Legends, Folk and Fairy Tales have fascinated children (and adults) down the ages. A story which has lived for hundreds, if not thousands, of years must possess a vitality which is imperishable and immutable. They have the quality of magic, of unexpectedness, of somehow being right and inevitable. They stimulate the imagination and the senses, introduce new feelings and emotions, make telling observations on human behaviour.
Bruno Bettelheim in his inspirational Uses of Enchantment: the meaning and importance of fairy tales states that: ‘fairy tales reassure because they demonstrate that others have the same kind of fantasies; children possess an inner world of fantasy which is irrational, emotional, subjective, sensual, violent and often frightening. Fairy tales can bring order to a child’s inner life by offering symbolic solutions to his difficulties… Fairy Tales confront the child squarely with the basic human predicaments.’
Today, we are increasingly aware that we live in a multi-cultural society. The tales we tell and make available to our children must not ignore this. People have come to Britain from many countries, all of them rich in tradition. There are children here from countries with an Islamic, Hindu or Buddhist culture, from Africa and from lands further East and West. Children from these backgrounds have a special right to their stories and children who know English and European folk tales can recognize and enjoy the parallels, as well as being enthralled by the richness of unfamiliar tales and themes.
We are blessed with many lovely versions of British, European and Russian folk tales, suitable for children at different levels of ability and understanding. Most libraries and schools will be fairly well stocked with well-known tales, from Andersen and Grimm, and with Greek and Norse Legends. But how many libraries and schools can offer an equally impressive range of tales and legends from other cultures: tales from the Indian sub-continent, the Far East, Africa and the Caribbean?
By drawing attention to traditional folk tales from other countries, we can give recognition to the many varied cultural roots of our children and open up for all children a much wider literary heritage. Perhaps folk tales are our most hopeful means of becoming truly multi-cultural. What better medium is there for toleration, hope and understanding than the inherent honesty, goodness and abiding faith in humanity? As Mahatma Gandhi once said: `Folk Tales are the best ambassadors between East and West.’
Surprisingly few general collections of folk and fairy tales venture beyond Europe for their stories. Even books with titles like `Stories From Everywhere’ concentrate heavily on the West. Here are four books which do take a commendably wide perspective in their choice of material.
The Story Spirits is a delightful and varied collection of folk tales from the Far East, Africa and the Caribbean, gathered together by experienced storyteller, Amabel Williams-Ellis. She has deliberately chosen these tales to reflect the cultural heritage of children growing up here, so that they can share `the traditional stories their parents and grandparents would have heard’. Written in a chatty, intimate style but varying sufficiently to reflect the different cultures concerned, this is a fine mixture of stories reflecting a wide spectrum of cultures: there are simple tales from the Jatakas (Buddhist birth-stories) and other longer titles of magic and enchantment, suitable for older children. Many of the stories have a familiar ring about them: `The Lion and the Hare’ has strong parallels with ‘Henny Penny’ and ‘Mr Chang and the Fox Fairy’ with the Scottish tale, `The Selkie Wife’.
A World of Folk Tales is also a lovely, rich collection of tales from all over the world. This collection has been chosen by folk tale collector, James Riordan, and deliberately only includes tales which seem ‘typical of their country of origin and its culture… tales as diverse as the people that nurtured them.’ There are tales from Aboriginal legends and Maori mythology, tales from Japan, Africa, India, Mongolia, China, Vietnam as well as Europe. This is a lively introduction to the wealth and variety of tales available, ranging from the humour of Ananse to a hauntingly beautiful Welsh story and a delightful legend of the Blackfeet Indians with some interesting juxtapositions like the light-hearted Ananse story followed by a sombre Spanish folk tale about death. Ten different illustrators are used in this lavish production.
Fox Tales is a much slighter collection and suitable for younger children, for reading aloud or for early reading. It is a selection of 16 short tales about wily, tricky foxes, taken from many parts of the world, from Africa, India, Egypt, Turkey, Nova Scotia and Finland. Again, the collector is an experienced storyteller, Ruth Manning-Sanders.
Gods and Men. Although strictly speaking a culture’s myths are of a different order from its folk tales they are often the source of its legends: so this seems the right place to include this splendid collection of myths and legends from the world’s religions, centred on creation myths, the conflict between good and evil and on legends of heroes, prophets and holy men. The 30 stories are taken from Greek, Norse, African, Sumerian, Polynesian, Indian, Chinese and American Indian sources. This is a fascinating look at how different cultures have interpreted the creation, particularly in terms of their own geographical areas, and an encouragement to young people to compare ancient and modern religious beliefs.
Tales from Asia
India, that vast treasure-house of story, has probably contributed more to the folk tales of the world than any other country. Many scholars believe that India was the cradle of the world’s folk tales and certainly there are enormous similarities and parallels between the tales of East and West. India is rich in myth, legend and fable, many of the stories appearing in the great Hindu epics, The Mahabharata and The Ramayana and the Buddhist birth-stories, The Jatakas.
The Story of Prince Rama is a beautifully produced and lavishly illustrated story from the Ramayana of the struggle between the forces of good and evil, showing the heroism of Prince Rama, the loyalty of his half-brother, Lakshmana and the love of his wife, Sita, as they are exiled together for 14 years. The climax of the story is the violent battle against Ravana, king of all the demons. Brian Thompson retells the story in a simple style which is dramatically complemented and enhanced by the illustrations. These are Indian paintings, which were originally painted over three hundred years ago to illustrate a manuscript version of the Ramayana. To these have been added 6 paintings by modern-day artist Jeroo Roy. This is a valuable book both for its attempts to make this story readily accessible to all children and for its superb demonstration of Indian art. It won 1982 Racial Harmony Award, established last year by the Asian News Weekly, Garavi Gujerat.
In The Ivory City, Marcus Crouch retells 27 stories from India and Pakistan in colloquial modern English, in an attempt to make the stories `accessible to Western children to help them understand something of the Indian tradition and to second-generation English-born Indians to help them to retain or recover some part of their cultural heritage’. It is a lively collection of tales, retold in an economic style ideal for reading aloud and skilfully managing to retain much of the original flavour and vigour of the tales. There are animal tales, tales of princesses, rajas, fakirs and ghosts, the unknown and the vaguely familiar. ‘Swalu the Matchmaker’ bears a strong resemblance to ‘Puss-in-Boots’ and `The Brave Potter’ to Grimm’s `Brave Little Tailor’. There is a short glossary of unfamiliar terms and an interesting, brief essay, `Notes for Parents’, on the origin of the tales but no note on where individual stories come from.
Indian Fairy Tales by Joseph Jacobs is still available in the unabridged and unaltered version, first published in 1892. Inevitably looking and sounding dated it is still a useful source book for material which does not occur elsewhere. The extensive notes and references about the individual tales at the end are particularly interesting.
Folk Tales from Asia is a 6-volume collection of Asian folk tales, published under the impressive and imaginative Asian Copublication Programme, carried out in co-operation with UNESCO. The books contain some 48 folktales from 18 countries, all selected, retold and illustrated by writers and artists of the individual nations concerned. The stories vary considerably, but manage successfully to retain an authentic local flavour and demonstrate yet again the wealth of material in existence, much of this not previously recorded.
In Tales and Legends from India, Ruskin Bond has collected many tales and retold them in a rich and atmospheric style, suitable more for individual reading than reading aloud, and likely to be popular with older children. Ruskin Bond had a British father but grew up in India where he was steeped in Indian folklore. He sees his familiarity with the literature of East and West as being a `double inheritance’. Apart from the tales from the Mahabharata and the Jatakas, Ruskin Bond has included many regional tales, either told to him as a child or heard more recently and not generally found in other collections. He is particularly effective when retelling the longer romantic stories: ‘ Savitri’ and `The Ugly Prince and The Heartless Princess’ are very moving. Useful notes on sources and backgrounds of the tales.
Tales from the Caribbean and Africa
West Indian folk tales come from a people with a long tradition of oral storytelling. Only in recent years have the tales begun to be transformed into print. Some of the most familiar and most popular are the Anansi stories. When things go well, Anansi is a man, but when he is in great danger, he becomes a spider, safe in his web high up in the ceiling and often called `Ceiling Thomas’. Brer Anansi usually manages to triumph over the bigger and stronger animals by using his wits. The stories poke fun at human failings such as greed, selfishness and vanity and at the very individual characters of the animals themselves. During slavery times, the Anansi stories were as much part of the ethics of life as the control of the masters, showing the weak and small out-manoeuvering the mighty so that the flame of hope was constantly rekindled in the slaves against society.
As a child growing up in Jamaica, Philip Sherlock loved listening to these tales, often in the evening as the sun went down. Since then he has made a significant contribution to Caribbean folklore by recording many of them in print for the first time. Here are 3 of his collections:
Anansi the Spider Man contains 15 Anansi stories, full of humour and wit and retold in a concise manner, ideal for reading aloud. I particularly like `From Tiger to Anansi’ (available in a longer version in West Indian Folk Tales).
West Indian Folk Tales contains 21 tales retold in a rich but rather more wordy style than Philip Sherlock’s other collections and more suitable for older children of about 10+ and for individual reading. This is an interesting mixture of early tales from the Arawak and Carib people, the original inhabitants of the Caribbean, and Anansi stories.
Crick Crack stories like the Anansi stories, are mainly about animals that speak and think like humans and originate in the countries of West Africa. If it is a Crick
Crack story, it must begin in the right way. The storyteller begins by saying `Crick Crack’ and those who listen must reply `Break my back’. At the end the storyteller says ‘Wire bend’ and all who listen reply, `Story end’.
The Iguana’s Tail is a delightful sequence of 7 Crick Crack tales woven together into a simple continuous story. During a particularly heavy drought, the animals in the forest decide to move away to find food and drink. Each night after a day’s marching, they gather together to listen as one of the animals tells a story. Each night Hacka Tiger gets closer and closer to Iguana until on the last night, after the last story, he pounces on her but only gets her tail, hence the title. The stories are richly and vividly retold and read aloud well. They could be used individually or as an on-going sequence of stories. A companion volume, Ears & Tails & Common Sense, is now sadly out of print (but still available in libraries).
Listen to this Story, Grace Hallworth, herself a gifted storyteller, has rewritten 10 Anancy stories remembered from her own childhood in Trinidad. The style is simple but full of vitality and wit, ideal for reading aloud to younger children. Grace Hallworth successfully uses localized speech patterns and dialect where they add humour and colour to the stories.
David Makhanlall from Guyana has produced six collections of Brer Anansi stories featuring Brer Anansi, Brer Rabbit and Brer Bear and their constant rivalry. The stories are written in a crisp, humourous tone which brings out well the tricky, deceitful natures of the individual animals. Children of about 9+ will enjoy reading the tales for themselves.
Fables from Africa is an admirable collection of fables from all parts of Africa, showing the great variety of races and cultures in the continent. Mostly, the fables are populated with animals, with their own individual characters. Many of them are very humourous but with a strong moral message. There are Muslim tales from North Africa, tales from East Africa and tales from lesser known regions of Cameroon, Nubia and Mali.
In Why the Hyena Does Not Care for Fish, Tales of an Ashanti Father and The Pineapple Child, Peggy Appiah has collected together Ashanti tales from the oral tradition of Ghana and retold them in a concise, witty style suitable for reading aloud. Many of the tales are about Kwaku Ananse and demonstrate clearly the close link with Caribbean folk tales. In Why the Hyena Does Not Care for Fish, Peggy Appiah skilfully combines two important aspects of Ghanaian culture: storytelling and the development of the gold weight as a trading measure. The tales are mainly very short, often mere proverbs but each one is related to its own gold weight.
Details of Books Mentioned
Amabel Williams-Ellis The Story Spirits, Heinemann, 0 434 97256 8. £4.50, Piccolo paperback, 0 330 26856 2, £1.00
James Riordan A World of Folk Tales, Hamlyn, 0 600 33745 6, £5.80
Ruth Manning-Sanders Fox Tales, Methuen Magnet paperback, 0 416 87550 5, 65p
John Bailey Gods & Men, Oxford, 0 19 278020 4, £5.95
Brian Thompson The Story of Prince Rama, Kestrel, 0 7226 5684 X, £7.95
Marcus Crouch The Ivory City, Pelham Books, 0 7207 11886, £4.95, Dragon Books paperback, 0 583 30483 4, 95p
Joseph Jacobs Indian Fairy Tales, Dover paperback, 0 486 21828 7, £2.60
Folk Tales from Asia for Children Everywhere, Weatherill/UNESCO, Book 1: 0 8348 1032 8, £2.95; Book 2: 0 8348 1033 6, £2.95: Book 3: 0 8438 1034 4, £3.50; Book 4: 08348 1035 2, £3.50; Book 5: 0 8348 1036 0, £3.95; Book 6: 0 8348 1037 9, £3.95
Philip Sherlock The Iguana’s Tail, Nelson paperback, 0 17 566281 9, £1.05
Anansi the Spider Man, Macmillan paperback, 0 333 35326 9, £2.50
West Indian Folk Tales, Oxford, 0 19 274116 0, £4.95
Grace Hallworth Listen to this Story, Methuen, 0 416 83220 2, £3.50
David P. Makhanlall The Best of Brer Anansi, Blackie. 0 216 89547 2, £3.95
Brer Anansi Strikes Again, Blackie, 0 216 90005 0, £3.25
Brer Anansi’s Bag of Tricks, Blackie, 0 216 90534 6, £3.25
Further Adventures of Brer Anansi, Blackie, 0 216 90910 4, £3.95
The Invincible Brer Anansi, Blackie, 0 216 89821 8, £3.95
Long Live Brer Anansi, Blackie, 0 216 90724 1, £3.95
Jan Knappert Fables from Africa, Evans, 0 237 44985 4, £4.75, paperback, 0 237 50670 X, 95p
Peggy Appiah Why the Hyena Does Not Care for Fish, Deutsch, 0 233 96903 9, £2.95
The Pineapple Child, Deutsch, 0 233 95875 4, £2.95
Tales of an Ashanti Father, Deutsch, 0 233 95927 0, £2.50