Hello, and welcome to the September 2021 Folklore & Fiction dispatch. In this edition, I'll be exploring ATU 2014 "Chains Involving Contradictions or Extremes." Let's begin with a Palestinian story that tells us right in the title where it fits among folklore genres and contains a treasure chest of narrative jewels to admire.
A Tall Tale
There was and there wasn't, O Ancient of Days, a king who had one daughter. She was of such astonishing beauty that when she reached the age to be married, suitors thronged her father's court. Yet whenever the king mentioned marriage to her, she would say, "I shall be wed only to the man who can tell me a story whose beginning is impossible and whose end is untrue." News of the challenge spread and many were the princes who took it up. Time and again a suitor would begin in the traditional manner of storytellers with the words, "Let us profess that Allah is One and has no equal." And there and then the princess would send him on his way, saying, "A story that lies from beginning to end is no place for the profession of the unity of Allah!" So it went on until one day a handsome and quick-witted youth came before her and said, "I shall tell you a tale to fulfill your heart's desire." And when she had invited him to sit before her, he began:
"Before uttering an untruth, I crave forgiveness from Allah Who alone is All-Knowing."
"When my grandmother gave birth to my grandfather, I was a child old enough to walk and run. So she called me and said, 'Take these two pennies, my child, and fetch me eggs and cumin so that we can celebrate the cutting of your grandfather's navel cord.' I ran to do her bidding and bought the eggs and the spice and put them in my pocket and hurried home. But on the way I stumbled, and one of the eggs dropped to the ground and broke, and out hopped a chick carrying a load of firewood on his back. I unloaded the wood off him so that I could ride him home, but found that the skin of his back had been rubbed raw. Filled with pity, I sat by the side of the road and wept.
"Then a man passing by comforted me and gave me a date stone, saying, 'Roast this stone and crush it and rub it into the wound on your chicken's back.' I did as he advised me and all at once a date palm laden with red and yellow dates began to grow from the chicken's back. 'It would be wrong to pass by such sweet fruit without tasting it,' I said to myself, and shinnied up the palm. At the top I found a date grove so vast that a harvester beating the fruit down from one tree could not hear his fellow's blows at the next. Between the trees the earth was so rich and black that I plowed it and sowed sesame seeds. After the seeds were ripe, I gathered them into sacks but found an ant stealing one sesame seed. When I seized the end of the seed and tried to pull it away, the ant held on tight. As I tugged on my side and he on his, the seed broke and out of it spilled a stream of sesame oil. I jumped into it and swam until I reached your presence!"
The princess laughed and was married to the handsome storyteller, according to the laws handed down by the prophet.
Now the bird has taken flight.
I wish you peace and goodnight.1
ATU 2014 is a Formula Tale under the sub-categories "Cumulative Tales" and "Chains Based on Numbers, Objects, Animals, or Names," and the ATU index summarizes it this way:
2014 Chains Involving Contradictions Or Extremes. (Including the previous Type 2014A.) This miscellaneous type comprised of various chain tales that feature contradictions or extremes [Z51]. Cf. Types 1931, 2335. The following are the most common variants:
(1) A man who has recently been married meets a friend (neighbor, stranger) who tells him what has happened at home while he was absent. The friend makes the events sound positive, but as the married man asks for more information, the situation turns out to be disasterous [sic]. (Previously Type 2014A.)
During their conversation, they exchange other good news. For example, one says that a goat (hog) ate a giant cabbage and became fat enough to be slaughtered. Questions and answers follow, with comments like "That's good." - "No, not so good." - "That's bad." - "No, not so bad." One tells the other his house burned down. "That's too bad", answers the other, but the first man says, "Not [sic] it's not so bad, because my wife died in the fire". Cf. Type 2040.
(2) Two godparents (strangers) discuss a coin (saw, pea) which one of them has found (lost). The conversation conveys alternating incidents or commentary. At the end, one tells the other that he killed a wolf which had eaten a wild boar. The other says, "That's good". The first replies, "Yes it is good, but not very good, because the squire claimed its skin".2
This entry references three other tale types, and two of them are worth including in this part of the discussion; ATU 1931 and ATU 2040:
1931 The Woman Who Asked for News from Home. A woman asks her guest for news from her home (house, village). He tells her impossible, absurd things, such as: "Is the same rooster there? - No, he became the sexton. Is the cat still there? - No, she was made the overseer. Is the pond still in front of the house? - No, it burned up last summer. [X908], etc.
The woman believes these answers. She agrees and pretends she had already known that these things had happened [J2349.4]. Cf. Types 1920A, 2040.3
2040 The Climax of Horrors. A man who has been away for a long time asks an acquaintance for news from home. The acquaintance tells him that his dog (raven) is dead. The man asks why, and is told that it ate too much horse (camel) flesh. The horse had been burned in its stall (died from exertion during a fire); the barn caught fire from the house; the fire had been started by candles in the house; the candles burned on the occasion of the death of the man's mother (wife) [Z46]. Cf. Types 1931, 2014.4
Returning to the entry for ATU 2014, we find a single motif listed in the Motif Index of Folk-Literature as:
Z51. ''Chains involving contradictions or extremes.''5
This month's dispatch and podcast find us at the back of both the tale type and motif indexes with a story not listed in either of them that could belong in more than one category. So we're right at home where contradictions and extremes are concerned! I found "A Tall Tale" listed in D.L. Ashliman's A Guide to Folktales in the English Language as an example of ATU 2014, but while Ashliman's work references the ATU index, his examples are sometimes different. With this in mind, let's see how well "A Tall Tale" fits the tale type.
The story begins "There was and there wasn't, O Ancient of Days," which is a contradiction, just as the good/not good statements in ATU 2014 are contradictions. Soon after, the princess offers to marry the suitor who can tell her a story "whose beginning is impossible and whose end is untrue," which is a request for the extreme in her suitor's storytelling. The substance of her statement doesn't match anything in the ATU 2014 description, but it does echo an element of the extreme in the house that burns to the ground and the husband's disturbing joy at learning his wife died in the fire. So we're off to a decent start, but beyond these contradictions and extremes, the tale begins to slip out of the type. Fortunately, ATU 2014 references other tale types, and there are plenty of touchstones to be found in those.
ATU 1931 is rich with absurdities; a rooster who becomes a sexton, a cat who becomes an overseer, and a woman who believes the strange news a guest has delivered about her home. This is very like the storyteller's claims in "A Tall Tale," that his grandmother gave birth to his grandfather, that a chick popped out of an egg with a load of firewood on his back, that a roasted date stone rubbed on the chick's back caused a date palm to grow out of it, that a vast date grove could be found in its branches, that rich, black earth could be found between the trees, that sesame seeds could be planted there, that the storyteller fought an ant for one of the ripened seeds, and that the seed expressed enough oil for the him to swim in. Because each absurd event builds on the one before it, there's quite a bit of ATU 2040 in this story as well. Indeed, ATU 1931 and ATU 2040 appear to share a stronger claim to the story than ATU 2014 does. So did Ashliman get it wrong? What gives? Where does "A Tall Tale" really belong?
Well, I think it belongs to all of these tale types, or at least, parts of it belong to each one. As we come to the end of our first trip through the ATU index, I think it's important to echo the same sentiment I brought to genre categorization when I wrote that classification systems can impose limitations on thinking and expression.6 Sometimes these folk tales are easy to sort, sometimes they aren't, and sometimes the act of sorting itself can be limiting. So do use these indexes to inspire your storytelling, but don't get too caught up in their categories. As "A Tall Tale" amply demonstrates, sometimes the best stories defy categorization.
Adaptation and Subversion
Right! So about those narrative jewels. I found a lot to love in "A Tall Tale" from a structural perspective and want to highlight those treasures for you.
Formulaic Beginnings and Endings
In my most recent work; a podcast radio play for the Odyssey Theatre, I start with the phrase "In the beginning," which many of you will recognize as the first three words of the Bible. The last speech in the play starts with the phrase "The tale is told," and while I didn't borrow it from any particular text, it does signal the beginning of the end in a formulaic way. Similarly, "There was and there wasn't, O Ancient of Days" is formulaic and cues the listener to settle in for the story to come.78 "Let us profess that Allah is One and has no equal" is cited in "A Tall Tale" as the appropriate beginning for a Muslim person telling a story, and in that respect, it too is formulaic. Finally, "Now the bird has taken flight / I wish you peace and goodnight" is a formulaic ending that cues audiences to return from that place of story they've inhabited for the duration of the telling. I love these formulaic beginnings and endings, which are far more varied than "Once upon a time" and do such good work for stories. They greet our audiences at the gate, they confer an echo of the traditional upon the story behind them, and they fare those audiences well as they depart.
Emboxed Stories in a Tale
"A Tall Tale" is comprised of two stories, one inside the other. The outer story is about the princess, her storytelling demands, and the efforts of various princes to meet them. The chain of absurdities at its heart is an inner story devised by the quick-witted youth to win the princess' hand. In this case, the outer story carries more narrative weight than the inner story does because the primary plot of "A Tall Tale" is articulated and resolved there. I recently employed the same technique in "Metal Crow and Ghost Crow" when I placed a fable titled "The Crow and the Pitcher" at the heart of the story, where it serves as a prompt for Metal Crow to be clever. Narrative weight might also be greater in the inner story or stories, where a question is answered or a lesson presented. For a good example of this storytelling structure, check out the Panchatantra, which is a collection of Indian animal fables. Of course, emboxed stories should transition smoothly from one to the next, and they should hang together as a single tale no matter how each one is weighted.
Asserting the Absurd
The October 2019 edition of Folklore & Fiction is all about tall tales, so I'll skip the review here and send you there for a deeper look at the genre. However, we should at least check in with a good definition, which Carolyn Brown provides us in The Tall Tale in American Folklore and Literature, writing that "...the tall tale is a fictional story which is told in the form of a personal narrative or anecdote, which challenges the listener's credulity with comic outlandishness, and which performs different social functions depending on whether it is heard as true or as fictional."9 The quick-witted youth tells his story as a personal narrative, and it does challenge the princess' credulity with comic outlandishness. However, I would argue that its social function strays from Brown's intended meaning when she discusses truth and fiction. Often tall tales have an insider and outsider audience, and the insiders know the tale is fiction, while the outsiders might hear it as truth until it goes off the rails into absurdity. In the case of our example story, the princess asks for untruth, and the quick-witted youth delivers, so there's no ambiguity in the truth status of the story. That said, there's a great deal of narrative power in asserting the absurd in storytelling whether or not we're operating within the social structure of the tall tale. Absurdity liberates the storyteller, opens doors to the fantastic, and permits events to follow one another in unexpected ways. I do think the quick-witted youth sacrifices the plot of his story to the chain of absurdities he asserts, and that's a danger of absurd storytelling. But the structure of the chain itself resonates as folkloric, and we can use it as a narrative flourish, as an emboxed story within a story, or as the underpinning of a primary story carefully plotted to include the absurd.
Choose one of the following:
- Research formulaic folk tale flourishes and write down several you might like to use. Now invent several more.
- Outline a tale that contains at least one emboxed story. Weight the narratives however you like.
- Write a chain of absurdities like the one in the example tale and use it in a story.
That's all for now. Thanks so much for your time! Join me next month as we begin our second trip through the ATU index with an exploration of ATU 113B "The Cat as Sham Holy Man." Meanwhile, you'll find the podcast edition of this dispatch below.
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- 1. Bushnaq, Inea, ed. “Tall Tale.” In Arab Folktales, 314–15. New York: Pantheon Books, 1986: 314-315.
- 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): 515.
- 3. 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): 495.
- 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): 529.
- 5. Stith Thompson, Motif-Index of Folk-Literature Volume Five L-Z (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1957): Electronic Edition.
- 6. MacCath-Moran, Ceallaigh S. “Introduction to Folklore Genres.” Text. Folklore & Fiction. Accessed August 27, 2021. https://csmaccath.com/blog/introduction-folklore-genres/.
- 7. Madrid, Anthony. “‘Once Upon a Time’ and Other Formulaic Folktale Flourishes.” The Paris Review (blog), May 23, 2018. https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2018/05/23/once-upon-a-time-and-other-formulaic-folktale-flourishes/.
- 8. Bushnaq, Inea. “It Was or It Was Not: Femininity in Arabic Folktales.” The Paris Review (blog), April 9, 2018. https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2018/04/09/it-was-or-it-was-not-femininity-in-arabic-folktales/.
- 9. Brown, Carolyn S. The Tall Tale in American Folklore and Literature. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1987: 11.