Hello, and welcome to the August 2022 Folklore & Fiction dispatch. This month, I'm utilizing an Israeli fable to discuss the ways folkloristic and literary analysis can help you adapt and subvert traditional narrative themes. Let's jump right in.
"The Span of a Man's Life"
When the Holy One created Adam, he showed him the beauty of the world and said, "You will rule over all you see, and you will be very happy."
"How long will I be able to enjoy all this goodness?" enquired Adam.
"Thirty years," was the answer.
"Such a short time?" asked Adam in surprise. "Could you not add a few extra years?"
The Holy One, blessed be he, meditated and answered, "I shall call a few animals. Maybe they will be prepared to grant you some extra years of life as a gift."
The first to appear was the donkey. Said the Holy One, blessed be he, "Your fate is to work hard, to carry burdens, and to eat a little grass in your master's courtyard."
"How many years will I live?" asked the donkey.
"Forty," came the answer.
"Why must I suffer for so many years?" brayed the donkey in a sad voice. "I shall be satisfied with half that time - twenty years."
The Holy One, blessed be he, gave the extra twenty years to Adam, who was radiant with joy and happiness: with this gift he would live for fifty years.
Then the Holy One, blessed be he, spoke to the dog, "Your fate is to be a faithful friend of your master and to guard him and his property. Your reward will be to eat scraps of food and receive blows and kicks."
"How many years will I live?" asked the dog.
"Forty," came the answer.
Why should I suffer for so many years?" barked the dog in a sad voice. "Half that time, twenty years, is enough for me."
So the Holy One, blessed be he, took twenty years from the dog's life and added them to the life of Adam, who was radiant with joy and happiness: with this gift he would live for seventy years.
The Holy One, blessed be he, then spoke to the monkey saying, "Your fate is to walk on two feet and to make men laugh at your gait, for it is very queer to him. As for food, you will be thrown scraps from time to time."
"How many years will I live?" asked the monkey.
"Sixty years," was the answer.
"Why so long? Half that time is enough for me."
So the Holy One, blessed be he, took the thirty years from the monkey's life and gave them as a gift to Adam, who was radiant with joy and happiness because he would live an extra thirty years. Since that time the life span of man has been one hundred years divided into four periods.
The first period is until the age of thirty, when a man enjoys the years of his own life to the full and is strong, independent, and carefree.
In the second period, from thirty to fifty years, he is usually married and a father. He has the burden of earning a living and providing for his family. To satisfy his children's and wife's needs, he works like a donkey. These are the twenty years of a donkey's life.
In the third period, from fifty to seventy years, a man serves his children and guards their property as a faithful dog. Usually he does not eat at his children's table. These are the twenty years of a dog's life.
Then comes the last period, from the age of seventy to one hundred. In that period, man loses his teeth, his face becomes wrinkled, and his way of walking and his movements are strange. His children laugh and make fun of him, and it is as if he had departed from this life. These are the thirty years of a monkey's life.1
"The Span of a Man's Life" leads us into fable territory again, and there are two primary motifs associated with it:
A1321. Men and animals readjust span of life. At first, thirty years are given to all animals and to man. For the animals it is too long, for man too short. Man is given a portion of animals' lives. Years 1-30 vigorous (man's own); 30-48 burdens and blows (ass's); 48-60 no teeth (dog's); 60-70 foolish (monkey's).2
B592. Animals bequeath characteristics to man. Horse gives him the characteristics of youth (fiery), cow of middle age (avaricious), and the dog of old age (fractious).3
The plot of the tale can be found in the ATU index among the Animal Tales at 173 Human and Animal Life Spans are Readjusted,4 and the description there is similar to A1321 in the Motif-Index.
These motifs and plots centre on the division of a man's life into sets of years resembling the behaviours of various animals. In Aesop's "The Man, the Horse, the Ox, and the Dog," the years are provided as a reward for shelter during a storm, while the German tale "The Duration of Life" and the Romanian tale "The Story of Man and His Years" more closely follow the plot of our example. In these tales, the animals learn their lives will be full of suffering and choose to die younger than God intended. God grants the remaining years to man, who takes on the characteristics of each successive animal as he ages.
As I've written in previous editions, when we engage with fables, we're engaging with instructive tales. In "The Span of a Man's Life," we learn that young men are strong, independent, and carefree. Married men are hard-working carriers of family burdens, like donkeys. Ageing men are faithful and protective as dogs. Elderly men are like monkeys; clumsy, ugly, and ludicrous. It's a straightforward fable on the surface, but there are hidden depths available to the careful reader. First, Eve is the absent, silent recipient of long life in a tale that altogether excludes her from its premise, logic, and moral. She doesn't complain about the shortness of her years, God doesn't attribute the suffering of the donkey, dog, and monkey to her, and she doesn't take on the characteristics of these animals as she ages. Rather, Adam is a proxy for all of humanity, and his lived experiences - including fatherhood - are declared universal. Second, God acts as a middleman between Adam and the animals, willing to transfer years between them but never offering to gift Adam with a long life or gift the animals with better lives. This neutrality provides Adam the opportunity to accept his lifespan and treat the donkey, dog, and monkey with enough kindness that their own lifespans are worth living. But like Eve's conspicuous absence, this obvious choice is missing from the tale. Instead, Adam ignores his culpability in the suffering of animals who choose to live a shorter life because of him and receives their abandoned years without a backward glance to his benefactors.
On balance, I find the problems in this fable more instructive than its moral from a cultural perspective, but I also know that my analysis of these problems is rooted in my own cultural and ethical position and not that of the original storytellers'. It's a distinction that makes a difference to my scholarship, and I would argue that it can also make a difference to contemporary storytellers who adapt and subvert folk narratives.
Folk Narrative and Storytelling
I've offered two kinds of analysis in my discussion of "The Span of a Man's Life." The first is a straightforward exploration of the motifs, plots, themes and morals in the tale, which I derived from available scholarship about it. The second is a theoretical exploration of the ways women and animals are treated in the tale, which I derived from my education as a scholar of Folklore and English literature. These disciplines have taught me to analyze narratives in contrasting ways, and both have made an impact on my scholarship and storytelling. So at the risk of leading you down a tangled path in this edition, I'm going to share a bit of each in the hope they might be of help to your own work.
Folklore scholar Dan Ben-Amos writes that "The telling is the tale; therefore the narrator, his story, and his audience are all related to each other as components of a single continuum, which is the communicative event."5 For Ben-Amos, both the storyteller and audience are part of a dynamic process that produces folklore. Indeed, for the folklorist studying traditional narratives like "The Span of a Man's Life," there is an awareness that while a tale might have been committed to text at some point in history, the textual version is by no means official or final. Many versions would have been shaped by communities before and after it was written down.
However, French literary critic Roland Barthes' asserts in his 1967 essay "The Death of the Author" that "The reader is the space on which all the quotations that make up a writing are inscribed without any of them being lost; a text's unity lies not in its origin but in its destination."6 It would appear, at least to Barthes, that the work of an author is to produce a piece of writing, while the work of a reader is to interpret it. Whether or not we agree with his argument (and I don't), we know as modern authors and readers that the text of a contemporary novel, short story, or play is static, while interpretations of it are variable.
This is important to me as a scholar because it helps me understand that the folkloric elements of this month's tale come out of the communities that co-created it. But while I might have identified a couple of biases in these communities where the treatment of women and animals are concerned, these are literary interpretations of a few written versions. This is important to us as storytellers because even though we might be working with traditional motifs, plots, and tales, which were created by communities, we're often encountering them as written texts and/or transforming them into written texts. If this all sounds terribly esoteric, just remember that when you're storytelling with traditional narratives, there are two sets of creative and interpretive processes in play; folkloric and literary. Try to note the differences between what comes out of the tale and what you bring to the tale, especially as it concerns theme. This will prevent you from muddying the waters when you adapt and subvert those themes to suit your own creative purposes.
This edition of Folklore & Fiction represents over twenty hours of research, writing, and production. If you found it helpful, I hope you'll consider supporting the Folklore & Fiction project on Patreon. That's all for now. Thanks so much for your time! Join me next month for an exploration of the Japanese folktale titled, "Luck from Heaven and Luck from Earth."
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- 1. Dov Noy, Folktales of Israel (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963), 62-64.
- 2. Stith Thompson, Motif-Index of Folk-Literature Volume One A-C (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1957), 215.
- 3. Thompson, 460.
- 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), 119-120.
- 5. Dan Ben-Amos, “Toward a Definition of Folklore in Context,” in Towards New Perspectives in Folklore (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1972), 10.
- 6. Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author,” in Image-Music-Text, trans. Stephen Heath (New York: Hill and Wang, 1978), 148.