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The Folktale
Stith Thompson

Motif J21

Counsels proved wise by experience. *Types 910A, 910B, 910C, 910D; *Cosquin Études 85ff., 100ff.; Icelandic: *Boberg; Jewish: *Neuman; India: *Thompson-Balys.

Part Two

The Folktale from Ireland to India

II – The Complex Tale

11. Realistic tales

A. Cleverness

3. Clever Counsels

Not less popular than the riddle and even more nearly universal is the proverb, prom whatever source they may ultimately come, proverbs eventually attain the status of unimpeachable wisdom. They are thought to embody the best results of the experience of a race, and a large proportion of mankind is governed by them in the activities of daily life. Their exact formulation assumes an importance almost as great as the essential wisdom contained. Sometimes they are uttered by shamans or priests, or by oracles, such as that at Delphi. And even if no specific religious origin is ascribed to them, they may come from the lips of a well-known sage or leader among


Often these aphorisms are so precious that they are bought, like a prescription from a doctor. When this is true, the formulation of the wise saying is nearly always mysterious, and it is only by later experience that the soundness of the proverb is made manifest. A group of tales is devoted to illustrations of this fact: seemingly senseless or foolish counsels are proved through experience to be wise.

Two of these stories have so much in common that they are best looked at together. In both Wise Through Experience (Type 910A) and The Servant's Good Counsels (Type 910B) the hero receives, in one way or another, a series of such precepts. Usually he buys them. In the first of these tales the [p. 164] precepts most frequently found are: (1) Do not marry a girl from abroad; (2) Do not visit your friends often; (3) Do not lend out your horse. The story then proceeds to give the man's distressing experiences with the foreign wife; to show how the frequent visitor eventually becomes a nuisance and is treated shamefully; and, similarly, to illustrate the evil consequences of lending the horse. The related story, The Servant's Good Counsels, is handled with somewhat more variety. One of the precepts is, Do not leave the highway. The hero forgets, the advice and falls into the clutches of robbers. Likewise, he disregards the counsel not to cross the bridge without dismounting his horse. As a result, he breaks his leg. The other counsels in this story have to do with domestic relations. For example, the hero is told not to walk half a mile with a man without asking his name. The hero unwittingly makes a wager with his wife's paramour and loses her to him. He is also told, "Do not go where an old man has a young wife." The hero narrowly escapes becoming involved in a murder at an inn. Finally, he is counseled never to act when angry (or sometimes to say his paternoster when he is impelled to act in anger). He returns home and sees someone sleeping with his wife. Though he thinks it is a paramour, he restrains himself, and finds that it is a new-born son. [256]

These two tales are certainly Oriental. They appear in the older literary collections from India, in Arabic and Persian reworkings, and in most of the books of exempla and jests in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. [257] In the course of time, both of these stories have been adopted into the oral folklore of many European countries, as well as in the Near East and India. Generally, the second of the tales has been better received than the first. Especially well known is the incident of the return home and the finding of the child in the mother's arms.

The other two stories in this group are each concerned with a single precept. The first is primarily an exemplary story of Oriental origin. It appears in both Jewish and Christian tradition. The precept in this tale is Think Carefully Before You Begin a Task (Type 910C). A barber has been hired to cut the king's throat. He sees on the bottom of a basin which. He is using the words, "Whatsoever you do, do wisely, and think of the consequences." He drops the razor and confesses the plot. Also belonging to an almost purely literary tradition is The Treasure of the Hanging Man (Type 910D), known in England as a ballad, "The Heir of Lynne." The dying father tells his son to hang himself in a certain place if he ever loses his property. The [p. 165] son runs through with everything and at last is about to hang himself, when the roof falls down with the money which the father has hidden there. Of tales concerning precepts, these are about the only ones which seem to have become known to the oral story-teller. On the other hand, the books of exempla and the novelle of the Middle Ages and Renaissance multiplied these stories very freely. [258]

[256] In a tale popular in Finland and also known in Estonia and Russia (Iron is More Precious than Gold [Type 677]), the counsel, indicated by the title of the story, is essentially a magic formula. By its use the hero, who has let himself fall from a ship to the bottom of the sea, acquires much gold.

[257] For a good discussion of the literary history of these two tales, see: Cosquin, Etudes fokloriques, pp. l00ff.; Chauvin, Bibliographie, VIII, 138, Nos. 116 and 136; Köhler, Zeitschrift für Volkskunde, VI, 169-171.

[258] See, for example, all the various subdivisions of Motif J21. See also the additions to these in Rotunda, Italian Novella, J21.23 to J21.31.


677, 910A, 910B, 910C, 910D


J21, J21.23-J21.31