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.

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