Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Where in the world is Juanita Harrison?

She had me at the title, really.
I love reading travel journals; the older, the better, and extra great if it was written by a woman. I came across Juanita Harrison's book by accident, but even before I clicked on the free ebook, the title already sold it:

There is so much love and joy in that title, there was no question whether I was going to like this book.
And then it got better.

Here is what we know about Juanita Harrison: She was born around 1891 in Mississippi, she was a woman of color, she worked various jobs in the US and Cuba, until in 1927, at the age of 36, she decided to travel around the world, so she packed up a suitcase, got on a ship, and set out on a 7 year adventure.

And then it gets even better.

Here are some things I absolutely adore about Juanita:
(Yes, this book is the grammar pedant's worst nightmare, which makes it even more awesome)

1. She is not a rich lady waltzing around the world. She calls herself a "rover"; she freelances wherever she goes, taking odd jobs to earn money. Whenever she has enough for the next leg of the journey, she quits immediately, and "loafs around", enjoying her vacation, until the money runs out.

2. She values fun over objects. She regularly gets rid of her entire suitcase (once she gifts it to a maid at a house she works at), and she only ever mentions buying two frivolous things: Postcards, and books. See why I like her yet?

3. Talking about books: Wherever she goes, Juanita visits the local library to read about the places she is visiting. She also spends time in various libraries for fun.

4. In general, she spends on adventures rather than things:

"I left New York with a ten dollar hat on my head but it rained so often in London and Scotland that it have taken all the life out of it I thought of buying another but for that money I can go into so many grand old castles and manisons that I can still see beauty in it."

She runs to save the taxi money for the opera, and when she finds some coins on the ground, she goes back to the world fair a second time to look around. She takes dance lessons in Spain, goes to public baths in Japan (and shows off her pink bra), visits cabarets and festivals, and especially enjoys crashing local weddings and funerals to see what they are like...

5. She claims her space and she does not apologize for it.

"I got a passage on the Orient Line on a lovely boat and they say the 3rd Class are as good as the second on the other lines. I gave my likes and dislikes a Cabin without children and uper berth, and will be ready to fight to get what I want once on boad so no one need piety me."

6. She sets her boundaries and sticks to them.

"I dont want anyone fooling with my room rent, my room is my personal self they can give me my food or little presents but I dont want any one to be able to come to my room."

7. She decorates her spaces, even when she only lives in them for a few days; she hangs curtains, buys flowers, and scrubs the floors. The short time while she works at a mental institute for children in Spain, she makes sure they get new, nicer pots.

8. She has a great deal of common sense. She sews pockets to her "bloomers", never lets her passport out of her hand, scrubs washing basins before she uses them, shops at local markets, and always pretends to stay at a hotel when someone walks her "home."

9. She punches men who try to hit on her too aggressively. Apparently, she has a mean upper cut.

10. She does not hate men, however, and is also not afraid of them. In fact, she enjoys flirting, and makes comments about the men of various countries, especially the really hot ones.

"I like best to tease with the handsome blue caped policeman, because when I have heard enough I can step away from his beat which he can not leave."

11. She takes deep, absolute, and pure enjoyment in everything she does. She walks barefoot in the grass around the Taj Mahal, and takes a nap in the shade. She drinks fresh milk in the Netherlands while watching the sunrise. She takes everything as an adventure; she climbs a lamppost to get a look at the Spanish Queen, laughs herself silly on a ship tossed around by a typhoon in Japan, and seriously considers getting arrested in Germany just to see what that's like. Even seasickness is registered as "fun" in her journal.

12. She is perfectly happy and content with traveling alone. She turns down several traveling companions (men and women alike), and does everything on her own time, in her own way, and exactly as long as she wants to.

13. She never has a bad word about any nation or culture. She calls most of them "gentle and kind," and goes out of her way to spend time with people, even when they try to put her with the "European" passengers. She prays, but she always prays in whatever church, temple, synagogue, or mosque is the nearest; she is open to learning about other people's ideas.

"another Gentlean a Very smart Professor and a strong Buddish He talked for 2 hours to me on that faith and I was so thankful it was just what I wanted to hear I sat very quiet and took it all in he spoke about it said I was a good listner as most Christians argue."

14. In 1935, she settles down in Hawaii. Her way of settling down involves buying a tent (grandly named Villa Petit Peep) that she can carry in a bundle on her head, and moving around whenever she feels like it. This is what she says about settling down:

Well never in all my life have I slept so wonderful as in my Tent the 4 holes in each of the windows where the ropes drow up the Shade make 12 holes and when the light is out and the door and Windows closed the lights of the street shine through the holes and on to the Top of my Tent and it look just like the Stars. I'll get a serfe boad and Take a few Hula lessons just to add gayness to that list of things the check bought. 
 I want alway to be where wealth health youth beauty and gayness are altho I need very little for myself I just want to be in the midst of it. 1 have reversed the saying of Troubles are like Babies the more you nurse them the bigger They grow so I have nursed the joys.


Just as she appeared on the stage of world literature, Juanita gracefully stepped off of it. We don't know what happened to her after the book was published. We don't even have a picture of her. She wandered the world for 7 years between the two world wars, seeing it as the most beautiful place to be, living every day as the most beautiful day to be alive.

We should be teaching this, for so many reasons. Juanita Harrison should be on reading lists everywhere. We should be talking about a world traveler who did not discover, research, or exploit; we should be talking about a woman (of color) who traveled alone by choice and was not ashamed or afraid for one minute of it. We should be talking about how she had no grammar or punctuation, and yet she lived for libraries and the opera. We should celebrate her empathy and her friendliness, her confidence, her sheer joy and her insatiable curiosity.
Or, at the very least, some Literature major should look into what happened to her after she landed in Hawaii. I would love to know.

Let's remember Juanita Harrison.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Troubles with creation (Following folktales around the world 62. - Bulgaria)

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!

Bulgarian Folktales
Assen Nicoloff
Cleveland, 1979.

The volume contains (as stated by the introduction) exactly 82 stories - 12 animal tales, 19 wonder tales, 23 legends, and 28 anecdotes. They were all selected from various 19th century collections, and translated by the editor - the language occasionally feels a little surprising to a reader of folktales, being peppered with terms like "buddy," "oldster," and "okay." I wasn't sure if that was a thing of translation, or based on the original casual language of the stories.
The introduction paints a detailed picture of the Bulgarian oral tradition, and the history of folklore collections in the country. At the end of the book we find copious end notes for each tale (including sources and tale types), a glossary, a bibliography, and an index. It is a well edited, well-selected collection.


Dobri the Kind Woodcutter was an endearing tale on account of its kind, gentle protagonist. The woddcutter was nice to all animals, and gained magic powers as a result; he was able to make a suffering kingdom thrive again. He never used his powers for evil, but did use them to punish an evil queen - by turning her into a screech owl.
The Flying Horse is a colorful, exciting variant of the famous Ebony Horse of the 1001 Nights (I included that story in my own book as well). In this story, a young boy creates the magic wooden horse to prove that he is better than his master - then immediately attempts to destroy it so that it can't get into evil hands. The second half of the story reminded me of another favorite of mine, the Jewish tale of the Rebel Princess, where a girl becomes a king, and uses her power to teach a lesson to people who treated her badly during her journeys.
Dragons in love in Varna
The tale of Uncle Trak and the Last Dragon made me kind of sad. It told about the age of great dragon warriors who were brave in battle and gallant with mortal women (and even moved their scaly tails so that the girls could sit next to them). The appearance of gunpowder ended their time, and the last of their kind was unceremoniously cooked in a pot by the sly Uncle Trak. I have never seen such a depressing variant of the "poor man and the ogre" before...
I found several delightful stories among the legends. In How the world was created, God competed against a devil named Anastasius; the latter poked holes in people while they were still freshly made of clay, and thus the soul kept leaking out of them. There was also a legend about Why the sky is high, which resembled many tales from Oceania (You're Welcome!). I was especially amused by When and how people were created. In it, God created the first few humans from clay by his own hand, with great attention to detail; but then he discovered that he could create them faster with the use of molds, and switched to mass production - except the molded people were not quite perfect anymore. I also learned Why the Sun does not get married - apparently, people convinced him that marriage sucks, in order to avoid having a bunch of baby suns in the sky, burning up the earth. In another tale, Hedgehog crashed the celestial wedding party, and the Sun gave him spines for self-defense, since all other animals were angry about missing the event.
Among the historical legends, the most interesting was that of Rumena Voivoda, a 19th century woman who left her son and husband at home to go and lead a band of robbers in rsistance against the Turks. The enemy feared her, the Bulgarians loved her, and she was called the Queen of the Mountains. (They made a movie about her last year!)


One of the local tricksters, like in the Ukraine, is a female fox called Kuma Lisa; she spends most of her time tricking Wolf. There were other familiar animal tales as well - that of the Brementown musicians (Animals' flight to the forest), where old Ox built a house and all the others begged to be let in, or that of the Mouse and the Mole, where Mouse wanted to marry her daughter to the strongest being in the world (which turned out to be the Mole). Next to Kuma Lisa, there was also a human trickster in the book, named Sly Peter.
Three Brothers and the Golden Apple was the familiar tale of apples being stolen every night. This time, the culprit was a dragon, stealing apples for his daughters; the youngest prince followed it into the underworld. Since only two apples had been stolen, the third girl was playing with a golden rat instead... Unlike other tales of this time, in this one the hero descended one level even deeper, and defeated another dragon, before returning to our world. Dragons also featured into The Dragon and the Tsar's Daughter, a unique variant of the shoes that were danced to pieces. In it, the princess went out every night to... play ball with a dragon.
The Shepherd and the Fox was a variant of Puss in Boots; interestingly, the (female) fox was actually a friend of the Lamia-monster that they evicted from the castle in the end. There were also other familiar fairy tale types, such as Godfather Death, and the story of Why old people are not killed anymore. There were actually several related stories about respect for elders, and also quite a few tales about clever girls and women.

Upcoming Bulgarian cartoon series based on folklore!
Where to next?

Monday, March 5, 2018

Flowers and gemstones (Following folktales around the world 61. - Romania)

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!

Szegény ember okos leánya
Román népmesék
Kovács Ágnes (szerk.)
Európa Könyvkiadó, 1974.

Yet another volume of our wonderful Tales of Nations series, and once again a very valuable collection. It contains fourteen beautiful, elaborate Romanian fairy tales selected from 19th century sources. In the afterword, folklorist Ortutay Gyula explains that while Hungarian storytellers for example tend to focus on action and dialogue, Romanian tellers took pleasure in detailed, exquisite descriptions. This definitely shows in the tales, and I loved every minute of it. Of course the book contains notes for each story, complete with sources, tale types, and comparable Hungarian variants.


Since most of the tales belonged to well-known types, the highlights mostly came from small details and elaborations within the stories. For example, in the story of Calin the Fool, the hero fell in love with the middle (!) sister - out of princesses of copper, silver, and gold, he chose silver. In The Man Turned to Stone, the magical helper of the heroes was the Spring Breeze. His mother hid the heroes (under the wings of an emerald-eyed and diamond-beaked magic bird) when he came home. Spring Breeze was a youth with golden hair and silver wings, carrying a staff covered in flowers and vines, smelling like roses and rosemary. He drank doe milk and violet water for dinner. In the same story, the heroes rode a fairy carriage to the princess' palace, a palace of sapphire with a door made of cypress wood.
As a whole, I think my favorite tale was that of Tugulea, Son of Old Man and Old Woman. It began with a dragon queen stealing the boy's sinews at birth, because she was afraid he'd kill her when he grew up. The crippled hero could not walk, but he learned how to shapeshift, turned into a bird, and eventually got his sinews back (and killed the dragon queen). The story from here turned into that of the Extraordinary Helpers - Tugulea had companions who could eat and drink a lot, withstand freezing cold, and do magic. The latter came in handy when one of the tasks posed to the hero was that he had to make fifty barren women have babies in one night (hello, Hercules). The magician did the trick "with the power of his magic wand."
At the end of the volume there was also a more "modern" fairy tale, in which The Fairy of the Waters did not only help the hero succeed, but they also ended feudalism in the process...


Georges Rochegrosse:
Le Chevalier aux Fleurs
The title story, The Poor Man's Clever Daughter, was that of the common tale type - a long and elaborate version. Youth without old age and life without death was a lovely and complex variant of the prince seeking immortality - in this case, he had to fight several witches on the way, including one named Scorpion. Fairy Ilona was a similarly long and beautifully detailed variant of the princess who turns into a prince.
After the Ukraine and Moldova, I once again encountered the story of the sister who is kidnapped by a dragon while bringing food to her brothers to the fields where they work. She is rescued by her late-born little brother and his friend (in this case, Peter Peppercorn and Florea of the Flowers). I especially liked the figure of the Knight of Flowers who became a close friend to the hero.

Where to next?

Monday, February 26, 2018

Dragons are people too (Following folktales around the world 60. - Moldova)

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!

Moldavian Folk-tales
Grigore Botezatu
Literatura Artistika, 1986.

If you don't like your folktale collections peppered with short anecdotes, local legends, and weird little folk narratives, then you will love this book: Almost all of the 34 stories included are classic, long, elaborate, complex fairy tales. Towards the middle of the volume it almost got a little tedious to work through them, but they are so full of interesting details that it was definitely worth the read (and there are some refreshing shorter tales at the end). Sadly, the book doesn't offer any sources or additional information on the stories, and the introduction is fairly short too. In addition, the print book is riddled with errors: There are typos, editing mistakes, and several pages were out of order, so I had to flip back and forth (which was not always easy to notice, given the repetitive nature of fairy tales). Still, the stories were exciting and intriguing, so they mostly made up for the frustration.


The most interesting story in the book was The Gold Crown. In it, a dragon threatened to devour a lad on his way to his wedding; the lad prayed to the Sun, Wind, and Earth, to save him - but none of them did. They each explained why they can't go out of the natural order just to save one mortal. The Earth even said that dragons are creatures of the earth too, their life can't be cut short to save a human. Boom. (The lad was eventually saved by his mother).
Another, simple yet stunning story was that of the Old Hazelnut Tree. A tree begged a squirrel to save some of the nuts so that new trees could grow, but the squirrel refused. Then, suddenly a fox ate the squirrel, and then a dog ate the fox... and things cascaded from there in a chain until the tree fell down and the whole forest burned down... and from the ashes, new trees started growing. I have never seen a chain tale this dark.
The book ends with the short but witty tale of The Earned Ducat. In it, a father gets his son to learn the value of money before he can get married.
There were several stories that belonged to familiar types, but contained details that caught my attention anyway. In The tale of Aliman, the Green King's son, a princess simply slapped the false princes pretending to be her true love. In the same story, said true prince didn't kill his enemies - rather, he cut them into good parts and bad parts with a sword, and then revived the good parts again. In Dragan-the-Bold, the hero who ventured into the underworld returned via the magic apple tree of Grandfather Valerian. The Nameless Warrior (one of those Mulan-type stories) ended with an unexpected twist: The girl escaped from an evil dragon suitor, and turned into a swallow; the new bride also escaped, and turned into a cat. They lived happily ever after as friends.
I was a little disturbed that the magical helper in Break-of-Day was not a wolf or a fox (as usual, see Ivan Tsarevits, etc.), but a "Black Arab" with magical powers (such as killing off a princess' poisonous garden). The story had a lovely moment though, when the "hero" was totally willing to hand the rescued princess off to an underworld demon king that "ordered" her - the helper, seeing the girl in distress, figured out a way to save her anyway.


I was very happy to find yet another variant of that tale type where the clever girl saves herself and her two sisters from a monster (Laurel the Monster and the Three Princesses). I have encountered this in the Scandinavian countries.
The Evening Star and the Morning Star was a lovely variant of the tale of the Prince who was looking for immortality (combined with some magical hide-and-seek). In the end, since Death and the princess could not decide who should get him, they set him in the sky, and his wife joined him - they both became stars. Similarly beautiful was the story of Alistar, a version of the Treasures of the Giant with a shapeshifting hero, who was guided along by a princess who had been cursed into a candle, always burning, but never giving warmth.
The Feather-king was a version of Puss in Boots - with an unexpected ending where Puss set the castle of the ungrateful lad on fire, and walked away to live as a feral cat in the woods (gritty remake, anyone?...). The shepherd's clever daughter was a nice and elaborate version of the common folktale type, combining all the usual trials and elements, while the aptly titled He who thinks pie will fall from the sky won't rise very high was a variant of one of my favorite tale types where the foolish man was actually devoured by the wolf at the end.
I also fount the Moldavian counterpart of the Ukrainian Poor Danilo - named John the Poor. In this case, he did not only have a series of misfortunes, but he also got to take revenge for them on Frost, birds, wolves, and other natural disasters in the end.

Where to next?

Monday, February 19, 2018

Giants, vampires, lady foxes (Following folktales around the world 59. - Ukraine)

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!

Ukrainian Folk Tales
Anatole Bilenko
Dnipro Publishers, 1974.

This English-language volume, published in the Soviet era, contains twenty folktales from the Ukraine. Some have origins specified by region ("Transcarpathian folktale", "Bukovinian folktale"), but other than those, we don't learn much about their backgrounds. The text sometimes reads odd, like something not translated by a native English speaker, using phrases that are amusingly out of context for the tales. The book is illustrated in black-white-gold drawings. Entertaining read, but other than a few footnotes, not very useful for further research.


The best story in the book was The Poor Man and His Sons, in which a boy, chased away from home by his father, was raised by a wise giant, and sent out on quests to defeat vampires and save kingdoms. I also liked The Poor Man and the Raven Czar, a tale of haunting imagery, in which a poor man did not unwittingly promise his son away, and the magic mill did not end up sinking into the ocean.
The most amusing of the animal tales was The Goat and the Ram - a smart but small goat, and a strong but cowardly ram ran away together, and managed to outwit a bunch of wolves. I could almost see the Pixar movie...
The tale of Oh was essentially that of the Sorcerer's Apprentice, with some really nice embellishments. A lazy boy was trained by the dwarf king Oh in an underground kingdom, burned and revived multiple times until he turned into a shapeshifting hero. Ilya Muromets and the Nightingale Robber were already familiar to me; I included that story in my own book, because of the robber's unique ability to create a sonic blast with his whistle.
I also liked Boris Son O'Three for his name: The abandoned boy was raised by three brothers who all loved him like a son, so they named him "Son of Three [Fathers]". Yay for non-traditional family models!


In a very amusing variant of the Fox and the Wolf, a vixen named Foxy-Loxy outwitted a (male) wolf in several classic ways (tail trapped in the ice, etc.), in order to punish him for breaking the sledge she had made herself. She also featured into the story of Pan Kotsky, the tomcat that became the ruler of the forest by scaring the wits out of all animals (after shacking up with the vixen). And it was also the clever fox-girl who ended up devouring the runaway Kolobok the Johnnycake (a Ukrainian version of the gingerbread boy). I am not entirely sure what was translated into English as johnnycake, though.

Where to next?

Monday, February 12, 2018

A basketful of Belarusian folktales (Following folktales around the world 58. - Belarus)

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!

For the second time over the course of this challenge, I have run into a country where I could not locate a folktale collection in any of the languages I speak. As a result, I tracked down several Belarusian folktales from various sources, and I am presenting all of them below. Some were in Hungarian, and some in English.

The gifts of the storm
Belarusian version for the common folktale type of the magical tablecloth and the gold-pooping sheep, except this time it is not God who gives them to the poor man, but rather the Storm, who feels guilty for scattering the poor man's flour.

The peasant and the nobleman
Another classic folktale, about the poor man that brings a gift to the king and the noble only lets him in if he promises to share the king's rewards with him. So the peasant asks for a hundred lashes, and generously shares them with the noble (to the king's great amusement).

The wicked wizard's servant
A variant of the Magic Flight, with a boy unwittingly promised to an evil wizard, and ultimately rescued by the handmaid who works for the same evil master.

The fox. the wold, and the bell
The fox receives a bell from a man, the wolf borrows the bell and loses it. Man is so angry that his gift was disrespected that he chases the animals into the woods, and they have been afraid of the sound of bells ever since. Reverse Pavlov...

The piece of gold
A clever peasant pretends that he has a valuable piece of gold, and tricks the landlord into treating him as a noble guest.

The wolf and the she-wolf

She-wolf claims that she is invisible to humans - they only see wolf (the male). To prove her point she runs out of the woods, and people stat screaming "wolf! wolf!" I am assuming this tale got lost in translation, and it originally played on wolf and she-wold being two different words, and people not being able to tell make from female.

The redhead and the bald man
A man is cheated by a red-headed innkeeper, but a bald man helps him trick the innkeeper to give the money back. Once again, a play on language: The bald man asks the innkeeper "How much does your flank cost?" and when he gets the price, he proceeds to try to cut the flank off the innkeeper.

Wits over strenght
A woodcutter tricks a bear into putting his paw in the wedge of a tree, therefore proving that he can defeat the beast without having to wrestle it.

The spotted hen
Chain story in which the hen's eggs break, therefore all other animals succumb to mass hysteria, and eventually the bear loses his tail.

How hen saved rooster
Chain story in which hen saves rooster from a bean he choked on by starting a chain reaction and getting him some water.

Fox and heron
Classic animal fable: Fox feeds Heron from a plate, Heron feeds Fox from a bottle, they both go hungry in the end.

Where to next?

Monday, February 5, 2018

Mythic marriage, mythic divorce (Following folktales around the world 57. - Lithuania)

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!

A csodamalom
Balti népmesék
Bojtár Endre, Bojtár Anna, Nagy Ilona
Akadémiai Kiadó, 1989.

This book is the fist publication that contained Lithuanian folktales translated into Hungarian. It also has some Latvian stories, but I already read a separate book for that, so in this one, I focused on the 44 Lithuanian folktales included. The volume contains an afterword about Lithuanian (and Latvian) history an culture, a glossary, and a tale type index, so it is a fairly informative book to read. The stories themselves did not really enchant me as a whole, but there were, of course, some wonderful highlights that made it worth the read.
(For English speakers, I recommend this book, or this one)


The most intriguing story in the book, that of Perkunas and the Prince, is a Beauty and the Beast variant - except the youngest daughter is given away to Perkunas, the God of Thunder himself. When the father changes his mind, the god destroys his lands, and all around behaves like a storm deity could be expected to behave. He did reconcile with his wandering wife in the end. On the other hand, the theme was definitely divorce in Why the Sun shines during the day and the Moon at night, in which the celestial couple decided to separate, but they had to agree on custody for their daughter - the Earth. That is why half the time one watches over her, and half the other.
The Magic Duck combined two of my favorite tale types: That of the boys who can spit gold (I included a Mongolian version of that in my book, because it's such a unique superpower), and that of Fortunatus, where magic fruit grows antlers on the mean princess' head. Similarly complex and fascinating was the tale of The youth and the snake, in which an enchanted snake-princess trained the wandering hero in swordsmanship (and also civilized behavior, because he was "like a bear"). After the youth was almost murdered by a princess they forced to marry him, he returned to marry the snake girl instead.
I loved the tale of Death deceived for its unique characters. It is a classic story about trapping Death in a water skin - except Death in this case was a "large woman," and she also had a sister, who determined people's fate in the hour of their birth (I'm assuming she was Destiny). I have seen someone like her in an Irish tale before, called the Queen of the Planets.


The tale of The enchanted girl and the dragon was a reverse Cupid and Psyche: It was the girl who visited her husband in secret at night, until he spied on her - at which point she threw him out the window. He had to defeat a dragon to get back into her good graces. Bonus points to the story because the death of the dragon dried up the sea, and that is how America was born. (Yup, it says so in the story).
The tale of Unlucky Jonas was mostly the same as the Devil's three golden hairs, and the Merciful son combined two popular tale types about respecting the elders - it was a story in which old people were ordered to die, but one man hid his old father, and managed to help the king following his sage advice.
Because we are still in the Baltic countries, of course there was a Magic Mill, explaining why the sea is salty.

Where to next?

Thursday, February 1, 2018

NEW BOOK! Dancing on Blades: Rare and Exquisite Folktales from the Carpathian Mountains

This Folklore Thursday's theme is "Your favorite folk and fairy tales" - and I am in the very lucky position that I have many of mine in one place. On a related note: My new folktale collection is out!

Dancing on Blades
Rare and Exquisite Folktales from the Carpathian Mountains
Csenge Virág Zalka
Parkhurst Brothers Publishers, 2018.
Find it on Amazon, find it on Bookdepository

This book contains 30 folktales from my favorite traditional storyteller, Anna Pályuk (nicknamed Anica, 1858-1951?). She was a Rusyn woman who married into a Hungarian family, and told her tales in Hungarian. In her stories, the magical world of the Carpathians mingles with her own boundless creativity, and eye for natural beauty. I have been telling these stories from ten years, and I am absolutely in love with them.

Here are my five favorite folklorific details about the book:

The subtitle
I was having trouble trying to encompass the "ethnic identity" of these tales. They are included in the Hungarian folktale catalog, but Anica herself was Rusyn. At the time of the collecting, the village where she lived belonged to 5 different countries within the span of 20 years, so it would have been hard to assign just one country of origin. The historic region, Transcarpathia, is too obscure to be written on a cover... In the end, I stuck with what describes the tales best: The mountains of Anica's childhood, and the backdrop of many of her tales, the Carpathians.

The cover art
The image for the cover was created by Katalin Jámbor. She hid some symbols in the skirt and the backdrop that directly relate to stories in the book.

The archives
Out of the 100 folktales recorded from Anica, only about 35 have ever been published before (and none in English). I went digging in the archives of the Hungarian Museum of Ethnography for the thick folder of hand-typed papers that contained the rest. Half of the stories in this book have never appeared in print before, either in Hungarian or in any other language. Which baffles me, because some of my favorites are among them.

The fan favorites 
I put "rare and exquisite" in the title, and I mean it. Among many others, you'll find in this book...
... a variant of Rumpelstiltskin (The Cheerful Prince) that features a compassionate female helper, a gentle and loving prince, and a smart, strong, kind mother-in-law.
... a variant of the Dancing Princesses tale type (The Shoe-shredding Princesses) which contains a slowly budding love story between the youngest princess and the shepherd boy.
... a variant of the False Bride tale type where the false bride is respected and loved (The Maiden with the Red-Gold Hair)
... a love story between a jaded mortal man, and a Fairy Queen who keeps forgetting about things (The Dream of the Fairy Queen)
... a tale about a princess who can't walk, but becomes Queen of the Cloud Kingdom in the end (The Daughter of the Táltos King), and a corresponding story about The Boy Who Wanted to Walk on the Clouds.

The permissions
I really want to see these tales known and appreciated by more people. I want them to travel and take new shapes and be a part of the international storytelling tradition. So, the book contains a blanket permission for the telling of these tales (while the publisher still holds the rights for recording or printing). My secret dream is that eventually, one day, I'll run into someone telling one of them at an event.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Museum Storytelling: Paleolithic Tales

With the new year, I embark on a new adventure: A storytelling series in collaboration with the Hungarian National Museum! I match storytelling programs to temporary and permanent exhibitions, telling to family audiences regularly. Since museum storytelling has always been one of my top favorite things to do, I was preparing for the inaugural event with a lot of excitement!

Since we planned to do the series in a vaguely chronological order, the first performance took place in the first, paleolithic hall of the museum's permanent archaeological exhibit. The question immediately arose: What should a storyteller do in the absence of "authentic" sources for caveman folklore? As much as I would love to know what tales were told to little cavemen thousands of years ago, I had to turn elsewhere to build my repertoire for the program.

Here is the thing: Even though we don't have tales from the prehistoric era, we do have tales all around the world about things that happened in those times. Humans have always wondered, and told stories, about how we got fire, how we made friends with the dog, tamed the horse, and many other things that happened too long ago to really remember. So, for my first show in the museum, I picked out a handful of these stories, and created a program titled Fire Thieves.

The program originally included a list of 10-12 stories, out of which 5 were told in the one-hour show (selected on the spot based on the audience's interests and reaction, as usual). I started out with the Ilocano Fire Thieves story from the Philippines, a classic teamwork tale where a trickster and animals work together in a running relay to get fire from two evil giants. The kids (5-10 years old) enjoyed the participation where they got to make animal sounds and mimic running. We also talked about how and when taming the fire probably happened in human history. Next, I told a Kamba folktale from the Congo about how Dog and Jackal used to be friends, until Dog wandered into a human camp, and decided to stay there. The kids were very enthusiastic in making desperate jackal sounds. Since w already tamed the dog, they obviously wanted to know about horses next - so I told them the legend of Sasruquo and the Wild Stallion from the Nart sagas, which not only contains a very interesting hero, but also an early real-life technique for breaking a wild horse by riding it into a river.
The last two stories of the show were both folktales about ancient clay pots being found in the ground. One was from Sabah on Borneo, about a large jar that turned into a mischievous mangas dragon, and the other from Papua New-Guinea that explained why people keep finding shards of pottery underground. The archaeologists present were greatly amused at both.

All in all, I had a great audience for the show. It was by registration only, and filled up very fast; we ended up with 25 people, give or take some museum staff and wandering visitors. The kids were mostly between 5 and 10 with some younger siblings, and they were not only interested and engaged in the stories - but also had some cool archaeological questions throughout the show. I was glad that I was able to use my (8 year old, mint condition) Archaeology MA in answering them.

Museum storytelling is still one of my favorite gigs to do. I am really looking forward to the next one.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Kokles-music saves the day (Following folktales around the world 56. - Latvia)

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!

A Laima és a két anya
Lett népmesék
Voight Vilmos
Európa Könyvkiadó, 1972.

Once again I had the luck of reading a volume of Tales of Nations, because I already had it on my shelf, and because it is a very useful, high quality publication. It contains 164 Latvian folktales, selected to show a range of folk genres, from origin legends and pourquoi stories through elaborate fairy tales all the way to jokes and anecdotes. The editor, famous folklorist Vilmos Voight, penned the afterword on the history of Latvia (up to Soviet times, obviously), the origins of the Latvian folklore movement, and the Latvian folklore archives that contain more than 150k stories. The book contains extensive notes, sources, tale type numbers, and a glossary. The translation aims to reflect the original, uncensored language of the oral tradition.
For those of you who don't read Hungarian, I recommend reading other collections of Latvian folktales, like this one or this one.


Among the pourquoi stories, my favorite was titled How the birds learned their songs. It features a whole bunch of birds that all went out to see the world, observe sounds, and learn their song. It would make a great educational story.

The kokles is a folk instrument
Among the fairy tales, I especially liked the Strange deer, in which a princess fell in love with a poor kokles-player, and they could only be together after a series of marvelous transformations. Kokles-players were definitely the elite of folktale heroes: One of them tamed a wolf with music, whole another was helped by the mysterious Green Man in defeating giants and winning a princess.
The tale of the Magic Word came to a less celebratory ending: After the hero released his spirit-servant, the spirit disappeared along with all his wealth. The tale ended with the hero sending his princess-wife back home, so that she would not have to live in poverty.
The most adventurous of the legends was that of The Siege of Riga, in which a soldier hero shot silver bullets at a witch transformed into a magpie - and the magpie shot back. The most endearing was The peasant who wrote a letter to the emperor. The letter was a series of doodles, explaining a claim, but since the emperor met the peasant in disguise, he could later pretend at court that he could read exactly what the doodles meant, granting the poor man his request. I also really liked the Devil and the clerk, in which the Devil refused to take anyone who was wished to hell, because people were not saying "go to hell" from their true heart.


There were two variants in the book for the Beanstalk tale, except it was not jack who climbed up to the sky, but two very capable maidens, who won their fortune by helping an old man, rather than robbing him. The Witch's Birch Tree was a variant on the Twin Princes tale type, except in this one the witch was a lot harder to kill, and the companion animals (wolves! bears! deer! goats! foxes! rabbits! lynxes! dogs!) got a more active role (you can find this story in a picture book format in English here).
The golden apple tree, golden bird, and three princes story was a variant of what is usually known as the Firebird, Golden rain and Tar rain was a variant of Frau Holle, and the Radiant Bird was that of the Princess on the Glass Mountain, except this one also featured a tiny, feathered underground gnome king (which is pretty cool). Reading the title of the Flying Boat I was all ready for some Extraordinary Helpers, but the story really did only feature a flying boat...
The frogs from Riga and Liepaja were the Latvian cousins of the Japanese frogs from Osaka and Kyoto. No news is a favorite of American storytellers, and the Old man's glove was a variant of the Ukrainian Mitten tale. And of course, because we are still in the Baltic countries, there was a Magic Mill grinding salt into the sea.

Where to next?

Monday, January 22, 2018

The strange beauty of Estonian folktales (Following folktales around the world 55. - Estonia)

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!

Az aranyfonó lányok
Észt népmesék
Bereczki Gábor
Európa Könyvkiadó, 1968.

Once again, a volume from the Hungarian "Tales of Nations" series - and probably one of my instant favorites. It contains thirty-five tales, many of which I completely fell in love with at first read. They have been selected from various Estonian folktale collections by the editor, making sure that they represented narratives and motifs that are typically Estonian, rather than just versions of generally well-known tale types. He had a lot to pick from: According to the detailed Afterword, Estonian folklore archives hold almost one hundred thousand folktales (at least they did in the 1960s). I also learned that most of the famous storytellers were male, while most famous singers of the epic stories were female. I would definitely love to read more from those archives.
To read Estonian folktales in English, try this collection.


The title story (The three gold-spinners) has been a favorite story of mine for a long time (I even included it in my book). It is a long and complex tale full of intrigue, magic, love, Finnish wizards, talking birds, witches, and everything else you need for a good adventure. Similarly adventurous is the Theft of Thunder, in which a poor man helps the Devil steal the Thunder from a thunder-god, and then feels guilty and helps the god recover it.
Mushroom King (Estonian postcard)
I liked the tale of the Mushroom King especially for its imagery and its outcome. A prince rescues the tiny, captured King of the Mushrooms, and in exchange the little kind helps him along his exile, helps him fight dragons, and introduces him to his three daughters. In the end, instead of marrying a rescued princess, the princes marries one of the mushroom girls.
There were several tales involving water, and the beings that inhabit it. In the Underwater People, a man whose father fell through the ice on a lake visited the underwater world, and found out what happened to the people that went there. In The Gift of the Water Mother, the mysterious helper lady told about the strange upside-down world she had come from. In The Mischievous sons of Father Frost, three increasingly cold guests visited a poor man, who put up with them patiently, and in exchange he won the ability to influence the weather.
The animal and nature tales of the collection were also enchanting. A Magic Bird distracted an evil hunter from shooting at the birds of the forest; a Hedgehog wanted to cook a beetle, but was outsmarted by it; and a Sparrow brewed beer from one grain of barley in a pond, and none of the other animals had the heart to tell him it was not delicious.


I was reminded of many other superpower stories by the tale of Swift-foot, Dexterous Hands, and Sharp-eye (some titles are my own translation, but that's the general idea). All three of the brothers had his own separate adventure in this long story, and then they came together to win a princess. They agreed beforehand that they will draw lots on who will marry her at the end, eliminating the dilemma part of this popular dilemma tale like sensible people (it helped that they all looked exactly alike).
Estonian folk dress
The tale of the Talking Flax combined two tale types in a very interesting way. A girl was pursued by a supernatural suitor she knew was dangerous; she hid in the barn from him, and the flax bundles stored there talked about what awaited everyone in the barn: Tearing, breaking, cutting, etc. (basically, the process of making clothes). The suitor got terrified and left. The first part of the tale is that of the Demon Lover, while the latter usually happens with bread instead of cloth.
Waiting for Death was a story I have already encountered as a Hodja tale, while The Bear and the Three Sisters was another variant of the favorite story of mine where the clever girl rescues herself and her sisters from a monster husband (see Denmark).

Where to next?

Thursday, January 18, 2018

The secret identity of the Princess with the Pea (Folklore Thursday)

Well, the Princess, specifically. If you want to know the secret identity of the pea, you'll be disappointed. It's a pea.

This is me, showing my work.

Full disclosure: I have never really liked Andersen's literary fairy tales, and doing some research on this one didn't really change my opinion of him. I wasn't even going to go into it, but I found some bread crumbs researching another folktale, and followed it all the way to some literature that talked about the possible folktale-origins of The Princess and the Pea. Sure, I knew that over-sensitivity is an existing motif (I have a tale of three over-sensitive men in my folktale collection), but I was intrigued when I found out that the "original" version was actually numbered ATU 545A - the female-hero variant of Puss in Boots.

See, Andersen claimed that he heard the story as a child. Researchers have already pointed out that there is no Danish version of such a folktale - but it is very popular in the Swedish tradition, which, when it comes to how stories travel... is close enough. I kept running into the same claim: There is a Swedish folktale, titled The Princess that Lay on Seven Peas, which includes a girl, a cat, and some pea-related shenanigans. Sadly, I could not locate the actual story anywhere, because nobody cited it.

So I eventually figured out that the claim came from Georg Christensen, who published an article on the origins of Andersen stories in Danske Studier in 1906. Since my Danish is nonexistent, I painstakingly fed the article into Google Translate, until I managed to find the citations he DID put in there. Which led me to a Swedish folktale collection, where I finally located the story. It is actually titled The Palace that Stood on Golden Pillars.
Close enough, huh.

So, now I had a text, in Swedish. Obviously, I would have to find someone to actually translate it, but as far as getting an idea of the tale went, I once again turned to Google Translate. Apart from some delightful results such as "The cat noticed, and put the mathematics on his mother-in-law", I could figure out what the story really was about.


ATU 545A is also known as The Cat Palace - and, as I have mentioned before, it is basically a genderbent version of Puss in Boots. A poor girl loses her parents, and inherits a cat (her brother gets the cow, obviously). She sets out, and the cat helps her pass as a lost and robbed princess, so that she gets invited to stay with a royal family. However, the mother-in-law is suspicious of her behavior (she's a peasant girl, after all), and decides to put her to the test. She puts things in her bed to see if she really is a refined lady, but the cat sees her, warns the girl, and helps her fake her way through the pea thing (and the bean thing, and the straw thing, and various other food items the queen puts under the sheets).
Eventually, the queen changes tactics: She sends a gorgeous silken dress for the girl to wear, and invites her for a walk. The girl keeps dragging the dress in the mud - but when questioned, she claims that she doesn't feel sorry for it, because she has much better dresses back at home, in Kattenborg. The queen has no more arguments left.

The rest of the story is pretty much the same as Puss in Boots: Time comes to visit the princess' imaginary castle, and the cat runs ahead to arrange it all, kill a giant, get a palace, etc.

Conclusion No. 1: If Andersen really heard this tale as a child, he managed to grasp the least exciting part of it. 
Go figure.
We have a girl, and a helpful, smart (occasionally sassy) animal helper. Most often a cat, BUT the tale also exists in variants where the helper is a dog, which makes it especially dear to my dog-person heart. Also, the girl is not actually as sensitive as Andersen suggests - she is simply faking it, in order to pass as "proper" royalty, and go through the mother-in-law's ridiculous tests (gotta give it to the woman, though, her suspicions were right). She blunders sometimes - says things she shouldn't say, or drags her expensive dress in the mud. And yet, the prince falls in love with her.
This is not a tale about a princess who can't sleep on a pea. This is a tale about a girl who is faking it until she makes it.


Oh yeah, about the title.

Conclusion No. 2: The Princess in this story is actually the Marquise de Carabas. 


Monday, January 15, 2018

Women from the sea (Following folktales around the world 54. - Finland)

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!

Férfiszülte leány
Finn népmesék
Pirkko-Liisa Rausmaa
Európa Könyvkiadó, 1969.

For the first time in the history of Following Folktales, I read a book from the "Népek Meséi" ("Tales of Nations") series. This is an 80-volume series of folktale collections published in Hungarian between the 1950s and the 1980s; it is famous among Hungarian storytellers, and has volumes of tales from various small indigenous ethnicities.
Much like the other books in the series, the Finnish collection is well edited, well selected, and contains a lot of valuable information. Selected by a Finnish folklorist to represent the various story types in the oral tradition, the book has fairy tales, animal tales, humorous tales, etc. Each story comes with end notes that contain tale type numbers, the name of the storyteller, the name of the collector, and other interesting information. The Afterword talks about the history of Finnish folktale collection, the work of Finnish scholars on the tale type index, and the building of the Finnish folktale archives that contain tens of thousands of stories. The book itself definitely does a good job picking out the most interesting ones...
(You can also find various folktale collections edited by Pirkko-Liisa Rausmaa in English)


Akseli Gallen-Kallela: Aino
One of the most beautiful and most intriguing tales of the book is The Beautiful Daughter of the Blue Sea. it is full of mythical elements, and the hero is helped by a shape-shifting white griffin (that he feeds four people to, by the way, but let's not talk about that). I also enjoyed The Prince and the Sea Spirit, in which the prince had several animal helpers that took turns competing with the son of the Sea Spirit in what they were best at. It was like a superhero team-up, but with animals.
I found the tale of The wife that looked like the sister very interesting. In it, a man wanted to marry a woman who looked just like his sister; the courageous girl set out, saved a princess just like herself from the underworld, and brought her back home (and then the brother had to figure out which one was which).
The book also contained some more recent folktales, such as that of the American journey, which was basically an updated version of an older trickster tale. In it, a Finnish man made Americans believe that he made the journey to the New World swimming...


The tale of Snotty Risto was a delightful variant for the story usually known from the Grimm collection as Bearskin. In this one, the poor man could collect great treasure by not wiping his nose or going to the bathroom for three years. Two girls fled from him, but the youngest one, desperately trying to get money to save her family, agreed to kiss him - and then threw up right after. Very realistic for a folktale. On the other hand, there was a version of the tale where a father wants to marry his own daughter that took quite an unexpected turn. When he failed to catch her, the father tore off his own testicles, and threw him around his daughter's neck. She went mute as a result, and it took her a long time to get rid of the testicles around her neck. Talk about being silenced by the patriarchy...
The emperor's daughter in the church was a variant of The Princess in the Shroud - except the exorcism of the monster princess here included beating her up repeatedly. The Triangular house on the seashore was a version of the Devil's three golden hairs, with the addition of a "woman of the sea" that devoured the evil king at the end. I especially loved the Finnish variant of the Extraordinary Helpers, in which each helper added a piece to the flying ship, and thus they built it together.
Akseli Gallen-Kallela:
The forging of the Sampo
There was a variant of Puss in Boots where the hero was a poor girl instead of a poor boy, and also a variant of the Clever Maiden with a clever boy instead of a clever girl (he did not have to be half dressed and half naked, though, go figure). And of course because we are in the Baltic, there was a version of Why the sea is salt (here called The Mill of Hell). The Magic Scythe was a story I already encountered in Iceland, while The great fighter looks for someone stronger than him reminded me of an Ossetian Nart saga.

Where to next?

Monday, January 8, 2018

The magic pisspot, and some squirrels (Following folktales around the world 53. - Sweden)

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!

The Magic Pisspot
Swedish folk tales
Per Gustavsson, Richard Martin
Land of Legends, 2017.

I got a copy of this book from Richard Martin, who translated it from Per Gustavsson's Swedish collection. The book was published by the Museum of Legends. It contains twenty-three Swedish folktales, selected by Gustavsson from various older sources, and retold in a clear oral storytelling style, which carries over well into the English translation. Each story comes with notes, sources, and tale type numbers, which I was especially grateful for. Most tales belong to tale types that are very common all around Europe, with some local Swedish coloring in them. The authors did not shy away from the darker or more vulgar themes of the original stories either. The book has black-and-white and color illustrations which make it pretty as well as enjoyable.


The book was already worth reading just for its title story. The Magic Pisspot is a very rare tale type that I have only encountered once before (in Turkey), featuring a mischievous and independent pisspot that makes its owners rich through a series of tricks. It is a really fun story.
I also liked the two tales about the Ugly Frog and the Pretty Squirrel; the former a beautiful princess who wanted to get away from obnoxious suitors by turning into an ugly frog, and the latter an ugly prince who wanted to become the most beautiful creature in the world - and found himself turning into a squirrel. To be fair, squirrels are rather handsome.


There is a gorgeous variant of the Snow White tale included in this book, titled The little gold bird. We do not only get the evil (biological!) mother's backstory, but we also have seven princes cursed into chimera monsters, who return at the end of the long and elaborate story to save the princess they took in as their sister. I also liked the Swedish Hansel and Gretel, known here as The hut with the sausage roof (no gingerbread), and the tale of the Pleiades, which was a nice variant of Six Against the World. I especially liked in the latter that the five brothers rescuing the princess specifically learned their trades with professional princess-rescuing in mind.
The Giant and the Squirrel was a story that sounded familiar to me from the Appalachian folktale known as Soy Sallyratus (and also a very popular Hungarian folktale). Also common in European traditions is the story of how Husband and wife swapped work for a day, and the classic story of the Stone Soup, here known as Nail Soup.
As for tricksters, Fox showed up in the collections, being responsible in not one, but two tales for Why Bear has a short tail.

Where to next?