Sunday, November 25, 2007

The Clever Maiden (Kazak)

There was once a heartless sultan who even in the best of times would slay his subjects left and right for sometimes the slightest misdeeds. So fearsome was he that even ghosts were afraid of him. One day, when he was in a bad mood, he summoned his three ministers before him.

"My dear councilors," he began, "I have three questions to ask you. First, what is the most beautiful thing in the world? Second, what is the hardest thing in the world? Third, what is the sweetest thing in the world? Whoever can answer each question correctly shall be rewarded; whoever cannot shall lose his 'brain sack.' Now, prepare to answer."

The three ministers stood still in deep thought. Finally, the first among them spoke up and said, "Your Majesty, I think everyone has a different idea about what is the most beautiful, the hardest or the sweetest. Ask a hundred people, and you shall receive a hundred answers."

"I see," said the Sultan, clapping his hands for his guards. "You, sir, did not answer the questions. Guards! Take him to the chopping block. Display his head for all to see!"

The guards led the unfortunate man to his doom.

"And you," the Sultan addressed the second minister, "how do you respond?"

This man rubbed his beard, shrugged, and replied much the same way.


Now there was just the third minister alone with the Sultan.

"And I suppose your reply will be the same?" the Sultan asked him.

"No, Your Majesty, it is not," he said, his knees quaking. "I do not have any answers yet. However, if Your Majesty would kindly permit me to have three days' time, I will certainly come up with the correct answers."

"Oh, so be it," said the Sultan, yawning. "All right, you have three days." He then dismissed the man.

The minister returned home, but there he could neither eat his lamb nor drink his tea. He felt agitated and tossed and turned all night, trying to come up with answers that would allow him to keep his head. He thought and thought and thought until he felt his brain was ready to burst.

His daughter was alarmed to see her father so upset and asked him what was troubling him. He then told her he had only two more days to find out answers to three questions posed by the Sultan.

When she had heard what the questions were, the daughter laughed and said, "Why, Father, those questions are easy to answer! The most beautiful thing in the world is cotton. The hardest is poverty. The sweetest is love. Give those answers to the Sultan, and if he asks from where you got them, tell him that you had heard them from me."

The minister then reported back to the Sultan, announcing that he had the answers to the three questions.

The Sultan listened to the answers and mused over them for several minutes.

The monarch accepted the three responses, but when he heard the minister's daughter had coached her father on what to say, he said, "Since your daughter gave you the answers, I summon her to appear before me to explain her reasoning but under these conditions: first, she cannot arrive here by either walking or riding; second, she cannot wear clothes, but neither can she appear in court naked! For her to violate either one of these demands will mean instant death for both of you. Now go and fetch her here before the day is done!"

The minister returned home, hanging his head all the way, and told his daughter she was to appear that day under two impossible conditions.

When she had heard what the conditions were, the daughter replied, "Have no fear, Father. I know what to do. Leave it up to me."

She then retired to her chamber, where she took off all her clothes and wrapped herself up in the finest transparent gauze from all of Arabia. She next had her father call for two servants and a sedan chair. She then climbed up onto the chair, allowing her left leg to dangle from the chair so that her foot would be able to touch the ground. The daughter now ordered the two servants to take her to the palace. Her father walked on ahead.

The Sultan observed her as she entered court. She was riding yet not riding, since her left foot was walking upon the ground as the chair was being carried. And her person? She appeared to be both clothed and unclothed at the same time. The Sultan felt he had no choice but to admit her into court. She had met the two conditions.

"All right, girl. Why do you say that cotton is the most beautiful thing in the world?" asked the Sultan.

"Your Majesty," she respectfully replied, "flowers bloom, wither and fall to the ground without doing anything other than being pretty to look at for a very short time. Cotton, however, lasts and lasts and can be made into warm and lovely garments. Is there truly anything more beautiful than that which can keep us both clothed and attractive?"

"Very well, " said the Sultan. "Now how is it that poverty is the hardest thing in the world?"

"Nearby our home, Your Majesty," said the daughter, "there lived a widow with several children. After her husband had died, she had to work even harder than before to feed her young ones and herself. She had to do the work of two adults day in and day out. She worked and suffered to the point of being a walking skeleton without having anything to show for her sacrifices and anguish. She sold off everything her husband had ever given her, and she was still unable to put enough food on the table. One cold morning, her children found her swinging from the rafters . . . This is why I say that poverty is the hardest thing on earth."

"All right. Those are two good replies with one more to go. Love. Why is it the sweetest?"

"Your Majesty, once my father and mother had an argument," said the daughter, "and my mother nearly broke her hand hitting him. All night long did Mother's hand throb and ache. Early the next morning, though, I tiptoed into their chamber, and there they lay, the sore hand between Father's palms and a smile on both of their faces. From then on, I have always believed that love is the sweetest thing on earth. Do you not think so, Your Majesty?"

"I would have to say . . . yes," said the Sultan. He nodded his approval, and told the maiden that she had answered each question in a very satisfying way. He immediately appointed the young woman to the post of minister, alongside her father. She and her father then together served the Sultan and the land faithfully, and both lived very long and happy lives.

(from The Wonderful Treasure Horse)


Xinjiang minjian wenxue, pp. 65-67.

One of several stories in which a woman's wisdom saves the day. This story perhaps reflects the conclusions Bar-Itzhak and Shenhar made about the Jewish folktale "Queen Alfahima," that in the patriarchal and patrilineal communities of old, men were delegated the duty of exhibiting anger, while women were called upon to serve as the pacifiers for that anger (133-134). AT 875. Motifs: H512, "Guessing with life as wager"; H541, "Riddle propounded with penalty for failure."

Friday, November 2, 2007

The Foolish Young Man and the Tiger (Korean)

In days gone by, no one but tigers lived on Fierce Tiger Mountain until the day an old hunter, his son, and his daughter-in-law settled there. They cleared an area, built a hut, and made it their year-round home. They were quite alone, for no one within thirty li dared to live near the mountain because of its infestation with tigers. Most of their days were spent this way: the old hunter bagged tigers; the daughter-in-law took care of the household chores; and the son didn't do much of anything besides gather firewood and lie around, smoking his pipe.

The old hunter was constantly after his son to go with him on tiger hunts and learn the hunter's ways, but the son had his own ideas. "Learn to hunt?" he would reply to his father. "What for? You're doing fine without me. After you have taken care of all the tigers, what will there be left for me to hunt anyway?"

Eventually the old hunter just shook his head and forgot about asking his son to join him. He continued his task of hunting down the tigers on the mountain. Two or three years went by, and all the tigers had more or less been eliminated from Fierce Tiger Mountain. People could now move in, and soon for the first time, the three had neighbors fairly nearby.

One day the old hunter came down with an illness, and within a few days he was gone. His son and daughter-in-law tearfully buried the old man. They were now on their own.

Not long after, the son was out gathering firewood one morning when he felt an icy wind. He looked up and saw a tiger emerge from between two great pines. The young man was scared out of his wits; he had never seen a living tiger before, let alone one within pouncing distance.

"Ah . . . ah . . . ah . . . w-what are y-you d-doing here?" he stammered. "Y-you t-tigers are supposed to be all g-gone!"

"Oh?" replied the tiger, smiling and licking his chops as he approached the young man. "No one told me! I guess I'm still here."

"Well, y-you c-can't eat me!" the young man said, with false courage.

"We'll see about that," said the tiger. "That dead father of yours killed off all my brothers and sisters, so it's only right that I eat you, his son."

"W-wait, Tiger! D-don't eat me now."

"Why not?"

"My. . .my . . . wife. My wife is waiting for me at home. Without the firewood, she'll be unable to cook; she'll surely starve, freeze. What would become of her? Please eat me here tomorrow at this time and place."

"Fine, fine. I shall be waiting for you here tomorrow morning. No tricks!"

"No tricks!" promised the young man and off he went. He ran all the way back home and breathlessly blurted out, "I'm done for! I'm to be eaten by a tiger tomorrow morning!" He then explained the whole story in detail.

"Well, it's actually your own fault,' she said. "If you had only listened to your father when he offered to take you hunting. There's not much to be done now except to take a rope with you when you leave tomorrow morning."

"A rope?" he cried. "I'm going to be eaten tomorrow! What shall I do with a rope?"

"Never mind, " said the wife. "Just take the rope with you."

The next morning, the son of the hunter showed up at the appointed time and place, and he had a rope with him.

"What kept you?" growled the tiger.

"What are you doing over there, you fool?" someone far off shouted.

Both the tiger and the young man turned their heads to see who was shouting in the distance. The tiger shuddered; standing off in the clearing was . . . the old hunter himself!

"Well, answer me!" the old hunter hollered. "We haven't all day."

"He's still around? He lives?" whispered the tiger. "Tell him you're just bundling up some firewood. Do this, and I promise not to eat you."

"I'm j-just bundling some f-firewood, Father!" the son called out.

"Yes, I see it. It looks like a lot. Do you need some help?"

"No, no!" whispered the tiger. "Whatever you do, don't let him come over here! Tie me up instead, and he'll think you're bundling the wood."

"N-no, Father! I just need to tie it all up!"

"Are you sure you don't need me to come over and help you?"

"Tell him you'll tie it up yourself!" the tiger hissed, gritting his fangs and sweating.

"I can handle it myself, Father!" said the son.

"Well, hurry and tie the bundle up! We have a lot of work to do today!"

"Yes, Father!" The young man now turned to the tiger and whispered, "This means I must tie you up now."

"So do it, then!" whispered the tiger. "Do anything to keep him from coming over here."

The son tied the tiger up firmly and securely. The ferocious brute now couldn't budge an inch.

"Have you got that wood secured or not, you dolt?" cried the old man. "We need to get a move on!"

"All done, Father!"

The old hunter then strode over to where the tiger lay bundled like firewood. The son's jaw dropped and the tiger let out a big sigh of despair. Those were the old hunter's clothes, indeed, but the person wearing them was not the dead old hunter but his very much living daughter-in-law.

"Well," she asked, wiping off her charcoal-drawn beard, "don't stand there gaping like a simpleton! Let's take him home. We could use a new rug."


(from The Wonderful Treasure Horse)

p. 402-404.

Many Chinese of Korean descent, the Chaoxian minority, live in the northeast of China, particularly in the Yanbian district of Jilin. In this story, we once again have a phenomenon so common in European folktales: characters who behave obliviously and mechanically, not exhibiting the slightest bit of common sense when it comes to survival. The son, for example, is prepared to appear dutifully the next day to be eaten. Neither does he entertain the notion of escaping from Tiger Mountain, nor does he question the apparent resurrection of his own dead father. Motifs: B211, "Talking animal"; K1837, "Disguise of woman in man's clothes."