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.

1 comment:

  1. I did see this film - who knew that it fitted a traditional trope? Well spotted!