The Folk-Lore Journal/Volume 2/The Wise Choice


WHATEVER may be the ultimate conclusion as to the homogeneity of classical and savage myths, it is unquestionable that in the living folk-lore of Aryan and non-Aryan populations there exist points of coincidence that are very well worth observing. The more we know, and especially the more methodical becomes our knowledge, the better shall we be able to estimate the precise value and significance of these resemblances; at present the best that can be done is to point them out when they occur, and to leave all inference to a time that shall possess fuller information.

I do not think that any folk-lore student can read the story of "The old man and his three sons," in the Rev. James Sibree's valuable collection of Malagasy Tales (vide Folk-Lore Journal, vol. ii. part iii.) without being put in mind of a number of European analogues. The central idea of the story is that of a wise choice. A son, unjustly treated at home, arrives at the dwelling-place of God. He is offered a seat of honour and well-cooked food, but he seats himself among the servants, and eats of the servants' food. Then he is offered the choice between a plant and money; he chooses the plant, returns home, and becomes very rich. His more favoured brothers, envying his prosperity, go also to the dwelling-place of God, where they take the best seats and the best food, and ask for all manner of wealth and fine clothes, with the result that they go back with tails and tusks growing out of them.

Compare this with the story of "Lu Cusinille," in Signor Antonio de Nino's Usi e Costumi Abruzzesi (Florence, 1883). A daughter, ill-treated at home, arrives at the palace of the fairies (fate). She is asked if she will enter by a stair of gold or by one of wood? if she will go into a room gilded over, or into one which is all smoky? She chooses the wooden stairs and the smoky room; but the fairies lead her by the golden stair into the gilded room. Then the head-fairy offers her a shift of sackcloth or of fine linen, a petticoat of tow or of muslin, a bodice of common stuff or of silk, two sprigs of garlic or two pearl ear-rings, a dozen of onions or a gold chain? She chooses the inferior objects, saying that she is only a poor girl, but gets the more valuable. Then she goes home, and her stepmother and stepsister are envious of her good fortune. The mother, on hearing where she has been, tells her daughter to go and do likewise; but when the fairies make their offers, this girl always makes choice of the better things, with the result that she gets the worse, and, moreover, returns to her house with an ass's tail growing out of her forehead.

The motif of a "Wise Choice" is far-reaching, but I will not here attempt to further trace its ramifications. I may mention that another variant of the above Italian tale appears in Tuscan Fairy Tales (London, Satchel! and Co.), where it is entitled "The little convent of cats."