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The Folktale
Stith Thompson

Motif K72

Deceptive contest in carrying a horse. The ogre carries it on his back and soon tires; the man carries it between his legs (rides). *Type 1082; Köhler-Bolte I 473.

Part Two

The Folktale from Ireland to India

II – The Complex Tale

9. The higher powers

C. Luck

In the face of so much that remains unexplained in the life of man, of so many rewards that come to the undeserving, and of so much unmerited [p. 142] trouble and disaster, it is no wonder that folktales should concern themselves with the working of luck. Sometimes they are interested in examples of persons pursued by misfortune and sometimes of those whose lucky star saves them from every effort of adversity. In such tales the story-teller usually seems to conceive of Luck as a personal force for good or evil, like the goddess Fortuna and sometimes like the Eumenides. But Luck has not always been treated in a mystical or even serious mood. Taletellers have rejoiced in lucky accidents in which a fool, usually also a rascal, out of mere bravado, chances into unexpected and astonishing success.

The tales of the mysterious ways in which Luck accompanies some men and refuses to follow others consist usually of a single simple anecdote. Such, for example, is the one popular in Estonia and Lithuania, but apparently unknown elsewhere, of The Rich Man's and the Poor Man's Fortune (Type 735). The Fortune of the rich brother gives the poor brother the advice to seek his luck under a bush. The poor man goes there and Fortune tells him to become a merchant. He does so, and gains a fortune.

Deserving of mention here are also two stories, both literary, and belonging to the Arabian Nights and medieval European tradition, and both occasionally told as a folktale in the Baltic countries. The first of these, Luck and Wealth (Type 736), tells of a poor man who gives a fisherman a piece of tin or other valuable which he has acquired by accident. The fisherman agrees to repay him with his first catch of fish. In the net is found a fish with a precious stone in its body. [211] The other tale, sometimes called Hatch-penny (Type 745), relates the unsuccessful attempt of the owner to get rid of a coin. The tale is told in various ways. For example, a miser being told that his hoard is to go to a poor man hides it in a trunk and throws it into the sea. It drifts to the house of the poor man, who tries in vain to restore it. Sometimes the coin is eaten by a cow which the owner happens to buy and slaughter. The center of interest in this story is the succession of unavailing attempts to avoid good fortune which persists in staying with one. This tale has received frequent handling in recent literature.

The capriciousness of luck also appears in a tale current in the Baltic countries and in Iceland, and which has also been reported from the Pochulata of Mexico, obviously from Spanish tradition. In this story, One Beggar Trusts God, the Other the King (Type 841), the two beggars are given loaves of bread by the king, who sees to it that the loaf of the one who trusts him is filled with gold. Ignorant of this, the beggars exchange their loaves and thus show that luck attends the man who trusts God. This tale has [p. 143] hardly a proper place in folklore at all : it was one of the most popular exemplary tales of medieval and Oriental literature. [212] That the oral story-tellers of the Baltic countries frequently use old literary tales is immediately apparent to anyone who investigates their collections. One more good example of such use is found in the tale of The Luck-bringing Shirt (Type 844), best known to the modern world through Hans Christian Andersen's The Shoes of Happiness (Lykkens Galosher). The story appears with some slight variation. The king is to become lucky whenever he puts on a shirt which belongs to a lucky man. The only man who admits that he is lucky is so poor that he has no shirt. The story is sometimes told about shoes and, in the older forms of the tale, the search is made for a person who has never had sorrow. The resemblance between the older tales and the modern is striking in detail, however, and there seems to be little doubt that all the known versions go back for their ultimate source to a legend of Alexander as it appears in the Pseudo-callisthenes. [213] From this Greek legend, not only the medieval Latin stories, but also the literary Oriental tales, seem to have come. The modern versions, however, all appear to depend upon a Renaissance Italian collection of novelle, the Pecorone of Ser Giovanni. The story has appeared frequently in literature, perhaps most recently in Edwin Markham's poem "The Shoes of Happiness."

Disputes similar to those we have just recounted about whether luck comes from God or the king are much enjoyed by tellers of traditional stories. A good example is the tale of Luck and Intelligence (Type 945) in which a test is made as to which of these qualities is most powerful. To carry out the test, a simple gardener is endowed with intelligence. The details of the test vary somewhat. Usually, however, a princess who never breaks silence is offered to the man who can make her speak. [214] The gardener makes up a story which he tells his dog in the presence of the princess about a wood-carver who carves a beautiful wooden doll, a tailor who clothes her, and himself, the gardener, who gives her the power of speech. He asks, "To whom does she belong?" [215] The princess breaks silence, and intelligence would seem to have conquered. But the king refuses to carry out his bargain, and condemns the gardener to death. He is saved by luck.

Though this tale occurs sparingly in the folklore of eastern Europe, it clearly belongs to the Orient. Not only is it in the Panchatantra, an indication that it was known in India by the sixth century after Christ, but it is also [p. 144] known in the folklore of modern India, of Indonesia, and of practically every country in the Near East. Through the Arabs, it has been taken to North Africa. In many of these versions the initial dispute between luck and intelligence is not found, though it is usually implied.

The interest in the tales of luck thus far noticed has been concerned with the principle of Luck itself and its dealings with mankind. But the teller of folktales recognizes well enough that usually Luck may be assisted by clever ness or rascality. Particularly beloved are the adventures of an impostor—a well-meaning and harmless impostor, of course—who meets with an astonishing series of lucky accidents. Perhaps the story that occurs to everyone first is that of The Brave Little Tailor (Type 1640) . It has a wide distribution and occurs in most countries in many variants—over 350 in all—most of them very close in general outline to the well-known version of Grimm. Some of the episodes occur independently or may be omitted from some abbreviated tellings of the tale.

The story is usually told about a tailor, but this feature is by no means necessary, since substitution of trade is very easy to the story-teller. He kills seven flies with a single stroke of his hand and in his pride puts up an inscription "Seven with One Stroke." The audacious placard comes to the attention of the king, who submits the tailor to various tests. [216] By his cleverness and audacity, he always succeeds. The king then orders him to kill two giants: he strikes them from ambush so that they fight and kill each other. He catches a unicorn by tricking it into running its horn into a tree. He also captures a wild boar by driving him into an empty church. When he is married to the princess, he forgets and betrays his calling by asking for thread. But when the soldiers are sent to take him away, he intimidates them with his boasting. Finally he goes to war for the king and when his horse runs away with him, he grasps a cross from the graveyard (or a limb of a tree) and waves it so that the enemy flee in terror.

This form of the story, popular in oral tradition all over Europe and the Near East, and known in many parts of both North and South America, seems to come from a jestbook of Montanus [217] published in 1592, though the tale was mentioned several times in the century preceding. The story is probably of Oriental origin, for a fairly close analogue is found in the Buddhistic literature of China dating from about the third century after Christ. It is probable that the many modern Oriental versions belong to this tradition.

Oriental also in origin is Doctor Know-All (Type 1641), a story of even greater popularity in all parts of Europe and Asia. It is also found in Africa and among the Negroes of Jamaica and Georgia, and the French of Louisiana. In all, more than four hundred variants are known. A peasant [p. 145] with an extraordinary name, Crab (or Cricket or Rat), buys the clothes of a doctor and puts himself forward as "Doctor Know-All." The king agrees to test the wise man's powers and employs him to detect a theft. Crab demands that first he must be given a feast. At the entrance of the first servant into the dining room, he remarks to his wife, "That is the first one." So, with the second and third. The servants, believing that they have been detected, confess the theft. As a second test of his powers, the wise man is to tell what is in a covered dish which will be served him. When he sees it coming, he realizes that he cannot pass the test. He calls out in despair to himself, "Poor Crab!" It happens that the dish is full of crabs. His third test is to find a lost horse. Sometimes he has previously hidden this horse so that finding it is no difficulty. In other stories the "doctor" gives his host a purgative, and thus brings about the accidental discovery of the horse.

The entire story of Doctor Know-All is found in most of the older literary tale collections of India and it is frequent in the European jestbooks of the Renaissance. Sometimes the separate incidents appear as independent stories, particularly the discovery of something which the rascal has already hidden, the episode with the covered dish, and the accidental discovery by casual remarks like "That is the first." The importance of this witty tale in Oriental and Renaissance literature and its popularity in folklore should make it very interesting for comparative study.

Finally, in this group of tales of lucky accidents, there may be mentioned three so closely related that they can best be considered together. The first of these is the most comprehensive: as a matter of fact, it frequently contains both of the others. This we may call The Three Lucky Brothers (Type 1650). The story usually begins with an account of their inheritance. The eldest brother sometimes inherits a cock, the second a scythe, and the youngest a cat. In other versions the inheritances are respectively a millstone, a musical instrument, and a reel. Two sequels appear, each represented by a tale to be considered presently. (1) The brothers reach countries in which the objects or animals which they have inherited are unknown, and they sell them for a fortune; or (2) the eldest brother lets his millstone fall on robbers who are counting their money (Motif K335.1.1), the second calls wolves together by means of his musical instrument (Type 1652), and the third threatens to draw the lake together with his reel and thus intimidates his master (Motif K1744).

As for this complete tale, it seems to go back to a French collection of Nicolas de Troyes, which appeared in 1535. As an oral tale it is especially popular in the Baltic countries and in France and Belgium, and is occasionally told elsewhere in Europe. The sale of the cat alone, known from its English version as Whittington's Cat (Type 1651), is found as a literary tale as early as the twelfth century. About the year 1600, it was attached to the legend of Sir Richard Whittington, Lord Mayor of London, who lived at the beginning [p. 146] of the fifteenth century. This tale may simply tell the story of how the hero is left a cat as his only inheritance and how he sells it for a fortune in a mouse-infested land where cats are unknown. A peculiar variation in the introduction relates that the hero earns or finds four coins which he tests by throwing them into a stream. Only one of them floats: the rest are counterfeit. With this coin he buys the cat which later brings him fortune.

Another episode of The Three Lucky Brothers which appears independently is that concerning The Wolves in the Stable (Type 1652). Here the youth who has acquired the musical instrument plays music and entices wolves out of a stable and makes them dance. He receives much money from the guardian of the wolves, who has let them out. As an independent tale, this seems to be confined to Finland and Estonia. Whittington's adventures with his cat, on the other hand, are told all over Europe and as far east as Indonesia and well down into Africa.

There are, of course, many other stories of luck in the folklore of Europe and Asia. But, as in the tale of Whittington's cat, many of them are essentially legends, rather than folktales. Such, for example, are the frequent accounts of the discovery of hidden treasure or of the chance acquisition of money. Sometimes tales of luck are mere exaggerations designed to be humorous. Tales of unbelievable success in hunting or fishing are usually meant to inspire laughter rather than wonder. It will be seen, therefore, that the concept of Luck is very broad, that it has many shades of meaning, so that it produces tales of wonder, stories made up of a series of clever accidents, jests, and local legends. As an incidental feature, it enters into many of the stories already considered, especially those having to do with supernatural helpers and with prophecies of future greatness.

[211] Much better known, of course, is the story of the Ring of Polycrates (Motif N211.1) in which a ring is thrown into the sea but is found next day in a fish which has been caught. This story comes from the third book of Herodotus and has been retold in many literary works since. It has been reported from the Gold Coast of Africa and from the Philippines. It also occurs in many versions of the European folktale of grateful animals (Type 554).

[212] See Bolte, Pauli's Schimpf und Ernst, II, 333, No. 326 for an exhaustive listing of these literary versions.

[213] For a discussion of this version, in relation to the whole tradition, see Köhler, Aufsätze übcr Märchen, p. 129.

[214] More usual in folktales is the task to make the sad-faced princess laugh. See Types 559 and 571.

[215] This is like the dispute of The Four Skillful Brothers (Type 653) who have cooperated in rescuing a princess.

[216] Some of these tests will be discussed in other places: see K18.2; K18.3; K71; K72, K1112.

[217] For a discussion of the literary history of this tale, see Bolte-Polívka, I, 164f.


554, 559, 571, 653, 735, 736, 745, 841, 844, 945, 1640, 1641, 1651, 1652


K18.2, K18.3, K71, K72, K335.1.1, K1112, K1744, N211.1