Saturday, June 11, 2011


I like getting familiar with how different scholars interpret fairy tales, but after a while you start to hear other voices in your head when you read and lose your own. Different branches of thought can help aid our understanding, but Francis Lee Utley reminds us, "and yet the human being who tells the story is quite as important to any ultimate hypothesis of archetype as a single folktale history is to the history of the genre. More so, indeed, if depth psychology is really interested in its proper subject matter, the living person."

I invite you to read this summary of a fairy tale, and think about what it means to you before you read any more:

The Magic Drum (an Eskimo tale)
Once there was a girl who did not want to marry. She had many suitors, but refused them all. One day two brothers came along, and the girl became attracted to them. She followed them outside, but the brothers put on the skins they had waiting-they were white bears. They forced her into the water through a hole in the ice, where she was dragged along for a while and then abandoned.
As she walked, tiny animals bit into her skin, tearing away her flesh until she was nothing but a skeleton. She finally found land, and discovered that through wishing, she had the power to provide herself food and shelter. One day she noticed other people hunting, and wished to go meet them, but as she approached, they fled in fear. The girl despaired, but the hunters went home an told their old father about the skeleton woman. He was not afraid, and went to meet her.
The girl asked the old man to make her a drum. He did so immediately, and when it was finished, the woman began to beat it and dance, reciting a magic incantation as she did so. Her dance restored herself to her former body, and the old man to his youth. The girl and the man decided to marry.

Before you go on, stop and reflect on your personal reactions to this tale.

According to Father Metayer (an Eskimo elder? a priest? the introduction to the book this story is in, by Al Purdy, doesn't clarify), "the girl of the story did not want to be loved by any of the young men of her group. Because she rejected love, her beauty, her very flesh, was destroyed. Only when somebody loved her...when she accepted him, was she 'born again' as a beautiful girl. And in turn her love gave back to the old man his lost youth. You see now the very impoartant message of this story: a woman is not fully a woman without the love of a man. And a man will never grow old as long as he has the love of a woman."

Al Purdy himself reminds the readers that "the myth itself is not didactice before interpretation." This is certainly true, because I didn't read the tale at all like Father Metayer!

To me, this tale was about empowerment. In a world of fairy tales where it seems that women automatically accept marriage from any man the moment it's offered, here we have someone with standards. I would see the mistreatment from the bears as a lesson against trusting strangers, not as a punishment for not accepting earlier marriage proposals. The female character learns to take care of herself. I find the ending beautiful-two people, both rejected by their cultures, who find frienship and eventually love with each other.

Now it's your turn. What were your thoughts as you read the tale? Please comment! Everyone's thoughts are valid. Everyone's unique experiences can help open other people's eyes to possible ways to see this tale (for example, I'm single and loving it, and I get extremely irritated by implications that there's something wrong with a single woman who isn't actively pursuing a husband. This clearly influences my reading of the tale).


  1. First off I want to say I enjoyed the tale. I should read more fairytales from more different cultures than my own.

    As for my thoughts while I read it, I felt that the woman was punished for both saying no to countless of men, and because she fell for two attractive men, and thus she was stripped from all beauty and youth.

    Though coming to the end I'm also prepared to say that it could also symbolize the fact that as long as you do have love, you will forever remain young in spirit.

  2. Interestingly, I read it a completely different way.

    To me, the tale seems to be about broken relationships, and moving on. The girl falls in love with the wrong men at the start, and she is abused and abandoned, suffering until she's nothing but a skeleton. Gradually, she finds she can rebuild her life, but is unable to forge new relationships (she is still a skeleton). That is until she finds the person who is not afraid of her, and is willing to look beyond her horrific appearance (sort of like Beauty and the Beast) - although he is unexpectedly not the type of man she wanted at the start. Then, like Father Metayer says, through each other's love they are able to become young again and never grow old.

    I do wonder at the significance of the man being an "old father" though, and also at the drum. Perhaps the drum symbolises passion, something deep, instinctive and real, like the beating of a heart, or like true love.