Fables, Folklore and Fairy Stories


Ivy Stanmore / Sidney, Australia / Wolf Song of Alaska Volunteer
It is now acknowledged that wolves, to use a term familiar to the public relations media, have had a "bad press" over the centuries. We all heard in childhood that it was the big bad wolf who ate Red Riding Hood's grandma, who huffed and puffed and blew down the house of the three little pigs and who but the big bad wolf entered the vocabulary in terms such as "crying wolf", "keeping the wolf from the door", being "thrown to the wolves" and so on. It was the wolf who was used by Church authorities as the epitome of evil in the picture presented of the wicked wolf devouring the Christian sheep safe in the fold of the Church. The list of the misdeeds of the wolf could go on and on. For this undeserved reputation wolves have paid with their lives. In countless thousands they have been slaughtered until over the vast range of their former habitat only comparatively few remain today.
How did it all happen? How has the fear and loathing of the wolf entered so deeply into human consciousness? It was not always so. Before the days of almost instant communication there were many methods of learning about the world and its ways, one was by the telling of stories. This means is found amongst all peoples of the world, from the northwest coast of the Americas to the aborigines of Australia, from the peoples of Europe and Africa, across the Atlantic to the Caribbean and South America. These stories were told orally and also written down. In time they became fables bearing a moral to the story or other lesson to be learned.
Aristotle (born 384 BCE, died 322 BCE) in his Historia Annimalium (History of Animals) depicts animals differing from each other and describes the characteristics and behavior of animals in ways, which endow them with human attributes. Drawing together these points Aristotle stresses the kinship which mankind has always felt between itself and the animal world.
One of the earliest fabulists was Aesop, some of whose tales probably all of us came across during childhood. Aesop is said to have been a slave in Samos during the 5th century BCE.
Many of his stories were collected together by Demetrius of Phaleron about 300 AD. There is even a suggestion by some authorities that Buddha himself adopted some of Aesop's fables in order to illustrate his teachings. In Aesop's fables the wolf is mentioned frequently. He speaks of the wolf and the lamb drinking together peaceably and in another tale draws the portrait of a wolf who preferred freedom and hunting for his living, although it might be a poor one, to the life of a domestic dog, whose food was provided but who was chained and restricted.
In at least two of his fables Aesop depicts the wolf as a creature duped by other animals. In "Two Thieves" Aesop writes of a wolf who stole a sheep from a flock and was carrying it away to his den when a lion jumped out from behind a bush. The wolf dropped the sheep and backed away when the lion seized the sheep. "Stop," said the wolf "you can't take that, it's my sheep." The lion laughed, "No, it isn't" he said. "You stole it from the shepherd and it really belongs to him. Now I'm stealing it from you." The moral of the story being that one thief is as bad as another.
The "Flute Playing Wolf" tells the story of a young goat who loitered behind his friends and came face to face with a hungry wolf. Before the wolf could pounce, the goat cried "Oh wolf, I know you are going to make a meal out of me, but please grant me my last wish and play the flute so I can dance for the last time." The wolf agreed and whilst he was playing and the goat was dancing, some dogs arrived having heard the music. They chased the wolf away and the goat was able to rejoin his friends. The wolf said "This serves me right, I should not have tried to be a musician when I had a hunter's work to do." Aesop's moral was don't be distracted from what you really set out to do.
Fables were also used' as allegories and social comment by slaves and others in the community who had little or no power. By using animals in their fables such people were able to comment on and draw attention to injustice and inhumanity in their society without bringing down on themselves any punishment. Phaedrus, writing in the 1st century AD, speaks of the connection between social criticism and fables. He describes it as follows:
"I will explain briefly why the type of
thing called fable was invented. The slave
being liable to punishment for any offence,
since he dared not say outright what he wished
to say, projected his personal sentiments into
fables and eluded censure under the guise of
jesting with made up stories."
In the 10th century a Latin poem Ecbasis Captivi relates the story of a monk of St. Eure in Lorraine who escapes from a monastery and who tells the tale of a runaway calf who was caught by a wolf. The calf is saved by the intervention of a dog, a fox and a bull. The poem becomes an allegory of the writer himself, who, in the guise of the calf, is saved from the wiles of the devil (the wolf). This poem is probably the earliest form of beast epic which took many years to reach its final form and showed a trend towards future writings.
Also about the 10th century stories of the wolf and the fox become common. The fox is usually named Reynard or Renart.
The wolf is Ysengrimus or Isengrin or some version of that name. There are dozens of versions of this theme, told and written by many different people in different places. Quite a few of the Reynard and Isengrin stories originate with clerics.
The Magister Nivardus of Ghent was written in Flanders about 1150 AD. The French Roman de Renart of 30,000 lines was produced between 1170 and 1250 AD again by clerics. A German translation of these tales appeared about 1180 AD. A Flemish version in prose was printed in Gouda in 1479 and this version spread across northern Europe. It was also translated and published by William Caxton in London in 1481.
An even earlier poem called The Fox and the Wolf is preserved in a manuscript dating most likely from the reign of Edward I of England (reigned 1272-1307). The manuscript is held in the Bodleian Library, Oxford (Bodh.Digby Ms.86) and is the basis of many tales.
In this story Reynard the Fox finds himself in difficulties at the bottom of a well. A wolf happens along, this time called Sigrim, looking down the well he sees the fox. Quick witted Reynard seizes his opportunity to solve his problems by persuading Sigrim that he should join him in the well, saying: "Her is the bliss of paradise Her is mete, her is drinke." (Medieval spelling)
Sigrim wants to get into paradise, so he confesses his sins and Reynard tells him to jump in the bucket at the top of the well. Sigrim does as the fox bids and as he descends Reynard comes up in the other bucket, rises to the top of the well and promptly abandons poor Sigrim to his fate.
A variation on this theme is the tale of the fox, now called Lawrence, who watches a farmer ploughing his fields with oxen. The oxen do not like ploughing and behave badly. The farmer says, "The wolf shall have you all." Lawrence goes to the wolf and tells him of the farmer's words. The wolf confronts the farmer demanding the oxen. Dismayed, the farmer tries to back away from his threat and an argument ensues between the wolf and the farmer. Lawrence re-appears and all agree that Lawrence the Fox should judge and decide the matter. Lawrence whispers to the farmer that the wolf is a bad fellow and will insist on taking every single ox the farmer owns. However, Reynard says he can save the situation if the farmer will promise him six of his best hens. The farmer agrees.
Lawrence then goes to the wolf, saying, "You don't think that farmer will give you all his oxen, do you?" "He promised them to me" says the wolf. "Well" says Lawrence, "you will not get them. But I have made an arrangement with this farmer that might solve the problem. He says if you forgo the oxen he will give you a cheese instead." " What would be the use of a cheese to me?" says the wolf. Lawrence replies, "It is the most beautiful cheese in the world. A huge creamy cheese, wonderful eating." " I should like to see this cheese," says the wolf. "And tonight I shall show it to you" says Lawrence. That night the fox leads the wolf through the forest to a well. "There is the cheese" says Lawrence and tells the wolf to look down the well. The full moon is shining in the well. Lawrence explains "The cheese is kept in the well so it will remain fresh and perfect." The wolf licks his lips. "For a cheese like that I would give up those oxen," he says. Lawrence volunteers to bring up the cheese for the wolf and jumps into the well bucket. After a while, the wolf calls down asking Lawrence the reason for the delay. Lawrence replies the cheese is so large and heavy he cannot manage to bring it up alone, will the wolf come down and help him? The wolf jumps into the other bucket and as it descends the bucket containing Lawrence passes it. The wolf is angry and calls "Lawrence, why are you leaving when I am coming to help?" Lawrence laughs, "That's what life is my friend - one person moves up and another goes down." And he rushes away to collect his six hens leaving the wolf at the bottom of the well.
Yet another version sets the story at the Court of King Lion, whose court is conducted along the lines of a medieval court. All the animals with grievances against Reynard the Fox come before King Lion to voice their complaints, amongst them is Isengrin the wolf. Reynard has to answer for his misdeeds but he saves himself on each charge by his quick wits. The story concludes with a trial by combat between the fox and the wolf. In different versions the ending varies but the fox always escapes to continue elsewhere his battle with the wolf. In medieval times a frequent method of resolving a dispute, especially where a matter of honor was concerned, was trial by combat. In some versions of this tale, Isengrin the wolf becomes a knight in full armour contesting the duel. This circumstance makes it perhaps the most interesting version of the fox and wolf tales.
The themes of these stories do not portray the wolf as in any way a threatening animal but rather as too trusting, an easily duped creature. It is when considering two other writers of the medieval period that an important change in the perception of the wolf occurs, for these writers use the wolf as a symbol for various evils in society and the reputation then ascribed to the wolf remained and grew as the years and centuries went by.
Very little is known about Marie de France, we are not even sure of her name. She described herself only by saying, "Marie is my name and I am of France." Most likely she lived in the reign of Henry II of England (1152-1189) and his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine. Marie may have lived in England, or in one of the English possessions in what is now modern France. She must have been well born for she was highly educated and wrote her fables in verse, drawing on Phaedrus for the basis of many of her tales. Her stories were undoubtedly read at Henry and Eleanor's court and formed part of Court entertainment.
Marie's contribution to fable was to turn classical stories into a mirror of 12th century society. Marie used animals as symbols for those in the society in which she lived and, as it was a hierarchical society, animals were allotted a "place" or "degree" in the community. Animals used to depict the lower orders were the ox, dog, ass, fowls etc.
In medieval society the predator was essentially noble -the main activities of the nobles were warfare, hunting, raiding etc. - all predatory activities. Therefore, in Marie's world nobles were born to rule, and rule strongly and wisely, so lions, eagles, destriers (war horses) were depicted as kings, lords and other rulers. To these rulers the lower orders must be obedient. This creates a stable though static society. As Marie says of humble creatures: "He should give honor to his lord
And should be loyal and keep his word And when his Master is in need
He should join others and bring aid."
Marie also insists that princes and rulers should rule justly and honestly:
"A prince should be well-rested too in his delights not overdo.
Nor shame himself or his domain
Nor cause the poor folk undue pain."
Marie also had a moral for the wealthy:
"And so this model serves to show A lesson wealthy men should know
Who over poor folks have much power. If these should wrong them unaware The rich should show them charity."
But Marie's ideal society does not reflect actual happenings in the 12th century any more than it does in own. Rulers do not always rule wisely and well, the rich and powerful do not treat others in less influential positions with charity and consideration. Marie had to have a symbol, a noble beast who had fallen from grace. An illustration of bad government, a wicked ruler, murderous, greedy and unscrupulous to represent those of noble birth who did not adhere to the rules of proper conduct and whose standards were far removed from those of an enlightened ruler. The animal Marie, and other writers, chose to fulfill this role was the wolf. The wolf became the symbol of those who were greedy, dissatisfied with their place in society, disruptive and violent. The metaphor for those who had gone astray was the wolf.
Two examples will suffice. The fable of the preacher who was trying to teach the wolf the alphabet. The wolf concentrates for a while, reaching the letter "C", but when asked to spell a word he answers "lamb", showing his mind remains at the level of his stomach and thus he was greedy, rapacious and gluttonous. In another instance, when Marie retold a fable from antiquity of an evil king, she altered the king of the fable from a lion to a wolf. This preserved the social hierarchy. Lions were noble, just, wise and brought honor to their role. Wolves were depicted as the exact opposite.
A real life example of a noble fallen from grace is that of Alexander Stewart, Earl of Buchan, son of King Robert II of Scotland (reigned 1371-1390), who was himself the first Stewart king of Scotland. Alexander Stewart's nickname was "Wolf of Badenoch" and he was notorious for his depredations on the local population. In 1390 following a reprimand from the Bishop of Moray for the ill-treatment of his wife and retainers, the "Wolf" set fire to the towns of Elgin and Forres in revenge. The Wolf's children, both legitimate and illegitimate, were no improvement on their father. One son desired to become Earl of Mar. He achieved this aim by the simple means of murdering the incumbent earl and forcing the widow to marry him. On the death of the "Wolf of Badenoch" the Earldom of Buchan passed to his brother, Robert, Duke of Albany, no doubt to the relief of his long suffering tenants and servants.
Odo of Cheriton was an Englishman from a wealthy family. He was born about 1185 AD and attended the University of Paris, where he obtained a doctorate in theology. Before commencing his religious life, Odo travelled extensively, spending much time in Spain and France. Odo's fables centred on the misuse of authority and abuse of clerical privilege. Whereas in Marie's stories animals become metaphors for kings, lords and nobles, in Odo's tales the animals become symbols for bishops, monks, priests and other churchmen.
Both these writers used the old Greco-Roman fables but in their hands the tales were subtly changed. Aesop's fables were, in the main, social criticism. Phaedrus specifically states that fables were the invention of slaves, which allowed them to criticise the society in which they lived without penalty to themselves. Marie and Odo in re-telling fables for the entertainment and education of Court and Church re-directed the point of each story which became the tools of those in powerful positions, transformed from social criticism to a method of preserving the status quo in a static social hierarchy.
It is difficult for us in modern times to realise just how complete was the dominance which the medieval church held over the lives of most people, even those in powerful positions. There were always a few who would risk excommunication to flout the church's teachings but these were mainly kings and other rulers. To the ordinary citizen the church controlled his or her entire life from birth to death. It ruled upon who they could marry and when, what they could eat, where they went, in many cases where they worked and lived. Without the sacraments of the church they believed they were damned whilst they lived and for evermore after they died. Most people in medieval times could neither read nor write, they relied on the church for knowledge and the wherewithal to get through their days. It would not have occurred to the medieval peasant or townsman to question the Church's ordinances. And the church said the wolf was evil, both metaphorically and actually. It devoured the flock, the true Christians in the fold of the Church whose shepherd was Christ himself. It devoured the flocks of their domestic animals on which their very liveli-hood depended. Medieval people saw wolves far more frequently than we do, in the forests and prowling around the small settlements in which most of them lived. Wolves were no use to them either as labouring animals or as food. Even King John (reigned 1199-1216) of Magna Carta fame, not noted as a good example of kingship, placed a bounty of 5 shillings on the head of every wolf, declaring them pests to be exterminated. Church and State were right; wolves were a manifestation of evil and therefore must be destroyed. Thus the pattern was set. It continued down through the centuries with additions from various sources from time to time, almost to the present day.
The wolf also figures in folklore and whilst it was never exonerated from its evil reputation, it was not quite so badly reviled as in some fables. Tales of folklore were sometimes based on an actual happening. Told orally they gathered accretions over the years. Quite fantastic accretions in some instances.
An early 12th century story tells of a man condemned to turn into a wolf who must spend three days each week in the woods. He bemoans his fate to his wife, who cannot accept a part-beast as her husband. She has a knight who wishes to become her lover. The knight and the wife steal the clothes belonging to the husband, the means by which he returns to human form. He thus remains a wolf. A king on a-hunting expedition in the woods observes the wolf and decides it is a highly intelligent creature of exceptional ability. He says, "This beast is rational. It has the mind of a man." and he takes the wolf under his protection. When the wolf sees the knight and his wife together he attacks the pair, who has stolen his entire human existence, biting off the wife's nose in the process. The king enquires into all these circumstances, forces the truth from the miscreants and the clothing is returned. The knight and the wife are banished and the wolf resumes his human form. He remains with the king as friend and counsellor.
In a Latin romance of the 14th century a different version of this piece of folklore appears and the legendary King Arthur is featured. King Arthur acquires a pet wolf whose named is Gorlagon. Arthur discovers the wolf is actually a man enchanted by his faithless wife with the aid of a magic wand. Arthur obtains the magic wand and turns the wolf back into a human being.
Some chroniclers hold these are the first references to werewolves in literature. Many conclusions can be drawn from these tales and no doubt medieval people did put their own interpretations on such stories. From Wales comes the interesting story of Gelert. It is a story I heard as a child and shed tears over. The real facts show it to be an excellent example of a traditional tale merging with folklore and fact.
The story told to this day in Beddgelert, Gwynedd, Wales, is that Llewellyn the Great (lived AD 1173-1240) owned a dog named Gelert. It was an excellent hunting dog but one day refused to accompany his master. When Llewellyn returned from the hunt he was met by Gelert who bounded to meet him. Llewellyn noticed Gelerr was splashed with blood, especially round his muzzle. On entering his living quarters, Llewellyn found a scene of confusion with rooms disordered and articles scattered in heaps.
Llewellyn could not find his young son, the cradle was overturned, the bed clothes bloody. Llewellyn was angered, he concluded that the dog Gelert had attacked the child, drew his sword and slew the dog. Soon after Llewellyn heard the cry of a baby. On searching further he found his son safe and well. Lying near the baby was a large grey wolf. It was plain what had happened. Gelert had killed the wolf whilst defending the baby from the wolf's attack. Overcome with grief at his hasty action, Llewellyn buried Gelert with all honour and raised a memorial over his grave. From then on the settlement was known as Beddgelert, meaning "Gelert's Grave". This is the traditional tale still told.
The village is actually believed to have received its name from a greyhound given to Llewellyn by his father-in-law, King John of England. But the story of a dog slain in error after killing a wolf was attached to Llewellyn the Great as late as 1793-4 by a local inn-keeper. Sometime before 1800, the Honourable William Spencer visited this village, heard the tale and wrote a ballad about it, which became very popular both in Wales and England.
However, the legend behind all this folklore is extremely old, though the animals involved originally were neither wolves nor dogs. A tale of a mongoose who saved a Brahmin's son from a snake was told in India and appeared as early as the 3rd century AD in the Panchatantra. It was written in Sanskrit, later translated into Persian and, in the 8th century, into Arabic. A version of the tale is found in the Book of Sindibad, which later became part of our own Arabian Nights stories of Sinbad the Sailor. The story, however, was altering all through its various translations. For instance, the mongoose was a creature not known in the Arab world, so it became a weasel, then a dog. The snake remained. A version of this story reached Wales in the 14th century in the Red Book of Hergest compiled in the years 1382 to 1410 from current stories. In Welsh folktales the snake is replaced by a wolf. Perhaps because it was a more likely attacker and already had a fearsome reputation, though by the 14th century wolves appear to have been few and far between in Wales.
The present grave at Beddgelert is a modern memorial. It stands on a mound some 260 feet in diameter which was said to be an old burial mound. In 1960 a Royal Commission on Ancient and Historical Monuments found it to be a natural formation.
So in this tale we see how time has fused together traditions from many sources and melded them into a legend still honoured at Gelert's Grave lying at the foot of Mount Snowden.
Fairy stories and nursery rhymes can also have a basis in fact. The nursery rhyme "Ring 'o Roses" is a remembrance of the plague which struck Europe at regular intervals and it accurately retails some of the plague symptoms. And the well known German fairy tale "The Pied Piper of Hamelin", recorded in English by Robert Browning in the poem of the same name, is said to have its origin in the Children's Crusade of 1212, when bands of children from all over Europe set out to rescue the Holy Sepulchre from the heathen. A boy named Nicholas led a group from Germany and Switzerland. Many of these children perished whilst crossing the Alps though some reached Genoa on 25 August 1212. They marched on and a small remnant reached Brindisi. No ships or money were available to the children in this town. Needless to add none of the children reached the Holy Land, many took sick and died, the rest were sold into slavery.
Fairy stories were also used for educational purposes. They were aimed at teaching children and young people how to take care of themselves and handle situations they could expect to encounter during their lives.
Fairy stories concerning wolves are a legion. It is, however, of interest to note two points. Many fairy stories are set in deep forests. Forests were widespread in earlier times and most settlements were surrounded by thick woods stretching for miles, in many cases unbroken until the next village, monastery or manor house was reached. Horrible things could and did happen to people whilst traversing forest paths. We notice little of this today with forests less extensive than they were in former times and our lives insulated in many ways from the raw nature with which our forebears had to contend.
Secondly, fairy stories concerning wolves often feature both people and animals being devoured by wolves. Clearly medieval people had a real fear of actually being eaten by a wolf. Why was this so? One of the realities of medieval life was that people travelled by foot or by horseback. Armies used horses both to carry supplies and in actual fighting. The war horse, known as the destrier, was bred specially for use in warfare, carried the armed knight and was, to medieval people the equivalent of our tank. During the course of travel and in battle horses died or were killed. Wolves followed armies, scavenging the battlefield, eating the easy prey provided by dead animals and food in the baggage wagons. It does not take a great leap of the imagination for a fear to take root that wolves might eat humans slain in battle and left on the field prior to burial. Tales circulated that wolves did eat humans. For instance, a report from Paris states that the winter of 1420 was so hard people were reduced to eating pig swill; rubbish pits were filled with the bodies of children who had died from starvation and wolves swam the Seine to scavenge in the graveyards in order to assuage their hunger.
Stories were spread by returning pilgrims. In the middle ages many people went on pilgrimage to the shrines of different saints. Chaucer's Canterbury Tales is based on such a band of pilgrims journeying to Canterbury to visit the Shrine of St. Thomas Becket. The three most honoured places to visit as a pilgrim were Jerusalem, Rome and Santiago de Compostela in Spain, where the relics of St. James the Apostle were said to lie. A report from the Camino Real - the Royal Road to Santiago - comes to us via two writers. In 1673 an Italian priest, one Domenico Latti, set out for Santiago and en route wrote what we would call a travel journal entitled A Journey Westwards to Santiago in Galicia and Finisterre. In the Journal Latti quotes one Virgen de Prolos, who wrote probably in the 10th century, he describes an incident which occurred after leaving Sahagun: " and we set off for Albergo Raneros
(Brunello) four long leagues away and after
covering about three leagues across the plains
we came upon a dead pilgrim. And two wolves
appeared and started to devour the body. We
scared them off and continued towards Albergo
Raneros where we went in search of a priest so
he could go and remove the corpse."
It is not claimed that the wolves killed the pilgrim, they and the passing pilgrims merely found the body and travellers could die from many causes during the course of their journeys. Later in his Journal Latti tells of an incident which happened to himself near the town of Hontanas between Burgos and Castro Jeriz. He relates how:
"We came to the town of Hontanas which is hidden at the bottom of a little valley so you can hardly see it, wolves came in such numbers that if they see no fire they eat the livestock night and day."
Latti goes on to state that at the time this area was suffering from a devastating drought, made worse by a plague of locusts which descended in millions on the countryside and adds that both people and animals were dying of hunger. Wolves must have been made bold by their own hunger and also by the prospect of easy prey amongst the weakened animals.
In another area of the Camino Real near Fuente de Majapan, between Villafanca Montes de Oca and San Juan de Ortega, high on a plateau with little water available save at Fuente itself, it was considered too dangerous to make a journey by night. Wolves and brigands were expected hazards. Pilgrims who often were accompanied by livestock on their travels, lit fires when darkness fell to discourage the wolves in this region.
Lack of knowledge and superstition breed fear. People, especially travellers, were afraid they might be eaten by a wolf. The fear surfaces in fairy stories.
In the fairy story of the Three Little Pigs, the wolf tempts the first two pigs with various favours, all of which fail to achieve his ends, before huffing and puffing and blowing down the flimsy dwellings of the first two pigs and devouring them. It is only when the wolf tries to trap the third pig, hiding in a stronger house, that his strategy brings his own destruction and the wolf, in an attempt to reach the third pig, falls down the chimney into a cookpot and is thus cooked and eaten himself. The moral behind the tale being that with care and thought a person can overcome and defeat the forces of evil, represented by the wolf. In the tale of the Three Little Pigs, the first two pigs do come to grief and only the third pig triumphs over the evil wolf and survives.
In the German Grimm's Fairy Tales, the authors take the idea of survival a step further. The Brothers Grimm use the tale of a mother goat who has seven kids. She leaves the home ordering the kids to let no one into the house. A wolf approaches the dwelling and by various subterfuges gains entry, chases and eats all the kids save the youngest and smallest who successfully conceals himself inside a clock until the mother goat returns. When the kid explains to the mother goat what has happened she gathers together scissors, needle and thread. Meanwhile the wolf has settled in a meadow to sleep off the effects of his heavy meal and here the mother goat finds him, still sleeping. She slits open the wolf's stomach and out hop the six kids, all alive. Stones are placed in the wolf's stomach to replace the kids and his stomach sewn up again. When the wolf wakes he is thirsty and he goes to a well for a drink. The weight of the stones unbalances him and he falls down the well. The triumphant kids dance for joy and they all live happily ever after - possibly even the wolf survives, for we are not told specifically that he died.
The most famous fairy story of all concerning wolves is, of course, Red Riding Hood. Too well known to repeat in detail. However, there is an interesting variation emerging from an unusual place. In Papua New Guinea there is a version of Red Riding Hood told by local people in the Pidgin language.
These people have never seen a wolf, nor any other animal like it save a domestic dog. Some people claim there is a genuine wolf-like wild dog in Papua New Guinea which is related to the Dingo of Australia. If so it is very rare. Others dispute this and claim the animal is not a true wild dog but a domestic dog become feral in the wild. In Papua New Guinea the story of Red Riding Hood is called "Liklik Retpela Hat" and the wolf is called "Waildok". The wolf does not eat grandma as in the traditional tale, he merely ties her up and deposits her in the woodshed. The Waildok deceives Red Riding Hood though when he chases her she drops her basket of food and this becomes entangled around the wolf's legs. Father then appears on the scene, brandishing an axe. The wolf pleads for his life and father spares him. The wolf then repents and goes to live in another part of the forest. Grandma is freed and everyone lives happily ever after. The moral of the tale as told is that little girls should not go wandering in the jungle, nor listen to the tales of plausible rascals.
How this tale arrived in Papua New Guinea is impossible to say. Possibly early German traders or missionaries brought it and the local people adopted it. Until 1914 the New Guinea part of what is now Papua New Guinea was a German Colony and "Pidgin" was, and still is, the lingua franca, whereas in Papua, colonised by Britain and Australia, the lingua franca is Motu. This version of Red Riding Hood does have a "softer" edge than the traditional European tale, no one is hurt, or killed and everyone, including the wolf, lives happily ever after.
Almost to the present day the wolf is used in the presentation of fairy stories. The world of ballet has the story of "Peter and the Wolf". Although based on an old Russian fairy tale, this ballet was given a world premiere by the American Ballet Theatre in New York on January 13 1940. The music was composed by Sergei Prokofiev and the choreography by Adolf Bolm, both Russians living in the United States at the time.
The story is extremely simple. Peter, a young boy, has a bird, a cat and a duck as animal friends. One day a wolf comes to the farm and eats the duck. Peter and his friends capture the wolf. A group of hunters arrive seeking to kill the wolf. Peter will not allow this and tells the hunters they are taking the wolf to the zoo where he will be cared for but can do no more harm. A procession is formed to escort the wolf to his new home. Then the wolf repents and "coughs up" the duck, who, having been swallowed whole, is alive and well. The wolf then "explains" he only ate the duck because he was very hungry. All is forgiven and there is a happy ending to a story which once again shows a "softer" view of the wolf. In a more recent British Royal Ballet version the tale is narrated by Peter's grandfather as the story is danced.
In all these fairy stories the same themes appear over and over again though in some versions we begin to see the wolf portrayed as being more misunderstood by humans rather than as the epitome of evil as it has been depicted for so long. A re-assessment which is long overdue.
In the 18th and 19th centuries great changes took place in society and the effects of the Industrial Revolution impinged on the life of every person to some degree. Many people moved from rural communities to the burgeoning towns and cities seeking employment and a better way of life. Others were forced into moving without wishing to do so. For instance, Scotland saw the land clearances when absentee landlords, sadly many of them Scottish themselves, enclosed their lands in order to graze the sheep which provided the wool the mills were demanding. Their tenants had no rights whatsoever and thousands were simply driven off their crofts to be deposited in distant towns or shipped across the Atlantic to survive as best they might in Canada and the United States. It is to this circumstances we owe some of the loveliest songs and laments in which exiles spoke and sang of homelands to which they could never return. Australia received many thousands of "unwilling exiles" over the years in the form of convicts, many of whom committed only minor offences, or none at all in some cases. Convicts who survived transportation and completed their sentences often chose to remain in the Australian colonies, for some the distance was too great to return to Europe and there were opportunities available in a new land once a man or woman had paid their so called debt to society. From the earliest days there were numbers of free settlers too, a fact frequently overlooked these days.
All the European powers rushed to seize land, establish colonies and settle surplus populations on them. There was a great deal of social dislocation and lack of continuity; contact with the old lands was slow and difficult. People brought with them to their new countries their traditions, customs and stories. In a great melting pot people mixed together and, as time passed, many aspects of their old cultures were also mixed and transformed. As new lands were opened up, by campfires out on the prairies, in isolated farming communities, in mining camps, these legends and stories were told and re-told as entertainment after long weary days working in primitive conditions. Settlers who went to the United States and Canada saw wolves roaming freely in their new environment. Wolves probably did prey upon the settlers' precious livestock, reinforcing the stories and experiences they brought from their original homelands. The inevitable happened, the wolves of the New World were hunted down wherever they appeared, just as in the old lands the settlers had left behind.
Later as conditions stabilised and communications became easier the outlook of people broadened and changed. Tales of fairies, giants, dragons and animals who spoke were considered suitable only for stories told to amuse children.
Now at the beginning of the 21st century mankind is re-evaluating its relationship to many creatures, not only the wolf, and realising anew that each and every one has its part to play in the cycle of life on this planet. And from the fables, folklore and fairy stories which our ancestors carried with them to every part of the globe we have received a great inheritance from mankind's own past and, as we have seen, in that heritage the wolf played a very prominent role.
Written and Researched by: IVY STANMORE / SYDNEY AUSTRALIA.
October 1999 - January 2000
Thanks are due to the following people, without whose assistance this article could not have been completed:
Dr. Carole Cusack, of Sydney University who read the transcript.
Anne Phillips for information and material.
A.C. Teasdale for information on Medieval Pilgrimages.
Roger Link for the use of his computer.
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