Monday, June 02, 2008

Wide World of Folktales

As I mentioned earlier, I’m working my way through the J 398 section, which houses our folktale/fairy tale collection for children. If you’ve spent time in this section, you know it's a mix of picture books and anthologies. I'm concentrating on the picture books now; once I've read through the picture books, I'll tackle the anthologies.

Folktales, no matter their origin, often have similar qualities in common. You have the trickster figures always causing trouble and getting into mischief; the coyote is a frequent trickster character in Native American tales, while Anansi/Ananse is a well-known trickster character in West African and Caribbean folklore; often appearing as a spider, but occasionally appearing as a man. In many European folktales, the number 3 has great significance (perhaps due to Europe's Christian heritage, in which the Trinity is central to the faith); the young woman has three chances to guess Rumpelstiltskin's name, Snow White's stepmother makes three attempts on her stepdaughter's life, Goldilocks encounters three bears, etc.

The wolf may be a much maligned figure in European folktales, but the bear tends to fare a bit better. The bear is a regular character in German folklore and tradition, so much that when the German version of Sesame Street was created, a shaggy brown bear named Sampson was created for the Big Bear counterpart (rather than simply dubbing the American version of the show, Children's Television Workshop works in conjuction with local counterparts to produce shows that are unique to that particular country; if you get a chance to see The World According to Sesame Street, you can see this work in action).

Snow White and Rose Red by the Brothers Grimm might be one of the lesser-known tales of the brothers (no relation to the character named Snow White), but it's become one of my favorites. Two young girls show kindness to a bear, nearly frozen by the harsh winter. After initially scared by his presence, they quickly realize that he means them no harm. Involving another classic motif of fairytales-a young man imprisoned in the body of an animal until a good young woman sets him free-this is a fairy tale in which kindness and hospitality are amplified instead of physical beauty.

For a longer story involving a kind bear (who is actually a young man imprisoned in its body), read East of the Sun and West of the Moon, from Norway.

The original versions of the Grimm tales do not shy away from violence and gore; if you're only familiar with the sanitized versions or the Disney movies, reading unfiltered translations may be startling. That's certainly the case with Paul Heins's translation of Snow White, which shows the queen/stepmother in all her gruesome evil. The illustrations by Trina Schart Hyman are, to no surprise, lavishy beautiful. The prose is well suited for reading aloud, providing you chose your audience carefully!

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