Oral Traditions and Modern Adaptations:
Survey of Appalachian Folktales in Children's Literature
Tina L. Hanlon
was originally presented at the Appalachian Studies Association Conference,
March 26, 2000, in one of two sessions surveying Appalachian children's
literature, sponsored by the project Teaching Appalachian Literature
(see About AppLit
page). This project was sponsored by a Cheatham Fellowship from Ferrum
College (where Tina Hanlon is Associate Professor of English)
and an Education Focus Grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.
AppLit papers developed for this project include "'Miz
Jackson was just talking outta her head, girl': A Survey of
Realism in Appalachian Picture Books," by Judy A. Teaford;
"A Greater Fairness:
May Justus as Popular Educator" by George Loveland; and "Sociological
Threads Within the Quilt of Appalachian Children’s Literature:
A Survey of Historical Fiction," by Susan V. Mead. Most links
within this article are to AppLit pages that give additional information
on particular tales or traditions.
This is a survey of Appalachian folktales in books, films and dramatic
adaptations for children and families. It analyzes modern methods
of adapting tales from oral traditions, including treatment of gender
roles and regional language. Connections with earlier European, Native
American, and African folktale traditions are discussed. Different
styles of illustrating and dramatizing folktales are compared. Links
on names are to AppLit pages that give additional details about these
tales and storytellers, including complete citations. AppLit was not
yet online at the time this paper was written, and AppLit's folktale
pages now list many more tales not mentioned here. In
some cases, complete texts of tales discussed are available in AppLit. Additional adaptations and novels that incorporate folktales in innovative ways have been published since this paper was written. See Folklore Themes in Longer Appalachian Fiction.
half of the essay discusses Appalachian folktales in relation to the
oral tradition, popular culture and education, literary studies, Appalachian
studies, and the margins between children's and adult literature.
The second half of the essay presents examples of the following contemporary
approaches to transmission and adaptation of folktales:
- Faithful retelling
of old tales
- Finding and reprinting
old tales that have been neglected by mainstream society but appeal
to modern values
- Making subtle changes
in well-known traditional tales
- Transplanting folktales
from one region or culture to another
- Combining motifs from
traditional tales in new stories
- Satirizing traditional
- Incorporating folktales
into longer works of literature in new ways
Folktales as Children's Literature
the theme of the 2000 Appalachian Studies Association Conference emphasized
regional stewardship for the millennium and integration, I discussed
some of the ways Appalachian folktales in contemporary children's
literature integrate, or cross the boundaries of, a number of cultural
developments, social concerns, and genres of folklore and literature.
Our "stewardship" of the folktales we share with children
is especially important because we want children to know the history
and experience the cultural traditions, both oral and written, of
Appalachia and other regional and ethnic groups throughout the country
and the world. Folk revivals and movements promoting multiculturalism
and diversity in the late twentieth century have helped in this cause.
Yet Appalachian people, Native Americans, and other previously marginalized
and maligned groups do not want their culture to be defined by outdated
stereotypes prevalent in mainstream popular culture throughout the
twentieth century, including idealized, oversimplified, or "childish"
images associated with rural folklore and quaint traditions of the
past. Although Appalachian folktales are usually set in the pasteither
the vague distant past of "once upon a time" or "way
back yonder" (Still), or specific historical settingsrecent
adaptations encompass a wide variety of places, times, artistic forms,
modern technologies, and ethnic traditions. And folktales are never
as simple as they seem on the surface. Over the past millennium folktales
were brought to the Appalachian mountains by Native Americans and
then Europeans and Africans, and the stories of Asian and Hispanic
immigrants will probably get more attention in the future. Thus folktales
portray diversity within the region and link it with larger traditions
of world folklore and literature.
folktales integrate the realms of oral traditions and formal literature,
possibly more than any other artistic or rhetorical form. Our society
has been so literate since before the twentieth century that many
modern readers forget that language and storytelling were originally
and are primarily oral, that writing is a relatively new invention
used with a small minority of the world's languages, and that all
literature is linked with oral traditions of the ancient past. We
are all born illiterate, so the development of each individual, as
well as the history of world literature, remains tied to oral and
visual experiences with stories, rhymes, pictures, and songsthe
language and folklore of our families and communities. It wasn't until
I started studying children's literature in 1993 that I was reminded
of some of these important and fascinating realities. By the strictest
definition the term "folktale" applies only to a story being
told and heard through a natural oral tradition. Yet most of us in
this literate, multimedia society encounter folktales in writing or
other fixed modern forms such as films. The storytelling revival that
has grown since the 1960s has inspired not only the work and pastimes
of many professional and amateur storytellers who carry on the oral
tradition, but an explosion in the production of folktale retellings
and adaptations in books, films and drama.
prejudice prevalent in twentieth-century education and scholarship
is the idea that truly educational and enriching literature is produced
with words on a page, not through outdated traditions such as rural
storytelling or through new-fangled inventions such as film, television
and computers. Luckily, many late-twentieth-century cultural developments
have worked against these prejudices, including the coming of age
and growing prestige of scholarly research in folklore, popular culture,
Appalachian Studies, and children's literature. The wonders of modern
technology give us access to the voices and faces of talented storytellers
through audio and video recordings, and modern cinematic and electronic
media have been producing interesting adaptations of folktales for
decades. Drama, long considered a major genre of literature, is still
largely ignored in studies of children's literature. Yet plays, movies,
picture books and computer programs are audio-visual methods of passing
on literature; they supplementbut don't replacethe ancient
audio-visual traditions of people watching and hearing each other
tell stories. At least I think it's more fun and productive to view
them that way rather than condemning them, and to help children critique
and enjoy stories through all these media, rather than decrying the
detrimental effects of modern technology and the alleged decline in
verbal and cultural literacy among children.
to being adapted in a variety of contemporary media, folktales are
linked with many other oral and literary forms, including nursery
rhymes, jokes and riddles, ballads, folk songs, legends, romances,
and myths. For my classes I developed diagrams
of overlapping circles to show that many forms from oral traditions
are interrelated, and the labeling of specific examples can vary.
There are many types of folktales that are frequently adapted for
childrensome more closely related to mythology or to written
literary traditions than otherssuch as trickster tales, animal
tales, wonder tales, noodlehead stories, tall tales, ghost stories,
and pourquoi tales that explain the phenomena of nature. These types
are blended within many of the well-known Jack Tales, which focus on a young
descendant of European folk heroes such as Jack
the Giant Killer. Barry Moser's 1992 picture book Polly
Vaughn, a prose adaptation of an old ballad, contains
some very contemporary details and illustrations, but it continues
the tradition in which many ancient stories have been passed down
in both verse and proseas ballads and folktales. John
Henry, the African American steel driver who competed
with a steam drill when railroads were being built through the mountains
in the nineteenth century, is a prominent Appalachian example of a
folk hero known through prose tales and songs. As Tracy Roberts discussed
at this conference in 1999, his story is reprinted in both forms in
a number of recent children's books, sometimes with a musical score
provided . He is both a legendary
figure, associated with real places and historical events, and a tall
tale hero born with superhuman abilities. Some folk songs look very
much like folktales in Appalachian picture book adaptations that combine
prose introductions with song lyrics and illustrations, such as such
as Billy Boy by Richard
Chase and Glen Rounds (1966), and She'll
Be Comin' Round the Mountain by
Tom and Debbie Holsclaw Birdseye (1994). The Birdseyes,
whose family always wondered who came round that mountain,
added some prose narrative about the Sweet clan anticipating a visit
from their "dear friend, Tootie."
it is difficult to decide exactly which stories to include and exclude
when surveying folktales, it can be hard to decide which books, films,
and dramas to label as children's literature. Folktales have integrated
the experiences of children and adults since ancient times, and I
think this tradition has remained stronger within Appalachia than
in other, mainstream cultures .
By the late twentieth century, the annual festival in Jonesborough,
Tennessee became a center of an American storytelling revival, but
the oral tradition had not waned in many other Appalachian communities.
There are numerous modern folktales in collections published for adults,
and they are often worth sharing with children, but generally in the
realms of literature and popular culture, folk and fairy tales had
been relegated to the nursery by the twentieth century, and they continue
to be ignored or spurned by most modern adults except when reading
bedtime stories to children. Judy Teaford and I have argued many times
that older kids and adults who think picture books are for babies
are missing out on an exciting part of their cultural heritage, and
we use them in our college courses.
Appalachian books, plays and films contain background notes, narrators
or frame stories acknowledging the oral sources of stories as they
were passed down through generations from adults to children during
everyday routines of working and relaxing together. In Richard
Chase's Grandfather Tales, a frame story depicts
old, middle-aged, and young neighbors who take turns telling tales
and listening. This book and Chase's 1943 Jack Tales, which
have remained among the most popular collections of folktales in America,
are dedicated to both old and young storytellers and readers. The
assumption is that audiences of all ages enjoy stories about people
of all ages, that both child and adult characters can be foolish,
wise or heroic in different situations. In southwestern Virginia,
performances by the Ferrum College Jack
Tale Players have been very popular in retirement homes
as well as schools since 1975, and Lime
Kiln Theater's folktale dramatizations also attract family
audiences. As filmmaker Tom Davenport developed his methods of adapting
fairy tales in Appalachian settings from the 1970s to the 1990s, he
became most interested in reaching what he calls "the under-served
audience of preteen and adolescent girls and their families."
Although the folktales I've studied contain a few child characters,
and a multitude of extended families, they most often focus on young
adults exploring the boundaries between childhood and adult life,
finding their way in the world beyond their family homes. Nina Mikkelsen's
analysis of Chase's Jack Tales as a "touchstone" in the
mainstream canon of children's literature, so designated by the Children's
Literature Association in the 1980s, notes the important American
symbolism in Jack tales that depicts "the emergent adolescent
[. . .], the trickster using initiative to gain his ends, and the
road as passage to opportunity" ( Richard Chases
Jack Tales" 45).
this integration of audiences and characters of different ages also
produces stories that blend entertainment and education more easily
than many other types of children's and young adult literature. Since
children's books became a tool for religious indoctrination among
seventeenth-century Puritans and a lucrative and popular mass market
commodity in eighteenth-century England, debates have raged about
whether they should focus on innocence or experience, on instruction
or delight. Adapted folktales have been made more overtly didactic,
less violent, more realistic, more sentimental, or more satiricand
at times they are condemned outright as harmful for childrenaccording
to the ideologies of different groups of adults. Although Appalachian
storytellers often mention the importance of teaching children, and
some adaptations seem to be trying too hard to instruct us in the
good old folkways of the past, most tales simply demonstrate that
learning about life is a lifelong process: we succeed or fail depending
on our responses to adult instruction; to communal rituals such as
sharing stories, work and meals; to direct experience with good and
evil forces in the world; and to the impulses of our individual personalities.
Folktales are generally more realistic and more relevant to ordinary
human experience than myths and other heroic and sacred stories of
the world because folk heroes are not always as smart, hard-working,
charismatic, or lucky as they should be, but they usually get lucky
or figure out how to overcome danger and adversity. In "Jack
and the Northwest Wind," the first tale in Gail
Haley's collection Mountain Jack Tales, it takes three frustrating
trips for Jack to learn that it's foolish to go after the winter wind
to stop it from blowing so cold, and it's important to follow the
advice of a wise old man and not trust the tricksters who steal the
magic rewards Jack earns by helping the old man. When he finally learns
to use the magic objects to punish the tricksters, Jack improves the
future of his own family and the community by recovering his property
and making them promise not to steal from other travelers.
or Turtle learns comparable lessons in Cherokee tales told in Appalachia.
In Susan Roth's 1988 picture book Kanahena,
Possum shows Terrapin that it is possible to trick Bad Wolf into choking
on the persimmons he steals, but Terrapin goes too far by taking Bad
Wolf's ears to use for spoons as he eats kanahena, or cornmeal mush,
with friends. When other wolves try to drown Terrapin he tricks them
into throwing him in the water where he knows he can save himself,
but in the process his shell is cracked permanently. In twenty-four
pages containing a spare inner narrative and collage illustrations,
the little Cherokee girl in the brief frame story learns from her
grandmother about complex interactions of good and bad, natural and
examples also show that Appalachian folktales integrate fantasy and
reality. This combination is the key to their fascination and endurance.
There are realistic folktales about human fears and foibles, joys
and triumphs, but most stories from the oral traditions of the world
convey universal truths about the world and human experience through
fantastic plots and flat characters who are helped or hindered by
magic or supernatural forces. The reality that humans can thrive even
though they can't "go messing 'round with the natural seasons,"
as Haley writes (Mountain
Jack Tales 19), or that turtles have shells that
look cracked, is combined with magic such as hens that lay golden
eggs, and talking animals who eat a traditional human dish for which
a recipe is given at the end of Roth's book. Folktales are linked
to each other by timeless themes, recurring motifs, and symbolic details
that are subject to infinite varieties of interpretation, yet they
also reflect realities of the time and place in which they are told.
They are used by contemporary historians and Marxist critics to analyze
the lifestyles, values, and beliefs of the folk within particular
communities, although changes in transplanted folklore do not always
occur consistently or accurately. For example, the Ferrum Jack
Tale Players make jokes about kings and queens appearing
in Virginia in some of the tales.
tricky business for adapters of Appalachian folklore to maintain the
best balance between the real and the unreal. Some, such as James
Still, Joanne and Kenn Compton, and the Jack Tale Players, like to
use specific place names from their own home territory in their picture
books and dramas. Without culturally specific details of setting and
language, there would be no Appalachian folktales. "Jack and
the Wonder Beans" or "Jack
and the Bean Tree" would be no different from European
Jack and the Beanstalk tales. The hero of the Appalachian "Mutsmag"
or "Muncimeg" would be indistinguishable from her English
and Scottish cousins, Molly Whuppie. "The
Terrapin's Escape from the Wolves," the Cherokee
source of Roth's Kanahéna, would be like countless
other pourquoi tales of the world about why turtles have cracked shells.
On the other hand, flat characters, comic exaggeration of foolish
behavior, use of dialect features, and other specific details can
feed into negative regional stereotypes if the adapters and their
audiences are not careful about how they use or interpret culturally
specific elements. Judy Teaford's thesis on Appalachian picture books
discusses many details in those that perpetuate stereotypes of illiteracy,
ignorance and squalor, such as some of Glen Rounds' books ,
but she highlights even more examples that convey accurate, positive
images of regional food, clothing, customs, and so on, in books such
as Gail Haley's Jack and the Bean Tree and Teri
Sloat's Sody Sallyratus.
there are so many adaptations of Appalachian folktales in different
media, the diversity of styles, approaches, and interpretations they
reflect works against tendencies to stereotype stories and people
from the same region. Ashpet,
an Appalachian Cinderella character found in Chase's Grandfather
Tales, looks quite different in the Comptons' 1994 picture book,
in Tom Davenport's 1990 film set during World War II, and in Rex Stephenson's
adaptation for the Jack
Tale Players. Davenport's 11 films all have specific
historical settings with authentic costumes, songs and other details,
while the Jack Tale Players use very simple sets, props, and costumesmainly
wearing bluejeans and checked shirts that might be worn by any twentieth-century
storyteller . It's also interesting
to compare the dragaman who lives underground in Chase's Jack
Tales, drawn by illustrator Berkeley Williams, Jr. as a giant
mountain man blowing lots of smoke out of his big pipe, with Gail
Haley's colorful linocut illustrations in Jack
and the Fire Dragon, where Fire Dragaman transforms
from a semi-human pipe-smoking cave dweller into a "slinky, scaly
fire-breathing dragon." The scary story Tailypo
is retold in picture books with both white and African American characters
living in Tennessee. Joanna and Paul Galdone, in a picture book popular
since 1977, depict a white Tennessee man scared by a furry creature,
while Jan Wahl and Wil Clay created a 1991 picture book called in
which an African-American man experiences the same terrors.
thing about the astronomical growth of the children's book publishing
industry in recent decades is that seeing multiple adaptations based
on the same or related folktales, with different styles of language
and illustration, helps us appreciate the diversity of folktales within
the region and their links with many stories from other cultures.
Metaphors such as a pot of soup or cauldron, a quilt or tapestry,
a giant clothing swap, and a web have been used to represent the body
of interwoven tales from the oral traditions of the world .
One stereotype that is now being disputed is that Appalachians have
preserved old folkways so well because of their isolation, yet almost
any folktale can lead you to a multitude of stories that keep changing
through time and moving around the world. For example, I have compared
Richard Chase's "Whitebear
Whittington" (in Grandfather Tales)
with William H. Hooks' romantic picture book Snowbear Whittington,
Kiln Theater's amusing dramatization of the same tale,
using the alternate title "Three Drops of Blood," and with
numerous variations in books and films of the Scandinavian folktale
"East of the Sun, West of the Moon," as well as many other
European Beauty and the Beast stories and the Greek myth "Cupid
and Psyche" (Hanlon, "Strong Women in Appalachian Folktales").
In "Universal Themes in Appalachian Children's Literature,"
Roberta Herrin gives examples and activities that are "designed
to encourage diversity and to eliminate not only the barrier between
home and school, but the perceived (and I believe mythical) barrier
between Appalachia and 'the rest of the world,' between Appalachian
children's literature and the canon of children's literature"
notes in books based on tales from oral traditions also help readers
appreciate change, depth and diversity in any culture's folk traditions.
Betsy Hearne has discussed the ethics and benefits of acknowledging
sources, especially for those writing outside their own culture and
borrowing from minority cultures, and the benefits of providing detailed
background notes that contextualize the culturally specific details
within particular stories. In a recent article she states, "The
flexible symbolism of folktales makes them culturally adaptable, and
they become our own. When a story fits, we wear it. Is this thievery?
Without that jumbo clothes swap, we'd be naked, but we still like
to call our clothes our own." In Appalachia, as elsewhere, most
recent folktale books give some source notes, but many are still quite
sketchy and some give almost no indication of the story's origin.
Two paragraphs in Snowbear Whittington acknowledge the richness
of Appalachian storytelling and the author's direct encounters with
several oral versions, but Hooks' very brief mention of "Beauty
and the Beast" as the origin of the story makes me sorry that
many readers who don't already know "East of the Sun,West of
the Moon," which has been reprinted so often in recent years,
may not learn of the Appalachian tale's closer connections with that
tale about a heroic wife's struggles to save her enchanted husband.
Davenport, on the other hand, provides a wealth of background
material on the folkloric, literary, and cinematic origins of his
fairy tale films, through books, teaching guides, television appearances,
and web sites.
Contemporary Approaches to Transmission and Adaptation
preparing this paper, I thought about how the Appalachian folktales
I've studied measure up in relation to a list I had compiled earlier
for teaching about contemporary approaches to folk and fairy tales.
The first method on my list, faithful retelling of old tales, is well
represented by many recent or living storytellers such as Ray
Hicks, his cousin Orville Hicks, Anndrena Belcher, Billy
Edd Wheeler, Donald Davis, and Jackie Torrence. Although their performances
appeal to all ages, their audio and video recordings often target
child audiences . Rex Stephenson
usually creates dramatic adaptations, but recent issues of ALCA-Lines
contain his written versions of "Jack
and his Lump of Silver" and "Jack
and the King's Girl," giving us the tales directly
from the oral tradition. The first tale was told to him by Raymond
Sloan in the 1980s, and he wrote the second after a man told it to
him in a Veterans Administration hospital in Louisville, Kentucky.
There are many other tales in living memory and in archived transcripts
that are waiting to be retold or published, such as the James Taylor
Adams Collection of hundreds of unpublished folktale transcripts collected
for the WPA, now in the Blue Ridge Institute archives .
Louise Anderson, a wonderful African-American storyteller, played
a wise woman in the fairy godmother role in Davenport's Ashpet film (and he also made
a film about her life). Her role in Ashpet of preserving
and passing on stories and matriarchal strength, along with many other
aspects of Davenport's films, represents the second and third trends
on my list, which involve revising the "canon" of popular
folk and fairy tales, by searching out old tales that were neglected
by mainstream society in recent centuries but appeal to modern values,
and by making subtle changes in well-known traditional tales. The
German Ashputtle and Appalachian Ashpet are lesser known cousins of
the more famous and glitzy French and Disney Cinderellas, and Davenport's
film contains many modern details that enhance Ashpet's self-reliance
women in Appalachian folktales are often spunkier and more independent
and heroic than their counterparts in European folktales that are
so often reprinted in recent feminist anthologies.
That is just as truesometimes more truein Chase's collections
from the 1940s as it is in newer adaptations that incorporate specific
revisions to highlight the strengths of female characters or reflect
other modern values. I think Mutsmag
is more heroic in Chase's version (which has been retold in wonderful
adaptations by Tom Davenport and Rex Stephenson), than in Haley's
"Muncimeg and the Giant," even though Haley includes statements
about women doing as well as men and about Muncimeg being smart and
benevolent as well as pretty (Mountain Jack Tales). Although
there are controversies among folklorists about Chase's methods of
collecting and publishing the tales, he, like the Grimm Brothers,
who have been subjected to the same scrutiny, did record many of his
sources and changes he made himself in writing his tales for American
readers. People tend to distrust or even condemn adaptations that
change what they perceive to be the original taleor at least
the version they grew up with (and of course some adaptations work
better than others), but in reality there is no original version of
most tales from oral traditions. Every tale changes every time it
is told orally, so using modern values or technologies to make the
tales reflect one's own personality or society is not necessarily
a violation of folktales traditions. It's logical for Moser's 1992
Vaughn to contain themes that criticize hunting
and gender stereotypes in ways that older versions of the ballad would
not, while others might interpret and retell the tragic story of Polly's
accidental death in the woods differently.
the examples I've mentioned so far suggest, Appalachia in general
as well as particular ethnic minorities and women within Appalachia
are represented by a wonderful array of recent books, films, and dramas
that are helping to make the traditional folktales of these groups
familiar to a wider audience in and out of the region. My graduate
students in the Hollins University Summer Graduate Program in Children's
Literature, who came from many other states and two other continents,
were especially fascinated by the Appalachian tales we studied in
one segment of my 1998 course. The fourth type of story we examined
was folktales transplanted from one culture to another. Davenport
began filming tales from the Grimm Brothers in Appalachia when he
realized his rural Virginia surroundings provided appropriate settings
for low-budget fairy tale films, and then later used tales that already
existed in Appalachia. He adapted Chase's "Jack
and the Dentist's Daughter" with an African American
cast because he thought the humorous plot fit well into the trickster
tradition in African American folklore. As I discussed at this conference
in 1998, Barry Moser's trilogy of picture books based on European
folklore, The Tinderbox, Polly
Vaughn, and Tucker
Pfeffercorn, fulfilled his dream of providing more
fairy tales with settings based on the mountain landscapes of his
native Tennessee. I think Tucker Pfeffercorn is a brilliant
feminist adaptation of "Rumpelstiltskin," with a coal miner's
widow being oppressed by a ruthless coal boss rather than a greedy
king . Becky Mushko transplanted
the same tale to the Blue Ridge landscape of her native southwestern
Virginia, rhythmically weaving details such as local plants and animals
through her story called "Ferradiddledumday."
Another interesting example of "transplantation" is The
Tale of Willie Monroe, a 1999 picture book in which
Alan Schroeder adapted the Japanese tale of three strong women as
an Appalachian tall tale about a gullible strong man and two much
stronger and cleverer women.
trend on my list of contemporary approaches to folktales is writing
original stories that combine motifs from traditional tales, as writers
of literary fairy tales from Hans Christian Andersen to Jane Yolen
have done. Rex Stephenson's "Mutsmag"
Three Old Women's Bet" aren't new stories, but they
combine motifs from different sources more than he had done in earlier
dramatic adaptations .
Out Jack! The Giant is Back! by Tom Birdseye
and Will Hillenbrand, is written as a sequel to "Jack and the
Beanstalk," with wacky humor about smelly feet and a gluttonous
giant eating piles of Southern food. In Anne Isaacs' award-winning
1994 picture book
Angel, with Paul O. Zelinsky's innovative illustrations
painted on wood, a new tall
tale heroine stars in a story with a pourquoi tale ending.
As gigantic and powerful as Paul Bunyan or Pecos Bill, incredible
Angelica Longrider becomes "the greatest woodswoman in Tennessee,"
wrestling with a monstrous bear so long that they stir up enough dust
to create the Smoky Mountains. Coyote
Sings to the Moon, by Cherokee author Thomas King,
combines traditional Cherokee motifs with modern details; this new
picture book tale has some resemblance to Euro-American tales about
foolish behavior such as "The
Three Sillies," as well as older Native American
tales with animal tricksters who get themselves into trouble through
vain and impulsive behavior.
there is an abundance of humor in these stories and most Appalachian
tales, new or old, the sixth category on my list is not well represented
in Appalachian children's literature. That is parodies of traditional
tales, or "fractured fairy tales." Satiric tales for children,
such as the zany Stinky Cheese Man and other books by Jon
Scieszka and Lane Smith, have become increasingly popular in the past
few decades, but they tend to parody the outdated themes and unrealistic
events or characters of more generic and mainstream old fairy tales
rather than folktales associated with specific regions or minority
groups. It's hard to say how much of the rich tradition of humor in
Appalachian folklore comes from conscious satirizing of older lore,
but many tales poke fun at the foolish behavior of mountain people
as well as outsiders . In the
comical picture book Rocks
in My Pocket by Marc Harshman, Bonnie Collins,
and illustrator Toni Goffe, the tourists, who insist
on buying shiny rocks that are quite useless in their homes, are much
more silly than the happy mountain family using the rocks in practical
ways. Rick Carson's audio recording of "Wicked
John and the Devil" depicts the second devil's child
as Elvis, with allusions to famous Elvis Presley lyrics. In dramatizations
of the same tale, Stephenson's Jack Tale Players twist a motif at
the end of the old tale to make fun of school teachers or camp counselors
(whoever is in the audience). They also make the audience laugh in
performances of "Ashpet"
by approaching the feet of audience members with jokes about the awkward
and smelly business of trying a shoe on lots of girls as the prince
searches for Ashpet, satirizing one of the old motifs of Cinderella
tales. Stephenson added a number of farcical details to "Mutsmag"
as the heroine learns to stand up to her mean sisters and they are
threatened by several kinds of dangers (including a dumb "democratic
one-eyed gang"), while Davenport's film Mutzmag emphasizes
the gothic horror of the dangers and the quiet heroism of Mutzmag
without so much humor, yet both are excellent adaptations. There are
ancient versions of "Molly Whuppie" and "Mutsmag"
in which the heroine goes off alone with her reward, so these modern
retellers do not have to fracture or satirize the traditional plot
to spare the heroine the stereotypical fate of being married off to
a prince. Thus some Appalachian retellers and adapters play up humorous
elements more than others, or add some modern jokes, but they don't
subvert the structure or themes of the tales as thoroughly as many
postmodern adaptations of fairy tales do.
innovations in modern fairy tale adaptations blend motifs from traditional
tales with experiments in form and point of view. Jeannie Thomas argues
in Southern Folklore that folklore scholars and postmodern
literary critics should recognize the common ground in their theories
and the ways they could help each other better understand phenomena
such as the instability of texts and their reliance on tradition.
I think some techniques and theories that have new names in postmodern
theory and experimental literature have occurred in past storytelling
traditions, such as metafiction, intertextuality, and the use of stories
within stories. Since the mid-twentieth century there have been many
realistic chapter books for young readers, novels and films that contain
retellings of old folktales, as well as picture books and folktale
collections with realistic frame stories. In Laurence Yep's young
adult novel The
Star Fisher, a teenage protagonist tells her sister
an Asian folktale that helps in her search for her own identity as
a Chinese immigrant who has moved to West Virginia. Fair
and Tender Ladies by Lee Smith is an adults' novel
but it depicts in detail the childhood of mountain woman Ivy Rowe,
showing that folktales about strong men and women she hears as a child
influence her throughout life, until she thinks about the wild bear-man
Whittington at the hour of her death. George Ella Lyon
used elements of the same traditional transformation tale to develop
a mysterious story line in a parallel world that intersects the realistic
contemporary plot in her young adult novel Gina.
Jamie. Father. Bear. In The
Magical Adventures of Pretty Pearl, Virginia Hamilton
blended traditional African American folk heroes and Appalachian history
within a fantastical plot for young adults about persecution and migration
in the post-Civil War Southern mountains. Davenport's last and longest
fairy tale film, Willa:
An American Snow White, is one of the best examples
of innovation in adapting a folktale from Europe and Appalachia, blending
real Virginia settings, historically accurate elements of American
popular culture, and allusions to a number of other sources, from
Shakespeare to Dickens to classic movies about young heroes or heroines
and jealous older women, such as Sunset Boulevard and Rebecca
the Snow White character lives for a while with three men in a traveling
rural medicine show in 1911, instead of seven dwarfs. She helps them
raise the level of the entertainment they provide and their ethical
standards. When she leaves with a young filmmaker headed for California
instead of a prince, one of the group of men says, "You've gladdened
our hearts, Willa, and we're the better for it." If you read
and listen to Appalachian folktales and share them with children you
know, they will gladden your heart, and you'll be better for it.
original version, this conference presentation closed with a video
clip from the end of a performance by the Jack Tale Players. The scene
in which Rex Stephenson, the writer and director, is playing the dumb
robber in "Jack
and the Robbers" shows how Stephenson's method of
combines an ensemble dramatization with the basic oral tradition of
one narrator telling a story to an audience. If you know the German
tale "The Bremen Town Musicians," you will recognize the
ending of this Appalachian variant, a Jack tale that blends elements
of the trickster tale, ghost story, and animal tale (also available
in the published script The Jack Tales). Jack and his animal
friends outwit the robbers but he also learns that he should go home,
obey his mother, and work hard in the end.
See, for example, Cohn 152-53. For other versions of John Henry legends,
of a Minority Legend by Tracy L. Roberts and John
Henry in AppLit's Annotated Index of Appalachian Folktales.
See AppLit's "General
Guidelines for Teaching with Folktales Fables, Ballads, and Other
Short Works of Folklore."
See, for example, The Old Woman and the Willy Nilly Man by
Wright and Rounds. Betsy Hearne observes that humor is one of the
touchiest elements to translate across cultural boundaries, asking,
How do we draw a line between humor that stereotypes a culture
and humor that engages it? (520).
I developed these ideas about differing interpretations of Appalachian
folk characters and motifs by comparing visual images of Jack in a
number of recent picture books, for a 2001 conference paper, "'Voices
and Visions': Appalachian Folktales in Oral Storytelling and Picture
Books." Material from this project will appear in AppLit later.
See, for example, Herrin and Hearne. Herrin wrote of the diverse storytellers
of the South, Their stories represent the precise amalgam of
history, folk pattern, fantasy, biography, and realism that is the
foundation of human tolerance, as we recognize the kinship of
characters from different oral traditions such as Jack, Brer Rabbit
and Turtle (Southern Pot of Soup).
See AppLit's bibliography Appalachian
Folktales in Film, Drama, and Storytelling Recordings. Jackie
Torrence is an African American storyteller from east of the Appalachian
mountains in North Carolina, but she was influenced by hearing Chase's
Jack Tales read to her, and often retells mountain tales.
Stephenson's two tales are now reprinted in AppLit's Fiction
and Poems section, along with a number of tales from the James
Taylor Adams Collection.
Kay Stone develops similar ideas about American and Appalachian tales
in "Things Walt Disney Never Told Us," as Nina Mikkelsen
does in "Strange Pilgrimages: Cinderella Was a Trickster."
Moser says he originally wanted to make the heroine a slave on a Southern
plantation, but took the advice of friends who thought it would be
too difficult to find a publisher (Remarks).
See Hanlon, "Strong Women in Appalachian Folktale Dramatizations."
The more obvious parody of earlier lore in rhymes such as those in
Appalachian Mother Goose by James Still shows that children's
folk rhymes are often satiric. For example, the "baked bird"
in "Sing a song of sixpence" wonders pragmatically, "Why
didn't we up and fly?" (5).
For more examples and details, see Hanlon, Magic and Reality,"
"Once Upon a Time in Appalachia," and especially "Popular
Culture and Intertextuality" on Willa, as well as "Folktales
in Appalachian Fiction" and "'It Was Sad, But It Was Good'"
citations for folktale and literature sources not listed below are
at the links on titles and storytellers' names in the article above.
David. "The Making of Willa: An American Snow
White." Interview with Tom Davenport. Press Release on Willa
. Delaplane, VA: Davenport Films, 1998.
Amy L., ed. From Sea to Shining Sea: A Treasury of American
Folklore and Folk Songs. New York: Scholastic,1993.
Films. Delaplane, VA. Accessed 27 Sept. 2003. http://www.davenportfilms.com.
Tina L. "Diagrams
of Types of Folk Literature." AppLit. 9 Sept. 2002.
in Appalachian Fiction for Children and Young Adults." Appalachian
Studies Association Conference. Richmond, KY. 30 Mar. 2003. (abstract
at this link)
Guidelines for Teaching with Folktales Fables, Ballads, and Other
Short Works of Folklore." AppLit. May 2000. Ferrum
Was Sad, But It Was Good': Appalachian Folklore and History in Stories
by Virginia Hamilton." Children's Literature Association Conference.
El Paso, Texas. 7 June 2003.
and Reality in Tom Davenports Fairy Tale Films. Biennial
Conference on Modern Critical Approaches to Childrens Literature.
Nashville. Mar. 1999.
Upon a Time in Appalachia: Tom Davenports Fairy Tale Films.
Virginia Humanities Conference. Ferrum College. Apr. 1998. (Abstract
at this link)
Culture and Intertextuality in Willa: An American Snow White.
Popular Culture in the South Conference. Roanoke, VA. 7 Oct. 1999.
Women in Appalachian Folktale Dramatizations by R. Rex Stephenson."
AppLit. 2001-2003. Ferrum College.
Women in Appalachian Folktales." The Lion & the Unicorn
24 (April 2000): 225-46. (Available online at this link
through Project Muse)
and Visions': Appalachian Folktales in Oral Storytelling and
Picture Books." Children's Literature Association Conference.
Buffalo, June 2001.
Betsy. Swapping Tales and Stealing Stories: The Ethics and Aesthetics
of Folklore in Childrens Literature. Library Trends
47 (Winter 1999): 509-28.
Roberta. Southern Pot of Soup. Southern Exposure
Summer 1996: 60-62.
Themes in Appalachian Childrens Literature. Education
in Appalachia: Proceedings from the 1987 Conference on Appalachia.
University of KY: The Appalachian Center.117-23.
Nina. Richard Chases Jack Tales: A Trickster in the New
World. Touchstones: Reflections on the Best in Childrens
Literature. Vol. 2: Fairy Tales, Fables Myths, Legends and Poetry.
Ed. Perry Nodelman. West Lafayette, IN: Childrens Literature
Association, 1987. 40-55.
Pilgrimages: Cinderella Was a Trickster—and Other Unorthodoxies
of American and African-American Heroic Folk Figures." A
Necessary Fantasy? The Heroic Figure in Children's Popular Culture.
Ed. Dudley Jones and Tony Watkins. Children's Literature and Culture
Series, vol. 18. New York: Garland, 2000, pp. 24-50.
Barry. Remarks. Children’s Literature Symposium: The Art of
the Children’s Book. Clemson University, October 12, 1996.
Tracy L. "Adaptations
of a Minority Legend: A Look at a Retelling of 'John Henry'."
AppLit. Ed. Tina L. Hanlon. 2002. Ferrum College.
Jon. The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales. Illus.
Lane Smith. New York: Scholastic, 1992.
James. Jack and the Wonder Beans. Illus. Margot Tomes.1977.
Rpt. Lexington, KY: Univ. Press of Kentucky, 1996.
Kay. "Things Walt Disney Never Told Us." The Journal
of American Folklore 88, no. 347, Women and Folklore (Jan. -
Mar. 1975): 42-50. (Available online through JSTOR)
Judy. Contemporary Appalachian Picture Books. M. A. Thesis.
Marshall U. Graduate College, 1998.
Jeannie. "Out of the Frying Pan
and Into the Postmodern: Folklore
and Contemporary Literary Theory.” Southern
Folklore 51.2 (1994): 107-20.
Jill. The Old Woman and the Willy Nilly Man. Illus Glen Rounds.
New York: Putnam, 1987. N. pag.
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Timeline of Appalachian Folktales
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Tina L. Hanlon
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