There are many glorious picture books published in Australia, and Once there was a boyis on of them. It’s a seemingly simple book that stays in the mind for a long time. It is by a wonderful artist, Dub Leffler, who is descended from the Bigambul and Mandandanji people of South-West Queensland, and who grew up in Quirindi, not far from Armidale. He has worked with luminaries such as Shaun Tan and Banksy, and in Once there was a boy, he has created a lovely piece of storytelling that recasts a whole lot of invasion narratives into a simple fable about a boy who lives alone on an island, and a girl who visits without invitation, eats his fruit, sleeps in his bed, and breaks his heart.
I’ve put this book on the syllabus for my summer class Introduction to Literature through Children’s Books, because I want to talk about how intertextuality, adaptation and retelling work in storytelling. Once there was a boy, in which I can see echoes of the myth of Pandora, the folktale of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Edgar Allen Poe’s The Telltale Heart, the Perrault recording of the Bluebeard story, and more. It’s a really clever book–simple, rich, and resonant., with exquisite artwork.
How far do we go with influence-chasing, however? It’s something I’ll be discussing with the class: intertextuality is appealing, but only if it’s meaningful, and one can end up down a rabbit-hole of references and parallels which go well beyond what the author intends, or wants to acknowledge.
That said, Once there was a boy offers a take on the Pandora myth that points to its place as a cautionary ‘don’t touch’ tale. A curious little girl, who has invited herself in to the boy’s island home, looks under the bed (despite being told not to), and deals with the consequences of her actions.
The original Pandora myth ends with the discovery of Hope, trapped in the famous box, operating as a balm for the ills of the world that have been released on first opening.
Where does Hope lie in Once there was a boy? I think it resides in the actions of the little girl, who reflects on what she has done, and makes a profound gesture in order to heal and reconcile, giving her own heart to the little boy. It’s possible to read this book as a reflection on colonisation, whereby the girl represents the naive intrusion of colonisers, and the boy represents the place and people they dislodge and disrupt. Once there was a boy has a strong resonance in relation to the power structures of post-colonial Australia. Leffler doesn’t dwell on the challenges and problematics of reconciliation and reparation, but the meaning is clear: for true reconciliation to occur, acts of reparation need to take place.
Scouring the UNE library shelves for inspiration last week, I came upon a copy of Harrius Potter et Philosophi Lapis, the Latin translation of . . . you know what. It belonged to an old friend, and so I checked it out, along with several other translations of children’s books, to think about what inspires us to translate our favourite books into our favourite languages.
As the great Wilfried Stroh explains (in Latin) there’s a long tradition of children’s books in Latin from Winnie ille Pu to Fabula de Jemima Anate-Aquatica. . . It’s no easy task to achieve, either. Anyway, here’s Peter Needham’s opening lines of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in Latin,
Puer Qui Vixit
Dominus et Domina Dursley, qui vivebant in aedibus Gestationius Ligustrorum numero quattuor signatis, no sine superbia dicebant se ratione ordinaria vivendi uti neque se paenitere illius rationis. in toto orbe terrarum vix credas quemquam esse minus deditum rebus novis et arcanis, quod ineptias tales omnino spernebant.
Harrius Potter et Philosophi Lapis, trans. Peter Needham (1)
Magic, eh! You can look up the English for yourselves.
In the meantime, some thoughts about Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, which I am teaching this summer as part of a unit introducing techniques of literary study through children’s books. The idea is that in seemingly simple texts such as Harry Potter, Charlotte’s Web, and other well-known kids’ books, we can explore different elements of literary technique and thought. Some of these books (such as Matilda and Once There Was a Boy) are highly intertextual and draw on myths, legends, and fairy tales, and so I’m exploring that aspect as well.
Harry Potter and the many allusions to Latin
Harry Potter and the Philospher’s Stone is full of allusions and intertexts. It’s a pastiche of styles and influences, and much of its success must surely come from the way in which Rowling tells a story that is familiar in concept and structure, but also original, imaginative, and new. Roald Dahl’s influence is clear in the horrible Dursleys–grotesque in shape and behaviour–contrasted with Harry’s innocence but also his ability to take vengeance when necessary. The battles of Star Wars, between Luke, a novice good-guy and Darth Vader, an overwhelmingly powerful bad-guy, complete with colour-coded technological swords, are another clear influence–if we swap Harry for Luke, and wands for light-sabres, the parallels are clearer still. The influence of the British school story, with competitions between student Houses, good, bad, and unfair teachers, is also clear: the Quidditch matches of Harry Potter are not unlike the obsession with rugby in Tom Brown’s Schooldays (and a host of imitators). And so on. There are books, articles, talks galore that dig out and enjoy the parallels.
You don’t have to recognise the allusions to enjoy Harry Potter, of course, but it makes for a rich reading experience if you do. And for the classically-inclined (Rowling herself was a classics student), the novels are peppered with references to the ancient world, through names, mythical creatures, snatches of Latin, and classical precedents and parallels.
There are the names of important witches and wizards, for instance: Minerva McGonagall, the wise and wily deputy headmistress of Hogwarts, named after the Roman version of the goddess Athena (and, incidentally, Scotland’s weirdest poet, William McGonagall). Albus Dumbledore, headmaster and personification of goodness: where Albus means ‘white,’ or ‘shining’, and Dumbledore is a dialectal word for bumblebee. Rubeus Hagrid, his loyal sidekick, takes his first name from the Latin for red, a popular name in mediaeval times. Dedalus Diggle is one of the first wizards to celebrate the initial defeat of Voldemort: his name recalls the great inventor, father of Icarus, designer of the labyrinth. Severus Snape recalls the Roman Emperor Septimius Severus (193-211 AD), but more than that, his name means ‘severe, or serious’; Draco Malfoy is named after the Latin for dragon (as befits a proud member of Slytherin), and also the first lawmaker of the city-state of Athens, known for his harshness (such as giving the death penalty for minor crimes, like stealing a cabbage). Hermione Granger is named after the daughter of Menelaus and Helen of Troy, a spirited woman who fights to marry the man she wants, Orestes. Argus Filch, the grouchy janitor/groundskeeper, seems to be everywhere at once, like his namesake, the hundred-eyed guardian, Argus Panoptes, whose eyes ended up decorating the tail of Hera’s bird, the peacock.
These are only the names from the first book in the series. Throughout, Rowling is very clever with her use of names, balancing Latin and English, Old French, and dialects, and applying them meaningfully to major and minor characters alike. (I was delighted to see that Professor Sprout, the herbology teacher, rejoices in the first name, Pomona–the Roman goddess of apples and ‘fruitful abundance’) These names create a tapestry of additional meaning, supporting the sense that the Harry Potter books are set in a world like, but not quite like, our own, full of echoes and allusions.
Magical names are part of a magical world, and much of the appeal of the novels comes from the interweaving of magical creatures with everyday life. Rowling draws again on mythology: Harry Potter’s wand has the feather of a phoenix in it; so too, Dumbledore has a companion phoenix (Fawkes, named after Guido Fawkes, one of the gunpowder plot conspirators). Dragons feature, in names, in passwords (caput Draconis), and in an egg that Hagrid won off a guy down the pub. ‘Galloping Gorgons’ cries Hagrid when he remembers something he ought to have done, perhaps feed ‘Fluffy,’ the three-headed dog who guards a trapdoor to a secret underworld, much like his mythological counterpart Cerberus. And of course there are the centaurs, learned stargazers who live in the forest near the school and worry about the messages in the planets.
And into the clearing came–was it a man, or a horse? to the waist, a man, with red hair and beard, but below that was a horse’s gleaming chestnut body with a long, reddish tale. Harry and Hermione’s jaws dropped.
‘Oh it’s you, Ronan,’ said Hagrid in relief. ‘How are yeh?’
He walked forward and shook the centaur’s hand.
‘Good evening to you, Hagrid,’ said Ronan. He had a deep, sorrowful voice. ‘Were you going to shoot me?’
‘Can’t be too careful, Ronan,’ said Hagrid, patting his crossbow. ‘There’s summat bad loose in this forest. This is Harry Potter, an’ Hermione Granger, by the way. Students up at the school. An’ this is Ronan, you two. He’s a centaur.’
‘We’d noticed,’ said Hermione faintly.
(Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, 184)
The mythological creatures add depth and mystery to the novels–suggesting a pagan otherworldliness, or old magic, that is qualitatively different from the witches and wizards of modern faerie. They don’t participate much in the action, but come by occasionally, giving a sense that they’ve seen many a battle between good and evil. . .
Going deeper into storytelling and interextuality: as a hero story, the Harry Potter novels participate in all sorts of classical traditions. One can view them as a quest, in which Harry finds the resources (external and internal) to battle ultimate evil in the form of Voldemort. One can view them, as Vassiliki Panoussi does, as a foundation epic, in which Harry and his friends build an army to establish a brave new world. There are echoes of Greek tragedy, as Brett Rogers notes, in Rowling’s world view, especially where the tyranny of educators over students is concerned. Harry Potter, like much great fantasy literature, has richness, depth, and a profound morality, which drawing on classical parallels helps point to.
Harrius Potter and Our Mythical Childhood
The Our Mythical Childhood survey, of course, has entries on the world of Harry Potter. There’s entry 641 on Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, and entry 65 on Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. And while I didn’t grow up reading these books, and I’m not sure I have what it takes to be a member of Dumbledore’s Army, I am entranced by the mixture of Latin and magic, imagination and power that make the Harry Potter novels a mythical experience–in English, in Latin, or even in Ancient Greek .
In my family, my father and I are the ones who read and enjoy fantasy literature, and we share and discuss our favourites, when the others are not around. Here he reminisces about his time as a student at Oxford University, the home of three of Britain’s best-known and loved fantasy writers (C. S. Lewis, Lewis Carroll, and J. R. R. Tolkien).
I read bucket-loads of Lewis at school and
university. At school it was his books on religious belief. They were approved
of there. I was impressed by the Screwtape
Letters; their indirect technique, evil mentoring from a senior to a junior
devil, was new to me and to apologetics. At university, however, other forms of
belief and unbelief or doubt made more noise.
Lewis remained a presence at Oxford even after he had shifted (unfortunately
for me) to Cambridge. He had founded the Socratic Club, where belief and
unbelief were interrogated by a formally-appointed Socratic gadfly. (Like a
medieval disputation, as I later learnt.) I found that I couldn’t breathe its combative
atmosphere, and that Lewis’s pugnacity was uncongenial to serious thought about
faith. I had a friend, Martin, who enjoyed the religious works more than I did,
without being at all persuaded or
moved by them.
Martin preferred Till We Have Faces,
where Lewis retold the myth of Cupid and Psyche. Lewis set it in some far
country, beyond the edge of Greek or Roman territory, and told it from a
strange viewpoint, that of Psyche’s sister. I mention it because I liked it
too, for its deliberate strangeness. Well written, too, almost too well. Did writing
come too easily to Lewis?
not, in his self-life, Surprised by Joy.
He says that when he began writing fiction, he was astonished by how much
harder it was. To write about literature you just “switched on the motor at the
place where you had left off,” and carried on, whereas to write a story needed
a different power, the power which might or might not return— would just as
likely “leave a man as dry as a stone.” He liked to talk of “a man,”
generalizing in a bluff or hearty tone from his own experience.
or easy, I found him wonderful at almost everything he touched; but which of
his books did I read when? That did change. Nowadays I admire his works of
scholarship the most. Not the apologetics, nor the children’s tales, but works
on the scale of his Oxford (OHEL) volume English Literature in the Sixteenth
Century (but “excluding the drama,”
saddled for ever with its stuffy sub-title) which manages to be both objective
and personal, funny and austere. Or works where he expounded and expatiated, to
continual delight and enlightenment, like the Discarded Image and Studies
then, aged about 21, I was in some awe of his fiction, because he himself was
in awe of that kind of writing. It did come harder to him. He himself was in
awe of Tolkien, and the more difficult Charles Williams, and other Inklings.
Sort of meeting Lewis
I met him once back then, sort of. I dreamt that I met him. Like this: As a student at Christ Church, we had a tatty old common room with high window seats, on which you could look out at one of those secretive Alice gardens with high stone walls. Lewis Carroll’s former rooms were on the next floor up from this common room, in the corner of Tom Quad. In my dream, I was sitting with Lewis at that window. He said, “Got something to show you.” He rummaged in the baggy side-pocket of his old check sports-jacket, and carefully brought out a fairy, about three inches tall, wearing a pale green hazel-nut cap. End of dream. Waking up I recognized Lewis from his photograph, and the fairy from one of the Rupert books. The first one I had ever read, which I hadn’t re-read for many years, and nothing to do with Lewis. Well, no, maybe somehow it was. And how strange that the dream-encounter was set in Dodgson-land; underneath it, in fact. Allegories welcomed.
It was some time after that dream that I met Lewis’s children’s stories. The Voyage of the Dawn-Treader, borrowed from the Oxford Public Library just up the road. (A distinctively Victorian library, that one. Loved it.) I was thrilled by the Dawn-Treader! I felt Lewis had embodied his own love of Die Ferne, which he vents a lot in Surprised by Joy. Like Odysseus, too. And Norse myths of sailing to the farthermost end of the sea. In Reepicheep, the mighty-mouse idea blended with that lovely poem by Christopher Smart, about the mouse which challenged the cat which has seized his mate. (Set to music by Benjamin Britten in Jubilate Agno.) These off-centre works radiate a different joy from the plodding ones of much fiction, including workaday fantasies which show their construction.
A brush with Tolkien
I had more time for random reading that summer (1959). I was grappling with philosophy reading, logic, which took me one hour per page. I had to read something else. I tried Dawn-Treader. Also in May 1959 I heard of Tolkien. I had heard tell of how one day, marking examination papers, he had written onto one of the scripts, “In a hole in the ground lived a hobbit.” An act of release, frustration, rebellion, who knows? He had fame outside his own subject because of it. I liked the break-out. And he was a buddy of Lewis. Lewis was “Jack,” Tolkien was “Tollers.” To each other, I mean, when meeting at the pub on Tuesdays to drink deep and debate their fictions.
So, when Tolkien gave his final lecture, I
packed in with hundreds of other people to Merton Hall. That one time, I “sort
of” met him too. It was filled full, gallery and all. I had got there late, so
stood at the back of the gallery. I could hear every word, then! The lecture
ran for well over an hour. It consisted, entirely, of a defence of the Oxford
English syllabus. Which did and must for ever start with Old English
(compulsory), stopping at Jane Austen!
This did need some defending. It disappointed me. Anyhow, I was present only
to hear anecdotes or indiscretions about hobbit-making.
How curious, in hindsight, to learn that
some scholars (such as my Otago colleague Alan Horsman) judged that Tolkien
should have spent his last 30 years at Oxford on his scholarship; following up
his edition of Sir Gawain and the Green
Knight. Instead, Tolkien published little except fantasy once he started
with the Hobbit. Hobbitry took up more and more of his energies. And his jingly
verse and philological whimsying. I have some sympathy for Alan in this! I was
bored by the valedictory, couldn’t see what the fuss was about this in-house
stuff, since I was studying a different subject. And, holding those views about
the syllabus, wouldn’t it have been more consistent to publish scholarship?
Better still, like Lewis, to divide his writing time between his two very great
Hobbit or Homer?
the record, before going back to Lewis:: from reading the Hobbit, I remember only Gollum, and “My precious.” And from a year
later, reading the Rings, how Gollum’s
fixation and identity are finally disclosed. If I remember rightly, he is a
former hobbit, who has lost his skin and eyesight, and his right wits, by
hunting through too many caverns for long dark ages for the lost ring of power.
A moral tale, ending in metamorphosis, somewhat resembling the evolutionary
pattern of species like flightless birds, or bats. Call me Philistine, but the
imagination at work here does not impress me all that much.
Much greater power is to be found in Homer understated, back near the beginning of recoverable fiction. When the suitors are slain by the bow of Odysseus, their spirits flee away like bats in flight, squeaking, trizontes. They are flitting off in a colourless half-life to Hades, where even the greatest spirits —like Achilles, who has spoken with Odysseus during the Nekuia, the book where he travels to consult the dead—loathe to be, only partly alive after their vibrant lives of earth. The mythological imagination coheres, and convinces. Is it because we have gone back to its wellspring, the oral composition and bardic performance?
Kindly but not cosy—Lewis
A little later, 1962 I think, I tried Tolkien’s long tale. Thrilled at first, I read the Rings late into the night in order to finish, despite this being the week of final exams. An imprudence! Was I growing up or eegressing? That was the high watermark of my liking and enjoyment. Lewis’s tales have lasted better. Or I haven’t binged on them. He undertakes secondary epic more lightly, at less portentous length, and with a different kind of density. He has the same philological density. Spirits that glint sidelong in the bright air are eldila, singular being eldil. And in other ways the secondary epic is thought through with less sweating over it than Tolkien. Lewis more lightly touches it in, to the depth required in each moment of his story— as it intensifies towards the end in Dawntreader It was always a sport. Tolkien turned professional after being enjoyed as an amateur.
I don’t know whether I prefer Lewis because he enlivened tales which were his own with assorted myth, not only classical, or because Tolkien stood closer to a different body of myth which he knew better and then aped. But Lewis’s characterizations engage actual growing-up feelings better. Myths help: Argonautic voyaging rather than clunky sword-fighting (taken ad absurdum in those movies). Lewis is kindly but not cosy, unlike Tolkien.
does let it down, for me, is the metaphysics, in a word, Aslan. Tolkien does
the opposite, beneficially: no benign spirit presiding and intervenes, and
instead a supernatural of evil, as if evil not good was the ruling norm. The
metaphysic you get in Henry James. Rather than either of them, leave the tale-telling
to Robert Louis Stevenson.
All in all, nonetheless, Lewis is the great all-rounder of English letters in his century.
I do enjoy a smart, creepy work of science fiction, and Genesis, by NZ author Bernard Beckett, is one such novel. Set in a futuristic Aotearoa New Zealand that has cut itself off from a (possibly) plague-ridden world and made some dramatic changes to its society, it’s an examination of what it means to be human–told from a (possibly) post-human perspective, but drawing on all sorts of human philosophy to do so.
The heroine, Anaximander, is a student eager to pass examination for entrance into an elite Academy. To do so, she has to take a test on her special subject–the life of Adam Forde, a rebel from the era of rebuilding. Adam is the ultimate exemplar of humanity writ large, and in her presentation of his life, Anaximander finds herself debating his actions, his words, and her own interpretation of them.
The whole of Genesis is presented through Anaximander’s examination, and as a series of dialogues. Those of us interested in classical reception note that Anax is named for the philosopher Anaximander of Miletus, the writer of an exploration into the origins of life. (As Babette Pütz notes, Anax’s examination of Adam forms her own exploration into her own, and her society’s origins.)* Other figures in the book have names such as Plato, Socrates, Pericles, and Aristotle . . . and of course its title makes one think of an entirely different tradition of thought and belief . . . (Click on the links here to read Our Mythical Survey entries on Genesis and its companion books August and Lullaby)
If you want to find out what happens, and what conclusions Anax reaches, read the book. Its emphasis on dialogue and debate make it an unusually direct exploration philosophy, framed in a compelling science fiction format.
Much of the appeal of works like Genesis comes from the question–what does it mean to be human? It’s a question that comes up often in young adult fiction, as part of the coming-of-age plot. Figuring out who one is, where one comes from, finding out how to fit in, and what to fit in to–all of these are important issues for characters (and readers) growing up and working out their place in the world.
Beckett’s novels and plays confront this head on: he’s a scientist interested in philosophy, and many of his books plunge readers into an intellectual work-out that they may not expect. But that’s its appeal for me–I liked the almost clinical format of the novel, which seldom leaves the examination room (though Anax’s presentation tells us much about the world she inhabits).
I was curious about what drew Beckett to writing this novel, and so I asked him a few questions. Here are his answers.
Interview with Bernard Beckett
What drew you to using classical material in your works for young readers?
There are a couple of things that drew me to classical references in Genesis in particular and, to a lesser extent, August. The first is simply the school teacher’s instinct to share with others the knowledge that most delights us, and when I was writing Genesis a lot of these things were fresh in my mind. While writing the novel I was on a fellowship at a research centre, finding out a lot of new things for me, both about molecular evolution, and also philosophy, and you can’t really have any sort of sensible interest in philosophy without going back to classical references. I forget who it was who described all Western philosophy as ‘footnotes to Plato’ and there’s some significant truth in that. The second reason relates to the themematic structure of Genesis, where it is an examination of the stories of the past which make sense of the story in the present, and so there is a particularly appealling symmetry in referencing my own cultural foundations (to have Western heritage is, I think, to owe an awful lot to the thinkers of classical Greece in particular. There are very few ideas that fascinate me now that I can’t find serious consideration of in those times.
Why do you think classical / ancient myths, history, and literature continue to resonate with young audiences?
The resonance is I think essentially the wave of the Renaissance, slow breaking over centuries. As was the case then, so now it is tremendously exciting somehow, and humbling too, to discover that sophistication didn’t begin in 1984, that we have at our disposal this vast treasure trove of wisdom and experience. there is something tremendously comforting in that thought too, a sort of camaraderie that stretches over millenia, to know that our troubles have been met before, and battled with too, vanquished too in some cases. There is also the appeal of somehow joining a secret society, bound by knowledge, its password a set of magical names from the past.
Do you have a background in classical education (Latin or Greek at school or classes at the University?, or did you come to classical myth/history through some other means?) What sources are you using? Scholarly work? Wikipedia? Are there any books that made an impact on you in this respect?
I have no background in this stuff, formally speaking, but I have read as widely as I can on the philosophers of ancient times and continue to do so. So whether it’s Bertrand Russell’s partisan History of Western Philosophy, Karl Popper’s dismissive rendering of Plato, or Massimo Piggliuici’s affectionate take on the stoics, I’ve entered the world mostly via the more populist works of professional philosophers, and then made use of things like Stanford’s online philosophy encyclopedia or my own copy of the Routledge encyclopedia of philosophy. But any source will do, so long as one is prepared to read critically, and test what is written against the utterances of others.
Did you think about how aspects of Classical Antiquity (myth, history) would translate for young readers?
In my books I was more referencing obliquely and hoping for some eager minds that would be enough to send them searching for more. Mostly the ideas themselves have already translated into the fictional expression, as these are novels. The thing I am confident of is that the same ideas, the same obsessions, will continue to entice and fascinate. When that is no longer true, we have surely lost our humanity.
Are you planning any further forays into classical material?
I think the more an idea settles in you, the more it becomes native to your every expression. So in one form or another that fascination will always resurface, f not explicitly (although as soon as you ask that question, an idea forms…)
Anything else you think we should know?
The last thing I would like to say is that the biggest mistake to avoid in the modern world is to think nobody has ever grappled with our ideas before. the number of ideas I hear an idea presented in education as if it has only just been discovered, and all of humanity will now change on the back of this insight (pedagogy for the 21st century anyone – how these phrases make me ill) and every time I hear it I ask myself, is there anything in this that Socrates would have been surprised by? Recently I was giving a presentation on wellbeing in an educational setting, and so, of course, my first point of call in doing my preparation was Aristotle. Where else would a discussion of wellbeing begin? And by the time I got my head about even the most cursory consideration of his work, I was ready. Great thought lasts for a reason. It’s exactly why Shakespeare is still performed, and Mozart too. Not that we can never do better, but rather that beauty accretes and it is every generations good fortune to be able to look backward as well as forward.
*Babette Pütz, ‘Classical Influences in Bernard Beckett’s Genesis, August and Lullaby’ in Antipodean Antiquities: Classical Reception Down Under, ed. Johnson. Bloomsbury: 2019
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 . . .