I’m not an anthropologist nor an ethnographer nor a historian nor a philosopher. So I’m fairly certain that my assumptions about the relationship of national folklore to national values are neither new nor expert. Still, I find the relationship interesting to think about.
When I first met the Bulgarian man who would become my husband, I didn’t even know where Bulgaria was. We were in the United States and the Cold War showed little if any sign of ending so most of the cultural education was on his end. When we first lived in Bulgaria and I began learning the language, народни приказки (folktales) didn’t even make the list of all the Bulgarian language learning I set out to do.
Then came our daughter and I was determined to speak to her in Bulgarian—and that included children’s literature. Naturally we received many collections of народни приказки as gifts, and my Bulgarian language and cultural education suddenly entered an entirely new arena. Since folktales come down through oral tradition, they predate industrialization no matter what country or culture tells them. They are far older than we know so they tend to start with a stock phrase that deliberately pinpoints nothing. In Bulgarian, that’s Имало едно време (Once upon a time)…
While there are plenty of American folktales, I can’t say I know very many. Most folktales that I am familiar with are from the Brothers Grimm, Charles Perrault, and Hans Christian Andersen. Perhaps because I was not introduced to them as an adult, I have never spent any time analyzing the values and heroines/heroes promoted. But my experience with Bulgarian folktales was altogether different.
I met Ежко Бежко (Ezhko Bezhko) the sincere hedgehog, Баба Меца (Baba Metza) the protective bear, Кумчо Вълчо (Kumcho Vulcho) the dimwitted wolf, Зайо Байо (Zayo Bayo) the fainthearted rabbit, and Кума Лиса (Kuma Lisa) the sly fox. I liked many of the folktales I read first to my daughter and then later to my son, but some were very discomfiting. Trickery as a winning strategy seems to appear more often than you want small children to hear as a value to emulate.
Of course, the trickster appears in many cultures. We enjoyed reading stories about the African trickster character Anansi the Spider (and of course there’s the American Brer Rabbit), but Anansi doesn’t always win and the other characters often have his number. I remember as a child enjoying the Yiddish folklore trickster, Hershel of Ostropol, who was something of a court jester. The Bulgarian Хитър Петър (Sly Peter) is also a figure of fun and one of the non-animal stock characters.
I wonder if craftiness and trickery feature so prominently because Bulgaria spent so long—five centuries—as part of the Ottoman Empire. If one feels perpetually the little guy, does that mean that one sees guile as the way to stick it to the [Ottoman] man? And if that Ottoman Empire is replaced just two generations later by the Soviet empire, perhaps the same values seem, well, still valuable. And if one continues to read such folktales, is one continuing to inculcate values that in the present day might be outright disadvantageous to a country where honest dealings are needed to overcome the trickery that is today’s endemic corruption?
But to end on a lighter note. Here is my own retelling of a Bulgarian folktale in which Kuma Lisa’s mean-spirited trickery is vanquished by the goodhearted Ezhko Bezhko’s resourcefulness.
Kuma Lisa and Ezhko Bezhko
One time, not so long ago, Kuma Lisa the fox and Ezhko Bezhko the hedgehog were as close as sister and brother, and went everywhere together. Wherever the fox went, the hedgehog went too. One day the fox said to the hedgehog. “Ezhko Bezhko, will you come with me to the farmer’s grapevines? We can feast on sweet grapes.”
“I’ll come Kuma Lisa, why shouldn’t I come? But I have to tell you, I’m scared that we’ll come to grief over it. Last night I had very bad dreams,” worried the hedgehog.
“Ooh, what’s wrong with you? When I’m with you, there’s no reason to be scared. I have who knows how many clever schemes—we’ll always find a way out!” boasted the fox. “But, um, do you have any tricks yourself?” she added.
“I know only three little tricks, but they are good little ones and I save them for a rainy day,” the hedgehog assured her. “Well, let’s go.”
Kuma Lisa and Ezhko Bezhko set off for the grapevines, crawled under the fence, and started to eat the sweet grapes. But wouldn’t you know it? Click!—Kuma Lisa got caught in a trap.
“Help! Oh my! Quick, Ezhko,” she yelled, “tell me one of your little tricks. I’m so scared I can’t remember any of mine.”
“Alright Lisa. Pretend that you are dead and when the farmer frees you, run for your life!”
Kuma Lisa stopped yelling. She closed her eyes. She lay very still. She breathed so softly no one could tell she was just pretending. Soon the farmer came. He saw Kuma Lisa lying on the ground with one leg in his trap. He freed her, just as Ezhko Bezhko had said. Kuma Lisa jumped up, ran like the wind, and crawled back under the fence to where Ezhko Bezhko was waiting for her on the other side.
Not many days passed and Kuma Lisa again suggested, “Let’s go, Ezhko, to eat sweet grapes from the farmer’s vines.”
“Did you forget, Lisa, that the last time you barely escaped with your fur still on you?” Ezhko asked.
“Come on, hurry up, whatever happens, I’ll take the responsibility! Whatever happens, I’ll think up some clever escape,” Kuma Lisa reassured him.
Ezhko Bezhko agreed to go and they set off for the grapevines. Soon they were enjoying the sweet grapes. But suddenly, the hedgehog fell into a pit!
“Help! Oh my! Quick, Lisa, help me” he called out. “How can I fool the farmer? You have a whole bagful of schemes and tricks, don’t you?”
“Oh, Ezhko,” sighed the fox, “I did know a lot, but I’ve forgotten them all. You’ll have to figure it out yourself as best you can,”
“Well then, Lisa,” Ezhko shrugged calmly, “it’s clear that there is no escape for me. But come closer now and we’ll kiss each other goodbye to seal our friendship.”
Kuma Lisa bent down over the edge of the pit. But instead of kissing her, Ezhko Bezhko jumped as high as his little legs could carry him and caught hold of Kuma Lisa’s nose!
Just then, the farmer appeared. As soon as Kuma Lisa saw him, she dashed away at top speed. And Ezhko Bezhko went with her, because he was still grabbing hold of her nose.
And that’s how Ezhko Bezhko used two of his good little tricks. And he still has one left, just in case.