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Friday, March 4, 2022

"Unhinged ruler" stories

A wonderful online resource for storytelling and storytellers is hosted by the National Storytelling Network, the email list, Storytell.  I'll give more information about it after this list.

One of the great things on Storytell is the ability to ask a question and get replies from members ranging from beginner through professional.  One of our professionals, Richard Martin in Germany asked: 

Recent events have made me look for folk tales of rulers who become sufficiently divorced from the reality perceived by others that they end up doing terrible things to their land - perhaps even the lands of others. So far I have only thought of the Ovid tale of King Erysichthon whose insatiable greed led him to prostitute his daughter and eventually to consume himself.

O Founts of Wisdom, which tales can you suggest?

Rachel Hedman replied:

I would actually approach it to folktales where people unified together for good. Where a group may be small but their heart and goodness overcome. Bring about the unifying spirit that sometimes must fight to keep the peace for all.
Richard clarified:
I appreciate that, but it is the tragic story of the person heading for doom which I find interesting. Sometimes we need to look at such things.
From there the topic began producing these replies:
*(Suzanne Whitby) 

I tend to resonate with Richard, here. Using folktales to explore possible outcomes - good or bad - can provoke conversation and thought, in my world anyway :) Admittedly, I do love a trickster and a good ending, though, so Richard, some thoughts below which might only partially help. Also, a few ideas that are based in history, but have a somewhat mythical quality about them - again, take what you find useful and ignore the rest.

The one that popped into my head was the story of the "battle in sign language"  - the Spanish inquisitor, wanting to evict the Jews, the "debate" etc. I know you know this story. From the perspective of today, perhaps there is the feeling of the inquisitor heading for doom.

The other is about the witch prickers - here is one historical example of a woman in the role (, but a bit of Googling might be of interest.

I wonder if Loki and his involvement in the death of Baldur might be interesting - as a reader or listener, we know it's going to go badly on every level, and it does.

Thinking of the Greeks, I think you might also want to look to Minos in Crete - paying to Poseidon for a sign of the god's favour, then refusing to sacrifice it, resulting in the gods (unfairly) visiting a punishment on him in the form of Pasiphae falling in love with a bull, and so on. Again, as soon as you know that Minos tries to trick Poseidon, well... Not a particularly hopeful story, unless you follow it through to Minos' death at the hands of the daughters of King Cocalus in Sicily, but perhaps that's just me being a bit too interested in retribution!!

Going back a bit earlier, I think the whole story of Prometheus stealing fire, the gods creating the "girl with all the gifts" etc. also has seeds of doom.

Gengis Khan popped into my head, too, as I thought there were some doom-filled stories about him that were unproven, but I haven't been able to find anything.

The Ethiopian tale of the fire on the mountain - felt a bit ominous, although all works out in the end.

Maybe the tale of King Midas - happy ending in the end, but there is that idea of "doom" at the outset.

*(Cassandra Wye)

Hi Richard,

I am with you on the doom ending - because it is less told in story-world 
And I always love telling the untold stories 

There is of course - A drop of Honey - from MRM book of earth tales 
and all things are linked - African tale collected by H Courtalder ? I think 

But for me the tale that is never told = ending of King Solomon 

There are loads of tales about his wisdom and his wealth 

But apparently he squandered it all, his palaces and temples fell down and he died a pauper 

I am sure there are many on the list that know more about this than I do 

My favourite of course is what happened to Hao Ai - The greatest archer of them alli (other spellings are available) 
who saved the world from 10 suns 
Became a hero 
Was rewarded for his heroism with immortality 
And promptly started to abuse his power 

This is my favourite one to tell 
There are loads of written versions of this tale online

I learned mine from UK Chinese community about 30 years ago 

Hope this helps

* (Marilyn McPhie)                                                                                                                             Here's a story that might fit the theme: 

Long ago, lived a king named Reggis. In his kingdom, there was a carpenter, who made beautiful wooden chests. The king declared him as the royal carpenter. King Reggis served his country well. No one went hungry. The people under his rule were happy. One day, he overheard the cook saying, Ours is the best king we ever had! and the king silently agreed. The next day the king overheard the gardener talking to his assistant, King Reggis is amazing, he could do anything! and the king silently agreed. These thoughts filled the king's mind. He became displeased with anything ordinary. Each day he had to find another way to show that he was the best and he could do anything. He paced restlessly in the moonlight. The moon was so bright and silvery, the king wondered what it would be like to touch it. So he called his carpenter and said I wish to touch the moon. So, what is the fastest way to build a tall tower? The carpenter answered, If you stack up all the chests in the kingdom, that would make a tall tower. The king agreed and asked him to begin work. The carpenter knew this was not possible, but he had to do as the king ordered. He went to work. Every chest in the kingdom was brought to the garden and stacked up. The king's purple and gold one was first. Then all the others went on top. When all the chests were stacked, it was not high enough to reach the moon, so the king ordered the carpenter to make more chests. The carpenter used every scrap of wood left in the kingdom, and all the new chests were added. The king announced he would climb the tower that night and touch the moon. Everyone watched in wonder. When the king stretched up his hand as he stood on the last chest on top of the tower, the moon was still out of reach. So the king demanded that one more chest be sent up. But there are no more chests , the carpenter shouted up to the king. Then take one from the bottom and send it up! the king commanded. The carpenter knew the king's pride had finally made him blind to even the most obvious facts. There was nothing to be done but do as the king commanded. So the carpenter pulled out the purple and gold chest and then ran out of the garden. The tower toppled over with a huge crash, filling the garden with chests. When every chest had fallen, the carpenter was afraid to look for the king. But the king was thankfully not badly injured. The king returned to his royal duties with a very different attitude. One day he overheard the cook say to the gardener, Our good king is foolish, but he is no longer full of pride and the king silently and strongly agreed. Source: Adapted from a Caribbean folktale

This was in my files.  Sadly, I apparently didn't record the source.  If anyone else has it, please let me know.

There's also the Chinese legend of Wan Hu who decided in the 16th century to launch himself into space.  Supposedly, he has a chair built and attached forty-seven rockets to it.  When the fuses were lit, there was a huge explosion.  When the smoke cleared, there was no evidence of Wan Hu or the chair.

* (Allison Galbraith)

Hi Richard,

The one where a king only has a bath once in a blue moon, and when he does his feet get dirty on the way out of the river.

So he makes ridiculous demands to have the land washed (flooded) and brushed (too dusty) and finally covered in an enormous quilt of patchwork leather (nothing can grow)

A wise soul puts him right by suggesting they cut the leather carpet neatly around the king’s feet, then tie it onto his feet with straps.

Hence the rest of the land can be freed of carpet, and the king’s feet are kept clean in the first pair of shoes ever made 😊

I can’t remember where I first saw/heard this tale or where it originates – hopefully someone else can help with that!

* (Elinor Benjamin) 

There is always the Wicked Prince

* (Rona Leventhal)

Probably not exactly what you want, but The Fisherman and His Wife has some of the similar motifs and stories mentioned in this thread.  Been meaning to work on that one myself for quite a while!

Here's To The Stories!
* (Mary Garrett)
I recall one in which the emperor commanded that the worms eating the mulberry trees be exterminated not realizing they were silkworms.
There’s another in which complaints of noisy frogs lead to filling all the little puddles and ponds, and then there were no frogs to eat insects.
Do I have details, nope . . . it’s been too long since I heard or read them, but I’ll bet someone knows.

Oh, and “Drop of Honey” which dealt with inaction instead of foolish action.  Life is complicated.  

* (Nicola-Jane le Breton)
And there is 'The King of the Moles' from Somerset:

About a Lord of the Manor who decides he wants everything to be neat & tidy, regardless of the environmental impact.

Nature responds with devastating consequences for him.

I have a PDF of this one, from a book of Somerset Tales I borrowed from the library.

* (Tim Jennings)
Leanne and I recorded a version of a tale from India, we called it “The King And The Thrush.” I believe it could serve you well. It’s on the album of the same name, with the subtitle “Tales of Goodness and Greed.”  One of our best, and you are welcome to as much as you want of the original elements that we added, or you could go back to the source, which I think is called “The talking Thrush.” On the same album, the well-known Danish tale “The Wonderful Pot,” always a winner. I think we fixed it in a couple of places, but the original, again, very good, added to American library story times about the same time as 3 little pigs. “Jackal’s Pond” would also work, he’s not a king, but he declares himself a god, and makes the other animals bow down and worship him before he lets them drink. Nobody else tells it, Leanne discovered it, I think we made it much better. 

Always like a hat-tip when somebody makes use of our work, but that’s just my vanity at this point, the tales want to spread, and I’ve certainly copped licks from other folks w/o acknowledgement in my time.

* (Olive Shaughnessy)
Rum Pum Pum: A Folktale from India.
  I just told it yesterday. It delights the children and all the adults in the room knew I was honoring Ukraine.
* (Kiran Shah)
Rum Pum Pum sounds very much like The Rooster's Diamond Button by Margaret Read MacDonald.
LSK: That's "The Little Rooster and the Turkish Sultan" in Margaret Read MacDonald's Twenty Tellable Tales.
* (Kiran again responding to the earlier suggestion by Cassandra)
Hi Cassandra,
Yes, A drop of Honey is one of my favourites.
Hou Yi - (different spelling) is one I hadn't thought of. 
I do not know about King Solomon so would love to hear more.
* (Cassandra)
Hi Kiran

King Solomon is a really interesting “character”

He is one of the few “wise “ men that is revered in Jewish, Muslim and Christian faiths 
You find his stories around the world - as they have travelled extensively as each faith spread around the globe 
He was said to be so wise - that he knew all the languages of all animals 
And incredibly rich 
And his judgements have gone down in history 

My favourite king Solomon tale - I developed for my vision project 
And included on We Share the Same Moon science as storytelling resource -

But I first fell in love with his stories via Bertolt Brecht - "The Caucasian Chalk Circle”
My all time favourite play. One day I will play Azdak. 

And of course if memory serves King Solomon’s wall is still a holy site in Jerusalem 

BUT - when I did some research on to what might be the “real” story - not so noble

According to Wikipedia, he squandered his immense wealth and died a pauper 

If I were Richard - and aren’t we all glad I am not ;) 
I would love to weave together the fact and the fiction 
And it is such a beautiful and terrible tale 

* (LSK: my own reply about Solomon)
Cassandra, I agree with your calling Solomon "a really interesting 'character' of the few “wise “ men that is revered in Jewish, Muslim and Christian faiths."
I applaud your "research on to what might be the 'real' story - not so noble
According to Wikipedia, he squandered his immense wealth and died a pauper."
and also second your wish, "I would love to weave together the fact and the fiction
And it is such a beautiful and terrible tale."

This reminds me of a teacher saying something like "aren't we glad the Bible isn't still being written?"  (Actually in God's view it is, but I continue...) The only "character" not shown making a mistake is Joseph, unless you count his pride in showing he was the favorite among his brothers.

I remember once proposing Solomon in that perfect category only to be told how ruthlessly he taxed his people to support his flagrantly extravagant lifestyle.  It would indeed be worthwhile to have a tale weaving together his wise and very unwise sides.
LoiS(ure his choice in foreign female companions was a step toward this) 
* (Cassandra)

This are the stories l love to tell!

Like Hoa Ai (other spellings are available) - who is both a hero and a

I love telling them with teens and getting them to discuss the concept of
“hero” and ‘wise”

Why can’t we all be wise and unwise?
Such a better concept to live with rather than up to
Those are the four days of discussion and you will notice it also gives suggestions on usage such as the discussion of "hero" and "wise and unwise."
AFTER I created this compilation I received this additional story suggestion of a very moving story I remember well.  If you read it, I'm sure it will stay with you.
(Barry Stewart Mann)
I saw some of the Storytell chat about unhinged rulers but was too busy to zero in.  Now it's Saturday and I saw your post - hope I'm not too late to offer this one, "Kaddo's Wall," a story from West Africa (as best I can tell, from Togo or Burkina Faso) about a rich man (not technically a leader, but in practice very much so) who will not share his corn, but instead hires the peasants to use it to build a wall around him ("Build that wall!").  It's from the collection The Cow-Tail Switch and Other West African Stories, by Harold Courlander and George Herzog. 

If you wish to join this international email discussion list, you don't have to be a member of  National Storytelling Network -- although it's certainly worth supporting and their archiving it goes back to April of 2016.  Prior to that Texas Woman's University hosted it.  We lost those archives but some entries were saved by Jackie Baldwin on her site which can be found via the Wayback Machine.  (To learn how to access that, see the standard webliography at the end of "Keeping the Public in Public Domain" segments on this blog.)  On the N.S.N. site go to and follow the instructions.

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