ATU 1096 "Sewing Contest"

Hello, and welcome to the July 2021 Folklore & Fiction dispatch. In this edition, I'll be exploring ATU 1096 "Sewing Contest." Let's begin with a British poem of the tale type that pits a humble tailor against the Devil himself.

"The Devil and the Tailor"

There was a tailor in our town,
Who was a worthy wight;
All through the day
He worked away,
And halfway through the night.

He had a wife whom he did love,
And he had children bright;
To find the meat
For them to eat,
Did puzzle the tailor quite.

One day as on the board he sat,
When cupboard and shelf were bare,
The children cried,
Unsatisfied
With feeding on the air.

Oh! Then unto himself he said,
"Ah! would that I were rich,
With meat galore,
And money in store,
And never a coat to stitch."

"If Old Nick now to me would say,
'In riches you may roll,'
I'm sure I'd sell
To the Lord of Hell
Myself, both body and soul."

The Devil unto the tailor came,
And thus to him said he,
"This bag of gold
Is wealth untold,
And emptied ne'er shall be.

Exhaustless is its boundless store,
And it shall all be thine
Whilst thou has breath,
But at thy death
Thy soul shall then be mine."

"Nay, put the matter as a bet,
Thy bag against my soul;
We each will take
A coat to make,
The quickest to take the whole."

Old Nick to this at once agreed,
And thought the tailor to wheedle;
"My sight is bad,
So I'll be glad,
If you will thread my needle."

"A needleful I'll put you in,"
The tailor said, "with pleasure,
Sound and true,
To last all through
The job we are to measure."

A needleful he put him in,
The tailor did, with pleasure,
Sound and true,
To last all through
A hundred yards by measure.

To work the two did settle then:
The tailor worked in dread;
The Devil flew
The room all through,
With his hundred yards of thread.

But though the Devil beat his wings,
And panted fit to burst,
With shorter thread,
And clearer head,
The tailor finished first.

Thus was the Devil overcome,
And fairly left i' the lurch;
The tailor wight
Became a knight,
And always went to church.

He patronized charities,
And never joined a revel;
To end my song,
I think it wrong
To swindle - e'en the Devil.1

Analysis

ATU 1096 "Sewing Contest" is a Tale of the Stupid Ogre (Giant, Devil) under the sub-category "Contest Between Man and Ogre," and the ATU index summarizes it this way:

Sewing Contest (previously The Tailor and the Ogre in a Sewing Contest). The devil (ogre, giant) and a tailor (shoemaker, Gypsy, woman) have a sewing contest. The devil sews with a very long thread: Making his first stitch, he has to run around the house (jump out of the window). When he returns, the tailor has already finished his task and wins the contest [K47].2

There is only one motif mentioned in this summary; K47, but K47.1 also fits, and the Motif-Index of Folk Literature lists ATU 1096 as a corresponding tale type for this motif. Here's the whole list, including the parent sub-category:

  • K40: Labor contest won by deception.
    • K47: Sewing contest won by deception.
    • K47.1: Sewing contest won by deception: the long thread. The ogre sews with the whole length of the thread. When he returns from the first stitch, the tailor has his task finished.3

The ATU sub-category "Contest Between Man and Ogre" gives us several plots about contests between weak people and strong monsters resolved in favour of the weak person by means of deception or trickery. For example, ATU 1060 pits a monster against a person in a contest to find out who can squeeze water from a stone. The monster squeezes a stone and loses, while the person squeezes a cheese or turnip and wins. In ATU 1073, a monster challenges a person to a climbing contest, but the person persuades the monster to compete with his son instead. The son is a squirrel, who wins the contest.4

There is an unequal power relationship between the person and monster in these tales; a tailor competes with the Devil, the Ash Lad deceives a troll,5 and a youngest brother tricks a "Stupid Devil."6 At first glance, it appears obvious who the winner of each contest will be, but then our heroes cheat. However, the tales permit the cheating to stand because of the unequal moral relationship between the person and monster. The tailor competes with the Devil because his children are starving, the Ash Lad deceives a troll who is threatening to kill him, and the youngest brother tricks the Devil to deter him from setting upon innocent people in the woods. Our poet above does criticize the tailor "To end my song / I think it wrong / To swindle - e'en the Devil," but we aren't led to sympathize with Old Nick. He's a monster, after all, and it's a lesser evil to cheat him than it is to be taken in by him.

Animism, Folklore, and Storytelling

That said, I do sympathize with the troll in the ATU 1060 tale "The Ash Lad Who Had an Eating Match with the Troll." However, I see something in him the tale doesn't make plain; a personification of the wilderness. The tale gives us an elderly father whose farm "belonged to a large, good forest" and wants his three sons to cut down some of the trees there, sell the wood, and pay his debts. But the troll tells each son in turn that the forest is his and threatens to kill them if they proceed. The Ash Lad deceives the troll and later tricks him into slitting his own stomach open. When the troll dies, the Ash Lad takes the silver and gold out of his mountain to pay the family's debts.7

There are two kinds of belonging related to nature in this tale. The elderly father and sons see the trees of the forest as property to be cut and sold, while the troll sees them as an integral part of his person. The conflict between these two perspectives plays out in the troll's promise to kill the young men who have threatened him and in the Ash Lad's victory by means of deceit, trickery, and theft. In this animistic reading of the tale, our troll is not stupid for falling prey to the Ash Lad but innocent and incapable of defending himself against the same sort of predatory cleverness people continue to employ against the remaining wildernesses in the world.

Adaptation and Subversion

As a poet myself, I'm not fond of the rhymed, near-limerick style of the example I shared for this tale type. However, I did enjoy the tale itself, and the poem presents an opportunity for Folklore & Fiction to revisit folk song and poetry. We've already seen that Tales of Magic and Religious Tales may be sung because I've shared Child Ballad versions of ATU 365 "The Dead Bridegroom Carries off His Bride" and ATU 780 "The Singing Bone." This edition of the dispatch and podcast includes a poem for ATU 1096 "Sewing Contest," which is a Tale of the Stupid Ogre (Giant, Devil), and the April 2021 supplement quotes Ovid's Metamorphoses, which tells over two hundred myths in epic verse. Speaking of folklore genres, long-time subscribers have also seen that mythsballadsfables, and charms may be expressed poetically.

These are only a few examples of folk song and poetry, and there are many like them in the literatures and oral traditions of the world. So the first step in a seasoned writer's journey to adapt or subvert folkloric elements of these songs and poems is to engage with traditional pieces on their own terms. A good second step is to identify - at least in a general sense - what sets them apart stylistically. That's what I'm hoping to help you do in this edition. To start, here are the two components of folk song and poetry I think are most useful to writers:

  1. They employ folk tale types, motifs, and/or genres.
  2. They are narrative; they tell a story.

Just as a work of prose resonates as folkloric when it explains how the world came to be, pits a weak human against a strong monster, or includes a wicked stepmother, so does a song or poem. But these tale types, motifs, and genres need narrative to help them breathe, which means they need to be part of a story. Because of this, folk songs and poems aren't like abstract poetry, which is focused on the aural impact of words and their imagery. Moreover, while they may contain themes like equality, liberty, or unity, they don't usually meditate upon these themes the way Amanda Gorman's "The Hill We Climb" does. Folk songs and poems may also make frequent use of devices like alliteration, ambiguity, metaphor, parallel construction, rhyme, rhythm, and simile, which are more than tools of the trade for writers. They're important ways we express ourselves as human beings.8

Exercise: Your mission this month, should you choose to accept it, is to write a song or poem that employs folk tale types, motifs, or genres in a narrative that includes at least two of the following: alliteration, ambiguity, metaphor, parallel construction, rhyme, rhythm, or simile. Bonus points if it's about a conflict between a weak human and a strong monster.

That's all for now. Thanks so much for your time! Join me next month for an exploration of ATU 1284 "Person Does Not Know Himself" and ATU 1326 "Moving the Church." Meanwhile, you'll find the podcast edition of this dispatch below.

 

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  • 1. Katharine Mary Briggs and F. J. Norton, A Dictionary of British Folk-Tales in the English Language: Incorporating the F. J. Norton Collection (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1970): 211-213.
  • 2. Hans Jörg Uther, The Types of International Folktales: A Classification and Bibliography. Part II: Tales of the Stupid Ogre, Anecdotes and Jokes, and Formula Tales (Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia, 2011): 37.
  • 3. Stith Thompson, Motif-Index of Folk-Literature Volume Four J-K (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1957): Electronic Edition.
  • 4. Hans Jörg Uther, The Types of International Folktales: A Classification and Bibliography. Part II: Tales of the Stupid Ogre, Anecdotes and Jokes, and Formula Tales (Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia, 2011): 24, 29.
  • 5. Peter Christen Asbjørnsen, Norwegian Folk Tales: From the Collection of Peter Christen Asbjørnsen, Jørgen Moe (Oslo: Dreyers Vorlag, 1960): 81-83.
  • 6. Kurt Ranke, Folktales of Germany (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966): 167-170.
  • 7. Peter Christen Asbjørnsen, Norwegian Folk Tales: From the Collection of Peter Christen Asbjørnsen, Jørgen Moe (Oslo: Dreyers Vorlag, 1960): 81-83.
  • 8. S. J. Sackett, “Poetry and Folklore: Some Points of Affinity,” The Journal of American Folklore 77, no. 304 (1964): 143–53.