Hello, and welcome to the February 2021 Folklore & Fiction dispatch. In this edition, I'll be exploring ATU 60 "Fox and Crane Invite Each Other." I'll also be providing an exercise designed to help you adapt the tale type's plot and motif for your own creative purposes. Let's start with an example of the type from Russian folklore, a tale entitled "The Fox and the Crane."
"The Fox and the Crane"
The fox and the crane used to be good friends, they even stood godparents for the same child. The fox wanted to treat the crane to dinner and invited him to her house: “Come to see me, gossip! Come, my dear, you’ll see how nicely I’ll entertain you!” So the crane came to her house. Meantime the fox had cooked gruel and spread it over a dish. She served it and urged her guest: “Eat, my darling, I cooked it myself.” The crane pecked with his bill, knocked and knocked at the dish, but nothing got into his mouth, while the fox lapped and lapped the gruel until she had eaten it all. After the gruel was gone, the fox said: “I’m sorry, dear friend, but that’s all I have to offer you.” “Thank you, my friend, for what you have given me. You must come to visit me soon.”
The next day the fox came to the crane’s house. The crane had made a soup and put it in a pitcher with a narrow neck. She placed it on the table and said: “Eat, my friend, that’s all I have to offer you.” The fox began to trot around the pitcher, she approached it from one side, then from another, she licked it and smelled it, but all to no avail. Her snout could not get into the pitcher. Meanwhile the crane sucked and sucked until he had drunk all the soup. “I am sorry, my friend, that’s all I have to offer you.” The fox was greatly vexed; for she had thought she would eat for a whole week, and now she had to go home with a long face and an empty stomach. It was tit for tat; and from that moment on the friendship between the fox and the crane was over.1
Folklore scholar Lisa Gabbert writes that "The concept of the tale type is useful because it underscores the importance of variation in folklore" and later adds that when she assigns multiple versions of ATU 510A "Cinderella" to her students, it's because she wants them to see "how the story changes according to time period and culture."2 Folklore scholar Jeana Jorgensen writes that in her classroom, many students begin the semester hoping to uncover "the original" versions of Disney fairy tale adaptations, not realizing that they also contribute to "the creative production of tales."3 These educators make two important points I hope you'll remember:
- Each traditional folk tale represented by a tale type has many variations across time and culture.
- Your own creative work with these tale types and motifs counts as a variation. It's real, honest-to-goodness folklore.
With these points in mind, let's look at how the Aarne-Thompson-Uther index summarizes ATU 60 "Fox and Crane Invite Each Other:"
A fox (jackal, wolf, cat) invites a crane (stork, woodpecker, heron, crow, snipe) to dinner. He serves him soup (milk, mush) in a shallow dish, and the crane cannot eat the food. The crane invites the fox to dinner in return, and serves the food in a bottle (tall jar), or he strews peas on the floor. In this case the fox cannot eat the food. [J1565.1]
In some variants the stork invites the fox first, so that the two parts of the tale are reversed.4
That number above, J1565.1, is a reference to the motif "Fox and crane invite each other" in the Motif-Index of Folk-Literature, which reads:
Fox serves the food on a flat dish so that the crane cannot eat. Crane serves his food in a bottle.5
Remember that a tale type is a concept invented by folklore scholars to categorize folk narrative story plots, and a motif is a small chunk of story that recurs in folk narrative with enough regularity that it can be seen as a recognizable pattern. We can see that here both the tale type and the motif are almost the same, but this tale is short. Longer tales may contain more than one motif, and we'll look at examples of that in the months to come.
This brings me to another important point. ATU 60 is one of the Animal Tales, and like many others in the category, it's a fable. This particular fable has an Aesopic variant entitled "The Fox and the Stork," which begins with the admonition "It is not right to injure any man: but if someone does inflict an injury this fable warns him that he is liable to punishment in kind." The tale ends with a moral set off from the text (also called an epimythium) that reads "One who sets an example ought to bear it with patience when he gets the same in return."6
Longtime followers of Folklore & Fiction might recall the newsletter edition on fables, published in September 2019. In it, I provide the following checklist of essential fable components:
- Narratives of Many Kinds: Fables are tales that may be written as poetry or prose and may be structured in a variety of ways.
- Designed to Be Instructive: Fables are told or written specifically for the purpose of imparting a moral or ethical message, which might be set off from the rest of the fable at the end.
- Often Populated with Animals: Fables have protagonists who mirror human characteristics and behaviours, make human decisions, and meet with human successes and failures as a result.
Given that both "The Fox and the Crane" and "The Fox and the Stork" are short prose narratives populated with animals who behave like humans, we're definitely in fable territory with this tale type. But what really sets these tales apart as fables is the straightforward moral lesson they provide. It's implied in "The Fox and the Crane" and stated in "The Fox and the Stork," but it's present in both, and it's the same in both.
So, what can a storyteller do with a folk tale about what happens when people treat their friends like rubbish?
Adaptation and Subversion
In truth, I find the morality of this little fable a bit more complex than it appears at first glance. My initial (and lingering) question upon reading it is this: Does Fox intend to slight Crane or not? We've all been to dinner parties where the food served was either unpalatable to us or outside our dietary restrictions. With that in mind, is Fox unable to provide Crane with a different dish, or is she unwilling? The answer isn't clear in either of the tales I've discussed. So we're left to answer this question ourselves, and the way we answer determines our opinion of Crane's response. If Fox is unable, then Crane's response is callous. If Fox is unwilling, then Crane's response is understandable.
Now let's extract the plot scaffolding of the tale type and look at it independently. Instead of Fox and Crane, we have Betty and Harold. Betty offers to do something nice for Harold but does it poorly out of inability, carelessness, or spite. Harold responds by engineering a similar situation in which Betty becomes the victim. In Betty's case, there's a chance she means well, but Harold is upset by the slight and retaliates in kind out of heartlessness or righteous anger. In the end, the friendship is lost, and it's unclear where the blame lies.
Your exercise this month is to explore the morality of this tale type in a short tale of your own. I'll give you two creative prompts, but if your muse leads elsewhere, by all means, follow.
Prompt #1: The Frenemy and the Wounded Friend: Person A is a frenemy to Person B and engineers a situation in which Person B expects to be treated well but is harmed instead. Wounded, Person B exacts revenge by engineering a similar situation for Person A.
Prompt #2: The Foolish Friend and the Vengeful Friend: Person A offers to do something nice for Person B but fails to think it through, and Person B is harmed by the outcome. Person B knows Person A meant well but behaves callously by reciprocating in kind.
Whatever motivation you decide to give the characters, include a moral in your tale without sermonizing. See if you can adapt ATU 60 "Fox and Crane Invite Each Other" in a way that appeals to readers without wagging your storytelling finger at them. Best of luck!
That's all for now. Thanks so much for your time! Join me next month for an exploration of ATU 365 "The Dead Bridegroom Carries off His Bride," in which I plan to sing for you. Meanwhile, you'll find the podcast edition of this dispatch below.
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- 1. A. N. Afanasʹev, “The Fox and the Crane,” in Russian Fairy Tales, trans. Norbert Guterman (New York: Pantheon Books, 1975): 171-172.
- 2. Lisa Gabbert, “Teaching Fairy Tales in Folklore Classes,” in New Approaches to Teaching Folk and Fairy Tales, ed. Christa Jones and Claudia Schwabe, Kindle. (Logan: Utah State University Press, 2016): Chap. 2.
- 3. Jeana Jorgensen, “Intertextuality, Creativity, and Sexuality: Group Exercises in the Fairy-Tale/Gender Studies Classroom,” in New Approaches to Teaching Folk and Fairy Tales, ed. Christa Jones and Claudia Schwabe, Kindle. (Logan: Utah State University Press, 2016): Chap. 14.
- 4. Hans Jörg Uther, The Types of International Folktales: A Classification and Bibliography. Part 1: Animal Tales, Tales of Magic, Religious Tales, and Realistic Tales, with an Introduction (Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia, 2011) 55.
- 5. Stith Thompson, Motif-Index of Folk-Literature Volume Four J-K (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1957): 128.
- 6. Babrius and Phaedrus, Babrius and Phaedrus, trans. Ben Edwin Perry (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1965): 221-222.