Saturday, April 16, 2016

N is for Neurodiversity

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.

Neurodiversity is a fairly new term (my spellcheck doesn't even recognize it yet) for the concept that neurological conditions like autism, ADHD, etc. are variations in the human genome, rather than "mistakes." Here is an excellent rundown on how the concept works.
I used neurodiversity for N, but today I also want to post some examples of traditional tales that handle mental illness. Part of the topic of representation is how these things are presented and handled, and while traditional tales are not usually very sensitive to them, there are a few interesting examples.

The tale of Ivar Ingimundarson
This old Icelandic story tells of a bard who loses the love of his life (she marries his brother in secret) and falls into depression. His king, who likes him a lot, tries to drag him out of it by offering all kinds of things - money, lands, a bride, etc., but nothing works. In the end, the king offers the only thing left: He sits down with Ivar every night, and listens to him talk. I love this story, because it shows the importance of listening, instead of simply trying to "fix things" for someone else.
(Read the story in The complete sagas of the Icelanders)

The Sleepy Lady
Yet another folktale collected from Pályuk Anna. A rich girl sleeps all the time, and is always too tired to live her life. Her father is worried about her, but doesn't know what to do - in the end, three sisters from a poor family volunteer to help, and by spending time with the girl, they figure out ways to keep her awake until she can go on with her life.
(I will include an English translation of this tale in my upcoming folktale collection)

The tiger's whiskers
I already mentioned this tale twice, but I am putting it on this list too, because it is often used by storytellers to illustrate how family members might deal with someone they love having PTSD.
(Read it in this book)

The white disk
This Maldivian folktale tells about a girl that cries every night, and her family is at a loss of how to cheer her up. They try kindness and all kinds of tricks, and the father gets angry and scolds her, but nothing stops her from being sad. One night her sister notices a glowing white disk above her bed, and she and their father try to figure out a way to break the spell.
(This story equates the "sadness" with the influence of a spirit, but it can also be read symbolically. Also I am including it because it starts with a very good description of how the girls "sadness" affects the rest of the family)
(Read it in Folk-tales of the Maldives)

Contest in repartee
This is not one story, but a folktale type, ATU 853, which seems to exist all around the world. A princess wants to marry a man who can defeat her in banter. Three brothers set out to try - the youngest one is mocked and bullied by his brothers for being "slow" and "simple." He keeps falling behind on the road, picking up useless objects like dead birds, rusty nails, etc.,which only earns him more mockery. But when they get to the princess, the "simpleton" boy floors everyone with his quick and witty answers, using the "useless" items as props, and wins her hand in the end. The story shows that seeing the world differently is not necessarily a bad thing.
(You can read a Norwegian version here, a Russian version here, and an Appalachian version here)

The Fool of the World and the Flying Ship
This is the title of the Russian version of the extremely popular folktale type ATU 513, the Extraordinary Helpers. In it, three brothers set out to win a princess whose father requires a flying ship. The youngest is mocked and left behind by his brothers for being a "fool," but he demonstrates traits the others don't: Kindness, patience, and trust. With it, she does not only win a flying ship, but also makes friends with people who have superpowers and become his companions.
There was an old Hungarian term used for mentally challenged people: "Good with others." I always liked it, because it referred to how, as long as the community supported them, they were just as "good" as anyone else.
(Read about the Russian tale here. I also included several version of this folktale type in my book about folktales and superpowers)

The boy who wanted to walk on the clouds
Yet another folktale from Pályuk Anna, about a boy who daydreams about walking on the clouds, and everyone labels him "lazy" and "good for nothing." After his mother dies, he sets out to make his dream come true, and achieves it by never showing fear in front of anyone.
(This story will also be included in my upcoming folktale collection)

There are many folk- and fairy tales about people labeled "fools" or "simpletons" who become heroes in the end. Which ones should I add to the list?


  1. How about the Grimm fairytale about the boy who wants to know how to shiver and shake? He irritates everyone around him, but his "foolishness" means he doesn't know he's supposed to be scare of ghosts and ghoulies, so he wins the princess.

    1. The listeners are meant to lauch at the boy, not with him, so the tale doesn't eally qualify

  2. A lot of folktales types that sound familiar in here :-)

    The Old Shelter - Jazz Age Jazz

  3. I have a similar theme where the protagonist's best friend is overlooked and rejected, but in the end it is him who saves not only the day but the world escalating toward war.

  4. I like the sound of 'The tale of Ivar Ingimundarson.' Adding it to the reading list.
    I managed to check out a couple of bookshops in Budapest. Couldn't find a copy of 'Tales of Superhuman Powers'-- will try amamzon in May. But, I did get a few books by Eva Janikovszky. LOVE her writing and Laszlo Reber's illustrations. Budapest has some neat bookshops.

  5. Storytelling itself can be healing both physically and mentally. There is great comfort and recognition in many stories that can work their magic on those who suffer.

    Meet My Imaginary Friends

  6. As some with CFS, I really like this list Thanks for sharing.

    Joy @ The Joyous Living

  7. As a parent of a child with autism and one with a learning disability, these stories are godsends!

  8. My nephew has Asperger's Syndrome. That is, high end. He's a brilliant musician and artist who plans to make his life in animation. He had trouble making friends. Due to his condition, but has plenty at his new school. I suspect he might sneer at folktales nowadays. ;-)

  9. J here, of the #atozchallenge Arlee Bird's A to Z Ambassador Team. Thanks for commenting on my blog.
    Is the challenge going well for your blog? M marked the halfway point!
    My blog's giveaway is still going. I want everyone to visit more stops. On Sunday, there's a post about how to better use the image alt code-- featured on the main A to Z blog as well as my own.
    Great story choices. And what a fascinating concept! "You aren't broken, you're supposed to be different. You're evolved." High five to the idea.

  10. These are wonderful! It would be good if these were commonly read to children so that they would early get the idea that being different or sad or depressed can be a part of life and not the end of it.

  11. I am so touched by that phrase "good with others." I take it to mean not so good on their own, but able to manage when given kindness and help. I don't have time to leave comments very often, but I'm always enchanted by your beautiful and meaningful stories!

  12. Being an avid reader myself.. your lists helps me to add new stories for me to read.. thnx

  13. "Good with others" does sound like a very nice way of putting it. The fool does seem to be a very important archetype.
    Tasha's Thinkings | Wittegen Press | FB3X (AC)

  14. I'm very much an advocate of neurodiversity and identity-first language! A lot of times I've wondered if such and such a character were Autistic or Aspie, in the era before they had names.