For class this week we were given the opportunity to hear and explore both some Bangladeshi and Indian folk and fairy tales. Speaking from his personal experience with Bangladeshi fairy tales, Dr. Shabbir Mian from the physics department presented a lecture on Rupkotha or literally “beautiful words.” Rupkotha he explained are tales which are frequently told to children and passed down orally. Because they are a part of an oral folk literature, these tales have numerous variants, though all reflect the environment of the culture which they are a product of. These stories most often expose a conflict between two opposing conditions; good and evil, vice and virtue, etc. The climax of this conflict is that the positive elements of the tale (virtue and good) are rewarded, while the negative aspects are punished. These good and evil elements are embodied in a variety of characters that can range from demons, monsters, and witches, to kings, queens, princes, and saints, to ghosts and talking animals. Common themes in Bengali tales include the ascetic offering help to the hero, a goddess similarly offering a gift, rulers seeking council from wise talking animals. The common characters of witches and demons tend to follow a pattern in which the witches are smart and cunning, and the demons are brutish and unintelligent. The common Western theme of a jealous stepmother is usurped in Bengali culture by the jealous/evil second wife. There are also many similarities between fairy tales in Bangladesh and the West as well though. Many modern Rupkothas for example borrow from European stories and as a result sometimes form hybrid tales mixing local and foreign customs. Amongst current readers of fairy tales in Bangladesh, Western tales such as “The Little Mermaid” and “Cinderella” have all become popular, though often with slight Bengali twists.
One Bengali story which has not been heavily laden by Western themes is the story of “Blue Lotus and Red Lotus.” Although it represents a largely Bengali version of a fairy tale, it interestingly depicts themes that seems common throughout fairy tales world wide. In the tale before the action of the narrative can begin the good first wife must be killed and replaced by the second evil wife. This idea mirrors particularly the case of “Snow White” where the good mother must die before she is usurped by the evil step mother. In the case of the tale of “Blue Lotus and Red Lotus” the death of the good mother at the hands of the bad mother, and eventually the destruction of the bad mother at the hands of the protagonist brothers may be representative of the oedipal conflicts. In order to grow as individuals they must psychologically overcome their reliance and attraction to the good mother. In order to do this they unconsciously project an evil impostor in her place so that they can destroy her and move past their psychological hang ups.
We might look at this same tale from a different psychological standpoint as well in exploring the duel nature of the sibling protagonists. When the children are first devoured by their mother they are regurgitated as metal balls. The first of these balls was golden and produced the purely human child. The second of these balls was made of iron and produced the semi-demonic second child. While Dr. Esa has explained that gold in many cultures is symbolic of the divine, it can also be associated with light, knowledge, and enlightenment. In this case, it is possible that the human child is meant to represent the enlightened or conscious part of our minds. In contrast the half-demon child, sprung from the darkness of iron, may represent the dark, wild, and sometimes “demonic” instincts of our unconscious id. If we for argument sake assume that this is the case, than it is no coincidence that it is only together that the two children succeed in overcoming their oedipal conflicts. A psychologically healthy and stable mind is needed to overcome such conflicts, and a psychologically healthy mind (as we see in tales such as “Sinbad” and “1001 Nights”) seeks a balance between the conscious ego and unconscious id. If this is the case, one might further argue that the two brothers are actually two halves of the same whole. To add to this argument the book seems to make almost no distinction between the boys except in ability. Furthermore while they are originally born to different mothers, they are symbolically reborn from the same mother at the same time when they are regurgitated after their ingestion by the demon wife.
This past week we read several fairy tales by the authors Hans Christian Anderson and Oscar Wilde (who I had never realized wrote fairy tales). The tales (“The Little Mermaid”, “The Red Shoes,” “The Selfish Giant,” “The Happy Prince,” and “The Nightingale and the Rose”) all contained the most basic elements of a fairy tale. All of them were infused with an unquestioned element of magic. The reader doesn’t have to ask how the red shoes possessed a young girl to dance or how a bird and a statue were able to communicate. Like some of the fairy tales we have read, such as those by Perrault, the stories also have an almost overly overt moral. Whereas Perrault stated his moral at the end of the tale however Anderson and Wilde seem more likely to weave their moral through the story. Another difference, Anderson and Wilde are seemingly preoccupied with religious themes, particularly the theme of salvation. In Anderson’s “The Little Mermaid” the Mermaid’s ultimate goal was to achieve an immortal soul through suffering. In “The Red Shoes” salvation is achieved by sincere penance. In Wilde’s “The Happy Giant” on the other hand the Giant finds his salvation by giving aid to a child Christ figure. In “The Happy Prince” Wilde dictates the value of the protagonists sacrifice when he has them judged by God and and angel. “The Nightingale…” is the only story that doesn’t seem to have an obvious Christian moral, though it does still emphasis the important Christian principle of sacrifice.
Of all the guest lectures we have had so far I think I enjoyed Dr. Ochieng’ K’Olewe’s the most. Our other lectures have all been interesting and informative as well but Dr. Ochieng’ made his lecture both instructive and enjoyable. His presentation invited our class to participate not just as students learning the lesson but as examples of what he was teaching as well. In fact, he made the entire classroom part of his lesson. As he told his tales he turned off the lights for the tale Dr. Ochieng’ invited us to participate in a call and response style introduction. The lights he explained were turned out because traditionally stories in Africa were told at night, once all light had gone. The absence of light allowed the story teller to become any character he/she wants. So in the dark, with our sense of sight diminished were were able to focus on Dr. Ochieng’s voice as he became turtle, or monkey, or shark. The call and response version of “once upon a time” not only showed us part of the African story telling tradition, but also immersed our class further into the tale.
The tales he told specifically were all fun tales and were similar to other African tales I have heard before which often deal with animals and tell how something (be it a physical feature, a practice, or a relationship) came into being. In a lot of ways I feel like some of the tales Dr. Ochieng’ told us and other African tales I have heard are in some ways more accessible and understandable to broad audiences. I wonder if European folk tales and fairy tales enjoyed similar accessibility when they too were purely part of the oral tradition and before writers recorded them into the literary tradition.
This past week we read a number of stories from the Jewish folktale tradition. In some ways these tales were very similar to other tales we have read so far. For example, many of them included an element of magic which was taken for granted in the story. In “The Rabbi Who Was Turned into a Werewolf” for example we see two elements of magic which are accepted as part of the folktale world. The first of these elements is the magic ring picked up by the Rabbi and which grants him wishes, including unlimited wealth. The second element is the transformation of humans into animals, as when the Rabbi is turned into a werewolf and then back again into a man and when his wife is turned into a mule. In “The Magic Mirror of Rabbi Adam” we see more instances of magic including a magic mirror which shows different events around the world, a magic arrow that always finds its target or else returns to the archer, and a magical staff into which was tied the life-force of an evil sorcerer. In these tales we also find the archetypal “trickster” character, often but not always embodied by a Rabi. In the story of “The Rabbi and the Inquisitor” the Rabbi outwits the Catholic inquisitor to secure his innocence in a murder case. In “A Dispute in Sign Languages” on the other hand a local poultry dealer uses his wits to save his neighbors from the oppression of the church.
This sense of oppression is one of the major elements which set the Jewish folktales we have read apart from the other tales. All the tales take place in the Jewish diaspora and are under-laden with a sense of otherness and discrimination, often it seems at the hands of the Catholic church in particular. Another element setting these tales apart is the nature of the trickster. In many tales a trickster hero is not necessarily seen as good or moral, whereas the trickster in Jewish folktales is often seen as a moral man, who is portrayed as a wise trickster as opposed to a devious one. This sense of morality is woven through many of the tales and emphasis, in addition to wisdom, the humility and selflessness of the rabbi (or other hero such as the poultry dealer).