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Armenian Folklore

Nashua Telegraph /  A Telegraph Column / Rebecca Rule / September 16, 2007

From her home in Meredith, Bonnie Marshall travels across the world in stories.

Her previous translations of folklore include "The Snow Maiden and Other Russian Tales" and "Tales from the Heart of the Balkans." Her new book takes her, and readers, to Armenia, which - in case your geography is as vague as mine - has "served for centuries as a buffer zone between Europe and Asia." Once a stop on the Silk Road, it "extended from the Black to the Caspian Sea and from the Mediterranean Sea to Iran." Today, the Republic of Armenia, less than 12,000 square miles, sits south of Georgia, north of Iran, west of Azerbaijan and east of Turkey. Mount Ararat, where Noah's ark may have landed, was once part of Armenia and is still considered sacred territory by Armenians.

So much for the geography lesson. Marshall's new book, "The Flower of Paradise and Other Armenian Tales," reveals the culture as only folk tales can. These old stories speak to the values of those who pass them on from generation to generation. By collecting these stories, Marshall - a Russian scholar and museum teacher for the N.H. Historical Society - says to readers: See how the Armenian people are like us. See how their folk lore mirrors ours in some ways, and deviates from ours in other ways. See how, just like us, Armenians teach their children through myths and legends, animal tales, fairy tales, and cautionary tales about everyday life and foolish behavior. Understand this culture by examining its roots.

So, yes, this is an important, educational book, complete with glossary, bibliography, recommended readings, index and authentic recipes from the old country, including pilaf, plaki and baklava. Eight pages of color photographs show readers something of the people, architecture and landscape of the country. Mostly, though, this is a story book, full of lively, exotic tales suitable for all ages. Parents and teachers might read some of the shorter ones to very small children. Teachers in elementary, middle and high school might use them as models for writing, as well as complements to studies of the region and its history. Like all folk tales, these reveal human foibles and recount adventures. Some include morals, ripe for discussion. Others pile one lie on another to create the tallest of tall tales. Some poke fun at "Silly Pugi," who makes lots of mistakes. They include once upon a time, translated as "once there was and was not." They include happily ever after, translated as, "Three apples fell from heaven - one for the tale teller and two for the audience," or "They attained their heart's desire. May you attain your heart's desire, too."

The title story, "The Flower of Paradise," explains the change of seasons with the familiar cast of a beautiful maiden, a monster and a hero. It includes the familiar plot of a quest, kidnapping and rescue by brave, handsome Arin-Armanelin, who marries the maiden and brings spring back to the world. "Nature spread a beautiful carpet of roses and other flowers at their feet. People and animals, birds and even choruses of ants sang merry songs and hymns to them. Above them in the heavens stretched a marvelous bright rainbow, and the fresh spring sun smiled down on the earth."

The stories vary widely - some silly, some dark, some long and episodic, some quick as winks. Here's a short one that made me smile - and ponder. With hints of the "Boy Who Cried Wolf," "Little Red Riding Hood," "Three Little Pigs" and "Little Boy Blue," "The Wolf and the Lamb" is a fresh take on the relationship between wolves and lambs, how clever trumps big and ferocious, and how vanity leads to trouble.

A young lamb once lived in a shed. A wicked wolf got into the shed and grabbed the little lamb.

The lamb fell down on its knees and said, "God has placed me in your power. Eat me up, but before doing so, please fulfill my last wish - play a song for me on your trumpet. My ancestors told me that wolves are great trumpet players."

The wolf was flattered. He squatted down and howled at the top of his lungs.

His song awakened the dogs. The dogs rushed to the wolf and bit him.

The wolf ran out of the shed and rushed to the top of the hill. He sat down and began weeping and beating himself. "I am worthy of that attack. Who on earth would ever claim that I was a trumpeter? I have always been a butcher and the son of a butcher."

Maybe we can't escape our essential nature. Maybe we shouldn't be swayed by flattery. Maybe if we're going to eat a lamb, we should be quiet about it. I'm just glad that smart little lamb got away!

Marshall, with editorial help from scholar Virginia Tashjian, who happens to be Armenian, fills these pages with delightful stories. In her introduction, Tashjian explains why it's important for children to be exposed to the folklore of other cultures. She writes, "The universality of the story is rampant in these tales of Armenians. Yes, violence there is, but wisdom and idealism are ever present as well. The clever Armenian peasant working in his fields is not much different from the Norwegian Viking crossing the fjords in his need and emotions. Truly, the tapestry of folk heritage proves the richness of the brotherhood of man."

"The Flower of Paradise" belongs to a series of folktale collections published by Libraries Unlimited. Other books in the series feature stories from China, Taiwan, Indonesia, Greece, Mexico, Ireland, Australia, Cuba, England, Germany, Brazil and even America.
Rebecca Rule, a writer who lives in Northwood, writes this column weekly except the last Sunday of the month. Her e-mail address is rebeccarule@metrocast.net.