Thursday, December 29, 2016

A man in search of his luck (Folktale research post)

Once again, I am showing how the sausage is made. I dived way, way down into the rabbit hole, following a folktale that took me to all kinds of interesting places. In order to preserve my various post-it notes (and with them, my sanity), I am posting my process here. It might be useful for someone else too. It's a good story.

It all began with a book called Ready-to-Tell Tales. It contains a story retold by Richard Walker, titled The Edge of the World, labeled "a story from the British Isles." In it, a young man sets out to find God and ask why he does not have any luck. On the way, he encounters three suffering creatures - a skinny wolf, a withering tree, and a lonely woman - and they all send their questions with him to God. On the way back the lad has all the answers, but none of the sense to use them. He tells the lonely woman that God says she will soon find a husband - but then turns down her proposal. He tells the tree that it can't grow because of the treasure buried under its roots - but then walks on without digging it up. Finally, he tells the skinny wolf that it should eat the first stupid creature it encounters - and the wolf does just that. End of story. (Even God can't help you if you don't help yourself)

When I was a beginning storyteller, this tale worked like a charm. Now that it returned to be as the perfect fit for a performance I was building, I decided to dig deeper into it. Here is what I found:

Tale type: ATU 460A - Journey to the Deity (previously 461A)
Folktale motifs: H1291 (Questions asked on the way to other world), H1292 (Answers found in other world to questions propounded on the way) (this one has sub-numbers for the specific questions)

Armed with the tale type and motif index numbers, I dug up several versions of the story. It has variants all around the world, showing amazing diversity in their details:

The man who went to seek his fortune (Northern India, Simla village tales)
The deity: An old fakir
Questions: Castle that keeps falling down (until princess is married), turtle that has a stomach burn (until it gives some of its wisdom away), tree with bitter fruit (has buried treasure underneath)
Ending: The man wins all the rewards

The waters of Olive Lake (China, Many lands, many stories)
The deity: The God of the West
Questions: Girl who doesn't speak (until she sees her future husband), tree with treasure buried underneath, dragon that can't rise to Heaven (until it gives its pearl away)
Ending: Boy wins all the luck
(I especially like this one because the boy gives his own question away to ask the other three)

The Queen of the Planets (Ireland, Folktales of Ireland)
The deity: The Queen of the Planets (a woman who decides the fates of all children born)
Questions: A girl no one wants to marry (until she goes to church carrying her mother), a blacksmith that can't save money (works on the wrong days), and a farmer whose roof is always leaking (he stole thatch).
Ending: Boy reports answers, everyone goes their merry way
(This one also contains a gruesome and graphic way for the Queen to predict people's fate)

The Devil with the Three Golden Hairs (Germany, Grimm collection)
The deity: The Devil
Questions: Well that ran dry (toad sits at the bottom), golden apple tree that withered (mouse is gnawing at the roots), ferryman that can't stop working (until hands off oar to someone else)
Ending: Boy gets princess and winds kingdom

Looking for his luck (Jewish, Tales of Elijah the Prophet)
The deity: Elijah the Prophet
Questions: Scrawny wolf (needs to eat a fool), weak kingdom (king is secretly a woman) (pffft), tree that bears bitter fruit (buried treasure)
Ending: Wolf eats foolish man.

The man who went to seek his fate (India, Indian Fairy Tales)
The deity: The man's fate (in the form of a stone)
Questions: Tired camel (carrying bags of gold), alligator with a stomach burn (swallowed a large ruby), tiger with a thorn in its foot (guards treasures)
Ending: Man gets treasures and lives happily

The sleeping nasib (India, Folklore in Wester India)
The deity: The man's nasib (fate), sleeping across the seven seas
Questions: Mango tree with bitter fruit (buried treasure), fish out of water (swallowed a piece of gold), tower that keeps collapsing (king has unmarried daughter), noble steed that no one rides
Ending: Man gets treasures, steed, and a second wife

The man who went to wake his luck (Bakhtiari, Iran, JBORS)
The deity: The man's luck (sleeping in a cave)
Questions: Orchard that bears no fruit (buried treasure), king whose subjects don't obey him (woman in disguise, needs husband), scrawny wolf (needs to eat a fool), exhausted bush-cutter (has to bear his fate)
Ending: Wolf eats foolish man

The man who fought with God (India, North Indian Notes and Queries)
The deity: God (Allah)
Questions: Kingdom burns down every night (king's daughter is unmarried), well filled with filthy water and two people (if they are taken out, well fills up with coin), dried-up tree (snake with sapphires in its belly gnawing on roots)
Ending: Man passes by opportunities the first time, but then marries princess and goes back for the treasures

The poor boy who went in search of Isvara (India, Folklore in Salsette)
The deity: Isvara
Questions: Breadfruit tree that bears no fruit (gold in trunk), mango tree no one eats from (buried treasure), building keeps collapsing (king needs to give his daughter and half kingdom to the first passer-by), beached whale (has precious gems in its stomach)
Ending: Boy gets all treasures, half kingdom, and princess

The man who searched for his luck (Jewish, Folktales of the Jews)
The deity: Woman with a wheel of fortune
Questions: Stranded fish (diamond stuck in fish's head), apple tree with bitter fruit (buried treasure)
Ending: Man gets treasures (plus his luck int he form of a wheel of fortune)

The sleeping karms (India, Tawi Tales)
The deity: Karms (fate-spirits, karma)
Questions: Mango tree no one eats from (used to be a learned man who never shared his knowledge), two wells no one drinks from (used to be women who only gave charity to each other), cow that is beaten by her calf every day (used to be the calf in the previous life and behaved badly), shepherd who wants to know if God knows of him (yes, he's a good man), large snake who wants to know why he was turned into a snake (was a miser in a previous life)
Ending: Man goes home and lives happily
(This one was interesting because the main hero was the rich older brother; and also because he asked everyone's respective karms for the answers)

There are also many other versions that I did not have the time (or linguistic skills) to track down, but this small sample already shows what a rich, diverse, colorful folktale type this is. In the end, for the performance I assembled my own version from various motifs in the list above, and it worked like a charm. It is definitely going into my permanent repertoire.


  1. Interesting variations on a quaint little tale! Thanks for sharing them.

  2. Thanks for this. The background makes a good story even better.

  3. Wonderful...I think I need to take a research course from you !
    Thank you

  4. Thank you so much what wonderful research.... It's inspiring me to dig deeper into some of the tales I have found. me thinks I have to take a how to research folk tales class

  5. Your stats must be booming today. Thanks so much for this! I NEED this very story, and a Chinese version of it is EXACTLY what I needed. I had forgotten that I had downloaded the Conger & Ra book onto my Kindle. So here it is, in hand. Don’t you love it when the planets align? Again...many thanks.

  6. Thank you so much for this background and sources of stories. Can I also add a wonderful version found in Susha Guppy's The Secret of Laughter- a great version with a difficult ending- This is the boy who had no luck a young man who seeks to find his - meets two princesses, a walnut tree and a lion. But the end is slightly different - The Lion says 'I could eat you but I won't- You have kept your word(in returning to me) but you have lost your luck again- No matter as you can make your own through hard work- which is what the young man does. Thanks again for your work and sharing. I hope you made yourself some luck

  7. Thank You, Csenge! I'm hoping to learn this in the coming weeks so this is very helpful! Another version is in The Magic Orange Tree (Hatian), The Hairs From The Devil's Beard

  8. Thank you! I spent the last days trying to find more about this tale, your website is a treasure!