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!