Friday, February 6, 2015

The Magic Forest: An Elder Tale

Photo by csphotography.
My first career as an English teacher draws me to cultural objects--films, plays, paintings, novels, stories--that depict older adults and midlife / late-life issues.

As a way of sharing what I'm observing, I discuss a different elder tale each month.  For February 2015, I'm sharing "The Magic Forest," which focuses on the tensions among a mature woman, her naive son and her devious daughter-in-law.

What I'm calling an "elder tale" is a fairy tale that features an older adult as the protagonist of a make-believe story that addresses very real issues.

What follows is my paraphrase of a Croatian fairy tale.

Once Upon A Time a Son Married an Unusual Woman

A long time ago, an old woman lived on the edge of an enchanted forest with her son.  One day, the son saw a snake so beautiful that he wanted to take it home as a pet. As soon as he touched the snake, it transformed into a beautiful woman.  He brought that woman home to his mother and introduced her as his bride-to-be.

Photo by s3k.
Initially, the mother was happy for her son. But the more she observed the young woman, the more her life experience assured her that something was amiss.

She tried to warn her son, but he rejected her warnings, calling his mother a witch and immediately marrying the enchanted woman.

The young couple lived together with the old woman.  The young wife made the old woman do all the housework and even added additional tasks such as fetching snow from mountain tops and catching fish from beneath frozen lakes.

As the old woman performed these difficult tasks, she thought about praying for help.  But she realized that God might then punish her son for her foolishness, so she kept silent.

The Old Woman Out in the Cold

One evening, the old woman picked up one of her son's shirts to mend it, but she was scolded by the young wife, "Don't do that. You will only ruin it." The son echoed his wife's disapproval and told his mother, "Obey my wife." So the old woman set aside the shirt and went to sit outside on the chilly front porch.

Photo by Long&Queta.
Soon a maiden from the village walked by with a heavy load of kindling. She asked the old woman, "Would you like to buy some kindling?" The old woman replied, "No, but I see that your coat is torn. May I mend it for you?"  The maiden was delighted and thanked the old woman after the repair was made.

That night the son and the snake woman left the cottage to attend a dinner in the village. Before they left, the snake woman gave her mother-in-law a long list of chores.  As soon as the young couple departed, the old woman set to work.  When she started a fire, she heard laughter. She turned to see twelve little dancing men -- fire elves!

Magic Helpers from the Forest

She was delighted to observe their festive behavior.  She laughed and clapped as they danced, remembering happier times of her youth.  When they were done she began to cry.

Photo by Jeff Berman.
 One of them named Wee Tintilinkie asked, "What's the matter?"

She told them her plight. They suggested that she visit the Forest King, so they left the cottage and traveled deep into the enchanted forest.

At the center of the forest was an enormous old oak tree.  Wee Tintilinkie led the old woman inside where she saw seven golden castles and a village. They entered the largest castle, which is where the Forest King reigned.  

A Choice on Where to Live

When the old woman approached the throne and told him her plight, the king gestured to the village. "Look! There is your childhood village with your mother, father and friends.  If you wish, you can join them and live during a happier time of your life. Just clap and then climb the fence that surrounds the village."

Photo by jahayne.
The old woman smiled and imagined entering the village.  But then the smile disappeared from her face. The old woman asked, "What about my son? What will happen to  him?"

The king replied, "You will have no memory of him because you will return to a time before he was born. He will be left to his own fate."

The old woman knew what she had to do. "No, I can't forget my past and my son. I will return home."

The king replied, "You have rejected magic and the joy of your past in favor of your present circumstances. With that, you have broken the enchantment over your son." The king then clapped his hands and the king, the castles, the fire elves and the enormous oak tree all disappeared.  The old woman found herself alone in the forest and was eager to get back to her cottage.

Enchanted with Life

The old woman ran home to find her son crying at the hearth. His young wife had turned back into a snake, allowing him to see how he had been enchanted.  When he saw his mother at the door, he embraced her and begged her forgiveness.

The next spring, the son fell in love with the same maiden who had been selling kindling.  The mother, her son and his second bride lived together in harmony.  Soon the family grew from those three to four to five to six.  Her grandchildren reminded the old woman of Wee Tinkilinkie and the other fire elves. And that was enough magic for her.

Things to Think About

This story demonstrates how mature people have choices in how to respond to life's conflicts. How did the old woman make choices about how to respond to her son's marriage? How to involve God in her son's misdeeds?  How to treat strangers in need? How to position herself between the past, the present and the future? How to distinguish between illusion and reality? And where to find true enchantment?

Finally, Chinen makes this observation in his books and articles about most elder tales: the mature protagonist usually eschews magic in favor of self-reflection and character development. How does the old woman solve her problems with personal strengths rather than relying on magic?

Sources for the Tale

A shorter version of this tale appears in a 1985 academic article by Allan B. Chinen identified on p. 106 here as "The Old Mother-in-Law."

It's also called "The Magic Forest," and it comes from Croatia.  I first found it in Allan B. Chinen's 1989 collection of elder tales called In the Ever After: Fairy Tales and the Second Half of Life.  

"The Magic Forest" also in Dan Keding's 2008 Elder Tales: Stories of Wisdom and Courage from Around the World  on pp. 73-78.  A pdf of Keding's book is available here.


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