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The Folktale
Stith Thompson

Motif J1191

Reductio ad absurdum of judgment. *Chauvin VI 63, 231; *Zachariae Zs f. Vksk. XXX – XXXII 50 n. 2; *Wesselski Arlotto II 215 No. 73; India: Thompson-Balys; Oceanic: *Dixon 199 n. 37; Africa (Angola): Chatelain 197 No. 26.

Part Two

The Folktale from Ireland to India

II – The Complex Tale

11. Realistic tales

A. Cleverness

2. Clever Riddle Solvers

A small group of widely known folk stories receives its interest from the clever solving of riddles and other enigmatic statements. No matter what the ultimate origin of these various tales—and they all are certainly literary in the first instance—once they have been taken up by oral story-tellers, they have attained a great popularity and have become an authentic part of folk tradition.

Three of these tales are so close to one another in many of their traits, and their traditions have sometimes become so confused, that it is impossible to make a clear-cut separation. [247]

Most popular of this group is The Clever Peasant Girl (Type 875). The tale always begins with showing how it happens that the king summons the clever girl into his presence. The most usual handling of this part of the tale is as follows: a peasant finds in his field a golden mortar and tells his daughter that he plans to take it to the king. She advises very strongly against this, because she says the king will demand the pestle also. It turns out as she has predicted, and the peasant in his distress bemoans the fact that he did not obey his daughter. The king inquires about what he means, and hears the whole story, whereupon he insists upon having the daughter come to court. Another opening of the story begins at the court itself, where two peasants must give answers to questions propounded by the judge. One of them answers correctly as his daughter had advised him. This comes to the attention of the king, who wants to see her. [248] When the clever girl arrives at the [p. 159] court, he assigns her various tasks and propounds various questions. She must come to him neither naked nor clad, neither by day nor by night, neither washed nor unwashed, or the like. [249] She comes wrapped in a cloth, or at twilight, or with only part of her body washed, or otherwise carries out the paradoxical order. She answers questions—usually the same ones which the Abbot must answer in the jest of The Emperor and the Abbot (Type 922). She weaves a cloth with two threads, hatches out boiled eggs, or carves a fowl so as to give the appropriate pieces to all members of her family. [250] After she has successfully passed all the tests, she marries the king. One day as she sees him make a manifestly unjust decision about the possession of a colt, she advises the owner how to act so as to show the king the absurdity of his decision. [251] The king is incensed at her meddling with his affairs and casts her out with the permission to take with her only that one thing which she holds dearest. She takes with her the sleeping husband, who is so moved by this touch of affection that he forgives her.

Before considering the distribution and probable history of this story, it will be wise to look at the plots of the other two tales which contain much common material.

The Son of the King and of the Smith (Type 920) is frequently connected with the name of Solomon. The king decides to get rid of his son and exchanges him for the son of a smith. The reason for this exchange is variously explained. It may be that the boy has uttered a slanderous truth about his mother or that he has reduced to an absurdity a decision of his father's, just as the clever peasant girl did. In any case, the young prince grows up at the home of the smith and manifests in many ways his cleverness and his superiority to his companions. In the child's game of playing king, he is miraculously chosen to take the part. And where he and the smith's son are brought together, they each show their low and high origins. In this tale there occurs a similar series of paradoxical tasks which the boy succeeds in performing. At the end, of course, he is received by his father and inherits the kingdom.

The third of these tales is The King and the Peasant's Son (Type 921). Here there is very little plot. The king rides up to the peasant's hut and looks into the hut. The king asks the boy (a) "What do you see?"—"One and a half men and a horse's head" (himself, the legs of the king who is horseback in the doorway, and the horse's head), (b) "What are you doing?"—"I boil those coming and going" (beans that keep rising and falling in the water), (c) "What is your father doing?"—"He is in the vineyard and is doing good [p. 160] and bad" (he prunes vines, but sometimes cuts good ones and leaves the bad), (d) "What is your mother doing?"—"At daybreak she baked the bread we ate last week; in the morning she cut off the heads of the well to cure the sick; now she is striking the hungry and compelling the satiated to eat" (she bakes bread to repay that borrowed from neighbors last week; she cuts off a chicken's head so as to feed her sick mother; she drives away the hungry hens and stuffs the geese), (e) "What is your brother doing?"—"He hunts. He throws away what he catches, and what he does not catch, he carries with him" (hunts for lice on his body). The number of these questions can be multiplied, and the whole interest of this tale is in the questions and answers.

DeVries's study of this group of three tales shows clearly that they have been of great influence on one another. His investigation brings out the fact that The Clever Peasant Girl is essentially a European development. He feels that the other two stories about male characters are made up of Oriental material coming ultimately from India. He shows that in India nearly all of the separate motifs of these tales are well known and go far back into literary history; they also occur in contemporary oral stories, presumably derived from the older literary monuments. He draws a sharp distinction between the narrative method in the folktales of the Orient and that used in Europe. As illustrated by the tales he is studying, he finds that the European story teller works with a closely knit plot which he can vary only in small details. He feels that this method, in contrast to the chaotic nature of Oriental narrative, is a result of the influence of western literature, which has always been more logically constructed than the Oriental. DeVries therefore feels that these tales are constructed of Oriental material, but that the plot structure has been imposed upon this material in the process of its migration to the west, or at least, shortly after its arrival. Specifically, he feels that the story of The Son of the King is based upon an ancient literary original from India and that it was eventually received by Jewish story-tellers who made it a part of the legend of Solomon and thus unified its plot. The story of The King and the Peasant's Son is also connected with this legend. The Clever Peasant Girl is a European development in which the story is adapted to a female character. DeVries shows that there is an utter freedom of exchange between the stories of the peasant girl and the peasant boy.

In the matter of actual distribution in Europe the story of the peasant girl is the most popular of the three and it is rather evenly spread over the continent, as well as in the Near East and North Africa. An early form of the tale appears in the Icelandic saga of Ragnar Lodbrok. The clever responses of the peasant boy are not quite so generally popular in Europe, but where they are well known, they appear in a phenomenally large number of versions. For example, seventy German variants have been noted and one [p. 161] hundred seventy-seven Finnish. This tale has also received literary treatment in several European languages from the twelfth century on. In contrast to the wide European distribution of the stories of the boy and the girl, that of The King's Son is confined to the Baltic states and Russia and is therefore essentially an east European story, perhaps Oriental, in any event connected with the legend of Solomon. [252]

Touching these three tales of riddle solvers in many places is the jest of The Emperor and the Abbot (Type 922), known primarily to the English-speaking world through the old ballad of King John and the Bishop. To students of folktale research this story is of extraordinary interest because of the exhaustive treatment which it has received by Walter Anderson, an investigation so thorough that it has come to serve as a model for all scholars attempting to study a tale by means of the historic-geographic method. [253] The plot of the story is relatively simple. The emperor tells the abbot that if, within a certain time, he does not answer correctly the three questions he is given, the emperor will order his execution. A humble man, a miller or a shepherd, masks as the abbot and answers the questions correctly. Within the framework of this simple train of action a very great variety may be displayed, not only in the persons involved—the questioner, the questioned, and the answer-giver—but in the riddles and their answers. It is in the latter, of course, that similarity to The Clever Peasant Girl and to The King and the Peasant's Son is seen. The favorite riddles (or enigmatic questions) in the present tale sometimes appear in these others. The emperor nearly always propounds just three questions, but when all versions of the tale are considered, there are not fewer than eighteen of these riddles which must be considered by the investigator of the tale. The most popular are the following: (1) how high is heaven? (a day's journey, since Christ went there in one day—or any one of twenty-five other answers); (2) how much is a golden plow worth? (a good rain in May); (3) how much am I worth? (twenty-nine pieces of silver, since Our Lord was sold for thirty, and you are worth at least one piece less). Of the last question there are two distinct types which come to the same result in the answer. The first of these is "What is God doing?" The answer may be either "He maketh poor, and maketh rich; he bringeth low, and lifteth up" (referring to the poor man's [p. 162] disguise) or else "God is astonished that a poor miller should answer in place of the abbot." The other question which may bring the jest to a proper conclusion is "What do I think?" The answer is "You think I am the abbot. As a matter of fact. . . ." The jest usually ends with the king delighted at the wit and ready to forgive the abbot. Sometimes the poor man is offered the abbot's place, but he realizes his incompetence and declines.

By an extremely close analysis of almost six hundred versions, written and oral, Anderson divides his tale into eighteen different redactions and traces out a plausible history whereby these various redactions are derived from an original form. This original, he feels, developed in some Jewish community of the Near East, possibly in Egypt, perhaps about the seventh century after Christ. This is not the place to go into the detailed history which he presents in some sixty-three stages. One point, however, of great interest to folklorists, is the fact that this tale seems to be fitted both to the prose tale form and to the ballad. In English and American tradition it is nearly always sung. Its attachment to the name of King John continues even among illiterate singers utterly ignorant of English history.

Not only does this tale permit interesting comparison between ballad and prose story, but also it demands a close study of the mutual relationships of the literary and the oral versions. For Anderson deals with 151 literary versions, dating all the way from the ninth century. He is extremely careful to weigh the evidence presented by these literary documents, and he thus adequately meets the criticism that those who, like him, employ the historic-geographic method are neglectful of the importance of the written document.

The abbot saves his life by seeing that the riddles proposed by the king are answered. Exactly the opposite situation appears in another story of enigmas, Out-riddling the Judge (Type 927). Here the accused person is to be set free if he can propound a riddle which the judge is unable to solve. He always does this from some peculiar circumstance which he has recently observed. Most commonly the riddle is "What has seven tongues in one head?" The judge, of course, cannot guess. The condemned man then tells how he found the skull of a horse with a bird's nest and seven young birds in it. The student of this tale has two things to consider. There is, first, the general dramatic situation where almost any kind of riddle would be appropriate. It happens, however, that this particular riddle is nearly always the one used. The interest of the student may therefore be in the riddle itself. It is frequently given without the story at all, and sometimes the story is added as a commentary or afterthought. The tale is known in northern Europe and has been reported from Spain; but it seems to have its greatest popularity in England and in the British tradition in America. Seven variants in America including both the situation and the riddle show that the tale is known in Nova Scotia, New England, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, [p. 163] North Carolina, and Mississippi. The Pennsylvania tradition is clearly German, but all the rest seem to be British. In addition, the riddle by itself is widely known, both by Negroes and whites, in the southern states and the West Indies. [254]

The framework of the five tales we have just considered affords room for the display of a large number of riddles. Those mentioned in connection with each of the tales are only the most popular, but if we consider all those which are used, we shall find that several score of them appear at one place or another. Even so, however, the folktale makes use of a relatively small number of the riddles available in the repertory of most story-tellers. That this group of stories involving the solution of enigmas has almost universal popularity is only natural considering the extremely widespread interest all over Europe and Asia in the riddle for its own sake. [255]

[247] The definitive study of this whole series is that of Jan DeVries, Die Märchen von klugen Rätsellösern. A later study, taking issue in some respects with DeVries, is Albert Wesselski's Der Knabenkönig und das kluge Märchen.

[248] The questions asked the peasant are sometimes found in all the stories here treated together. They are: What is most beautiful? (Spring); What is the strongest? (The earth); What is the richest thing on earth? (Autumn).

[249] For this whole series, see Motifs H1050 to H1073.

[250] The wise carving of the fowl is by no means confined to this tale. See Motif H601 for the literature.

[251] For this reductio ad absurdum of the decision, see Motif J1191 and all its subdivisions. The owner of the colt, whose opponent has claimed that it was the wagon rather than the mare which bore the colt, fishes in the street, and when the king asks about it, tells him that this is more reasonable than the king's decision.

[252] Wesselski, in his study Der Knabenkönig, takes issue with DeVries about the origin of this part of the Solomon legend. He is convinced that it is taken directly from the legend of Cyrus and is therefore not connected with the literature of India. I do not have sufficient competence in the literary traditions discussed to make any attempt at judging between these two positions. Both of the scholars agree: (1) That all three tales are ultimately Oriental and literary; (2) that the literary tales have been taken over by oral story-tellers; (3) that the movement of this tradition has been rather consistently from east to west. Their point of difference concerns particularly the importance of the role played by Jewish tradition in the literary relationships of Orient and Occident.

[253] Kaiser und Abt. For a discussion of this method, with some illustrations from Anderson's employment of it, see pp. 430ff., below.

[254] Bibliographical material upon this type is widely scattered. Some important references are: Köhler, Kleinere Schriften, I, 46; Feilberg, Ordbog, I, 602b, s. v. "hestehoved"; Herbert Halpert, "The Cante Fable in Decay," Southern Folklore Quarterly, V, 199, n. 22; E. E. Gardner, Folklore from the Schoharie Hills, New York, p. 252.

[255] For a rather detailed listing of the riddles which appear in connection with folktales, see Motifs H530 to H899 and all the literature there cited. For the independent riddle, see Aarne, Vergleichende Rätselforschungen (FF Communications Nos. 26, 27, and 28, Helsinki, 1918-20). Professor Archer Taylor of the University of California has been giving much of his attention recently to riddles. His forthcoming study promises to be of great interest.


875, 920, 921, 922, 927


H530-H899, H1050-H1073, J1191