Monday, April 18, 2016

O is for Old heroes

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.

And by that, obviously, I mean "senior" or "elderly" or "not a teenager", but I needed the letter O...
Generally, I was trying to collect stories where the hero is not young. People, regardless of age, have the potential to be the hero of their own story. In order to combat ageism, here are some stories that prove just that:

The old woman and Death
In this folktale type, popular all over Europe, and old woman (sometimes man) attempts to avoid Death knocking on her door, because she loves living so much. She manages to convince Death to come back the next day, asking him to write "TOMORROW" on the door frame. The next day, when Death returns, she points out that the sign says "tomorrow" and sends him away. Getting away on a technicality this way she continues to live, until Death erases the sign. The next day, trying to hide from her fate, she first hides in a barrel of honey, and then in the bed, turning into a honey-and-feather "monster" - when Death shows up to take her, he is so scared he never returns.
I like this story because 1. It features a female trickster, and 2. It shows that the love of life and living (and the right to fight for it) does not solely belong to the young.
(Read this story in Dan Keding's Elder tales)

By the way, Elder tales is an amazing collection of traditional stories that feature elder protagonists. Dan Keding has pretty much done my job for this post, so I'll just mention some that I particularly like.

Old woman returns fire to people
I heard this Greek folktale at the FEST conference last year, on the island of Kea. It said that God took the fire away from people for their sins, and then an angel appeared, selling burning embers for outrageous prices - years of life, eyesight, other things people were not willing to give up, even if they suffered without fire. Finally an old woman showed up, asking the angel about the prices of embers, poking at them with her walking cane. What the angel didn't know was that the cane was hollow, with straw inside, and this way the old lady managed to steal fire back to the people. This is clearly a version of the myth of Prometheus - although it is questionable which one came first, the titan or the wise old woman...

Old Rinkrank
In this unusually dark Grimm tale, a princess falls into the depths of the Glass Mountain, and is imprisoned by a little old man, who threatens to kill her if she does not do his household chores. He leaves every day, and comes back with gold, but never lets her leave. The princess grows old, and the man named Old Rinkrank starts calling her Mother Mansrot. Finally one day she figures out how to set a trap for him, and rescues herself.
(Read the story here)

Old Man's Wisdom Saves the Kingdom
This is a folktale type, ATU 981, popular in several parts of the world. In it, a king orders to kill off all old people in the kingdom, either because of a famine, or just because he is crazy. One young man saves his old father/parents and hides them in a secret location. Later, when the kingdom is in trouble, the solution is provided by the elders to the young man, who manages to save the kingdom, change the king's mind, and/or become a just king himself.
(Read one version in Latin American Folktales)

Ilya Muromets
Not "old," but still unusual in the world of tales - this Russian legends tells about a hero that lived at home with his parents, doing nothing, until he was thirty (or forty) - when one day he finally decided to go out into the world and be a hero. It is never too late to start out on one's hero's journey.
(I included part of his story in my book, Tales of Superhuman Powers)

What other tales should I add to the list?


  1. Great selection. The Old Woman and Death reminds me of Aesop's fable The Old Man and Death - an old man calls upon Death to release him from his life of toil, only to ask Death to help him pick up his burden again when Death appears before him to serve him. If only Death could be tricked liked that...

  2. I love the message that you're never too old to be a hero. I remember when I watched Willow as a young person and it turned out that the sorceress was now an old woman rather than young and beautiful, I was disappointed (for her, in my mind), but I rewatched it recently, and I realised, she can kick arse even as a senior citizen! The villain sorceress is no spring chicken, either ;)
    Sophie's Thoughts & Fumbles | Wittegen Press | FB3X

  3. Yay. Good to see that the older generations can have their stories of heroism too.

  4. hahaha I really loved the first story :D Enjoyed reading :D

    A Whimsical Medley
    Twinkle Eyed Traveller

  5. "O" is for OMG I loved these! I first encountered the first one at a beach bar in the Virgin Islands, that perpetually promised "free beer tomorrow." -- Jaye @ Life Afloat

  6. I have read Ilya Muromets tales in the past. Struck me how different Russian tales are from the Greek, Norse and Irish tales I grew up on.

    Tim Brannan, The Other Side Blog
    2015 A to Z of Adventure!

  7. Ilya sounds like the son some parents write to Dear Abby about. Still at home doing nothing. But I like the old woman who didn't want to die. There is so much to love for if you do it right.

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  9. I found you by hapenstance through the A-Z sign up page and I'm so glad my computer froze for a moment which lead me to click on your blog! I'm going to continue browsing but just wanted to let you know how much I love this post and your blog :)

    [@NikisSimpleLife] #419 (as of today)
    May 2016 Kindness Challenge
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    1. *happenstance sorry cranky 1 year old reducing my ability to type, hence the previously deleted comment :o

    2. I am glad you found it! I hope you'll enjoy the stories :)

  10. there is a Korean folk story of an older blind man and his daughter but i cannot remember the title :)

    O for Olive Oatman

  11. Oooh, what interesting stories! I can only think of the nursery rhyme, the Old woman who lived in a shoe! Love the woman who cheated death... ~Liz

  12. I like the way the old woman cheated death. Clever!

  13. As I recall, the hero of The Twelve Dancing Princesses was an old soldier, which may be why he chose the oldest princess to marry! :-)

  14. There's the Japanese folktale of the Burning of the Rice Fields, where an old grandfather burns his fields to warn all the villagers of a Tsunami and saves all the people. I believe a version of the story is in Elisa Pearmain's book Once Upon a Time... (

  15. I like the fact it's never too late to be a hero :). The little old lady cheating death is also awesome - so death is frightened of some things then.
    Tasha's Thinkings | Wittegen Press | FB3X (AC)

    1. Clearly, Death is frightened of little old ladies :D And rightly so.

  16. I know a similar story like the one Harvey Heilbrun mentioned, but in the version I know it's an old woman who is believed to be mentally challenged (while in reality she only has physical disabilities). WhenEveryone is at the beach to celebrate soe kind of feast, she sees a storm arriving through her window and being unable to make her way to the beach, she burns her house down. My story is set in northern Europe, but I'm not sure whether it originated there.

    The versions of the old Woman/man cheating DEath that I'm familiar with, have him ask for a lastprayer, but after thefirst three words he stops and from then on only says one word each year, giving him many more years to live.

  17. I've encountered several folktales featuring old folks (usually old women) in Chinese and Japanese folklore. It's not surprising these cultures have so many of them, since the elderly are more revered than they typically are in the West.

  18. I know a few of these stories (or tipes of story). I actually think elderly people features quite often in fairy tales, and not always in negative roles.

    The Old Shelter - Jazz Age Jazz