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The Folk Tales of the Primer

There are possibly two stories in the Primer not drolls, the first and the last. Since drolls are manufactured out of anything, however, tradition or not, we might call The Little Red Hen, a pedagogical droll. In it, surely a lesson of cheerful industry is taught along with accurate ideas or planting and harvesting, grinding and baking. Or to be very modern, we might call it a domestic science droll, since the ideas of food sources and bread-making are prominent. The recollection that most of us have of the The Little Red Hen, I dare say, is the poetized version:

"íOh, I will then,í

Said the little red hen,"

and so forth.

The Gingerbread Boy is a delightful hero, as is also the Pancake fellow. The children will not miss the expressions of countenance of these two as shown in the pictures and they should not miss the expressions of the other actors. The touches on the Gingerbread Boy are the most subtle, and should in themselves afford some pleasant oral composition on the part of the children. Since both these stories are tragedies that are not tragedies, the idea of what a droll is from a literary point of view might possibly be grasped by the more advanced pupils if not by all. They might be asked to make up drolls of their own. When we remember that Macaulay was reading the newspaper when he was four years old, that John Stuart Mill was studying Latin and Greek and had read all the high school classics in those subjects as well as in mathematics when he was eight, and that Robert Louis Stevenson had dictated a history of Moses before he could write, we need not hesitate to talk a bit rationally to our young subjects in the classroom. Some of them may be aching with genius and be ready to grow wonderfully if they only have the chance. Humor is a good pedagogue as well as a good civilizer. We cannot have too much of a the right sort in school.

The Old Woman and the Pig might be considered the standard of the repetition droll. It is a typical folk tale also, in so much as it reflects the simple attitude of early people toward the rest of creation. There was not for primitive man, as there is not for children to-day, any conscious barrier between the inanimate and the animate or the mere animal and the human. To the naÔve mind the accident of never having heard a dog converse or a stick reply, would not preclude the belief that upon occasions either could do so. Water and fire, oxen and ropes—why should they not talk as well as the butcher? and have their own affairs and their own prejudices? As for the sixpence, it is English, of whatever nationality the pig may be! the cumulative repetition idea must be very old, but this particular sequence could not go farther back in date than the first year of stiles, of rope manufacture, and of the differentiation of butchers. The sixpence is merely representative, one would suppose. If not, wise critics in dim future ages will be able to say definitely, considering that one point alone in connection with contemporaneous evidence, that the story did not originate in the years 1912, 1913, 1914, among any of the civilized tribes. Unless, perhaps, the whole composition were launched in 1914 as a droll on the coercive measures at that time in vogue.

The Boy and the Goat is a cry-baby droll, on the same pattern. The illustrations are charmingly conceived. One is not quite sure, however, whether the disproportionate size of the bee is art or satire. The position of hero should justify the emphasis.

Chicken Little—or Chuck Luck, as he is sometimes called—is a brave youngster of much wisdom. He has his prototype in the world to-day, and has had it ever since man was man. The testimony of an eye witness goes very far with most persons; few stop to consider whether or not snap judgment has accompanied the seeing and the hearing. However, Foxy Loxy is met sooner or later, and all is over for a while, until another company with a Chicken Little for leader comes along. This story has many versions. The Norse, in Dasentís translation, is called The Cock and the Hen that went to Dovrefell.  Here the hen finally outwits the fox, but only after he has devoured her followers.

The Billy Goats Gruff is the other side of the shield. In this story the humanized heroes come off victorious without mistake. This is indisputably one of the best drolls in the world. It has virility with charm, the fairy tale quality with naturalness, and the essentially oral style with naÔve humor. The mimetic element alone would make the story immortal. No one who knows it can hear a goat go over a bridge and not think of the line. The beat of the little hoofs is unmistakable. The repetition of it is fascinating and the jollity and sprightliness are irresistible. The fact that the sprightliness is enforced makes the humor the better, as does also the fine brotherly love of the Gruffs. They are united against a foe—they are united as many a set of brothers is in the strength of the greatest. Daring and cunning may avail if one only have substantial reference. The two smaller Gruffs felt that they had it.

The troll belongs of right in a Norse tale. He is made to tease Norse heroes and to be outwitted by them. He is usually a fiercer creature than is here represented, however. In the original story he has eyes as big as saucers and a nose as long as a poker. The nose is characteristic of trolls. No wonder that the goat flew at him, poked his eyes out, crushed him to bits, body and bone, and tossed him into the water!

Little Tuppens, the next hero, might be Chicken Littleís less educated cousin. He has the family traits. The story as here given is more interesting as a mere story and more logical than either the German version, called in Grimmís collection The Death of the Little Red Hen,  or the Norse version called The Cock and the Hen a-Nutting.  The logic of the sequence, however, makes one suspect the hand of the pedagogue. The dwarfs, though a late addition by the kaleidoscopic process, are not inappropriate. They belong to folk stories thoroughly and may well join the sequence. This is a better version for school children than Grimmís, both because of the information entailed and because of the happy conclusion, though children love funerals and buy hens and pet canaries with aesthetic pleasure. The Norse tales just mentioned has a happy ending also, though not the dwarf ending, as one would suspect. The kaleidoscope has been shaken a number of times in this story. There are many versions. The unnatural natural suspense is the charming droll element retained in all.

Little Spider is Spinning her First Web. Every teacher will recall with what delight as a child he used to come upon a spiderís web. The exquisite workmanship never failed to hold his attention. The last selection in the Primer gives opportunity for nature study, not only of the spider but also of the bee, the ant, the cricket, the butterfly, and the bird. The music of the out-door world should come under discussion also, and the question of how the insects make their songs. The teacher should explain to city children especially that the relative size of a bee and a cricket and of an ant and a cricket is not always that given in the illustration. Distinction should be made, too, between the cricket and the grasshopper. General relative sizes are better expressed in the last picture. The study of color, in which children revel, should not be overlooked. The Primer is of necessity restricted, but nature is not.

The connotation of the last line is excellent. This little primer surely should make the children who read it very happy. The drolls have in them the merriment of the ages; and through the quaint structure of these narratives, repetition of words (a necessity in a first book, but usually secured through a joy-killing device) here turns out to be a delight, psychologically attendant upon the art of real literature.

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