Category Archives: folktale

Friday’s Tale: The Story of Tuan Mac Cairill told by James Stephens

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Illustration by Arthur Rackham from Irish Fairy Tales: The Story of Tuan Mac Cairill by James Stephens.

This is actually a fascinating tale of the history of early Ireland, told by James Stephens in Irish Fairy Tales. Tuan Mac Cairill is visited at his home by a monk, St. Finnian, who converts Tuan to Christianity. After spending time with Tuan, the monk asks him to tell him his story. The monk is at first amazed and bewildered by the story, but then just listens to Tuan’s narrative.

I know absolutely nothing about ancient Irish history, but Tuan’s tale is fascinating. Tuan came to Ireland with Partholon, the first group of settlers to come to Ireland after the great Biblical flood. All of Partholon’s people died from a plague; Tuan was the only survivor. He continues to survive, each time he becomes old and tired he is transformed into a new animal, first a stag, then a boar, a hawk, and a salmon. He sees invader after invader come to Ireland. Through his long life he saw battles, storms and sickness. He remembered all he saw and felt, but when he is a salmon he is caught.

“When the king’s wife saw me she desired me. I was put over a fire and roasted, and she ate me. And when time passed she gave birth to me, and I was her son and the son of Cairill the king. I remember warmth and darkness and movement and unseen sounds. All that happened I remember, from the time I was on the gridiron until the time I was born. I forget nothing of these things.”

“And now,” said Finnian, “you will be born again, for I shall baptize you into the family of the Living God.”

At the end of the story it is unclear if Tuan Mac Cairill eventually dies or is still alive in Ulster, watching and remembering.

I love that this legend tells the history of the land; it is unique from all the other fairy tales I’ve read. Also the descriptions of how Tuan felt as the different animals are beautifully well-written and expressive.

“Long I stood there, ringing my iron hoof on stone, and learning all things through my nose. Each breeze that came from the right hand or the left brought me a tale. A wind carried me the tang of wolf, and against that smell I stared and stamped. And on a wind there came the scent of my own kind, and at that I belled. Oh, loud and clear and sweet was the voice of the great stag. With what ease my lovely note went lilting. With what joy I heard the answering call. With what delight I bounded, bounded, bounded; light as a bird’s plume, powerful as a storm, untiring as the sea.

“Here now was ease in ten-yard springings, with a swinging head, with the rise and fall of a swallow, with the curve and flow and urge of an otter of the sea. What a tingle dwelt about my heart! What a thrill spun to the lofty points of my antlers! How the world was new! How the sun was new! How the wind caressed me!

You can read this story several place on-line, including here. You can also download the Kindle version for free. If you get a chance, read it. It’s worth the time. I’m looking forward to reading another Irish tale next week.

Challenge: Fairy Tales

Friday’s Tales is a weekly event here at Carol’s Notebook. I would love it if you joined me. Fairy tales, folktales, tall tales, even re-tellings, share with us. If you have a link, please include it in your comment.

Friday’s Tale: The Boy Who Wanted the Moon retold by Donna L. Washington

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Illustration by James Ransome in A Pride of African Tales by Donna L. Washington (2004)

“The Boy Who Wanted the Moon” retold by Donna L. Washington

This tale from the Congo starts with a very spoiled little boy. He is a prince, the son of a great king who gives him everything he wants. At 6, he has his own house, gorgeous clothes and is carried around on a chair instead of having to walk. The king made this boy the king of all the children, and the young prince made the other children sit in the marketplace watching him eat, nap, whatever.

One day, the prince states that he is the greatest child and has everything. A little girl in the crowd speaks up, telling him that he doesn’t have the moon. The boy, of course, gets his heart set on having the moon, and the father, indulgent beyond reason, sets about getting it for him. It takes 10 years, but finally a scaffold is built to the sky and the king, prince, and their subjects climb up to the moon. The father touches the moon first, exclaims how hot it is and tells the prince he cannot have the moon after all. The prince, stubborn and refusing to listen to common sense, grabs the moon and pulls. The moon breaks, showering the people with hot rock and catching the scaffolding on fire.

Everyone surely would have died if it had not been for the gods. The gods of Africa took pity on all those foolish people and caught them in their hands. They let them live, but to punish them for trying to undo what the gods themselves had done, they turned all the people into monkeys.

You can see their descendants all over the world swinging through the trees. They are there as a warning to other foolish people.

The author calls this a pourquoi tale, a term I had never heard but makes sense. It’s a tale that tells “why.” I truly enjoy origin stories like this, stories that give a fictional explanation of why the world is like it is. Here, the story serves a dual purpose, telling how monkeys came to be but also warning people that they are not the equal of the gods, they cannot undo what the gods have made. It kind of reminds me of the story of Icarus, who flew too close to the sun and died. It’s also similar to the story in Genesis of the Tower of Babel where the people were building a tower to the heavens but God stopped them. When people get too full of themselves, something happens to ruin their plans.

I read this story in a book I borrowed from the library, A Pride of African Tales by Donna L. Washington. It’s a wonderful collection of African folktales beautifully illustrated by James Ransome. You can purchase it at Amazon or an Indie bookstore.

Friday’s Tales is a weekly event here at Carol’s Notebook. I would love it if you joined me. Fairy tales, folktales, tall tales, even re-tellings, share with us. If you have a link, please include it in your comment.

Friday’s Tale: Vasilissa the Beautiful

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Illustration by Ivan Bilibin. Vassilisa the Beautiful. Moscow: Department for the Production of State Documents, 1900.

“Vasilissa the Beautiful”

Baba Yaga is a witch-like character from Slavic folklore that I don’t remember from the fairy tales I heard as a child. Actually the first picture I have in my mind is from when I was watching the PBS cartoon Arthur with Amber a few years ago. I don’t remember the plot of the episode, but for some reason one of the kids was imagining Baba Yaga’s hut, complete with its chicken legs. Actually, Baba Yaga is a rather scary old woman. Apparently there are many tales that feature her, but the one I read for today is “Vasilissa the Beautiful.”

As happens to so many beautiful young fairy tale women, Vasilissa’s mother dies early in the story. On her deathbed, she gives Vasilissa a little wooden doll. This wooden doll is magic. When Vasilissa feeds her, she comes alive, listens to Vasilissa’s griefs and problems, and offers advice and assistance. Eventually, Vasilissa’s father remarries and, surprise, surprise, the step-mom is awful to Vasilissa. She makes Vasilissa do all the difficult chores, while her own daughters do nothing. Yes, father is still around but doesn’t do anything to stop the mistreatment. Thank goodness for the doll’s help.

Eventually, father has to leave for an extended trip, and the minute he’s gone, the step-mother sells the house and moves to a neighborhood at the edge of a dark forest. Baba Yaga lives deep in the forest. It is well known that Baba Yaga eats people, so the step-mother sends Vasilissa into the forest daily in the hopes that she will meet the old witch and be devoured, but the little doll keeps her safe.

One night though, Vasilissa is sent to the witch’s hut for fire and she can’t avoid going. On the way, three horsemen pass her, one white, one red and one black. We later learn that they are Baba Yaga’s servants: day, sun, and night. Vasilissa does find the hut.

But at evening she came all at once to the green lawn where the wretched little hut stood on its hens’ legs. The wall around the hut was made of human bones and on its top were skulls. There was a gate in the wall, whose hinges were the bones of human feet and whose locks were jaw-bones set with sharp teeth. The sight filled Vasilissa with horror and she stopped as still as a post buried in the ground.

Baba Yaga brings her in tot he house and has Vasilissa work for her for two days, performing three tasks in exchange for fire. When she finds out Vasilissa was blessed by her mother, she sends her away, giving her a lighted skull to take back for fire.

The story keeps going and is full of fascinating detail. To shorten it, though, the skull burns the step-mother and sisters to death. Vasilissa moves in with an old woman, weaves some delicate linen that attracts the Tsar’s attention. The Tsar falls in love with her, they marry, father returns, happy ever after.

There are so many similarities to other tales here. Most notable is Cinderella, but the witch in Hansel and Gretel is also well-known for eating children and lives in a hut in the woods. And of course, Vasilissa is fair and beautiful, good and kind. Where are the average girls, the too-smart for the own good girls, the angry girls?

Baba Yaga is certainly an interesting old hag though. She’s evil, wants to eat Vasilissa, but in the end helps here by giving her the skull. It’s the skull that rids Vasilissa of the step-mother. Baba Yaga is also more powerful than most witches. Forces of nature – the sun, night – are her servants, at her command. She’s fascinating.

Have you read any of the Baba Yaga stories?

(updated) Friday’s Tales will be a weekly event here at Carol’s Notebook. I would love it if you joined me. Fairy tales, folktales, tall tales, even re-tellings, share with us. If you have a link, please include it in your comment.

Challenge: Fairy Tales