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The Folktale
Stith Thompson

Motif Z31.2.2=(=Z32.2).


The death of the little hen. She is characteristically mourned by objects and animals; e.g., flea, door, broom, cart, ashes, tree, girl. (First ed. Z31.2.2.) *Taylor JAFL XLVI 82 No. 2022A; *BP I 293; Parsons JAFL XXXIII 37; Missouri French: Carrière; India: *Thompson-Balys.

Part Two

The Folktale from Ireland to India

III – The Simple Tale

3. Formula tales

B. Cumulative Tales

A much more definite narrative core is found in the cumulative tale. Some thing of the nature of a game is also present here, since the accumulating repetitions must be recited exactly, but in the central situation many of these tales maintain their form unchanged over long periods of history and in very diverse environments. Such tales as The House that Jack Built or The Old Woman and Her Pig are so well known that no reader of the English language needs to have explained to him the way in which a simple phrase or clause is repeated over and over again, always with new additions. Most of the enjoyment, both in the telling and listening to such tales, is in the successful manipulation of the ever-growing rigmarole. The cumulative tale always gradually works up to one long final routine containing the entire sequence. The person examining cumulative tales, therefore, has only to look at this final formula to learn all that is to be learned about the whole tale.

One important group of cumulative tales has to do with the death of an animal, usually a cock or a hen. Perhaps best known of these is The Death of the Cock (Z31.2.1.1; Taylor, Type 2021A). [360] After he has choked to death, the hen goes out and seeks the aid of various objects and persons—stream, tree, pig, miller, baker, etc. This tale is very widely distributed over all of Europe and is known in India, but the problem of its ultimate origin is not easy to solve. Haavio and Wesselski, both of whom have treated the story very thoroughly, disagree as to the importance of the Oriental relationship. Not so well known, but still widely distributed in Europe and occasionally reported in America, is The Death of the Little Hen (Z31.2.2; Type 2022), a [p. 231] tale that seems to go back to the Panchatantra. The hen is mourned by various objects, animals, and persons, each in a characteristic fashion: flea, door, broom, cart, ashes, tree, girl. A slight modification of this tale appears in France and Denmark, where each of the mourners for the little hen performs an action which is described by some unusual or new word. For example, the table untables itself (Z31.2.2.1; Taylor, Type 2022A). In a somewhat less popular cumulative story about the little hen's death, various animals one by one join her funeral procession. Eventually the funeral carriage breaks down, or the whole procession drowns (Z31.2.1; Type 2021).

Several cumulative tales involve the eating of an object, whether as the end result of the series of happenings or the cause of the series. Most popular of these, both in Europe and America, is The Fleeing Pancake (Z31.3.1; Type 2025), frequently known in American collections as The Gingerbread Man. A woman makes a pancake (or gingerbread man) which runs away from her. Various animals try in vain to stop it. Finally the fox eats it up. The conversation between the gingerbread man and the fox has a tendency to become formalized, much like that between Red Riding Hood and the wolf—"What makes your ears so big?", etc. Two other chains of incidents concerning the eating of an object are very similar and perhaps related. The first of these is about The Fat Cat (Z31.3.2; Type 2027). While her mistress is away the cat eats the porridge, the bowl, and the ladle. When the mistress returns, she says to the cat, "How fat you are!" The cat replies, "I ate the porridge, the bowl, and the ladle, and I will eat you." After eating the mistress, the cat likewise meets various animals. Always after the same conversation she eats them. The story ends with her finally eating too many and bursting. This is essentially a Scandinavian tale, though one version has been reported from India. The other is also well known in Scandinavia, but is found in Russia, and an analogue has been taken down in east Africa. This tale is sometimes called The Fat Troll (Z31.3.4; Type 2028), and sometimes The Fat Wolf, for the story may be told of either. A troll (or wolf) eats the watcher's five horses and finally the watcher himself. When the master goes to investigate, the troll says, "I ate the five horses, I ate the watcher, and I will eat you." After he has eaten the master, the same thing happens to the wife, the servant, the daughter, the son, and the dog—always after the same piling up of threats. When he comes to the cat, however, she scratches him open and rescues all the victims.

Much like the tale of The Fleeing Pancake is that of The Goat Who Would Not Go Home (Z31.4.1; Type 2015). One animal after another tries in vain to persuade the stubborn goat to go home. Nothing avails until a wolf (sometimes a bee) bites him and drives him home. This tale of the goat has always been especially dear to children and probably for this reason is extraordinarily popular in Europe. Except in printed children's books, however, it is not known elsewhere. [p. 232]

In the cumulative tales thus far mentioned the structure has been rather simple. There has been a series of events bound together by one slender thread, and the interest has usually been a conversation containing an increasing number of details. The cumulative tale reaches its most interesting development, however, when there is not merely an addition with each episode, but when every episode is dependent upon the last. Perhaps to the English-speaking world the best known of such tales is The Old Woman and Her Pig (Z41.1; Type 2030). It will be remembered that the pig will not jump over the stile so that the old woman can go home. She keeps appealing in vain for help, but the help always depends upon her getting help from someone else. She finally persuades a cow to give her milk. The final formula is: Cow give milk for cat; cat kill rat; rat gnaw rope; rope hang butcher; butcher kill ox; ox drink water; water quench fire; fire burn stick; stick beat dog; dog bite pig; pig jump over style. In the wide extent of its distribution over Europe, Asia, Africa, and America, it is natural that the details should differ a good deal. But the whole pattern is remarkably well kept. If the tale is not actually from India originally, it is at least very well known there. [361]

Whereas The Old Woman and Her Pig has had its greatest popularity with oral taletellers, the chain known as Stronger and Strongest (Z41.2; Type 2031) is essentially literary. It is found in Oriental tale collections and appears frequently in medieval literature. Though nowhere really popular, it has traveled to every continent. The chain may go in either one of two directions. It may start with God and show how he was the ultimate cause of the frostbitten foot. Or it may likewise take the cause to the little mouse who gnawed a hole in the wall. In the first, and more extensive, version, the final formula is: God how strong you are—God who sends Death, Death who kills blacksmith, blacksmith who makes knife, knife that kills steer, steer that drinks water, water that quenches fire, fire that burns stick, stick that kills cat, cat that eats mouse, mouse that perforates wall, wall that resists wind, wind that dissolves cloud, cloud that covers sun, sun that thaws frost, frost that broke my foot.

The peculiar distribution of some of these cumulative tales is nowhere better seen than in the story of The Cock's Whiskers (Z41.3; Type 2032). It is very well known in Russia and Sweden and has been reported twice from France and once from Italy. It seems not to be known anywhere else in the world—with one interesting exception, among the Zuñi of New Mexico. In Europe this tale is about a mouse who throws a nut down and hits the cock on the head. He also steals the cock's whiskers. The cock goes to get an old woman to cure him. The final formula is: Fountain give up water for forest, forest give up wood for baker, baker give up bread for dog, dog give up hairs to cure the cock. Among the Zuñi the story collector Gushing told [p. 233] this tale as he had learned it from Crane's Italian collection, and when he returned the next year the Indians told it to him. It had become so thoroughly adapted to Zuñi ceremonialism, however, that its original cumulative nature was hardly recognizable.

The nut hitting the cock on the head appears also as an introduction to another tale which we have already noticed (Type 20C). When the nut hits him on the head, he thinks that the world is coming to an end. He sends the hen to tell the duck, the duck to tell the goose, etc. The final formula is: Fox, who told you?—Hare.—Hare, who told you?—Goose, etc. (Z41.4; Type 2033). The animals in their fear agree that they shall eat each other up, and the fox persuades them that the smallest should be eaten first. In this story, as in several similar ones, the animals sometimes appear with queer names. The hen is henny-penny; the cock, cocky-locky; the goose, goosey-poosey, etc. (Z21.3.1). This story of the end of the world is certainly as old as the Jātaka. It is most popular in Scandinavia, but has been found in most parts of the world.

Much better known in popular tradition is the formula of How the Mouse Regained Its Tail (Z41.5; Taylor, Type 2034). The cat bites off the mouse's tail and will return it in exchange for milk. The mouse goes to the cow for milk, to the farmer for hay, to the butcher for meat, to the baker for bread. Other persons mentioned are the locksmith and the miner. Not only is this common all over Europe, but there are interesting analogues from all parts of Africa. Sometimes this series of adventures is joined with the anecdote of the man who permits his grain of corn to be eaten by the cock and then demands the cock as damages (Type 1655). It will be remembered that this is essentially a cumulative tale, since the hog eats the cock, the ox eats the hog, etc.

To the English-speaking reader perhaps the most familiar of all cumulative tales is The House That Jack Built (Z41.6; Type 2035), but it is not frequently told on the continent of Europe. Some analogues appear from Africa, though they are not exact. The standard form is that with which English and American readers are acquainted. Its final formula is: This is the farmer that sowed the corn, that fed the cock that crowed in the morn, that waked the priest all shaven and shorn, that married the man all tattered and torn, that kissed the maiden all forlorn, that milked the cow with the crumpled horn, that tossed the dog, that worried the cat, that caught the rat, that ate the malt that lay in the house that Jack built.

Such are the principal cumulative tales, but this list by no means exhausts the whole store of those current in one or another part of the European and Asiatic areas. There remain, for example, the German tale of Pif Paf Poltrie (Z31.1.1; Type 2019) in which the suitor is sent from one relation to the other for consent to the wedding; and the train of troubles which come from a lost horseshoe nail (Z41.9; Taylor, Type 2039). [p. 234]

Not all chain-tales are actually cumulative, but may consist of a simple series, verbal or actual. Such, for example, are the chains which are based upon a series of numbers, like that of the origin of chess (Z21.1; Taylor, Type 2009). The inventor asks one wheat-grain for the first square, two for the second, four for the third, eight for the fourth, etc. The amount is so large that the king cannot pay. This is essentially a literary story, as are also a group of chains concerning special meanings or objects brought into relation with the numbers one to twelve" (Z21.2 and subdivisions). One of these, Ehod mi yodea (Taylor, Type 2010), has a long history in Hebrew ritual and frequently appears as a carol.

There remain two chain stories having to do with the houses that have burned down. One of them is a foolish tale in which the whole point is the difficulty of making a satisfactorily conservative answer. The usual formula is: My house burned down.—That is too bad.—That is not bad at all, my wife burned it down.—That is good.—That is not good, etc. (Z23.1; Type 2014). Though this story is not widely disseminated, it is apparently independent of literary tradition. In this respect it is quite the opposite from the almost purely bookish anecdote of the servant who broke the news of the fire to his master, a tale usually known as The Climax of Horrors ((Z41.10; Type 2040). The details of the conversation vary much in the different tellings. The servant meets his returning master and tells him that the magpie is dead. When the master inquires why, the servant says that it had overeaten on horseflesh. As the chain proceeds, it turns out that the horses have died at the fire which burned the house. Usually the man's family has burned with the house, or other dire misfortunes have overtaken him. This story was used by the medieval priests to illustrate their sermons, and drew from it incredibly strange lessons of morality and piety.

Formula tales, especially chains and cumulative stories, though they have about them many qualities which belong to games and are therefore amusing to children and to those who never grow up, have aesthetic value of their own. Their essential formal quality is repetition, usually repetition with continuing additions. This is what students of the popular ballad call "incremental repetition," a stylistic feature which adds much to the appeal of many of our finest old ballads.

[360] See definitive studies on this tale by Haavio (Kettenmärchenstudien) and Wesselski (Hessische Blatter fur Volkskunde, XXXII, 2ff.). They also discuss the anecdote, "What should I have said?" (Type 1696) which is really a cumulative tale as well as a story of stupidity.

[361] See Murray B. Emeneau, Journal of American Folklore, LVI, 272ff., who discusses twelve Indic versions of the tale.


20C, 1655, 1696, 2009, 2010, 2014, 2015, 2019, 2021, 2021A, 2022, 2022A, 2025, 2027, 2028, 2030, 2031, 2032, 2033, 2034, 2035, 2039, 2040


Z21.1, Z21.2, Z21.3.1, Z23.1, Z31.1.1, Z31.2.1, Z31.2.1.1, Z31.2.2.1, Z31.2.2, Z31.3.1, Z31.3.2, Z31.3.4, Z31.4.1, Z41.1, Z41.2, Z41.3, Z41.4, Z41.5, Z41.6, Z41.9, Z41.10