by Charles J. Finger
illustrated by Paul Honoré
Interests: folk tales, fairy tales, South America, animals, magic
Doubleday & Co.: 1924
207 pp, 19 stories
Also by this author: Tales Worth Telling, Courageous Companions, A Dog at His Heel
This is a collection of folk tales told by the native peoples of Central and South America, personally collected by the author during his travels. A few begin with an account of how the author heard the story, in what locale and under what circumstances. The themes are common across many cultures – good triumphing over evil, the value of hard work, the foolishness of men, and how the small can defeat the mighty – yet this collection has enough bizarre twists and strange elements to keep the reader guessing.
They are folk tales, but the form and style are extremely similar to classic fairy tales, complete with kings, princesses, witches and enchantments. In many the animals of the forest either help the hero or work against him. There are also a couple of ‘just-so’ stories, one telling how the Hummingbird became so colourful, and another explaining how the rat, deer, and rabbit got their tails.
There is nothing too violent or objectionable in these tales, although their view of human nature is a little dark and pessimistic (ie. “The Tale of the Lazy People”). “The Cat and the Dream Man” is quite creepy, in a quiet, surreal kind of way, and was one of my favourites. The wild, hairy men with no noses who walk on the bottom of the ocean (“Na-Ha the Fighter”) and the witch who lures and enchants small children (“The Magic Ball”) could be quite scary for some.
One of the most historically interesting is “The Tale of the Gentle Folk”, in which a traveller from the peaceful people discovers a distant tribe of yellow-skinned “fierce men who do evil”. The Prince hears of this and knows that the fierce men will not rest until they find them and invade their land, searching for gold and bringing sorrow and hate with them. It’s a melancholy tale with no happy ending – the people turn themselves into guanacos (llamas) to wait until the fierce men are no more, and they are still waiting. Surely a lingering tale of the Spanish conquistadores?
The stories proceed in the slower, meandering pace that most older books have, some might find it too slow. (I found that, as I read mostly at bedtime, this book was very good at lulling me to sleep!)
Strange tales of magic, witches, giants and talking animals, these rather bizarre folk tales are a little on the dark side for very young listeners – not too violent, just creepy. And the stories are a little uneven, some are much more memorable than others, but this is still a good collection for anyone interested in folk stories from other lands. The woodcut illustrations by Paul Honoré in the edition I read are also pretty wonderful (see examples below).
List of stories:
A Tale of Three Tails – animals and magic fail to foil the labours of two strong sons
The Magic Dog – a man defeats a witch and wins the hand of the princess
The Calabash Man – a man outwits the crocodile king
Na-Ha the Fighter – a man battles the noseless underwater men
The Magic Ball – a witch vs. two small children
The Humming-Bird and the Flower – how the hummingbird got its colours
El Enano – a wild man is outwitted by a fox
The Hero Twins – two heroes defeat a giant
The Four Hundred – two heroes lead an army of heroes against a second giant
Rairu and the Star Maiden – a man falls in love with a star
The Tale of the Gentle Folk – a gentle people turn themselves into llamas to escape aggressors
The Tale That Cost a Dollar – a boy and girl escape a witch
The Magic Knot – a boy with a magic feather defeats an evil, giant bird
The Bad Wishers – a brother and sister are kind to a witch, and a spell is broken
The Hungry Old Witch – another witch is defeated
The Wonderful Mirror – a mirror reveals the evil nature of a step-mother
The Tale of the Lazy People – a man carves wooden monkeys to do the work of a lazy village, with disastrous results
The Killing of Cabrakan – the two heroes defeat the third and final giant
The Cat and the Dream Man – a supernatural cat sleeps, creating a dream man who walks the earth and fulfills the ill-conceived wishes of men, until they are both defeated by a virtuous youth and his mother