The Source

Over the last few days I’ve been reading endless numbers of fairytales — in effect all of the fairy “color” books.  Not on purpose, precisely, except insofar as I downloaded a compilation of them from Amazon and at this time they’re a useful thing to read.

You see, I’m trying to finish two books before the end of the month, which means I can’t afford to get captured by a story and end up sitting and reading all day.  the (mostly Andrew Lang-compiled) fairytales are very short, about three pages tops, which means if I get captured it’s no time at all to get to the end of them, but they’re involving enough to keep me reading.  Well, most of them.

One of the things it is doing is replenishing my imagination.  It’s amazing, when you only remember the core fairytales, and those often disneyfied, how you forget some of the unbelievably difficult trials that the characters in the original fairytales are put through.

The other thing it is doing is reminding me of the “structure” of western (which most of these are.  The others often “taste funny” depending on how westernized they have been or not) story telling reminding me of things like “when it’s almost won, often turning back for good and sufficient reason will almost cause the loss of the whole expedition, and lead to a more epic battle than ever.

There is something about these fairytales, particularly the older ones, that seems to tie in to the place we dream from.  And like dreams thy often have the strangest contradictions.  I’m struck, for instance, by the weirdness oft repeated in stories that a fox that doesn’t have the strength to take its own tail off a trap can command several other foxes to build her savior a whole palace in a day, or to chase cattle out of the tall grass, or whatever.

It’s also funny how often people change personalities completely, which is another thing that seems to come directly out of dreams, good or not.  For instance, after a great battle, you throw your bridle over a troll and it becomes a beautiful horse (or princess) who is grateful you rescued him/her.  But also it’s amazing how often the beautiful woman the main character, or the character’s father marries turns out to be a horrible person who will try to kill the whole family.

That has the feel of dreams, where people often change face in the middle of a conversation and you realize that all the time you were having this involved conversation it was with a long dead relative, a cat, or the cow on a field next door.

Russian stories are harsher and there is more strife within families themselves.  Japanese stories often feel like elaborate allegories I’m not equipped to understand; Arab stories involve an untold number of acts of treason, often by the women in the family, German stories often revolve around food and it is astonishing how often the dim witted fellow or the idiot succeeds due to being an idiot.

There is a slightly different flavor to each.  But they all taste of the place humans go in their dreams, a place in which the collective thought of mankind was formed and forged.

Some of them I remember from when I was very young, when the stores kept, in the place now reserved for candy “cockroach books.”  These were little chapbooks about the size of a palm that reprinted mostly moral tales or fairytales.  I wasn’t very fond of the moral tales — not that I objected to the moral, or at least not often but — because they were annoyingly preachy and reiterated the moral loudly and in virtue signaling tones. I never had much patience for that…  BUT if there were fairytales for sale I almost always whined till mom bought me one.  (Mom was also much more likely to buy me that than a candy bar or even cough drops.)  Thus I have read MOST of those fairy tales at one time or another.  (My favorite remains the one where the princess refuses to marry until the father in despair gives her to a drunken soldier.)

As I said, it is wakening some thing in me I thought was long dead, and which is probably dormant, a place where stories form unbidden, a place where magic can happen.

I’m not absolutely sure where it will take me, but I will do my best — promise — not to fall into the inconsistencies where a carp cannot possibly jump back into the water alone but can manage to commandeer enough fish to deviate a stream for its former benefactor.

155 responses to “The Source

  1. Fairytales are a good place to turn to ‘reset’ your magical creativity. I read a copy of Grimm’s Fairytales to my daughters and it was amazing how different it was from the ones they heard (ie the disneyified ones). It also makes you wonder how the national character of a group is shaped by the fairytales it tells, or how the fairytales are shaped by the national character.

    It is interesting, to me, that the Arabic ones had such treachery in them – and specifically female treachery. It also makes me wonder what do American fairytales have to say about Americans?


    • Horatio Alger? “Yes, you can change position by your own effort.”

    • Reality Observer

      Well, I consider Paul Bunyan to be American “fairy tales.” Take that as an example, and it says “I have a problem – I’d better get busy fixing it!”

      • The Oz books by L. Frank Baum are my favorite examples of American fairy tales. And yes, there’s a very strong practical streak in them, and the heroes aren’t royalty, but sensible common man types – or, rather, sensible farm girls. One of my favorite lines from Dorothy in the third book, on being told she’s going to meet with a princess, is that Dorothy is an American, and that makes her as good as any princess.

        (I love Lang’s color fairy books, btw, I grew up on them. Do your copies have his wonderful illustrations? He was a heck of an artist.)

    • I perform as a storyteller in my home state of North Carolina and have been reading up up on folk and fairy tales from around the world for the last dozen years or so. Most of the American folk tales (you can’t really call most of them fairytales) deal with individuals acting on their own to tame a wild and rugged land. They may also deal with a clever person outwitting the devil or outlaws of some kind. I find them distinctly American in feel. Well, probably not 21st century American, so let me say they feel traditionally American, instead.

      You get a totally different feel from Native American (using the PC term to differentiate from the folk and fairy tales of India), which is where you’re more likely to find something closer to the traditional fairy tale (magical / mystical beings).

      As for Arabic tales of female treachery, the most famous collection of Arabic tales, Tales of 1001 Arabian Nights, has a framing story built entirely around a sultan witnessing his wife having sex with a slave. I assume everyone knows the bride-for-a-day story behind the collection. It’s worth noting that Scheherazade does not think badly of the sultan nor does the sultan pay any penalty for beheading so many young women after his one-night marriage.

      If you want to get a good look into the culture of a region, check out its folk and fairy tales.

      • I believe anyone looking for a 21st Century American fairy tale need look no farther than ‘If You Were a Dinosaur My Love”.

        • BobtheRegisterredFool

          ‘The Victim’, ‘The Revolution’, ‘The Arrow of History’.

        • Oog. I think I prefer the “can do” (or last, “damnit, gonna give it a try”) far more than the “poor me/you, if only $HERO(IC THING)” stuff.

        • While some among the intelligentsia might choose If You Were A Dinosaur My Love, if you follow the money indications are that the populace far and away prefers the stories in Marvel’s superhero movies from Ironman to Captain America: Civil War.

      • Where would you put the “Br’er Rabbit” stories? They seem to have African and Native American origins.

        • Given that synthesis alone they are arguably in the uniquely American category. Without the mix of European colonization, black slavery, and the presence of Native Americans they could not exist.

          In fact, I suspect a major hallmark of uniquely American folk tales would be such syncretic elements.

          • This is a pretty accurate observation, in my experience. Each of the folk tale traditions mentioned–African, Native American, and European–have their own unique structure. The Br’er Rabbit stories draw their structures from all three. I’m so used to those stories, which were still acceptable when I was a kid, that I just see them as traditionally American

            • Christopher M. Chupik

              All American stories draw from somewhere else because all Americans came from somewhere else originally. Some Native legends are even similar to Siberian myths.

            • I grew up on Br’er Rabbit. Yeah, don’t ask.

              • Had a friend who went on a book search to find a copy of the original (not updated for modern sensibilities) Joel Chandler Harris Uncle Remus stories.

                • Got from from Amazon years ago. Assumed it had bit the Politically Correct dust long ago, and was doubly surprised when a coworker bought one. The other surprise was they couldn’t read the dialect.

                  Just checked the book shelf. It’s The Complete Tales of Uncle Remus. Don’t know if it’s still available or not. It’s all public domain now, and some of it might be on Project Gutenberg.

                  Don’t know what the PC objections would be to it now. The dialect used to be the big issue, and that displayed the ignorance of the critics – the last person I heard speak in the dialect Chandler captured for Uncle Remus was a white Walmart door greeter in Georgia a little over nineteen years ago. The Gulah dialect Chandler recorded for a character was maybe the hardest, and that character’s stories tended to have more of an edge to them. The kids were still young enough that I found I had to skip reading them those.

                  Yes, I read Uncle Remus stories to the kids as bedtime stories. Figured they wouldn’t hear them anywhere else.

                  There were a few stories the Uncle Remus character told that I had to skip as well, but then again, had to do that for some European fairy tales as well.

                  • Oh geeze, now I feel old! I remember the teacher reading those stories to my class in elementary school.

                    Maybe it’s because I grew up in West Virginia in a time when Appalachian culture suffered a shortage of SJWs (we were so backward that the few we had were called “cranks”) such that we not only had Mr. Harris’ wonderful tales read us, any given Saturday morning our TV programming might include such traumatic videos as George Pal cartoons …

                    Why, we even had Fleischer Betty Boop and “Out of the Inkwell” cartoons and Hekyll & Jekyll’s misadventures. No wonder I’ve grown up to be a conservative!

                  • ROFL. The dialect in Portuguese was Northern Patois, which I could most definitely read. 😉 (Yeah, in Portugal the North lost the civil war. deal.)

                  • A heritage group in Savannah reprinted it starting a few years ago. In the original dialect with illustrations (engravings).

                  • My friend was doing this before the days of Amazon. There are some things in this world that are getting better.

                  • Most of the PC objections are to Disney’s Song of the South, due to its perceived overly-rosy presentation of post-Civil War race relations.

                    • Feh, Song of the South wasn’t as rosy as they think, which, oddly for Disney, matched Chandler’s framing story. Bunch of [Expletive Deleted x 6] who probably don’t wear cotton because they think it’s racist.

                      There’s about as much chance of today’s Disney re-releasing Song of the South as there is of it re-releasing The Big Fisherman Buena Vista’s movie about Peter.

                      Must leave off now. The holy water is boiling again.

                    • The important thing to remember about SJWs is that if you don’t have at least one attempted lynching, it’s an overly-rosy view of post-Civil War race relations.

                  • Looking at the intro to that book on Amazon, it appears that it is probably still in its original form. I wouldn’t swear to it, but I think I’m going to pick up the e-book version, since it’s only 99 cents.

                    • Checked it out. It is. The only editing is that it’s a collection of the Uncle Remus stories. Harris Chandler did more of those than what we thing of as Uncle Remus’ stories, some that would make SJW heads go all explody.

                      Even though I have the hard back, i’m going to pick up the e-version, too. We read the hardback so much the spine is broken, and I haven’t gotten around to fixing it.

                    • Important: I clicked on the 99 cent Kindle Edition, and it pulled up a book with another cover. Don’t know if that’s the same as the hardback or not. Several Uncle Remus books are on Project Gutenberg.

                • My parents have one of those. Or had. I remember reading it when I was ill and about 7. I must remember to see if I can find it next time I’m back at their home. It was in fairly bad shape

                • Probably what I grew up on. Dad’s copy was his dad’s. Translated, of course. Other than the fact that we didn’t have a TON of the animals (I finally saw a coati at the denver zoo last year. I squeed) they could have been Portuguese tales. In fact, I thought they were, just very old. Grandma told me ALL sorts of stories that started “in the time when animals spoke” and that’s when I thought these were from.

            • Br’er Rabbit – truly an American fable. Undoubtedly why Disney refuses to release it on VHS, DVD or Blu-Ray.

      • It is generally acknowledged that the Jack Tales were carried over by the Scots-Irish and place emphasis on the importance of cleverness, problem solving and seizing one’s opportunities. Jack rarely has anything going for him beyond native cleverness yet comes out over giants and magic-wielders in part because their strengths have made them arrogantly careless.

        This we get praise of pluck and criticism of the hazards of power, all in one story.

        • Free-range Oyster

          “All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies, and whenever they catch you, they will kill you.”

          • kenashimame

            Ah, Lord Firth’s admonition to El-Ahrairah.

            I need to reread that book sometime soon.

    • BobtheRegisterredFool

      Thing is, we don’t or didn’t necessarily have enough have enough uniformity for a single set of stories. That said, maybe we don’t have enough differences for distinct sets of stories.

      Tall Tales.

      Maybe Bre’er Rabbit.

    • With characters like Pecos Bill I would say American fairy tales celebrate thsoe who are expert beyond human keen and those who become larger than life.

      • Randy Wilde

        John Henry as man’s superiority to machines, even if it kills him?

        • Alfred Bulltop Stormalong, Joe Magarac, even Windwagon Smith are additional examples of such characters.

          Even such sports idols as Babe Ruth and Jack Dempsey fall into that larger than life persona. Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, Mike Fink —

          “Im a Salt River Roarer! Im a ring-tailed squealer! I’m a reg’lar screamer from the ol’ Massassip’! WHOOP! I’m the very infant that refused his milk before its eyes were open, and called out for a bottle of old Rye! I love the women an’ I’m chockful o’ fight! I’m half wild horse and half cockeyed-alligator and the rest o’ me is crooked snags an’ red hot snappin’ turtle. I can hit like fourth-proof lightnin’ an’ every lick I make in the woods lets in an acre o’ sunshine. I can out-run, out-jump, out-shoot, out-brag, out-drink, an’ out fight, rough-an’-tumble, no holts barred, ary man on both sides the river from Pittsburg to New Orleans an’ back again to St. Louiee. Come on, you flatters, you bargers, you milk-white mechanics, an’ see how tough I am to chaw! I ain’t had a fight for two days an’ I’m spilein’ for exercise. Cock-a-doodle-doo!”

          — The Swamp Fox, Johnny Appleseed, Molly Pitcher and more from the “un-documented” period of American history achieved legendary status. Parson Weems did his best to elevate such men as George Washington, and the famous Dime Novels created myths about Buffalo Bill, Wild Bill Hickock, Bat Masterson, Wyatt Earp, Jesse James, Billy the Kid and others of the American West just as later “journalists” magnified the efforts of John Dillinger, Al Capone, Babyface Nelson, Bonnie & Clyde and others of that era.

          It is no coincidence that much of the growth of early televisiion programming was based on reenactments of American myths.

        • I was always on the side of Vulcan, Wayland, and Tubal-Cain.

          “Where do you think that sword came from, Hero? And I have *much* better toys than that…”

          • Note that Genesis 4:22 throws in an important lesson for those who understand Hebrew: “… and the sister of Tubal-Cain was Na‘amah”—na‘amah, נַעֲמָה, means “pleasant”.

            • Naomi in the book of Ruth as well. Naomi on returning from Moab a childless widow with her life appearing to be hopeless chooses to be called Mara (bitter), only to return to Naomi when her life takes an unexpected turn.

    • Even just different editions from the Grimm brothers– or finding stuff that’s from other collectors entirely– can make it really different.

      The fad for getting the most “authentic” possible (like they haven’t been pretty constantly changed for the audience anyways…) has some lovely fruits.

      • I definitely prefer older “pre-overly-civilized” versions. Someone gave my daughter a Mr.Rogers version of some fairy tales. I was disgusted. He removed every iota of conflict or strong emotion. No danger, only mild discomfiture. Five year old daughter couldn’t see the point.

    • I’ve always thought of fairytales/folktales as the genealogy of a culture or people. There might not be a family tree involved, but they tell us where the culture comes from just the same.

    • You can track some of them down the trade roads and see the difference. There’s one that in Grim’s is “The Golden Bird, the Golden Horse, and the Golden Princess.” The Russian version is “Prince Ivan and the Firebird”. I don’t remember the title in the Arabian night’s version. One of the more obvious changes in the versions I read was the ‘helpful creature’ was a fox in the Arabian version, a Wolf (Specifically ‘Brother Wolf’, who’s a very specific figure in Russian folk lore.) in the Russian, and back to a fox in Grimm’s.

  2. Japanese stories often feel like elaborate allegories I’m not equipped to understand

    That seems quite possble. In much the same way that British nursery rhymes make fun stories around real events/people so many Japanese myths/legends are believed to be metaphorical re-tellings of real events. For example the famous(?) story of Susanowo and the eight headed dragon Orochi is claimed to be the tale of the channelling, weiring and generally bringing under control of the 8 rivers that form the Hiikawa and drain into the Izumo plain.

    (My favorite remains the one where the princess refuses to marry until the father in despair gives her to a drunken soldier.)

    That sounds like a fun tale. I’d love to read it

    • Japanese stories, admitted anime as opposed to fairy tales, are what drove home how culturally different storytelling is. The pacing, specifically, and what qualifies as a satisfactory resolution of a tale (not in good vs. bad ending but as in the point where the tale ends) are very different in that media at least.

      I can imagine the same forces making Japanese allegories harder to grasp even if I know the history they are describing.

      • The meanings also change. Back when Perry came around, stories about giant catfish causing earthquakes or tsunamis, and stories about tengu with long beak/noses, turned temporarily into stories about Westerners. Artists’ prints made a lot of veiled political points through folkloric fantasy art.

        • I had never thought about that but it makes absolute sense. I wonder if a few hundred years earlier something similar happened with the Portuguese.

        • It occurred to me after watching the “Riding Bean” anime how much of anime must be driven by the Japanese attempt to deal culturally with WW2 and it’s repercussions. The anime, atypically, is set in America and follows an American ‘driver for hire’. The character Bean is a typical American: loud, emotional, impulsive but quick thinking, money loving but idealistic underneath, contemptuous of danger, able to throw a knife through a car, can to survive being shot and run over by a car and then keep fighting, and strong enough to pick up the front end of those little cars that the Japanese people drive. If the Japanese lost to THOSE SORT OF PEOPLE well, my goodness, that’s not a disgrace; who could be expected to beat such deadly and indestructible barbarians after all.

          • Can barely recall it, but there was a US cartoon in syndication that was based on Japanese fairy tales. The framing story was a Japanese mouse telling these stories to an American mouse, who may have been a reporter or a GI. It was adapted with mice and cats in the roles. It’s been maybe 50 years or more since I last saw it.

            • You’re thinking of Terrytoon’s Hashimoto cartoons, perhaps?

              One more of the culturally insensitive horrors of my childhood.

              • Yes! That’s it, and one of the ones with snippets I remember.

              • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

                One thing I liked about those cartoons was the “element” of “Tall Tales That Weren’t Really Tall Tales”.

                Very often the American Mouse would leave after hearing one of the Japanese Mouse’s stories saying that his Japanese friend was “pulling his leg” with those stories.

                Then the final scene would contain something that shows that the story that was told was a True Story. 😀

            • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

              It can’t be THAT OLD!

              Seriously, I remember it as well. 😀

  3. You’ve already written some of the “standard” fairy tales into your Darkship sagas… 😉

  4. Well of course the fish or the carp can’t do anything about it. Traps and fishhooks and similar predicaments are inherently magical. Or more magical than elemental magic, because they’re all human stuff and technology.

    Anything like a rock or a thorn? I blame it on the magical animal having some kind of magical geis or weakness. Especially if they are kings.

  5. Terry Sanders

    Re the selective helplessness of magical creatures:

    Molly Grue:
    What is the use of wizardry if it cannot save a unicorn?

    Schmendrick the Magician:
    That is what heroes are for.

    • “Great heroes need great sorrows and burdens, or half their greatness goes unnoticed. It is all part of the fairy tale.” – Schmendrick

      I would argue that is a core idea in western fairy tales all the way down to modern rom coms about “the one that got away”.

    • It’s a test. The fox would have no problems freeing itself, the whole thing is a test for the character, or characters – the ones who wont help fail the test. I always wondered what the trapped fairytale critter was planning further down the road, after the supposed ending of the story. Maybe it had just been told to test somebody or somebodies by something, or did it for its own amusement, but maybe it also needed somebody with certain qualities for something, only we usually won’t get told what. 🙂

      • BTW, those tales of canny peasants fooling the devil were fairly common in some areas of Finland too. The devils were usually dumb as a boot in them though. (And dumb as a boot is word for word translation from the Finnish saying…)

        • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

          Just a nasty thought.

          Folk stories about canny peasants “fooling” devils would go over better when heard by nobles than folk stories about canny peasants “fooling” nobles. 😉

          • Hmmm . . .

            There were a few European stories that did have the peasants outsmarting the nobles. Don’t think there were many, though. There was one I later suspected was written or modified after the Reformation, since it had strong Protestant overtones.

            • All the time. There’s a whole set about the Master Thief showing the noble what a master he is.

              • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

                One was where the Master Thief openly bet the Noble that the Noble’s house would be robbed.

                Sure enough the Noble’s house was robbed and the Noble went to the “Police Chief” (different term) to ask that the Master Thief be arrested.

                Unfortunately, the Master Thief had been with the “Police Chief” when the Noble’s house was robbed.

                The Master Thief knew that the other thieves in town would try to rob the Noble once they heard about the bet believing that the Noble would suspect the Master Thief.

                So the Master Thief made sure that he was publicly elsewhere. 😉

        • In more modern times in the US it takes on form in such as works Stephen Vincent Benét’s The Devil and Daniel Webster and Damn Yankees, the musical adaptation of Douglass Wallop’s The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant.

          Mind you, in neither of the stories is the devil portrayed as dumb as a boot…

        • Is there any overlap with the troll ones from… I think Norway, not sure?

          • Possibly, I’m not really familiar with the Norwegian stories, apart from some of the Viking age lore. The Finnish stories have trolls in them too, and it’s possible some of the devil stories are originally troll stories, the trolls were just changed into the devil and demons later. Or just the name was changed, most of everything else staying the same.

        • Terry Sanders

          Helped a friend of mine adapt a “fool the devil” Grimm (“The Grave Mound) for audio once. Had a character comment on the dumb devil as follows:

          “We may have gotten lucky here. I mean, what was this guy’s job? Tempting a miser to be greedy? And from your story he ended up screwing *that* up?”

  6. I’m not absolutely sure where it will take me, but I will do my best — promise — not to fall into the inconsistencies where a carp cannot possibly jump back into the water alone but can manage to commandeer enough fish to deviate a stream for its former benefactor.

    Just as there is a truth to the appearance of beauty turning ugly or the appearance of ugly turning to beauty there is a truth revealed in that inconsistency. People are inconsistent. What they might not be able to do for themselves they will do more so for another.

    Consider this in light of what you have discovered you are capable of in being a mother…

    • BobtheRegisterredFool

      And a king or noble lost off on their own can’t do things they can do when back with their tribe and capable of politicking.

    • Strength and Beauty have a way of fading while their possessors are often slow to recognize they are no longer what once they were. To still demand tribute and deference once the basis for such has passed tends to reveal inner character which had been left undeveloped because their attributes won for them that which they can no longer claim.

      Consider the stepmother/witch of Snow White’s story, unreasonably vain about a seriously depreciable asset.

  7. I love the Celtic fairy stories, from tales of the Tuatha de Dannan all the way to more modern tales of the wee folk. They all have a peasant quality to them, an earthiness that flows beneath the aristocratic veneer of the British.

    • The Other Sean

      Tying your mention of Tuatha de Dannan to mnetions of anime by suburbanbanshee and HerbN gets you…. Full Metal Panic! 🙂

      • I find your ideas intriguing and would like to subscribe to your newsletter (or YouTube channel and Paetron being more likely here).

        Of course, the music would have to be by Skyclad and their successors.

  8. The king of the foxes cannot command his subjects to rescue him from a peril all foxes are subject to, or he is less than his surviving subjects, who were not trapped or escaped by their own efforts. The king *can* command his subjects to aid a human who has done him a service.

  9. Randy Wilde

    where a carp cannot possibly jump back into the water alone but can manage to commandeer enough fish to deviate a stream for its former benefactor.

    I don’t think I’ve read that one, but the moral probably has something to do with the fish being thrown, launched, shot, or otherwise propelled at blog commenters.

  10. Bruno Bettleheim’s theories on childhood stories — while disputable in some areas — strike a resonant chord with the premise that they are time-tested addresses of fundamental children’s concerns. Only something that touches upon our essential natures, our subconscious self, can bear such repetition over the years. The idea that such stories are condensed essence of human nature has a compelling attraction.

    To the extent that stories have national characters, it is likely a result of a) antecedent mythology and b) continuing environmental circumstances. Northern societies, with their shorter growing seasons and longer winters are bound to obsess over the perils of hunger and privation. I suspect you get a different development in a society which pays fealty to Thor, Woden and company than to Jupiter, Minerva and Mars.

    Some of this tendency even turns up in SF, such as Dune‘s thesis of a harsh climate generating a warrior race, and in Fantasy, such as Conan’s relationship with his ruling deity, Crom.

    • Dune had its thesis up front (Leto even gets Paul to see it through some Socratic questioning early on) but I hadn’t thought to apply similar thinking the Conan. Given Howard’s interests and drive in writing those tales such insights had to be much more unconscious than Herbert’s interest in such ideas from the get go. I wonder how much of that is “just the way the world is” attitudes he inherited along the way.

      That also provides an interesting model to try and isolate such tendencies: take parallel tales with similar insights where that area of knowledge is know to be based on the conscious interests of one writer and not at all in the other writer’s intersts.

    • I find it interesting how many traces of the worship of horses remain in European stories.

      • I don’t…because of (as is a good 3/4s of my self-study education) D&D I recently bought a copy of The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots. In addition to the root forms it has cultural notes. A lot of the things you are noting in fairy tales, including horse worship, is evidence in the range of roots and the cultural notes. If those ideas are that ingrained in the proto-language behind most European languages is it any surprise they are buried deep in stories five to six thousand years removed from the horse cults that created them.

  11. The Australian Aboriginal Dreamtime stories are intriguing for how different they are from European or Japanese stories, but how similar themes appear. Hostility between brothers; the benefits of giving mercy when it is properly due; the dangers of ignoring greater dangers in order to focus on petty ones; why certain places must be avoided; doomed lovers (several variants). Mom and Dad brought back four books of such stories, each from a different part of Australia, but they retellings all have a similar mythical-real feeling to them, which may be the compilers’ way of trying to catch the sense of “long ago but still very important.”

    • Well, isn’t that what we’d expect. Themes draw on basic humanity and the common experience of being human. The stories those themes are set in, however, are very cultural. The measure of the universality of a story becomes which drives it more: themes or culture. The stories of the religions that have spread over multiple cultures over long periods: Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam, would be the ultimate theme driven end of the spectrum while gray goo hugo awarded fiction would the cultural dominated end (with a very narrow culture).

    • The Other Sean

      I think that the commonality of such stories between cultures is because they teach important lessons that are more-or-less universal.

    • The Australian Aboriginal Dreamtime stories are intriguing for how different they are from European or Japanese stories, but how similar themes appear. Hostility between brothers; the benefits of giving mercy when it is properly due;

      Mercy, good sir, is NEVER “properly due.” That which is properly due is known as justice.

      Yet despite his force when dealing with enemies, one story shows a more merciful side of Napoleon. A young man had been arrested for stealing from the royal palace twice. Sentenced to hang, the boy’s mother sought mercy from Napoleon on behalf of her son. Napoleon answered the mother’s plea, “This boy has stolen from my palace twice now; he deserves justice and that justice is death.” The mother replied, “But I don’t ask for justice, your highness. I seek mercy.” “He does not deserve mercy,” replied Napoleon. The mother passionately begged, “It would not be mercy if he deserved it.” Touched by the mother’s grief and passion, Napoleon consented and released the boy.

      • Eh, the Dreamtime stories in the collection have give a little different sense of mercy, as in giving succor to those truly in need. I’d have to go back through all the books (probably need to) but I don’t recall more than one or two cases of mercy as you describe. Lots and lots of punishment for violation of rules, taboos, and agreements, but not much unmerited forgiveness, far less than in European collections. It could be because of what the compilers collected, or it could be because the tales come from a place and time that lived much closer to the bone.

      • Terry Sanders

        Interesting. Did she appeal to his mercy, or his ego?

        But a nice parallel to the Syro-Phoenician woman in the New Testament. Jesus cheerfully grants her request once he’s sure she knows he isn’t *obliged* to…

  12. Not sure where it will take you, Sarah? *giggles behind paw* You could end up with 5.3 stories that you never intended to write . . .

  13. I love fairy tales. Sleeping Beauty is my favorite followed by Beauty and the Beast. I’ve read a few of the Andrew Lang books but I remember enjoying the variants between types of tales. A Cinderella tale in France, Spain, or Russia has lots of intriguing variations.

    • There is a variation here where Cinderella is a boy (Tuhkimus instead of Tuhkimo, the latter is the Finnish name used for the girl, cinders/ash is “tuhka” in Finnish) who ends up marrying a princess. I think the boy version exists also in Sweden and Norway, possibly other areas here too. It’s been a long time since I read it, at least the version I vaguely remember may have had a glass mountain in it, the boy doesn’t get the princess just by being lovely, he needs to do some tasks (but while I am pretty sure there are originals which are real folkloric fairy tales several authors in the 19th and early 20th century wrote their own versions of them too, so I am also not completely sure if the version I remember is one of those or a real old fairy tale).

      • Ashen-lad or Ashboy is how they used to be translated into English, but you don’t usually hear about them these days.

        • Cinderlad in the Lang versions. The issue with them is trying to justify the name by saying he was stupid and played in the fireplace. Which indicates derivative tales.

          • There are a lot of Cinderlad versions. Especially when you don’t require the name. . . there are a lot of Cinderellas who don’t have “Cinder” or a variant in the name.

          • The Finnish version Ashboy seems kind of lazy, he got the name because he liked to sleep on top of the baking oven, usually the warmest spot in the whole house during the winter, and lying or sleeping there is associated with comfort rather than hardship. A poor servant, though, somebody overlooked and made fun of by everybody in the house. The general impression I remember having is that the story is perhaps a mix, maybe some peasant boy story had enough similarities already that some of the Cinderella story elements got overlaid into it when storytellers perhaps remembered the girl story better but tried to tell something for a boy.

      • kenashimame

        Does that tie into the legends/history of Ragnar Lothbrok, whom had to prove himself worthy before marrying the shield-maiden Lagertha?

      • That’s interesting. The only other boy version I’ve come across was called Cinderfella or something.

  14. I inhaled the Andrew Lang color fairy tale books as a girl, it’s nice to know other people have read them too.

    My favorite of all I found in a different book, called Caporushes. It’s one of the Donkey-Skin variants, but without the incest.

    • I grew up on them, too. But my favorite Cinderella is “Tattercoats.” Also from a different book.

    • They were a treat of my own childhood. The Daughter inhaled them as well.

      As if I needed to put anything more on the find and reread list … when I consider it — to be able to read forever? Yes! But then to live forever? Definitely not.

  15. Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

    Pohjalainen’s comment about stories of “canny peasants fooling the devil” brought to mind some English folklore.

    The village of Gotham, Nottinghamshire was said to be a village of fools yet their foolishness may have been done on purpose to fool the powerful. 😉

    • The Other Sean

      Then there’s the time the devil went down to Georgia, looking for souls to steal, and he was way behind, so we was willing to deal. 🙂

      • I ran into the devil and he loaned me twenty bills …

        I set out running but I take my time. A friend of the devil is a friend of mine …

        • kenashimame

          “I spoke to God today, and she said that she’s ashamed.
          What have I become, what have I done?
          I spoke to the Devil today, and he swears he’s not to blame.
          And I understood, cause I feel the same.”

      • kenashimame

        Didn’t he find a young fiddle player, sitting on a tree stump and playing it hot?

        • Randy Wilde

          Yeah, and he went back after losing the first time.

          (love Johnny Cash as the preacher)

      • It has the best violin/fiddle solos and wonderful lyrics.

        What are (Ashkenazic) Jewish folk tales? I’ve read Louis Ginzberg’s Legends of the Jews. However I think that it’s about the Midrash.

  16. One of the reasons i was never a Star Trek fan was the moral of the story beating me over the head. My first encounter was with “Brave Eagle, Chief of the Cheyenne”, which got me tuned into that, and much later “Designing Women” did that after a couple seasons.

  17. American fairy tale, Knights of the Silver Shield.

  18. Folk tales and fairy tales are social programming, when you get down to it. They provide cautionary tales, models for dealing with circumstances that a listener might encounter, and the “meta-aspect” of it all tells you a lot about the culture that the tale originates in.

    Note well that you almost never hear a version of an Arabic genie story where the protagonist makes a choice to aid the genie, and eschew the unearned benefit from that genie’s labor. Instead, the tales are all about how to prevent the genie from cheating you, never questioning the assumption that this unfortunate creature you’ve found penned up in a bottle owes you something. There’s a set of underlying assumptions baked into these tales, that are quite revealing, once you stop and examine them. And, what they have to say about the culture that produces them isn’t at all pretty.

    Stories are programing, pure and simple. How many times do you find people modeling their conduct and reaction to situations on what they’ve seen in television and movies? How many archetypes do we copy, all unassuming, in the course of a given day? Show me the stories you were told as a child, the ones that “spoke to you”, and I think I can hazard a damn good guess as to what sort of person you likely are. Even the wildest tales, like that of Puss in Boots, with a talking cat? They have relevance to how the culture that they came out of expects people to behave, and serve as markers for proper conduct with regards to your mentors and elders.

    What stories are popular with a given milieu will tell you a great deal about that, and whether it’s a question of cause or effect, what is held as an exemplar shows you a great deal about the values and mores of a time and place. Kipling, as discussed the other day: Popular at the height of Empire, when the Victorians were striving to serve as and seek the “good” of Empire. Was Kipling an effect, or a cause? I think that a case can be made that he was a little of both, and that may have been something he came to rue, after seeing where the path led, after WWI.

    Story-tellers have an impact far beyond what they often like to believe: “It’s just a story… It’s harmless…”. Yeah. I have to blame Heinlein for a great deal of my social positioning and attitudes; saying his stories were “just stories” would be a lie. What we write has life beyond what goes on paper; who knows the end-point of second-order inspiration and influence, with regards to any author, let alone a great one like Shakespeare or Heinlein?

    • Cultural context is important. And that includes hearing the stories that inspire the stories that we read. I think we’re in danger of losing that context in the “West” because the initial stories that we used to assume everyone knew (the Bible, the non-disneyfied fairy tales …) are no longer known and as a result the younger generation don’t grasp the real intent behind some of the later stories.

      Consider for example PG Wodehouse. He just assumes that his readers have a distant memory of studying latin as well as the bible, the 1666 Anglican prayer book, various Anglican hymns, Shakespeare etc.

      It seems to me that as familiarity with these things is lost, he becomes a lot less funny and a lot less politically biting too – there’s generally a layer of more serious stuff under the wit if you dig for it, but it helps to be able to understand the clues as to where to dig

      • Exactly – whole frames of reference, which need to be unspoken – baked into the cake, as it were. I remember that I wanted to take a class in Roman and Greek lit, when I was in college, so as to get a better grasp of all those classical references in stuff written from the Elizabethan period on …

    • Kirk, not really social programming. These are so old they have fossilized bits embedded. So much of “ask the horse” and wearing horse skins almost for sure speak ancient horse worship. And in a lot of them (the really old ones) the moral is ambiguous.

      • Sarah, the kinda thing I’m getting at is the syndrome you see so often in situations in the military–Young guys (and, girls…), thrust into their first leadership positions, and what do they do? They mimic, monkey-see, monkey-do, what they’ve seen in film, in what they’ve read, and what they have observed. What’s odd is that the “popular culture” stuff sometimes seems to be more powerful than what they have personally observed. I think it goes to what someone sees first–If they saw someone do something in a movie, as a kid, before joining the service? That seems to take precedence over examples their leaders may have set for them, deliberately. I don’t know why this is so, but it seems to be damned influential. I swear this to you–I can’t even enumerate the number of times I’ve seen the essentials of a movie scene played out in front of me by some of these kids, and I’ve even caught myself doing the same damn thing. It’s not necessarily that you’re copying the script exactly, but more a replaying of the attitudes and language, the cadence of the event.

        I can’t recall where I saw this, but there’s a family counselor who wrote about how we often go through life playing out “scripts” we see and experience as children in adult life, often without realizing it. Mom and Dad argued and fought over this issue, in this manner? Well, gee… When we encounter that identical situation/scenario in our own lives, the mimic portion of our “behavioral director” tends to cast around for “How did we see this handled by Mom and Dad…”, and, bang, zoom–You’re replaying the same scene Mom and Dad played out before you as a child, but with your own spouse. I’ve seen stuff like this often enough in my own life that I’m convinced there is some validity to the idea, and that we take in this “programming” from a lot of other aspects in life, not the least of which is storytelling. The thing is, the really powerful stuff is what we see and experience in multiple ways, like on the movie screen, where there is visual, auditory, and other cues we pick up from the audience around us. A really powerful movie, one that presents as “fundamentally true” can influence behaviors profoundly, and a long ways away from the theater.

        Usually, this plays out most often in stressful circumstances, which is why I’ve seen scenes from “Platoon” and other powerful war movies played out in emotional terms in front of me when junior NCOs encounter their first stressful situation. Decades ago, they modeled themselves on John Wayne’s SGT Stryker, and now it’s any one of a half-dozen different characters.

        Put into stressful, unfamiliar circumstances, a part of us tends to cast about for past experiences to use as an operating script for how to deal with the new situation. Absent actual relevant experience personally witnessed, like Dad dealing with a house fire, we seem to start moving down the tree from actual observed experiences to ones we’ve seen in movies, to less vivid mediums, and they all have the same feature of being “stories”.

        I’m convinced that a lot of fairy tales and other traditional stories are actually attempts to harness this fact of the human psyche, and have the effect of reinforcing social mores and values, along with providing “guides to proper conduct”. There’s a reason that most totalitarian governments first grab control of the media, and strive to keep those media putting out the party line. In the old days, media often consisted of the local village storyteller, who was, all unknowing, a major repository of these cultural scripts and cues. The more immersive the media, the more influential, because the closer it comes to real life, the more likely it is to have this impact on us.

        Gaining awareness of these “scripts” we keep in our subconscious is a major key to being self-aware, and prevents you from replaying ad nauseum the family pathologies you grew up with, in a dysfunctional family. It’s something I’ve seen dozens of times, played out in successive generations, where the parties play the same role in the same scene, time after time… They argue in the same way, over the same things, and it is just bizarre how self-unaware most people are with regards to this. I’ve caught myself, more than a few times, going “Sweet Jeebus… I’ve turned into Dad…”. And, I’m pretty sure I know precisely why: Mimicry, and a lack of conscious awareness of my subconscious cue-card holder pulling up the script I may have first observed as a toddler.

        Story-tellers may now have only a tertiary level of impact, behind actual observed events, immersive experiences like movies, and other things, but the stories we tell each other are still things of impact, that we store up and recall when we are dealing with never-before experienced situations and problems. We think “Where have I seen this before…?”, and the next thing we know, there we are, playing out the scene we remember.

        • That seems to take precedence over examples their leaders may have set for them, deliberately. I don’t know why this is so, but it seems to be damned influential.

          How many times did you get incredibly horrible advice from a superior?

          How many times did you see even good advice be used and play out horribly?

          When you “see” it in a movie, it doesn’t play out quite as messy. 😀

          • Humans live by narrative.

            • Exactly… And, where do most of us get our narrative guidance for things we’ve never experienced? Yeah… The third-hand storyteller, talking about how Luke Skywalker dealt with finding out his dad was a murdering psychopath…

              So, when you go looking around in your back-consciousness for cues, what do we find? Star Wars, or any of the other archetypical stories.

          • MMMmmmmm… I’m getting at a different thing than advice. It’s more a “meta” thing–“How do I handle this situation…?”. Not so much the actual means of “handling it”, but the manner in which the handling is done.

            In example–Classic scene of NCO dealing with disobedient troops, who aren’t doing what he wants them to do? Bam… Cue up the classic R. Lee Ermey ranting scene, getting up in their faces and screaming. It’s not so much what they do to deal with the situation, although that does come into it, it’s the “how do I act” part, more than anything else.

            You don’t always see this stuff in low-pressure, day-to-day life, but let the fit hit the shan, and boy… You start to see some really weird reactions out of people, especially from those folks who haven’t had to handle crisis in their lives a lot.

            I’m an atypical person, in that I had a lot of stressful bullshit in my life long before I joined the Army, and my reaction to things going seriously south in the service usually included a lot of what other people considered inappropriate laughter and humor–“Hey, Staff Sergeant Jacobs… Your supply room is on fire, dude…”, which was delivered with a kinda offhand manner, I suppose. He didn’t take me seriously, at first, because my delivery wasn’t all panicky or freaked out–He thought I was joking, and I had to go “No, seriously, dude–The place is on fire, you might want to go do something about it…”. I’d already called the fire department, hit the alarm, and got the building evacuated, and Jacobs was already at formation, where I walked up to him and told him that. Took him a couple of seconds to realize I wasn’t screwing with him–We’d been joking about burning that place to the ground for about a month, trying to get the supply records straightened out…

            Other people, though? Yeah… I’d watch them react to stuff, and you could almost see the wheels turning for “How do I act, for this…?”. It’s really apparent when you’re an Observer/Controller for exercises or training events–You can get to the point where you know they’re going to be taken aback, and that’s when the “behavior director” starts rummaging around in the mental files for “how do I react…” clues.

            • Consider how many times we see people acting out “Love” the way they’ve seen it portrayed on film — or feeling sure they are not experiencing love because it does not resemble how they’ve seen it portrayed. Many of us spend so much of our lives watching films and television that it has replaced societal elders as a source of modeling our roles.

            • Yep. It’s the invisible assumptions. There’s a movie called The American President that I saw three times, first in the theatre, and then on television, before it dawned on me that the entire plot conflict went away if the two protagonists had merely gotten engaged before having sex.

              And I was raised in a counter-culture that taught fornication was serious error, matrimony the ideal, had two superb human beans as parents to model the thing AND chanced to be an outsider-weirdo-born-contrary type.

              And I didn’t spot it. God knows what kind of blindspots the generations of normal socially-adjusted kids who’ve been marinated in cultural Marxism AND cut off from the cultural heritage of the West have got

              But it explains a lot about the kind of ground level ethical errors I see. Even from people we assume ought to know better. Maybe especially, even: they do not know what they do not know .

              We have a lot of work to do.

        • Data point: studies have measured the degree to which [films of a prurient nature] affect real life behaviour, such as removal of body hair from areas which do’n benefit from shaving, waxing or depilatories and engaging in various activities that no sensible person would imagine doing but which suit the filmmakers’ intent.

          • I also remember the shift in billboard advertising that occurred for certain…hmmmmm…vendors that occurred after a Twilight fanfic got made into a movie.

    • The Little Red Hen, The Goose Girl, and The Pokey Little Puppy… Oy.

  19. kenashimame

    A lot of these stories may be older than we expect:

  20. For a California flavor, Jaime de Anglo’s Indian Tales (and other works) and Theodora Kroeber’s The Inland Whale are very good.

    And (I know, Bettelheim, but it’s thought provoking) The Uses of Enchantment.

  21. Socialist/Communist Fairy tale – It failed because it was implemented by the wrong people. Trust us, this time it will work.

    And/Or – It failed due to wreckers and kulaks. Kill them all, and we will create Utopia.

    Big Government Fairy Tale – We failed because we did not have enough money. Give us more and we will succeed eventually.