Birthmarks and Invisible Clothes

In which I search out the folktale inspirations for Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes” and “The Swineherd”.

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I’ve been reading M.R. James’ 1930 translation of Hans Christian Andersen, Forty-two Stories, which is a delight. I’ve realized that, while I’m familiar with Andersen’s most famous tales, I’ve mostly only read retellings of them, rather than reading them in Andersen’s own (translated) words. It makes such a difference! Andersen’s prose (as channeled through James, at least) is so beautifully clean and unadorned; more modern than I would have expected.

Many (though not all) of Andersen’s tales are direct retellings of folktales, albeit with his own unique voice and special details. Other tales borrow from traditional stories to a greater or lesser degree. In the preface to his translation, James gives a bit of information about the folk origins of several tales, based both on what Andersen himself said, and on James’ personal research.

Let’s explore “The Emperor’s New Clothes” and “The Swineherd.”

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The Bouquet Makers, Part II

In which Giulla and Feristemo find each other, and take a little revenge. From the Peregrinaggio.

When last we saw them, Feristemo and Giassamen had finally learned Giulla’s whereabouts, and were making plans to rescue her.

Giassamen happened to know that quite near Giullistano, where Giulla was held, there was a grand palace whose owner was greatly in debt to the king (ah, back taxes). So the palace was up for public auction. With Feristemo’s approval, Giassamen took a large sum from the money that Feristemo’s father had given to them, and, while posing as a foreign merchant, bought the palace. He and Feristemo furnished the palace luxuriously, then set up residence there.

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The Bouquet Makers, Part I

Another tale from the Peregrinaggio

Once upon a time in the land of Serger, in the city of Letzer, there ruled a wise and just king. He was good to his subjects and welcoming of foreigners. When the king died, his eldest son inherited the throne.

Sadly, the new king was the exact opposite of the old king. He was malicious and greedy, and sowed discord and suspicion where before there was none. In fact, after the old king died, the new king had his own younger brother executed, and threw his brother’s son — and his own daughter — into prison. Because of the new king and his corruption, Letzer became such an unhappy place that people left, in droves.

Among the people who stayed were two old men, lifelong friends, wealthy and respectable. One had a daughter named Giulla, the other a son named Feristemo, both about the same age. The two fathers’ dearest wish was that their children would fall in love and get married.

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The Emperor who Turned into a Parrot

A tale from the Peregrinaggio. WARNING: lots of dead animals.

The land of Becher was once ruled by an Emperor who had four wives. His favorite wife, the Empress, was his uncle’s daughter; the other three wives were daughters of great princes. This Emperor was a wise man of great learning, and he enjoyed the company of other learned and artistic minds. As a result, his court was always full of scientists and philosophers and poets and artists and other brilliant, cultured people.

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One day the Emperor sat conversing with an aged philosopher who had traveled widely and seen many things. This philosopher told the Emperor that in the far western lands, he once met a man who knew how to transfer his life spirit and soul into the body of a dead animal, and then back again. This man had taught the philosopher the secret.

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The Three Princes of Serendip and the Giant Hand

Another adventure of the Three Princes of Serendip, from the Peregrinaggio.

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When we finished the last post, the three princes of Serendip were staying comfortably as guests of the Emperor Beramo, who much appreciated their company and their conversation. After the brothers saved Beramo from an assassination attempt by one of his own counselors, Beramo decided to ask them to help him with a problem that had vexed him since he began his reign. This is the story he told them:

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The Three Princes of Serendip and the One-eyed Camel

The tale that gave us the word serendipity, and possibly the classic detective story.

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Once upon a time, in the land of Serendip, there ruled a wise and powerful king, Giaffer. He had three sons whom he loved very much, and he wanted to leave them not only his kingdom, but all the knowledge and virtues that the rulers of a great kingdom should have. So he gathered great scholars from all over his realm, each with a different specialty, and set them as tutors to his sons. The king bade each tutor to instruct the princes so well that any expert who encountered them would immediately recognize who their teacher was. And so the tutors did.

Because the princes were all highly intelligent, it took hardly any time for them to become experts in science and language and philosophy and all the other subjects that they studied, and soon they were far more knowledgeable than any other young princes or nobles of the same age and rank. The tutors returned to the king to report on how much progress the princes had made. The king was a bit skeptical that the princes could have gained so much knowledge so quickly, so he decided to test them.

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Another Tale of the Weaver Goddess

The second of two tales about the Chinese Weaver Goddess, Zhinu, the daughter of the master of Heaven, (the Jade Emperor). As the Weaver Goddess, she either weaves her father’s royal robes out of the clouds, or else weaves the clouds and the rainbows themselves (it seems to vary, depending on what you read). Her mother, the Celestial Queen Mother, created the Silver River (the Milky Way).

This is the story of Zhinu and her other mortal husband, Niulang.

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The Weaver Maiden and the Cowherd

Niulang was a poor cowherd, with nothing in the world but an old, worndown Ox. Unbeknownst to Niulang, the Ox was a Celestial being, whom the gods exiled to Earth as punishment for… well, I don’t know what. On a day like any other day, as Niulang led his Ox to the fields, to his great surprise, the Ox turned and spoke to him!

“Let’s go down by the river,” the Ox said.

“Why?” said the Niulang — as soon as he got over his surprise at owning a talking Ox.

“You’ve been a good master. I want to repay you. Trust me,” the Ox said.

So down to the river they went. What the Ox knew — and Niulang didn’t — was that this particular bend of the river was a favorite bathing spot for the Jade Emperor’s seven daughters. As Niulang approached, he saw the sisters splashing in the water. He especially noticed the youngest one — Zhinu. The Ox noticed Niulang’s infatuated expression, and he helpfully pointed out the seven piles of clothing neatly stacked on shore.

“The robe the color of the sunset is Zhinu’s,” the Ox said.

So Niulang snuck to the shore as the sisters swam and splashed, and stole the robe that was the color of the setting sun. Eventually, the sisters finished their baths, scrambled to shore, put on their robes, and flew back up to the heavens. All except poor Zhinu.

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A Tale of the Weaver Goddess

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The first of two tales about the Chinese Weaver Goddess, Zhinu. Zhinu is the daughter of the master of Heaven, the Jade Emperor. As the Weaver Goddess, she either weaves her father’s royal robes out of the clouds, or else weaves the clouds and the rainbows themselves (it seems to vary, depending on what you read). Her mother, the Celestial Queen Mother, created the Silver River (the Milky Way).

The Tale of Dong Yong

In the time of the Han dynasty, there lived a young man name Dong Yong. His mother had died when he was just a baby, and he lived with his father, a poor farmer who spent every penny he had to care for and educate his son. When Dong Yong was nineteen, his father died, leaving Dong Yong so penniless that he could not afford to pay for his father’s burial rites, or for his tombstone.

Well, this wouldn’t do. Dong Yong gave up his studies and sold himself into indentured servitude, at a price high enough to give his father a proper funeral and a fine tombstone. Dong Yong knew that he would have to serve his master many long years to repay the debt, but he regretted it not at all. It was the least he could do for his father.

After the funeral, Dong Yong packed up his meagre belongings and made his way to his master’s house. On the way, he met a beautiful young woman. She told him that her mother had died, and her father had remarried. Her new stepmother wanted to marry her off against her will, and so she ran away. Dong Yong suggested she marry him instead — since neither had family, they could care for each other in a world full of strangers. The girl agreed. Continue reading

The King’s Son-in-Law

Antonio Trueba

Antonio de Trueba (1819-1889) was a Spanish reteller of folklore in the tradition of Gustavo Bécquer and Fernán Caballero (the pen name of Cecilia Francisca Josefa Böhl de Faber) — both of whom I’ve posted on before. Trueba combined the traditional stories of the Spanish campesinos with sophisticated literary style and humorous political and social commentary. I found this delightful tale in a back issue of the fairy tale studies journal Marvels & Tales, and it hooked me at the first paragraph:

There once was a king so avaricious that instead of spending his life making his subjects happy, he passed it running throughout his kingdom searching for mines of gold and silver, and leaving the devil in charge of the ship of State. A pox on such kings!

I have a feeling this one will speak to a lot of people.

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Hummingbird and Fly: A Keresan Folktale

Next in the hummingbird folklore series, as a followup to our previous story from the Hopi of Arizona: a story from the Laguna (Kawaik), one of the Keresan speaking Pueblo tribes of New Mexico. As in the Hopi story, Hummingbird, this time with Fly, must save the settlement from starvation.

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Long ago, the people lived at White-House, a settlement so vast that they had seven different kinds of shaman to perform ceremonies to bring food for the people, and to cure disease. After many years of success, the shamans became so proud of their abilities that they thought they were more powerful even than Mother Nautsiti, who brought life. In their hubris, they mocked her. She heard, and she got angry. In her anger she hid the rain, and so the crops died. For five years (some say seven), the people starved. Some say the people got so desperate that they even killed and ate their children…

As the situation got more dire, the shamans and the chiefs called a meeting to discuss how to find the Mother, and ask her to bring back the rain and the food. As they met, they remembered Hummingbird, who slept in an opening in the middle of the south wall. In the midst of all this famine, Hummingbird remained healthy and well-fed.

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