Monday, November 20, 2017

Trolls, polar bears, and other Norwegian classics (Following folktales around the world 52. - Norway)

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 under the Following Folktales label, or you can follow the series on Facebook!

With today's post, the series goes on a CHRISTMAS BREAK. It will continue in January!

Háncsvirág
Norvég népmesék
Vaskó Ildikó (szerk.)
Móra Kiadó, 2004.

This book is a lovely Hungarian edition of 23 tales translated from the well-known 19th century Norwegian folktale collection by Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe. You can find their tales in English in various formats online, including this wonderful blog. My particular edition was meant for children and families, therefore it is gorgeous (illustrated by artist Szegedi Katalin) and readable, but lacks notes and sources. Still, it was a very good selection.

Highlights

One of my favorite stories from the collection is Boots and the Beasts; I included it in my own book about superpowers, since the hero can transform himself into a lion, and ant, and a falcon. He uses this ability to save princesses from trolls, which is pretty neat. I also love, and frequently tell around Christmas, the story of the Cat on the Dovrefjell, in which a polar bear scares off a bunch of trolls that try to wreck a house on Christmas Eve.
I really enjoyed Espen Ashlad and the Redfoks, in which a boy could find out all kinds of secrets by looking through the ring of a magic key. Among others, he discovered that trolls were afraid of thyme (and used this knowledge to rescue a princess, obviously).
Easy for those who are loved by women is an interesting story about a boy that wishes that all women would love him at first sight - and succeeds in life because women are helping him along. I heard Janice Del Negro tell her own amazing version of it, and I will never look at this story the same way again.

Connections

The book opens with a classic trickster story, that of Peik the Mischievous who outsmarts a king several times, using such classics as selling him a "pot that cooks without fire" (it doesn't), and also getting the king's daughters pregnant. In the end, he is caught and locked into a box, but he manages to switch places with an unsuspecting merchant.
The tale of the Three Aunts is essentially the same as Grimm's Three Spinners, although I liked these ladies better. Hakon Grizzlebeard is the Norwegian counterpart of King Thrushbeard, Grass Girl is the tiny fairy bride stepping in for the tale type of the Frog Princess, and King Valemon the White Bear is the well-known Norwegian variant of Beauty and the Beast (and probably the European source for the American White Bear Whittington). In this last one I especially loved the part where the woman seeking her husband was helped by three little girls, and only found out later that they were her own daughters, hidden by her husband with other families to protect them from the curse. Katie Woodencloak is the Norwegian variant of Catskins; I liked it that she was helped by a great black bull, who gave his life to save her, although I felt a little sorry that it did not turn into a prince at the end.
This book is also the first European collection in the series featuring one of my favorite tales, The Husband who had to Mind the House, in which a woman and a man swap chores for a day, to prove that women don't just "sit around at home" all day.

Where to next?
Sweden!

Monday, November 13, 2017

Dragons, trolls, heroic women (Following folktales around the world 51. - Denmark)

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 under the Following Folktales label, or you can follow the series on Facebook!

While many people think Andersen when they hear the term "Danish folktale," Andersen stories are at best literary re-imaginations of traditional stories. It is important to know that there are many, many actual folktales collected from Denmark, and they are pretty great too.

The Danish Fairy Book
Clara Stroebe, Frederick H. Martens
Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1922.

The volume contains twenty-nine classic folktales collected from various parts of Denmark. The tales have been translated and re-told in English, so some of the names are also English ("Jack") instead of Danish - but all in all, they seem to have retained their original flavor. Each story comes with Notes that include the place of collection, the source of the text, the tale type, and some interesting observations on certain ancient or common elements of the tale. The book is by no means a scientific publication, but it does give credit where credit is due.

Highlights

By far the best tale in the book bears the misleading title The Pig, which completely conceals that the story is a version of Bluebeard. Chasing a magical pig, three sisters end up captured by an evil man, one after the other. The youngest sister does not only manage to trick the man, but she even rescues her two sisters before she ends up rescuing herself.
The story of the Lindworm (here titled King Dragon) is a fairly well-known tale among storytellers. A queen gives birth to a dragon which wreaks havoc in the royal court until a brave servant girl manages to convince it to take off all his layers of dragon skin, and turn into a prince. This Danish version also have a sequel, in which the Dragon King wrongly exiles his wife, and then goes to find her - and when he does, he makes sure to ask again if she wants to go home with him at all (yay, consent!). By the way, I really recommend hearing this story in the enchanting performance of Louisiana storyteller Danielle Bellone, if you get the chance.
I also found the tale of The Princess on the Island interesting, and more than a little dark. In it, a Danish princess was hidden away in an island fortress by her father, to keep her from marrying an English prince coming to invade the country. All the princess' servants starved to death, and she lived on eating mice until she managed to break free (!). She did marry the prince in the end.
It was noted as a typically Danish element in the stories that villains often ended their career by "bursting into pebbles out of sheer anger." I found this poetic justice very appealing.

Connections


Since these are European stories, most of the types were familiar to me from many other sources - but that does not mean I did not appreciate the Danish take on each of them. The book contains several of my favorite folktale types: The clever girl that outsmarts a bunch of trolls three times (Ederland, the Poultry Maid); the Golden-haired Gardener, who in this case is helped by a magic horse and a non-magical lion, and has golden locks that reach his heels (Jack with the Golden Hair); and the Dancing Princesses, or in this case, single princess, who dances with a troll each night, until she is followed and rescued by the hero, who also kills the troll and turns the forests of silver, gold, and diamond back to people.
Even beyond my favorites, there were some very fun takes on familiar stories in the book. I liked Trillevip, the Danish variant of Rumeplstiltskin, who, once his name was guessed, actually helped the girl trick her own husband so that she would not have to spin anymore. I enjoyed the ending of Peter Redhat, the Danish Prince Thrushbeard, who managed to win the haughty princess, but her parents never forgave him for humiliating her. The Magic Hat was reminiscent of Irish fairy stories (it made its wearer able to see invisible trolls), while The mill at the bottom of the sea is a very common Baltic and Scandinavian story type, explaining why seawater is salty.

Where to next?
Norway!

Monday, November 6, 2017

Land of Magic and Enchantment (Following folktales around the world 50. - Iceland)

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 under the Following Folktales label, or you can follow the series on Facebook!

We have reached Europe! It will take almost a whole year to get through all of its countries. Settle in!


Hildur, Queen of the Elves
And other Icelandic Legends
J. M. Bedell
Interlink Books, 2007.

The book contains fifty-one Icelandic tales; most of them are legends, stories about events people believed to be true, featuring beliefs and creatures that are very prominent in Icelandic folklore. The stories are grouped according to these themes: There are separate chapters for Elves, Trolls, Ghosts, Water Monsters, Magicians, and other folktales. The tales have been translated from the Icelandic, and then re-told by the author; they provide and enjoyable reading experience, while retaining all the names and details that give them their unique flavor. There is an extensive Introduction by Terry Gunnell, who talks about the context of Icelandic legends, their cultural background, origins and collections, and the beliefs and customs they represent. He points out that Iceland was a culturally diverse country even in the middle ages, and therefore the stories show elements from Scandinavian, Celtic, and several other traditions. There is a list of sources at the end of the book, and each story comes with a citation of its original text.

Highlights


Bjarnarey, one of the Westman Islands
I have to say that Iceland is exceptionally great at wizard stories. There are countless legends about magic schools (Saemundur in the Black School), and priests and wise men who have magical powers. My absolute favorite was the tale of the Magicians of the Westman Islands, in which eighteen magicians fled to the small islands from the Black Plague, and some time later sent one of them back to check if anyone survived. The magician only found one survivor, a young woman, with whom he fell in love, and never returned to the others. In revenge, the other magicians sent ghosts to destroy him - ghosts which the girl managed to outwit, in order to save the man she loved.
Knowledge of magic was usually gained from books of magic. For example, Loftur the Enchanter summoned the ghosts of Iceland's old bishops, to gain their books of secrets from them. Eiríkur of Vogsós, on the other hand, tested his prospective students by seeing if they were willing to kill an old woman for knowledge (and if they were, he kicked them out). Björn the Fiddler was tested by his uncle through summoning up talking corpses and other demonic visions - but handled all of them with patience and good humor, earning his uncle's respect. Some enchantments were more chilling than others. The darkest was Thorgeir's Bull, a creature created by bored magicians and brought to live with the use of nine souls (one of them human). The monster haunted the countryside for a long time, and eventually killed its own master.
Similarly chilling was the legend of the Elf-Steeple. It told about two brothers, one strong and brave and the other quiet and gentle. The quiet brother spent time with his Elf friends a lot, and was to be initiated into the Elf priesthood - but his sibling broke in and interrupted, for which the Elves killed him. The young priest traveled far, for the Elves promised he would die if they say each other again. One day as he celebrated mass, a storm broke the church doors open at the same time as the Elf church opened - and the moment the priest looked into the eyes of the Elf priest, he dropped dead.
Picture from the ABC blog,
which I highly recommend to
everyone interested in creatures
Redhead the Whale, one of Iceland's most famous monsters, was also a victim of Elf revenge. He stayed with the hidden people, and got a girl pregnant; but refused to acknowledge the child. He was turned into a whale in revenge, and terrorized the waters until an old priest-magician lured him up a river, where he died.
The title story is also quite beautiful. Regarded as a variant of the Dancing Princess tales, it tells about Hildur, an Elf queen who was exiled from home by her mother-in-law, cursed to work as a servant among humans. She could only return home one a year at Christmas, and only freed when someone was brave enough to secretly follow her.
Some of the troll tales were also great. I especially liked the ones where priests left some rocks and cliffs on every shore unblessed, so that trolls would have somewhere to live too.

Connections


Huldufolk homes. Picture from here.
Celtic connections were very obvious in the tales about the hidden people / fairy folk. There was a Fairy Midwife story (I already found one in the USA, and it is very popular in Ireland), a changeling legend (Father of eighteen elves), and a Selkie story (Better a seal skin than a child), among others.
I found the Icelandic variant of the Magic Flight titled Búkolla endlessly endearing. In it, a boy rescues a cow from a troll, instead of a girl; Búkolla moos to bring her savior to her, and then they escape together by throwing things behind them to slow down the troll. I was also happy to find one of my favorite strange folktales, The Dreamer and the Money Chest, in this book. In it, a traveler follows the soul of his friend as it escapes during sleep, and sees where it wanders.

Where to next?
Denmark!

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Death and the Storyteller

In honor of Day of the Dead, I am sharing a folktale I came across during my "Following folktales around the world" reading challenge. 

Death and the Storyteller
A folktale from the Dominican Republic

Once upon a time there was a poor man who constantly dreamed of becoming rich. He had nothing and no one in the world, but he could tell the most amazing stories to people, and weave the most amazing dreams of what he would do, and see, and buy, once he was truly wealthy. Day after day, he waited for his chance.

One day, La Muerte, Death Herself appeared before the man. 

"I will take you under my wing" she told him "I will give you a profession. You'll become a doctor, and you will be able to cure any illness in the world by simply placing your hand on the patient. If you see me standing at the foot of the bed, you can be sure the patient will live. But if you see me at the head of the bed, beware: That soul belongs to me!"

The poor man was all too happy for the bargain. He immediately moved to the city, and began practicing as a doctor. People miraculously got better under his care. News spread like wildfire that there was a miracle worker in the city, and they soon reached the royal palace, where the king's only daughter lay very, very ill.

The King immediately summoned the doctor, and told him:

"My daughter is very ill. If you can cure her, I will make you rich, and give her to you as your wife. But take care, because if she dies, I will have you executed!"

The doctor went straight to the princess' room, trusting in his magical power... but when he entered, he was terrified to see La Muerte standing at the head of the bed.

What shall I do?! he thought frantically, If she dies, I'm done for!

With sudden inspiration, the doctor grabbed the princess' bed, and turned it around - now La Muerte was standing at the foot of the bed. The doctor quickly placed his hand on the princess. She was immediately cured, sat up with healthy roses in her cheeks, and La Muerte stormed out of the castle, furious.

The King announced that his daughter was going to marry the doctor who saved her life. The doctor was invited back for  the next day to prepare for the wedding. But as he stepped out of the palace, happy with his good fortune, someone grabbed his arm.

La Muerte had been waiting for him at the door.

"You are coming with me!" she said, and took the doctor straight up to the heavens, to the place where people's life-flames are burning. Each life was represented by an oil lamp, some burning high and bright, and some burning low. La Muerte pointed at a lamp that was sputtering out.

"That is your own life flame." she declared "You tried to cheat me, so now your time is up. You have five more minutes left to live."

"Five minutes?!" cried the doctor in shock, looking around. He noticed a full can of lamp oil nearby on the table. He turned back to La Muerte. "Very well, then. But before I die, I would like to tell one more story. It is a really good story, I think you'll like it."

"Go ahead, then" La Muerte nodded, and the doctor began to speak. He told such an amazing, such a wonderful, such an incredible tale, the best tale he ever told, that he had La Muerte completely enthralled... and while he was talking, he reached behind his back, tipped the oil can, and refilled his own lamp. He poured so much oil in it, that he is still alive today.

This, the story says, is how storytelling defeated Death Herself.



***

This story is my (slightly elaborated) re-telling of a short folktale I found in a collection from the Dominican Republic. The original storyteller's name is Feyito Molina, and he was from Monte Cristi. The story is a rare variant of the folktale type commonly known as Godfather Death (ATU 332). I have never seen a variant before where the doctor got away at the end! As a storyteller, I found it fascinating that Death, in this case, was defeated by storytelling. I feel like there is a message in it for us all. Stories do live on. 


Monday, October 30, 2017

Golden phoenix, golden knight (Following folktales around the world 49. - Canada)

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 under the Following Folktales label, or you can follow the series on Facebook!

I'd like to note once again that I'll be reading more indigenous folktales in a separate challenge.


The Golden Phoenix
And other French-Canadian fairy tales
Marius Barbeau, Michael Hornyansky
Scholastic Book Services, 1968.

The book containts eight re-told French-Canadian fairy tales from the collections of Marius Barbeau. The stories were all gathered from the oral tradition along the St. Lawrence River, and they all have European origins (even though the Princess of Tomboso, for example, was first collected from the Ojibwe, who probably heard it from traders). Some of the tales resembled the 18th century French literary fairy tales in their imagery and storytelling.

Highlights

I got this book because it contains one of my favorite fairy tales, the Princess of Tomboso. This tale type (known as Fortunatus) has many variants all over Europe (I even included one in my own book), but for some reason this French-Canadian one is by far my favorite. I especially like that in the end the sneaky princess does not end up marrying the hero that outwits her.
My other favorite from the volume is the tale of the Golden Phoenix, which is a composite of elements from several tale types - it begins with stolen apples (even though the youngest prince has the genius idea of harvesting them before the thief even gets there), then moves on to an underworld journey (during which the prince fights a unicorn, a lion, and a snake), and then goes into a classic hide-and-seek story where a shapeshifting Sultan needs to be found three times, and ends with a Magic Flight. I have never seen these scenes in quite this combination, they fit splendidly together.
Another fun one was the tale of the Sly Thief of Valenciennes, who regularly outwitted a king and avoided being captured... until the king's daughter captured him.

Connections

It was interesting to see one long fairy tale split into two sections in the book: Scurvyhead told of a boy's escape from an evil witch's house, while Sir Goldenhair recounted the rest of his adventures, until he got married to a princess. The two together follow the plotline of the Golden-haired Gardener tale type (and both the love of the boy and the princess, and his friendship to his magic horse, were beautifully elaborated). Also a common tale type is the Foundain of Youth, but the French-Canadian variant was a lot kinder to the princess (who, for once, did not get raped in her sleep), and the evil brothers as well.

Where to next?
Reaching Europe at Iceland!

Monday, October 23, 2017

Is there such a thing as a white American folktale? (Following folktales around the world 48. - USA)

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 under the Following Folktales label, or you can follow the series on Facebook!

TL;DR: Hell yes there is.

I have heard it a lot from white Americans (even storytellers): "But... I don't have a culture! What tradition should I be drawing from?..." Not liking some stories is totally okay, but claiming they don't exist is a whole other issue. This is why I picked this wonderful collection for today's post.
(While it does contain some indigenous tales, I am planning on doing a whole separate reading challenge for indigenous nations soon). 

Cinderella in America
A book of folk and fairy tales
William Bernard McCarthy
University Press of Mississippi, 2007.

The goal of this collection is to offer a diverse selection of tales (122 to be exact) that are of European origin, but have become thoroughly and deeply American over the course of generations and centuries. They are American in their symbols, their performance, their setting, their characters, and their exceptional cultural diversity. The author accomplishes his goal with great efficiency, and includes delicious end notes, sources, and comments, making the book both enjoyable and fascinating. Chapters are divided by culture; after introducing some of the earliest collected tales, we get to read selections from Iberian, French, British, German, etc. traditions (including some rarities such as Armenian and Roma tales), as well as examples of European (or European-sounding) motifs that surface in African-American and indigenous traditions. Every chapter highlights a new slice of cultural diversity in the USA: For example, inside the Ibero-American chapter, we get sub-sections for Puerto Rican, Southwestern Hispanic, Louisiana Isleño, and New England Cape Verdean folktales. It was a treat to browse carefully selected gems from all of these sources.
Folklore map of the USA
The author states that the book focuses on American tales of European origins. If the collection was expanded to African, Asian, Native, etc. traditions, it might be a series of several volumes (and some volumes like that are already available separately). It still acknowledges the existence and richness of those other cultural sources, and manages to offer glimpses into them. It also accomplishes a very important goal: Showcasing that there are various "white American" story traditions that are rich, lively, and thoroughly representative of American culture.
If you don't believe me, read the book.

Highlights


One of the prettiest stories in the book is also one of the earliest: Lady Featherflight, a version of the Magic Flight tale type, was collected in Massachusetts in the 19th century. It is especially interesting (and stunning, so close to Salem) that the fairy princess that sits in a tree is accused of being a witch by the villages that find her, and almost ends up executed - until the priest shows up, listens to her side of the story, and finds Jack, the hero that eloped with her in the first place.
One of my favorite tale types, the Basil Maiden, also made an appearance among the Puerto Rican folktales. In it, a clever girl and a young king try to out-sass each other... until the girl wins, and they get married.
My love for Cajun folktales was affirmed through such wonderful selections in the book as Golden Hair (once again, a favorite tale type of mine) and Snow Bella, the Cajun Snow White who ended up marrying the youngest dwarf brother after he repeatedly saved her from the witch's assassination attempts (instead of meandering into the tale at the end).
From the African-American traditions came the tale of Peazy and Beanzy, a "Kind and Unkind Girls" type story, which was unusual because here the unkind girl ventured forth first, and the mother loved them both, instead of being cruel to the younger one. Also from black storytellers came a short, rhyming variant of Sleeping Beauty (La Dora), in which the girl was saved and awakened by a princess. This was explained by the author as the result of a mishearing... but it did not seem to bother the original teller.
From the Polish tradition came the tale of the Black Kitty, in which the hero had to cuddle and pet a black kitten (princess) while all kinds of horrors and illusions tried to get him to give her up. From Scandinavian sources came the legend of the Powder Snake, a giant reptile that spat venomous powder at everyone until a poor boy managed to kill it. The Armenian story tradition was represented by two variants (mother's and daughter's) of the same tale of the Two Dreams, in which a man followed his dream to find the love of his life - and then rescue her by trickery from her tyrannical husband.
Of course the Appalachian tale tradition was also fairly represented in the book. My favorites were Rawhead and Bloodybones, and other kind-unkind type tale, in which a girl had to clean and bleach talking, bloody skull drawn from a well - and White Bear Whittington, which, if my personal opinion was asked, I would nominate as the most beautiful American fairy tale I know.

Connections

I am not going to list all the connections, since by definition all tales in the book have their European counterparts. I simply want to highlight some less common examples: The book contained variants of Molly Whoopie (Polly, Nancy, and Muncimeg), Grimm's Crystal Ball (The enchanted sisters), the Irish's favorite Fairy Midwife (The fairy birth), The Princess in the Shroud (The Bewitched Princess), and Mistress Cockroach (Mousie Perez).
Due to the great cultural diversity, of course, the book's pages were teeming with tricksters. Hermana Zorra outfoxed Coyote with the help of a tar baby; Quevedo (Spanish author turned trickser) switched places with a shepherd who got punished instead of him; Lapin drank Bouqui's wine and claimed he'd beet at a baptism; Br'er Rabbit did the same with Fox, Wolf, and Bear, and then fell for the tar baby too; Hodja Nasreddin taught and learned important lessons; Coyote was defeated by Little Pig, and then a cannibal baby; and Tyl Eileschpijjel shared his crops with the devil, coming out the winner every time. And Jack... Jack was, of course, everywhere.

Where to next?
Saying goodbye to the Americas with Canada!

Monday, October 16, 2017

Gods and storytellers (Following folktales around the world 47. - Mexico)

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 under the Following Folktales label, or you can follow the series on Facebook!

This book has been sitting on my shelf for a while; I found it in an antique store in the USA, sitting under a pile of porcelain cups. Not the most authentic source (not a folklore publication), but I really wanted to read it. I plan on circling back anyway, to read some indigenous collections later.

Star Mountain
and other legends of Mexico
Camilla Campbell
Whittlesey House, 1946.

This volume is old, and it shows: The tales are definitely re-told, not collected from tellers word by word. With that said, most of them hold up the structure and feel of the original legend or folktale pretty well, despite occasional dated words and phrases (such as calling the Aztecs "red" or a Chinese girl "oriental"). It does include some conquest era legends, but doesn't pretend that the Spanish were heroes. There is a pronunciation guide in the end, but no sources or comments on the tales whatsoever, which I sorely missed. All in all, it was a pretty read with pretty pictures, but I'll definitely come back to Mexico for more later.

Highlights 


I absolutely adored the legend of Baby Jesus and Brown Sugar (El Niño de la Panelita). It was about a jolly monk who lived in Puebla and brought food every day to the monastery, but his fellow monks believed that he kept sugar cones for himself. One say they caught him in the chapel, handing the sugar to the statue of the baby Jesus, who was giggling happily... According to Campbell, the statue still has a panela in his hand.
Without much historical credit, but also lovely is the origin legend of the "china poblana" folk costume, said to have originated from a Chinese girl that ended up living in Mexico. She told stories to children, and they brought flowers to decorate her dress. As a storyteller, of course I enjoyed this tale a lot. Storytelling also saved the day in the legend of the Brave Mixtec warrior, who fought an archery duel against the Sun (or so said the Mixtecs to scare the Aztecs away).
The Mayan tale of the Moon God and the Turtle was similarly great. The Moon used to be always full, until a turtle started to show up in his bed while he was away, and it got bigger and bigger. Ever since then, the Moon tends to leave a bit of himself at home, to guard the bed from the intruder...
In the beautiful legend of the Street of the Deer, a girl was almost kidnapped by some men, but her pet deer fought them off.

China poblana fountain, Puebla

Connections

Of course we can't be done with Mexico without talking about La Llorona - in this book, her legend was waved into that of Malinche, but it noted that not everyone believed the lover of Cortez was the Crying Woman.
The story of the Cú bird was another variant of "showing off with someone else's feathers" - and the Cú did, and then vainly took off, and the birds (doves, owls, roardrunners) have been looking for him ever since.
The local trickster is Hermano Coyote.

Where to next?
U! S! A!