In this month’s installment of our book club series, we gave ourselves the theme of “folklore.” If you’re looking for fantastical stories, creation myths, and tales of magic, read on!
“The Man in the Woods” by Shirley Jackson
To kick off our folklore book club, I chose “The Man in the Woods” by legendary prose-stylist Shirley Jackson. Published in 2014 as part of a new release of her unpublished works, this short story draws on European folklore and a little Greek mythology to craft a haunting, ambiguous tale of a young man’s date with destiny:
Christopher delves deep into the forest, past looming branches and overpowering pines, and arrives at a mysterious cottage at the end of the road. There he meets Phyllis, Aunt Cissy, and Mr. Oakes, who invite Christopher to dinner. Little does he know that many travelers have come this way before, and that the true nature of the man in the woods has yet to reveal itself.
“I guess I was a little frightened, Christopher said with a small embarrassed laugh. “All those trees.”
“Indeed, yes,” Mr. Oakes said placidly. “All those trees.”
Beautifully written, full of tension, and ripe for discussion, “The Man in the Woods” is an excellent example of Jackson’s craft. “Who is he dares enter these my woods?” Read and see.
“Advent” and “The Tooth” by Heather Christle
After a discouragingly long hunt for the perfect piece of folklore, I stumbled upon these poems by Heather Christle. “Advent” reads as a personal meditation on the ending of a year or season, but I felt the language used created a lot of folklore-inspired imagery. A few of the lines felt like call-outs to typical folklore tropes and themes: for instance, a line about stars and books about stars felt like an allusion to creation myths while another line about animals reminded me of traditional fables.
It’s hopeless, the stars, the books / about stars
I want this world / to remain with me, this holy tumult
Where “Advent” falls short in actually telling a folklore-inspired tale, “The Tooth” prevails. The stilted, choppy language tells the tale of an abstracted creation myth wherein one tooth has the power to create—or erase—all of existence. The simplistic style of “The Tooth” acts as a call-out to oral tellings of folklore and fairy tales. The group had a lot of fun dissecting the puzzle of this particular poem—I definitely recommend Christle’s work to anyone who wants to grapple with a good literary puzzle.
Two men share / one tooth. From / one tooth the men / predict the world.
“The Mirror, the Bucket, and the Old Thigh Bone” by Kristen Roupenian
You’ve probably heard of Kristen Roupenian from her viral short story sensation, “Cat Person,” when it was published in the New Yorker in 2017. I happened to be reading Roupenian’s brand new collection of short stories, You Know You Want This (which includes “Cat Person”) when we picked this theme. I went with the story “The Mirror, the Bucket, and the Old Thigh Bone” because it has magic, a princess, and a little bit of trickery, and because I figured it’d be fun to add to the mix something that had just been released. Also, what a great title!
This piece received varied reviews from our readers—meaning it’s probably a solid book club selection! Many of the female-identifying members resonated with the sense of female-role restriction, of feeling trapped by circumstance, which you can gather from the opening lines:
Once there was a princess who needed to get married. No one expected this would present a problem.
Another one of our members had a touching take of the story through the lens of a queer-adolescent experience. This is what I really enjoyed about this pick, and what made the discussion lasting and impressionable: that each reader had such a personal experience with this tale. And while it wasn’t the strongest story, literarily-speaking, that we read this round (and Savannah really nailed her overall review on this entire collection in our February Reads blog), I think there are plenty of interesting—and personal—discussion threads to pull on with this (super) contemporary work.
Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino
For our round of folklore readings, I chose Italo Calvino’s 1972 book, Invisible Cities, which reimagines the legendary tête-à-tête between Venetian explorer Marco Polo and Mongol Emperor Kublai Khan. The book consists of fifty-five prose poems in which Polo describes the far-flung cities of the Khan’s vast empire. As a storyteller, Polo is equal parts wise and mischievous, and the cities he evokes are fantastical dreamscapes, insoluble puzzles, and meditations on desire and memory. Although Polo’s cities are fictitious, you may find, as I did, that you have visited them before. Calvino’s writing offers a feast for the imagination and—thanks to William Weaver’s gorgeous translation—music for the ear.
“The Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi” translated by Sioned Davies
In contrast to more recent or interpretive works, the medieval Welsh “The Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi” (elsewhere translated from “Math fab Mathonwy” as “Math the Son of Mathonwy”) branches out from itself, seeming more like an aggregate of shorter tales than a narrative in its own right. It follows the exploits of Gwydion, nephew to the lord Math, as he orchestrates a war with the southern lord Pryderi as a distraction so that his brother Gilfaethwy can rape Math’s virgin footrest. The brothers are punished (in one of the weirdest revenges any of us had ever read), and the resulting search for a new footrest leads to the birth of a hero, a quest for a name, and a couple of transformations into birds.
The story’s origin in an oral tradition was engaging in some ways and alienating in others. Drastic understatement and a blunt tone—a favorite sentence for many involved the reduction of a giant battle to, “And then there was immeasurable slaughter”—brought out strangeness in specific moments, and an unhinged dream-logic was either compelling or confusing, depending on the reader. The overall “grandpa-rambly” style of the narrative and a lack of interiority to characters made this selection difficult to emotionally access, but it stands as a great example of folklore’s ability to record a culture’s values and is well worth discussing.
“The Boy Who Wanted More Cheese” by William Elliot Griffis
While my selection strayed a bit from folklore, I found it still worthy of sharing due to Klass van Bommel’s unmatched affinity for cheese. The title of this Dutch fairytale pretty much sums up the entire narrative—boy loves cheese, boy wants more cheese, boy almost dies from cheese.
One night, after a scolding from his mother for taking his sister’s cheese, Klass is lured by fairies with the promise of more cheese: “Plenty of cheese here. Plenty of cheese here. Come, come!” As fairies force feed Klass an uncanny amount of cheese, he realizes the negative consequences of his gluttony and greed.
No more than a ten-minute read, I suggest pairing this tale with an aged Gouda and a toast to Klass van Bommel for his unwavering commitment to yellow gold.