Wednesday, April 6, 2016

E is for Elder siblings

Welcome to the A to Z Challenge! My theme this year is Representation and Diversity in Traditional Stories. I am looking for rare and interesting motifs in folktales, fairy tales, and legends that add variety to the well-known canon.

Okay, so this is a fun one: Are there any tales where the youngest child is not the one that automatically succeeds?
This is less a matter of representation, and more an interesting fairy tale thought exercise. I was curious to see if any stories gave older siblings a chance to fulfill their own destiny.

(Again. Symbolic. Try-and-fail. Yes, we know.)
Let's see some:

The three children of fortune
In this Grimm tale, all three brothers succeed at making their fortune with the meager inheritance from their father - a rooster, a scythe, and a cat.
(Read the tale here)

The Skillful Brothers
This Grimm tale belongs to ATU type 653. Four (or five) brothers set out into the world to learn different trades: Astronomy, thievery, hunting, sewing, etc. When they reunite after their apprenticeship, they are tasked with rescuing a princess from a dragon, which they accomplish with amazing teamwork - so seamless, in fact, that they can't decide who should marry the princess. In the end, they opt for riches and land instead, and split them evenly.
(Read the story here)

Miska and Juliska (The Magic Flight)
There is a Hungarian version to the popular folktale type of the Master Maid (ATU 313) that starts out with three princes - the middle one is described as "unruly," and the king orders his two brothers to get rid of him somehow. The two brothers decide to get their sibling a job in the court of the Devil King... where he falls in love with the Devil's clever daughter, and gets away in the end.
(No English translation; Hungarian text found here)

The sons of the Kerohuri Raja
In this tale from Eastern India, the eldest out of five brothers volunteers to stay home and guard his mother while his siblings go get married and bring him a bride. The wedding party is attacked and killed on the way; the elders prince sets out to restore them to life, rescue his bride, and, eventually, prove that he is the most noble of all of them.
(Read the story here)

Seven sisters
In this Miao (Chinese minority) folktale seven sisters are visited by seven hungry wolves who disguise themselves as young men. The three eldest flee, leaving the youngest four sisters to fend for themselves. The fourth (middle) sister comes up with a plan, and the four girls defeat and chase away the wolves together.
(Read it in Seven sisters)

The Black Thief and the Knight of the Glen
I mentioned this tale type before (ATU 953, Robber saves sons by telling stories), but now I am highlighting the Irish version, that begins with a king's eldest son being hidden from his new wife (who wants to kill the heir and get her own sons on the throne). What is interesting about this trope, however, is that the eldest sets out on a quest, and the two younger brothers faithfully follow him and help him.
(I blogged about the story and sources here)

János and Rózsa
Two brothers perform extraordinary feats in this long, elaborate, and gorgeous Hungarian Roma folktale. Rózsa, the eldest sets out first, and later, wanting to follow in his heroic brother's footsteps, János also has his own adventures.
(You can read an English translation of this tale here, and the full Hungarian text here)

One-eye, Two-eyes, Three-eyes
Another Grimm tale, this one about three sisters - one has one eye in the middle of her forehead, one has three eyes, and the middle sister has two eyes like an average human being. The other two sisters are jealous of her and bully her, but of course she overcomes all hardships, and in the end she doesn't only marry a knight, but she also forgives her sisters, who repent their meanness.
(Read about the story here)

The twelve dancing princesses
A lot of people tend to forget that the "hero" of this Grimm tale ends up picking the eldest princess to be his wife (reasoning that she fits him in age!). Of course, picking the eldest of twelve sisters also assumes that he will be king one day... But I am sure that was just an added bonus...
(Still better than how elder sisters fare in most Hungarian versions)
(Read the tale here)

(Btw. this is the cover of the Hungarian picture book I learned this story from as a child, so I still imagine the eldest princess as kind of round and dressed in yellow)

Are there other tales that should be on this list? Let me know in the comments! :)


  1. Not sure, other than to say that I am an eldest sibling and am probably having just as much, if not slightly more, success than my other siblings. I think we are all doing well and have established a life that we are reasonably happy with.

    Open Minded Mormon A-Z

  2. Your level of research blows my mind. Wow.

    I just have to say, us only children are sorely underrepresented as well. ;)

  3. U do lots of homework to bring us the info.. thanks..

  4. It's nice when the older siblings aren't evil, incompetent or forgotten :) I'm the older sibling (only by 8 mins, but it counts) so this give me hope ;)
    Tasha's Thinkings | Wittegen Press | FB3X (AC)

  5. Your question today, made me think about different stories and who succeeds, but I am not up on my folktales despite being a huge fan of our Grimm fairytale book growing up, so I have none to share, but it did get me thinking about literature in general.
    ~tinbugs at Travelling Spoons

  6. I didn't have this much information about the elders who succeed. Great post, thanks for sharing... :) Visiting from A to Z Challenge.


  7. I don't know any stories off the top of my head where the older siblings succeed. Which is interesting because in reality, the oldest sibling is often (not always, but often) the most successful. Fun fact: all my friends are oldest or only children.
    @DoreeWeller from
    Doree Weller’s Blog

  8. You forgot my favorite! The German "One-Eye, Two-Eyes, and Three Eyes" has a middle-child as the heroine. Though, in other versions I've found, Two-Eyes is just as nasty as her sisters, and a stepdaughter bound to the family is the heroine.

    Also, in most early Asian variants of Cinderella, the stepmother's daughters are the heroine's younger half-sisters, rather than daughters of a previous marriage.

  9. I don't think I've ever thought about it that much, but my gut instinct was that the older sibling was always the most heroic and the one destined to succeed, and the others had to fight to get by in life. Perhaps younger siblings doing well were stories to encourage younger ones to try to make the most of themselves, since much European inheritance went to the eldest, unless the law divided all between all (which seemed to be the only two systems). Being the youngest always spurred me on to be successful, and try to make myself heard. Says a lot about me, really!
    Loving your theme, Csenge
    Jemima Pett

  10. I wonder what the princess thought of that in the second story?
    In real life, my older brother is more successful than me. Then again, I'm not willing to work a hundred hours a week like he does.

  11. Older siblings should get to succeed. We take care of everything anyhow!

  12. I remember the story of the skilful brothers from childhood and remember enjoying it. As always thank you for the varied selection. A question for you this time though -
    What do you mean by ATU, these three letters show up multiple times?
    @freya3377 from Life as Freya -

    1. It refers to the Aarne-Thompson-Uther folktale type catalog. They give numbers to types of folktales, and all variants of that type can be searched by the number (for example, Cinderella is 510)

  13. I love the morals in these stories, especially the one from Grimm about the brothers. If only we'd practice that kind of compromise!

  14. i like that. i always did like the fact that he chose the eldest. now, if only the eldest liked him too! they never did mention that, but i guess, back then, the daughter's feelings were hardly thought about.

  15. Interesting. I always thought that it was the eldest child that was destined to succeed, be the heir to the throne, etc. Birth order dynamics are fascinating, but hopefully, all kids can find success! - Lucy

  16. There is a lovely Ananci story, "How the Moon got in the Sky" with 5 brothers who worked together to save their father. Don't know the source right now.

  17. As the oldest daughter/sister, I appreciate stories where the oldest wins out through cleverness and hard work.

  18. Hey, this is the first of your posts where I know most of the stories. And I love to see how much sibling collaboration actually exist in fairy tales.

    Last year, just during the AtoZ Challenge, I learned of another story, Anansi's sons, an African story where the four sons of the god Anansi work together to save their father, each one putting in his best skill. In the end, Anansi can't decide who saved his life, because all of them did.
    It was a video by such a good storyteller!

  19. Hey, this is the first of your posts where I know most of the stories. And I love to see how much sibling collaboration actually exist in fairy tales.

    Last year, just during the AtoZ Challenge, I learned of another story, Anansi's sons, an African story where the four sons of the god Anansi work together to save their father, each one putting in his best skill. In the end, Anansi can't decide who saved his life, because all of them did.
    It was a video by such a good storyteller!

  20. I'm afraid it's been so long since I read classic literature I'm no help at all. But I came by from the A to Z and hope you are enjoying the challenge.
    @ScarlettBraden from
    Frankly Scarlett

  21. female friendships in highly patriarchal societies are hardly spoken of and even looked down upon

    this was a good post to break that stereotype

  22. As always, really enjoying these stories. (I'm running out of superlatives to use. ;))

    @dSavannahCreate from
    #AtoZChallenge2016 theme: dSavannah Defects