Folktales

Hello Bloggers!

I thought we might revisit traditional literature and talk about Folktales.

Folktales feature common folks, such as peasants, and commonplace events.   There maybe be some “make-believe” elements, like talking animals, but the stories, overall, sound logical – even realistic.  Folk tales seek to explain things about life, nature, or the human condition.

A folktale is a fictitious story told to amuse and amaze the listeners. The action takes place in a far-off time and place : “Once upon a time, in a faraway kingdom…” These stories feature kings and princesses, giants and dragons, fairies and sorcerers, magical objects and talking animals. Like the traditional folksongs, the folktales came from France and were passed down by word of mouth, from generation to generation along the banks of le Détroit.

Nowadays, traditional storytellers are even harder to find than folksingers. The long winter evenings in which people could spend hours listening to a storyteller are now taken up by television, radio, movies and the Internet. The folktales we know are the ones adapted by Walt Disney and other producers of popular culture. You would have to go back several generations to find the traditional storytellers of le Détroit.

Fortunately, we have the opportunity to do just that. In 1938, a researcher named Joseph Médard Carrière visited the Detroit River area and met with several French speaking residents. He collected 26 folktales from various storytellers, one of whom was Joseph Groulx, from Tecumseh. Carrière didn’t have a tape recorder, so he took the down the tales in longhand, using a special spelling system he had developed to take into account local French pronunciation.

Joseph Médard Carrière and Detroit River Folktales

If we know anything of the language and culture of old French settlements in the Mid-Western American states, it is largely due to the work of Joseph Médard Carrière. Born in 1902 in Curran, in Eastern Ontario, Carrière received a doctorate from Harvard in 1932. He held the position of French professor at Northwestern University in Chicago and later at the university of Virginia. He conducted several fieldwork expeditions among francophone communities in Missouri, Illinois and Indiana, recording the language and folklore of these isolated settlements. (Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, these settlements had close ties with the Detroit River area.) Carrière is best known for his book Tales from the French Folklore of Missouri, published in 1937. In 1938, he spent some time in the Windsor area. He met some local storytellers, including Joseph Groulx, from Tecumseh. These storytellers dictated 26 folktales to Carrière, who wrote them down in a special orthography he had developed to take into account the particularities of local speech. Carrière died in 1970 and the folktales remained buried in the University of Laval Folklore Archives for over 30 years. A modern transcription of his manuscript, prepared by Marcel Bénéteau and Donald Deschênes, will be published in the near future.

Here is an example of a Folktale:

THE FISHERMAN AND HIS WIFE

Collection Joseph Médard Carrière
Archives de folklore de l’Université Laval
Transcription Donald Deschênes et Marcel Bénéteau

Once, there was a man and a woman. They were so poor they couldn’t afford to buy a house or rent one, because they had no money. So they managed, what with picking up pieces of wood here and there, to build a little shack by the side of a ditch.

One fine day, the man went fishing, like he did every day. According to government regulations, he wasn’t allowed to set his nets more than once a day. It had been three days that he gone fishing without hauling in a single fish. The fourth day, he caught a golden fish, about as big as a medium-sized sturgeon. Very happy with his catch, he grabbed his fish and was about to throw it over his back to carry it home. The fish said:

“Don’t bring me home! Throw me back into the sea. It will be luckier for you. If you bring me home, you and your wife will only have enough for two or three meals. If you throw me back in, it will be much luckier for you.”

So the man threw the golden fish back in the ocean and said:
“I’d rather miss two or three meals than have even more bad luck than I’ve got now.”

The fisherman and his wife, Josie Hazen. Fisherman talking to the fish.

When he got home, the man started telling his wife what had happened to him. His wife said:
“But that was a genie you caught. If you had asked him for something, he would have granted it. Go back to the sea, call the golden fish and ask him to give us nice little house with a nice little garden.”
The man turned around and went back to the sea, very pleased with what his wife had said. When he got to the sea, he called out:

“Golden fish of the sea, my wife asks that you give us a nice house with a nice garden.”
All of a sudden, the fish stuck his head out of the water:
”Go home, your wife is waiting for you on the front porch steps of your house.”

Sure enough, when he got home, his wife was there on the steps waiting for him. He was pleased to see he had a nice house, and his wife was happy too. But after two or three days, the woman was not satisfied. She said to her husband:
“If we had asked for a castle, we would have gotten it all the same. You’re going to go back to the sea, and you’re going to ask the fish to give us a beautiful castle with a big garden and some animals.”

The man said to his wife:
“If you keep asking, eventually you will be turned down. We should be satisfied with what we’ve got now.”
She said, “He’s a genie, he’ll give you everything you want.”

So the man went back to the sea:
“Golden fish of the sea, my wife has sent me to ask you for a castle with a big garden with animals in it.”
The fish stuck his head out of the water and told him:
“Go on home, your wife is waiting for you on the front steps.”

So when he got home, he saw his wife on the steps of a beautiful castle, a beautiful flower garden in front of the castle, a beautiful garden with all kinds of vegetables behind the castle and all sorts of domestic animals in the yard. Two or three more days went by. The woman said to her husband:
“Why didn’t I ask him to make me king? You’re going to go back to the sea and tell the fish that I want to be king.”

The golden fish of the sea

But the man said to his wife:
“You know you can’t be king!”
She said, “I told you I want you to go back to the sea and ask the fish to make me king!”

So the man left with his head hanging very low, thinking the fish would say no. This time, when he got to the sea, the water was full of currents. He said:
“Golden fish of the sea, my wife wants you to make her king.”
The fish stuck his head out and told him:
”Go on home, your wife is sitting on her throne waiting for you.”

Sure enough, when he got home, he saw his wife sitting on a throne in a beautiful palace. All around the palace, it was full of beautiful flowers and beautiful trees. So the man said to his wife:
“Now that you’re king, we’re set for life.”

But after they had gone to bed, the woman couldn’t sleep all night because she kept thinking about how she could be more exalted than she already was. In the morning, she said to her husband:
“You’re going to tell him that I want to be emperor.”

So the man, saying nothing because he knew it was no use, went back to the sea and said:
“Golden fish of the sea, my wife asks to be made emperor.”
The fish stuck his head out of the water and said:
“Go on back home, your wife is emperor.”

When he got home, his wife was in a much bigger palace, sitting on a much higher throne than the one before. The insides of the palace were made of gold and diamonds and the floors were made of crystal and the walls were made of mirrors. So then the man said to his wife:
“Now that you are emperor, I’m sure you don’t have to ask for anything else.”
The woman said to him:
“I don’t know about that. I don’t see why I couldn’t be the pope. Now that you’ve made me think of it, go back to the fish and tell him I want to be the pope.”

The old man argued with his wife for a while, but it was no use. She said:
“I’m the emperor, and I’m giving you an order. Go!”

But this time, when the man got to the sea, it had become as black as ink. The man was scared, but he had to follow the emperor’s orders. He said:
“Golden fish of the sea, my wife sends me to tell you she wants to be the pope.”
The fish stuck his head out and said:
“Go on back home, your wife is the pope.”

So the, when he got home, he said to his wife:
“Now the, there’s nothing higher up than that, you’re the pope. What more could you want?”
The woman said:
I don’t know. Since it’s late, we’ll see about that tomorrow.”

The next morning, the man got up and said to his wife:
“You have to get up, you know. You’re the pope.”
She turned towards the window and looked at the sun. She said:
“I don’t see why I couldn’t command the sun and the moon. You’re going to go tell the fish that I want to command the sun and the moon.”
This time, the old man started lamenting. He kept telling his wife it was impossible, that something bad would happen to them. She said:
“I’m telling you, you’re going! Once you start dealing with a genie, he never refuses to give you anything.”

So the old man went to the sea. When he got there, a great wind came up. Trees were falling over, it was raining, there was thunder and lightning. The sea was so red that it seemed to be on fire. So he asked fearfully:
“Golden fish of the sea, my wife wants you to let her command the sun and the moon.”
The fish stuck his head out of the water and said:
“Go on back home, you’ll find your wife in the little shack by the side of the ditch.”

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