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The Folktale
Stith Thompson

Motif D671

Transformation flight. Fugitives transforms themselves in order to escape detection by the pursuer. – *Types 313, 325, 327; **Aarne Die magische Flucht (FFC XCII); *Fb “and” IV 12b, “rose” III 80a. – Irish myth: *Cross; English: Child V 499 s.v. “transformations”; Greek: Grote I 182; Jewish: Neuman; Arabian: Burton Nights V 353; India: *Thompson-Balys; Japanese: Ikeda; Philippine (Tinguian): Cole 75, 17 n. 1; Eskimo (Greenland): Rasmussen I 327, 367, III 124, Rink 195, (Cumberland Sound): Boas BAM XV 182; N. A. Indian: *Thompson Tales 334 n. 205b; S. A. Indian (Sharanti, Comacan, Mashacalí): Horton BBAE CXLIII 3 294, (Mundurucu): Horton ibid. 3 281; Jamaica: Beckwith MAFLS XVII 274 No. 86. – Africa (Kaffir): Theal 98, (Zulu): Callaway 21, (Basuto): Jacottet 206 No. 30, Casalis Les Bassoutos (Paris 1859) 349.

Part Two

The Folktale from Ireland to India

II – The Complex Tale

4. Magic and marvels

A. Magic Powers

In a very large proportion of folktales wherever they may be found magic plays a considerable part, and it is almost universal in some form in all those stories we know as wonder tales. In an important group of these stories the possession of such powers and objects serves as the crucial point in the narrative.

A good example of such a tale is that known as The Lazy Boy (Type 675). Just as in the story of The Two Brothers (Type 303) , the hero catches a large fish, usually a salmon, and when he agrees to throw the salmon back into the water the latter gives him the power of making all his wishes come true. He has but to say, "By the word of the Salmon." Among his other accomplishments he makes a saw that cuts wood of itself and a self-moving boat or wagon. His arrival in the royal city in his strange conveyance and the sight of his marvelous saw at work causes the princess to laugh at him. In his anger, he wishes her pregnant. When in due time she has a child an inquiry is made as to who the unknown father may be and all the probable men are gathered together. The child picks the hero out as his father, and the parents [p. 68] are then joined in marriage. In his anger, the king has the hero and princess abandoned in a glass box in the sea or in a cask in the mountains. The hero still has his magic power, which he uses to make a great castle next to the king's. He then invites and humbles his father-in-law.


This is one of the few very well-known European tales which do not appear in the great collection of Grimm. It has been known, however, for a long time, since it is found in the Nights of Straparola in sixteenth century Italy and a hundred years later in the Pentamerone of Basile. It is disseminated rather evenly over the whole of Europe and extends eastward far into Siberia. It does not appear to be known in India or Africa, but two versions have been reported from Annam, and it has been carried to New Guinea and to America. The Cape Verde Island version told in Massachusetts is obviously from Portugal, and the Missouri French and the American Indian tales told by the Maliseets of New Brunswick and the Ojibwas of Michigan are clearly from France.

I am not a collector of folktales, but this happens to be one of the few which I have taken down in the field. The story in question is such a good example of the way in which a tale entering an alien culture may be changed that I cannot forbear making special mention of the story as told me by an Ojibwa Indian on Sugar Island, Michigan, in the summer of 1941. He had been telling us stories of the Ojibwa culture hero. Suddenly he asked, "Did you ever hear the tale about Rummy and his little Ford car?" He proceeded then to tell what is undoubtedly the present story, though confused with some other French tales. Rummy was clearly the hero of these French tales, René, and the little Ford car was Mr. Joseph's idea of the self-moving wagon. The automatic saw played its part, and the experience with the princess was exactly as we have outlined it above. From other tales he brought in the story of the magic tablecloth which produced food of itself and the tabu against looking backwards, which he repeated frequently but apparently did not understand or actually make use of in the story.

No one has investigated this tale systematically, but a casual listing of the versions country by country suggests the strong probability of origin in southern Europe and of the predominant influence of the literary treatments of the two famous Italian taletellers of the Renaissance.

If the literary origin of The Lazy Boy appears not to be certain, there can be no doubt that the story of Open Sesame (Type 676) has been learned by those who tell it either from a copy of the Arabian Nights itself or eventually, perhaps through many intermediaries, from the same source. It seems likely that this tale has entered the oral tradition of nearly every European country since the time of Galland's translation of the Thousand and One Nights into French at the beginning of the eighteenth century. Whether the versions current in central Africa have come more directly from the Arabic versions of the work has not been determined, but seems probable. [p. 69] The fact that the story is now an authentic part of the folklore of a good part of Europe, whatever its actual origin may have been, justifies its inclusion in the canon of oral folktales. It is known to almost everyone. The poor brother observes robbers entering a mountain and overhears the magic words "Open Sesame," which gives them admittance. He secures much gold from the mountain and takes it home. He borrows money scales from his rich brother and a piece of the money remains in the scale and thus betrays the secret. The rich brother tries to imitate, but forgets the formula for opening the mountain and is caught inside. Though the magic words vary as the tale passes from country to country, they always seem to be at least a reminiscence of the phrase "Open Sesame."

Another tale of magic powers which surely comes from the Orient, but this time from India, is that of The Magician and His Pupil (Type 325). The fact that it is well known in India and also throughout Europe has served to bring it to the attention of those folklorists interested in the problem of the Indian origin of the European folktales. In 1859 Theodor Benfey in the Prolegomena to his Pantschatantra uses this story as an illustration of the way in which tales from India are taken over into the Mongolian literature (in this case, as part of the collection of Kalmuck tales known as Siddhi-Kür) and carried through this intermediary into Europe. More than fifty years later his disciple, Emmanuel Cosquin, [61] while accepting the main thesis of Indic origin for European tales, made exception to the importance of the Mongols and uses the present tale as the foundation for his case. He shows clearly enough that the European tales are like the purely Indian ones and are considerably different from the Mongolian form.

The main fact that this tale is originally from India seems never to have been disputed, though it has become so well known in Europe that it must be ranked among the most popular of oral stories. It is told in the sixteenth century by Straparola. It appears in nearly all the collections of the Near East and of southern Siberia. Beyond India, where it has been frequently reported, it is told in the Dutch East Indies and in the Philippines. It is popular in North Africa, and has been brought to Missouri by the French and to Massachusetts by Portuguese-speaking Cape Verde Island Negroes.

The details of the story remain remarkably constant wherever it is told. A father sends his son to school to a magician. The father may have the son back if, at the end of one year, he can recognize the son in the animal form to which the magician will have transformed him. The boy learns magic secretly, and he escapes from the magician by means of a magic flight. He either transforms himself frequently, or else he casts behind him magic obstacles. [62] He thus returns to his father and helps his father make money by [p. 70] selling him as a dog, an ox, or a horse. At last he is sold as a horse to the magician. Contrary to his instructions, the father gives the bridle along with the horse and this brings the youth into the magician's power. The boy succeeds in stripping off the bridle and then he conquers the magician in a transformation combat. He changes to various animals and the magician likewise changes himself. The details of these changes vary somewhat. One of the most popular varieties of this motif is that in which the youth (or prince) has flown to a princess in the form of a bird and is hidden by her after he has transformed himself to a ring. As the princess throws the ring, a great number of grains of corn fall on the ground. When the magician as cock is about to eat the corn, the boy becomes a fox and bites off the cock's head.

In this tale, as in the two treated immediately before it, the magic powers are thought of as inherent in the hero. Much more common in folktales is the use of objects whose intrinsic magic power does not depend upon any special quality in the person who uses them.

[61] "Les Mongols et leur prétendu rôle dans la transmission des contes indiens vers l'Occident Europeen," Revue des traditions populaires, XXVII (1912)=Etudes folkforiques, pp. 497-612.

[62] This motif appears in many tales; cf. Motifs D671 and D672).


303, 325, 675, 676


D671, D672

Part Two

The Folktale from Ireland to India

II – The Complex Tale

5. Lovers and married couples

A. Supernatural Wife

Many of the tales of supernatural adversaries and helpers and of marvelous objects and powers which we have been noticing deal also with the hero or heroine's success or misadventures in love. We see the lowly hero or heroine win a royal mate so frequently in folktales that this revolution of fortune has come to seem the most characteristic sign of the "fairy tale." In the stories thus far examined, the union of hero and heroine has been incidental to other motifs which have occupied the center of attention. In a very considerable number of stories, however, the winning of the wife or husband or the recovery of the mate after some disaster forms the central motivation of the whole. If magic objects or powerful helpers and adversaries appear, they are [p. 88] entirely subordinate to the love interest which lies at the heart of the narration.

Many of such tales are on a supernatural level and the action moves in a world far from reality. A particularly interesting group of these deals with the experiences of the hero and his supernatural wife.

The story of the Swan Maiden forms a part of three well-known folktales. All three may exist without the swan maiden, so that classifiers have difficulty in working out a satisfactory scheme for an accurate listing of these three tales. The hero in his travels comes to a body of water and sees girls bathing. On the shore he finds their swan coverings which show him that the girls are really transformed swans. [88] He seizes one of the swan coats and will not return it to the maiden unless she agrees to marry him. She does so, and, as a swan, takes him to her father's house where she again becomes human. From this point on the story may go in either one of two directions. The hero may be set difficult tasks by the girl's father and may solve them with her help. This may serve as introduction to Type 313, The Girl as Helper in the Hero's Flight. In other tales of the swan maiden the hero is careful to hide her swan coat, so as to keep her in her human form. Once when he is absent, she accidentally finds the wings and feathers, puts them on and disappears. The main part of tales containing this motif is concerned with the disappearance and painful recovery of the wife. This series of motifs is frequently found in Type 400, The Man on a Quest for his Lost Wife, and Type 465A, The Quest for the Unknown.

This sequence of events, either in its shorter or more extended form, has had a long history and is found nearly all over the world. It is in such Oriental collections as the Thousand and One Nights and the Ocean of Story. It constitutes one of the poems of the Old Norse Edda. [89] As an oral tale it is worldwide. It is evenly, and thickly, distributed over Europe and Asia, and versions are found in almost every area of Africa, in every quarter of Oceania, and in practically every culture area of the North American Indians. Scattering versions are reported from Jamaica, Yucatan, and the Guiana Indians.

In the great majority of these occurrences of the Swan Maiden we have the discovery of the wings and the disappearance of the supernatural wife, but sometimes only the marriage to the swan maiden. It is strange to find this familiar tale of the bathing maidens among the Smith Sound Eskimo only a few hundred miles from the North Pole. [90]

In its shorter form the swan maiden incident usually serves to introduce the tale of The Girl as Helper in the Hero's Flight (Type 313). In all versions [p. 89] of this story the hero comes into the power of an ogre. Sometimes he has sold himself to the ogre in settlement of a gambling debt. Sometimes he simply pursues a bird to the ogre's house. But most often he is brought by the swan maiden to the house of her father, who turns out to be a cruel ogre. In any event, the hero is put to severe trials. Sometimes he is forbidden to enter a certain chamber in the house (Type 313B). But most often he must perform impossible tasks on pain of death. Some of the most frequent of these tasks are the planting of a vineyard overnight, the cleaning of a stable which has been neglected for years, the cutting down of a whole forest, the catching of a magic horse, the sorting of large numbers of grains, or the making of a huge pond. Whatever the tasks may be, the ogre's daughter performs them for the hero and plans to escape with him. In many versions the hero is compelled to choose his wife from among her sisters who look magically like her. He has killed and resuscitated her, and in the process she has lost a finger. He is thus able to pick her out, and temporarily placate the ogre.

The young people prepare for flight and leave behind themselves some magic objects which speak in their place when the ogre talks to them. This ruse does not delay him very long, however, and he sets out in pursuit. Sometimes we hear of how the couple transform themselves into various objects or persons so as to deceive the girl's father. He sometimes finds only a rose and a thornbush, or a priest and a church, when he thinks to overtake them. Or they may escape by means of an obstacle flight. That is, they may throw behind themselves magic objects such as a comb, a stone, or a flint which become obstacles—a forest, a mountain, or a fire—in the path of the pursuer. [91] Or they may escape over a magic bridge which folds up behind them. The story may very well end here (Type 313A). But it is usually followed by the episode of the Forgotten Fiancée (Type 313C). In such case, after the young people have escaped, the hero tells his fiancée, or bride, that he must leave her for a short visit to his own family. She warns him against certain specific acts which will bring on magic forgetfulness: kissing his mother, fondling his dog, or tasting food while at home. He breaks the prohibition, and loses all memory of his bride. She realizes what has happened and undertakes to overcome the magic forgetfulness. Frequently this does not occur until after the hero is about to marry again or even until after his marriage. In one series of tales she bribes the new bride to let her sleep beside her husband. He awakens on the third night and recovers. Or, in some cases, the forgotten bride may simply attract attention in some unusual fashion. For example, she places three lovers in embarrassing positions and arouses gossip. Or she magically stops the wedding carriage of her husband and his new bride. Or she may carry on a conversation with objects or animals and thus call attention to the situation. In one way or another she always succeeds in the end, and the hero chooses her instead of his new bride, [p. 90] sometimes remarking that the old key which has been found again is better than a new one.

This tale is immensely complicated, and offers many possibilities for variations. Some of its motifs it shares in common with many other tales: The Swan Maiden (Motif D361.1), The Transformation Flight (Motif D671), The Obstacle Flight (Motif D672), and the Son-in-Law Tasks (Motif H310). The heart of the story would seem to be this last motif, but there are tales of son-in-law tasks which do not seem to have any organic relation with this story. [92].

Aside from the fact that it contains several very popular motifs, the whole tale complex is widely distributed over the earth, though not nearly so uniformly as either the Swan Maiden or the Obstacle Flight motifs. It is known throughout Europe and is one of the most popular among the stories which have been brought to America. At least twenty-five versions have been noted from American Indian tribes scattered over the entire North American continent. It is also found in English, French, and Negro traditions in Virginia, Canada, Missouri, and the West Indies. On the other hand, it seems to be almost, if not completely, absent from central and east Asiatic folklore, and but two parallels, neither of them very close, have been noticed in Africa.

With this tale it is extremely difficult to be quite sure when we are dealing with a remote parallel and when with an actual occurrence of the type. The combination Supernatural Wife + Son-in-Law Tasks + Magic Flight can be found in widely scattered parts of the world without seeming to have any organic connection with this European tale. Stories of this kind, for example, are met in Japan and on the island of Mauritius. Likewise an analogous tale in the Ocean of Story may be merely similar rather than identical. [93]

As a story unmistakably of this type, it begins to appear in literary tale collections of the Renaissance such as Bello's Mambriano and Basile's Pentamerone. In oral European tradition, though there is considerable freedom of combination, three forms of the tale are most popular: Swan Maiden (or other supernatural wife) + Son-in-Law Tasks + Flight (Type 313A); same + Forbidden Chamber motif (Type 313B); and either of these followed by the Forgotten Fiancée (Type 313C).

The Swan Maiden, it will be recalled, sometimes recovers her wings and leaves her husband. When the motif is handled in this fashion it belongs to an entirely different tale, the central interest of which is the loss and recovery of the supernatural wife. The first half of this tale shows so many variations that it presents a difficult problem to the classifier. But once having furnished the hero with his unusual wife—in any one of a half dozen ways—the tale teller arrives at his central motif, The Man on a Quest for his Lost Wife [p. 91] (Type 400), and from that point on the development of the story is uniform, irrespective of its introduction. One of the introductions tells of the swan maiden and of her discovery of her wings in the absence of her husband and her flight as a swan. Sometimes she succeeds in sending her husband an enigmatic message as to where he will find her. There are several other introductions important enough to deserve mentioning. In one, the hero has been unwittingly promised by his father to a giant or ogre. When the ogre comes for him, he cannot take the boy because of the Bible the young man carries under his arm. Eventually this hero goes to the ogre's home and marries his daughter. In another opening, the hero and his brothers must keep watch in a meadow which is being destroyed by a monster. The younger brother alone keeps awake. Sometimes the monster comes and leads him to further adventures, but more often swan maidens appear to him. Occasionally we are merely told that a prince is on a hunt and encounters the supernatural woman. A somewhat more complicated introduction tells of the hero's voyage in a self-moving boat to a foreign castle, where he finds the heroine. Sometimes he finds a bewitched princess in a castle and succeeds in disenchanting her, either by enduring silence three frightful nights [94] in the castle or else by sleeping by the princess three nights without looking at or disturbing her.

In any case, the hero marries the supernatural woman and lives happily with her. On one occasion he wishes to go home on a visit. She consents, and gives him a magic object, usually a wishing ring, or else the power to make three wishes come true. But she warns him in the strongest terms against breaking certain prohibitions. He must not call for her to come to him or utter her name. Sometimes he is forbidden to sleep or eat or drink while on the journey.

When he goes home he tells of his adventures and is induced to boast of his wife. He calls upon her to come, so that they may all see how beautiful she is. Sometimes it is another one of the prohibitions which he breaks, but in any event she does come, takes the ring, and disappears, giving him a pair of iron shoes which he must wear out before he can find her again. In addition to this manner in which the supernatural wife may be lost, there is (besides the swan maiden disappearing with her wings) a third motif which appears in some versions. The wife has promised to meet the hero but an enemy uses a magic pin and causes him to sleep when she comes.

In whatever way the wife is lost, the narrative now proceeds with his adventures while he seeks for and eventually recovers her. In this part of the tale the versions are relatively uniform, regardless of what type of introductory action has been used. He meets people who rule over the wild animals, the birds, and the fish. He receives advice from an old eagle. He inquires his way successively of the sun and the moon: they know nothing, [p.92] but the wind shows him his road. He meets one old woman who sends him on to her older sister, who in turn sends him to the third still older, who gives him final directions for reaching his wife. Among these is the climbing of a high and slippery mountain without looking back. Sometimes he meets people fighting over magic objects and gets these objects by trickery. [95] The objects most frequently mentioned are a saddle, a hat, a mantle, a pair of boots, and a sword. With the help of the north wind and by means of his magic objects he reaches the castle and finds his wife. Sometimes she is about to be married to another man. A ring hidden in a cake, or some other device, brings about recognition, and the couple are reunited. Some versions proceed from this point into the story of The Girl as Helper in the Hero's Flight (Type 313), in which he must perform tasks and in which eventually the couple flee from her father.

With all the many variations in the earlier part of the story, and with the wealth of detail possible in the central action, it is remarkable that the tale should retain a definite enough quality to be considered a real entity. And yet the characteristic incidents of the quest are so constant that it is not difficult to recognize this tale type in spite of the almost kaleidoscopic variations it has assumed. [96] Three stories of Grimm's famous collection (Nos. 92, 93, and 193) deal with this material, each handling it in a different fashion. Sometimes it appears as part of a local legend, and sometimes has received elaborate literary treatment.

At least three of the tales in the Thousand and One Nights are close analogues. The narrative pattern also appears to have been familiar to writers of chivalric romances. [97] Perhaps best known of these are the lays of Graelent and Lanval. In addition to these literary associations of the tale, it has had a vigorous life in the repertories of unlettered story-tellers in many parts of the world. There is hardly a section of Europe where it is not popular, and it also exists in western Asia. At least twelve oral versions are known from India, though not all of them may be really related. It is found across Siberia, even to the most northeasterly point. Whether these Chuckchee variants represent the carrying over of a tale from Asia to North America or vice versa is not clear. The American Indian versions seem much more like borrowings which came to them in one fashion or another across the Atlantic. Most are certainly taken from the French Canadians. [93]

A re-examination of all the material relating to this story is necessary before any conclusions as to its history can be reached. Many of the things written about it in the past are clearly antiquated. Some of these studies fail to distinguish between this tale and others of supernatural and offended wives, such as the legend of Mélusine. Others interest themselves in the situation because it seems to have some relation to primitive totemism or to a primitive matriarchy. [98] It is, of course, possible that some such ideas lie behind the motifs in this story. But these older investigators were purely theoretical and unrealistic in their approach. They did not actually attempt to answer the question as to just when and just how this particular tale was composed and in just what manner it has been propagated

In addition to the two stories last discussed, the swan maiden episode frequently serves to introduce the tale of The Man Persecuted Because of his Beautiful Wife (Type 465). The main lines of this story are familiar from its being told in the Bible concerning David and Bathsheba, whether or not that literary treatment has had a part in the origin and propagation of this tale. In one way or another the hero comes into possession of a supernatural wife—a swan maiden, an animal with the power of transformation, or a wife received directly at the hands of God. In any case, the envious king conceives a great desire for the wife and plots to get rid of the husband. He assigns him a series of impossible tasks, but the husband, sometimes by securing supernatural aid, but always with the help of his wife, succeeds in performing these tasks and thus defeating the king's purpose.

According to whether the wife is a swan maiden or a transformed animal or a gift from God, there is a rather consistent variation made in the nature of the tasks. This fact has made it possible, with some consistency, to divide the versions into three groups. But a cursory examination of the distribution of these groups does not show that this division is of great significance in working out the history of the story. It is clear that the tale is essentially east European. It does not appear in central, western, or southern Europe, but is most at home in Russia, the Near East, the Baltic and Scandinavian countries. Sporadic versions appear in India and Korea. It has not been reported from Africa or the western hemisphere. [99]

[88] Or the swan maidens may appear to the hero in a meadow where he has been sent to keep watch all night.

[89] The Völundarkvida. For a discussion of these literary treatments, see Bolte-Polívka, III, 416.

[90] For a good discussion of the whole Swan Maiden cycle, see Helge Holmström, Studier över Svanjungfrumotivet.

[91] A worldwide motif. For extensive literature, see Motif D672.

[92] For an interesting tale of this kind, see Thompson, Tales of the North American Indians, p. 79, No. 39, "The Sun Tests his Son-in-Law," and notes 111-126. This group of stories has a wide distribution among the North American Indians. See pp. 329ff., below.

[93] For a discussion of these parallels, see Bolte-Polívka, II, 524ff.

[94] For this motif, see Types 307, 401.

[95] For this motif, see Type 518.

[96] The best treatment of this tale (or rather, small cycle of tales) is by Holmström, Studier över Svanjungfrumotivet. On pages 15 to 20 is an excellent analysis of the various combinations of motifs usually found. The study is important for arranging the material, but the student is disappointed that Holmström does not give a more satisfactory discussion of his material that would throw more light on probable origins and routes of dissemination.

[97] For a discussion of its use in the medieval romance, see L. Hibbard, Mediaeval Romance in England (New York, 1924), pp. 200ff., and W. H. Schofield, "The lays of Graelent and Lanval and the story of Wayland," Publications of the Modern Language Association of America, XV (1900), 121.

[98] See, for example, J. Kohler, Der Ursprung der Melusinensage (Leipzig, 1895); Lang, Custom and Myth (London, 1904), pp. 64ff.; J. A. MacCulloch, Childhood of Fiction, pp. 272, 341ff.; Frazer, Golden Bough, IV, I25ff.; and Hartland, Science of Fairy Tales, pp. 255ff.

[99] For help in assembling the data on this tale, I am indebted to Professor Thelma G. James of Wayne University, who has in preparation a definitive study of the type.


307, 313, 313A, 313B, 313C, 400, 401, 465, 465A, 518


D361.1, D671 D672 H310