Context: R is a Korean American who was raised in Hawaii. She moved to Los Angeles to attend USC and is currently a freshman studying Computer Science. Her mom told her this story, and R herself has heard from multiple Koreans each with their own variation on what the tale sounds like. According to R, it’s a very popular folktale.
The story of the ax farmer begins with an axman who had a very poor quality ax. It was wooden and broken. He dropped in this lake one day, and there was a god living in the lake and the god appears with two axes in his hands, one gold and one wooden. The god asks the axman “Which one is your ax, the golden one or the wooden one?” The axman answers honestly with “the wooden one.” The god, impresses by the man’s honesty, gives him the golden ax.
However, there was another man listening to the ax man and god’s conversation. He then purposefully threw an ax into the lake and the god appeared. The god asks the man which ax is his and the man chooses the golden ax. The god knew he was lying, so he punished him. The punishment R never specifies, but she implies that the god severely punished the other man for lying.
Like any tale, the god and man interaction and the golden ax is clearly not real. There is no real lake that this story was at nor would there be a god living it who can give golden axes to passersby. But, due to the context in which these motifs are placed, the audience is able to learn a very real and applicable lesson about honesty and punishment. From Oring’s definition of a tale, the inherent falsehood of the narrative makes it easier to digest; the linear path the plot takes and the extreme contrast of the characters allow the logical and real-world solution to the story, the man’s punishment, to be impactful and relatable. From there, the two-dimensional and predictable story can be adapted into metaphor, and then motif and then life lesson. A god living in a lake and the existence of a golden ax are metaphors for a high power or authority in life and rewards. By pleasing the authority figures with honesty and good morals, rewards will be given. Lie to power or manipulate selfishly, the punishment will be severe and no such rewards will be yielded. Tales like these are usually told during childhood, so this tale gives a young and innocent audience a hard truth about living in society without it being overwhelming or stressful. The tale is blaring entertainment, yet perfectly subtle in the delivery of morality and ethics.