Jul 28, 2013

Unhappily Ever After?

Folktales are generally believed to have a perfect resolution and a happy ending. “Cinderella,” “Snow White,” “Hansel and Gretel,” “Little Red Riding Hood,” and “Sleeping Beauty” all finish with a happy ending for the protagonist. The folktale happy ending usually contains three distinct characteristics: Reversal of the power dynamics that characterizes the first half of the story, fulfillment of wishes, and morals. For example, Cinderella, who was abused at home by her stepmother and stepsisters, becomes the queen in the end and gets to punish her abusers. Hansel and Gretel, who are starved at the beginning, get plenty of food. Snow White contains the moral that virtue wins and evil is defeated. Since these “fairy tales” are very popular, it is often believed that all folktales are similar. However, a short analysis of some other folktales tells us that it is not so.

Many Nepali folktales end without resolving the conflict. In a story called “Stepmother and Pot with a Hole,” the protagonist’s stepmother asks her to bring her water in a pot that has a hole. The girl tries to, but is eventually exhausted from her efforts, and dies from it. “The Story of Brother and Sister” goes even further, here the protagonist’s sister heartlessly sends her brother to his death so that she can acquire his money. The sister is a close biological relative, and in conventional folktales like “Juniper Tree,” biological relatives are reconciled at the end of the story. These two stories defy a conventional resolution, and do not seem to have a moral either.

Why do Nepali folktales have sad endings, while such endings are absent from European folktales? My search for a reason of this discrepancy led to the date when these stories were collected: All Nepali tales have been collected in the past sixty years directly from oral sources. Before that, folktales were not valued in Nepali society, and they were passed down only orally. In contrast, in Europe folktales have been collected for more than 400 years. Tales that are popular today are heavily edited or modified versions of older oral tales. Based on this finding, I decided to investigate older European folktales to determine if the time elapsed impacted story content.

The investigation led to many older European tales that originally did not contain resolution. For example, “Little Red Riding Hood” is a well known tale. However, it is not popularly known that in many versions, like Charles Perrault’s 1891 version, and Christian Schneller’s 1867 version, the protagonist Red Riding Hood and her grandmother are both eaten up by the wolf. There is no reversal of power dynamics, and no wish fulfillment. But even without a resolution, it can and does have a moral: Young girls must not trust strangers who lurk in wait to devour them. 

On further investigation, older tales without morals were also found. Tales like “Puss in the Boots” and “Rumpelstiltskin” puzzle readers because they obviously flout morals. The cat in “Puss in the Boots” deceives everyone to get what his master wants, and yet is celebrated as the hero. “Rumpelstiltskin” has a lying father: A man lies to the king that his daughter can weave gold from straw. It has a cheating heroine: The daughter promises a dwarf that if he can make gold from her straw, she will give him her son, but later refuses to do so. It has a blackmailing protagonist: Rumpelstiltskin threatens to reveal the woman’s secret to her husband if she does not give him her son. The “lesser evil” has the happy ending in the story, as the heroine gets to keep her son but Rumpelstiltskin dies.

But the most shocking example of a tale without morals is “Sun, Moon, and Talia,” an early version of “Sleeping Beauty” collected by Giambatista Basile and published in 1634. In the tale, when the prince discovers the Sleeping beauty, he actually has sexual intercourse with the corpse. Talia bears two children from the rape. She goes in search of her husband, who is already married. The wife schemes to kill the children, but the prince finds this out, burns her to death, and happily settles down with Talia.

Such a confusion of moralities is visible in many older folktales, but as the tales evolved, edited versions with happy endings became more popular than the original versions. For example, Charles Perrault was a courtly writer who had an interest in folktales. He was responsible for modifying many folktales like Cinderella and giving them gentler, more refined endings. Cinderella’s stepsisters’ eyes are gouged out in Grimm Brothers’ version, but in Perrault’s version, they embrace and make up. He even adds a moral, found in no previous version: “Beauty in a woman is a rare treasure that will always be admired. Graciousness, however, is priceless and of even greater value.” Cinderella of earlier versions, who let her stepmother be punished with death, had none of this grace.

Three of the five most popular folktales: “Cinderella,” “Snow White,” and “Sleeping Beauty,” have been made into popular animated films by Disney, and two others, “Hansel and Gretel” and “Little Red Riding Hood,” have appeared in other Disney movies. It is these versions that are popular. These are the versions that propagate, through marketing efforts, the deceptive images of happy ending.

The result is that western folktales have moved from folk stories into literary stories. But in popular imagination, these versions have accumulated more authenticity than older versions. Their morality-infused form is believed to be the norm. As a result, tales that contain no resolution or no morals elicit puzzlement from an audience looking for rationality. Much effort is spent on discovering their hidden morals or messages, when in fact, folktales were just a form of mass communication. They were used to share ideas and concepts, both good and bad. They were a means of social interactions, a means for identifying social norms, and a means for learning behaviors and roles, but not necessarily morals.

Nepali stories are closer to the folk form because they have been collected from oral sources more recently and have undergone less editing and revision. The change of form from oral to written transmission has had significant consequences in our understanding of folktales. The constructed and concise way of storytelling in recorded folktales is very different from the spontaneous storytelling of oral communication. These edited tales say more about the individual collector and narrator than the society they are collected from. This leads us to the conclusion that edited versions of folktales should be analyzed as literature rather than as folk expressions. 

Jul 21, 2013

Vignettes of Dolpa

When Hanuman flew up to the mountain, he saw so many valuable medicines and beautiful flowers that he was dazzled, and decided to carry the entire mountain back to the battlefield. Just for a small piece of Sanjeevani that would revive Laxman. When I walk out of my tent in Jumla to begin the day’s walk, I am in a similar daze. There are blue, purple, white, pink, yellow and red (and shades of them that I cannot name) flowers on the ground, gently blowing in the breeze. Apart from being overwhelmed by the realization that I would literally walk on flowers all day, surrounded by miles and miles of land carpeted in flowers , I could not help but be awed by the magic of the place. This was the high alpines, home to the rarest of the rare herbs. Yarsagumba, the famed half-plant, half-animal Himalayan aphrodisiac, Chiraito, Panchaunle, and many, many other things that I cannot name. Each of them a Sanjeevani, in a manner of speaking. Any of them could be on the ground in front of me, gently blowing in the breeze,  and I would never know. Hanuman, I know exactly how you felt.


The houses in Dolpa come upon you suddenly, even though they had been there all the time. Once you do the inevitable double take and begin observing the houses, you realize why. They are made of the exact same materials as the surrounding hillside: the building blocks of the houses are of the same brown-grey mud that the hills are made of. And since there are no trees or grass to break the flow in this barren land (it gets little rain because it lies behind the Himalayas which monsoon clouds cannot progress beyond, hence the barrenness), the houses look just like outsized rocks stacked together. And in some areas (like Dho Tarap, human settlement in the highest altitude in the world) it doesn’t help that the major part of the house is underground, leaving only the roof, and at most a couple feet of the walls, sticking outside of ground. These underground houses are supposed to be weather resistant, and have an underground system of connection so that its residents do not have to come over ground in the extremely harsh winters that Dolpa can have.

Can you spot the houses?

Howard Roark only lives in the pages of Ayn Rand’s book Fountainhead, but he could as well have built the houses in Dolpa. Howard Roark dislikes glass skyscrapers, rejects false fronts on American buildings that pretend to give a European feel, and thinks Greek style palladiums should be made only in Greece. That is because he believes that buildings should be constructed for the environment they are in, made of local materials that are best suited for the locality, and only then can fulfill the true purpose of their existence. His odd-looking cylindrical petrol pump is the most convenient one that anyone has ever used, because it does away with all the frills, and is streamlined to be anything and everything a petrol-pump to be but nothing else. And when Roark builds a palace on the hills, he makes of the exact same red-brick material as the hills, at once indistinguishable and unique, that is the most comfortable living quarters anyone has ever made. Roark must have gotten his inspiration from traditional houses—such as the ones in Dolpa—built from centuries of experience and folklore that end up making dwellings that are best suited for their purpose, no more and no less. It is almost impossible to believe that Rand has never been to Dolpa!

All nine of the Nazguls on their thundering steeds, chasing a wounded Frodo gasping for breath on a lame looking horse. He is picked by the regal Arwen on her horse, and together they cross a slight rivulet, straight into Rivendell. Arwen turns to look at the Nazul, so near, in a triangular formation made for speed. She slowly mumbles a chant in Elvish, and suddenly, she summons up a flood.  Water higher than her came crashing down from a corner, surprising the Nazgul and blowing their horses, so that they are stranded on the other side.

Turn a corner in in the Far West. Turn any cover, and Arwen’s flood comes gushing out at you. As you follow the river Suli and Tila in Jumla, and Phoksundo (in Jumla) and you can watch them turn incredible corners, make incredible waterfalls. If Peter Jackson had decided to film Lord of the Rings in Nepal, he would not even had to digitize the flood. Because the far west of Nepal has every kind of body of water: slow moving rivulets, thundering waterfalls, gentle rivers, and even a deep, romantic lake that he could have used for Frodo’s departure to the middle earth.

And it is not just Arwen’s flood. Dolpa has the other worldly quality that just tell you that it is the home of fantasy. Kanjirowa that thunders all night with avalanches reminded me of the Mines of Moria where the Fellowship was trapped. Who knows what caves and treasures and Balrogs its hides? The bare beauty of grey hills, perfect for Mordor, home of the Dark Lord Sauron. The cheerful valley of Saldang that could be Rivendell, beauty amidst barrenness.

Peter Jackson, you really should have come to Dolpa. We have everything that could have made Lord of the Rings even more magical than it is.


Because that is one thing Dolpa does, make you feel like you are in a magical world. When you do not see a car, a bus, or a television for days, no wires clog your roads, and few plastic wrappers of food pollute the road, it is easy to believe that you are in a different world altogether. When the tinkle of yak bells accompanies you on roads, when in the midst of wilderness you come across gleaming monasteries with artwork containing demons, gods, and angels, it is easy to believe that the world is full of magic!

Published in Folio magazine
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