was a lot of fun. She turned out to be a former mermaid, who rescued a female Bard from a sinking ship. A rich man, who was also on the ship, got angry at her for not rescuing him first, and kidnapped the Bard in revenge. The party went looking for him, chased a servant of his across the roofs of the city, and eventually found the house where he was holed up. Fighting their way though skeletons, zombies, and a Cloaker (when in doubt, add a Cloaker), they had some amazing moments of teamwork, and defeated the rich man / witch man in a heroic fight. The crowning moment of said fight was the Storm Cleric riding on the shoulders of the Minotaur Fighter, yelling "yee-haw" and shooting crossbow bolts (until he got smacked in the face by the door frame, but still). Teamwork won the day.

Team Three (5 guys). They were the most prepared and the most experienced of them all. They had been playing regularly since last year, they knew the lingo, and they were more than ready to clear some dungeons, kill some monsters, and grab some loot. I picked Lost Gods by Natalie Wallace for them, because that adventure starts out as a classic dungeon crawl - and then takes an unexpected turn. The party is hired by a slowly dying city to find their disappeared goddess. They descend into a cave system looking for her, and encounter all kinds of ghosts and specters. The party methodically worked their way through the dungeon, investigating every room, killing every monster, collecting all the loot. Before the last room, where they though the boss monster might be, they took a rest, sharpened their weapons, prepared their spells - they were all locked and loaded for an epic boss fight. Except, when they walked in... a Medusa looked at them from a mirror, and said "Don't come in, I don't want to hurt you!" There was an awesome moment of stunned silence, as gears turned in the players' heads. "Wait, what?" After some hesitation, they began talking to the monster, who told them her story, how she had been turned into a monster by a cruel god, and how she just wants to find a home where she can't hurt people, but she can't sneak out of the city alone.
The party, surprised that they had to plan a prison break instead of a boss fight, eventually decided that they would help her. The brainstorming session that followed was as epic as any fight, until they settled on a plan: the Bard and the Sorcerer went back to the people of the city, and told them that he goddess had sent a message, and wants them to celebrate. Then they threw an epic concert on the main square, drawing all the attention while the rest of the party sneaked out of the city with the Medusa, and went to find her a safe, quiet cave up in the mountains. The next day the Bard and the Sorcerer told the people that their goddess wants them to move to a better place, and pointed them to some more fertile lands. Away from the mountains.
I loved this adventure because it made the players reevaluate their mentality about what a role-playing adventure can be. They were surprised at first that the monster wasn't evil, but once they got over that, they did some stellar teamwork and planning, and made mutually beneficial and very emphatic decisions. They showed compassion and creativity, and it was beautiful to DM them through that.

Pic from here
Team Four (5 girls). Cheerful, talkative, excited group of players. I decided on From the Forest again, because I wanted to see if there would be any difference between two girl teams in terms of solutions and outcomes. There was! They were taken by surprise by the first forest fight, but after that they immediately started brainstorming about how they could capture a creature instead of killing it, or even make friends with one. Since I am a big supporter of non-violent solutions and the Rule of Cool, I allowed them some rolls, and they successfully befriended two Vine Blights along the way. Next followed some charades, in which they gathered information from the non-verbal plant creatures, and found out about the Dryad. They even had a working theory, they thought the Dryad was trying to take over the forest for her monsters, and planned to offer her a nature reserve where she could keep them, Jurassic World style. When they actually met the Dryad (all prepared to negotiate), and found out the truth about the trees, they put their minds to coming up with another solution. The result was pretty spectacular: They negotiated a deal between the Dryad and the people, in which the humans were allowed to cut down enough trees around their village to protect themselves from the fire (promising they would replant, and also leave the Ash Gums alone), and sell the wood so they could have money until the forest regenerates. In return, they promised not to stop the forest fires. It was an elaborate and well thought out deal, and I was very proud of the girls.

Team Five (5 guys, 1 girl). Saved the most chaotic one for last :) They had been waiting all week to get their turn, and jumped in with both feet, picking their characters and preparing for great adventures. I picked Lost Gods, because it worked so well with the previous enthusiastic party. Once again, the differences between two groups of players were both significant and kind of awesome. This party got a little bit more lost in the dungeon, but they did manage to kill off all the ghosts and monsters they encountered. They were also taken aback by the Medusa's confession and friendly nature, but after some consideration, they, too, decided to help her - in their own special way. They stuffed the Medusa in a giant backpack, and had the Minotaur member of the party simply carry her out of the cave. When they encountered the people of the city, they claimed that they did not find the goddess, but they would keep looking - and which point the grateful civilians invited them for dinner. So, Medusa in the backpack, they went and had a nice dinner at the mayor's house... then they waited until everyone was asleep, looted the mayor's office, and sneaked out of the place. Sadly, they Stealth was not exactly the best, so they woke half the city up before they made it to the city wall. In a moment of desperation, the Minotaur threw the bag up on the wall, followed by the (disgruntled) Elf Ranger, and then the party bluffed their way through the crowd, telling the civilians that the Ranger had betrayed them and looted the mayor, and they were going to go catch him. Long story short, they all made it out of the city, went to find a cave for Medusa, cleared it of monsters, and helped her move in.
It was not the most convenient of all solutions, and the party was definitely bringing the Chaotic, but it was, honestly, tons of fun. And some good teamwork.

TL;DR: Conclusions
People still tend to believe that role-playing is some weird, nerdy hobby played by weird, nerdy people (or, you know, Satanists). They are wrong. Tabletop role-playing is essentially communal storytelling which inspires people to work together, create stories, and have lots of fun. In addition, this camp was for ESL students (several of whom were beginners), so I got to watch them speak English enthusiastically, learn new expressions, and forget that they were learning a language while also fighting monsters. All of their solutions were genius, creative, and emphatic, and they instinctively found compromises and mutually beneficial arrangements between people of different backgrounds. Not a single one of the five parties resorted to violence instead of diplomacy. They played well, had fun, and as a DM, I enjoyed the whole experience immensely. I am proud of my players, and I hope I will get to meet them again next year!

Monday, July 1, 2019

Humor and hard lessons (Following folktales around the world 113. - Liberia)

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!

Grains of Pepper
Folktales from Liberia
Edythe Rance Haskett
The John Day Company, 1967.

The book contains twenty-five folktales collected and retold by an American woman for American children, so that she could show a glimpse of the storytelling tradition of Liberia. In the introduction we can read a little about the country's history, and at the end there is a list of Liberian proverbs. The colorful illustrations are pretty neat, and I found a lot of fun stories in this collection.


In the tale of Sima and the crocodile, a crocodile kidnapped Sima's wife and daughter - he, in return, stole the animal's skin when it went to play cards in its human form. The story had some fun rhyming dialogues. Similarly fun, although with a dark ending, was the story of the Catfish, whose bird friend lent him some feathers so they could fly up and steal palm wine from trees together. Sadly, when the owner of the trees appeared, the bird took its feathers back and escaped, leaving the catfish behind. This was not the only fun-and-dark story in the book either. Another one explained Why yam and cassava grow underground - apparently because they used to march around villages, making rude noises and disturbing people with their "frisky dancing", until people found out they are edible, and they had to go into hiding. Similarly, we got to learn about how Leopard bullied Dog about his noisy eating habits at an animal feast - and that is why dog lives with the humans now.
I liked the underlying message of The dicot tree and the deer - the tree refused to hide a deer, saying it was not his problem, even though the deer pointed out that whatever could kill him would also kill the tree. He turned out to be right: After killing the deer, the hunter wanted to make a drum from the skin, so he chopped the tree down as well. As far as morals went, the most adorable was that of The king of the monkeys, in which an ugly bird hid underground in a hole, and made the monkeys believe that it was a terrifying monster. It was the baby monkeys who found out that their leader is in fact nothing but an ugly, thieving creature. (Ahem.)
I liked the genderswapped dilemma tale of The four wives, who all saved their husband in their own way - one ran away with him, one fed him, one led him out of the woods, and one protected him. At the end of the story, the teller asks the audience: Whose help was the most important?
I liked the local beliefs about The Wuuni who ate nine evil spirits. The Wuuni is an invisible creature that can be summoned by magic that devours bad spirits. The interesting part of the story was when they put the spirit on trial, and figured out why it turned evil after its death, due to its family's bad treatment.
The most unexpected turn happened in the story of Disobedient Hawa. She was warned not to fish in a certain river - but she did anyway, and managed to escape the bad spirits dwelling in the water. The story set an unexpected moral: The girl's disobedience to the old rules was what saved her starving family's live.


There was a beautiful variant for the tale type of the handsome suitor (here titled Tola and the Sea Monster). Here the monster pretended to be perfect by borrowing the sea goddess' smooth skin. The girl was saved by her ugly yet clever magician brother, who turned into a fly and followed her into the underwater realms.
I found a more complete version of a tale I read from Guinea-Bissau. A father could not decide which one of four suitors should get his daughter, so he made three copies of her out of a dog, a cat, and a rooster - they became the ancestors of different personalities.
There was, yet again, a Magic Flight story, and also a version of Cinderella with a male protagonist.
The resident trickster was definitely Hare. He asked for wisdom from Man (I have seen this type in Africa and the Caribbean before), but when he fulfilled all set tasks with trickery, he was told he already has enough wisdom to go around. There was also the classic story of Hare riding Leopard like a horse to win the hand of Miss Deer. In another tale it was the monkeys who fooled Leopard, who tried to trick them into being his dinner.

Where to next?
Ivory Coast!

Saturday, June 29, 2019

StorySpotting: Tag, you're it (Avengers: Endgame)

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 feel like sufficient time has passed now since the premiere of Endgame so that I won't get dragged for talking about the plot. If you think otherwise, please stop reading now.

Where was the story spotted?

Avengers: Endgame (2019)

What happens?

In the epic final battle against Thanos and his army, the Avengers all team up to save the world. Their goal is to dismantle the Infinity Gauntlet, or at least keep it away from Thanos, who wants to use it to snap the entire universe out of existence (and start a new, better one, probably with blackjack and hookers). In order to get the gauntlet from point A to point B (and away from Point Thanos), they pass the important object from one person to the next. In the moment when one of them is about to drop it, or be overwhelmed by the enemy, someone else swoops in and carries it on. They continue tagging in and out of the chase, passing the gauntlet along in a relay race, until the story reaches its final climax.

What's the story?

TEAMWORK, people! It was not invented by coaching experts. The world-saving relay race does appear in some very old traditional stories which are really fun to research and tell. They usually have to do with the theft of fire.
Fire theft, a popular motif in folklore and mythology, has its own motif number, A1415. Within this large group of narratives, there is a sub-type, numbered "A1415.2 - Theft of fire by animals." If you dig even deeper, you will eventually arrive to "A1415.2.2. - Coyote Steals Fire."

This Native American story exists in several versions from various nations. The basic idea is always the same: The world needs fire, but fire is hoarded and guarded by some powerful beings who are not willing to share. Coyote, being a Trickster, comes up with a plan to steal fire with the help of other animals. He makes the initial theft, then passes the fire on to the next animal. The enemy pursues the stolen fire, but every time they come close, and the carrying animal tires or stumbles, someone else jumps in and picks up the flame. They eventually get to a safe place, or manage to hide the fire somewhere the powerful beings can't get it back from.
Picture from here
The stories vary in terms of animals and enemies. One version from the Pacific Northwest has Coyote-Wolf-Squirrel-Frog, stealing fire from monster-beings called Skookums. A story of the Salishan from Nicola Valley has Coyote-Antelope-Fox-Wolf, and "all the good runners" running away from the Fire People (and being killed one by one). In the Shoshone version, Coyote is helped by Stinkbug, Porcupine, and Packrat. In the Karuk version, fire is stolen from the Yellow Jacket Sisters with the help of Eagle, Frog, Turtle, Fox, and Mountain Lion.
This tale type, interestingly enough, also appears in the Philippines. Among the Ilocano people, it is the human trickster and culture hero Lam-ang who initiates the theft of fire from the giants (read the story here or here). He is helped by Frog, Cat, Dog, and Lion, among others.


The life-or-death relay race for the saving of the world is a narrative trope that is full of tension and excitement. When used well, it can channel a sense of epicness as well as a strong idea of teamwork and community. I'm not going to lie, it's one of my favorite folktale motifs, and I was delighted to see it in a modern adaptation in Endgame.

Monday, June 24, 2019

The Tale of the Sun - a Saami folktale of hope and resistance

I found this story in Hungarian translation in this book, collected and translated by Erdődi József in 1960. As far as I can tell, the book did not give a source, and I could not trace the story to any English publication. If anyone has anything to add, please let me know! I would love to find out more.
(The translation is mine. Here is the text online in Hungarian)

Once upon a time there was a large, dark country by the sea. In that country, the sun never shone, its people never saw sunlight. The land was covered in a dark cloud that created such darkness that the people could barely see each other. They called this land the Land of Darkness. It's inhabitants were called hut-dwellers, because they had no houses, only rickety huts. The huts were woven from switches, covered in bark and moss, and the cruel wind could go through and through them. The people of the Land of Darkness lived in great misery.
In the middle of the Land of Darkness, however, there was a round mountain. On the round mountain there were many, many trees, a whole forest. In the middle of the forest there was a large log house. Inside the house it was warm, and there was an abundance of things. In its rooms lived seventy shadowy siblings. They were the only ones with a log house in the Land of Darkness. Around the house there was a wooden fence, and inside it a hundred thousand reindeer. The shadowy siblings did not use the reindeer for anything, but they also did not give any of them to the hut-dwellers. This is how things went on for a thousand years, then another thousand, then a third thousand. The hut-dwellers thought it would be like this forever, unless the winter went away.
One day - no one knows when - a tall men arrived to the Land of Darkness, riding a beautiful reindeer. His beard reached his knees, and when he spoke, his eyes shone bright enough that his face could be seen even in the dark. The hut-dwellers saw how handsome and beautiful he was, and how intelligent his gaze was. When he spoke, they all listened carefully.
"My friends, you all live in darkness, because you don't know the Sun. But the Sun exists, even if none of you have seen it. If you find the Sun, this land will also be warm and bright."
"What is a Sun?", the people wondered. They had never heard about it before. The shadowy siblings also heard the stranger speak. They heard it, got angry, and started berating the people.
"Stupid hut-dwellers! Why are you listening to this stranger's nonsense? How could something exist if no one has seen it before? He is only here to rile you up! Listening to him is a mistake. He deserves a beating for telling you made-up tales!"
The hut-dwellers thought and wondered. Maybe the shadowy siblings were right? Maybe it would be better to kill the stranger? The bearded wise man just watched them and shook his head. The light went out of his eyes. He turned his reindeer and rode away, disappearing as if he'd never been there. They could only hear his voice in the dark:
"From this day on I will only appear to those who believe in the existence of the Sun."
There was a boy among the hut-dwellers. He was poor like all the others, but he never humbled himself by going begging to the shadowy siblings. He was proud and strong. Time passed, and everyone forgot the wise old man, except for him. He went to the place where the reindeer moss grew, looked up at the black sky, and said to himself:
"I believe that the Sun exists. But how can I find the bearded old man?"
The moment he said these words, the moss and lichen parted, and a beautiful reindeer appeared in front of the boy.
"Get on my back," it said. The boy mounted the reindeer, and it galloped with him across the moss, the swamps, the black lakes. Suddenly, it stopped in front of a granite rock. On the rock sat the old man with the long beard.
"Welcome!," he greeted the boy "I knew there was someone among the hut-dwellers who would come find me. You are a good man, you will go far, my son."
"Thank you for your kind words. But tell me, where can I find a piece of the Sun?"
"You will have to work hard to earn the Sun. You will have to weave a basket. Ask for a single hair from every hut-dweller, and use those to make your basket."
The boy returned to his people. He talked to everyone, and convinced each of them to give him one hair. Once he'd collected all, he began to weave a basket. He worked on the tiny basket for seventy days and seventy nights. By the time he finished, his strength and wisdom grew. Then he returned to the moss and lichen field, looked up at the black sky, and said to himself:
"The basket is done. How could I get a piece of the Sun?"
The moment he said it, the moss and lichen parted, and the beautiful reindeer appeared.
"Get on my back," it said, and galloped with the boy across the moss, the swamps, the black lakes. They had a long journey, until suddenly they saw red light. The wise young man saw the great red Sun on the edge of the horizon.
"Are you not afraid of fire?," asked the reindeer.
"I am not afraid of anything," the wise boy responded.
"Then open the basket, but hold it firmly, and brace yourself well!"
The wise boy did so. The reindeer rode at the sun. It ran at the Sun, stabbed it with its soft antlers, and a piece broke off the Sun, falling into the boy's basket. Then they turned around, and rode back. The moment they arrived to the land of the hut-dwellers, the magical reindeer disappeared.
The boy stood in front of the hut-dwellers, and said:
"You all gave me one hair each. I wove a basket from your hair, and brought you a piece of the Sun. Let's let it out of the basket. Let it brighten the sky!"
The moment he said it, the shadowy siblings were already riding down the mountain. They shook their fists and yelled: "Don't you dare! Don't you dare let out the Sun! The lakes will dry up! The iron will melt in the ground and flood our houses! You will go blind and we will all burn!"
The shadowy brothers surrounded the wise boy, trying to tear the basket from his hands. But the hut-dwellers rose up to defend him.
"Don't touch him!", they yelled. "We will not give you the basket!"
The shadowy siblings grew enrages. They grabbed the wise boy and dragged him towards the swamp. They wanted to drown him in the swamp, and throw the basket after him. But the hut-dwellers grew angry too. They grew bold, and for the first time in their life, they grabbed rocks from the ground. They threw the rocks at the shadowy siblings. The rocks rained down on them, and the shadowy siblings drew sharp fish bones from under their clothes, and started stabbing the hut-dwellers. But they resisted. Blood was spilled, and a battle began. In the middle of it, suddenly the basket sprang open, and the first ray of sunshine broke out. The sky turned red with light, the swamps bathed in the colors of dawn. The shadowy brothers all burned, their ashes falling into the swamp. The wise boy was standing there, looking at the sky, the bright rays of sunlight. All the hut-dwellers marveled at the sky. The water of the lakes turned blue, the mosses and lichens gained bright colors - white, red, yellow, and green. A miracle happened in the Land of Darkness.
"Who are you, wise man?," the hut-dwellers yelled "Who are you, who brought us this miracle?" They all ran to him and asked: "Wise boy! Now we know and can see that the Sun exists. But this is only a small piece of it. How can we get the whole Sun?"
The moment they asked, the mosses parted, the magic reindeer appeared, and said to the wise boy:
"Tell them to herd all the reindeer here from behind the fence of the shadowy siblings. The boy told the hut-dwellers:
"Go to the house of the shadowy siblings. Break down the fence, and bring the reindeer here. They belong to you now."
The hut-dwellers broke down the fence, and herded the hundred thousand reindeer of the mountain. They mounted them and rode away. They rode until they reached the Sun.
"Are you not afraid of fire?", asked the wise boy.
"We are not afraid of anything. Tell us how to get the Sun."
"Ride towards the Sun with an open heart, and take a ray of sunshine each into your hearts."
The hut-dwellers opened their hearts, and rode fast at the Sun. Each of them took a ray of sunshine into their heart. A hundred thousand hearts warmed up.
"Now, line up the reindeer!"
They did. The magic reindeer poked at the sun with its antler, the Sun slid off the sky, and rested on the back of the animals. The hundred thousand hut-dwellers set out on the hundred thousand reindeer, all balancing the Sun on their antlers carefully.
Ever since then, the Sun has been shining bright above the tundra. The lakes are blue, the hut-dwellers fish in their clear waters. The swamps dried out, and they have been replaced by colorful wildflowers and soft grass. Endless forests whisper along the sea.
The wise man still lives, and he will never die, because he is the one who brought the Sun to the people of the Land of Darkness.

(Note: I translated "black siblings" as "shadowy siblings" to avoid connotations of race, and also because it is closer to the Hungarian meaning.)

When birds talked and trees walked (Following folktales around the world 112. - Sierra Leone)

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!

Tales from Sierra Leone
Mohammed Yassin
Oxford University Press, 1967.

The book contains fifteen folktales, probably retold, but no introduction or notes of any kind. It has black-and-while illustrations, which are pretty. Most of the tales are short, and they usually end with morals that are sometimes surprising to the European reader, but I found many of the stories delightful.


There was a surprisingly chill and optimistic love story in the book, from the time when birds could talk. A young warrior fell in love with the favorite wife of a chief; when the affair came to light, he fled into the woods. Listening to the chatter of birds, he found some treasure, and started a new life - and he simply waited until the chief died before he married his love.
There was a fascinating tale about how a village lost its treasures that were given to them by the spirits who lived in a nearby lake. Every year, in exchange for sacrifices, the spirits piled pots, clothes, weapons, etc. on the lake shore - provided no musicians came near them. A proud priest broke the rule when he went to the lake with a full entourage of musicians - and the spirits took all their gifts back.
I also liked the story of the ram and the leopard, mostly for its moral. The leopard, right-paw man to king lion, tried to ruin the ram's reputation at court with lies. Ram was supported by his friend hyena, who kept encouraging him to stand up for himself. In the end, it came to a fight, and ram defeated leopard, although hyena held him back in the last minute to keep him from actually killing leopard. The moral of the story stated that it is foolish to dislike someone just because your superior likes them...

I was surprised and delighted by the motif of the walking tree that elected village leaders by walking in front of them. When the appropriate candidates were not present, the tree waited motionless until they showed up.


The tale type of the "three magic objects" appeared in its original dilemma tale form here. It featured four twins who set out to see the world, and learned magic skills in another village - next to the usual far-sight, flight, and healing, the fourth brother learned how to make lands fertile. After saving their father's life and wealth together, the storyteller posed the question: which brother deserved the most praise?
The story of the lion and the mouse (rat) had an unusual ending. Here, the rat did rescue the lion from a trap, but in return the lion roared at him and stomped away. The moral of the story was that the strong can often be ungrateful.

Where to next?

Saturday, June 22, 2019

StorySpotting: How to find a half-blind camel (The Name of the Rose)

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!

The new The Name of the Rose miniseries based on Umberto Eco's famous novel is out, and it is pretty great. Also, it casually drops some interesting folktale motifs.

Where was the story spotted?

The Name of the Rose (2019), episode 1

What happens?

William of Baskerville and his novice Adso are heading to a remote Benedictine monastery to attend a theological dispute (that soon turns into a murder mystery). While still on the road, they encounter a search party of monks who are frantically looking for the abbot's favorite horse. William of Baskerville, who is a bit of a self-made detective, describes the horse in great detail, down to stating its name (Brunellus). When they ask him where he'd seen the horse, the says he's never seen it, he merely deduced all the information from signs he observed along the road, such as strands of brown horse hair. Everyone is duly impressed by his powers of observation.

What's the story?

Describing a lost animal one has not actually met is a popular trope in folktales. The motif number assigned to it is "J1661.1.1: The one-eyed camel," and it even has its own tale type (ATU 655A, The Wise Brothers).
In most versions of the tale, a clever person (or persons) describes a lost camel based on clues they have seen along the road: the animal only grazed on one side, therefore it is half-bind; it had no tail because its dung is in neat heaps; it was carrying honey on one side and vinegar on the other because the honey attracted flies and the vinegar made bubbles, etc. There are European versions where the camel is replaced by a lost palfrey.
In some stories, the clever person gets into trouble because they describe the animal so perfectly that they get accused of having stolen it. In other versions, they also deduce things about the food they are served and the powerful man who is hosting them (such as the fact that there is breastmilk in the bread, or that the king is a bastard) and get into more trouble, until it is revealed that they made all claims solely based on their incredible skills of observation, at which point they are rewarded.

It is a popular folktale type in many cultures, from the Middle East to Korea; I have found Persian, Jewish, and Italian variants too. One of the earliest versions can be found in the 10th century Arabic book titled Meadows of Gold and Mines of Gems by the historian Masudi. It was probably from there it made its way into some collections of The Thousand and One Nights, in the story of The Sultan of Al-Yaman and His Three Sons. You can find an Egyptian version in this book, an Indian version here.


There is an Islamic saying, "Faith is the lost camel of the Believer", which is said to be based on this story.

Monday, June 17, 2019

The epics of the Mande (Following folktales around the world 111. - Guinea)

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!

Once again, it was really hard to locate stories from Guinea (at least in the languages I speak), so I went looking for epics, and found some excerpts in this book. The book contains two epics recorded in Guinea, both from the Mande tradition, and while it did not give the whole text in either case, it did have some intriguing scene selections, and background information.

Almami Samori Touré

The eponymous hero of the epic was a 19th century warrior chief who resisted French colonization, and conquered his own empire in the region of modern day Guinea. His epic was narrated by a Mande story-singer named Sory Fina Kamara, who focused on the conquest, rather than the resistance.
Much like in the epic I read for Senegal, the hero here also had an active childhood, leading other children into trouble. Djinn also once again made an appearance - in this case, twin djinn women, who gifted a musket to the hero. They turned into snakes and wrapped themselves around him, extracting a promise that he would not attacked people who were served by their djinn relatives. The epic also featured a female hero: One-breasted Demba. She fell in love with Samori's brother and kept sending him food, which made Samori suspect that his brother was betraying him. To prove his innocence, the brother marched into battle unarmed, and was killed. Demba then put on her brother's clothes, and marched into battle herself, to take revenge for the death of her lover.


Musadu is not a hero, it's a city, founded by a slave named Zo Musa, and later conquered by a Mande hero named Foningama. The founding of the city happened sometime between the 13th and 15th centuries, while the hero lived in the 16th, so it is likely that the two epics were combined into one later on. The epic was recorded from a university professor named Moiké Sidibe, himself a descendant of Foningama.
The epic opens with a familiar trope: Foningama is his father's youngest child, and yet his father selects him to receive his blessing and medicine. This angers his older brother's, who try to get rid of him.

Where to next?
Sierra Leone!

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.