Non-Western Fairy Tales Worth Celebrating

Today is National Tell a Fairy Tale Day.

I’m guessing you think you already know all the good ones – glass slippers, evil old sea hags, seven little men…  Let’s set aside those well trodden tales for some non-western legends with the power to delight, enchant, and surprise listeners. 

Need a little magic in your day?  Read on.

Fairy Tales


The Rotten Axe Handle (China)

A man named Wang Zhi went into the forest one day to gather wood for his family.  As he walked his usual path up the mountainside, Wang Zhi heard singing. He peered through the trees then left the path to find the origin of the voices.

He came upon a hollow where four young men were singing and playing an ancient board game.  They offered Wang Zhi a spot at their table and some dates.  He played well and enjoyed the youths’ song and food.  When the game was done, he thanked the young men and went on his way.

By the time the youths had finished singing, Wang Zhi had returned to the path.  At least, he thought it was the path – in truth, he had a hard time finding it because the trail was now overgrown with weeds.  As he continued up the mountain, the man found his ax handle had rotted in his hand.

He turned around and hurried back down the mountainside.  In his village, he found that many decades had passed and no one even remembered his name. As Wang Zhi settled into a new life, he found he was never hungry except for the taste of dates.

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The Story of the King Who Would Be Stronger than Fate (India)

While pursuing a stag through the wood, a hunter happened upon a hermit crouched by a stream.  As the hunter looked on, the hermit took a handful of dry leaves and tossed them into a swirling eddy.  The hunter greeted the stranger and asked his business, to which the hermit replied he was reading the fates of men.

The hunter laughed.  When he found that the man was serious, the hunter asked to know the fate of his daughter, who was but a week old.

‘I might know,’ returned the hermit, ‘but it is not always wisdom to know much.’

And then the hunter heard his daughter’s fate: she was to marry the son of a poor slave-girl called Puruna and move to a faraway land.

The hunter returned to his home, which was in fact a palace, for the hunter was the king of that southern country.  Unwilling to part with his daughter, the king sought out the slave-girl called Puruna and took her son away from her to be abandoned in the wood.

However, the boy was saved by a passing goatherd and raised in a peaceful household.  In return for his good upbringing, the boy fiercely protected his adopted mother, once defending her from a traveling peddler with ill intentions.  This story reached the hunter-king.

The king was all set to commend the young man on his bravery when he wondered that a woman so old (for the goatherd had been widowed and managed many years alone) should have a son so young.  At once, he guessed the identity of the boy and devised many tricks for him, trying to bring about the boy’s end.

The last of these tricks was to send the young man to the faraway land where the king had sent his daughter to protect her from the fate.  The hunter-king sent the young man with a letter for the land’s ruler.  In the letter, the king explained the fate of his daughter, and he ask that the ruler of the distant land kindly kill the letter’s messenger.

However, the hunter-king’s daughter, who was accustomed to wandering the palace, intercepted the messenger.  At once falling in love with the young man, she substituted a letter with an order for her to marry the messenger.  After the ceremony, the pair traveled far and wide together, never to return to the land of the hunter-king.

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Anansi and the Wisdom of the World (Western Africa)

Anansi, the famed trickster god who acted as an intermediary between the people and the sky god, once came upon a clay vessel that contained all the knowledge of the world.  These were the days before people had crops, woven clothing, and iron tools.  Anansi wanted this wisdom all to himself, so he thought to hide the pot in a tall tree.

He tried to climb the tree with the vessel but found that even with his spindly eight legs, he could not carry the pot into the the tree.  Again and again, Anansi tried to climb the tree, and each time he failed.  Then his son, who had been watching, suggested to Anansi that he put the vessel on his back.

Anansi and his son braided a rope of vines and attached the clay pot to Anansi’s back.  He attempted his climb again and found it was much easier.  Halfway up the tree, Anansi knew that this time, it would work.  He would reach the top of the tree, and he would keep all the wisdom to himself.  Yes, his son’s plan would work.

Then it occurred to Anansi that his son, so much smaller than he, was already so much wiser.  Halfway up the tree where Anansi could have kept all the wisdom of the world to himself, he threw down the pot in a rage.  Of course, it smashed into small pieces on the ground, and this was how all the wisdom got out. This was how people learned all they know how to do.

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The telling of nonwestern tales to western audiences raises the stakes.  These stories are a refreshing departure from the reliance on marriage plots in many of the fairy tales well-known to English listeners.  So, gather your loved ones, clear your throat, and get your character voices at the ready.

Teal Caravel Square

Related:  World Book Day 2016


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