Tuesday, May 4, 2021

I read a folktale collection from each country in the world, and this is what I learned

Historic moment: I finished my Following folktales around the world reading project! I started it almost exactly five years ago, in early 2016. The idea (inspired by this challenge) was to read a folktale collection from every single country around the world.

I can't believe I made it!

Let's see the numbers first:

I read folktales from 200 countries.

I started with China and arrived in Mongolia in 5 years and 1 month (I started blogging in English a little bit later in the challenge, hence the discrepancy in the posts).

I read more than 10,284 folktales (these are the ones I counted, but there were books that contained multiple tales per chapter). 

There were 12 countries from where I could not find complete books. In these cases I read articles of folktales, or looked up stories on the Internet (Barbados, Guinea-Bissau, Burundi, Chad, Djibouti, North Korea, Belarus, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Mozambique, Tuvalu, Uruguay). If I happen to find books for them later on, I'll include them (recommendations welcome). I did find tales from all of them in the end; Burundi was the hardest one, I could only locate one single myth.

For three countries I read epics, because I could not find folktale collections (Guinea, Kosovo, Senegal)

The number of tales by continent:

Europe: 3859

Africa: 1642

Asia: 1542

Australia and Oceania: 1211

Central America and the Caribbean: 1124

South America: 756

North America: 150


I read the most stories from these individual countries:

Hungary (756) (one of our country's first folklore collections)

Papua New Guinea (602) (half of the 1001 Papua New Guinean Nights)

Dominican Republic (304) (each tale came with several variants)

Italy (200) (Calvino's classic collection)

Latvia (164

Australia (157) (I'd like to circle back for more)

Honduras, Suriname, Argentina (150/country)

You can find the complete list of countries and posts here


What did I learn from all this?


Tricksters are everywhere (even North Korea)

I barely read any collections where tricksters did not appear. They seem to be the most universal archetype of folktale characters around the world; where there are stories, there are tricksters, bringing their favorite pranks and antics over and over again, from tar dolls to tug-o'-wars to cunningly exchanged punishments. It's a trickster's world out there.

The most popular tale types are not the ones Westerners would think

The Western (mostly European) folktale canon has its big classics and favorites, mostly based on Grimm and French fairy tales: Cinderella, Snow White, etc. Many people tend to think these are the most popular stories around the world - but after 200 countries I see things differently. Cinderella is not even in the same ballpark as some other tale types you wouldn't think of right away. I was not keeping an exact count, but here are some of the most common stories that kept popping up over and over and over again:

The Kind and Unkind Girls (or boys) (see: Frau Holle) (ATU 480)
Magic Flight (you probably know it as Master Maid) (ATU 313)
Animals running a race (Tortoise and the Hare) (ATU 275)
Extraordinary helpers (commonly known as The Flying Ship) (ATU 513)
The gift of the little people (where a friendly person is rewarded for participating in the fairies' song, but a mean one is punished) (ATU 503)
Aladdin (a.k.a. the lost magic item) (ATU 561)
And, obviously, tricksters. 

You can find parallels in surprising places

I was sometimes stunned to find almost identical tales separated by great cultural and geographical distances. A dragon story popped up in Switzerland and Bhutan, but nowhere in-between. A witch tale appeared in Kiribati and Angola. I found a legend in the Philippines that I knew as a Native American story. The list goes on and on, but the point is: stories can travel incredible distances, and they often pop up independently from each other in very similar forms. Human imagination is a wonderful thing.

Some countries are luckier with folklore collections than others

In the case of some countries I had a very hard time finding a folktale collection in any of the languages I read (English, Spanish, and Hungarian, but I can also read Italian and German very slowly). History left its mark on folklore collections. Nation-building movements valued (and sometimes took advantage of) tradition, while war, colonization, and genocide often wiped out stories as well as people. In the case of some smaller countries it was a matter of sheer luck: the birth of one person who fell in love with stories, and spent their life collecting and preserving them, kicking off a folklore movement in a time when traditional tellers still carried the old tales. Hungary in particular is lucky in this regard. You walk into any used book shop, and you will find shelves of folktale collections. Our collecting started shortly after the Grimms, and our struggle for national independence boosted folklore studies early on. Not all countries are nearly this lucky. 
(Wherever I could support new publications and collection projects, I tended to buy books with this in mind.)

There is an endless supply of folktales, but not all are equally fun

As a storyteller, I have a subjective opinion of tales: there are stories I fall in love with, and others that are forgettable or don't really speak to me. There are types I love more than others, and obviously the ones I noted along this journey were the ones that I personally found the most fascinating. This challenge proved what I already knew about folktale collections: if a book has more than two stories I fall in love with, it is an exceptionally good book. There were a few collections that were especially memorable for the high number of amazing stories, but usually there were one or two tales per country that really stuck with me. This is nothing out of the ordinary, it's just the human nature of the storyteller. This is why we have to read a lot to expand our repertoire.

There is more!

I could talk a lot more about this challenge, and my experiences and adventures with it. If anyone is interested, hit me up :)

Where to next?

I have been wondering for a while about what I was gonna do once this challenge ended. And now, here we are. I was always aware that political borders don't often mean cultural borders, and that there are many rich cultures and traditions that I skipped along the way. I want to make up or these omissions, and start a new challenge where I read minority and indigenous folktales around the world! Right now, I'm feeling like starting with Chinese ethnic groups, but I'd also love to circle back to Siberian indigenous peoples, as well as indigenous groups of North and South America and Australia, and some European minority groups as well. 

Stories just go on and on...

16 comments:

  1. What a Fantastic Journey! And Trickster Rules this World! John Rogers

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  2. One story per book - how great to hear that. Do you plan some telling about tales? I definitely want to hear more😉

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    1. I have a storytelling show where people can spin a globe and point at a place, and I tell a story from that place. I am still practicing it, but it's really fun :)

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  3. That's amazing! Congratulations. Trickster stories are my favorite. I love finding out about parallels in myths.

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  4. This is something I have dreamed of. My first degree is in Art History and Anthropology, and I did my senior thesis on the Chavin from Peru, but studied a lot of Central and South American art/mythology. I will have to look through your list and see if I recognize any of them. Thanks for sharing your amazing journey. Do you plan to create a collection based on this challenge?

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    1. It would be fun to make a collection! Lots of copyright work, though... I'll see :)

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  5. That's fascinating. When I'm looking for a folktale to perform I'll often get halfway through before realising that it's essentially the same story as another one I know from a different country.

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  6. Superb, This is a real labour of love, love for stories and I hope you keep going

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  7. What an amazing adventure you’ve had! I always love hearing about the stories you’ve read.

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  8. Congratulations! What a fabulous adventure and achievement.
    Enjoyed reading your findings here and how 'chance' plays a big part in keeping some stories alive while others lie forgotten

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  9. This is truly inspiring. Congratulations!

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