Saturday, June 29, 2019

StorySpotting: Tag, you're it (Avengers: Endgame)

StorySpotting is a weekly or kinda-weekly series about folktales, tropes, references, and story motifs that pop up in popular media, from TV shows to video games. Topics are random, depending on what I have watched/played/read recently. Also, THERE WILL BE SPOILERS. Be warned!

I feel like sufficient time has passed now since the premiere of Endgame so that I won't get dragged for talking about the plot. If you think otherwise, please stop reading now.

Where was the story spotted?

Avengers: Endgame (2019)

What happens?

In the epic final battle against Thanos and his army, the Avengers all team up to save the world. Their goal is to dismantle the Infinity Gauntlet, or at least keep it away from Thanos, who wants to use it to snap the entire universe out of existence (and start a new, better one, probably with blackjack and hookers). In order to get the gauntlet from point A to point B (and away from Point Thanos), they pass the important object from one person to the next. In the moment when one of them is about to drop it, or be overwhelmed by the enemy, someone else swoops in and carries it on. They continue tagging in and out of the chase, passing the gauntlet along in a relay race, until the story reaches its final climax.

What's the story?

TEAMWORK, people! It was not invented by coaching experts. The world-saving relay race does appear in some very old traditional stories which are really fun to research and tell. They usually have to do with the theft of fire.
Fire theft, a popular motif in folklore and mythology, has its own motif number, A1415. Within this large group of narratives, there is a sub-type, numbered "A1415.2 - Theft of fire by animals." If you dig even deeper, you will eventually arrive to "A1415.2.2. - Coyote Steals Fire."

This Native American story exists in several versions from various nations. The basic idea is always the same: The world needs fire, but fire is hoarded and guarded by some powerful beings who are not willing to share. Coyote, being a Trickster, comes up with a plan to steal fire with the help of other animals. He makes the initial theft, then passes the fire on to the next animal. The enemy pursues the stolen fire, but every time they come close, and the carrying animal tires or stumbles, someone else jumps in and picks up the flame. They eventually get to a safe place, or manage to hide the fire somewhere the powerful beings can't get it back from.
Picture from here
The stories vary in terms of animals and enemies. One version from the Pacific Northwest has Coyote-Wolf-Squirrel-Frog, stealing fire from monster-beings called Skookums. A story of the Salishan from Nicola Valley has Coyote-Antelope-Fox-Wolf, and "all the good runners" running away from the Fire People (and being killed one by one). In the Shoshone version, Coyote is helped by Stinkbug, Porcupine, and Packrat. In the Karuk version, fire is stolen from the Yellow Jacket Sisters with the help of Eagle, Frog, Turtle, Fox, and Mountain Lion.
This tale type, interestingly enough, also appears in the Philippines. Among the Ilocano people, it is the human trickster and culture hero Lam-ang who initiates the theft of fire from the giants (read the story here or here). He is helped by Frog, Cat, Dog, and Lion, among others.


The life-or-death relay race for the saving of the world is a narrative trope that is full of tension and excitement. When used well, it can channel a sense of epicness as well as a strong idea of teamwork and community. I'm not going to lie, it's one of my favorite folktale motifs, and I was delighted to see it in a modern adaptation in Endgame.

Monday, June 24, 2019

The Tale of the Sun - a Saami folktale of hope and resistance

I found this story in Hungarian translation in this book, collected and translated by Erdődi József in 1960. As far as I can tell, the book did not give a source, and I could not trace the story to any English publication. If anyone has anything to add, please let me know! I would love to find out more.
(The translation is mine. Here is the text online in Hungarian)

Once upon a time there was a large, dark country by the sea. In that country, the sun never shone, its people never saw sunlight. The land was covered in a dark cloud that created such darkness that the people could barely see each other. They called this land the Land of Darkness. It's inhabitants were called hut-dwellers, because they had no houses, only rickety huts. The huts were woven from switches, covered in bark and moss, and the cruel wind could go through and through them. The people of the Land of Darkness lived in great misery.
In the middle of the Land of Darkness, however, there was a round mountain. On the round mountain there were many, many trees, a whole forest. In the middle of the forest there was a large log house. Inside the house it was warm, and there was an abundance of things. In its rooms lived seventy shadowy siblings. They were the only ones with a log house in the Land of Darkness. Around the house there was a wooden fence, and inside it a hundred thousand reindeer. The shadowy siblings did not use the reindeer for anything, but they also did not give any of them to the hut-dwellers. This is how things went on for a thousand years, then another thousand, then a third thousand. The hut-dwellers thought it would be like this forever, unless the winter went away.
One day - no one knows when - a tall men arrived to the Land of Darkness, riding a beautiful reindeer. His beard reached his knees, and when he spoke, his eyes shone bright enough that his face could be seen even in the dark. The hut-dwellers saw how handsome and beautiful he was, and how intelligent his gaze was. When he spoke, they all listened carefully.
"My friends, you all live in darkness, because you don't know the Sun. But the Sun exists, even if none of you have seen it. If you find the Sun, this land will also be warm and bright."
"What is a Sun?", the people wondered. They had never heard about it before. The shadowy siblings also heard the stranger speak. They heard it, got angry, and started berating the people.
"Stupid hut-dwellers! Why are you listening to this stranger's nonsense? How could something exist if no one has seen it before? He is only here to rile you up! Listening to him is a mistake. He deserves a beating for telling you made-up tales!"
The hut-dwellers thought and wondered. Maybe the shadowy siblings were right? Maybe it would be better to kill the stranger? The bearded wise man just watched them and shook his head. The light went out of his eyes. He turned his reindeer and rode away, disappearing as if he'd never been there. They could only hear his voice in the dark:
"From this day on I will only appear to those who believe in the existence of the Sun."
There was a boy among the hut-dwellers. He was poor like all the others, but he never humbled himself by going begging to the shadowy siblings. He was proud and strong. Time passed, and everyone forgot the wise old man, except for him. He went to the place where the reindeer moss grew, looked up at the black sky, and said to himself:
"I believe that the Sun exists. But how can I find the bearded old man?"
The moment he said these words, the moss and lichen parted, and a beautiful reindeer appeared in front of the boy.
"Get on my back," it said. The boy mounted the reindeer, and it galloped with him across the moss, the swamps, the black lakes. Suddenly, it stopped in front of a granite rock. On the rock sat the old man with the long beard.
"Welcome!," he greeted the boy "I knew there was someone among the hut-dwellers who would come find me. You are a good man, you will go far, my son."
"Thank you for your kind words. But tell me, where can I find a piece of the Sun?"
"You will have to work hard to earn the Sun. You will have to weave a basket. Ask for a single hair from every hut-dweller, and use those to make your basket."
The boy returned to his people. He talked to everyone, and convinced each of them to give him one hair. Once he'd collected all, he began to weave a basket. He worked on the tiny basket for seventy days and seventy nights. By the time he finished, his strength and wisdom grew. Then he returned to the moss and lichen field, looked up at the black sky, and said to himself:
"The basket is done. How could I get a piece of the Sun?"
The moment he said it, the moss and lichen parted, and the beautiful reindeer appeared.
"Get on my back," it said, and galloped with the boy across the moss, the swamps, the black lakes. They had a long journey, until suddenly they saw red light. The wise young man saw the great red Sun on the edge of the horizon.
"Are you not afraid of fire?," asked the reindeer.
"I am not afraid of anything," the wise boy responded.
"Then open the basket, but hold it firmly, and brace yourself well!"
The wise boy did so. The reindeer rode at the sun. It ran at the Sun, stabbed it with its soft antlers, and a piece broke off the Sun, falling into the boy's basket. Then they turned around, and rode back. The moment they arrived to the land of the hut-dwellers, the magical reindeer disappeared.
The boy stood in front of the hut-dwellers, and said:
"You all gave me one hair each. I wove a basket from your hair, and brought you a piece of the Sun. Let's let it out of the basket. Let it brighten the sky!"
The moment he said it, the shadowy siblings were already riding down the mountain. They shook their fists and yelled: "Don't you dare! Don't you dare let out the Sun! The lakes will dry up! The iron will melt in the ground and flood our houses! You will go blind and we will all burn!"
The shadowy brothers surrounded the wise boy, trying to tear the basket from his hands. But the hut-dwellers rose up to defend him.
"Don't touch him!", they yelled. "We will not give you the basket!"
The shadowy siblings grew enrages. They grabbed the wise boy and dragged him towards the swamp. They wanted to drown him in the swamp, and throw the basket after him. But the hut-dwellers grew angry too. They grew bold, and for the first time in their life, they grabbed rocks from the ground. They threw the rocks at the shadowy siblings. The rocks rained down on them, and the shadowy siblings drew sharp fish bones from under their clothes, and started stabbing the hut-dwellers. But they resisted. Blood was spilled, and a battle began. In the middle of it, suddenly the basket sprang open, and the first ray of sunshine broke out. The sky turned red with light, the swamps bathed in the colors of dawn. The shadowy brothers all burned, their ashes falling into the swamp. The wise boy was standing there, looking at the sky, the bright rays of sunlight. All the hut-dwellers marveled at the sky. The water of the lakes turned blue, the mosses and lichens gained bright colors - white, red, yellow, and green. A miracle happened in the Land of Darkness.
"Who are you, wise man?," the hut-dwellers yelled "Who are you, who brought us this miracle?" They all ran to him and asked: "Wise boy! Now we know and can see that the Sun exists. But this is only a small piece of it. How can we get the whole Sun?"
The moment they asked, the mosses parted, the magic reindeer appeared, and said to the wise boy:
"Tell them to herd all the reindeer here from behind the fence of the shadowy siblings. The boy told the hut-dwellers:
"Go to the house of the shadowy siblings. Break down the fence, and bring the reindeer here. They belong to you now."
The hut-dwellers broke down the fence, and herded the hundred thousand reindeer of the mountain. They mounted them and rode away. They rode until they reached the Sun.
"Are you not afraid of fire?", asked the wise boy.
"We are not afraid of anything. Tell us how to get the Sun."
"Ride towards the Sun with an open heart, and take a ray of sunshine each into your hearts."
The hut-dwellers opened their hearts, and rode fast at the Sun. Each of them took a ray of sunshine into their heart. A hundred thousand hearts warmed up.
"Now, line up the reindeer!"
They did. The magic reindeer poked at the sun with its antler, the Sun slid off the sky, and rested on the back of the animals. The hundred thousand hut-dwellers set out on the hundred thousand reindeer, all balancing the Sun on their antlers carefully.
Ever since then, the Sun has been shining bright above the tundra. The lakes are blue, the hut-dwellers fish in their clear waters. The swamps dried out, and they have been replaced by colorful wildflowers and soft grass. Endless forests whisper along the sea.
The wise man still lives, and he will never die, because he is the one who brought the Sun to the people of the Land of Darkness.

(Note: I translated "black siblings" as "shadowy siblings" to avoid connotations of race, and also because it is closer to the Hungarian meaning.)

When birds talked and trees walked (Following folktales around the world 112. - Sierra Leone)

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!

Tales from Sierra Leone
Mohammed Yassin
Oxford University Press, 1967.

The book contains fifteen folktales, probably retold, but no introduction or notes of any kind. It has black-and-while illustrations, which are pretty. Most of the tales are short, and they usually end with morals that are sometimes surprising to the European reader, but I found many of the stories delightful.


There was a surprisingly chill and optimistic love story in the book, from the time when birds could talk. A young warrior fell in love with the favorite wife of a chief; when the affair came to light, he fled into the woods. Listening to the chatter of birds, he found some treasure, and started a new life - and he simply waited until the chief died before he married his love.
There was a fascinating tale about how a village lost its treasures that were given to them by the spirits who lived in a nearby lake. Every year, in exchange for sacrifices, the spirits piled pots, clothes, weapons, etc. on the lake shore - provided no musicians came near them. A proud priest broke the rule when he went to the lake with a full entourage of musicians - and the spirits took all their gifts back.
I also liked the story of the ram and the leopard, mostly for its moral. The leopard, right-paw man to king lion, tried to ruin the ram's reputation at court with lies. Ram was supported by his friend hyena, who kept encouraging him to stand up for himself. In the end, it came to a fight, and ram defeated leopard, although hyena held him back in the last minute to keep him from actually killing leopard. The moral of the story stated that it is foolish to dislike someone just because your superior likes them...

I was surprised and delighted by the motif of the walking tree that elected village leaders by walking in front of them. When the appropriate candidates were not present, the tree waited motionless until they showed up.


The tale type of the "three magic objects" appeared in its original dilemma tale form here. It featured four twins who set out to see the world, and learned magic skills in another village - next to the usual far-sight, flight, and healing, the fourth brother learned how to make lands fertile. After saving their father's life and wealth together, the storyteller posed the question: which brother deserved the most praise?
The story of the lion and the mouse (rat) had an unusual ending. Here, the rat did rescue the lion from a trap, but in return the lion roared at him and stomped away. The moral of the story was that the strong can often be ungrateful.

Where to next?

Saturday, June 22, 2019

StorySpotting: How to find a half-blind camel (The Name of the Rose)

StorySpotting is a weekly or kinda-weekly series about folktales, tropes, references, and story motifs that pop up in popular media, from TV shows to video games. Topics are random, depending on what I have watched/played/read recently. Also, THERE WILL BE SPOILERS. Be warned!

The new The Name of the Rose miniseries based on Umberto Eco's famous novel is out, and it is pretty great. Also, it casually drops some interesting folktale motifs.

Where was the story spotted?

The Name of the Rose (2019), episode 1

What happens?

William of Baskerville and his novice Adso are heading to a remote Benedictine monastery to attend a theological dispute (that soon turns into a murder mystery). While still on the road, they encounter a search party of monks who are frantically looking for the abbot's favorite horse. William of Baskerville, who is a bit of a self-made detective, describes the horse in great detail, down to stating its name (Brunellus). When they ask him where he'd seen the horse, the says he's never seen it, he merely deduced all the information from signs he observed along the road, such as strands of brown horse hair. Everyone is duly impressed by his powers of observation.

What's the story?

Describing a lost animal one has not actually met is a popular trope in folktales. The motif number assigned to it is "J1661.1.1: The one-eyed camel," and it even has its own tale type (ATU 655A, The Wise Brothers).
In most versions of the tale, a clever person (or persons) describes a lost camel based on clues they have seen along the road: the animal only grazed on one side, therefore it is half-bind; it had no tail because its dung is in neat heaps; it was carrying honey on one side and vinegar on the other because the honey attracted flies and the vinegar made bubbles, etc. There are European versions where the camel is replaced by a lost palfrey.
In some stories, the clever person gets into trouble because they describe the animal so perfectly that they get accused of having stolen it. In other versions, they also deduce things about the food they are served and the powerful man who is hosting them (such as the fact that there is breastmilk in the bread, or that the king is a bastard) and get into more trouble, until it is revealed that they made all claims solely based on their incredible skills of observation, at which point they are rewarded.

It is a popular folktale type in many cultures, from the Middle East to Korea; I have found Persian, Jewish, and Italian variants too. One of the earliest versions can be found in the 10th century Arabic book titled Meadows of Gold and Mines of Gems by the historian Masudi. It was probably from there it made its way into some collections of The Thousand and One Nights, in the story of The Sultan of Al-Yaman and His Three Sons. You can find an Egyptian version in this book, an Indian version here.


There is an Islamic saying, "Faith is the lost camel of the Believer", which is said to be based on this story.

Monday, June 17, 2019

The epics of the Mande (Following folktales around the world 111. - Guinea)

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!

Once again, it was really hard to locate stories from Guinea (at least in the languages I speak), so I went looking for epics, and found some excerpts in this book. The book contains two epics recorded in Guinea, both from the Mande tradition, and while it did not give the whole text in either case, it did have some intriguing scene selections, and background information.

Almami Samori Touré

The eponymous hero of the epic was a 19th century warrior chief who resisted French colonization, and conquered his own empire in the region of modern day Guinea. His epic was narrated by a Mande story-singer named Sory Fina Kamara, who focused on the conquest, rather than the resistance.
Much like in the epic I read for Senegal, the hero here also had an active childhood, leading other children into trouble. Djinn also once again made an appearance - in this case, twin djinn women, who gifted a musket to the hero. They turned into snakes and wrapped themselves around him, extracting a promise that he would not attacked people who were served by their djinn relatives. The epic also featured a female hero: One-breasted Demba. She fell in love with Samori's brother and kept sending him food, which made Samori suspect that his brother was betraying him. To prove his innocence, the brother marched into battle unarmed, and was killed. Demba then put on her brother's clothes, and marched into battle herself, to take revenge for the death of her lover.


Musadu is not a hero, it's a city, founded by a slave named Zo Musa, and later conquered by a Mande hero named Foningama. The founding of the city happened sometime between the 13th and 15th centuries, while the hero lived in the 16th, so it is likely that the two epics were combined into one later on. The epic was recorded from a university professor named Moiké Sidibe, himself a descendant of Foningama.
The epic opens with a familiar trope: Foningama is his father's youngest child, and yet his father selects him to receive his blessing and medicine. This angers his older brother's, who try to get rid of him.

Where to next?
Sierra Leone!

Saturday, June 15, 2019

StorySpotting: A girl, a desert, a lizard (The Magicians)

StorySpotting is a weekly or kinda-weekly series about folktales, tropes, references, and story motifs that pop up in popular media, from TV shows to video games. Topics are random, depending on what I have watched/played/read recently. Also, THERE WILL BE SPOILERS. Be warned!

I am doubling down on The Magicians this week, since I have been binge-watching season 4. As far as plotting and character development goes, this season has probably been the best.

Where was the story spotted?

The Magicians, season 4, episode 10 (All that hard, glossy armor)

What happens?

Margo is (self-)exiled from her kingdom, and sets out into the desert on a quest to find a magic weapon. In her satchel she carries her very own Lizard of Destiny, which is supposed to reveal her future, except it is stubbornly quiet. Lost in the desert, Margo licks the lizard out of thirst and starts hallucinating (this is a musical episode). Eventually, she ends up in a village plagued by demons, solves the mystery of where they come from and what they want, and restores the women of the village to their deserved place of power.

What's the story?

There is an Algerian folktale called Aicha's tasks on earth - although I usually tell it with the more exciting title of Aicha the Demonhunter. It is about a strong and capable young woman who defeats a man-eating ghoul, rejects the advances of a cowardly prince, and learns the secrets of geomancy (reading the future from sand). While killing he ghoul, a splinter of the monster's bone embeds itself in Aicha's skin, and with it comes a curse: she has to leave her home and keep wandering. Aicha turns the curse to her advantage: she travels from city to city, defeating monsters as she goes along.
In one version of the story, she is accompanied by a lizard-like creature that represents the curse and clings to her shoulder. Eventually, Aicha ends up in a dense forest, and keeps riding through it until the lizard is scraped off of her, and the curse is broken. Then she returns to the kingdoms she saved, and becomes a powerful queen.

(I included this story in my folktale collection, Tales of Superhuman Powers, under Future Sight)


This was probably just a merry coincidence, rather than a conscious folktale reference, but the imagery of the magician queen, the magical lizard, and the demon-hunting desert quest were still delightfully familiar.

Monday, June 10, 2019

Classics and morals (Following folktales around the world 110. - Guinea-Bissau)

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!

Sadly, Guinea-Bissau is another one of those countries that I could not find a story book from, so I delved into the Internet, and used my knowledge of Spanish and Latin (and some Google Translate) to find as many folktales as I could.

The hyena, the hare, and the holly (From this book)

A classic tar baby tale. Hare keeps stealing fish from Hyena's fish trap, replacing them with toads. Eventually, hyena becomes suspicious, and creates a stick figure covered in sticky holly (?) syrup - and Hare, like every other trickster ever, falls for the trick.

I was born in the fire (From this book)

Hare keeps stealing from Hyena's peanut plantation, until Hyena manages to construct a trap that catches him. However, when Hyena wants to throw Hare into the fire, the thief insists that he is fireproof, because he was born in it (showing his red eyes as proof). He begs the Hyena not to throw him in the tall grass instead, and Hyena falls for the deception.

The legend of African drums (Bijago tale, from here)

The spot-nosed monkeys decide that they want to go to the moon. They stand on each other's shoulders, until the smallest monkey reaches the moon. However, the pile topples, and the little monkey gets stuck up there. Moon gives him a drum to keep him entertained, but eventually he becomes homesick, and wants to return to earth. Moon lets him down on a rope, telling him to strike the drum when he's arrived. The bored monkey begins drumming halfway down, Moon lets go of the rope, and monkey falls, landing among some humans. He hands the drum to the humans - and we have had drums ever since.

The hunter and the crocodile (From here)

Classic tale about a hunter that rescues a crocodile, and it wants to eat him in return. They go to various animals for justice, and they all side with crocodile - except for Hare, who tricks the beast into going back into the trap, and saves the hunter's life.

The race between monkey and tortoise (From here)

Another classic, an animal race tale: here, tortoise leaves bananas along the road, and monkey keeps getting distracted.

Vulture and falcon (From here)

Falcon makes fun of vulture because he doesn't hunt. Later on, however, falcon flies into a tree, and is suddenly grateful that vulture doesn't eat live animals. Once he is dead, vulture eats him, getting the last laugh.

Tedungal Djamanu (From here)

A very honest young man sets out to find a wife. He is starving along the road, so he eventually steals a mango - then he feels so bad about it that he finds the owner of the tree, and offers compensation. The owner demands that the young man marry his deaf, mute, blind, leper daughter. The young man agrees to keep his promise - and it all turns out to be a test.

The curious bird (From here)

The owl forces a bird to serve him by threatening it with his "horns" (feathers). One day, he gets drunk and passes out, and the curious bird finds out the truth.

Two borthers (From here)

An Ali Baba type tale, with a clever and a stupid brother.

The shoemaker king (From here)

A kingdom selects its ruled based on exactly how tall the candidates are. A poor shoemaker fits the height perfectly.

A promise kept (From here)

A man sets tasks for the suitors of his daughter. They have to cross a river without getting wet. All three suitors solve the problem in miraculous ways - and since the father can't decide between them, he creates three daughters out of one, so that they each win a wife.

Nafa Munharé (From here)

A king has two beautiful but mean wives, and he is told that he will only have children when he marries an ugly woman. The three sons eventually grow up and set out to seek their fortune, but the two older ones torture the youngest until he is left alone to die. Listening in on the conversations of vultures, he learns important secrets, becomes rich, and lives happily ever after.

Mam Tamba and the buffalo (From here)

Mam Tamba, the hunter, kills a buffalo. The calf of the buffalo sets out to avenge his mother, turns into a human, and moves into the hunter's home as a guest. As he watches the hunter and his children, slowly he takes a liking to them, forgives them, and before returning home, reveals his secret to Mam Tamba.

The two rivals (From here)

Kind and unkind girls, with a snake.

I also found some criole anecdotes.

Where to next?

Saturday, June 8, 2019

StorySpotting: I spy with my fairy eye (The Magicians)

StorySpotting is a weekly or kinda-weekly series about folktales, tropes, references, and story motifs that pop up in popular media, from TV shows to video games. Topics are random, depending on what I have watched/played/read recently. Also, THERE WILL BE SPOILERS. Be warned!

Like any good urban fantasy show about magic, SyFy's The Magicians uses a lot of folklore elements for plot and flavor (and usually subverts them with hilarious results). It was, however, especially fun to spot one that is less well known, but was excellently adapted.

Where was the story spotted?

The Magicians, seasons 3-4 (ongoing plot)

What happens?

In season 2, Margo loses her eye to a fairy queen who is quietly conquering her kingdom. In season 3, however, after doing some favors to the fairies, Margo is rewarded with a replacement for her lost eye - a fairy eye with magical powers that let her see things other people can't. She can see magic, hidden objects, illusions, etc. Her vision becomes useful to the plot a couple of times in season 4.

(She can also pop it out and put it back in. Obviously.)

What's the story?

There is a folktale type commonly known as The Fairy Midwife (ATU 476, officially titled Midwife (or godparent, or nurse) for the Elves). The story features a mortal person, who is out-of-the-blue visited by some supernatural creature who asks for their help. Most often it is a midwife, who is woken up in the middle of the night by some frantic stranger who spirits her away to an unknown location to help with a birth. While in the other world, doing some kind of a service, the mortal accidentally gets some supernatural ointment in her eye. She is either supposed to be rubbing the newborn fairy baby with it, or she is watching the fairies/trolls/elves apply it to themselves - either way, despite dire warnings, she rubs some of the ointment in one of her eyes, and suddenly gains magical sight. She can see the fairy world for what it is - a cold underground cave instead of a palace - or she can see the fairies that have been invisible to her before.
The story usually ends on a dark, but not tragic note: some time later, the mortal spots the fairies doing some mischief in disguise, and calls out to them. They are surprised to be seen, and ask her which eye she can see them with. When she indicates the eye, the fairies simply pluck it out - or blow on it, leaving her half blind.

You can read several variants of this folktale type here, here, or here.


In Margo's case, the story happened the other way around: first the plucking, and then the magic sight. It was a small change, but they have been using her new abilities wisely ever since.

Monday, June 3, 2019

Hare and trickery (Following folktales around the world 109. - The Gambia)

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 from The Gambia
Wolof fictional narratives
Emil A. Magel
Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1984.

The book features 45 Wolof folktales, collected in The Gambia between 1973-74. They are organized by structure, which was kind of fascinating (e.g. "statement-parallel-conclusion" type stories), although less useful than organizing by tale types. The Introduction talks about Wolof history, culture, storytelling, story structure, and other interesting topics. Each story came with ample end notes, and there is also a bibliography.


One of my favorite stories in the book was featured in two variants, under the awkward title The marriage of two masters of the Wolof language. It was about a girl who was so clever and eloquent that she confused all of her suitors - and a young man smart enough to understand her. They communictaed through references and metaphors, and she even rescued him from bandits in the end, thanks to a mysterious message he sent.
Wolof warriors
I also liked the story of the young man who was searching for a friend. He met another chief's son and they became best friends - however, our hero started an affair with his best friend's stepmother, the youngest wife of his father. When the father discovered the affair, the friend came to the rescue with a clever lie.
There were many tales with morals, where the wrong behavior was duly punished, such as the story of a greedy father, who hid food from his hungry family. He even pretended to be dead, so that he would be buried near the food. He was eventually found out by his son, and turned into vines out of shame.
I also enjoyed the fun tale of the donkeys of Jolof. Their king turned into a man and started a human family, until all the donkeys turned into people too, and went drumming and singing, looking for their ruler to bring him home.


There was once again a snake husband (Handsome suitor) tale; I read one of these from Mali, and while these variants lacked the helpful little sister, they still had the warning message about things that look too good to be true. Another familiar African motif was the wife who was secretly a beast (in this case, a hyena). I remember an African-American folktale similar to that of the Eternal lovers - a ram and an ewe. The ram was captured by a king, cooked, and eaten, but it kept singing to his wife all along, even from the king's stomach, until they eventually cut him out of there. I also knew the tale type of Hare seeks endowements from Caribbean traditions - the hare trickster wanted more cunning from Allah, but once he completed all the tricky tasks in exchange, Allah decided he had plenty of cunning to spare already.
Of course, there was yet another "kind and unkind girls" type tale, here it was the Mother of Wild Animals who doled out gifts and punishment. Kumba, the orphan girl, poked the wild animals with needles at night, so that they would think there were fleas in the bed, and leave her alone.
The trickster in residence was definitey Hare, who usually tricked Hyena - rode him like a horse, saved a helpful hippo from him, or got him punished for stealing ostrich eggs from inside a tree (a very popular tale among story therapists, the Secret Heart of the Tree, is very similar to this one). I knew the story of the Bearded Rock as an Anansi tale from Ghana, but this one was a bit darker: any animal that said "that rock has a beard!" died immediately, and Hare gleefully used up all their meat.

Where to next?

Saturday, June 1, 2019

StorySpotting: An old woman in a pumpkin (Years and Years)

StorySpotting is a weekly or kinda-weekly series about folktales, tropes, references, and story motifs that pop up in popular media, from TV shows to video games. Topics are random, depending on what I have watched/played/read recently. Also, THERE WILL BE SPOILERS. Be warned!

Years and Years, BBC One's brand new drama created by Russell T. Davies, just launched a few weeks ago, and it already has a lot to love. Solid cast, exciting story, lots of sarcastic humor about current (and future) events. And on top of that: A storyteller!

Where was the story spotted?

Years and Years, series 1, episode 1

What happens?

One of the main characters on the show, Daniel, meets his new neighbor in the first episode, and offers to give her a lift to work. The charming woman named Fran Baxter (portrayed by Sharon Duncan-Brewster) tells him that she is a professional storyteller, which amuses him at first, but she goes on to confirm that it is an actual job, and "it's worldwide." Later on in the episode, we see Fran perform by a campfire to a group of Ukrainian refugees - we get to hear her tell part of a folktale about an old woman who hides inside a pumpkin. During the story, she even uses the call-and-response "Cric? Crac!" with the audience.

What's the story?

The story Fran tells is easily recognizable from a few lines: It's a Persian folktale variously known as "The old woman in a pumpkin shell" or "The rolling pumpkin." In it, an old woman sets out to visit her daughter's family who live on top of a hill. On the way she encounters three monsters (depending on the variant, a wolf, a lion, an ogre, a tiger, etc.). Each wants to eat her, but she asks them to let her visit her daughter first, since she will be much fatter and juicier on the way home. All three beasts agree to wait. The old woman makes it to her daughter's, and tells her what happened. When she is ready to go home, the daughter has an idea: She puts her mother inside the shell of a large pumpkin, and rolls the pumpkin down the slope of the hill.
As the pumpkin rolles down, each beast stops it in turn, and asks if it has seen a fat old lady coming along. The old woman inside the pumpkin denies it and asks them to roll her on her way. The last beast, however, manages to crack the pumpkin open somehow. In some variants, the woman tricks the last beasts into getting insite the pumpkin, and rolles it off a cliff - or she simply jumps out and screams at the beast until it runs away. She makes it home safe.
This story works wonders with small kids, and is sometimes also tacked on to the end of another popular Persian folktale, Pumpkin Girl.

(Find the story here, here, here, or read it online here. There is also a Bengali version here.)

"Cric? Crac!" is a call-and-response tool widely known among American storytellers from the Haitian oral tradition. The teller calls out "Cric?" and the audience has to respond "Crac!" as one, or the story stops until they all do. It is fun and useful, and gave its name to a marvelous storytelling group in the UK, the Crick Crack Club.


To say I'm incredibly excited about my profession being represented (well!) on TV is an understatement! I hope we'll get to see her tell again.