Wednesday, August 17, 2011

How Midas and his ass’s ears spread around the world

A couple of months ago I was puzzling over two stories about a king with animal ears and a barber who couldn't keep a secret. They were the ancient Greek tale of Midas with his ass’s ears, and the Irish tale of Lowry Lynch with his horse’s ears. I was musing on their similarity. Each king hid his shame with long hair, and each was betrayed by a magical plant, to which his barber had unburdened himself. In the ancient Greek version we have talking reeds. In the Irish version, the barber tells a tree, the tree is made into a harp, and the harp sings out the secret.

In this bronze wall fountain, from a 16th Century original,
the artist has imagined King Midas's hair too short to cover his asses ears.
So. Is the Irish story an adaptation of the Greek one, or do they both derive from a common source, I asked myself?

Well I've been to the Boole library at University College Cork to find the answer, but first let me digress to reveal that both stories are folktales of type 782.

Yes, type 782 no less.

Uther's Types of International Folktales
It’s all in a 3-volume book called The Types of International Folktales: A Classification and Bibliography by Hans-Jörg Uther, 2004. Hereinafter known as the yellow book. There's a broad category of folktale known as The Truth Comes To Light, and within that category, type 782 consists of tales about humans with animal ears or horns.

Cinderella, to anticipate your next question, comes in the category Tales of Magic, and is type 510A.

It seems this classification system is known as the Aarne-Thompson-Uther classification, and folklorists will say that the ATU number of tales about humans with animal ears is 782, and the ATU number of Cinderella tales is 510A.

Professor D. L. Ashliman seems to be big in the world of folklore and fairy tales. He lists on his website six instances of the tale about a king with animal ears and a barber. Starting with Midas, he includes Lowry Lynch, as well as stories from Wales, Serbia, India and the Philippines.

In the Welsh tale, the barber tells his story to the reeds, the reeds are made into a musical pipe, and the pipe sings out about the king’s ears. So that overlaps with Lowry Lynch (a plant is made into a musical instrument) and with Midas (talking reeds). In the Serbian version an elder tree is made into a flute. In the Philippine tale we have talking bamboo, and no musical instrument.

In three versions, the barber digs a hole in the ground and tells his story to the hole. Later a tree or reeds grow up on the spot. That’s how the reeds appear in the Midas story as told by the Roman poet Ovid; though in my telling of the story I have the barber telling the reeds just where they grow along the river bank, because that’s the way I remember it from school.

A hole occurs also in the Serbian version and the Philippine version. Which by the way, according to a note on Professor Ashliman’s website, is an adaptation of the classical story of Midas brought there by the Spaniards. (Disappointed? Read on it gets worse.)

The Indian tale is the only one of the six which doesn’t involve a plant; the Indian barber blurts his secret out to another person.

How are the stories related?

It turns out there are many more variants besides these. The yellow book lists 46 of them, from disparate languages, cultures and regions.

So back to the original question. Which now, with 46 variants, has become an even bigger question. How are all these stories related? How do we account for their worldwide distribution? I had rather hoped to discover that the tale had emerged spontaneously and independently in all these places, evidence for the existence of a Jungian archetype buried deep within the human psyche, involving shameful ears, a barber, and magic talking reeds. Failing that, I had hoped to find evidence of an oral tradition and a common human culture that was widespread long before the emergence of writing.

But no. The yellow book, having listed all the 46 variants, tersely informs us under remarks: “Classical origin, Ovid Metamorphoses (XI, 174-193)”. Ovid's version is very spare, as you can see from this translation.

So that’s that.

Categories of tales

A comment about the yellow book and how folk tales are arranged in it. The top-level categories are these: Animal Tales, Tales of Magic, Religious Tales, Realistic Tales (Novelle) and Tales of the Stupid Ogre (or Giant or Devil).

Every tale ever told fits, it seems, in one of the categories on that list. Equally surprising, Midas comes under Religious Tales; the sub-categories of which are God Rewards and Punishes, The Truth Comes to Light, Heaven, The Devil, and Other Religious Tales.

Stith Thompson's Motif-Index of Folk-Literature
Midas comes in the sub-category The Truth Comes to Light. Other tales in this sub-category include The Singing Bone, where a brother (or sister) kills their sister (or brother) and buries the body. From the bones a shepherd makes a musical instrument of some sort which brings the secret to light. Or the murder is revealed by a speaking tree growing from the grave.

Note that here we encounter a motif we have seen before. A secret being given away by a musical instrument or by a tree.

These motifs have themselves been listed, in another book, twice the size of the yellow one. It’s called Motif-Index of Folk-Literature by Stith Thompson, 1956. It comes in 6 volumes, and is dull green. (I've since found an on-line version, and a search engine for it, but it's worth the bus fare to Cork just to handle the real thing.)

A speaking musical instrument is motif D1610.34. A speaking tree is motif D1610.2. (They both come under Magic.) Motif F511.2.2 is a person with ass’s or horse’s ears (that's listed under Marvels). Motif N465 is a secret physical peculiarity discovered by a barber (under Chance & Fate).

Any given tale can be built up around one, or several, of the thousands of motifs listed in this tome.

So now we know how folklorists occupy their time.

A romanticised view of oral tradition

A final point. Until I read the yellow book I had a romantic notion that oral traditions had existed unchanged for centuries, and are somehow more to be valued than literary sources. It seems that folktale scholars generally held this view up until the 1960's, but have now abandoned it. According to the introduction, literary texts by such as the 14th century story-tellers Giovanni Boccaccio and Geoffrey Chaucer, are a major source of folk tales. So it seems that tales can weave in and out of oral tradition. We now know that many so-called oral narratives can be traced back to works of literature, indeed have a rich literary history. The Midas story would appear to be an instance of this. Written down by Ovid (who, let us assume, received it as oral tradition) and then spread around the world in a variety of forms, some oral, some written.

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