Informant KJ is a sophomore studying cinematic art at the University of Southern California. He is of French-Canadian descent from the region of Quebec. Here, he discusses traditional Canadian folklore that has been known in his family for several generations:
“The Flying Canoe”
KJ: “The Flying Canoe” is a pretty strange story if you ask me. Basically it’s a French-Canadian tale about a group of lumberjacks who make a deal with the devil so that they can visit their wives and other family members on New Year’s Eve and to celebrate with them. Oh and these lumberjacks were in isolation in Outaouais, which is a region in Quebec and it’s pretty close to the Ottawa River. So the reason why they made a deal with the devil was because they couldn’t take being in isolation any longer. They missed their families and wanted to spend the holidays with them. So then Satan comes forward and says that he will help them to get back to their families, but only under his strict conditions. Satan said they must travel by canoe and they must not say God’s name in any context. Satan also said they must not run into any church steeples while flying. If anyone in the group disobeyed his rules, their souls were going to be taken by Satan. And of course, some of the men used God’s name when they weren’t supposed to. In another incident, one of the men steered the canoe into a tree, which caused them to fall out. Now, I’ve heard that there are different versions of the ending to this tale, but the one my family has told me over the years was this: The souls of these men were taken to hell on their canoe as punishment for disobeying Satan’s rules and that you can see every New Year’s Eve their souls in the sky riding through hell on their canoe. And then there are other endings that I’ve heard where the men escape the wrath of hell unscathed, but I’m only really familiar with the ending I just told you.”
How did you learn about this old French-Canadian tale?
KJ: “Well, I’ve heard it from my grandparents and my parents growing up. It was just a story that was kind of always told at family gatherings and stuff.”
What type of context or situation would a tale like this be performed in?
KJ: “I feel like it’s a type of tale that is told around a fireplace. It can be spooky at times, especially when it’s told in much greater detail and to young children, but now being older, I find it kind of strange.”
Does this tale have any significant meaning to you?
KJ: “Um ya it does to a degree. Like it’s a tale that has been passed down throughout my family for generations and it was fun listening to my grandparents telling it to me when I was younger, but now I look at it a little differently in that I don’t get scared by it anymore, obviously because much older. But it’s still a story that is fun to tell I guess.”
This French-Canadian tale has been long known and told over the years by the informant’s family. It is interesting to see the change in the informant’s perspective of the tale now and when he was younger. The context of the tale had a greater impact on him when he was younger, but now as an adult, he interprets the story differently. It is also interesting how Christian beliefs and superstitions were present throughout this tale, as it is very common in Canadian folklore.
The informant is a 21-year-old college student who was born in France, and continued to live there until moving to the United States at age 15. The informant’s mother is from Germany and his father is from Spain.
I asked the informant to grab a cup of coffee on campus, and questioned whether he had distinct memories of any bedtime stories that his parents told him when he was a child living in France. He described a German tale that his mother would often tell him, called “Hans im Glück.”
“The story goes that there was a guy named Hans, who was really poor. After seven years of hard work, he garnered enough wage to see his mom – a lump of gold. So he went on a journey and kept trading what started out as a lump of gold for various things he needed: a horse, then a cow, a pig, and then a grindstone. He loses the grindstone but ends up being happier after, because he’s tired of having to worry about all this trading and keeping track of things. Then he walks to finish the journey to his mother and tells her everything that happened to him.”
This German fairy tale, or märchen, does not follow the traditional story of a poor man working his way up in the world to wealth and success. Instead, it places more value on the connection that Hans has to his mother than his attachment to material items like the lump of gold that he acquires at the beginning of the story. The context within which the informant was exposed to the story, then, makes perfect sense: a mother lovingly telling a tale to her son of a son who is devoted to his mother. Knowing that this tale is of German origin, I asked the informant if he knew what book his mother had read it to him from, suspecting that it was related to the vast number of fairy tales recorded by the Grimm brothers. His response confirmed my suspicions, as he said that “Hans im Glück” came from a book of German fairy tales his mother had that mentioned the Grimm brothers, and when told in the English language it is titled “Hans in Luck.”
For the version of “Hans im Glück” published by the Grimm brothers, see the annotation below.
- Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, Hans im Glück, Kinder- und Hausmärchen, no. 83.
- Note that while this tale was not included in the first edition of the Grimms’ collection (two volumes, 1812, 1815), it was added to the second edition (1819).
- In the ATU categorical index, this falls under Aarne-Thompson type 1415.
The informant is a 21-year-old college student who was born in France, and continued to live there until moving to the United States at age 15. The informant’s mother is from Germany and his father is from Spain.
I asked the informant to grab a cup of coffee on campus, and questioned whether he had distinct memories of any bedtime stories that his parents told him when he was a child living in France. He described a tale that his mother would often tell him, called “The Seven Ravens.”
“A girl who is very sick and weak was born among seven brothers, so their father sent the boys to get this holy water to help their sister. But on the way, the brothers get lost, and so the father gets angry and says ‘I wish they were all turned ravens’ and they all turned into ravens. The girl eventually gets over her sickness and as she gets older she sees traces that she once had brothers. She became super curious and wanting nothing else but to find them. She met a witch who would give her this wish but she had to get all these specific materials to knot a sweater for every brother. She got super close but didn’t have time to knit the arm thing on one sweater, and all her brothers came back except one still had a wing.”
This German fairy tale, which describes a sister on a quest to find long lost members of her family, seems to closely follow the syntagmatic structure that the folklorist Vladimir Propp established for all folk tales. It follows a hero, the girl, who is sent on a long quest to fulfill a set of tasks that will satisfy her initial desire to piece together the traces of her brothers and ultimately bring them back into her life. Knowing that this tale is of German origin, I asked the informant if he knew what book his mother had read it to him from, suspecting that it was related to the vast number of fairy tales recorded by the Grimm brothers. His response confirmed my suspicions, as he said that “The Seven Ravens” came from a book of German fairy tales his mother had that mentioned the Grimm brothers. This märchen functioned as a source of entertainment for the informant, and provided his mother a fun and suspenseful story to tell her child while allowing him to settle down for bed. The informant’s mother and father were separated, which may help to explain why his mother was not worried about telling a story that did not shed a positive light on the hero’s father figure. Despite the father’s wrath in the tale, “The Seven Ravens” places importance on themes of family unity and persistence, and in turn functions to encourage young audience members to care for and support their family members and to never give up when faced with a difficult task.
For the version of “The Seven Ravens” first published by the Grimm brothers, see the annotation below.
- Die Sieben Raben, Kinder- und Hausmärchen (Children’s and Household Tales — Grimms’ Fairy Tales), final edition (1857), no. 25.
- In the ATU categorical index, this falls under Aarne-Thompson type 451, The Brothers Who Were Turned into Birds. Tales of this type are found throughout Europe.
Informant C is 20 year old and studies Journalism. She is half Turkish and speaks Turkish as well. Her mom is Turkish and is from the Eastern Turkey area, about 200 miles west of Syria. Her entire family is scattered over Turkey and have resided in Turkey for many generations. Many of them are involved in agriculture.
So a lot of fairy tales were actually made to teach kids lessons and to scare them, Turkish folklore is very much in that vein. It’s very much a country where the society is built upon kids being pretty obedient. They don’t have very much independence really even in college, especially if you’re a girl. You live in your parents home really until you get married or you move in with a different family member. It’s a pretty restricted society for kids. So a lot of stories tend to be kind of negative and ‘You shouldn’t do this’. And Gypsies are a big thing in Turkey. Any story that teaches kids a lesson, in these stories there’s usually this interesting character, they call her a hoca which is like a teacher. There’s always this like old man who will impart some wisdom on to the kids. And the guy always appears to be really stupid and then he turns out to be the smartest one. The Nasreddin Hoca is the guys name and he appears in a bunch of stories, and Nasreddin is his name and Hoca means teacher. So one day Nasreddin’s neighbor asked him, ‘Teacher do you have any 40 year old vinegar?’ ‘Yes I do’ answered Nasreddin ‘Can I have some I need some to make an ointment’ said the neighbor. Nareddin answered, ‘No you can’t have any. If I gave my 40 year old vinegar to just anyone I wouldn’t have had it for 40 years would I?’ So this is kind of a joke but kind of not, and they just tell these stories to people.
Informant C tells here about how in Turkey they use fairy tales to teach lessons to children and how to behave. In this story the neighbor asks for some vinegar but gets turned away. Although this story may seem harsh, it effectively teaches children that you have to be prepared in case something goes wrong and you can’t always rely on strangers to help you through. This story may reflect the values of self sufficiency and hard work in Turkey, and the importance of teaching children these values.
For this story and other Nasreddin Hoca stories see
Stories from Nasreddin Hoca. (2005, January 1). Retrieved April 30, 2015, from http://www.sivrihisar.net/stories.htm
About the Interviewed: Jakob is a senior at Calabasas High School. His family is half Isreali-Jewish, and half French-Canadian. He’s about 18 years old.
Jakob told me a tale his father told him when he was very little about the woods they lived in.
“Once upon a time there was a fairy named Silvertree, and she had a beautiful daughter named, Goldentree. Silvertree was jealous of Goldentree’s beauty. She wanted to eat her daughter’s heart because that’s what fairies do when they’re angry.”
“Silvertree was married to The King of the Forest. One day the King noticed that she was upset and asked what he could do to end her troubles. Silvertree demanded that the King bring her Goldentree’s heart.”
“The king, shocked by this turn of events, buried Goldentree away in the soil where she would be safe from her evil mother. He gave Silvertree the heart of a chicken, which fooled her for many years.”
“Many years later, Silvertree was walking through the forest when she stumbled across the most majestic looking oak tree in the whole forest. It was Goldentree, who by her father’s magic, had turned into the most beautiful creature of all. Struck by jealousy, Silvertree withered away, until she was nothing but a mere weed.”
Jakob noted that when his father told the story, he pointed to the oak tree that was on their front lawn, to indicate that Goldentree was always there.
It amazes me the power that stories have on us as little children. Jakob was only six at the time and yet he remembers it pretty well. I have stories stored in my mind that I don’t think I’ve heard since I was a child. We get to pass those stories on to the next generation, only maybe a little different than from when we first heard them.
“Once, there was a hornbill. He was the king of the birds, but he was mean and horrible, so they all hated him. But because he was really strong, no one could say anything to him, much less do anything about his tyranny. One day, however, the wise old owl had had enough of the hornbill’s bad attitude and cruelty, so he devised a plan to dethrone him and make the kind, gentle bulbul the queen of the birds instead. He called a meeting of all the birds except the tyrant King Hornbill, and shared his scheme – They would host a contest of strength, in which the bulbul and the hornbill would each have to stand on a branch forcefully, or peck it in some other versions, until it came crashing down. But what the hornbill wouldn’t know was that the, um, the woodpecker would have pecked away at the bulbul’s branch beforehand, weakening it already. Whoever succeeded in breaking their branch was the winner and the ruler of the the birds. And so, they carried it out, and took the proposition to the hornbill, who, being proud of his strength, arrogantly accepted the challenge without a second thought. He was unaware of the scheming that had already happened, obviously. So then the, uh, right, the bulbul and the hornbill stood on their respective branches. Before the hornbill’s horrified eyes, the bulbul’s branch came apart from the tree in less than ten seconds with a loud crack. Because he had accepted the challenge already, there was nothing he could do to go back on his word. So, disgraced and defeated, he left. And that’s how the awesome bulbul became the queen of birds.”
The informant related the context of his story to me: “It was actually pretty cool – I’d read both the versions of the story, one, as you know, in Amar Chitra Katha comics, and the other in a book of Indian folktales and legends. But I liked the one with the standing more than the one with the pecking, because it seemed more embarrassing for the hornbill, and so that’s the one I decided to tell you.”
This tale has the makings of a classic fable. Not only are there talking animals, but there is also a theme that is explored and built up to at the end of the story, which is demonstrated throughout the events that occur during the story. When examined closely, it reveals a moral of the triumph over adversity – adversity in this case being the tyrannical hornbill – employing cleverness and strength in numbers. The bulbul, the owl, and the woodpecker, all relatively small birds when compared to the large and imposing hornbill, team up together to take down their cruel king and succeed in doing so through devising a smart plan, proving that might isn’t always right, and brain is stronger than brawn.
*Citation: Kadam, Dilip. Amar Chitra Katha Special Edition – Panchatantra Tales. Mumbai: ACK Media, n.d. Comic Book.
Form of Folklore: Narrative (Marchen)
Informant Bio: The informant was born and raised in Yerevan, Armenia until 1990, when she and her family moved to the United States (Glendale, California), at the age of thirty six. Most of the folklore she has been exposed to is founded in Armenian culture. Her social surroundings in Armenia and her father are her primary sources of folklore.
Context: The interview was conducted in the dining room of the informant’s house.
Item: There once was a thief who wanted to repent for his sins and stop being a thief so he went to the nearest church to ask for God’s forgiveness. The priest at the church told him that he should simply try to be a good person. The thief asks, “How will I know if God has forgiven me?” The priest points to a tree in the yard of the church and says, “When the fruit from that apricot tree grows, God has forgiven you.” So the thief leaves and doesn’t steal from anyone even though he is really poor and is in need. He keeps coming to check if any fruit has grown on the tree, but every time he checks, there’s no fruit. Finally, he’s so desperate that he knocks on the door of a middle aged woman to ask for some help and shelter (so that he doesn’t steal again). The woman say, “Well, I live here alone with my three children and we don’t have much but you are welcome to stay.” Later, that night the children are begging there mother to give them food and she tells them that food is cooking on the stove and will be ready soon. The thief sees that the woman seems to be boiling some sort of soup. The children asked if the food is ready and the woman simply says, “Soon, soon”. The children are running around and playing with each other as they wait for the food to be ready. They play so hard that they get exhausted and fall asleep. The thief approaches the woman and tells her that she is a horrible woman for not feeding her children before they fell asleep. The woman, with tears on her face, says, “Sir, come see, I have no food. All I have is a stone boiling in this pot. I lie to my children that there will be food soon so that they may fall asleep with the prospect of being fed.” The thief is startled and deeply saddened by this news, so much so that he leaves in the middle of the night and steals food for the woman and her children. He leaves the food at their house and leaves. On his journey from the house, he passes by the apricot tree in the church yard and to his surprise sees that there is fruit on the apricot tree.
Informant Comments: The informant loves this story and told it to her children as her father had told it to her. She likes the fact that doing the right thing is not a matter of black and white. The story implies that the thief is forgiven for his sins when he actually steals. The informant does not believe that this actually happened but has seen acts similar to the thief’s in her personal experience. She believes if more people heard this story and understood it, then people would look out for one another and try to do the right thing more often.
Analysis: The idea of receiving God’s forgiveness and Christianity are apparent in this marchen but seem to lead the listener to the true moral of the story; this being that the intentions behind actions are of far greater importance than the actions themselves. When the thief would steal for himself, he was not forgiven; when he would do nothing at all, he was not forgiven; only when he stole in order to help others less fortunate was he finally forgiven. Regardless of how religious or non-religious one is, this story offers the listeners a comfort in knowing that when they do something that is not typically considered “right” bur for the “right” reasons, they are being moral, even if their direct actions are not so moral.
“Well basically what happened is there was a town, in somewhere in Germany, that was infested by rats. And, uh, they had this huge rat problem. And they were like “oh crap, what are we going to do about this?” So they hired this man, (audience member mines a piper), yeah exactly, who um, who enchanted the rats by playing his, uh..whatever his piper or something like that. And all the rats follow him out of the city. And, um, so the town never paid him. And, uh, he got super pissed, so, during the night one night, he came back, and he enchanted all the children of the town, uh, to follow him out and that was their uh, punishment.”
The informant is a student at the University of Southern California and says that she has German heritage through her mother and grandparents. She learned of this story from her grandparents and says that it is a good story to teach people about karma and owing up to people. This piece of märchen uses the typical points, where there is a moral story in the end. It is clear to all audience members as well as the informant that this story does not contain real characters that existed at one point, but is of a made up fantasy realm where a piper can enchant rats and humans to do his bidding.
This piece of märchen is normally performed in a family setting from an adult to a child, according to the informant. It is usually told by a parent or grandparent to a young child to teach the lesson of being honest and and fair, so that one won’t be punished. This piece of folklore has also been found published by the Grimm brothers, and they tell a very similar version, though theirs have a lot more concentration on the motifs of the story, rather than the vague version the informant gave. It is obvious that the informant is not normally an active bearer of this story, as she tells it without much detail and with only general knowledge on the overarching themes and plot line.
Annotation: This story has been adapted into a film called “The Pied Piper” in 1972, directed by Jacques Demy.
The tale of the chick and the kitten told verbatim by informant:
“My mother and my grandfather told me this as a child and still remind me of it sometimes in Farsi, but I don’t know how exactly how to tell it. It’s a story about this baby chick and its mother hen and the baby chick always asks, ‘Why can’t I go play with that baby kitten over there?’ and the mom always tells it, ‘Don’t go playing with that kitten, don’t go play with the cats,’ doesn’t really explain why but she’s lecturing her chick and the chick goes against her wishes and plays with the cat and gets eaten. So the moral of the story is don’t go and associate with people or mix with people who are your opposites… because they can change you they can get you in a vulnerable environment, like you’re not familiar with, like they can destroy you and they can be bad influences on you and take advantage of you and basically corrupt you as a person.”
I think this märchen is another instance where the authoritative nature of parents towards their children come into play within the Persian culture. There is question from the chick without explanation from mother hen, which is no uncommon to parenting, but since the chick still doesn’t listen and gets eaten (fairly scary for a child) there’s the implication that you shouldn’t every question your parents but simply obey—for your own good. That at 22 years old my informant is still reminded of the lesson from this tale is fascinating because she is first generation American. Since she is in the melting pot of America, surrounding by people who are different in her in so many ways, she needs to be that much more careful with who she surrounds herself with. Though I don’t believe the chick and the kitten are opposed in any formal way, the cat can be understood as a natural predator in most respects. The chick is not just killed, but eaten, which is a whole other level of destruction, or corruption as my informant suggests. Either way the notion of the Other is clearly established and made out to be something to be cautious with, but seemingly avoided all together (if taken more literally).