Monday, November 30, 2020

Jackals, spirits, Mouse Deer (Following folktales around the world 179. - Sri Lanka)

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!

Village folk-tales of Ceylon

H. Parker
Luzac, 1910.

The book contains 75 folktales; the whole series is actually three volumes, but this first one was hefty enough that I left the other two for later. At the beginning of the book we get a long, narrative introduction to life in the interior of Sri Lanka, from cultivation through beliefs, festivals, and games, all the way to costumes. The narrator talks about the local flora and fauna - we have returned to Mouse Deer territory! The introduction also elaborates on some interesting topics, such as the snake-charming tricks of the Telugu-speaking traveling communities (author calls them "gypsies"). It also talks about the caste system, since the stories in the book are arranged by caste (from higher to lower). 
The tales were collected by the author, sometimes from dictation, but mostly written down by locals and then translated to English. The translation is literal, and complicated expressions come with footnotes. In general, all the stories come with a lot of notes. While the author claims these stories are from an "untouched" Sinhalese tradition, in fact there are a lot of international types among them, and their South Asian (Indian, Punjabi, Bengali, etc.) parallels are duly noted.


There was a legend based in history about three questions that were posed to a vain king. A young man did not only answer the mysterious questions, but also managed to convince the king to give him the throne - and then never returned it. Another king was outwitted in the story of the talking horse, where he ordered a wise man to teach his horse human speech. The wise man promised to do so, in seven years - and before the deadline was up, luckily the king died. Talking about wits: there is a version of the Two thieves tale in this book that I really liked. They were competing for the hand of a young woman, but they made sure no one was harmed in the process - so the people they tricked could also laugh with them in the end.
The tale Aet-kanda Leniya was a beautiful story about a prince seeking his lost wife. It featured a female Rukh (by the name in the title of the story), and a whole lot of grateful animals: elephants, pigs, turtle doves, and fireflies. The notes of the story mention another version where the hero is helped by a young Rukh, a young demon dog, and a young bear... 
Among the trickster tales y favorite was that of the grateful jackal, saved from a giant snake by a boy. When the snake attacked the boy, the jackal ran for help, stealing people's clothes to lead them to the rescue. I also liked the tale about the boar who was raised in a village by a carpenter; when he escaped back into the wilderness, he taught the other boars how to build a tiger trap.


Despite the author's claims of "untouched" tradition, there are a whole lot of familiar tale types in the book. The creation story, for example, features the popular motifs of bringing soil up from the bottom of the ocean to create land, and also the claim that the sky used to be a lot closer to earth, until people chased it away.
Other familiar tale types included: magic bird heart (The turtle dove), princess who ran away with the wrong person but managed to overcome obstacles and find her love (The prince and the princess), false fortune-teller (Kurulu-gama Appu), seven blind queens (The prince and the yaksani), chain tale with a bird (The female quail), puss in boots (here with a monkey, and a man named Mr. Janel Sinna), Rapunzel (Wimali), brave little tailor (Sigiris Sinno, the giant), and brave maiden (The seven princesses; also combined with seven blind queens). The daughter of black storks reminded me of the Indian tale of Little Surya Bai, a beautiful Sleeping Beauty variant.  
The story of Senasura reminded me of the Nart sagas. Here a man was cursed, to only make one bushel of rice from every stack - so he started making very tiny stacks, and got rich on a technicality. 
The resident tricksters are Jackal and Mouse Deer. Mother Mouse Deer, for example, chased a leopard away by making him believe that her children loved leopard meat. Jackal outwitted crocodiles by making them shuttle him back and forth across the river in the promise of a wedding. He also played the wise helper's part in tale types such as "millstone gives birth to colt" and "ungrateful crocodile returned into trap." In turn, Jackal was outwitted by Turtle, more than once - and Turtle had his own misadventure with flying, when he could not keep his mouth shut.
The classic tale of "top of the crop, bottom of the crop" featured a rich man and a poor washerman. 

Where to next?
The Maldives!

1 comment:

  1. Interested in quail and her adventures. Quail is a lady. She has chicks that follow her.