Category Archives: International Folktale Characters

International Folktale Character: The Monkey King

 

 picture credit: Roland @ flickr.com   Name: Monkey Uh…is that it? Well, he also goes by Monkey King, Handsome Monkey King, and Sun Wukong, or “Disciple who is aware of emptiness”. And what sort of character is he? Um, the name’s a bit of a giveaway. I get that he’s a monkey, but what makes him, you know, MonkeyIt’s a bit of a long story!  He’s a trickster, a braggart and a hero from China, who got into all sorts of trouble with the celestial pantheon.  And he’s been around since before the Han Dynasty (206 BC). So he’s old. Should I be impressed?  Yes.  He also boasts of being able to transform himself into 72 different images, immortality, and the ability to use the clouds to travel 34,000 miles in a single somersault.  As he says, “Why shouldn’t I take the power of the Jade Emperor?” Sounds like a modest guy… Yeah, Sun Wukong thought pretty highly of himself.  But who wouldn’t with skills like those?  Plus, he conquered all the best generals in Heaven, managed to sneak into a celestial banquet and steal everything from the peaches of immortality to some vintage wine, and escape from imprisonment in a fiery cauldron after 49 days with enhanced sight and strength.  Cheeky monkey. Was he just hell-bent on wreaking havoc in Heaven?  Not so!  He was acting out after being snubbed: after wiping his own name from the Book of Life and Death and being tattled on by the Kings of Hell, he was offered a rank in heaven.  Sounds great, right?  But everyone knows that “Horse-Manager” and “Official Gardener” aren’t Heaven’s most illustrious titles.  He was starting to feel like they’d promoted him just to keep him out of trouble. What a handful! Tell me about it.  And Buddha would agree – he was called in to help out in Heaven and eventually tricked Monkey into submission by daring him to jump out of his palm. Sounds like a cinch…but it wasn’t!  Let it suffice to say that the Buddha’s fingers look an awful lot like the 5 pillars of wisdom at the end of the universe.  The dare ended up with Monkey imprisoned in a mountain for 500 years, and the Buddha wiping simian pee off his hand. I blame the parents. Then you’ll have to go looking for a rock on the Mountain of Fruit and Flowers!  Or perhaps you’re referring to the origins of the Monkey legend, which many believe is the Hindu Ramayana. So did he ever escape from this prison?  He was released in order to help a monk travel to India to retrieve Buddhist sutras.  He did such an awesome job (with a little help from an ego-squeezing headband controlled by the monk) that he was given Buddhahood.  And hundreds of years later, Mao Ze Dong declared himself a fan and suggested all of China could take inspiration from the ingenuity of the Handsome Monkey King. Yeesh.  Talk about giving the guy a big head.  So does he just appear in the one story?  Yeeees…but sort of like Spiderman or Batman, there have been many different versions and re-tellings, including the famous translation of Journey to the West; a popular 1970s tv show; and an opera written by that guy from Blur. Don’t Say: Quit monkeying around. Do Say: Buddhism is more fun than a barrel of monkeys!

 

Featured Folk Tale Character: Anansi

photo credit: Calsidyrose @ flickr.com

Q: So who are we talking about this time?

A:  Anansi.

Q:  Bless you!

A:  No,  Anansi!  Kweku Anansi the Spider, God of Stories and Mischief.

Q: A spider?  That sounds horrifying. And a spider God sounds even worse.

A: He’s not really so much a God of spiders, and his activities aren’t so very spidery.  He is a spider, but in most Anansi tales he behaves very much like a man.  In fact he is a trickster character, usually using his cunning to outwit and manipulate others, (you know, leopards, monkeys, other gods, that sort of thing), although sometimes he’s too clever for his own good.  He’s a very powerful and old god, with fingers (or rather, legs) in many different mythological and supernatural pies; he determines the borders between the land and the oceans, he brings the rains to quench forest fires, and in some versions he is credited with creating the sun, the moon, the stars and even the first man, into whom his father, Nyame the Sky God, first breathed life.  However, he is of interest to us primarily because he is also the possessor of the knowledge of all stories, a knowledge which he obtained through trickery from Nyame (it involved a python, a leopard, some hornets, a dwarf and some glue; look it up if you don’t believe me).

Q: So is he a bad guy in these stories?

A:  Not really, no.  Anansi stories (and there are so many of them that they form their own genre called Anansasem) are told to entertain and to teach moral lessons. Sometimes Anansi  uses his cunning for his own greedy ends, in which case the moral often comes at his own expense, but often he uses his brains to overcome a stronger, threatening opponent, so Anansi has become a symbol of brains over brawn and a hero of the oppressed.   Not only that, but his web is supposed to have inspired humans to weave fabric, build houses and link themselves together to form a strong, balanced society.

Q:  So where’s this busy gentleman from? 

A:  It is believed he originates from the Ashanti culture in Ghana, but he’s travelled far and wide since then, becoming popular throughout much of West Africa, before the advent of the slave trade meant that he too crossed the Atlantic and wound up in all the same places as the people who told his stories: Jamaica, Haiti (in fact most of the Caribbean), South America, Belize, and the southern states of the USA, particularly Georgia and South Carolina in the Gullah culture.  Along the way he changes his name a number of times.  He’s Hanansi, Compe Anansi, Ayiyi and, by the time he fetches up on the shores of the United States and in the Br’er Rabbit stories, Aunt Nancy.

Q:  Is it this history that gives him the “hero of the oppressed” reputation you just mentioned?

A:  Precisely.  Anansi survived by being passed along through the oral tradition of storytelling, and it should be of no surprise given the circumstances of their telling that the stories that have survived are often the ones in which Anansi  becomes the champion of the powerless, using only his cleverness to defeat those much stronger than him.

 Don’t say:  Gross!  A Spider!!  SQUISH IT!!!

 Do say: A story.  Pass the rich tradition of Anansi on to the next generation by reading one of the many wonderful Anansi stories aloud to a younger listener.  Try Anansi the Spider by Gerald McDermott, or Anansi and the Talking Melon by Eric A. Kimmel.

Featured Folk Tale Character: Baba Yaga

photo credit: Tagada Victoria @ flickr.com

Q: Who? Baba Ganoush? Ali Baba?  Yo Gabba Gabba?

A: No…Baba Yaga.

Q: Never heard of her.

A: Well, she’s a mysterious figure from a range of different Eastern European folk tales.  In some, she’s very much the villain: an evil witch with iron teeth who will happily kidnap you and keep you prisoner if she gets the chance.  In others, she’s…well, she’s still the same old iron-tooth crone, but she can be a source of wisdom, help, and advice.

Q: Did you say… iron teeth?

A: Yeah, she uses them to eat up little Russian children, or so the story goes.  But that’s not the strangest bit.

Q: Really?  What is the strangest bit?

A: That would probably be her use of a pestle and mortar to fly through the sky instead of the traditional broomstick.

Q: Huh.  And where does she live?

A: Just in your average creepy hut in the woods.  That stands on chicken legs.  Which let it roam around wherever she pleases.

Q: Naturally.  So why should I read more about this Baba Yaga lady?

A: She’s a pretty fierce, one-of-a-kind female character in folklore; she’s genuinely scary; she was first referenced in writing in 1755—so she’s likely to stick around a little longer!  …with her terrifying teeth…

Q: Ok.  Any book recommendations?

A: Sure!  Try Tashi and the Baba Yaga by Anna Fienberg, Barbara Fienberg and Kim Gamble.  Or check out Baba Yaga and the Stolen Baby, by Alison Lurie.  Another good bet is Baba Yaga the Flying Witch, by Susanna Davidson.