Saturday, February 4, 2023

Folktale Selection: Sometimes you just have to let toxic people go

Folktales and other traditional stories carry a community's values. They teach us about important things such as empathy, forgiveness, acceptance, teamwork, and more. They are not always as black and white as one may think: heroes can make mistakes and learn from them; villains can be forgiven.

But every once in a while, forgiveness is not the answer. Just like in real life, abusive relationships cannot be mended by second, third, fourth chances; no matter how well you communicate your feelings, you can't negotiate with an abuser who doesn't care if they hurt you. In these cases, the pressure to "forgive and try again" only results in more hurt. In these cases, even folktales know that the best course of action is severing ties with the ones that keep hurting you.

I have encountered many folktales that have a "happy ending" that involve people returning to spouses or parents that hurt - or even tried to kill - them, without the other party showing any sign of remorse. To balance out the scales, I made a selection of folktales about people who walk away from toxic relationships, and never look back.

Links in the titles, as usual.

Holua-Manu (Hawaii)

This is a very strong story. A boy's parents have magic powers and solely use them to torture their child for fun. He wants to go and play, but there are always more chores to do, and he can never do them well enough to please his parents. When he makes a decision to go do something for himself anyway, his parents grow furious and attack him. In the end, he manages to get away, and makes a decision to leave for good. The gods, as punishment, take away the parents' powers.

Three orphan sisters (Tu/Monguor people)

A couple wants a son, but instead they have three daughters. With the birth of each child, they resent each other and the children more and more, for not having a son. In the end, they take the girls out into the wilderness and abandon them. The girls are found by hunters and taken to a good home; eventually, they marry good men and live happily. One day they return to visit their parents, hoping to reconcile... but they find their parents still busy praying for a son and showing no remorse. So the girls leave without a word.

Youngest Brother Returns Favors (Tu/Monguor people)

Four orphan brothers each pursue different trades; the youngest goes to school and studies for examinations. When he wants to travel to take the exam, only one brother lends him support, the others mock him and turn him down. In the end, the boy becomes emperor - but when his cruel brothers come to him for favors, he turns them away. Later drought hits the lands, and he makes sure to help the brother that had been kind to him.

Nisang shamaness (Daur people)

This is a long and fascinating epic about a brave shamaness who descends into the underworld to save the soul of a young man. On the way back she encounters the soul of her late husband, who berates her for not saving him too. She tries to explain that she can't, but he gets violent and threatens her - so Nisang summons spirits to lock him up and leaves him behind. It is implied that he had not been a good husband while he was alive.

The king and the weaver bird (Nigeria)

A king marries a woman he loves, despite the warnings that women in her family often give birth to twins (an offense traditionally punishable by death). When she does indeed have twins, the king decides that his family is more important than what people think, and they all leave, transforming into weaver birds to live in the forest.

My Beauty (Haiti)

A girl is tortured by her cruel stepmother in the absence of her (grown-up) brothers. The stepmother eventually promises her to the Devil. In the last moment the brothers come to the rescue and take their sister away. Years later they return, only to find the stepmother telling lies and the father claiming that he did not notice anything at all. They all leave again, to live happily elsewhere.

A woman and the king's treasury (Syria)

A kind and little simple woman is abused by her husband, until one day he throws her out of the home. She wanders away, and accidentally witnesses two thieves dividing up treasure they stole from the King. She tells her husband, who takes the treasure, covers his tracks, and threatens her into silence. She decides to stand up for herself, and goes to report it all to the King - the thieves and the husband are arrested, the woman gets half the treasure, and she can live in wealth and peace for the rest of her life.

I also wrote a blog post about folktales that feature divorce, among them stories where people leave abusive spouses. You can find that post here.