Monday, May 7, 2018

The land of talking winds (Following folktales around the world 64. - Malta)

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 under the Following Folktales label, or you can follow the series on Facebook!

Máltai népmesék
Boda Magdolna
Szeged, 2016.

The book contains forty-two folktales, divided into chapters by their genre (wonder tales, animal tales, romantic tales, etc.). Three quarters of the book are taken up by wonder tales, which were also the most exciting. The author selected and translated the stories from various English-language Maltese folktale collections (among them this one and this one). The translation left some things to be desired, and also had the occasional typo or two, but all in all, the language of the stories was very enjoyable. She also noted that she tweaked the language in translation occasionally. I hope she didn't tweak the plots, because I enjoyed the hell out of the special flavor of Maltese tales.


Winds of Malta by direction
There were several familiar stories that I loved for their unusual and colorful details. In the Aladdin-type tale of The four winds, the wizard, and the magic lamp, the hero seeking his stolen wife and castle was helped by the various Winds, all with their own name and personality. He even ran a rave with one of them. Similarly, the Winds appeared as active participants in the tale of Cosolina, which was one of my favorites in the book. In it, a spoiled rich boy only realized he loves the girl he was meant to marry once she gets kidnapped by a wizard. He is helped by the Winds first, and then, when he botches his first encounter with the girl (he spies on her by candlelight, like a reverse Cupid and Psyche), she tells him he won't see her again until he wears out seven pairs of iron shoes. The guy then gets magic boots of speed, and puts on seven iron shoes on top of each other - by running at a supernatural speed, the iron shoes wear out in a couple of minutes (work smarter, not harder, people). I also loved the moment when the helpful lion gave him a hair, the eagle a feather, and the ant said "What should I give? if I give an antenna I'll be half blind, if I give a leg I'll be lame!" I've always had this problem with ant helpers in fairy tales... There was another instance, in the tale of I don't know, in which the hero hid the helpers' items (hair, ant's wing, fish bone) under his own skin, through a wound he cut into his neck. Ouch.
The kind of cave the princess is held in
I also enjoyed the tale of Pietru Lagrimanti (Peter of the Tears). It was a variant of the story I knew from the Pentamerone as The Flea, masterfully combined with another tale type. A princess was kidnapped by a wizard and held behind seven iron doors; she was rescued by seven brothers with magical skills... except they failed. The prophecy (that she managed to send in a secret message to her father) said she could only be rescued by the eighth brother, to be born from his mother's tears. Being a very practical man, the kind immediately made the mother drink her own tears, and thus the hero was produced.
All in all, there was a lot of practical thinking displayed in the stories. In The giant and the talking hand, a variant of Bluebeard, a girl had to pretend to eat a corpse's hand to avoid being punished by her infernal husband. She did not only manage to get away with hiding it under her apron ("at her belly"), but also pretended to pass it on the toilet (and eventually she rescued herself). Kaukama and Kaukam was the popular tale type of the Clever Girl - except in this case it was about a clever man (aided by his old father). It was the first male-hero variant of this story that I've seen where the man also had to go to the king "half dressed and half naked" like the female heroes do. Also, it was combined with Why old people are not killed anymore. Maltese tales have some very neat type combinations.
There were also types and stories that were new to me, of course. The golden corpse was interesting: A girl found the way to the Underworld, to the City of the Dead - and decided to move in, with her mom and her sisters, and get rich (the place was a little...dead). Three giants starred in a story that sounded a lot like a folktale description of a volcanic eruption. First they made thunderous noises, then they smoked a lot, and then they sent a tidal flood across the land. The tale of Son of the Seed, Daughter of the Peel was full of magical symbolism; in it, the hero found out that his talking mare was actually his enchanted twin sister, and had to go through a series of rituals to turn her into a human being. The story also implied that he loved her a little more than a sibling... and when she got married, he never picked a wife for himself. And talking about unusual relationships in folktales, I was a little surprised that The Letter was included under "romantic tales." In it, a man was rescued from a female (!) Bluebeard by sending a secret coded message that only his "trusted servant" could decipher. I can see some very cool possibilities in telling this tale.
I was very fond of the tale titled Brother Dragon. One, it was about a Cinderella girl who raised a dragon that became her brother and guardian. Two, when she was replaced with an ugly fake bride by her evil stepmother, the prince took one look at the fake bride and went "That's not the same person. Get out." This is the firs time I have seen a folktale prince do that (not recognizing their own bride always bugged me).
Among the legends at the end of the book, my favorites were about Is-settisibella, the wise and powerful sister of King Solomon, a Sibylla figure in Maltese folklore. In one story she burned her precious books of medicine the same way the Cumean Sibylla did with Tarquinius. In another one, she ran a school of magic for girls (A SCHOOL OF MAGIC FOR GIRLS), and the Virgin Mary was among her pupils.


The lemons are watching you
Since Malta lies at the crossroads of many Mediterranean trading routes, it is no wonder that it is full of familiar tales and tale types. Like in many other Mediterranean traditions, there was a Basil Maiden in the book, for example. After the Greek collection I once again found a story where the hero approached the hidden princess while inside a Golden lion (the old wooden horse trick still works), and also a variant of the Son of the Hunter, one of my favorite Greek tales, here called Son of the Wise Woman (with the addition of a giant man-eating bird). Also form the Extraordinary Helpers tale type came the Wizard of the Seven Diamonds, except the hero here made friends with thee giants who helped him complete all the challenges.
There were also classic tales, such as the Farmer and the plow (usually told as a Nasreddin tale about the man his son and their donkey), teaching people that you can't please everyone. The Twelve Months in this case gave their gift to a poor man, and punished a rich man. In this story, it was especially fun that the stick that beat the rich man on command did not hurt anyone else. Less fortunate was the Seven lemons story, in which the prince managed to kill not two, but six lemon fairy girls before he learned that he needed to give them food and water to live... This one also had a practical moment, however, when the "false bride" claimed that she grew dark-skinned from the hear of the sun - to which the prince responded with "How?! I only left for an hour..."
The most unexpected story was that of the Tortoise and the birds - I have only known this one from American indigenous traditions (usually as Turtle Flies South). On the other hand, the tale of the Proud Bee was already familiar from Aesop's fables, where it was told with Jupiter instead of God.

Where to next?


  1. Any chance of linking us to some stories translated into English? The stories you tell us about sound amazing, but not all of us speak/read those languages! 😏

    1. You can find links in the introduction to the English language collections ;)

  2. So of course I want to find out more about Brother Dragon, and the story of Is-settisibella sounds fascinating too!
    Jamie Lyn Weigt | Writing Dragons