Monday, December 31, 2018

306 earworms in 2018

Am I the only one who wakes up with music in her head? This is not a rhetorical question: The people I have asked so far looked at me really weird. And yet I can't help it: Most mornings, when I wake up, there is a random song stuck in my ears. It sometimes sticks with me all morning; other times I listen to something else to chase it away. But whether I like it or not, there seems to be a radio alarm clock in my subconscious. This year, when I started my new bullet journal (don't judge), I decided to write down every morning what my intro song to the day was. And the results are in:

Between January 1st and December 31st in 2018, I woke up with a song in my head 306 times. Monthly, this means between 21 and 28 mornings, so the phenomenon is pretty consistent. July had the most such mornings (28), and February and May had the fewest (21). But this is not really about statistics - this is about the music.

I want to note up front that I have absolutely no control over what music I hum when I wake up. Sometimes it's a song I listened to the day before, but often it is something I have not heard for years, or something I never even liked. Sometimes I wake up with the same song three days in a row, other times I have to hum all morning before I realize where the tune is from. The list is long: There are 150 different songs on it, and while many of them popped up more than once, here are the top 5 most common:

 Top of the list (12 mornings):

Second place (11 mornings):

Also second place (11 mornings):

Third place (10 mornings):

Also third place (10 mornings):

+ My personal favorite to wake up to (7 mornings):

+ When I wake up as a feminist (also 7 mornings):

When I look at albums, the list is a little different: I had a large number of Hamilton songs (Alexander Hamilton 10, Satisfied 7, Wait for it 5), and most of the Moana soundtrack (We know the way 7, How far I'll go 6, Shiny 5, You're welcome 4), as well as a healthy dose of Renaissance dance music and Blackmore's Night (courtesy of my reenactment hobbies). On the other end of the spectrum I had quite a few WTF moments, but the negative record came from the opening of a soap opera that my grandmother used to watch religiously when I was little. The song, somehow embedded in my subconscious, resurfaced to ambush me one morning. Here you go:

I think I'm going to continue with this experiment in 2019, just for the fun of it (maybe my grandchildren will find it interesting one day). In the meantime, the question remains: Am I the only one with built in Spotify, or do others wake up like this too?...

Saturday, December 29, 2018

2018: The year in (good) books

Once again, it is time for the usual end-of-the-year book roundup. In 2019 I read (as in, finished reading) 157 books total, which may sound like a lot, but it does include several comic book tpbs. Within this number, 40 volumes were for the Following folktales around the world project (I finished Europe!), and 19 for a reading challenge that required me to read one folktale a day. Out of the remaining 98, here are the highlights of my year, in no particular order:

Juanita Harrison: My great, wide, beautiful world
I spent the year systematically reading travel journals written by women, and this one definitely took the cake. I wrote an entire blog post about it when I finished, you can read it here. Juanita Harrison, a woman of color, set out at the beginning of the 20th century, with no money but great enthusiasm, to travel alone around the world. She reports her adventures with so much love and cheer that it is impossible not to love her. She has a great time sailing in a typhoon, gives away her belongings more than once (but keeps her favorite sexy undergarments), sleeps in the flowerbeds of the Taj Mahal, leaves some men in the dust, gets a library card in every city, and spends her hat money on museum tickets. Ever since then I like to travel with the mentality of What Would Juanita Harrison Do?
Also, I found her photo, isn't she lovely?

Jen Wang: The Prince and the Dressmaker
Possibly the cutest read of the year, this graphic novel tells the tale of a prince that secretly likes to dress up as a princess, and a dressmaker who wants to be a designer. The tale is told with beautiful colors, expressive artistic style, lots of humor, and an adorable romance plot. Definitely a feel-good book to invest in.
Madeline Miller: Circe
Circe, badass witch of Greek mythology, long deserved her own epic - and Madeline Miller have her a great one. She knows her mythology, and her prose style is gorgeous; I read this book slowly, tasting all the sentences like wine. I also have not read a novel in a long time that had such vivid imagery, and such meaningful, subtle color schemes. Circe's story became whole from the fragments we know, and it is an amazing story indeed. If I had to pick a favorite book of the year, this one would be a strong contender.

Kate Heartfield: Armed in her fashion
Talking about strong contenders: I only recently discovered Kate Heartfield, but I have already finished everything she's written. She has a great sense of humor, a smart writing style (which does not dumb things down for the reader, thank god), and unique ideas. Case in point: This book features a disgruntled wet nurse who sets out to conquer Hell and demand her money back from her good-for-nothing zombie husband. She is accompanied by a great cast of characters, from her shy daughter to a transgender mercenary, and they fight they way across the best historical fantasy setting I have ever seen. By the way, the book is based on a Brueghel painting, you might be familiar with it:

Erik Larson: The Devil in the White City
I don't normally read true crime, therefore this book has long been on my TBR, and ended up being a surprise. I originally started it because of H. H. Holmes (American Horror Story references), but soon realized that there is another, much more intriguing story in the book: The creation of the Chicago World Fair. If someone told me a book on architecture and bureaucracy could be so riveting that I'd skip the serial killer chapters, I would not have believed it. And yet. I would love to see a well done HBO show based on this one.

Juan Diaz Canales - Juanjo Guarnido: Blacksad
Similarly, if someone told me I'd have a crush on a cat in a trench coat, I would have given them a very strange look. I know I am late to the party, but now that I have finally gotten around to reading Blacksad, I totally see what the fuss is all about. Furry noir might sound ridiculous, but oh boy, does it work. The story has all the mandatory elements of good noir, and the artwork is just gorgeous, full of details and expressive faces. Definitely and instant classic.

Happy reading in 2019! Tell me about your favorites! :)

Monday, December 17, 2018

Islands made of flowers (Following folktales around the world 96. - Portugal)

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!

Portugal is our last stop in Europe. The series will take a short winter break, and we'll continue in February with Africa!

Islands of Magic
Legends, folk and fairy tales from the Azores
Elsie Spicer Eells
Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1922.

I have been looking forward to reading this collection for a long time. The 34 stories were collected in 1920-21 by Elsie Spicer Eells to prove that folktales were still alive in the oral tradition on the Azores. She re-worded the stories "for American children" and published them with pretty illustrations. Because the islands were uninhabited before the Portuguese colonization (or so we assume), the stories mostly come from the Portuguese and larger European tradition. Since this is a book for children, it did not contain any sources or notes, but it was still an interesting read.


The most interesting stories in the book were the islands' own legends. Princess Bluegreen, for example, told about how a princess taken by the fairies, and an impatient king, brought destruction to Atlantis, which sank in the place where the Azores are now. Another legend claimed the islands were born from flowers dropped by an angel who was exiled from Heaven, and wanted to bring their favorite flowers with them. There were other marine legends as well, such as the Island of Seven Cities (a medieval classic), or the Island of St. Brendan that appears and disappears at times. The latter had a beautiful love story attached. about a knight that fell in love with a girl, and fled to the legendary island from an earthquake to live on together. Another pretty local legend what that of the Pearl necklace, in which a handsome fisherman was abducted by a mermaid, but his mother won him back by magic. Later, when he married a mortal woman, he found a necklace of pearls on the beach, but did not remember who it was from...
Among the fairy tales, my favorite was about The princess who lost her rings - mostly because she was helped by two old storyteller women. I also enjoyed St. Anthony's godchild, who dressed up as a boy and stole things from a Moorish king. I have encountered this tale type both with male and female heroes, but this was the first one with a female hero disguised as a boy. I also loved The daughter of the King of Naples, in which a prince set out to marry the princess of Naples - without actually knowing whether Naples had a princess or not. In the end, it did, and she accidentally ran away with the wrong man, and it took some time to find her again.


After Oceania and America I once again encountered a story that explains Why dogs sniff each other. In this case, they do it because one of them left a party to get some pepper, and never came back, so they have to look for the smell of spices on everyone. I also found a parallel of an Italian folktale here, in which a girl was asked if she wanted to be unlucky while young or while old; she picked a former, and had to work through a flood of misfortune before she could settle down. Saint Peter's mother appeared once again, and once again did not make it into Heaven - hence the Portuguese saying "Standing in the door like Saint Peter's mother."
There were several familiar fairy tale types, such as Three kidnapped princesses, Magician's apprentice, Tom Thumb (Manoel Littlebean), and Snow White (a dark and gory version, but at least the dwarves turned into princes in the end). The Portuguese version of Catskins, Linda Branca, was especially interesting because the girl did not run away from her father, but rather set out disguised as an ugly servant because she was tired of being too beautiful and getting too much attentin. Of course she changed her mind in the end.
As for tricksters, there was Peter-of-the-pigs, who tricked others, but was ultimately tricked to death himself. There was also a classic "top of the crop, bottom of the crop" trickster story in the book.

Where to next?
We will reach Africa at Morocco!

Thursday, December 13, 2018

5+1 little known Christmas folktales (Following folktales around the world)

Since there is only one Following folktales around the world post left for this year - and that post is also the last country from Europe - I wanted to make a special collection of Christmas stories that I have encountered on the journey so far.

Every year, storytellers frantically search for new tales to tell around the winter holidays. There is an entire publishing industry built on Christmas stories, and there are classics that never go away - from The Gift of the Magi to Christmas Spiders. While reading stories from the three continents I completed in the challenge, I encountered some folktales that are not very well known in the storytelling community, but would make a great addition to the holiday lineup.
In no particular order, here they are:

El palo del ocote 
A young boy learns from his grandmother that one should talk to trees, because they listen. So, he makes friends with a Montezuma pine in the mountains, and invites it home for Christmas. While everyone laughs at the boy's attempt to make a tree friend, on Christmas eve the giant tree does show up at the house to celebrate with the family.

Anancy and Sorrel
Anancy the Trickster wants to go to the Christmas market, but has nothing to sell or barter. He finds some pretty red flowers, and he decides to pick them and sell them - but people suspect the trickster of trying to cheat them, and chase him around until he dumps the flowers into a pot of boiling water. The water turns red and tastes good, so people start adding spices and fruit to it. And thus, sorrel, a Jamaican Christmastime drink is born.

The Fairies' Mist Gate
The fairies kidnap a little boy's baby sister on Christmas eve, so he sets out to rescue her with the help of a talking cat, a donkey, and a church Grim. They have to get through the mists surrounding the fairy hill, and take the baby while keeping the Little Folk away. A tale of adventure, teamwork, and magic.

Hildur, Queen of the Elves
The tale starts with a mystery - every Christmas eve, a shepherd dies on a farm - and leads into a nighttime journey to the land of the Elves. Hildur, a servant at the farm, turns out to be a fairy queen in exile, who can only travel home to see her family once a year, until her curse is broken by a brave mortal who is willing to accompany her.

Two poor children set out into the winter forest on the night of Reyes (the night of January 6th, when the Three Wise Men bring gifts to Spanish children) to find the Wise Men and point them to their little cottage. Instead, they encounter a mysterious lady who sends the on a quest to an enchanted castle. In the end, they do get an abundance of gifts for their bravery.

The mischievous sons of Father Frost
In this fun Estonian folktale a poor farmer receives three visitors in a row. Each is a son of Father Frost, and they make life of their gracious host increasingly uncomfortable by filling his house with ice and still complaining about the heat. The eldest one, however, turns out to be doing good work - winter cold is needed just as summer heat - and he gifts the patient farmer two bags (one hot and one cold) so that he can manage the weather over his own fields.

Today is the last #FolkloreThursday of the year. Happy Holidays and Happy New Year, everyone!

Monday, December 10, 2018

Land of witches (Following folktales around the world 95. - Andorra)

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!

Andorra is a Catalan-speaking country, so I had trouble finding a full book of folktales in a language that I could read. But I did manage to scavenge up some Andorran legends and tales from the Internet. Here they are:

The piper of Ordino

A famous piper is on his way to play at a wedding when he is attacked by wolves. He climbs a tree and starts playing the pipes; the sound makes the wolves flee. Villages find him the next morning, still playing his music to keep the wolves away.

The White Lady of Aubinyá

A greedy bishop takes advantage of the poor, until the White Lady, a woman who inherited the lands from her father, lures the bishop into the deep woods, and he is never seen again. At the same time, a large wolf starts prowling the forests. Draw your own conclusions.

Lake Engolasters

A beggar arrives to a small town, but no one takes pity on him; people chase him away or trick him, until a girl takes pity and gives him some bread. In exchange, he advises her to flee immediately. That night a flood drowns the entire town, and Lake Engolasters is born. The lake becomes a favorite bathing place of Andorran witches.
(Here is another version)

The Virgin of Meritxell

On the day of the Three Wise Men (January 6) people on their way to church find an image of the Virgin under a blooming rose bush. They take the image to the church, but by the next morning it miraculously returns to the bush, so they build a chapel for her there instead.

The seven-armed cross

A boy is terrified of the devil, so seven other boys decide to trick him. They send him for wine at night, armed with an (unloaded) pistol. Sadly, the shopkeeper loads the pistol for him, and on the way back he ends up shooting the boy dressed in bed sheets who is trying to scare him. At the place of the accident a cross appears with seven arms.

The rock of witches

This legend explains the origins of the Bronze Age rock carvings pictured below. It is said that Andorran witches fought the devil and threw him off a cliff; the claws of the devil left the marks on the rocks.

Where to next?

Monday, December 3, 2018

Nobody expects the Spanish princesses (Following folktales around the world 94. - Spain)

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!

Cuentos ​Populares Españoles
José María Guelbenzu
Siruela, 2006.

The book contains 117 Spanish folktales, somewhat re-worded for contemporary readers from their dialects, but kept in their original shape. It is a good selection from all the regions of Spain, including Catalonia and the Basque Country. There are sources in the end, but the tales themselves follow each other without chapters or themes, so it was a surprise every time I turned the page to see what would come next - fairy tale, legend, anecdote, or something else? It is a great, colorful, enjoyable selection with many memorable stories.


Right now, just before the holidays, it was nice to read Aguinaldo, the tale of two poor children who set out to direct the Three Wise Men to their cottage (because the year before they did not get any presents from them). They meet a lady instead, who sends them on an adventurous journey to an enchanted castle. Similarly touching was the story of the Repentant robbers, in which a holy monk mocked an arrested criminal for being destined to Hell - and then he got a divine reminder that anyone can change for the better if they want to. The tale of The purest blood also had a timely lesson that a king taught to his mean son - that his blood is the same read as the blood of the poor, and his infant child also looks the same. The Catalan story of the Green Cap, on the other hand, had a less optimistic message. In it, a witch gave a man a cap that let him hear everyone's thoughts - and he soon concluded that all people are horrible.
One of my favorite stories was The sewing box of the anjana. A poor woman found the sewing kit of an anjana (one-eyed witch), and after giving away each pin for a good cause, she was rewarded with help for rescuing her son from a giant. The tale of The Dwarf also had a female hero, who, after accidentally eloping with the wrong guy, rescued a princess for eternal torture. A long list of other female heroes followed: Three sisters rescued themselves from a giant's Castle with Seven Towers, and a wife accused of adultery proved her innocence with a pair of Golden shoes and genius trickery. Dwarves also made other appearances, among them one where a Sepherd befriended a Dwarf, and they rescued a princess together.
Some well-known tale types took unexpected turns in this book. The Sleeping Princess was a Sleeping Beauty variant where the girl was awakened by the prince pulling the splinter from her hand (bonus points), but after she got pregnant the prince went home to his wife (minus point). The wife then tried to get rid of the other family by cooking the kids and serving them to her husband (minus points), and while the princess and the prince eventually married, the kids did not come back to life like in other versions. Angelina and the Lion was a Beauty and the Beast variant where the woman looking for her husband dressed as a soldier, and killed the dragon as a side quest. The Dragon Prince was saved by a girl who had to make a shirt out of a princess' hair to break his curse - the princess turned out to be his sister in a surprising plot twist. It was also a princess who made herself a Louse Skin drum and offered a reward to whoever could guess its origins; a man, with the help of some people with superpowers, guessed right, and got a reward (but not the princess). The ring that said "I'm here" was a classic Cyclops-legend, except here the hero was a clever girl rather than Odysseus.
Some tales ended on a less triumphant note: In The charcoal burner and Death a mortal tried to trick Death, but Death pretended to hang herself, and tricked the mortal instead by giving him a false sense of triumph. The story of the heroic Juan y Medio ended when the hero kidnapped a princess, who in turn tricked him with the age-old "tar baby" trick, left him to drown in the ocean, and went home.


I encountered many of my favorite tale types in this book. There was a version of the Three Gifts story, where the princess wanted three husbands, but her father insisted that she should choose. When the three princes used their magic objects to save her together, she said "see, all three were needed!", and married all of them. Lavender Flower was a variant of my favorite Italian Canary Prince, and Green Rose (Rosa Verde) was a variant of the fiery Mediterranean Basil Maiden. Also Mediterranean is the story of the marriage of Butterfly and Mouse, which I have encountered in South America before.
The best changeling story I have read so far was that of the Lost Boy. In it, the husband kept trying to kill the changeling child, but the wife kept stopping him, saying the changeling was just a child, and deserved love. Eventually, the real child was also found, and it turned out that the wife's kindness had broken the spell.
There were many, many classic tale types featured in the book: Tom Thumb (Periquillo), Two Hunchbacks, Thee oranges (here the fairies appeared from the oranges with their children in their arms), Hero who could turn into three animals, Bluebeard (the girl saved herself and her sisters), Three spinners, Puss in Boots, Princess in the shroud, Princess that saw everything, Blacksmith and the devil (or Juan Soldado), Tía Miseria and Death, Animal Bride (here with a frog, helped by her sister who was a snake), Brementown Musicians, Devil's three golden hairs, Raven brothers (here lion brothers), Faithful servant (here the kid stayed dead too), Gold-spitting prince, Stone of Pain and Dagger of Love (I knew this as a Turkish tale), Fortunatus, Girl who turned into a man (specifically so that she could marry into the royal family), Juan el Oso, Extraordinary helpers, Princess who stole magic items from three heroes, Queen bee, Three Little Pigs (with female pigs who built houses together).
As for tricksters, Juan Bobo and the fox deserve a mention (the latter for the classic down-into-the-well trick she used on the wolf).

Where to next?

Monday, November 26, 2018

Tales of endless adventures (Following folktales around the world 93. - Republic of Ireland)

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 of Ireland
Sean O'Sullivan
University of Chicago Press, 1968.

Yet another classic on any storyteller's bookshelf. It contains fifty-five stories, divided into thematic chapters (Animals and birds, Kings and warriors, Wizards and witches, etc.). It has a long and detailed Foreword and Introduction about the history of Irish folklore collection and storytelling. Each tale comes with detailed notes, sources, type numbers, as well as a glossary and a bibliography at the end of the book. As a 20th century folklore collection, the book is missing the well known big Irish legends, but it has plenty of amazing lesser known folk stories.


Many of the stories in the book are long, complex, multi-episode wonder tales. For example, I loved the story of Céatach, an apprentice magician who rescued his master's daughter from Steel Skull, ended up in Ireland, went through quests to keep her from the Fianna, died, and was brought back eventually by his crafty wife. This was also not the only story where the Fianna made an appearance. In one legend, we found out how the heroes of the Fianna got their magical abilities from a woman named Youth; in another, we got a backstory for the birth of Oscar, Oisín's son, and his adventures in finding his place among the heroes (this one also told about Goll Mac Morna defeating three witches). Nex to the Fians, Cú Chulainn also appeared in one tale, although more as a storyteller rather than a warrior.
One of the deepest, more complex stories in the book was that of The man who was rescued from hell. In it, a woman left her abusive husband, found a new home with her mother, fell in love with a cursed man, and went all the way to hell to save him, herself, and many other souls (including her ex-husband). Similarly hard-hitting was the story where a man visited the Queen of the Planets to ask some questions, and got to witness how she decides the fates of people in various gruesome ways. Among the historical legends, the most fascinating was about the friar who foretold Cromwell's invasion, and helped a man keep his Irish lands. In the end, Cromwell went to hell, obviously.
Among the fairy legends, my favorite was Seán Palmer's voyage to America with the fairies - the man visited his friends and relatives in New York and Boston within one night, and got home to Ireland by morning. Apart from fairies, a leprechaun was also mentioned - but here, instead of giving away treasure, it just laughed at the misfortunes of its captor. Of the stories about witches and wizards, the best one was that of the Black Art, in which a father realized his wife was a witch when he saw his little girl playing at sinking ships by magic...


The story of the Cold May night resembled the Welsh story of the Ancient of the World - an eagle set out to find the oldest living creature, and ended up realizing that Old Crow had been alive longer than anyone in the world. After Scotland I once again found a Man who had no story (but got one by the end of a wild magic-filled night), Heather ale (here the secret recipe belonged to the Danes, rather than the Picts), and a Cow that ate the piper (or so it appeared). Many of the fairy legends had familiar elements in them, such as the fairy midwife.
The story of the four-leafed shamrock resembled the Grimm tale fo the Rooster Beam, in which a clover allowed its owner to see through a magician's illusions.
Among tricksters we had the fox who outwitted animals and people alike (e.g. by pretending to be dead), but the most well-known was Daniel O'Connell, who picked up a lot of classic trickster motifs along the way - such as a "smell of money for the smell of food" type story.

Where to next?

Monday, November 19, 2018

Land of legends (Following folktales around the world 92. - Northern Ireland)

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!

Armagh Folk Tales
Frances Quinn
The History Press, 2014.

Because I do this challenge by political and not cultural borders, I get to read two books of Irish folktales. Yay! This first one is by storyteller Frances Quinn, whom I heard personally tell some of these stories last year, on location (a treat!). The book collects fifty stories from County Armagh, including some very famous classic Irish legends that have connections to Ulster. All of them are researched and retold by an excellent storyteller, and make an exciting read. The book has no notes or bibliography, but it does preface every story with sources and origin. Chapters are themed by story types, from legends through anecdotes to local lore.


Many famous Irish legends have connections to Armagh. Emain Macha (Navan Fort), legendary home of the Ulster kings and heroes falls inside the boundaries of the country, so technically any story of the Ulster cycle could fit within this book. Many of them did, starting with the Twins of Macha, a woman who was forced to run a race with the king's horses while heavily pregnant, won, gave birth to twins, and then cursed the men of Ulster to have birthing pains whenever they were attacked (best curse in legend and lore). Another Macha, Macha Mongrúad was also a fierce woman, winning herself a kingdom and keeping it against all odds.
Talking about Ulster heroes, of course there are several legends in the book that feature Cú Chulainn (including the one about how he won his name). Similarly famous are the Children of Lir (who spend 900 years changed into swans), and Deirdre of the Sorrows, probably the most famous tragic love story in Ireland. To my delight, there was even a Fianna story, the Hunt on Slieve Gullion - last year, when we visited Armagh with the FEST conference, I got to climb the mountain and see the setting of that story for myself. Another member of the Fianna, Oisín, also made an appearance, helping Saint Patrick fight off a raging bull and find a place to build the cathedral of Armagh.
I have always liked the story of Fergus Mac Leide, which is the earliest known mention of leprechauns. This book's version had a different opening than the one I was familiar with, but it did end the same way: With the king in his water-walking shoes encountering a monster under a lake... I also got to read about the mermaid Liban (who became St. Murigen later on), and Black Pig Dyke, which was created when a bad teacher was cursed into a wild boar by a parent, and tore up the countryside. The most disturbing legend, however, was that of the Hungry grass, which grows on the graves of people who died in the Famine, and makes unsuspecting people starve to death.


I encountered yet another story that I knew from a local Hungarian version by my grandpa (the tale of bringing candles to the church to count sins). I have also read variants of "Lived once buried twice" from several countries - the tale of the wife who is woken up in the grave when a robber tries to cut her ring finger off. This book had two different versions of it, one of them from 1705.
There were, of course, sleeping knights (here associated with Black Pig Dyke and the end of the world), and many, many fairy legends - stolen women, nighttime dances, fair midwives, and changelings. My favorite text, however, was from a folklorist who overheard local people talking about him, and wrote the conversation down - the two fellows concluded in the end that the strange collector must be a fae himself.

Where to next?
Republic of Ireland!

Monday, November 12, 2018

Fairies, heroes, wizards (Following folktales around the world 91. - Scotland)

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!

The Penguin Book of Scottish Folktales
Neil Philip
Penguin Books, 1995.

Yet another folklore classic, with notes, sources, tale types, and a world of information. It represents various aspects of Scottish oral tradition; the 112 tales are grouped into chapters by region (Highlands and Lowlands), as well as story types (historical stories, anecdotes, fairy legends, etc.). The long introduction talks about tale type indexes, the features of oral storytelling, Scottish tradition, and even the roles of male and female tellers. Each story comes with sources, type numbers, and the teller's name. Many texts were written out phonetically, which made it harder for me to follow, and often I had to read them out loud to understand the words, but it was worth it. I found quite a few great stories in this book.


Kate Crackernuts
Some of my favorite Scottish folktales are featured in the book - for example Kate Crackernuts, with a heroine who saves a prince and also helps her stepsister (in a sort of reverse "dancing princesses" story); or Mally Whuppie, who repeatedly outwits a giant to save herself and her sisters. The latter also had a Highland variant, called Maol a Chliobain.
I really liked Maraiche Mairneal, the Weatherwise Mariner, who was not even the protagonist in his own story; the hero was a prince who had a snake twisted around his body, and in order to find the women who could help him get rid of it, he had to enlist the help of an old, blind mariner. All was well in the end. The story of The widow's son and the king's daughter took an unexpected turn when the hero, in order to defeat a fire-breathing dragon, got a camel, filled it up with water, and made it spew water at the flames of the dragon. Similarly unexpected was the story of The man in the boat, a version of "the man who had no story", in which said man was spirited away by a boat, turned into a woman, married, had children, and then got back on the same night - and now he had quite the story to tell. Teenagers love this story.
I was delighted to find quite a few Fianna legends in the book. Finn in the land of Big Men was familiar; I even have a version of it in my own book. Finn and the Grey Dog is also an old favorite of mine; I knew it from Rosemary Sutcliff's collection, but it was great to find the folk text as well. There was a variant of the Hostel of the Quicken Trees (here the Yellow Field), where the Fianna warriors get stuck to their chairs in an enchanted house, and the younger generation has to rescue them. And of course there was a story about Oisín (Ossian), after the Fianna.

Michael Scott's tomb
There were some fascinating historical legends as well. One was about the last of the Picts, and how father and son took the secret of the heather ale with them to the grave. I encountered Sir James Ramsay of Bamff, a legendary doctor with magical abilities, and Michael Scott, one of the most famous wizards in European lore (both were features in my book on superpowers).
Among the fairy legends, I really liked Black Lad MacCrimmon and the Banshee, where the fairy asked the piper lad if he wanted success without talent, or talent without success. He chose the latter.


A Fekete Bika képregény- változata (Image Comics)
There were quite a few classic tale types in the book, such as Mother killed me, father ate me; Cinderella; Beauty and the Beast (here the Black Bull of Norroway); Magic Flights (Green Sleeves); Frog Bride; The hunchback and the fairies; Clever Maiden; Water of Life (here with a friendly bear); Firebird (here with a friendly fox); and even Raven brothers (here with shirts made from bog cotton). There was a Scottish Frog Prince who had to be beheaded with an axe, rather than kissed. Rumpelstiltskin here was a woman named Whoppity Stoorie, and Frau Holle's tale was called The well at the end of the world (one of my storyteller friends recently released a CD with the Appalachian version of this).
I was reminded of other European wizards by Donald Duibheal Mackay who had not shadow, and other European tales by the Humble-bee that flew from the mouth of a sleeping person, and had dream-like adventures.
There were familiar Münchhausen tales among the anecdotes, such as the servant who ate one leg of the goose (known from the Decameron, and also my own grandfather), or the Mare's egg.
Of course I found sleeping knights, waiting for their king to appear; and there was also a Polyphemus story, but instead of blinded cyclops here it featured a blinded fairy (Tam M'Kechan).
The fairy legends were full of familiar motifs: Dance in the fairy hill, fairy midwife, changelings, wife kidnapped by fairies (who then had to choose between two husbands), and mortal traveling with fairies (Hurrah for Kintail!). There was also a selkie and an evil mermaid.
As for tricksters, we had George Buchanan, the king's clever fool.

Where to next?
Northern Ireland!

Monday, November 5, 2018

Arthur, Merlin, and the Fair Family (Following folktales around the world 90. - Wales)

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!

The Welsh Fairy Book
W. Jenkyn Thomas
F. A. Stokes, 1908.

This old volume contains a treasure trove of eighty-four Welsh fairy tales. They were collected by a teacher who wanted to make sure that his Welsh students could read stories from their own culture. The language of the tales is eloquent and entertaining, and many tale types repeat based on different places where they are said to have taken place. They are connected to the Welsh landscape - lakes, mountains, towns. Many of the names are difficult for the non-Welsh reader, but Thomas provides a handy pronounciation guide at the beginning of the book. I was delighted to discover that the original volume had been illustrated by Willy Pogány, an artist of Hungarian descent.


The drowning of the Bottom Hundred is an eerie legend about a kingdom protected by levees and devoured by a flood after the people whose job it was to keep everything in good shape neglected their duties. It is a very exciting, elaborate story with appealing characters such as a brave princess and a clever minstrel. Floods happened fairly often in these stories; another captivating yet dark legend was that of the Swallowed Court, where a king swapped his elderly wife for a fair young maiden, just to find out too late that the maiden was his old wife who had made a dark deal to regain her youth.
The curse of Pantannas was a story of truma passed down through the generations. A farmer plowed a fairy ring, but when the Fair Folk threatened him hi begged for the punishment to be passed down to his descendants instead. Generations later his descendant Madoc was stolen away on his wedding day, and only appeared again decades later, when all his loved ones were dead. Another tale, titled The ancients of the world, spanned a similarly long time: An ancient eagle wanted to marry someone who matched him in age, so he visited the other ancient creatures of the world until he found an Owl who was older than all of them.
Most of the book is taken up by various fairy legends. One of the most interesting was Elidyr's sojourn to Fairyland, from which we find out that fairies eat saffron milk, never lie, and their language is related to ancient Greek. Next to the fairies we also encounter the Pwca, a mischievous and dangerous trickster creature, and also some witches, in some cases a whole town of them (Goronwy Tudor and the witches of Llanddona).
The book also features some of the most famous Welsh legends, such as the origin of the Red Dragon as a symbol of Wales (along with Merlin's origin story), the tale of Gelert the faithful hound, and the Mantle of Beards, in which King Arthur kills Rhitta Gawr, who collects beards from defeated kings. I was also familiar with the story of Hu Gadarn, who, with the help of a maiden, saves his people from the water monster called Afanc.


If there is a country that can claim to be them home of the most Sleeping Knights, Wales is probably it. The knights of King Arthur are said to be asleep under various mountains, waiting to be called back to help their people. Of course the fairy legends followed familiar types: There were several fairy midwives with ointment in their eyes (e.g. Lowri Dafydd), changelings that had to be tricked (e.g. the Changeling of Llanfabon), and people who got lost in Fairyland and only returned years later. Even the Open, Sesame tale type featured fairies instead of thieves, whose secret world opened with a Fairy Password.
Some other familiar tale types were also featured in the book, such as Rumpelstiltskin (here the name was Sili go Dwt), or Cricket the false seer (here named Black Robin). Among the classic Welsh tales there was the King with horse's ears (just like the Greek King Midas), and also a surprise appearance from the White Woman whom I have not seen since South America. But the story that made me the happiest was that of Why the robin's breast is red, which echoes one of my favorite American folktales, about birds bringing water to Hell to ease the suffering.

Where to next?

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Kindness against darkness: Halloween folktales of caring

I like Halloween stories that go beyond mere fright. Maybe because I used to be an anxious child, and jump tales made me cringe in advance; maybe because I never liked horror for horror's sake. When I started developing a Halloween repertoire as a storyteller visiting the USA, I was drawn towards stories that were less about the creatures of darkness, and more about how we face them.

This year, since the world is increasingly full of darkness anyway, I decided to post a selection of stories where scary things are balanced out with kindness and understanding. So, here is my Top 5.

The black kitty
W. B. McCarthy: Cinderella in America (University Press of Mississippi, 2007.)
Polish-American folktale about a boy who is believed to be simple by his brothers, and yet he ends up breaking a curse on a castle and its residents. He does so by hugging a black kitten (an enchanted princess named Katie), and whispering "my kitty, my black kitty" even when dragons, storms, ghosts, and devils descend on the castle to scare him.

The wee little tyke
Ruth L. Tongue: Forgotten folk-tales of the English counties (Routledge, 1970.)
A girl finds a small black stray dog, and takes him home. The entirely family is cursed by a witch, and the home is a horrible place; cow doesn't give milk, hens don't lay eggs, etc. The wee little dog breaks the curses one by one, and chases the witch away. The family decides to adopt the pup, despite his heartbreaking worries: "But... I'm small!" "But you have sharp teeth!" "But... I'm black!" "So is our cat!"

(Bonus: These two tales can also be used to encourage people to get over their superstitions about adopting black pets.)

The skull
Ruth Manning-Sanders: A book of ghosts and goblins (Dutton, 1969.)
Folktale from Tirol. An orphan girl runs away from her cousin's, and comes across a castle in the woods. The castle is inhabited by a woman's skull that she makes friends with despite all the eerie things going on around it. At night, the girl hugs the skull and holds on to it even when the headless skeleton of an evil man tries to tear it away from her. Her bravery and caring breaks the curse on the woman's ghost, and the girl inherits the castle.

Drinking companions
Pu Songling: Strange stories from a Chinese studio (London, 1880.)
Chinese story of possible traditional origins. A fisherman makes friends with a mysterious person who turns out to be the ghost of a drowned man. After a long time of sharing drinks every night, the ghost tells him that the next person to drown in the river is about to take his place. But when the next person turns out to be a mother and child, the ghost saves them, extending his own time in limbo. As a reward, he is assigned to be a minor deity in a nearby village, and continues his friendship with the fisherman. 
My storytelling mentor, Cathryn Fairlee, has a lovely version of this story that features husband and wife.

The count and the servant
(Source in Hungarian)
Hungarian folktale. A count dies, but his ghost haunts the family home every night. A servant who loved him while he was alive decides to find out why his master can't rest in peace. He pretends to be a ghost as well, and spends the night haunting and talking together with the count's ghost. The count confesses that he has hidden treasure that he wanted to leave to his family. When the servant helps him uncover the treasure, the ghost thanks him, and goes to his eternal rest.
I heard Heather Forest tell this one in Jonesborough once.

Have a great Halloween, everyone!

Monday, October 29, 2018

Forests full of forgotten folktales (Following folktales around the world 89. - England)

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!

I could not get access to any collections that cover all parts of the UK in one volume, so I decided to do them separately.
Forgotten Folk-tales of the English Counties
Ruth L. Tongue
Routledge, 1970.

This book instantly became one of my all-time favorite folktale collections; it is full of enchanting and unknown stories. Ruth Tongue's vast folklore collection burned down in 1966, after which she began to salvage what she could, by writing stories down from memory, and copying scorched pieces of paper. Some of these had been sent to her before and she did not even have time to read them, so it was a close call for them to be lost forever. Luckily, we now have them printed in this book, and they are a treasure trove!
The book contains 90 stories, grouped into three parts of 6 sections each. The sections are thematic (e.g. "Ghosts and Curses", "Witches and Evil Spirits," or "Rhozzums"). Each story comes with sources and notes, and there is a list of them compiled by county.


I found a lot of new favorites. I fell in love with The Vixen and the Oakmen, where trees and plants helped a fox get away from hunters and home to her husband. I encountered again the Elder Tree Witch, a fascinating and creepy story that I also included in my own book. Trees kept popping up in many of the best stories: Timbertoes and Silvertoes was about the friendship of an oak and a birch, The Wonderful Forest saved a girl from an evil king hunting her, and the Green Ladies of One Tree Hill punished two men who cut them down. There were many tales about apple trees specifically; they were often protected by fairies, or fairy horses (Lazy Lawrence) from greedy people.

Several stories that featured helpful animals. I loved the Wee Little Tyke, a tiny black dog that was adopted by a family and defended them fiercely from the curses of a witch. A little boy was helped by a donkey, a cat, and a dog to rescue her baby sister who had been taken through The Fairies' Mist Gate (lovely Christmas story, by the way). A mother was also helped by a horse, a hound, and a lap dog (!) in the fight against a Grim to save her daughter. In Food and fire and company a little old lady was helped by an invisible being around the house.
There were some stories that almost brought me to tears. Next to the wee little tyke, such a story was Poor Mall's Pilgrimage, the sad tale of a girl sold to a lord for a night, and then bullied mercilessly by her village. Eventually a strong and brave priest came along that protected her from the villagers, and carried her on his back to see her baby boy who'd grown up to be the bishop of Canterbury.
There were some ancient tales in the book too, such as one about the Wild Hunt, summoned unwittingly by a boy who blew into Herne's Horn. Or the Dragon of Solway, killed by people who dug stakes into the beach at low tide, and impaled the monster; a story that appears in indigenous traditions around the world. Dragons featured into a few stories, among them the one that got banished not once, but twice - first, by a monk on Winlatter Rock, and second, by Thee Valiant Lads who chased it into the Blue John Mines (this is how I found the book in the first place).
There were many other supernatural beings included in the book - quiet, deepwater mermaids (Asrai), the legendary Black Dog, it's cousin the Dog of the Hills, second cousin the Daisy Dog (actually a Pekingese), Black Annis the blue-faced hag, the Shuck, water ponies (shoopiltee), and fair folk under dozens of names (grig, boggarty, silky, etc.).
Even Robin Hood appeared in one story. We are in England, after all...


The story of the Seven Swans took an unexpected turn: One was wounded by a hunter, turned into a girl, and was carried away by him - but when she recovered, she turned back into a swan, chased him out of the house, and her swan sisters drowned him (just sayin'). The tale of the Cheshire cheese that went to heaven after rolling away from the priest and dividing itself among the needy reminded me of all the rolling pancake / gingerbread man tales.
Ruth Tongue suggests that the In my pocket story was probably known to J. R. R. Tolkien. It is about the friendship of a dumb giant and a smart dwarf, the latter of which hides in the pocket of the former, and beats a wizard at a game of riddles.

Where to next?

Monday, October 22, 2018

Diversity in the Netherlands (Following folktales around the world 88. - Netherlands)

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!

The Flying Dutchman
And other folktales from the Netherlands
Theo Meder
Libraries Unlimited, 2007.

The book contains 126 Dutch tales, legends, and other stories, carefully selected by the author not only to reflect the diversity of narrative genres from fairy tale to urban legend, but also to showcase the cultural diversity of the Netherlands. The introduction tells us about the history and culture of the country, including traditions, foodways, and mentality. We learn important things like how Dutch tradition has few heroes, the Flying Dutchman was actually originally an English literary story, and tulips came from Turkey. The tales, on the other hand, are definitely typical of the country, as they are selected and translated from the Dutch Folktale Database. I was especially impressed that the book naturally includes urban legends as part of folklore. Each story came with notes, including sources and storyteller names, tale type numbers, and comments.


I liked the story of The king and the soldier, which reminded me of the famous anecdote about Hadrian. The soldier met the disguised king on his way to the royal court, planning on demanding his payment or beating the ruler's face in with a rock. They became friends, went through some adventures, and all was well in the end.
The Lady of Stavoren
Among the legends I especially liked the White Women of the Hill of Lochem - they were helpful and terrifying at the same time, and a young man had to face them in order to win the hand of her beloved (who helped him escape death). of course a version of the Flying Dutchman was still included in the book (as per the title), and so was the most famous actual Dutch legend, the Lady of Stavoren. She ordered a captain to bring her the most precious thing in the world, but when he delivered wheat, she ordered it to be thrown overboard - and soon was punished for her pride. Among the mythical creatures, the Basilisk of Utrecht was the most interesting; as usual, someone defeated it with a mirror.
The best stories were found among the urban legends and anecdotes. For example, one explained why February has fewer days (because he lost some on cards to January and March), and another How people learned to eat potatoes (by a lord putting up a "to be consumed by the king only" sign, prompting people to steal the exotic plant). I also liked the one about Two witches in the wine cellar, in which two young witches said the incantations wrong, got trapped in a cellar, and got terribly drunk. The story did not end well for them, but it was very entertaining. So was another witch story, that of an Enchanted ship that was stolen by the captain's wife every night, so that she could make a magical journey to China.


Another kind of
Flying Dutchman
Hansel and Gretel found a Chocolate house - after they had been sent to gather firewood by their widowed mother, and got lost in the woods. There were other familiar tale types as well, such as the Magic Flight, Beauty and the Beast, Mother killed me father ate me, and even a fun mix of Frau Holle and Snow White, in which a stepdaughter named Bertha first took refuge in the house of seven monkeys, and then the monkeys blessed her with a prince for a husband. I was intrigued to find a variant of Snow White and Rose Red, which is a rare tale type (in this case, the bear-prince was hunted by fifty evil Dwarves).
Similar to other Northern traditions, there was a legend about Why the sea is salt (in this case, a giant salt ship sunk in it), and even some tales similar to Irish traditions, such as a Changeling story, and the classic Hunchback and the Little People.
A significant part of the book was taken up by urban legends and anecdotes - some famous ones among them, including the Vanishing Hitchhiker. It was an added bonus that I read the tale of the Circus Bear the same day when I also heard it told live by a Transylvanian storyteller, who heard it from a Georgian teller...
Among the trickster tales there were some classics too, such as Why Bear has a short tail (blame it on Fox), the Fake Baptism (also Fox), and even an Anansi story out of the blue - apparently Anansi made the trip from the colonies to the Netherlands. I also encountered human tricksters, such as a clever man named Jan, along with big names such as Tijl Uilenspiegel and Nasreddin.

Where to next?