Scandinavian Folktales and More
Folktales of different cultures
The Scandinavian Folktales
Most of the Scandinavian folktales are of the single Norwegian collection, titled East o' the Sun and West o’ the Moon.
These stories were gathered in the early 1840s by Peter Christian Asbjornsen and Jorgen Moe.
The collection ranks in popularity with the Grimms’ fairy tales for much the same reason; they capture the vigorous language of the storyteller.
Ten years after their publication in Norway.
They were ably translated by an Englishman, George Dasent, and made available to the English-speaking world.
Perhaps the best known of all of these stories is the Three Billy Goats Gruff.
These Billy goats ‘’trip-trapped’ across the troll’s bridge to eat the green grass on the other side in a tale that is a perfect example of folktale structure: the use of three Billy goats.
The increasing size of each one, and the anticipated downfall of the mean old troll.
Fast action and an economy of words lead directly to the story teller’s conventional ending.
Another story that delights young children is Nancy Polette’s the Little Old Woman and the Hungry Cat.
When his owner leaves him alone, the cat eats the sixteen cupcakes she left cooling and proceeds down the road eating everyone and everything in its path. When he meets his owner, he gobbles her up as well.
Her sewing scissors save day when she is able to cut her way out, and she and the rest of the cat’s victims escape. Now, free they all have a party except for the hungry cat, who has to stitch himself up.
Eric Kimmel has placed one of Asbjornsen tales in a pioneer setting in Easy Work. A husband thinks his wife has it pretty easy staying at home each day. When he chides her, she offers to exchange jobs with him.
At first, he thinks it is ‘’easy work’’ and devises some Rube Goldberg inventions to help him mind the baby, churn the butter, bake the biscuits and watch the cow.
When his overconfident macho attitude ends in disaster, he finally admits how hard his wife has to work.
George Dasent’s East o’ the Sun and West o’ the Moon is a complex tale in which a poor man gives his youngest daughter to a white bear, who promises to make the family rich.
The white bear comes to her every night and throws off his beast shape, but he leaves before dawn so she never sees him.
When her mother tells her to light a candle and look into his face, she sees a handsome prince.
Three drops of hot tallow awake him, he must return to the castle that lies east of the sun and west of the moon and marry the princess with along nose.
So the girl seeks the castle, finally arriving there on the back of the North Wind. Before the prince will marry the one who sets one condition; he will only marry the one who can wash out the tallow spots on his shirt.
Neither his long-nose troll bride-to-be nor an old troll hag can do it, but the girl who has posed as a beggar can wash it as the snow.
The wicked trolls burst, and the prince and princess marry and leave the castle that lies east of the sun and west of the moon.
In many of the Norwegian tales, the hero is aided in the accomplishment of such seemingly impossible tasks by animals or people that have been kind.
The hero of Eric Kimmel’s Boots and His Brothers sets out with his two brothers, Peter and Paul, to seek his fortune.
They meet an old woman along the way who tells them that their fortune can be gained from an old king who needs as oak tree chopped down and a well dug.
The two older boys push the old woman out of the way and hurry off. When Boots stops and takes time to talk to her, she gives him three magical objects and some good advice.
These help him chop down the enchanted oak tree, dig a well in iron rocks, and fill it with cool clear water from a hundred leagues away.
The king is so delighted with Boots; he gives him his weight in gold and half his kingdom. For the greedy brothers, the king has a job as dog keepers.
Scandinavian tales often reflect the harsh elements of the northern climate. Animal helpmates assist heroes in overcoming giants or wicked trolls.
Frequently heroes are human beings who are held by many trolls, magical objects, and fast-moving.
The youngest son performs impossible tasks with ease and a kind of practical resourcefulness.
French folktales were the earliest to be recorded, and they are also the most sophisticated and adult.This is probably because these tales were the rage among the court society of Louis XIV. In 1697.
Charles Perrault, a distinguished member of the French Academy, published a little volume of fairy tales.
The title page bore no name, and there has been some debate as to whether they were the product of Charles Perrault or his son. Pierre.
While the stories were probably close to the ones told to Pierre by his governess they have the consciously elegant style of the ‘’literary tale’’ rather than the ‘’told tale’’ of the Grimms.
The fairy godmother in Cinderella is Perrault’s invention, as are the pumpkin coach, the six horses of dappled mouse gray, and the glass slipper.
In this French version, Cinderella is kind and forgiving of her two stepsisters, inviting them to live at the palace with her.
Marcia Brown was faithful to the French setting and the original text in her Caldecott Medal-winning illustrations for Perrault’s Cinderella.
The sister story to ‘’Cinderella’’ is the well-known ‘’Sleeping Beauty,’’ and Perrault’s version closely parallels the one collected by the Grimms.
It is interesting to compare the wishes that the fairies gave to the newborn baby. In the German tale, they endow Briar Rose with virtue, beauty, riches, and ‘’everything in the world she could wish for’'
In the French version, they bestow on her beauty, an angelic disposition and the abilities to dance, sing, and play music.
In both versions, the jealous uninvited fairy predicts that the child will prick her finger on a spindle and die. This wish is softened by the last fairy, which changes it to the long sleep of a hundred years to be broken by the kiss of a prince.
The folktales of France are usually not the tales of the poor but those of the rich. Most have all the trappings of the traditional fairy tale, including fairy godmothers, stepsisters, and handsome princes.
Tales of romance and sophisticated intrigue, they must surely have been the ‘’soap operas’’ of their day.
Folktales from Russia feature universal patterns of tasks and trials, tricks, and transformations.
Russian folktales are often longer and more complicated than those of other countries and frequently involve several sets of tasks.
Elizabeth Winthrop’s retelling of the Little Humpbacked Horse is quite complex and begins with a tale of how a modest hero, Ivan, tamed a mate with a golden mane. In return for her freedom, she gives him three horses, two fits as gifts for the tsar, and the other a little-humpbacked horse.
These gifts take Ivan to the tsar, where he becomes the stable master, but it is the little-humpbacked horse that becomes Ivan’s helpful companion and helps him through many trials to his final triumph.
Russian folklore is replete with other stories of poor but lucky men. With the help of an irresistible magic sack, an old soldier outwits some devils in Michael McCurdy’s The Devils Who Learned to Be Good, and another soldier saves a helpless tsar in Uri Shulevitz’s Soldier and Tsar in the Forest.
In Arthur Ransome’s The Fool of the World and the Flying Ship, the youngest son goes forth, accompanied by eight companions, each of whom has a magical power that helps in outwitting the treacherous tsar, the fool wins the princess and riches for them both in this Caldecott Medal book.
A poor archer in Diane Wolkstein’s Oom Razoom, or Go I knew Not Where.
Bring Back I Know Not What keeps his beautiful wife from the clutches of the king while gaining riches and a magical servant.
The witch Baba Yaga is a complex character who figures in many Russian tales, including Eric Kimmel’s I know Not What, I know Not Where and Diane Wolkstein’s Oom Razoom. Elizabeth Winthrop’s Vasilissa the Beautiful is often called the Russian Cinderella.
In this tale, Vasilissa is sent by her stepmother to Baba Yaga to get a light for the cottage with the hope that the witch will eat her up. Vasilisa carries with her a doll that her mother gave her before she died.
When Baba Yaga gives Vasilissa impossible tasks to perform, the unfortunate girl is saved by the doll’s magic and its advice: to go to sleep, for the morning is wiser than the evening.
Other stories about Baba Yaga present the fearsome witch in less frightening terms. Joanna Cole’s Bony-Legs tells how Sasha meets Baba Yaga under a different name but escapes being eaten by the witch because she is kind to a cat, a dog, and a squeaky gate.
In Baba Yaga, Eric Kimmel adds a ‘’generous person/greedy person’’ motif in this story of Marina, a child with a horn growing out of her forehead, who is sent by her stepmother to Baba Yaga to get a needle.
Her kindness to a frog earns her good advice in tricking the witch and good lack of having her horn removed. When the stepmother Marusia rudely ignores the frog on her way to visit Baba Yaga so as to become ‘’just like my stepsister,’’ she is sent away with a horn on her forehead.
The theme of cooperation is addressed in Aleksei Tolstoy’s The Gigantic Turnip.
An old man plants a turnip seed, which grows so big that he needs to call his wife to help by pulling him as he pulls.
Eventually, they are able to pull up the turnip with the help of their daughter, a cat, dog, and finally a mouse. This humorous story would make a good primary drama.
The theme of beauty being in the eye of the beholder is presented in another story. A child lost in the wheat fields, separated from her mother, sobs and proclaims her mother’s beauty in Becky Reyher’s My Mother in the Most Beautiful Woman in the World.
After the townsfolk assemble all of the local beauties for Varya’s inspection, a large toothless woman pushes through the crowd and mother and child are reunited.
Not all Russian folktales are dark and complex.
Jewish tales have poignancy, wit, and ironic humor unmatched in any other folklore. Many of them have been preserved by the masterful writing of Isaac Bashevis Singer, who has retained the flavor of both the oral tradition and the Yiddish origin.
Singer's warm, humorous stories Zlateh the Goat and When Shlemiel Went to Warsaw are based on tradition and his own childhood memories.
The amiable fools of Chelm that fabled village where only fools live, lazy shlemiels and shrewd poor peasants who outwit rich misers are familiar characters in Singer's tales.
In Chelm, the wise elders are the most foolish of all, and their ‘’solutions'' to people's problems make for some hilarious stories. One night they plan to gather the pearls and diamonds of the sparkling snow so the jewels can be sold for money.
Worried about how they can prevent the villagers from trampling the snow, they decide to send a messenger to each house to tell the people to stay inside.
The ''wise elders'' realize the messenger's feet will spoil the snow, so they have him carried on a table supported by four men so he will not make any footprints as he goes from house to house!
In It could always be Worse, by Margot Zemach tells the familiar tale of the poor farmer whose house is so crowded that seeks the rabbi's advice.
Following the rabbi's wise counsel the farmer brings one animal after another into the house, until the noise and confusion become unbearable.
The rabbi then advises their removal, and the house appears to be very large and peaceful.
Phoebe Gilman's ‘’Something from Nothing,’’ tells of a boy whose grandfather makes him a precious blanket. As Joseph grows older the blanket is made into smaller and smaller pieces of clothing, first a jacket, then a vest, a handkerchief, and finally a button.
When he loses the button, the boy is told, ''You can't make something from anything.'' Joseph does he writes a story about his blanket.
Francine Prose's ‘’You Never Know,’’ is also a quiet story with a subtle message. The townspeople make fun of Schmuel the shoemaker because he often gives away shoes for free.
When his prayers for the owner's safety are answered, however, they realize Schlemiel is one of the Lamed-vavniks, a man so righteous that he has God's ear.
Schlemiel leaves town when he is discovered, but the townspeople are much kinder to the new shoemaker because ''You never know.''
Collections of Jewish tales are with brilliant paintings.
Folktales of Different Cultures
Folktales from Different Cultures
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© 2013 Devika Primić