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The Folk Tales of the First Reader

The First Reader contains five more rolls: the two English The Three Little Pigs  and the Cat and the Mouse; the German The Bremen Band;  the Russian The Straw Ox;  and the Norse The Sheep and the Pig. 

The Three Little Pigs has the ancient well-honored motif  of the weak and supposedly stupid domestic animal’s finally overreaching the cunning of its wild enemies. That pleasing through is presented through the still more pleasing device of repetition with jingle.

The Cat and the Mouse is similar, only it is not nearly so spirited; besides, though it has the rhyme, it lacks the tripping rhythm. The sequence idea is chief here.

The Bremen Band does not lack the rollicking effect of a droll, and the gentle satire is evident, especially when one remembers that this is a German production. The dramatic form is here good, and would be justified historically by other drolls in dramatic garb in Grimm’s collection, like Clever Hans, if it were not justified in the first place by the native love of children for dramatic presentation.

The Straw Ox is quite as good in the droll way as The Bremen Band, and could easily be dramatized extemporaneously by the children. The story recalls the Tar Baby of the Uncle Remus narratives. The idea is as old as tar or older, and belongs to no one country. The Russian atmosphere of this tale is worthy of note. The bear is not an infrequent visitor at the doors of the scattered peasant huts of that vast land, as he is a non unfamiliar caller, likewise, on the few inhabitants of our own Yosemite valley. The other animals of the forest and wood seem hardly less familiar in a Russian door-yard than a bear. Russia is covered with thousands and thousands of square miles of beautiful forests that harbor all kinds of animals. Though there is the natural and primeval attitude of one creature’s paw or fang against the other, there is a degree of brotherliness between man and beast not found in thickly populated communities from which wild animals have been altogether banished. In a primitive community, as here in the story, upon any occasion of mutual advantage all goes well. The old man’s occupation of sharpening his knife as he sits by the cellar door is characteristic—though not only of Russian farmers, it must be admitted. But the dialogue that follows certainly suggests the proverbial source of the Muscovite peasants’ winter garments, and when for these are substituted the other household necessities—honey, sheep, geese, and turnips—anyone who has been in Russia feels immediately at home.

The Sheep and the Pig is a fable-like droll. The fable element lies in the proverbs. The whole tale might be considered a pleasant fling at homely and conventional sayings. Even a child would smile at the rabbit’s complacency when he says, "Good tools make good work." The next proverb is unquestionably droll also, both in statement and connotation. The pig’s addition later is appropriate, too, coming from him. The repeated salutation and the summary of the story are in themselves worth while, as is indeed the whole composition. It has the unmistakable sturdy tang of Norse folk morality in it.

Wee Robin’s Christmas Song has a Scotch tone corresponding with its source, and Wee Robin has Scotch sagacity. The story is a late production, obviously after the advent of Christianity in England. Animal epics, to which this story is allied by suggestion if nothing more, are a natural form growing out of the earlier community living of beasts and men. The story can hardly be called a droll. Wee Robin is too direct for a droll hero, and too aristocratic. The little pig was shrewd, but he won his way through plebeian methods. Wee Robin is intellectual and dignified. The greatest animal epic, or beast epic, is that of Reynard the Fox, but many of Reynard’s adventures are droll; besides, he is generally a rascal. Like Wee Robin, he is sagacity itself. However, the sly fox in this narrative is only one of Reynard’s less capable descendants. The whole tone of the version is late, even very modern. The appropriateness of the gift to Robin of Jenny Wren comes from the fact that the robins and the wrens feed together.

Little Two Eves is one of the beautiful German nursery sagas of the Cinderella tradition. The ancient and primitive elements have been softened in both stories as given in our readers. The common properties are therefore not so apparent as they are in the German versions. The distinguishing incidents, rather, are retained, as they should be according to the law of good story transmission. The conception of persons with a varying number of eyes is ancient. Polyphemus, the chief of a race of one-eyed giants living in Sicily, had his one eye put out by Ulysses. Odin, the Norse god, is one-eyed. Jupiter, according to a Greek myth referred to by Grimm, has three eyes. The idea of a magic plant’s springing from a buried portion of a killed or murdered creature is a common incident of folk tales. Teachers need not be afraid of these wild elements. Normal children are not shocked by them, because children themselves are in the folk tale stage of mental development, repeating the evolution of the race.

Little Half Chick is also a late composition, with an artificial myth element in the attempt to account for the weather-vane. The story is made up of ancient motifs, however, and is not uninterestingly told. The talking of Little Half Chick with the brook, the wind, and the fire is a true folk element. The idea of revenge is, of course, not exclusively Spanish, though at home, surely, in a Spanish tale. Naked justice is folk wisdom, and children appreciate it more than they do sentimentalism.

Little Topknot has both a fable element in the implied moral and the satire, and a myth element in the explanation of the absence of the large topknot on the hen. Such stories are called animal-myths, or Pourquoi  stories. They answer the question why. There are many to be found in collections. "Popular Tales from the Norse" has one called Why the Bear is Stump-tailed  and another, The Cock, the Cuckoo, and the Black Cock  explaining the cries of the birds. Grimm’s collection contains a similar story about the Bittern and the Hoopoe, and one about the Willow-Wren, and still another about the Sole, explaining why its mouth is on one side. Another called The Fox and the Geese  is an animal-myth droll. A charming folk-myth like these, save that it is not about animals, is Grimm’s The Straw, the Coal, and the Bean.  The story accounts for the black seam on the bean.

The Fisherman is a very old story and is widely diffused. Grimm mentions a number of variants, and reminds us that the feature of the wife’s inciting her husband to seek high dignities is ancient in itself and dates from Eve. The greatest example in al literature is that of Lady Macbeth. It is the tragedy of human daring couples with weakness that holds the reader and makes him return to a contemplation of such a course of events, even in its simplest form as a folk tale. High deeds ending disastrously have always been a tragic theme. In the Pomeranian version of this narrative the ominousness of the streak of blood on the water is in its way as fine a touch at the beginning as the short introductory scene of the witches is in Macbeth. The concomitant changing of the ocean with the increasing gravity of the events continues the effect. The impiousness of the fishwife’s final ambition links her with Marlowe’s Faustus as well as with Lady Macbeth. This criticism cannot be said to be artificial and forced, nor is it high-flown; for if the story be admitted to be true literature, as it indisputably is, then it must be admitted to be germane with all other true literature on the same theme. Moreover, indeed, Marlowe took his Faustus from popular legend. The Fisherman’s story remained popular in form and is a nursery saga with childlike tone, but even the youngest reader or listener senses the philosophy.

The Lad and the North Wind has an entirely different atmosphere about it, but is equally good. It (a very happy story) is to the Fisherman  (a very serious story) as As You Like It  (a comedy) is to Macbeth  (a tragedy), One must not be understood to say that The Lad and the North Wind  is a droll. It is no more a droll than As You Like It  is a farce. The Lad is a true nursery saga hero, the son of a poor woman. He has the sturdy confidence of his class. He does not hesitate to seek out the North Wind in its very abiding-place and demand justice. The good-humored action of the North Wind makes the reader feel the presence of destiny in the boy’s life, and makes the critic suspect lingering myth elements in the narrative. The personification of the north wind is myth-like. "The tablecloth, the ram, and the stick," says Dr. Dasent, "are of the things of Wish, or Choice, about which the old mythology has so much to tell." Wish or Choice is Odin under another name, and its bounty is like the bounty of Odin. The Aryan school would naturally find much significance in the ram’s money.

Whatever the hidden myth elements may be, this is a true nursery saga in its present form, as is attested by the fact of the boy hero’s winning success from his oppo9nesnts in repeated similar situations, first b y initial bravery and second by a charm that he has secured through his persistence and good humor. The skeptical attitude of his mother, as well as the rascally behavior of the landlord, is also typical.

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