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.

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