When I began to look at the way different cultures told fairy tales, I came to the task with a fair amount of bias. I was fully expecting to find that ingenuity was cherished in western tales, and obedience favoured in the east, but that was not the case. Fairy tales from all cultures have many omnipresent themes. It is a lovely reminder that we are not so different.
Cleverness and wit are aspects rewarded in new and old fairy tales from all cultures. The Grimm’s Hansel and Gretel outsmart the witch. Sinbad—of One Thousand and One Nights—escapes an island by strapping meat to his back and commandeering birds to freedom. The Boy Who Had an Eating Match with a Troll is an aptly named Norwegian fairy tale where a boy saves his family’s woodland by staging an eating contest with a troll, cutting a hole in his bowl of porridge, and then convincing the troll to carve a hole into its full stomach. In Li Chi Slays the Serpent—a Chinese fairy tale—a young woman is presented as an annual sacrificial offering to a serpent, but she tricks the snake with sweetened rice balls and slays him with a sword.
Tales from all cultures revolve around the accumulation of wealth and riches, and often both the antagonists and protagonists are plagued by the failings of greed. Titular wife of The Fisherman and His Wife can never be satisfied with her gains in wealth, and to penalise her greed, all her gains are stripped away by the golden fish who granted them. In Hans Christen Andersen’s The Tinderbox, a solider uses a box of wood to control three powerful dogs to grant his every bequest. His desires out-pace his luck when he orders the dogs to capture a beautiful princess. He is executed for his misdeeds. The miller’s daughter in Rumpelstiltskin nearly loses her first born child at the price of spinning gold, only to have Rumpelstiltskin be foiled by his own greed by bragging about the revelation of his name. Even the modern lore-wizard, Seuss, and his Lorax highlight the pervasive nature of wanting more. It seems to be an all too human inclination.
The most interesting similarity is that, in a very self-serving way, many pieces of folklore reaffirm the importance of storytelling itself. Scheherazade, a vizier’s daughter from a tale of the same name, is doomed to be beheaded by her new husband, the king (who has a habit of cutting the heads off of all his wives). Instead of befalling her fate, she uses her collected knowledge of all the tales and poetry of the Islamic Golden Age to tell her husband a story that continues night after night—he is so interested in the tale he stalls her beheading. After one thousand and one nights of spellbinding tales, the king decides he has found love. In the West African folklore tale All stories Are Anansi’s, Anansi strives to complete trails and tricks to become the owner of all stories, so that man who tells a story must acknowledge him. A powerful title indeed.
Fairy tales have the power to remind us that regardless of differences in culture or the passage of time, human experience is shared. Both princesses and pigs can have the same universal desires for romance, acceptance, power, and friendship.
Jaclyn Adomeit currently lives in Calgary, Canada where she works as an environmental engineer and is a member of the Alexandra Writers’ Centre Society. Her work has appeared in Armchair/Shotgun literary magazine, and online at Literally Stories and Flash Fiction Magazine. Her story, “Swine,” will appear in the After the Happily Ever After anthology due out December 15th.
Photo credit: (c) Theodore Kittleson