Archive for August, 2010

In “Some Day Your Witch Will Come”, Kay Stone gives a compelling argument that fairy tales, on their own, while they may have the intention of acting as a “training manual” (21), can stray wide of the mark.

Especially, she says, when it comes to the question of girls, yes, maybe fairy tales have some questionable messages, but how do we know the girls are getting these messages.

She points out that there may not be many independent, ferocious heroines in the fairy tales commonly told in American culture. Well, of course, there is not one American culture to begin with. But if we think about the fairy tales that have the largest popular currency, and then the female characters in them, we see a lot of females stagnating, even perhaps marinating, in passive or questionable roles — certainly not the kind heroines we might expect to have survived into the 21st century.

A question she raises, though, is are we looking hard enough at the way people assimilate stories. Children in particular.  Maybe, she suggests, instead of needing new stories, we need to remind ourselves the breadth of riches an old story can provide. For one thing, she says, we can’t predict what girls will take from a fairy tale about a princess whose passivity is rewarded. We can’t assume which character a girl will identify with. A girl, while reading a fairy tale, might just as easily identify with a witch or prince or evil stepsister as with a cindarella or a snow white.

Well, it’s unlikely, isn’t it. At least, against the odds. Sure, it probably happens sometimes.

Stone also suggests that many kids might extrapolate from snow white some formidable qualities — that snow white is actually a prism and not the sheet on the marriage bed just before (god willing not after) copulation. In other words, Stone seems to insist, you don’t have to look at snow white and see snow white or even noodly white or lily white, whitey whitey dainty, lacy white. A lot of kids, she says, look at snow white and see red (or maybe even shades of gray? A curiosity).

And, she adds, there are things to think about beyond identification. Beyond identification, there are whole other layers of meaning and interpretive behavior and power. Mainly, in metaphor. A story acts more on the level of metaphor than on any other level and therefore actual situations, actual people and their actual actions don’t translate into a literal understanding of situations and people and their actions.

“…In an interview with a group of fifteen-year old girls, one girl stressed the metaphorical power of fairy tales by suggesting that some experiences might happen, but ‘not in the same way as in stories’.

“Modern readers can comprehend this deeper level of meaning in a fairy tale, and also in legend and myths. As a Cree elder, George Head, tried to explain to a non-native collector about Cree legends: “These are really false stories but they got true meaning’. Similarly, Canadian literary critic Northrop Frye comments: ‘The child should not ‘believe’ the story he is told; he should not disbelieve it either, but should send out imaginative roots into the mysterious world between the ‘is’ and the ‘is not’ which is where his own ultimate freedom lies.”

Hmmmm. What on earth does Northrop Frye mean by ‘ultimate freedom’? Between the ‘is’ and the ‘is not’? Sounds a little fishy to me. And why does Stone bring up over and over again the girl who says: some experiences might happen, but ‘not in the same way as in stories’.

And moreover, why does she continually rewrite and water down fairy tales to make them less violent and to give them happy endings?

Well, for one, obviously she is concerned that stories have a pedagogical purpose other than to scare the crap out of kids so they’ll behave nicely. And frankly, I think that the purpose of a lot of orally transmitted folk and fairy tales told to children is precisely that (to pedagogically scare the crap out of kids.)

The question is raised, I think, by Stone’s inquiries: in what ways and when do people take fairy tales literally? What about when they’re kids? What about when they’re not kids? I find it interesting that Stone specifies the “modern reader’s” ability to comprehend stories deeply. (When did this ability to comprehend more deeply arrive? Is it a new faculty disovered by one of Nietche’s theologians? – ‘All the young theologians of the Tubingen seminary went off right away into the bushes—all looking for “faculties.”’)

I think a lot of stories are born out of anxiety and used to create anxiety. Which at least means they’re here to stay.

James Shapiro, early modern scholar, asserts that you can tell a lot about cultural anxiety by the stories that are told. I fully agree, and so when I read books of folk tales, I looked for themes. The “Moroccan Folk Tales” (many of which resembled fairy tales) was full of fear about women — women betraying their husbands, their brothers, their step-daughters, their fathers. In the Jewish Folk Tales there’s a lot of anxiety about outsiders, blood libel accusations, being punished by God for failing to be humble or generous with the poor. In the ancient Egyptian folklore the stories were obsessed with questions of accession to the pharoah-ship, leadership, power, vengeance and pleasing the gods. In the African tales the anxiety seemed located around the problem of loyalty, generally between friends.

Stories feed and feed off of anxiety (an abundant food source), but in order to survive, they also need to grip the reader. Perhaps it is the fear that is more often than not, gripping. Suspense uses anxiety or fear as one of its main instruments. But there are other delights. There is violence itself, which is different than fear. And there is beauty. And then, there is beautiful violence and violent beauty. There is mystery that comes from the manufacture of pure curiosity. But, of course, I am not going to try to formulate a philosophy of pure curiosity — curiosity that is not laced with fear or lust or god knows what. If I did, it would be the theologins in the bushes all over again. I’m not looking for purity here. I’m looking for quality.

In Maria Edgeworth’s Harrington the story starts out with a folk tale:

“When I was a little boy of about six years old, I was standing with a maid-servant in the balcony of one of the upper rooms of my father’s house in London–it was the evening of the first day that I had ever been in London, and my senses had been excited, and almost exhausted, by the vast variety of objects that were new to me. It was dusk, and I was growing sleepy, but my attention was awakened by a fresh wonder. As I stood peeping between the bars of the balcony, I saw star after star of light appear in quick succession, at a certain height and distance, and in a regular line, approaching nearer and nearer. I twitched the skirt of my maid’s gown repeatedly, but she was talking to some acquaintance at the window of a neighbouring house, and she did not attend to me. I pressed my forehead more closely against the bars of the balcony, and strained my eyes more eagerly towards the object of my curiosity. Presently the figure of the lamp-lighter with his blazing torch in one hand, and his ladder in the other, became visible; and, with as much delight as philosopher ever enjoyed in discovering the cause of a new and grand phenomenon, I watched his operations. I saw him fix and mount his ladder with his little black pot swinging from his arm, and his red smoking torch waving with astonishing velocity, as he ran up and down the ladder. Just when he reached the ground, being then within a few yards of our house, his torch flared on the face and figure of an old man with a long white beard and a dark visage, who, holding a great bag slung over one shoulder, walked slowly on, repeating in a low, abrupt, mysterious tone, the cry of “Old clothes! Old clothes! Old clothes!” I could not understand the words he said, but as he looked up at our balcony he saw me–smiled–and I remember thinking that he had a good-natured countenance. The maid nodded to him; he stood still, and at the same instant she seized upon me, exclaiming, “Time for you to come off to bed, Master Harrington.”

“I resisted, and, clinging to the rails, began kicking and roaring.

“‘If you don’t come quietly this minute, Master Harrington,” said she, “I’ll call to Simon the Jew there,” pointing to him, “and he shall come up and carry you away in his great bag.’

“The old man’s eyes were upon me; and to my fancy the look of his eyes and his whole face had changed in an instant. I was struck with terror–my hands let go their grasp–and I suffered myself to be carried off as quietly as my maid could desire.”

The maid uses the folktale of the monstrous Jew to induce her charge to listen to her and it works, and not only that, the child, who was not at first afraid of the Jew at all, but rather curious about him, suddenly becomes terrified by his visage. Edgeworth is to some extent speaking from her own experience. She believed that her childhood education — that the stories people told her about Jews and Judaism — led her to become unwittingly antisimetic. Harrington was her strange attempt at an apology or explication.

I began thinking today of the stories I hear people tell, even now, today, every day, to try to hold up the illusion of the perfect other — the notorious, sinning, cannibalistic, care-free, uncivilized, blood-thirsy other. And then there the heroes and heroines: pure female, the heroic male who may kill, but he does it in the right place at the right time for the right reason. And then I began thinking of those stories that fall in between. The stories that take pleasure in their own mischief. Trickster stories. Bawdy stories of cheating and lying in which the cleverest one gets away with the gold, right, wrong, and enjoys it, too.

I once babysat a boy who loved dressing up as evil step-mothers and captain hook. He loved bad guys. He loved ghost stories. He loved being afraid and he loved trying to frighten people. He was also into fairies. In the autumn when the leaves were blowing around, he called them his little fairies. He talked to them. His favorite musical was Daisyhead Maisy. He also liked the Wizard of Oz. His favorite movie, Witches by Roald Dahl. He was five. He was the sweetest kid on earth. Occasionally he’d decide he wanted to be Prince Charming or Peter Pan but it never lasted long. He liked to practice his evil laugh.

I remember stories my mother told me as a kid that scared the bejeeeeeezes out of me and I didn’t even believe them. Even now I wish she hadn’t told them to me. She didn’t do it, I don’t think, to scare me for the sake of scaring me, but she didn’t want to be alone with her immense paranoia and she wanted to teach me how to cope with a fantastically treacherous world. She was offering me the only weapons she knew. This is how you face another day. This is how you become a hero in the occult suburbs of PA, or in the suburbs of the occult, as the case may be.

Freud and Jung both believed in the universality of certain myths and stories and the ability to unravel and understand ourselves by using stories as a map. I do think stories are culture building, and in building our culture, we build the things we will become or the things we will form in opposition to. I do think the stories we hear and tell and seek to hear and yearn to tell about ourselves and the world are, well, very telling. Sometimes I think, of course we share stories. We’re reatures. We all have similar needs, anxieties, desires around living, mating, comfort, trust, power, eating, dying. I don’t really know if there is a key to masterful living or adequate happiness. I think these, too, are all myth. But I love thinking about waking up to the great, blinding light of the sun, perhaps before there is even a word for such a thing, and coming up with that word, pulling it out of the earth’s crotch to fling up at the searing sky. Imagine discovering the sun. We use the word discovery so metaphorically, and so I think, imagine every day waking up to a new consciousness, an awful, rumbling, perilingual thing, and discovering the sun, the faithful mirage, that vexing golden embrace, in all its malevolence and glory.

As a writer, I think what I find most compelling about these tales are their violence, the story’s unswerving knowledge of its own construction — the erosion that happens with every attempt to construct an edifice that separates good and evil — language’s implicit understanding against stasis. I enjoy narratives that have the quality of being spoken. I enjoy short, fabulous narratives. I enjoy people who tell stories that they claim have actually happened, and then looking for the cultural or personal desire that inhabits that story, the cultural anxiety, of course, the relish — the teller’s pleasure in telling, in always trying out a new phrase or moment, sly or without any compunction.Above all, I love relish.


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Sawney Bean

In 1975 Ronald Holmes published a book entitled “The Legend of Sawney Bean” to address a story that had been passed down orally for well over a hundred years (in different forms, probably more like a thousand) before it was first published on broadsheet in 1700.

According to lore, Sawney Bean was the patriarch of a family of three generations of hungry cavedwelling or under-ground dwelling inbred cannibals. Out of laziness or scorn, Bean and his wife left civilized Christian life, begot a small empire, and the lot of them enjoyed only the toil of eating innocent, civilized Christian travelers.

Here’s an excerpt from the original broadsheet:

“Sawney Bean was born in the couny of East Lothian, about eight miles eastward of the city of Edingburgh, in the reign of James I of Scotland. His father was a hedger and a ditcher and brought up his son to do the same laborious employment.

He got his daily bread in his youth by these means, but being very prone to idleness, and not caring to be confined to any honest employment, he left his fathe rand mother, adn ran away into the desert part of the contry, taking with him a woman as viciously inclined as himself.”

And then Sawney Bean and his wife procreate and celebrate an everlasting gore-fest — clubbing, gnawing and chugging their victims — until they’re captured and brought to brutal justice.

(This, too, could happen to you, so apply yourself well and stay away from clubs).

Holmes’ “The Legend of Sawney Beane” is a strange book that contradicts itself and never, I think, gets sharply to the heart of the tale and its ongoing popularity. It gets close, though, to important ideas, and perhaps, by running in so many directions, reveals something spectacular about the process of searching for meaning in stories, and what kinds of focus, curiosity, lightness of touch and expertise it might take to try to scare out the polyvalent past of a folktale.

The book is certainly entertaining. The broadsheet itself and its place in the history of a growing print culture struggling to define itself, sell itself and stay within the realms of religious and political acceptability , is fascinating.


I want to step away for a moment, take a break from Christianity and cannibalism, and talk about a folktale I recently read in Volume I of Ben-Amos’s (ed.) “Folkatels of the Jews” entitled “Tales from the Sephardic Dispersion.”

The story is called “Sol Hachuel of Tangier” and it’s about a beautiful Jewish girl who befriends Atara, her Arab neighbor. Sol’s mother lets Sol spend time with Atara, but only while the father is away.

The two girls enjoy each other’s company, but the Arab neighbor wants Sol to convert to Islam and Sol continually refuses, which causes some tension between them.

Then Sol’s father finds out Sol has befreinded Atara and tells her she must no longer see Atara. Sol tells Atara she can no longer see her, and they separate.

Atara, angry or upset, as an act of revenge or perhaps without knowing the possible consequences and simply wanting her friend back, goes to the pasha and tells him that Sol, a peerless beauty, wants to convert to Islam, and her parents are keeping her from it. The pasha has the police bring Sol to him and tries to convince her to join his harem, but she refuses. In the end she is executed.

In the commentary after the tale:

“The tale refers to historical events that occurred in 1834 and left their impact on the oral tradition, literature, and religious worship of Moroccan Jewry. Sol (or Suleika) Hachuel (1817 – 1834) was the daughter of Chayyim and Simchah of Tangier. According to historical acounts and oral tales and poems, she was a beautiful, vivacious, and graceful teenager. The accounts of her involvement with her Muslim neighbors differ. The present narrator tells aobut innocent playful friendship between two girls regardless fo their religious difference.

“According to the report in Banaim, Sol escaped to her Muslim neighbor’s yard after a minor quarrel with her mother, whose name in that version is Fadina. The neighbor, a married man, like dSol and tried to seduce her to convert ot Islam and become his wife. She steadfastly refused, but he locked her up and then announced that she had already converted. Consequently, her claims that she was Jewish wee construed as a renunciation of Islam, an act punishable by death. The Jews were helpless and could not find any venue to save her. She was brought before the king; but despite his general kindness to the Jews, he could not resolve the situation. The king tried to convince Sol to convert to Islam, but to no avail. Neither enticement nor torture could lead her astray from her Jewish faith, and she was executed.

“After her death she became knwon as Sol ha-Tzaddikah (The Righteous Sol) or, by the Arabic epithet, as Lalla Suleika (Holy lady Suleika), and her tomb became a pilgrimage site for Jews and Muslims alike. The inscription on the tomb, as Issachar Ben-Ami observed in 1981, is bilingual in Hebrew and French. The Hebrew section can be translated as follows…

“Her martyrdom story became a popular legend among North African Jews. The Jewish Rumanian explorer Israel Joseph Benjamin (1818-1864), who visited Moroccan Jews in the mid-nineteenth century, reported this event. According to his version, it was the Moroccan prince himself who fell in love with Sol and wanted her to convert to Islam and become his wife. Benjamin dated this set of events to 1831…”

In the end, it turns out there are many versions of the story, each with a slightly different plot twist. We know that Sol was a Jewish girl who was executed/martyred by Muslims, perhaps we will never know the exact details. But her life, her insistence on remaining steadfastly Jewish in the face of death, became deeply symbolic to the Jews. I am curious to learn more about her place in Muslim folk history. (This was all I could find — wikipedia “It might seem rather strange that Moroccan Arabs consider the girl to be their saint, but as it was explained by Léon Godard in his “Description et histoire du Maroc: “Despite their intolerance, Moroccans, however contradictory this may appear, do in some cases honour the holy people of other religions, or beg the aid of their prayers from those whom they call infidels. In Fez, they render a kind of worship to the memory of the young Sol Hachuel, a Jew of Tangier, who died in our time of terrible torture rather than renounce the law of Moses, or alternatively renew an abjuration previously made, by yielding to the seductions of love.”)

How does this relate to Sawney Bean?


Holmes tries, at times intriguingly and at times, I fear, clumsily at best, to address lots of big topics in this little book: from “Prehistoric Cannibalism”  to “The Legend in Literature” to (whew) “Vampires and Ghouls.” I really think he’s onto something most illuminating when he addresses folklore, cannibalism and Christianity in the same breath.

Throughout his book, Holmes seems torn between finding literal meaning and metaphorical meaning in Sawney Bean. At the time of his writing, archeologists were making discoveries that proved many legends and folktales are, in fact, based on historical people, places and events.

Holmes uses these discoveries as a jumping off point to ask the question: was there really a Sawney Bean? He goes on to discuss possible places where the family might have dwelt, but finds no treasure trove of bones, no proof.

He moves away from this form of literal looking and looks at the conflicts and tales that came before Sawney Bean, longstanding folktales that set the tone and perhaps gave birth to Sawney Bean. In doing so, he offers proof for Christian fear of cannibalism and paganism and the equation of the two, and to some extent supports Christianity’s battering of pagan cultures, and glorifies dangerous distinctions between “civilized” and “uncivilized” behaviors and cultures.

“At the time when the Normans were building their comparatively civilised, comfortable and sanitary castles all over England the natives of Galloway were primitive, savage, warlike and, if not actual cannibals, inclined to use human corpses in horrible ways. They were not particularly backward when compared with the vikings of Harold Hardrada which Harold of England had repulsed, thus allowing William the Conqueror an easier hold on Britain, but as time went on and the civilising influence of Christianity took effect elsewhere the people of Galloway continued in the old ways.”

It’s clear that the story of Sol Hachuel has historical roots. Holmes really tries to give Sawney Bean a chance at the real:

“Some aspects of the legend, however, must be considered to be embellishments rather than themes. The prolific progeny attributed to Sawney and his wife is just possible provided one assumes that they bred like animals and that nature favourde the statistical requirements in selecting the sex of the children. Over the twenty-five years specified, it would be necessary for five of the first six children to be girls and for them to begin to reproduce at the age of thirteen for the figure stated in the legend to be met. In view of the hygiene and the rate of deaths in childbirth at this time this is most unlikely”

(He obviously isn’t up on his cannibal birthing statistics).

He goes on to explore the possibilities of finding remnants of a true cannibal family, but relents at last and despite much pro-Christian anti-heathen language, does address the folktale as a love child born at least partly of propaganda. But he doesn’t look further into the cost of such stories and their fanatical distortions. Instead, it’s as if he sees himself reflected in a body of water, and he knows that below the surface of the water, if he would only reach down, is a moment of truth, even if only the size of a cuttlefish, but he doesn’t want to reach down for fear of distorting his own image (how many of us do?).

Here are some questions I’ve arrived at after reading his book (among others such as, is bog butter good on toast, did George Lucas ever fall into a Wookey Hole, what ever happened to the Laird of Lag):

When does it make sense to go looking for the roots of a folktale in an actual history of events and when does it make more sense to look for roots of a story in ideology or ideological history? And might one explore those places where historical and ideological murals meet and split off from one another? When one tracks a folktale’s journeys, does their scrutiny become part of the story’s historical or ideological life, and might that unleash an originary, unintended fury?

And, perhaps most importantly, how can we dig past the rubble of codified thinking and begin to find, not what stories are revealing, but all that they maniacally (club in hand, bloody teeth bared) try to hide.


I supposed I would have to do much more research to do this well, but I would like to call attention to the violence that stories of cannibalism inspire and justify.

Stories of the cannibalizing other, the ones who leave the “civilized world”, or were never a part of that world, are often conjured out of fear of any unknown, but more often conjured by those who aim to have some power over media as a way to keep people mired to specific (and not always savory) cultural practices. Fear-mongering is powerful and the Legend of Sawney Bean really takes this trope — what happens to those who go against the grain, and what kind of people try to live outside of cultural norms — to its limits.

That is not to say it’s not a good story. With a good enough story, many a trope might be taken to its limits and do some serious damage, sometimes these tropes find themselves going under and resurfacing, recycled and redeployed, even turning tail and heading straight for the mouths that launched them (think worst U-boat nightmares).

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Stories are dynamic.

Though complex, they often move and change like adaptive single-celled organisms.

They become cultured, they create culture, they change as cultures change yet often hold on to some old, tried nugget of a former self.

Some stories are visually, breathtakingly beautiful, colorful, vivid, contrasting elements of transcendent hope and earthy tumult.

But they are never innocent if, by innocent, one means, free of destructive capability, ideological intention, desire.

They eat time and shit ideology.

They eat ideology and try to shit something else and can’t.

They mesmerize.

Their uses are manifold.

They get around.

They come around and go around.

They buy time for those who want to stick around.

They have questionable aim but they almost always fire.

I’ve been reading a lot and though I will take more time to write about individual books and stories, I want to spend some time making general observations about what I’ve learned:

some scholars use the terms folktale and fairy tale interchangeably and some feel there is a fine line between the two and spend varying portions of their academic careers trying to draw that line

sometimes all the categories I’m trying to address here — myth, folklore, fairy tale, legend and fable — blur in the course of a scholarly essay

a lot of mythological and legendary writing comes from long bardic and other oral traditions, but mythological writing tends to address creation, gods, larger questions of the natural world, its fluctuations and manifestations. this can but does not have to draw the mythic tale outside the pale of folklore.

legendary writing that evolves directly out of oral tradition might also be considered folklore, though it tends to address elite historical figures and lager historical events and movements rather than “common people” and folkloric archetypes (trickster, martyr, fool, innocent, jealous female family member).

for some, the designation of folktale  implies only that a story has been passed down for generations and comes from a long oral storytelling tradition. in this case the story can have fantastical qualities or qualities of myth and fable and still be called a folk tale

some scholars use the term folktale to describe any oral tale

others call a written story with folk qualities folklore or folk tales. What gives a story folk qualities? I think it needs to be about folks.

but what of all the tales about ghouls, witches, magic transformations, princes, princesses, giants, little people, minuscule people, cupcakes. is it the subject matter or who is telling the tale — and under what conditions — that makes it a folktale?

I think that’s up to you.

I find the narrative quality — a certain talkiness and a certain lilt of amused informality — can hint at the stuff of folk. but it depends on whose folk. the way tales are told certainly varies from culture to culture and the urgency and humor of these tales varies from story to story, teller to teller, moment to moment. there is no stasis here

in my experience almost all non-fiction story telling and a lot of fictional story telling, can have folkloric qualities. but for me, a true folktale steers away from the literary — and by that I mean written flourishes, excessive description. things feel like folktales to me when they take on a certain familiar tone of voice, a narratorial simplicity, a marked modesty or bragadochio and offer an immediate settling of basic facts and details, often strangely specific and generic. “There once dwelt in Safed a Jew of great wealth and good fortune, who traded in jewels, diamonds, and other precious stones.” “Long, long ago there were two brothers who lived in separate houses but shared the farm they had inherited from their father.” “Once upon a time there was a merchant who had three sons.” “A certain Chelmite set out for Warsaw, holding his hands stiffly in front of him, and his two thumbs sticking upward.” “A girl who had only one brother liked the place where she and her parents lived.” “Let me tell you a story of a poor boy with at least a dozen problems in addition to all the ones you’ve already heard about, who was sent far away from his home.”


when I think of a traditional folk tale, I think of something that someone tells, or can tell easily in a group setting, that then gets retold, and might accumulate zaniness as it goes, a kind of skinny snowball effect. People enjoy the original or earlier telling because they can identify with the story or because it’s funny or because it’s just on the cusp of believability and maybe they can even say this wacky thing happened to someone they know.

A distant relation heard a story from his coworker. We’ll call his coworker J. J lives in a neighborhood that’s up and coming. He himself has lived there a long time and occupies a rag-tag house bordered by a ratty tatty yard boasting a dirty mangy dog. He could never stomach a white picket fence. A fence once lived where he lives. Now there’s one post left and it’s rotting.

A perfect family buys the house next door to J and moves in. They keep an immaculate house, an immaculate yard, an immaculate fence and hover over pristine children. Moreover, an angora rabbit floats back and forth inside a large, well-furnished hutch in the back yard. As you can imagine, she’s coiffed.

Right away tension builds between J and his neighbors. After only two weeks the cops have come to his house three times to tell him to turn his music down. A neighborhood committee has suddenly been formed and they’ve left him fliers with names of landscape architects. J’s at his wits end. Then his mongrel dog comes home one night scratching fleas and drops a dirty, floppy, very dead angora rabbit at J’s feet. He’s wagging his tail. (The dog.) It’s the neighbor’s rabbit. J is sure. He goes to the hutch and sure enough, the hutch is empty.

J’s panicked. He doesn’t know what to do. Will they sue him? Will they try to de-mange his dog? He looks online. Angora rabbits can cost up to two thousand dollars. And what about emotional damages.

He makes a decision.

Now he’s in the bathroom, filling the bathtub with warm, soapy water. He’s on his hands and knees, scrubbing the dead rabbit. Now he towels her dry. Now he pulls his sometimes girlfriend’s blow drier out of the cabinet that’s otherwise empty except for a bottle of old, cheap cologne, and starts coiffing. He uses his toothbrush because his lady friend took her hairbrush with her the last time she was over.

When he’s done primping her, the rabbit looks great. In fact, as far as he’s concerned, she’s never looked better. He even considers giving her a spritz of his cologne, but then thinks better of it. He feels something close to pride as he goes to the neighbor’s yard to deliver her.

He puts the rabbit back in the hutch. He takes a deep breath. He sleeps like a baby. In the morning, he gets up early to go to work. As he’s getting in his souped up flaming blue 1970 El Camino, he hears the following cries from the next door neighbor’s yard. “Daddy! Daddy! Come quick. The bunny came back to life!” his eyes scan the yard, sailing toward the voice. just before his gaze reaches the hutch, J sees the little grave his mangy dog dug up the evening before.

This story has, I think, folktale qualities. It can be ratted and primped and souped up, blue flames and all, but it has a solid core.


Folktales with magic in them are sometimes called fairy tales.

Sometimes they aren’t.

Sometimes it depends what kind of magic. More than that, it depends on the context of the tale.

Some scholars argue that while folklore comes from oral tradition, fairy tales have distinctly literary origins.

Some say while folktales might have fairies in them, fairy tales treat specific themes and generate specific kinds of characters and transformations (evil stepmothers, rags to riches, frog to prince, modest girl to princess). In this sense, fairy tales might be closer to cautionary tales or fables in their pedagogical aims.

But I am almost certain that if you picked up any book that claims it is full of folktales, most likely you will find in there stories that smacks of the fairy tale, fairy tales you know and love. And if you read about “Grimm’s Fairytales” you will learn that the Brothers Grimm claimed all the tales came from the oral traditions of regular folk when the truth is, many of the stories came from close female relations of theirs and the BGs…well…souped them up quite a bit to make them fit for print.

Stories, when written, don’t hold the throaty power of the literal voice, the fire of the teller’s eye, and so truffle for their own strength in a fine-tuning or flourishing of language. That other voice. Though I wouldn’t want to be the one to perform an operation separating one idea of voice from the other. The bleeding might stretch and roll, fill a driving expanse of water like they do the Nile in the myth of Ra.

I would argue that stories have intentions more than delineations. Categories are fluid and some stories fit more easily into specific categories than others. Off the top of my head I would identify fables as brief moral tales, often involving animals. According to wikipedia, “A fable is a succinct story, in prose or verse, that features animals, mythical creatures, plants, inanimate objects, or forces of nature which are anthropomorphized, and that illustrates a moral lesson (a “moral”), which may at the end be expressed explicitly in a pithy maxim.” Already it’s clear, even a succinct definition of fable opens the door for endless crossover between genres.

Instead of stuffing stories awkwardly into categories, I am going to make a list of things I think stories that might come under one or more of the categories of folktale, myth, fable, legend and fairy tale, have traditionally intended to do:

Seduce; explain; entertain; teach; urge caution; provide advice; encourage religious conversion; pass time; pass down cultural or cultural/historical information; delineate a finite cultural identity or create or enforce cultural unity; call attention to the teller; extol the qualities of some shady character/important/powerful figure; extol qualities of a religion, a way of life; extol people places or things; trash people places or things; get people to gang up on — a person, a presumed category of persons, a culture, a religious group, an ethnic group — and shun them, convert them, kill them, or merely kick their ass.

And sometimes, after getting their ass kicked enough times, stories become the ammunition with which a community fights back. For example:

You might call stories about the Golem of Prague myth, legend, folktale, superstition. But these narratives are not born of a frivolous belief in the supernatural on the part of many Eastern European Jews — who believed also that Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, the Maharal of Prague, had the power to wake the Golem and send him on special missions, mainly, to stop Jews from being persecuted after accusations of ritually sacrificing and cannibalizing Christian children — a.k.a. blood libel.

Accusations of blood libel are insidious folktales in their own right. For at least two thousand years, blood libel accusations have been used by Greeks and Christians against the Jews in order to “reasonably” persecute or incite violence against them. Basically, Christians accuse Jews of killing their children and using their blood to make matzot for passover or for some other ritual purpose. (Obviously not up on laws of kashrut). And then they kill said Jews, or often persecute whole communities. Pogroms often started with such accusations.

The last blood libel case recorded in the United States occurred in 1928 in Massena, New York.

On erev Yom Kippur, 1928, the New York
State police brought in Rabbi Berel Brennglass of
Massena’s Orthodox congregation Adath Israel
for questioning. Four-year-old Barbara Griffiths of
Massena had disappeared and Albert Comnas, an
immigrant from Salonika, Greece, charged that, as
the highest of Jewish holy days was at hand, the Jews
of Massena might have kidnapped little Barbara
and ritually murdered her for her blood. The police
interrogated Rabbi Brennglass for more than an hour
about Jewish practices in respect to human sacrifice
and the use of blood in food. Fortunately, during
the interrogation, Barbara emerged from the woods
where, having become lost, she had spent the night
in the tall grass.
Her reappearance did not fully calm some towns-
people. They suggested that the Jews had released her
only on discovery of their plot. Choosing to believe
this was true, mayor W. Gilbert Hawes organized
a boycott of Massena’s Jewish-owned businesses.

(AJHS 2008, the story goes on)

So, we have stories — folktales — that circulate. According to these stories, Jews commit egregious crimes. These folktales are used as a tool to promote violence against Jews, and they have been very successful throughout the ages.

And then, we have the Golem of Prague and the great Maharal who, together, over and over again, according to Jewish lore, jump into the fray just in time to keep Jews from being punished and killed for blood libelous crimes they didn’t commit. These stories may not have  saved Jews from persecution, but they certainly provided a sense of hope, heroism, an antidote against hopelessness.

And, in fact, before the stories about the Maharal of Prague, comes an endless history of folktales in which Jews are miraculously saved from such persecution by Abraham, Isaac, Elijah, great rabbis, and I’m sure, Hashem.

Meanwhile, many stories which people have taken, over the centuries, to be myth or legend, and therefore fictional — turn out to have quite a bit of historical precedence. Stories of the Akkadian empire, for example, which I discussed briefly in a previous blog. As the legend of King Arthur shows, memory is a petri dish in which history and mythology change and grow to suit the needs and motifs of the moment.

And so, folktales and fables, legend and myth, the pithy fable…they often get tangled together and work miracles poorly and terror too well, but they do work, they do do things they set out to do, and then, they do things they haven’t even considered doing, and then they fly through time and people begin to wonder where exactly these stories originated and sometimes, in doing so, make great discoveries, and sometimes bark up very strange trees.

Which leads me to “The Legend of Sawney Bean.” Stay tuned.

(all images except the Golem come from “The Adventures of Prince Achmed”, the oldest surviving animate feature film, made in 1926 by Lotte Reininger — story extrapolated from 1001 Arabian Nights)

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