Tuesday, May 18, 2010

African tales

"Many familiar themes crop up in folk traditions that are otherwise culturally different. In a sense, then, these tales are part of a universal language which can speak to peaple across human frontiers, just as music does."

So says Alexander McCall Smith in the introduction to his collection of African tales from Zimbabwe and Botswana. So the next time someone asks me what I do, I should just say, "Oh, I dabble in universal languages."
And it's true that while the tales may not be the same from Africa to Western cultures, many similar themes appear. In the tale of "The Children of Wax," a couple has wax children for some unknown reason. They love their children, but because of their unique condition they can never see the sun. The prohibition of not seeing the sun also exists in tales such as Madame D'Aulnoy's "The White Deer" and the Norwegian "The Three Princesses of the Blue Mountain."
Image from here

And, just like in Western tales, the prohibition is bound to beviolated-one son, Ngwabi, can't control his curiosity. He walks outside at noon and melts into a puddle. His dismayed siblings wait until the sun goes down to go out and collect his remains. The oldest sister makes them into a wax bird. Once the sun rises, the wax bird turns into a bird that flew away, "and the children knew that their brother was happy at last." Birds are significant in many Western tales, as magical helpers and in other roles-but the specific image of a death that turns into the life of a bird is very much like "The Juniper Tree."
Warwick Goble

Of course I was drawn to the Animal Bridegroom tale. Though the title, "The Girl Who Married a Lion," might sound very much like one of our tales, it takes a different spin on marriage to an animal. A girl marries a strong, handsome young man. Everyone is happy for her-except her brother, who is convinced that her husband is a lion in man's disguise. No one believes him, but years and two sons later, the wife admits to her brother that her husband has an odd smell. The brother comes over and confirms that it is lion smell. To test him, they tether a goat to a pole outside. The next morning, the goat is gone and only the bones are left. This confirms that the husband was a lion, and the wife is able to escape the potentially dangerous marriage.

The wife is concerned about her sons. To test this, her brother puts his nephews in a cage by where the lions walk. The lions are about to attack the boys when their uncle saves them. The fact that the lions wanted to attack the boys meant they are not really lions, so the happy mother lives with her boys.

Our animal bridegroom tales generally involve a man in disguise as an animal, not the other way around. And maybe I'm just so used to this, but what did the husband do wrong, other than smell funny and eat a goat? He's a lion who somehow appears human, and must have desired to marry the woman of the tale. Despite his lion nature, he had never harmed her or his sons. The tale just says that he might have eaten her in the future.

No comments:

Post a Comment