Wednesday, January 7, 2015

The Old Alchemist: An Elder Tale

Photo of an alchemist's workshop by Curious Expeditions.
I love a good fairy tale. I was reminded of their depth and complexity when my children were small, and I scoured the local library for collections of fairy tales.  After all, literature is equipment for living.

Here is the first elder tale in a new series. See below to links for others.

"The Old Alchemist" An Elder Tale from Burma

There once lived an old man who had a beautiful daughter.  She married a handsome young man.  Life soon became difficult for the young couple because the husband spent his days trying to turn dirt into gold.  After the husband spending his inheritance, his young wife struggled to buy food.

Tearfully, she disclosed this problem to her father who exclaimed, "Ah, you don't know this, but I was an alchemist in my youth as well. As your husband to come talk with me."

Expecting to be scolded, the young husband went to visit his father-in-law.    Instead, the old man explained, "I spent much time trying to turn dirt into gold, and I almost accomplished it.  I only lacked one ingredient."

Photo by Fluffy_Steve2
The younger man asked, "What was it?"  The old man whispered, "I only needed two pounds of banana powder. If you can collect that, I can show you how to turn dirt into gold."

So the young husband asked his father-in-law for enough money to purchase a field.  The young alchemist raised banana trees, weeding the fields, removing bugs, and insuring the trees received water. Year after year, he harvested the silver powder from the banana leaves.

Finally, the young man's work paid off: he had two pounds of the magic ingredient.  With enthusiasm, he invited the old man to his home and showed him the banana powder.

"Father, will you now teach me how to turn dirt into gold?"

The old alchemist asked his son-in-law: "What did you do with all those bananas over the years?" The young man turned and asked his wife. She answered, "I took them to the market and sold them. Here are the earnings." And with that, she presented a sack of gold coins.

Her father took the sack and dumped them into the young man's hands. "See, you have turned the dirt of your banana field into gold!"

Source material: Chinen summarizes this in his book In the Ever After, drawing from E.Brockett's 1965 book Burmese and Thai Fairy Tales (London: Frederick Muller).  You can also find the tale retold at Stories to Grow ByLearning to GiveUnitarian Universalist Association and Recharging QiGong.  I retold this tale in my own words after reading all of these sources. 

Why Read and Relay Elder Tales? 

As an English-teacher-turned-gerontologist, I still see the value in fairy tales.  True, there may be more tales about people launching into the world from childhood. Nevertheless, there are a handful of tales where the protagonist is older. He or she has already settled down with a trade, a spouse and children.   Conflict is more about managing day-to-day life in home-and-work spaces rather pursuing wild adventures in distant lands.

Published in 2006
While reading Sally Thomason's 2006 book The Living Spirit of the CroneI was happy with her lengthy quotes from Dr. Allan B. Chinen's 1989 book In the Ever After: Fairy Tales and the Second Half of Life.  Intrigued by Chinen's Jungian analyses of fairy tales, I immediately got online and bought a copy of his book.  Merry Christmas to me!

Chinen is a Stanford-trained psychiatrist and frequent author on adult development and aging.  He searched through over 4,000 fairy tales to find 15 that employ characters in midlife or late life as the tale's protagonist.

He summarizes each in his own words--often blending several primary sources and at times expanding on a compressed version.  Then he conducts a psychological analysis, using contemporary psychological theory and drawing on his clinical practice.

I love his book.

Not only are the tales themselves rich with implications for mature readers, he offers insightful discussion for each tale. I've only read the introduction and the first four tales; however, I extremely pleased with what I'm finding. I usually read very quickly. However, I am taking his book more slowly so that I can savor each tale--turning it over in my mind for a few days before I continue.

Published in 1999
But I want to share my journey savoring these tales.  In his introduction, Chinen encourages his readers "to tell them in turn."  I accept his invitation.

Once a month, I will retell a fairy tale here, drawing from his collection or from others I've found, such as Burleigh Mutan's 1999 collection, Grandmother Stories: Wise Woman Tales from Many Cultures.

I will also visit my local library and explore versions posted on the internet.  If you are familiar with a fairy tale that features a mature protagonist, please share the story in the comments section.


What kind of wealth was the young man seeking?

If the young man were the protagonist, how might the story differ? How do young people secure wealth in their fairy tales? 

What kind of wealth did the old man possess? And how did he secure that wealth?

How did the old man's strengths benefit him and his daughter? 

What choices did the old man make when responding to his daughter's problem?  How could a different approach lead to a less desirable result? 

What can people across the lifespan (young people, midlife people and late life people) gain from this fairy tale?

What wealth do you possess? And how do you share your wealth with others? 


The Magic Forest: An Elder Tale from Croatia
Kitchen Wisdom: An Elder Tale from Japan
Hats for Statues: An Elder Tale from Japan
The Wise Merchant: An Elder Tale with Jewish Roots
Death Comes to All: An Elder Tale with Native American Roots
The Simple Grass Cutter: An Elder Tale from India
The Luckiest Old Woman Around: A Elder Tale from England


  1. What a fascinating book and concept! I'd never thought of the ages of protagonists in fairy tales. Your tales would be great to tell grandchildren. Too bad I don't have any... ;-( so i'll share with friends who do.

  2. This sounds terrific. I do have grandchildren and I am already beginning to put books back to read to them when they get older this will have to go into the collection.

  3. Fascinating post! Thank you. I must get that Grandmothers' Stories book.

    You would appreciate the funky wallpaper I have in part of my basement. I can't get any confirmation on what the heck it's all about, but the print seems to be from fairy tales from another country, akin to Grimm's works but clearly not. As the folks who built our home were directly from Poland, I believe it's Polish tales to teach children good manners and such. I wrote a post on it once and will pass that along to you sometime.

  4. I love this. The man was seeking instant wealth, without having to work for it. The father-in-law clearly was like the man in his younger days, so he knew how to turn it around.Great story.

  5. I must have a copy of Chinen's book! "An Elder Tale" - love this phrase too, and your retelling!

  6. You always share such interesting books. Off to the library now ...

  7. What great shares! I can't wait to add them both to my reading list. I adore fairy tales!