The 1925 Newbery winner, Charles J. Finger’s Tales From Silver Lands, is a collection of nineteen folktales, gathered by Finger during his travels in South America. And, I might as well say this up front – I found these stories so uninteresting that I’m having difficulty finding anything to say about them.
I adored fairy and folk tales as a child and read all I could find. I loved finding stories from different countries, and comparing, say, the French Cinderella to her sisters of the hearth elsewhere in the world. Witches in especial fascinated me and I could never get enough of the Russian Baba Yaga. Now that I’m nominally a grownup, my tastes favour the grown-up version of the fairy tale. I love the fleshed-out retellings which feature actual character development instead of lines such as “she was as beautiful as she was good”, plots which have been beefed up to something far beyond the usual skeletal heroic quests and courtings, and the kind of sensory detail that makes fiction truly come to life. Some of my favourites are those written by Robin McKinley, who has done novel-length versions of "Sleeping Beauty", "Donkeyskin", and "Beauty and the Beast" (twice) as well as several short-story versions of a number of other well-known fairy tales; or Gregory Maguire’s sophisticated (and, for a pre9/11 novel, amazingly prescient) allegory of political terrorism Wicked: the Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West. Incidentally, if you like this kind of grownup fairy tale, you might like to check out this Ask Metafilter thread for titles to check out and add to your reading list.
When I read Tales from Silver Lands I wondered if the stories were really as dull and wooden as they seemed to me or if I were simply too old and blasé to enjoy them. Discovering “The Hungry Old Witch” in the collection helped settle the question, because I did read that story as a child and never cared for it. I distinctly remember rooting for the witch rather than “Stout Heart” and his “maiden full of winning grace”. To my considerable irritation Stout Heart won the day, and his fair maiden became his wife, who was supposedly loved by all the people of his land “as the fairest woman among them”. (Riiiiight.)
There’s something annoyingly didactic about these stories. Liars are always punished, the lazy meet with some disastrous consequences, the brave always win the day, those who eat too much are destroyed in some spectacular way by their sheer consequences of their own gluttony. The Hungry Old Witch drowns because of the weight of the turtles she has eaten. El-Enano, a sort of monstrous wild child who demands an unending supply of food from a village, dies because he mistakes hot coals for hot baked potatoes. In the “Bad Wishers” a childless woman is punished for wishing to have a strong boy and a girl with keen eyes when she gives birth to a blind, strong boy and a crippled, far-sighted girl. In “The Tale of the Lazy People” a tribe is overrun by magical carved wooden figures with long tails who do their work for them, and who eventually become monkeys who spend the rest of their existence laughing at mankind. In “A Tale of Three Tails”, the rat, the deer and the rabbit lose the beautiful long plumed tails they originally had for acts of treachery. It’s interesting, isn’t it, that in the creation myths humankind has invented over the past millenniums physical characteristics and laws of nature are so often set as they are for punishment? Not only do we humans need reasons for why things are the way they are, we also seem to be wired with the need to believe the reasons are just.
I suppose the Tales from Silver Lands are the kind of stories that a group of well-meaning librarians thought would teach children the value of love and loyalty, bravery, hard work, and kindness, but instead they impress me more as a pill of questionable medicinal value in some very inferior jam. I’m sceptical that such overtly moralistic fiction has ever improved anyone’s character – at least, I question if it does more for the development of character and virtue than non-preachy fiction. And certainly there is little that is character-building about equating beauty with virtue and worth and making ugliness synonymous with evil, which these stories, like most folk and fairy tales, also continually do.
Perhaps Charles Finger simply didn’t manage to carry off the transposition of these stories from oral tellings to the written form. Stories that would probably be quite entertaining when told by one of Finger’s picturesquely described cigar-smoking old ladies at a communal fireside won’t play as well when dutifully typed word for word on paper. Folktales that have been told verbally for a century or more have a certain economy of language; they employ broad sweeping descriptions rather than fine detail, and rely on crowd-pleasing action and fast moving plots to give interest. There are limits to the human memory, and also to the time allowed before one’s audience wants the storyteller to wrap it up so they can go to bed. Literature, on the other hand, is for a different kind of audience, one that is putting a more concerted effort and time into the story and therefore expects more from it, such as the more contemplative pleasures of character development, inner conflict, and complexity of theme.
I wondered too if there might be some sort of cultural divide, and if Charles Finger should have also provided more societal context for his stories in order to make them more intelligible to North American readers, but I think not, despite Finger's cringeworthy references to the "worthy and simple people" he met in his travels (people are never simple to anyone but a condescending ass). After all, I have a Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm in one of my bookcases and have never read more than a third of its 727 pages for much the same reasons. These are elemental stories of the human experience and can be understood by anyone from any culture. And that’s a good thing. But they are also too elemental and simplistic to be interesting or to capture and engage the imagination, and this is not a good thing.