Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten. British author Neil Gaiman.
For centuries, folks have been telling and retelling stories of dragon slaying and other remarkable feats. This coming week, March 22-28 marks World Folktales and Fables Week, a time for retelling the classics that we’ve now recorded in books. Folktales are stories of tradition usually handed down by word of mouth. Fables, also a part of oral literature, end with a moral.
Growing up in Texas, I loved hearing the tales of Pecos Bill, who grew out of the imagination of southwestern cowboys. With his superhuman feats, he personified the frontier spirit of the American West.
He’s credited with the invention of the branding iron, the lasso and cowboy songs to soothe the cattle. He harnessed the Rio Grande to water his ranch. His horse, Widow Maker, dined on dynamite. When he fell in love with Slue-Foot Sue, he shot all of the stars from the heavens except one - the Lone Star. Edward O’Reilly was the first to collect these tall tales and publish them under the title, “Saga of Pecos Bill” in 1923.
In our travels, we’ve encountered a variety of tributes across the country to the lumberjack folk hero, Paul Bunyan, especially in Bermidji, Minnesota. But Maine, Oregon and California also claim the woodsman with superhuman powers and his companion Babe the Blue Ox. It’s said that Bunyan dredged the Grand Canyon by dragging his axe on the ground and his mighty footprints created Minnesota’s 10,000 lakes.
Historians believe that the tales of Bunyan were based on the feats of an actual lumberjack Fabian Fournier, a French Canadian timber man who, at six feet, stood a good foot taller than the average five-foot man. Journalist James MacGillivray recorded the first Paul Bunyan story in 1906 for the local newspaper in Oscoda, Michigan.
Of course, some of the best folktales around are the ones that Georgian Joel Chandler Harris collected in Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings - The Folklore of the Old Plantation, published in 1880. We all learned “The Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby” tale when we were just children. Harris was also an editor, along with Henry W. Grady and Evan Howell, with The Atlanta Constitution. The three are credited as the chroniclers of the changing face of the Old South into the New South.
While authors like Mark Twain, Zora Neale Hurston, Flannery O’Connor, William Faulkner and Toni Morrison claimed inspiration from the Harris collection, Alice Walker, also an Eatonton native, argued that he had stolen a major part of the black folk legacy from its authentic African American creators.
The Georgia Encyclopedia says, “Uncle Remus is an accomplished role-player and trickster himself. While humorously and affectionately telling the little boy superficially entertaining tales, he is also narrating double-stories that explore, just below the surface, a violent, predatory world of interracial strife, interclass warfare and assaults on the human spirit itself.”
Of course, every family has tales handed down from generation to generation. And each new generation adds to the family lore. Having grown up in a family of story tellers, my life was filled with amusing anecdotes. Not long ago, when a family member told of losing the TV remote control while watching TV, I couldn’t help but smile. Such situations always trigger stories for me.
My mother often told about the time she lost her garters as the Depression was nearing its end. That was the age before pantyhose when women wore two separate nylon stockings held up by garters. She was in a hurry and couldn’t find hers any where. So she, like so many women during that age, tied the top of each stocking into a knot. When she went to the refrigerator to get a baby bottle of milk to put in the diaper bag for me, there were her garters. To this day, if anyone in the family misplaces anything, I always check the refrigerator.
We like our heroes to be super, our folklore, double edged like a sword; but we most appreciate the family stories handed down from generation to generation which help define who we are.