North-American Indian Fables
It has been difficult for me write this past week. My computer is not working normally. Letters jump around and so do paragraphs. I may have to schedule a very early Christmas.
However, all is not lost. Anansi, the folktale figure brought to the Americas by black slaves is not featured at the top of this post but that is my choice. I think it is more appropriate to read other Amerindian folk tales first. North America’s aboriginal people are its Amerindians.
Therefore, the image at the top of this post is by Paul Bransom, the illustrator of An Argosy of Fables. It illustrates a fable entitled “The Humming-bird and the Crane” (p. 479).
This illustration is one of Paul Bransom‘s finest. Notice, in particular, the colour of the leaves. Mr Bransom uses a mauve instead of making the leaves a darker green. As for the composition, we have a diagonal line, a feature of Japanese prints, those that inspired American artist Mary Cassatt (22 May 1844 – 14 June 1926), Vincent van Gogh (30 March 1853 – 29 July 1890), and other artists and collectors. Japonisme swept Europe and was at times combined with Art Nouveau elements. In Paul Bransom’s illustration, the crane intersects the diagonal line horizontally.
As for the fable, it resembles “The Tortoise and the Hare” (Le Lièvre et la Tortue, La Fontaine VI.10). There is a race. The girl will marry the winner, which she expects will be the humming-bird. He seems the faster bird. We learn however that the crane can fly at night.
The fable I have selected is not an etiological tale, but it is an animal tale whose type and motifs I will attempt to locate. Professor D. L. Ashliman wrote that there are some 2500 “basic plots” in the Aarne-Thompson classification system. As I mentioned above, this fable reminds me of “Le Lièvre et la Tortue” (The Tortoise and the Hare). It is number 226 in the Perry Index, an Index of Æsopic fables, not a classification of types and motifs. The race seems its main feature.
The ending surprises everyone. The crane is the winner, but the girl says she will not marry. If any character has been fooled, it could be the girl.
The Humming-bird and the Crane
THE Humming-bird and the Crane were both in love with the same pretty girl. She preferred the Humming-bird, who was as pleasing to look at as the Crane was awkward. But the Crane was so persistent that in order to get rid of him she finally told him that he must challenge the other bird to a race and that she would marry the winner. The Humming-bird was so swift—almost like a flash of lightning—and the Crane so slow and heavy, that she felt sure the Humming-bird would win. She did not know that the Crane could fly at night.
They agreed to start at her house and fly around the circle of the world, back to the starting point. And the one who came in first should win the girl. When the word was given, the Humming-bird darted off like an arrow and was out of sight in a moment, leaving his rival to follow heavily behind. He flew all day, and when evening came and he stopped to roost for the night, he was far ahead. But the Crane flew steadily all night long, passing the Humming-bird soon after midnight, and going on until he came to a creek, where he stopped to rest about daybreak. The Humming-bird woke up in the morning and flew on again thinking how easily he would win the race. But when he reached the creek, there he found the Crane, spearing tadpoles with his long bill for breakfast. The Humming-bird was much surprised and wondered how this could have happened; but he flew swiftly by and soon left the Crane once more out of sight.
The Crane finished his breakfast and again started on; and when evening came he still kept on as before. This time it was not yet midnight when he passed the Humming-bird sleeping on a limb; and in the morning he had finished his breakfast before the other came up. The next day he gained a little more; and on the fourth day he was spearing tadpoles for dinner when the Humming-bird passed him. On the fifth and sixth days it was late in the afternoon before the Humming-bird overtook him; and on the seventh morning the Crane was a whole night’s travel ahead. He took his time at breakfast and then fixed himself up spick and span at the creek, arriving at the starting-point about the middle of the morning. When the Humming-bird at last came in, it was afternoon and he had lost the race. But the girl declared that she would never have such an ugly fellow for a husband, so she stayed single.
(From Myths of the Cherokee, by James Mooney.)
- “How the Bear lost its Tail,” a Cherokee Fable (4 August 2015)
- Another Type: The Tail-Fisher (29 April 2013)
- Mary Cassatt: an Intimate Japonisme (16 July 2013)
Sources and Resources
An Argosy of Fables, selected and edited by Frederic Taber Cooper, 1921
Myths of the Cherokee, by James Mooney, is Gutenberg [EBook #45634]
Myths of the Cherokee, by James Mooney, is an Internet Archive publication
With kindest regards to all of you. ♥
Camille Saint-Saëns: Le Carnaval des animaux
© Micheline Walker
14 August 2015