Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Best-Loved Folktales of the World (Edited by Joanna Cole)

Source of book: I own this.


It must have been nearly two decades ago that I found this book at a used book sale. It is edited by Joanna Cole, although the stories themselves are sourced from a long list of prior sources, many of them in translation or modern retelling. 

There are a total of 200 stories, taking up nearly 800 pages. So it is a big book. I have been reading this to my youngest for the better part of this year. It is convenient because a few stories each evening work even where we would not have had enough time to read a long chapter of another book. 


As one might expect from a book in English, the story selection is heavily slanted toward European tales, many of them familiar. This isn’t necessarily bad, but in many ways we found the less familiar stories to be the better ones. 


To give an idea, there are 44 stories from Western Europe, predominantly Germany, although this section also includes stuff from Ancient Greece as well. The British Isles get 24 stories, while Scandinavia gets 21. From there, the sections are smaller, and more diverse. Eastern Europe has stories ranging from Russian to Yiddish stories, the Middle East adds a few national stories to the expected Arabian Nights classics. Asia gets a broad range in addition to China and Japan, including Laos and Burma. After a handful from the Pacific Islands, Africa gets a fairly extensive and wide ranging set of tales. (Africa’s folk tales are amazing, by the way. Lillian is now a fan of Anansi.) The book finishes up with stories from the Americas and the Caribbean. These range from indigenous stories to Paul Bunyan to stories that appear to have made the trip from Africa along with the enslaved. 


It is hard to even know where to start with this book. Perhaps one might note that the older (and less European) tales tend to be less moralistic. We forget that along with the “Disneyfication” of fairy tales came an earlier change: the Victorian tendency to make every story into a “virtue rewarded,” which is particularly obvious when compared to the earlier versions where random chance, luck, or even deviousness leads to far more rewards than virtue. 


Another theme that really stood out and that crossed cultures was the idea of the favored youngest child. This clearly goes way back in history, and may be ingrained in the human psyche. I mean, you can find it in pretty much every holy text from the Bible on down the line. 


As a firstborn, this is annoying, of course, even if I understand where it came from. (TLDR: primogeniture, birth rights, etc.) The younger children got the scraps, and probably were more likely to be the storytellers since they didn’t get the family land or business. They were the obvious underdogs. Not so much these days, of course, and in my particular case, I mostly got the projection of my (younger sibling) parents of the trauma of their childhoods instead of any advantage. (That’s a LONG story, and I’m not telling it in this post.) In any case, even my youngest picked up on the theme, and the way it played favorites to the detriment of the other children. 


We also noted that the “trickster” tales are often the best tales. The story of the virtuous girl who gets the prince isn’t nearly as much fun as the clever jackal, or the old woman who gets the best of the powerful man. These are the true underdogs in our own culture - and indeed in every culture. Those who lack the brawn or the money or the status to get by without a little trickery, guile, chutzpah, and cunning. It is easier to root for those sorts. 


Overall, Lillian and I had a lot of fun with this book, and even Fritz (age 13, and at the “too cool for school” phase right now) couldn’t resist listening in, at least after we got past the traditional fairy tales. 


I thought I might say a bit about the book too. It is a hardback published in 1982, and shows its age a bit. The dust jacket is still fairly intact, although a year of handling by a kid hasn’t helped it. The main issue is that the spine was damaged, and eventually cracked when we opened it. I got to learn a bit about bookbinding, and how to re-glue a spine, and stuff like that. As someone who collects a lot of used books on the cheap, this is a good skill to have. 


I believe this book is available in paperback, in an updated edition. As a collection of a wide range of tales, it is a good value. 




No comments:

Post a Comment