I’ve been thinking about the books I read as a child, in particular the collections of myths, folklore and fairytales. One of them stands out for me: The Penguin Book of World Folk Tales, edited by Milton Rugoff, and illustrated by Joseph Low. My father gave it to me, and I have it still. I found it recently in a dark corner of my office bookshelves.
It’s a fat book with small print and interesting wood-cut illustrations, with a bright pink cover, and a picture of a man using a sword to cut off the seven heads off a rampant dragon. Nice. To this day, the combination of hot pink and bright orange is one of my favourite colour combinations.
I remember being slightly daunted by a book that had so many words in it, and only black and white pictures. But I figured I could choose the stories that I liked the look of, that were short, and simple, and funny.
My favourite stories in there were the African folk tales. Anansi, the trickster spider featured, and the world depicted was one of wit and whimsy, and a great sense of humour.
My absolute favourite story was ‘Talk,’ an Ashanti tale about a man who is digging in his garden one day to take some yams to market. As he digs, the yam chastises him: “You never weeded me, but now you come around with your digging stick. Go away and leave me alone!”
Astonished, the man asks his cow if she had said something. She says nothing, but the dog speaks up: “It wasn’t the cow, it was the yam. The yam says leave him alone.”
Upset, the man starts to cut a switch from a nearby palm tree, to beat the dog. The tree protests. “put that branch down!” The branch then says “put me down softly.” He puts it on a stone, which says “hey, take that thing off me!”
In terror, the man runs to the village. He meets a fisherman with a fish in a trap, and tells him what has happened. As the fisherman is dismissing the story as not very frightening, the fish in the trap speaks up: ‘Well, did he take it off the stone?” Now both men are running for their lives. They encounter a weaver and tell him their story. When he dismisses it as “nothing to get excited about,” his bundle of cloth reprimands him: “oh yes it is. If it happened to you you’d run too!”
All three terrified men reach the village and find the chief. The chief’s servant brings out his ceremonial stool, and the chief sits on it and listens to their stories.
“Now this is a really wild story,” he comments. “You’d better all go back to your work before I punish you for disturbing the peace.”
As the men go away, and the chief shakes his head over their ‘nonsense,’ one final player speaks.
“Fantastic, isn’t it?” says his stool. “Imagine, a talking yam!”
Nonsense like this upsets the community
This is a classic shaggy dog story, beautifully laid out, humour by increment of repetition (the different talking animals and objects, the three men and their different encounters), and it appealed to my young self not just because of its simplicity, but because it is funny. At seven, I wasn’t sure what a yam was, but I knew enough to guess, and I knew enough about the world to imagine the farmer, the fisherman, the weaver, the chief, and I loved the way the different objects turn the tables on the humans.
Looking at ‘Talk’ now, I think there’s a subtle commentary about human assumptions of dominance over the natural world, and I like the way the objects and animals reprove and contradict the men. The chief comments ‘nonsense like this upsets the community,’ but perhaps the human community needs to be upset from time to time, to look around it, to think a bit about what we are doing in the world, why we’re doing it, and what its effects might be.
The Penguin Book of World Folk Tales was one of the first collections of such stories I read–and when I say read, I don’t mean that I read the whole of it. Indeed, I still haven’t read them all. Who knows what other talking vegetables await within, and what useful lessons they could impart . . .