Tuesday, August 30, 2022

StorySpotting: Body and soul mix-and-match (Locke & Key)

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!

Locke & Key, in my opinion, is a seriously underrated show (I haven't read the comics but I hear they are good too). With the new season out, they gave me multiple things to Story Spot.

Where was the story spotted?

Season 3, episodes 4-6.

What happens?

The basic premise of Locke & Key is about an old house that hides various old keys, each with its own magical property. The Ghost Key has been a staple since Season 1. It essentially opens a door that separates one's soul from their body when they walk through. It has been used in various creative ways over the course of the show.
In this season Dodge, the demon who has been the main heroes' arch nemesis, manages to use the door to knock the young boy Bode's soul out of his body. She then leaves her own mortal shell, and takes over the boy's body instead. Bode, left as a floating ghost, eventually manages to regain his own body by projecting his soul into a sparrow, and then transforming back into human shape. (Complicated, I know, but kinda genius).

What's the story?

The whole body-snatching-taking-refuge-in-a-bird thing is actually one of the creepiest pieces of folklore I have ever encountered. And as I looked into it again, it seemed a lot more common than I had believed. It even has a couple of Thompson motif numbers: E725.1 - Soul leaves the body and enters an animal's, and K1175 - Minister dupe raja into entering body of a dead parrot, then enters raja's body. And yes, that latter one is hella specific.

The first time I encountered this trope was in a collection of Tibetan folktales titled Tales of the Golden Corpse. The tale of The Travelling Spirit was about two friends, a prince and a minister's son, who went to school together. The prince was lazy, but the other lad learned the secret art of projecting his soul out of his body (known as phowa). Jealous that the minister's son might upstage him, the prince tricked his friend into showing off his skills - and destroyed the unattended body. Seeking a new place, the boy's lost soul entered an old woman's dead parrot, reanimating it. Later on, the parrot managed to catch up to the prince, and tricked him into falling out of a window... And then the minister's son's soul entered the prince's empty body, and walked away home.
Excellent creepy revenge ending.

As I was reading my way around the world, I encountered this trope again in a collection from Thailand, in a tale titled The Weaverbird Princess. In this story, a silent princess is promised to the suitor who can make her talk. A prince comes along with his mentor, both of them versed in the art of projecting their soul. The mentor projects his soul into various objects in the princess' room, and the prince has conversations with the objects, telling them clever stories. The princess can't help but interject, and thus the prince wins her hand. 
Later on, the prince goes to the forest with his mentor, and, seeing a dead deer, decides to project his soul into the animal and go exploring. He trusts his body to his mentor. However, the evil mentor in turn takes over the prince's abandoned body, burns his own, and goes home to take the prince's place. The prince, not finding a body to return to, transfers himself into a dead parrot. He flies home and tells his wife what happened. The princess manages to trick the mentor into leaving the body and transferring into a goat to show off. The prince thus gets back into his body, and kills the goat in revenge.

Once I started pulling on the king-in-the-dead-parrot thread, a whole lot of other tales came tumbling out. 

There is one in the Turkish story collection titled The history of the forty vezirs, where the evil vezir, instead of burning his own body, puts a slave's soul into it for safekeeping (and the king, while in parrot form, also judges some court cases). Interestingly, in this version the queen recognizes that her husband is not behaving like himself, and refuses to sleep with him.
There is also a version from Pakistan in this book, where the king takes on the parrot's body to pick mangos for his queen. The queen, who is aware of the evil servant's soul in her husband's body from the get-go, devises a clever plan to trick the soul into a lamb's body.
The tale also appears in The Three Princes of Serendip, the English translation of the Italian translation of a medieval Persian tale collection. You can read the story about The Emperor who turned into a parrot here. Once again, the wife's suspicion plays an important part in restoring her husband to his body. Added bonus: the Emperor uses his body-switching ability to travel his kingdom in the disguise of birds, and right wrongs.
Another version of the story can be found in Hatim's Tales, a book of Kashmiri stories collected from storyteller Hatim Tilwon in 1896. The fun part of this one is that the vezir loses the king's stolen body when he goes hunting, and decides to inhabit a bear for greater efficiency. The king then shoots the bear, saying "we can't have a bear for a vezir"... The tale also appears in other Kashmiri collections. It even has a variation in the famous Ocean of the Streams of Stories. Here, a person takes over a recently deceased king's body, but a minister suspects the change. Still, the minister decides an impostor is better than the child heir, and makes sure the soul doesn't have another body to return to. Now this would make a great movie...

In India, the story is known as The Metamorphoses of King Vikramaditya (you can read it in two versions in this volume of North Indian Notes and Queries). In this one, the parrot ends up at his father-in-law's house, judging court cases. Once he actually judges the case of a woman whose husband has been replaced by a shapeshifting dev. Eventually his wife (who is suspicious of her "husband") hears of the parrot and discovers the truth. In the second variant, the evil servant is tricked into the body of a goat and then beheaded, and the head of the goat still laughs and weeps as it's hung in the bazaar.
(I even found a popular comic book adaptation of this story from India.)

A distant relative to this motif is a story from Melanesia, where an evil spirit pushes a girl off a cliff, and takes over her body and identity.


So here we have a folktale type that spans a continent at least, and also several centuries in time, all the way from 11th century Kashmir to 21st century Netflix. Traveling souls and body-snatchers are a rich topic for people to think about. It probably has something to do with our mortality...

(Fun fact: I originally started working on this post when I was watching The 100)

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