Monday, July 23, 2007

Folktales without borders

Re-reading Marina Warner's From the Beast to the Blond her analysis of a German folktale, the Juniper Tree, reminded me of a half-remembered Palestinian one I'd heard as a child, The Green Bird, and when I checked it in Muhawi and Kanaana's collection it turns out to be a more than striking similarity.

There are quite a few differences in details of course, the one I found intriguing was the father's reluctance to remarry in the Palestinian version, fearing how a step-mother would treat his children, which made him more of a 'sympathetic character' than the father in the Juniper Tree - who nevertheless escapes death, despite similarly unconsious canibalism.

The avoidance of patricide and purging of all evils through the surrogate mother figure might be part of the Grimm brothers' reworking of their materials for the sensibilities of contemporary child

I don't mind bowdlerisation though; some experts seem to imply 'authentic' tales, crude and earthy and true, told by peasant hags in some hut and being disfigured by the Perraults seeking to satisfy a literate elite, but tales passed on orally are also changed at each telling with regard to the audience.

The Green Bird as I remember it told years ago, started of with the stepmother making kib'e and greedily gobbling it all up herself, and as we were old enough to enjoy being scared, we were told in gory detail how she made her step-son into a replacement meal, but there was greater stress on the father's constant worry about his missing son, who he is told ran away. The woman who told it might have heard it in this version, or she might have made her own changes...or maybe she first encountered it reading Muhawi and Kanaana's 's popular anthology.

The relationship between written and oral folktales should not privilege either, and actually with the tradition of elites gathering these narratives and recreating them in forms to suit their literary taste and social, or even political, purpose going back so many centuries, it seems senseless to imagine a folklore purely oral, even if oral narrative was to be seen as the more pure, essential form of these stories. They have always been a collaborative, collective effort, always something made, not just existing, constantly being consciously remade, not spontaneously mutating.

And not necessarily a cosy process around the home fires . The resemblance between Mameluk sagas like Sayf bin dhi Yazin, or Alf layla wa layla, and Russian folklore is usually explained with reference to the the Central Asian hordes marauding across, and then settling in, both areas. Battles and blood baths, are probably also the reason for this instance of cross-culturation between the fertile crescent and central Europe. In fact Warner's book makes a couple of references, in the context of legends based on Biblical figures, to Crusaders bringing back the Muslim folktales about Solomon and Bilqais the Queen of Saba2/Sheba for example, and adding them to the local mix.

So anyway, war and empire building/dashing seems to be an ideal time to swap fairy tales...will something positive come out of the creative chaos the region is currently experiencing after all?

The Green Bird
The Juniper-Tree

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